Fallows and His Disgust with Media Fellows

Article excerpt

BREAKING THE NEWS How the Media Undermine American Democracy By James Fallows 296 pages, Pantheon, $23

JAMES FALLOWS is a journalist disillusioned with journalism. He is not the first to write a book about the shortcomings of the mass media, nor will he be the last. But, despite some flaws, his book is one of the most thoughtful and interesting so far.

Fallows' journalism experience is at magazines - first the Washington Monthly, then the Atlantic Monthly, his current employer. But his criticism of the media focuses less on magazines than on the handful of national newspapers and the television networks.

Like most media critics, Fallows assumes newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets have power - that they not only tell consumers what to think about, but also what to think and how to feel. Although the presumption of power is open to debate, it is probably true. Almost everything most people know about Bosnia, about the goings-on in the White House, about the city council, for that matter, comes from the media. Rarely is the knowledge firsthand.

"Tremendous potential power comes with being a reporter," Fallows says. "You have the negative power to say things about other people, in public, to which they can never really respond in kind. You have the positive power to expand other people's understanding of reality by bringing new parts of the world to their notice. Taking this power seriously means taking your calling seriously, which in turn means, recognizing the impact of the tool or weapon in your hands."

But, Fallows adds, "The institution of journalism is not doing its job well now. It is irresponsible with its power. The damage has spread to the public life American all share. The damage can be corrected, but not until journalism comes to terms with what it has lost."

Fallows is especially critical of how journalists portray the U.S. pr esident and vice president, members of Congress and other elected policymakers. On a personal level, many journalists like individual politicians, finding them to be intelligent and engaging. That respect, however, almost never comes across to media audiences. Instead, politicians are portrayed as venal, never thinking of the greater good. Politics is portrayed as a partisan, selfish game that happens to have high stakes, rather than as an occupation where righteousness sometimes prevails.

The result of that portrayal is no surprise, Fallows says: "People barely trust elected leaders or the entire legislative system to accomplish anything of value. The politicians seem untrustworthy while they're running, and they disappoint their supporters soon after they take office. By the time they leave office they're making excuses for what they couldn't do."

The disappointing books of journalism criticism lack compelling specific examples. Fallows' book does not fall into that trap. It is filled with compelling specific examples of journalists criticizing politicians for selling out to special interests at the same time those journalists are accepting $30,000 for making a speech to a special-interest group. Fallows, by the way, has made some paid appearances, but has the grace to disclose the speeches and the fees in the book's endnotes.

If Fallows is correct, and if, as seems unarguable, millions of readers and viewers have become former readers and viewers out of disgust, why do the national media continue their offensive practices? …