Syllabus: Campaign 2012: Inside the War Room and the Newsroom - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

Syllabus: Campaign 2012: Inside the War Room and the Newsroom

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School of Communication
Fall 2012 Semester
COMM — 496.001
Presidential Campaign 2012: Inside the War Room and the Newsroom
Wednesday 2:35-5:15 p.m. in MGC 324
Thursday 9:15 a.m.-11:45 a.m. in TV Studio

Professor: Lenny Steinhorn
Office: MGC 330I
Hours: Monday 10:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
Friday 10:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
and by appointment
Phone: 202-885-2031


When historians look back on the 2012 presidential election, they will no doubt see it as a vivid and powerful expression of the political and cultural currents that have been flowing through our society in recent years. Through the prism of the campaign, they'll examine the nation's mood, the role of media, the power of money, and the cultural and ideological fault lines that appear to divide us at this moment in time. They'll ask whether the election signaled a shift in our relationship with government, they'll assess how we reacted to trying economic times, and they'll examine the impact of massive advertising buys, data-driven targeting, and social media outreach on the campaign. They'll explore how Barack Obama and Mitt Romney represented certain constituencies, ideas, ideologies, and sensibilities, and they'll look for signs of shifting sands in our demographic make-up. They'll certainly look at red versus blue, old versus young, male versus female, coast versus heartland, and substance versus style. They'll also look at strategic strokes of genius – and strategic blunders. And they'll ask not only if the candidates understood the national spirit but how well their campaigns were able to capture and articulate it, or at least enough of it to get elected.

But this class won't have to wait for history books to make sense of this election. Our task is clear: we will peel away each layer of this campaign, decode the images the candidates project, analyze the political and message strategy, examine the public mood, and look at each candidate's roadmap to victory. To do this, we will immerse ourselves in strategy, polls, issues, and media. We will dissect ads, debates, rhetoric, stagecraft, and images – and show how the press and pundits covered it all. Our look at the campaign will be broad and deep, and we will approach it with the perspective of an historian, the scrutiny of a journalist, and the insight of a backroom political strategist.

Since the election ends (presumably) in early November, we will have the additional opportunity to examine either the birth of a new presidency or the challenges ahead for a reelected president fiercely resisted by the opposing party. If Mitt Romney is elected, we'll look at how the president-elect is forming his administration and, perhaps more important, shaping his relationship with the country. If Barack Obama is reelected, we'll look at the way he's construing his victory and dealing with a reformulated Congress. How a president interprets his mandate often determines the contours of what's to come, and our class will be on the cutting edge of these insights.
The immediacy of our subject and the need to make sense of vast amounts of raw and often unfiltered information will make this class different from most others. The class also poses another challenge for each of us: how to maintain academic impartiality in the heat of a partisan election, one that many students in class have already engaged at a passionate and emotional level. My own view is that facts, knowledge, and context are the best antidotes to visceral disagreement, and thus our class will place a premium not on how we feel but on what we know. For the purposes of this class, I care not who you support as long as you do it with wisdom, insight, logic, and clear thinking, which is really what our nation's Founders had in mind when they imagined our democracy built not merely on the consent of the people but the informed consent of the people.

The other twist in this course is that the media are taking an interest in what we're doing – to them, you represent the voice of the next generation. Throughout the semester, we will be working in partnership with FOX-5 News, the Washington, DC FOX affiliate, which will not only cover our class weekly but also feature us live on their morning news, highlight us on their website, and stream our entire Thursday class live. They plan to feature your photos and biographies on their website, host any blogging you do, include you in on-line chats, and post your weekly briefing papers for all to see. They also may want you on-air at various points throughout the campaign, perhaps on Election Night and during the presidential debates. So be prepared to see your work, words, images, and faces on television and the web. And it may be more than FOX-5: other reporters have expressed interest as well, and every conversation I have with the press generates an inquiry or two. So don't be surprised one day if a few different reporters and photographers show up in class. Consider it an additional benefit from taking this course: because you'll be part of the news, you'll gain greater insight into the making of news.


As with any current events course, this must be a joint effort between the students and the professor, and the class structure will be designed to maximize input from everyone. Anyone working in a campaign or covering one for the press knows how intense an experience it is, and it will be no different in this course. Given the subject matter, all of us must come to class well versed in the campaign. The professor will contribute historical perspective and political context, and the students will be tasked as experts on different areas of the campaign. This course can work only if students come to class prepared and take their classroom responsibilities seriously.

The class will meet twice a week in two block periods – Wednesday afternoons and Thursday mornings. Media will most likely come on Thursdays.

Wednesday is when the class will immerse itself in the nitty-gritty of the campaign. The professor may begin the Wednesday class with a brief lecture that puts the campaign in political and historical context. Lecture topics will vary depending on campaign circumstances, but subjects will likely include a look at swing voters and constituencies, the persuasive power of political ads, and the way message themes draw on culture and history. The students – who will be divided into eleven teams with responsibility for specific subjects – will then report their weekly findings to the class. As experts in their subject, the teams will field questions from the class and together we will analyze the information. In many ways, these Wednesday classes will simulate the pooling of ideas and knowledge that goes on in a campaign war room and media newsroom. Collectively, Wednesdays will provide us with an in-depth knowledge of campaign issues, strategies, and media.

On Thursdays, we will hold our roundtable discussion on the campaign, much like what the pundits do in the media. It's in this class that we will process the information we've gathered for the week and put it in context and perspective. Armed with the knowledge and insight from Wednesday's class, we will discuss a wide range of issues: what's working, what's not, who's setting the agenda, who's appealing to which constituency, what messages they're communicating, who's playing dirty pool, who's on the offense, who's on the defense, whether the polls are accurate. We'll also discuss whether the media are shaping the news or merely covering it. And always as a backdrop will be a discussion of what's at stake in this election. Most important is that you feel free to say what you're thinking, to disagree and disagree vehemently. But also know that there are no free passes, so make sure you have your facts straight because mere impressions and feelings won't cut it in class.

Election Day, as you know, is Tuesday, November 6. Assuming there's no repeat of the 2000 election, which continued through mid-December, we'll shift to once a week after the election, the Wednesday block class. If there's no clear winner after November 6, or if recounts delay an Electoral College determination, we may continue to meet twice a week. We can make that decision in November.


With 22 students in the class, we will divide into 11 teams, each of which will be responsible for covering and indeed mastering different areas of the campaign. Each team will track the same subject throughout the election, which means your expertise in that area will build throughout the campaign.

The teams will write up 2-3 page briefing papers (double-spaced) on their subject every week to share with the rest of the class – these must be distributed to all via e-mail no later than 5 p.m. Tuesday afternoon (please send the briefing paper as an attachment as well as in the text of the e-mail). Everyone must come to the Wednesday class having read all the briefing papers.

You will then report on your findings in 8 minute presentations on Wednesday. These presentations should not regurgitate your briefing papers, but rather they should encapsulate, illustrate, and demonstrate, with a real emphasis on the significance of what you're reporting. In other words, show, don't tell. And be sure to bring in examples of what you're describing – if it's an ad, show it, if it's a speech, give us a video clip or rhetorical analysis, or if it's a poll, show us the findings.

Your first briefing paper is due Tuesday, September 11, and your first class presentations will be on Wednesday, September 12. Because you will be accumulating considerable expertise in your areas, we will frequently be calling on you to serve as experts and fact-checkers during our Thursday discussion and perhaps via e-mail when campaign issues arise.

The following are the subject areas the teams will cover:

Campaign Ads (campaign ads, party ads, independent group ads, web ads, radio ads)
Campaign Speeches (presidential and vice presidential candidates as well as surrogates – analyze word use and messages – discuss speeches to different constituents)
Polls (analysis of any and all national and statewide polls, particularly those in battleground states)
TV News Coverage (cable, network and PBS shows, including the Sunday morning shows – describe how the broadcast news media are framing the election narrative and analyzing the campaigns)
Newspapers (news coverage, columns, and editorials from the major dailies and papers in key battleground states)
Issue Check (what the candidates are saying about issues, how they're framing issues to their advantage, whether they're distorting the other side's position, whether they're telling the truth)
Constituencies and Interest Groups (minorities, seniors, religious right, economic conservatives, foreign policy hawks, peace groups, civil libertarians, unions, gun owners, environmentalists, women, etc. – how the campaigns are playing to them, and what interest groups representing these constituencies are doing to influence the campaign)
Partisan Media (talk radio, cable shows with a point of view)
Bloggers and Magazines (scan online for what's hot, trending, consequential)
Social Media (monitor all social media sites, particularly Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Buzzfeed, Storify, and Twitter, for what's trending and newsworthy)
Political Humor (political comedy and satire from all media)

The last of these briefing papers will be due Tuesday, October 23, two weeks before Election Day. For the final week, we will divide up into eleven new teams, each of which will analyze one or two battleground states. These teams will then write up briefing papers on their battleground states, to be e-mailed to the class Tuesday, October 30. We will then spend the following day, Wednesday, October 31, discussing the battlegrounds and predicting the final Electoral College vote in this election.

Party Conventions

We are fortunate that the party nominating conventions will be taking place during the first two weeks of our course. You should spend as much time as possible watching the coverage and reading reports in the daily paper and other news outlets. Much of what we discuss these first two weeks will be driven by what happens at the conventions.

Presidential Debates

All presidential and vice presidential debates are required watching. The Commission on Presidential Debates has set the following debate dates:

Wednesday, October 3 ... First Presidential Debate
Thursday, October 11 ... Vice Presidential Debate
Tuesday, October 16 ... Second Presidential Debate
Monday, October 22 ... Third Presidential Debate

Please know that FOX-5 News and perhaps other media might be interested in your take on the debates, so you may be asked to gather that night or the day after, depending on the media's needs.

Readings and Resources

The only required text for this course will be the campaign itself and the varied media that cover it. I will regularly send you article links via e-mail, and you should feel free to do the same. Required readings also include the weekly briefing papers prepared by the class teams.

You will be expected to consume a number of media sources throughout the semester – indeed that's the only way to participate effectively in this course. The best path is to develop a well-rounded list of diverse media that you plan to consult daily and weekly. Media sources include:

Daily Newspapers: Most important are the New York Times and Washington Post, but also USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. Reading the Times and Post are critical, and you should follow not only the political news but the editorial pages as well. On Sundays, be sure to read the Times' Sunday Review section and the Post's Outlook section. I also recommend taking an occasional look at battleground state newspapers – there may be some good nuggets that the major dailies might miss.

TV and Radio News: You should watch regularly at least one of the network evening news shows as well as any of the straight news shows on cable. The network news political stories are usually available online if you choose not to watch them when broadcast. Also worth checking out are ABC's Nightline and the PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer. NPR is good to follow as well. Obviously, no one can catch all political and news programs, but if you maintain a steady diet of credible news shows, you'll keep up with the general campaign buzz and chatter. If you want to see actual speeches and events without a news media filter, keep your eye on C-SPAN. And also very important for staying in touch: the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report.

Partisan Chatter: From Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity on the right, to Stephanie Miller, Ed Schultz, Lawrence O'Donnell and Rachel Maddow on the left, the media are alive with partisan chatter. Given that so many Americans gain their basic political bearings from these shows, keeping up with them is a good way to see how each side is framing the campaign. Most of what they broadcast is available online.

Online: Online political sources seem to multiply every day. Most sites also links to newspapers, columnists, analysts, polls, blogs, partisan pages, and various other sources – so you will find an endless stream of information once you start looking. Some sites offer daily briefings sent to your email – Politico, for example. Also check out campaign, party, and other partisan sites.

Essential sites you should look at regularly:
National Journal's Hotline, which has links to all campaign ads including those from outside groups,
Real Clear Politics, with polls and articles,
Political Wire, the best aggregator of political news,

For speeches, events and a wealth of other material, go to, which is C-SPAN's 2012 campaign page. Also worth checking out are the websites associated with the broadcast outlets, especially CNN, CBS, NBC, and ABC.

There are three excellent fact-checking sites you should frequent:
From the Annenberg Public Policy Center,
From the Tampa Bay Times,
From the Washington Post,

Excellent polling analysis:
From the New York Times,
From the Huffington Post,
Another useful source,

Buzz journalism and analysis:
NBC's First Read,
ABC's The Note,
Time's The Page,
CNN's Political Ticker,
Washington Post's The Fix,
CBS's Political Hotsheet,
New York Times' The Caucus,
New York Times' Campaign Stops,
PunditWire, analysis from political speechwriters:

Historical resources:
Presidential campaign TV ads through history:
Dave Leip's Atlas of Presidential Elections:
History News Network, analysis by historians:

Essential political news:
New York Times:
Washington Post:

Ideological sites:
Drudge Report, Republican:
NewsBusters, Republican:
The Daily Caller, Republican:
Red State, Republican:
Michelle Malkin, Conservative,
Huffington Post, Democratic (Politics page especially):
Talking Points Memo, Democratic:
Daily Kos, Democratic:
Think Progress, Democratic:
Andrew Sullivan, pro-Obama:
Ezra Klein, Liberal:

Media critics:
Media Research Center, Conservative:
Media Matters, Liberal:
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), Liberal:

Magazines (print and online):
Daily Beast/Newsweek:
U.S. News & World Report: (good political news nuggets in its Washington Whispers blog,

Electoral College calculators and background:

If you're looking for books to read, there's been plenty written on the two major candidates, though you should be careful to find out whether the authors hold any political perspective that could color their writing. Also read the candidates' own books. Two books I recommend are about four or five years old, but both provide illuminating insights into who we are and what we've become as a country: Rick Shenkman, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter and Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. Other recommendations include books on past presidential campaigns, including the classics by Theodore White, especially The Making of the President 1960, and Joe McGinniss' The Selling of the President on the 1968 Nixon campaign. If you're looking for something on the campaign press corps, a classic is Timothy Crouse, The Boys on the Bus. The AU Library also has a number of videos worth watching, including The War Room, which offers an evocative behind-the-scenes peek at the 1992 Clinton campaign, and the Kennedy-Nixon debates from 1960. Also highly recommended is So Goes the Nation, a documentary that looks at political strategy in the 2004 campaign.

After the Election

Since our briefing teams will disband after the election, it is essential that each of us stays on top of developments as either the new administration or the Obama second term begins to take shape. From election day until the end of the semester, you will be required to read the relevant coverage in both the New York Times and Washington Post, watch broadcast and cable news shows regularly, and graze five of the websites mentioned above.

Writing Projects

Briefing Papers: As discussed above, each team is responsible for writing, distributing, and posting 2-3 page briefing papers on their subject areas each week. These must be distributed via e-mail to everyone in class no later than 5 p.m. Tuesday afternoon (send as an attachment and in the e-mail text as well). These briefing papers are required reading for each Wednesday class.

Briefing papers on your subject areas are due September 11, 18, and 25, and October 2, 9, 16 and 23. Briefing papers on the battleground states are due October 30.

Short Paper: Imagine that the Washington Post Outlook section asked you to submit a 1,200 word article a week after Election Day on the single most important factor in this election. This is your assignment. It must not exceed the word limit.

Due Date: Wednesday, November 14.

Research Paper: This is your opportunity to drill down into any area of the election that stimulates you. Examples of interesting topics might be the influence of polling, the role of the outside interest groups, the truthfulness of ads, money in politics, the economy, the politics of foreign policy, the culture wars, race, the message strategies of either campaign, or the impact of certain constituencies on the election outcome. But these are mere suggestions – the subject is yours to choose. Just be sure to clear it with the professor before you start researching and writing. Aim for 8-10 pages, but under no circumstances should it exceed 10 pages. Be sure to document your research by including either footnotes or endnotes.

Due Date: Wednesday, December 5 (the last day of class)


With grading, there is a simple correlation: grades reflect the quality of work. Since the goal of this course is manifested in how much you learn and how well you learn it, your grade should reflect that.

By University standards, an A grade is Excellent, meaning exceptional and insightful work; a B grade is Very Good, meaning high quality work with room for improvement; a C grade is Satisfactory, meaning adequate work that needs major improvement; a D grade means your work has met minimal standards to avoid failure but is otherwise unsatisfactory.

I have full confidence in the ability of my students to perform at the highest possible level. But even the best work can benefit from a set of critical eyes. So I urge you to see me for ways to better your work and, if necessary, your grade. I am happy to comment on drafts, and in some cases I will accept a rewritten paper and factor that into your grade. Regardless of grades, always strive for excellence.

Grades are based on the following percentages:

Briefing Papers & Presentations 40%
Quality of Class Participation 10%
Short Paper 20%
Research Paper 30%

Please note the category for class participation. Normally I don't grade on class participation, but this class in particular will thrive and succeed with lively and good participation from everyone, and I can't imagine anyone taking the class who doesn't want to be a active participant. As for the phrase "quality of class participation," I mean consistent and thoughtful participation in class discussions and dialogue. I am fully confident that every member of this class is capable of making insightful, energetic, and worthwhile contributions to our classroom discussion.

And this is important: given that much of the work and learning in this course will take place in the classroom, unexcused and repeated absences might very well lower your grade.


There's a reason they're called deadlines. No one in politics or the media has the luxury of going to work or turning in projects late. For this class, we all will depend on you to make sure your assignments get done on time. Unless there are mitigating circumstances discussed with me before the specific due dates, missed deadlines could result in the lowering of your grade on that particular assignment.

Professionalism and Integrity

The quality and appearance of your work should be professional. Poor writing and formatting will undermine the success of even the most thoughtful assignment. This point is especially important because your work will be shared with classmates and serve as the foundation for our weekly discussions.

While it's an old adage that even the best writer needs an editor, you should still be your own best editor and pay careful attention to every paragraph, sentence, and word. Remember, a spell-check program is not endowed with powers of human reasoning; it will not pick up a correctly spelled word when it is used the wrong way. You must proofread your work carefully. And while we are all fallible and make mistakes, excessive typos, grammatical errors, and evidence of sloppy work are not acceptable and could result in the lowering of your grade on an assignment. Always keep this in mind: how a piece is written often determines how well you communicate what you have to say. Please, if you need help, see me.

And this is very important: you are expected to observe the University's Academic Integrity Code and the rules against plagiarism. Violations will not be treated lightly, and disciplinary action will be taken should such violations occur.

Emergency Preparedness

The University has asked all faculty to include this paragraph in our syllabi: In the event of an emergency, American University will implement a plan for meeting the needs of all members of the university community. Should the university be required to close for a period of time, we are committed to ensuring that all aspects of our educational programs will be delivered to our students. These may include altering and extending the duration of the traditional term schedule to complete essential instruction in the traditional format and/or use of distance instructional methods. Specific strategies will vary from class to class, depending on the format of the course and the timing of the emergency. Faculty will communicate class-specific information to students via AU email and Blackboard, while students must inform their faculty immediately of any absence. Students are responsible for checking their AU email regularly and keeping themselves informed of emergencies. In the event of an emergency, students should check the AU Student Portal, AU website (, and AU information line at 202-885-1100 for general university-wide information, as well as contact their faculty and/or respective dean's office for course and school/college-specific information.


Week 1 – August 29 & 30 – Getting Started

Course Introduction
Team Assignments
Working with FOX-5 News
Putting the Campaign in Historical and Political Context
GOP Convention Focus
Roundtable Discussion: analysis of ads, election news, campaign strategy, trends, polls, political buzz, and media coverage

Week 2 – September 5 & 6 – Campaign Immersion

Decisive Factors in the Campaign
Democratic Convention Focus
Roundtable Discussion (with FOX-5 News streaming): analysis of ads, election news, campaign strategy, trends, polls, political buzz, and media coverage

Weeks 3-11 – September 12 through November 8 – Campaign Mode

Wednesdays: lectures, team briefings, dialogue, discussion
Thursdays: roundtable discussion with analysis of ads, election news, campaign strategy, trends, polls, political buzz, and media coverage
FOX-5 live shots and streaming
Lecture topics include: understanding voters, dissecting campaign messages, decoding campaign ads, evaluating polls, and analyzing the Electoral College, among others.
Briefing papers on subject areas due September 11, 18 and 25, and October 2, 9, 16 and 23.
Briefing papers on battleground states due October 30.
Presidential Debates: October 3, 16 & 22 (potential class availability that night or the day after)
Vice Presidential Debate: October 11 (potential class availability that night or the day after)
Election Day: November 6 (potential class availability that night, the night before or day after)

Weeks 12-14 – November 14 through December 5 – Election Analysis, Mandate Interpretation, A Look Ahead

Analysis and Discussion of Decisive Factors in Election
Analysis and Discussion of How Winner is Shaping His Relationship with the Country
Short Paper on Key Factor in Election – due Wednesday, November 14
Research Paper – due Wednesday, December 5

Students should follow the syllabus and know what to expect for each class. The professor will alert you to any changes if necessary. If you have any questions, please ask.

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