James Fallows On Breaking the News

James Fallows is best known for explaining the workings of the American military (National Defense, published in 1981, won a National Book Award) and the Japanese economy. Now heÕs turned his attention to the news media. His new book, Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (Pantheon, 296 pages, $23), examines what he thinks is wrong with the news business and what corrective measures might be taken. The diagnosis offered by Fallows, Washington editor of the Atlantic Monthly, is conventional, perhaps overly so. Among other things, he devotes almost no discussion to the rise of the Internet as an alternative to the mainstream media, which is surprising given his groundbreaking Atlantic essays on personal computers in the early 1980s. Yet Breaking the News is valuable for its clear-eyed, high-minded analysis of why the media have fallen into such disrepute among the citizens they are supposed to serve. FallowsÕ targets include reporters whose highest aspiration is to hit the lucrative talk-show/lecture-circuit trail blazed by John McLaughlin and his McLaughlin Group; a news culture that values conflict over accommodation, and that views virtually every story as if it were a sporting event; and a journalistic pecking order that reserves its highest rewards for those who excel at glib political prognostication rather than the difficult task of helping citizens make sense of their lives. "In the long run," Fallows writes, "people will pay attention to journalism only if they think it tells them something they must know. The less that Americans care about public life, the less they will be interested in journalism of any form." In discussing ways the media can improve, Fallows cites the example of whatÕs known as "public journalism" or "civic journalism," in which news organizations attempt to learn what issues people are most concerned about, and to compel candidates and public officials to address those issues. Fallows also offers a litany of small steps, ranging from a requirement that highly paid pundits such as George Will and Cokie Roberts disclose their outside income to "making your White House reporters leave the White House" rather than sit around and wait for a briefing or a handout. Fallows discussed the state of the media during a recent interview. Q: You open your book with a powerful anecdote about Mike Wallace, at a public forum, browbeating Peter Jennings into agreeing with him that he would not interfere with an attack on U.S. troops if he were on patrol with a hypothetical enemy. Yet you never quite get around to advancing a theory of journalistic ethics that could guide reporters in less extraordinary situations. A: The precise thing I was trying to criticize about Mike Wallace was not the conclusion he came to but the lack of any rationale for it. He could have said, "ItÕs terrible to stand there and watch while people from our country are being gunned down. And yet when we agreed to go on patrol with these people that was an implied commitment we made." But he didnÕt. So it was the failure of seriousness that I thought was most significant. By extension, what IÕm asking from journalists in less dramatic circumstances is less a specific conclusion than a difference in process. And the difference in process is recognizing themselves what is obvious to everybody except journalists: that the act of investigating and reporting and publicizing has consequences. You make a difference in peopleÕs lives, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, by the fact that you write about them. You make a difference in how public life goes, how elections go. Journalists know this in their hearts -- they wouldnÕt be in this business if they thought it had no impact at all. But there is a prevailing pretense that, "Oh no, we canÕt even think about the results, because that would be pandering. That would deprive us of our independence." Q: You make a strong case for the deleterious effects of the TV political talk shows, yet I canÕt help but wonder how widespread the problem really is. As you point out, the New York Times severely limits its reportersÕ participation, and the Times sets the agenda for much of the other media. A: It is correct to point out that reporters for the Times are severely limited in the kind of TV punditry that they can do, and I greatly respect the Times for imposing those limits. Nonetheless, even they exist in a culture that has been profoundly shaped by the "John McLaughlinization" of life. I make him an almost titanic figure in my book, a sort of titan of evil, because I think he has deeply changed how journalists live their lives. He created a genre of this opinionizing reporting show that became a tremendous source of reportersÕ self-esteem, their fame in the eyes of others, and their money. And with a significant twist. When people in other businesses make a tremendous amount of money -- letÕs pick Deion Sanders -- itÕs for a logical extension of what they should be doing. That is, itÕs for a logical extension of being a football player. When you make a lot of money as a TV pundit, itÕs for something you should not be doing. ItÕs for skimping on reporting, having strong attitude, talking about things you donÕt know about. Even though a lot of people are not on the talk shows themselves, 10 times that number wish they were, and are living their lives so as to be available if called. And there is a shift to the overall shape of public discussion. For example, the concept of having a "good week" or a "bad week" was much feebler as an idea 20 years ago than it is now. So even though somebody on the New York Times isnÕt on the talk shows, the pictures in that personÕs head have been shaped by the ideas propagated on these shows. Q: You argue that the emphasis on soundbites and horse-race coverage has severely harmed political discourse. Yet a number of observers, including Ed Diamond and Robert Silverman in their new book, White House to Your House: Media and Politics in Virtual America (MIT Press, 178 pages, $20), have pointed out that the rise of new media in 1992 -- Larry King Live!, MTV, C-SPAN, and the like -- actually resulted in a presidential campaign that was more substantive than the 1988 race. IsnÕt that a cause for optimism? A: Some reporters and some editors have tried to learn from the scorn in which theyÕve been held recently, and especially in the 1988 election. TheyÕve tried to see how they can more constructively present information to the public thatÕs of some relevance to peopleÕs lives, that makes public life something other than just a gladiator contest. And yet, if that lesson had been more sincerely learned than it actually has been, you wouldnÕt find the coverage of the budget deliberations during the last month being what it has been. What youÕve heard by the ton is "Gingrich wins this round," "Clinton outmaneuvers Dole," "Leadership having trouble with the freshmen," blah blah blah, completely on tactics. If you can find a story telling you what exactly this means for the taxes youÕre going to pay, the services youÕre going to get, the role governmentÕs going to have in your life in the long run, you are lucky. Because thereÕs still this powerful instinct just to present it all as sports. Q: You endorse civic journalism as a solution to many of the problems you see with the news media, yet in practice much of it is dull. Although itÕs valuable to compel politicians to take a look at what ordinary citizens think is important, isnÕt there a real problem with producing something that anyone would want to read or view? A: If itÕs done badly, it can be dull. LetÕs go back to the Õ92 campaign. Some of the most engaging moments can be thought of as reflecting the public-journalism or civic-journalism spirit. For example, those debates where, quote, ordinary people, unquote, were asking the candidates what they actually thought about things. This produced high drama, as when the woman in Richmond asked President Bush how the deficit had affected him. I think the enduring challenge in journalism and in writing of any kind is to find ways to make important issues interesting. Since the time of Homer, that has been the job of writers and communicators. One of the things IÕm trying to do is to sort of shift the ground of informal status competition among journalists. For the last, say, 20 years, the way you could prove you were really sharp in political journalism was by having the cleverest spin on who was going to win the next election, or on why Colin Powell was or was not going to run, or why Newt Gingrich may or may not be overstepping his franchise in running the Congress now. That was what made people feel proud of themselves. In magazine journalism itÕs always been a little bit different, and I think it could be different in other journalism, too, being proud of finding a way to make something important interesting. Q: Media critics such as Jon Katz, in Wired, and Ben Bagdikian, in his book The Media Monopoly (Beacon Press, 1992), have argued that weÕve reached the limits of objectivityÕs usefulness, and that one way for the media to regain credibility might be to become more partisan. Do you agree? A: I agree that weÕre at some sort of straining point for objectivity, but I think that people still value having a news source that is not explicitly partisan. The way for network-news broadcasts and big urban papers to survive is not to say, "Okay, weÕre signing up with the Republicans" or "WeÕre signing up with the Democrats." I think it is to try to provide nonpartisan news without pretending to be, quote, objective, unquote. ItÕs this pretense of objectivity that I think is ruinous, because people donÕt believe it. When they hear the Washington Post's editor, Len Downie, say heÕs not going to vote because that would compromise his scientific objectivity, nobody outside a newsroom takes that seriously. Because everybody outside the newsroom, who sees day in and day out whatÕs covered in the paper, knows there are judgments applied there. What IÕd like to see is for a paper and its editors to be honest and say, "WeÕre going to do our best to tell you whatÕs going on, and tell you what our biases are, too, or tell you what premises weÕre working from." Q: What does it mean for citizens that most of their media are now owned by enormous corporations involved in all kinds of businesses other than journalism? A: I think there are maybe three reasons that people should worry about the concentration of media ownership and be alert for signs of these symptoms cropping up. The first is simple conflict of interest. For example, CNN refused to run advertisements from some company with a rival interest in the telecommunications bill -- a bill that would have affected CNNÕs and Ted TurnerÕs welfare directly. A second difficulty is the counterpart in the news business of the dreaded downsizing happening elsewhere in the economy. Traditionally, while journalism has often been a good business for its owners, itÕs been run on something other than a purely business mentality. As you have communications and journalism becoming just another business, the problem is the people managing it and the people working in it begin to feel just like business people, where what theyÕre producing is quarterly profits rather than anything else. The third danger is the monoculture danger, of having only three or four people with huge influence determining whatÕs in the movies, and whatÕs on the Internet, and whatÕs on the radio, and whatÕs on TV, and whatÕs in the newspaper. Q: Although I believe Noam Chomsky looks at incompetence and laziness and sees conspiracies, I do think heÕs made some valuable observations about how the media marginalize points of view that fall outside a narrow range of acceptable opinions. How can the media do a better job of informing the public of the full range of options available for solving our problems? A: I agree that most of life is explained by laziness or inattention rather than conspiracy, which is why I often see the world differently from the way Chomsky does. But I think laziness is an intriguing construct for explaining the mainstream media now. In one way, people are not lazy at all. In terms of animal energy, people in our business tend not to be lazy. But there is a sort of intellectual laziness, which I would view as perhaps the cardinal sin of our business: of being incurious about how the world should be, and just taking for granted the range of opinion from F to G. On almost any conceptual issue, the power of the conventional wisdom to determine the agenda is enormous, and itÕs defended in the name of objectivity, of "Well, we need an expert on each side." Q: You talk about people feeling overwhelmed by despair because of the disproportionate emphasis on crime on local TV news. Yet Adam Walinsky argued rather persuasively in your own magazine last year that people feel overwhelmed by crime because they are overwhelmed by crime, and they have been since the mid Õ60s. A: This is the only awkward question youÕve asked me, because it concerns an article in my own beloved magazine with which I do not agree. The trend in local TV news over the last 10 years has been more and more emphasis on violence -- rape, murder, mayhem. The trend of actual life has, by most social-science reports, been less of those things. So setting Adam Walinsky aside for one moment, I would argue that the trend in local news has still exaggerated the degree to which most people feel hostage to crime every day. And thereÕs not any kind of coherence, context, explanation, et cetera, that would at least make people feel they had some control over their destinies, some way to improve the things that are troubling to them. Q: Like a lot of media critics, you disparage the attention given to the O.J. Simpson case. Yet you could argue that it has told us a great deal about the state of race relations, the status of women, the criminal-justice system, and the power of wealth and celebrity. A: I think it is true that in the end the O.J. case did all those things, especially in race relations. I donÕt think thatÕs why it was covered, at least for the first six or eight months. It was covered because it was a great spectacle. We all like spectacles, including me. Again, itÕs a question of proportion. ABC managed to stay in business and keep its ratings up while spending about half as much time on O.J. each night as NBC did. Nightline ran maybe a dozen O.J. shows, but not 200 O.J. shows. Q: Cyberspace pioneer John Perry Barlow and novelist Michael Crichton, to name two, have argued that the Internet, C-SPAN, and other unmediated forms of communication will eventually render the mainstream media extinct. Do you think thereÕs a chance they may be right? A: ItÕs wrong to think of this as an entirely new phenomenon. There have always been tiny printing presses in America, and there have always been weirdo newsletters. The Internet makes more efficient something thatÕs always been there. The real difference has been the erosion of mainstream authority in all realms, in both the press and in government, over the last generation. The reason that Internet groups, which I spend a tremendous amount of time on, are popular is because people have less confidence in what the big-time press and big-time government are giving them. There are both some dangers and some naturally limiting factors to the idea that the Internet will be the main communications medium in the future. The danger is the widely discussed one that people will tune out any information that doesnÕt match what they already know. ThatÕs the value of mainstream media: they make you pay attention to things you wouldnÕt otherwise come across. There are limits to how much people are just going to rely on newsgroups and news lists on the Internet, because the potential supply of information vastly outweighs your ability to cope with it. What you want is somebody who will spend his or her time looking through and saying, "Okay, these are the five things that are interesting to look at." So you could argue that the rise of the Internet will make editors more valuable and more powerful than theyÕve been in the past. Q: Can the Internet evolve into the kind of low-cost distribution system that could lead to the renaissance of independent media, and thus serve as a counterweight to the trend toward monopoly? A: Yes, and I think that it has done that already. So I think the picture we have to bear in mind is the simultaneous existence of a more and more concentrated big media, which I think is going to be there for a long time despite predictions of its demise, and a potential renaissance of small-scale independent media. You see an example in the book-publishing business. ItÕs the age of the blockbuster seller, and also the age of people publishing their own novels on the Internet. YouÕll have big, concentrated broadcast and newspaper communications empires, plus the proliferation of informal groups that allow another level of communication.

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