By James Fallows
Vintage Books, 337 pp, 1996
James Fallows was the editor at U.S.
News and World Report when he wrote this book. I subscribed to it
for six months a few years ago and canceled, because it was
indistinguishable from Time
I don't know if Fallows is still with the magazine.
What does that have to do with this book or
the book review? Not much - just thought I'd throw it in there.
It's safe to say that Fallows has issues
with his contemporaries in the press, and he's not shy about naming names.
George Will, Michael Kinsley, Cokie Roberts, and other big-name
journalists come under his fire. I wonder how they all reacted to this
book when it first came out. The press seemed to like it - the front
cover, back cover, and introductory pages are filled with glowing reviews
from newspapers and magazines.
So what are Fallows' beefs? Here's the
- The rise of TV news and lust for viewers
creates shows like The
McLaughlin Group and Crossfire,
in which real debate is replaced by dueling talking heads shouting
over one another. It may be entertaining, but it does not help the
viewer understand the issues.
- Too many reporters ignore the substance
of complex issues and legislation and concentrate on the political
implications of issues and legislation. Rather than explain the merits
of a certain bill, the press focuses on how it could help or hurt its
sponsor, supporters, and opponents. Politics is just a sporting event,
with winners and losers.
- Too many journalists command huge
speaking fees to lecture at conferences conducted by special interest
groups those same journalists cover. This creates a conflict of
interest and suggests the journalists are giving these groups
preferential treatment. It also makes the entire journalism profession
How does this affect American democracy?
All these practices turn people off the media and political affairs, and
those that still watch are ill-informed and badly served. A democracy
relies on an educated citizenry, among other things.
Fallows does see hope in a new brand of
journalism he calls public journalism, in which editors encourage their
reporters to write on the substance of issues, and also promotes public
values like civic involvement and public participation in politics. To
many hard-nosed reporters, this sound like cheerleading, though Fallows
insists it need not promote a specific individual, candidate, party or
cause - it just encourages people to get involved. This, according to
Fallows, is what people want from the media.
I share Fallows' frustration with the
media's focus on political horse-racing rather than substantive issues,
and the debate shows often do get out of hand when all the participants
are trying to out-shout everyone else to push their talking points. From a
reader standpoint, I don't care about columnists speaking for hire - it's
their right and they are paid to write their opinions. If they're slanted
toward a group or issue, so what? Reporters, I think, should be held to a
different standard, because they are paid to state their opinions.
Fallows discounts a media liberal bias,
which I think is the major reason so many people are turning off the
mainstream press outlets and tuning into talk radio, the Internet, and Fox
News. His analysis suffers from this mistake.
This is a fun book, though, filled with
interesting anecdotes and journalism inside baseball. I recommend it.