Breaking The News, James Fallows


I (Ben) am still on a Jimmy Carter kick*, and one of the supporting characters in last week’s review of “What The Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?” was James Fallows. Fallows was a speechwriter for Carter before leaving the White House and writing a devastating profile of his former boss in The Atlantic entitled “The Passionless Presidency.” He’s also the author of Breaking The News, which is not a new book (it was published in 1996) though it’s still a relevant one. I finished it today. I also read this post from The Atlantic’s Megan McArdle entitled “The Presidents We Love To Hate.” In it she implicates the media for the downward trend in presidents’ six-month approval ratings as well as the erosion of the public’s respect for the office of the presidency. This dovetails with some of what Fallows says in Breaking The News. So let’s dive in.

McArdle acknowledges the common (and tired) critique from some that “the liberal media” is partly responsible for the downward trend in the approval ratings, although her argument is not just counter-intuitive but a bit strange. She says:

That media had high hopes for Democrats, and didn’t much like Republicans.  So all Republicans had to do was, like, not invade Poland, and their approval ratings rose.  The expectations for Carter and Clinton were higher, and therefore their ratings fell.

This doesn’t hold much water for me, although it feels like a half-hearted argument compared to McArdle’s other, sturdier contention that “the pre-Nixon presidents enjoyed a certain media conspiracy of silence. They were treated with a fair amount of deference, which is why the public didn’t know about FDR’s wheelchair, or JFK’s affairs. Post Nixon, they started being a little more aggressive, so approval ratings became more volatile.” She adds,

And the more information we have [about presidents]–the more time we spend watching them give bad speeches and make embarrassing gaffes–the faster our approval falls. I suspect that emotionally, we actually prefer that the Great Oz stay behind the curtain, so we could content ourselves with the occasional ceremonial display. But those days are long gone.

That seems more right, if not exactly right. It’s also an argument Fallows might agree with.

Fallows quickly dispenses with the liberal/conservative paradigm and focuses on deeper media biases: toward moneyed and corporate interests; toward a status quo of access and privilege with the elite they cover (inside and outside of Washington); toward blurring the line between “news” and “entertainment”; and toward an abdication of responsibility to present accurate information rather than perpetuate misinformation. To wit:

Mainstream journalism has fallen into the habit of portraying public life as a race to the bottom, in which one group of conniving, insincere politicians ceaselessly tries to outmaneuver another. The great problem for American democracy in the 1990s is that people barely trust elected leaders or the entire legislative system to accomplish anything of value. … Issues that affect the collective interests of Americans — crime, health care, education, economic growth — are presented mainly as arenas in which politicians can fight. … Far from making it easier to cope with public challenges, the media often make it harder. … They increasingly present public life mainly as a depressing spectacle, rather than a vital activity in which citizens can and should be engaged. The implied message of this approach is that people will pay attention only if politics can be made as interesting as the other entertainment options available to them, from celebrity scandals to the human melodramas featured on daytime talk programs. In attempting to compete head-to-head with pure entertainment programs, the “serious” press locks itself into a competition it cannot win.

This lines up nicely with Mr. Masterson’s comment last week. He places blame with the politicians (and certainly blame always rests there), but he also acknowledges that when it comes to tit-for-tat controversy and political squabbling, “the media eats it up.”

Fallows uses an example from the 1992 campaign to illustrate the difference between what the media considers important and what the public does. On January 31, 1995, Bill Clinton delivered a State of the Union address to the newly Republican-controlled Congress (which surged into power behind Newt Gingrich and his “Contract With America”). Four days after the speech he held a public forum in Boston and took questions from teenagers. They asked seven, all of which focussed on the practical impact of Clinton’s programs on their schools and neighborhoods. One question was, “We need stronger laws to punish those people who are caught selling guns to our youth. Basically, what can you do about that?” Another: “Programs designed to keep teenagers away from drugs and gangs often emphasize sports and seem geared mainly to boys. How could such programs be made more attractive to teenaged girls?”

Fallows contrasts these questions to the ones network anchors asked Clinton in contemporaneous interviews. “There was no overlap whatsoever between the questions the students asked and those raised by the anchors,” Fallows writes. Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw all asked Clinton questions about “the pure game of politics” — how Clinton felt about being “eclipsed” by Gingrich and Bob Dole, or the scandals of Whitewater and Vince Foster, or whether or not Republicans “play fair.”

“Journalists justify their intrusiveness and excesses by claiming that they are the public’s representatives,” Fallows says. “In fact they ask questions no one but their fellow political professionals cares about. And they often do so with a discourtesy and rancor, as at the typical White House news conference, that represents the public’s views much less than it reflects the modern journalist’s belief that being independent boils down to acting hostile.”

Fallows also devotes a chunk of the book to dissecting Clinton’s failed health care reform and considers what role the media played, for better or worse (mostly worse), in its demise. He lodges a minority report, bucking conventional wisdom that the White House stiff-armed Congress by suggesting that its real misstep was stiff-arming the media. What he most laments is the lack of an informed civic debate, charging the media with perpetuating disinformation.

Speaking of which, am I the only one who gets more, not less, confused about the competing health care proposals the more I read about them? And am I the only one who feels a foreboding sense of déjà vu when Fallows writes about citizens shouting “the government should keep its hands off my Medicare” at town hall meetings fifteen years ago?

Likewise with the resurgence of Elizabeth “Betsy” McCaughey, who, in Fallows’ eyes, is perfectly cast for the role of “Villain” in the health care debates. He accuses McCaughey of writing op-eds riddled with “schoolboy-howler errors that make many journalists sit up nights worrying, ‘What if someone sees that I misunderstood the bill?'” You may recognize McCaughey from her recent appearance on “The Daily Show,” which Fallows had some choice words about.

Lest this post get any wonkier, I’ll say that Breaking The News is well worth the read. It’s a jeremiad, to be sure, but Fallows writes from within the world of journalism as someone who believes reform is possible. He devotes most of the final chapter to advocating “civic journalism.” He also cites Jay Rosen, whose blog “PressThink” features much of the same sharp commentary on all things media. Rosen’s most well-known (and controversial) post is this one about how the Internet weakens the authority of the press. (He says this is a good thing. I think he makes a convincing case.)

Given the traction we gained from last week’s discussion of the Jimmy Carter book, you’re encouraged to chime in with thoughts or contrary opinions. In fact, let’s dust off the old poll feature on WordPress and give that a go!


* = Yes, this is a bizarre statement to make when your first name is not Rosalynn.


2 thoughts on “Breaking The News, James Fallows

  1. I know I am late to respond to this post but I figured I would put in my two cents.

    First, this crap about a liberal or conservative bias in the media is just that crap. Instead the media is exactly as it was when George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the boys were founding this country. And just as it was when Honest Abe was attempting to maintain the Union. Each media entity has its own perspective and its own bias. Yes the New York times is liberally slanted, anyone that thinks otherwise is a fool. And yes the Wall St. journal leans a bit right. So it is up to us the readers/viewers to take in the information and come to conclusions of our own. This paradigm has not changed since the founding of the country. And this outcry that blogging has changed the way we get news is short-sighted as well. Blogging is nothing new, the form in which the blog is presented is new. The most famous blogger of all time was Benjamin Franklin when he created “Poor Richard’s Almanac”. “Common Sense” was simply a blog in the form of a pamphlet. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is anything new because Jefferson and Hamilton waged war via pamphlets (blogs) for years.

    Two things have changed however, 1) the creation of the 24-hour news cycle; 2) the consolidation of news ownership. The 24-hour news cycle has created an environment where everything is a story because it has to be… what else would Major Garrett and Lou Dobbs talk about? No longer are we willing to wait to get information and so instead every little bit of information is thrown at us to see what sticks. And IF, God forbid, something sticks we are bludgeoned with it.

    We also have less points of view represented in the traditional media. 4-5 major companies, and that’s being generous, control the major information providers we have. Therefore, the points of view are narrowed and the messages constant. I truly believe this is why people have started turning to their own news gathering, whether it be blogs, alternative web-papers, or self reporting. We desire the full story not just 4 perspectives on the full story.

    In the end I really think the more things change the more they stay the same. It is up to us the consumer to digest the information and reach our own conclusions. It is also up to us the consumer to make clear what we expect from media. Currently the lowest common denominator is dictating that crappy reporting and sensational journalism will rule the day.

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