The Oprah-fication of American Journalism
April 26, 2000
Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy James Fallows, Pantheon Books, $23Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time Howard Kurtz, Times Books, $25Is Rush Limbaugh a journalist? The answer, at first, seems easy: of course not. He freely broadcasts his biases. He blurs fact and opinion. He doesn't report in the traditional sense.Yet Limbaugh delivers news to 20 million people in a given week; he's a primary source of information for many and an exclusive source of news for some. True, he openly ridicules Bill Clinton, but didn't Maureen Dowd do the same in The New York Times when she wrote that Bill Clinton returned to the university "where he didn't inhale, didn't get drafted and didn't get a degree"?Limbaugh reads the newspapers, talks to politicians, talks to the public -- he does as much reporting, in other words, as many who call themselves journalists. And his tendency to blur explanation and opinion is little different from mainstream journalists like Sam Donaldson, who glides from anchoring the ABC evening news to news/advocacy/entertainment on PrimeTime Live to pure punditry on This Week with David Brinkley.The answer to the Limbaugh question, then, is more complicated, and more depressing, than at first it seems. He may be a bad journalist, but as the firewalls between fact and opinion, and entertainment and education, collapse, he also may be the archetype of the profession.The dismal state of journalism and its seemingly imperiled future is the nexus of two new books: Howard Kurtz's Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time and Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, by James Fallows. Kurtz, The Washington Post's media critic, probes the new, pervasive culture of talk -- "trash TV" shows such as Geraldo, the more sedate Larry King Live and C-Span, as well as talk radio and the dozens of McLaughlin Group spinoffs. Fallows, The Atlantic Monthly's Washington editor, concerns himself with the weaknesses -- and hidden strengths -- of modern journalism, focusing on the Washington press corps and its effect on politicians, policy, and the public.The remarkable overlap between the two books says a great deal about how information is delivered to Americans today. Both authors worry that the same values that power talk culture -- a casual disregard for accuracy, the centrality of pop icons who dwarf the subjects they're discussing, and the primacy of entertainment in a race for ratings -- have come to dominate journalism.Hot Air is a bit like channel-surfing-erratic, sometimes shallow, but still engrossing. Kurtz does a good job of showing how the transformation of the media created a new kind of connective tissue for Americans who once felt excluded by the mainstream press. The success of Donahue's early radio days, for example, showed that plenty of women at home were hungering for provocative programming.The new media has broadened access to the public conversation beyond the relatively small group of gatekeepers who once controlled it. Kurtz's portrait of Don Imus's rise from a freight-train brakeman to a politically savvy shock jock reads like a media version of Rocky. On the air, Kurtz reminds us, credentials are de-emphasized: If you have an opinion, you're qualified. That Larry King turns from a Middle East specialist to ask in the next breath what Joan from Nebraska thinks of our policy is truly remarkable; it's opened up participation in public life on a scale our founding fathers could not have foreseen.Kurtz inadvertently offers a reminder of why much of the public, and cultural conservatives in particular, have long felt alienated from the mainstream press. Kurtz lumps radio shows where "questions of morality loom large," such as a Christian radio station where callers speak out against teenage sex, into a discussion of jingoism, racism, and "garden-variety weirdness" on radio. Many Americans wouldn't find a Christian radio station or opposition to premarital sex the least bit strange, let alone as aberrant as Kurtz implies.Still, Kurtz offers plenty of gems. "Penis out of my mouth is bad," explains Howard Stern in one of Hot Air's more memorable passages. "But penis out of Donahue's mouth is good. Donahue can say he's talking about penis because he wants to help people and I'm talking about penis because I want ratings. Bullshit! Donahue talks about penis in November because he wants big sweeps." Stern speaks the truth: The media world is increasingly penis-driven. The entertainment ethic has taken hold in even the most "respectable" news.Interviews with Kato Kaelin -- "Exclusive!" -- get more play than Medicare. That's why more Americans can identify Lance Ito than Newt Gingrich. Breaking the News says more about why Kurtz's encyclopedic exploration should worry us. Fallows makes a convincing case that unless journalism reforms, it will further undermine our vital public institutions even as it makes itself irrelevant. He delivers an incisive account of the roots of change in the profession and a devastating indictment of journalists who have abandoned the commitment to public service that once was the cornerstone of a journalism career.Fallows shows how financial pressures, particularly corporate ownership and the growth of television, have created "entertainment envy" in journalism. As a result, political journalism is fast becoming a hothouse where adversarialism thrives and discussions of policy wither. The coverage, as Fallows observes, increasingly resembles sportswriting: Newt Gingrich has been benched; Bill Clinton has scored. The day after President Clinton unveiled his welfare-reform plan in 1994, for example, the front-page stories on every leading newspaper were not about the reform's potential practical consequences, but about its political ones. The emphasis of politics over policy, of course, makes life easier for journalists: It enables them to escape the hard, sometimes tedious work of reading legislation and analyzing the policy implications of a welfare proposal or a budget cut outside the bubble of the Beltway. It's easier to entertain than to educate.Once, journalists earned the authority to interpret the news by learning about their subject. Too often, that's no longer the case. Regulars on TV political talk shows cavalierly confess to Kurtz and Fallows that they know little more about the topics they discuss than what they glean from colleagues and the day's newspapers. On the McLaughlin Group guests are often asked to rate something on a scale of one to ten; there's no need (and no chance) to make an argument based on facts when time only allows you to toss out opinions. Some journalists even take pride in their lack of knowledge.Larry King boasts that he never researches his guests in advance; he also rarely asks follow-up questions or challenges guests' assertions. The parody of King's interview style ("Interesting x emotional issue") in Christopher Buckley's Thank You for Smoking remains the most apt description of King's journalistic practices. Kurtz cites a case in which King allowed a guest to make false claims about cellular phones causing cancer. A subsequent poll showed that half those surveyed believed it was true; cellular company stocks plummeted overnight.For journalists, though, the change in their identity has brought profitable celebrity status. A journalist starts a career in print or network news and soon appears on Crossfire or Capital Gang. Then comes payday: With television fame, the speechmaking circuit beckons. If you're George Will or David Gergen or Larry King, you take home more for a few hours of talk than most Americans make in a year. Fallows paints a politely scathing portrait of Steve and Cokie Roberts as "pundit profit-centers," a small industry unto themselves whose desire for more can't be sated. It's no wonder that Fallows characterizes the Washington press corps as having an "overripe, fin-de-siecle mood."The press's mood matters because it profoundly affects the political process and the public's perception of it. Public officials increasingly govern not for the public but for the media. Fallows sketches a portrait of a White House that marks time by the milestones in a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week news cycle, from the morning papers to the evening news to the weekend talk shows.And he shows how politicians who understand the media's lust for sport can manipulate it. Newt Gingrich's ten-plank "Contract with America" got journalists so worked up about how far down his checklist he was that they forgot to inform readers what completing the checklist would mean.The media's belief that to investigate and inform will bore their audience has profound consequences. Fallows shows how The New York Times's Robert Pear's coverage of the health-care debate focused almost exclusively on what interest groups, from doctors to senior citizens, had to lose from reform, rather than on what the public might gain. "Useful information helps people understand what can be changed and what must be endured," Fallows writes.Today, millions of Americans are still without health insurance: Something that could have been changed now must be endured. Given the current state of affairs, it's no surprise that government and the media are fierce rivals for the coveted title of most reviled American institution. Journalists command thousands of column inches trying to understand why Americans feel so angry about their government and so helpless about their lives. Fallows suggests that just maybe, it's the media itself that's engendering the futility and fury, the sense some Americans have that they're helpless pawns of powerful elites.Reforming the press won't fix the political process, but it can certainly help. The question is how to do it. Fallows invests considerable hope in the public journalism movement. Spontaneously generated by disparate papers across the country, public journalism tries to re-engage citizens in their communities and the political process. In one memorable story, Fallows recounts how the Charlotte Observer, a leader in public journalism, asked Senator Terry Sanford for his position on some environmental issues during the 1992 North Carolina primary. Sanford informed the paper that, sorry, he had no intention of talking about the environment until the general election. The paper's editor threatened to publish the questions anyway, with blank spaces where Sanford's answers were supposed to be. In about 10 days, Sanford delivered. (He lost, by the way.)Public journalism isn't perfect. Papers take polls, for example, to ask what their readers want to know from their leaders; shouldn't the reporters and editors already know? And when newspapers actually engage in civic activities like holding town meetings, they tread dangerous ground between reportage and participation in events they should be reporting on.But one aspect of public journalism has the potential to be journalism's salvation: the effort to identify, evaluate, and even recommend solutions to public problems. Not exploring solutions, and instead chronicling only which party is more successfully shifting the blame for the country's problems, has been perhaps the press's greatest failure.It's imperative that there be more explanatory journalism showing why things are the way they are and how they can be changed-things like the Philadelphia Inquirer's Barlett and Steele's America: What Went Wrong; Frontline's The Best Campaign Money Can Buy; The New York Times' recent efforts to look at how tiny provisions in pending legislation -- whether severing Medicaid benefits from welfare aid or curbing U.S. power to protect wetlands -- will have dramatic real-life consequences.What's also needed is advocacy journalism that clearly identifies itself as such, and that uses facts to build an argument, rather than trying to outshout the opposition, McLaughlin-style. Finally, we need the creativity and integrity that could inspire, for example, a series that uses history to examine issues of the day, or a show called Common Ground in which a host maneuvers ideologically opposed public figures toward consensus on issues like national service or welfare or abortion. Fallows' book is a timely, and urgent, warning: If the media don't change their ways, they will certainly become more entertaining -- but they also will become more damaging. The press has been this country's most important and most enduring institution of continuing education. If journalists don't bother to explain and intelligently interpret what's happening to us, who will?