What’s New at the Journal

Vol 30 Issue 4Spring 2015 Issue

The current issue features Lauren Bratslavsky’s article about the creation of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin’s Mass Communications History Center, one of the first and most widely used archives devoted to mass communication research. Ronald Seyb explores how the influential newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann blended history and social science in his commentary on President Franklin Roosevelt’s first term in office. Gerald Fetner examines the work of Frank I. Cobb, the chief editorial writer of the New York World from 1904 to 1923. And in their article about Abner Cole, Kimberley Mangun and Jeremy Chatelain explore how the editor promoted the principles of the Freethought Movement.

Teaching Our Journal

With each issue of American Journalism, we feature teaching materials for a particular article and provide free online access to the article (through Taylor & Francis, the publisher of American Journalism).

The teaching materials provide topical overviews and various exercises for teaching the article in either undergraduate or graduate classes. The author of the article creates the teaching exercises and provides links to relevant primary and secondary sources.

We hope these teaching materials and the historical studies they reference will enrich your media history courses and, most importantly, your students’ learning. And we hope you will let us know how you use American Journalism in your classrooms.

 

Trouble with the Statistical Curve:  Walter Lippmann’s Blending of History and Social Science during Franklin Roosevelt’s First Term

Volume 32, No. 2, 2015

By Ronald Seyb, Skidmore College

The current American political moment, one characterized by a yawning gap between the two political parties that has generated a brand of policy paralysis and rhetorical vitriol that has curdled Americans’ view of political institutions and politicians, has understandably caused many to sift through the past to locate periods when “government worked.”  Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal is perhaps the most iconic of these moments when skillful political leadership ostensibly moved America off the precipice.

The Great Depression was and remains the most severe economic crisis in American history.  As debilitating as was the material loss many Americans suffered as a consequence of the economic collapse of the 1930s were the psychic wounds inflicted by what historian Ira Katznelson has called “the unmeasurable uncertainty” created by the Great Depression.  The economic crisis was so profound that many lost confidence that the traditional capitalist prescriptions could right the listing economy.  Many began to entertain alternatives to capitalism that ran the gamut from Soviet-style communism to Mussolini-style fascism to Howard Scott’s homegrown “technocracy movement,” which urged public officials to hand control over economic management to engineers and technicians.

If a historian’s task is to explain why things turned out one way rather than another, then Roosevelt’s first term presents a good opportunity to assess the roles that political leadership, historical context, and contingency or chance played in propelling America in one direction rather than another during this existential moment.

Roosevelt’s first term also presents an opportunity to examine how journalists can help the public both interpret and cope with a novel situation.  Walter Lippmann, America’s most read and influential columnist for much of the twentieth century, was a champion of wedding journalism with social science in a way that would allow journalists, as he wrote in 1922 in Public Opinion, to create “a picture of reality on which men can act.”  He, however, recognized at this moment of economic and social tumult that employing past interpretative frameworks to understand the causes or plot the future course of the Depression would be foolish.  What was needed was an approach to problem solving that he called “muddling through,” an approach that he applauded Roosevelt for using during his first years as president.  It was an approach that tilted toward the historian’s interest in the particular, the contingent, and the complex and away from the social scientist’s proclivity to seek patterns in events that could be plotted onto a statistical curve in a way that could, as Lippmann wrote in his April 13, 1935, column, “tyrannize over reason and common sense.” Read more.