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"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer


Breaking the News
How the Media Undermine American Democracy

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 and Newsweek. 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 quick version:

  • 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 look bad.

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.

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