Remembering ‘Breaking the News’

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:

Published on: 02/25/1996
Section: TEMPO
Edition: FINAL
Page: F6
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….

6 thoughts on “Remembering ‘Breaking the News’

  1. Greg Flowers

    Discussion of ideas requires thought and listening. A lot of what we get here is Pavlovian. A certain stimulus results in a conditioned response which conveys little but rage and changes the minds of virtually no one that reads it.
    Of the current editorial journalists Cal Thomas just recites the creed and, in my opinion.
    Kathleen Parker, yes Camden’s (and formerly Columbia’s) own Kathleen Parker is pretty darned good, thoughtful reasonable. I am proud she is a “local” though I do not always agree with her.
    It is fashionable to prove you are smart by saying you like Thomas Friedman. He obviously likes himself enough that he does not need for me to like him. Way overrated.
    My favorite – WFB (RIP) who spent a large portion of his youth in Camden and still has family there.
    I don’t recall seeing any George Will in this paper lately, do we carry him? Can be insightful.
    How many editorial columnists does the subscribe to and who are they? Who are your favorites, least favorites?

  2. Brad Warthen

    Yeah, we run Will fairly frequently, such as this one on Sunday, Feb. 22. Actually, we probably run him more than we do Friedman. That’s true even though I (unlike you) am a big Friedman fan. The problem is timing. Friedman’s columns move at an awkward time for our publication purposes, so frequently the first chance I have to run him is two or even three days after the column appeared in the NYT. Will — like Kathleen Parker and all the Washington Post Writers Group writers — moves early so that I can run him in real time, the same time that the Post does. Since I value freshness, that gives him a slight leg up.

  3. Greg Flowers

    I’m sure many of you know this but Will’s wife is a Columbian. Her sister was one of the prettiest girls at Dreher High School.

  4. Lee Muller

    “Breaking the News” is probably the only decent book James Fallows ever wrote. He is very skilled at presenting a distorted picture through selective facts, partial truths, opinions of his friends as experts, and a few outright fabrications to fill in the rest of the puzzle he snaps together.
    “National Defense” is a good example of this sort of propaganda. I knew enough about the examples he used, and coworkers were familiar with a lot more, for us to see how he spun his yarn.

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