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 to the potential consequences both of health care reform and the failure to enact reform.

Connected to this is the media’s unrelenting cynicism toward public figures and even government institutions as a whole. Since the focus is on tactical wheeling and dealing rather than on the substantive differences between candidates and bills, politics is seen primarily as an enterprise in public relations, with manipulation and subterfuge being the name of the game. Members of the media compound this serious distortion of what politics is really about by exhibiting deep—indeed, one might even say, dogmatic—skepticism. Conveying belief in a program, party, or individual is considered far too risky or subjective. Instead, reporters and commentators take on what they see as a more sophisticated attitude—one of wary suspicion. While Fallows does not urge media operatives to become true believers or political cheerleaders, he does argue that a more balanced view of political motives and performance would be far better for public morale and also more accurate.

Corollary to the fashionable skepticism of media coverage is the inability or unwillingness of contemporary reporters to get beyond the surface of stories in order to understand their true meaning. Reporters not only lack the depth of knowledge to carefully gauge the sincerity of politicians and government officials, they also lack apparent incentives—commercial or otherwise—to acquire such knowledge. As a result, an air of cynicism becomes a handy and economical substitute for the difficult work of boning up on the fine points of public policy.

This convenient superficiality leads in turn to news coverage which emphasizes novelty, entertainment, and controversy for its own sake. On the other hand, in-depth analysis is in severely short supply. The public instead gets a confusing abundance of images and facts, along with incessant scandal and squawking. News coverage is bereft of much needed historical context or other forms of explanation. Also lacking is any substantial follow-up to current headlines. Stories come and go, remaining in the public eye only until the novelty has worn off. Although Fallows credits the media for making some progress in the quest for meaningful background, he believes that the political world conveyed by the media still usually lacks coherence and perspective.

Personal greed and ambition are also factors in the failure of mass media, according to Fallows. More specifically, Fallows faults selected media “stars” for putting monetary gain and fame ahead of professional ethics and personal integrity. He has in mind particularly those celebrities who do the Sunday morning scene on shows such as Firing Line and The McLaughlin Group. These journalists maintain their popularity (and disparately high incomes) on the tube by...

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