Breaking the News Analysis
by James Fallows

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Breaking the News

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In BREAKING THE NEWS: HOW THE MEDIA UNDERMINE AMERICAN DEMOCRACY, James Fallows accuses his mass media colleagues of failing to hold up their end in the quest to fulfill the dream of American democracy. As Washington editor for THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY, a regular commentator on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” and author of an award winning book on national defense, Fallows is able to criticize the media as a respected insider. As a result, this book has drawn considerable media attention.

Fallows’ critique is multifaceted. He faults the media for shortsighted commercialism, which, in turn, leads to acute overemphasis on the “horse race” aspects of politics, heavy doses of cynicism rather than a balanced view of how politicians and government perform, and a superficial approach to news bereft of much needed historical context. He also faults selected media “stars” for putting monetary gain ahead of professional integrity. These shortcomings damage not only American democratic institutions, but the creditability of the media as well. As a result, both receive low approval ratings from the American public.

There is hope, according to Fallows, in an emerging commitment to what he calls “public journalism.” The section on public journalism, however, is brief and underdeveloped.

The book has additional weaknesses. Fallows draws broad conclusions from evidence that is anecdotal and fragmentary. He also fails to deal thoroughly with the complex triangular relationship between the media, political institutions, and the public. This omission substantially blunts Fallows’ critique.

Still, Fallows offers a compelling alternative both to the media’s smug self-image and the right-wing portrayal of the media as a sinister liberal conspiracy.

Sources for Further Study

AJR: American Journalism Review. XVIII, March, 1996, p. 46.

The American Scholar. LXV, Summer, 1996, p. 472.

Booklist. XCII, January 1, 1996, p. 748.

Business Week. February 19, 1996, p. 14.

Columbia Journalism Review. XXXIV, March, 1996, p. 49.

Esquire. CXXV, January, 1996, p. 28.

Folio. XXV, May 15, 1996, p. 18.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 4, 1996, p. 3.

The Nation. CCLXII, February 5, 1996, p. 25.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, January 28, 1996, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, January 1, 1996, p. 67.

Time. CXLVII, January 22, 1996, p. 68.

Washington Monthly. XXVIII, January, 1996, p. 43.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, February 4, 1996, p. 4.

Breaking the News

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, James Fallows accuses most of his colleagues in the mass media of failing to hold up their end in the quest to fulfill the dream of American democracy. As Washington editor for The Atlantic Monthly, a regular commentator on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, and author of an award- winning book on national defense, Fallows is in a position to criticize the media as a respected insider. As a result, this book has drawn considerable media attention. Whether it will make a lasting impression remains to be seen.

Although a particularly shortsighted commercialism appears to be the main fountainhead of the media’s failure to perform, Fallows’ critique is multifaceted. For an opener, Fallows condemns the media’s pervasive emphasis on the “horse race” aspects of politics at the expense of serious analysis of public policy issues. As examples, Fallows cites not only election coverage, which focuses on who is leading by how much and the strategies employed to capture public support, but also on policy debates such as that over President Clinton’s health care reform bill in 1993-1994. According to Fallows, media coverage of this debate never really came to terms with the technical merit of Clinton’s proposal or any of the numerous counterproposals which were offered in Congress. Instead, the media focused on tactics employed to promote and defeat various health care proposals, while the American public remained largely ignorant as...

(The entire section is 2,150 words.)