Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy — James Fallows

The weird thing about Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy is how timely it still seems—I think Thoreau called books “the news that stays news.”* Even after some of the particulars Fallows wrote about have receded—like, say, the healthcare debate—the main point that news celebrities and TV-style have cheapened, perhaps dangerously, American knowledge and democracy remains. More importantly, the habit of political score-keeping rather than dealing with substantive issues remains too; Fallows quotes a Clinton administration staffer who said after the 1994 Republic landslide:

They [meaning voters] had ‘made the monkey jump’—they were able to discipline an institution they didn’t like. They could register the fact that they were unhappy. There doesn’t seem to be any way to do that with the press, except to stop watching and reading, which more and more people have done.

The process seems to have accelerated: i part that’s because of the Internet—people have more choices for news—but I wonder if it’s also in part because of the product being produced. Fallows gives an excellent sample of what TV news is like: mostly chasing sensation and catastrophe that doesn’t really mean anything, or have any nuance: there’s no real ambiguity concerning whether a killer should be caught and punished, or that a tornado is a tragedy. As Fallows says, “Then there is political news, almost always in the context of horse race politics—the mayor is criticizing his opponents, the city council is arguing with the mayor.” But over what? And why? The scorecard aspect ignores these important issues.

I’m not giving specific examples from Breaking the News because they’re too involved for a (relatively) short blog post, and the most specific parts of the specific examples have changed. But Fallows gives numerous anecdotes and stories to back his points, and it’s almost impossible to have seen TV news over the last ten years and not nod in agreement. The only place he fails in his proscriptions for working past the problems; most revolve around the idea of public journalism, which involves greater citizen participation in news topics, commitment to real information, and so forth. The major problem appears to be that most of the public doesn’t seem interested in such subjects, or at least in paying for them. Those who are interested subscribe to The Atlantic (Fallows’ current home), or, today, find what they need on specialized Internet forums. Most people appear interested in celebrity gossip and hating whatever “the other side” is doing.

For me, Hacker News does a better job of finding what’s worthy than all but a handful of publications (The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and The New York Times being the most obvious). But Hacker News is only an aggregator, not an originator. Despite strides being made by blogging, it hasn’t come close to replace media organizations—in part because of lawsuit threats that can stymie the proverbial little guy.

As Jack Shafer says on Slate, “Among the many glorious things about American journalism is that no credentialing organization or regulatory body stands between an individual who wants to break a story and his public reporting of it.” This is true: but it’s also true that the “big media,” much as hate using that phrase, has disproportionate power—especially television. And the media business (another unfortunate phrase) doesn’t seem able to reform itself, so the Internet is doing part of the job for it. Still, media companies are in the business of giving people what they want, or at least what they seem to want, and what people seem to want is to have their prejudices massaged, whether by Fox News or MSNBC. And the status conveyed by TV (which Fallows deals with in a chapter titled “The Gravy Train;” one consultant says of pundits, “Every time they vanish from the tube for a period of time, the requests for their speaking and lectures drop off dramatically.” In other words, appearing on TV is insanely lucrative) means that far more people want to get on than can get on. The result: you can get people to do or say almost everything. As Shafer says, no professional body will stop you. But if people become more accustomed to unfiltered material on the net, maybe they’ll grow more tired of the news blowhards.

Against these problems, the individual doesn’t have a tremendous amount he or she can immediately do. “Don’t watch TV, or at least most TV news” is an obvious one that’s akin to telling people to eat their broccoli, even as McDonald’s continues to expand like waistlines. But, as any community organizer knows, making people aware of a problem is often an important step in solving it. Fallows made people aware of this problem in 1996. Alas: too little has changed. Maybe this post is another step, however tiny, in the direction of change for the better.

* This quote is probably slightly wrong, or wrongly attributed. Maybe he was the one who said, “Read not the times. Read the eternities.”

12 responses

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