Back in the first comment on this post, Lee mentioned James Fallows' excellent book, Breaking the News: The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy — which, as it happens, I actually reviewed for this newspaper when it came out.
Here's what I wrote, back in 1996:
MEDIA EXAMINES ITSELF<
Published on: 02/25/1996
Reviewed by Brad Warthen
Memo: Brad Warthen is an associate editor of The State's editorial page.
BREAKING THE NEWS: How the Media Undermine American Democracy
By James Fallows
Pantheon, 296 pages, $23
So you think the news media are dragging the country down with their negativity and their failure to put things in perspective?
So join the club. A lot of us on the inside of this alleged profession agree. James Fallows, Washington editor of The Atlantic Monthly, is one. Fallows' saving grace is that he's written this book explaining exactly what is wrong and why it matters.
The problem has to do with perverse cognitive habits that journalists embrace as normal, but which cause them to portray public life in ways that make it hard for readers and viewers to engage it constructively.
For instance: “Step by step, 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.'' Among journalists, casting a jaded eye upon anything a politician does is seen as being “professional.'' We tend to think of it as healthy skepticism. But there is nothing healthy about it.
In fact, “By choosing to present public life as a contest among scheming political leaders, all of whom the public should view with suspicion, the news media helps bring about that very result.''
That's exactly what has happened. As a groundbreaking poll discovered last year, the public is now far more cynical about politics and government than are journalists, who are more likely to believe that our political system is sound, and that citizens can make a difference. In other words, the people believe the system is just as bad as we've painted it, and we know better.
There are excellent examples in this book illustrating the profound disconnect between journalists and sensible people.
One of the best-documented is the journalists' penchant for reducing everything — every issue, every speech, every policy initiative, every human gesture by a politician — to what it means in terms of the next election. If a politician tries to do something about starving children, we immediately wonder aloud what this means in terms of the way he's trying to position himself in New Hampshire.
If Fallows didn't do anything else in this book, I would praise him to the skies for drawing so clearly the connection between the way we cover politics and the way we cover sports — which is to say, in virtually the same manner. Journalists tend to see everything as a contest, which one side must win and the other must lose. This, of course, leaves no room for the kind of consensus-building that solves problems in the real world.
Politics and government matter, but modern journalism has done much to cause the public to despair of it ever meaning anything good.
The sins that Fallows details in this book are examined in a manner that shows clearly “how they affect the future prospects of every American by distorting the processes by which we choose our leaders and resolve our public problems.''
Unlike most modern journalism, this book does not merely wallow in unrelieved despair. The author writes encouragingly of such things as the “public journalism'' movement, through which a number of far-sighted, community-oriented journalists (you'll note that few of them are in Washington or New York) have started accepting responsibility for fixing the problem, starting with themselves.
Fallows draws an interesting connection between the way the U.S. military examined and healed itself after Vietnam, and the way journalists can become their own best physicians. It won't be easy, but it can be done — we just have to unlearn about half of the nonsense that got crammed into our heads in journalism school.
Fallows has correctly diagnosed what's wrong with American journalism. If you want to know why you ought to be mad at the media, read this book. If everybody would read it (journalists should read it twice), we might find ourselves on the way to a cure.
The awful irony is that this was just when things were starting to get much worse, what with 24/7 shouting heads on cable TV and the blogosphere yet to come. The pointless, yammering, conflict for its own sake is SO much worse now — and it's one of the things I struggle with constantly here on the blog, along with those of you who still hope for a civil town square in which to discuss issues — that when I look back on when that review was written, it's almost like a lost age of innocence….