A Withering Critique of the News Media  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March 1996

A Withering Critique of the News Media   

Breaking the News: How the
Media Undermine American Democracy

By James Fallows
Pantheon Books

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     



Breaking the News: How the
Media Undermine American Democracy
By James Fallows
Pantheon Books
296 pages; $23

This is a flawed and frustrating but important, well-timed book that should give a shove to the gathering momentum toward press reform.

Fallows, the respected Washington editor of the Atlantic Monthly, might be expected to provide a definitive account of media sins and a stirring vision for redemption. Instead, he has produced a loose essay touching many familiar points, with only flashes of genuine originality. This is disappointing.

Still, Fallows writes with crystalline clarity and immense insight, and perceptively lays out the issues. It significantly escalates the debate for a mainstream journalist of his stature to turn on his own culture, reject the shopworn apologies for its failings and demand change.

In summary, Fallows argues that today's media distort and disdain civic life, treat too many activities as spectacles, and scornfully portray the world as pointless and incomprehensible. "[T]heir cynical handling of political issues and their contextless presentation of violent events make society's problems harder to solve," he concludes.

Like many critics, he sees the public losing faith in media that care more about conflict and sensation than the general welfare.

Fallows lands hard on the emerging class of celebrity journalists (a group that, he acknowledges, includes himself). Whereas a generation ago "the typical reporter would make about as much as the typical cop," today's top TV newspeople can make almost that much in a day. This "status revolution," he contends, distances journalists from their audiences, leading them to identify more with society's haves than the average citizens they once championed.

Fallows' most striking insights come when he traces the consequences of these and other changes:

l First, television itself, especially the ascent of journalists-as-pundits, undermines the very act of reporting, turning newspeople into interviewees instead of interviewers. "To succeed on TV you have to be on the air," Fallows writes. "To succeed as a reporter you have to be 'off the air.'...The temptation of the Nexis age is for all journalists to write stories they didn't report."

l This helps touch off "an arms race of 'attitude,' " where journalists substitute commentary for coverage. They "sound sneering and supercilious about the whole idea of politics," driving politicians to become even "more manipulative and cunning."

l All this produces, devastatingly, a "flattening of events" that makes a game or sideshow of everything. "It could be the NBA finals. It could be live scenes from the explosion in Oklahoma. It could be Kato Kaelin's first network interview." But the effect is that "much of today's press acts as if, down deep, they believe that none of it matters."

Unhappily, Fallows is far less helpful in prescribing remedies. He loosely affiliates with the public journalism movement, salutes serious programs like "Nightline," and calls for an amorphous "journalism in the public spirit."

Perhaps his sternest recommendation is that journalists stop hiding behind knee-jerk adversarialism. "Criticize reporters or editors for their negativity," he says, "and you will be told that they are merely reflecting the world as it is. Objecting to news coverage, they say, is merely 'blaming the messenger.' " But the media can't escape their responsibility for "contributing to a mood of fatalistic disengagement," a perilous course since "the less that Americans care about public life, the less they will be interested in journalism of any form."

While this book should catalyze a deeper debate, it has serious flaws. It has no index or bibliography, contains little original reporting (except for Fallows' strong critique of coverage of President Clinton's health care initiative), and shows scant evidence that Fallows has digested, or even read, the vast critical literature on this subject.

Worse, he doesn't account for the complicity of other institutions, notably politics, in the problems he describes. As this review is written, public life is being dominated by the puerile snit over the federal government shutdown and by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato's smarmy Whitewater hearings. Given such shenanigans, what remains elusive is a clear guide to where honorable coverage ends and undue negativism starts.

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