Flashbacks September 2006

Broadcast News

David Halberstam, James Fallows, and Nicholas Lemann on the rich past and uncertain future of broadcast journalism

Several years later Atlantic correspondent James Fallows lobbed some criticisms of his own at the broadcast journalism world. In “Why Americans Hate the Media,” he expressed concern that the attitude of journalistic detachment now being cultivated to excess by TV journalists could create a troubling disconnect between journalists and viewers. By way of example, he described a 1987 episode of a PBS series called Ethics in America, in which a difficult moral question was put to broadcasting personalities Mike Wallace and Peter Jennings. They were asked to imagine they were covering a war and were embedded with some enemy combatants. If, while traveling, they stumbled upon an American unit whom the enemy would surely ambush, they were asked, would they act as journalists and cover the story, or would they try to warn the soldiers? Jennings instantly replied that he would warn the soldiers. But Mike Wallace derided Jennings’s answer, insisting that the wellbeing of the story was more important than the wellbeing of the story’s subject. Embarrassed, Jennings rescinded his first answer. Both men were then sharply criticized by a panel of politicians and military officers, who reminded them that the soldiers they would have let die would not have let Jennings or Wallace face the same end if the roles were reversed. 

Fallows also pointed out that the kind of substantive information that the general public wants to know about its politicians—what will each candidate do about gun control, for example, or programs for at-risk kids?—bears little relation to the kinds of questions journalists actually ask. Fallows pointed to one typical on-air interview with Senator Kennedy.

When Edward Kennedy began giving his views about the balanced-budget amendment, Rather steered him back on course: “Senator, you know I’d talk about these things the rest of the afternoon, but let’s move quickly to politics. Do you expect Bill Clinton to be the Democratic nominee for re-election in 1996?”

Fallows noted that this widening gap between what the public wants and needs from its broadcast journalists and what those journalists actually deliver has led, over the years, to a growing cynicism and disillusionment. Journalists, he pointed out, have fallen far in the public’s estimation:

Since the early 1980s the journalists who have shown up in movies have often been portrayed as more loathsome than the lawyers, politicians, and business moguls who are the traditional bad guys in films about the white-collar world.… Movies do not necessarily capture reality, but they suggest a public mood—in this case, a contrast between the apparent self-satisfaction of the media celebrities and the contempt in which they are held by the public.

Americans, it seems clear, are ready for a change. As for whether CBS anchor Katie Couric holds out, the answer remains to be seen.

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Molly Finnegan is an intern for The Atlantic Online.

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