Learning to Love the (Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable) New Media

Everyone from President Obama to Ted Koppel is bemoaning a decline in journalistic substance, seriousness, and sense of proportion. But the author, a longtime advocate of these values, takes a journey through the digital-media world and concludes there isn’t any point in defending the old ways. Consumer-obsessed, sensationalist, and passionate about their work, digital upstarts are undermining the old media—and they may also be pointing the way to a brighter future.
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Jesse Lenz

Just after last fall’s midterm elections, Ted Koppel, for 25 years the face of Nightline on ABC, wrote in The Washington Post about journalism’s modern decline. “Much of the American public used to gather before the electronic hearth every evening,” Koppel wrote, referring to an era that ran through roughly the 1980s,

while Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Frank Reynolds and Howard K. Smith offered relatively unbiased accounts of information that their respective news organizations believed the public needed to know … It was an imperfect, untidy little Eden of journalism where reporters were motivated to gather facts about important issues. We didn’t know that we could become profit centers. No one had bitten into that apple yet.

The column was called “The Case Against News We Can Choose,” and it said that the shift toward a more market-minded, profit-driven journalism was both irreversible and destructive. “The need for clear, objective reporting in a world of rising religious fundamentalism, economic interdependence and global ecological problems is probably greater than it has ever been,” Koppel said. But we were less likely than before to get the fair, steady view we need, because “we are no longer a national audience receiving news from a handful of trusted gatekeepers; we’re now a million or more clusters of consumers, harvesting information from like-minded providers.”

Anyone who has read, watched, or listened to the news has an idea of what Koppel is worried about. The election cycle just behind us was dominated by very bitter views and accusations, on issues likely to matter very little in the long run. Candidates denounced “the deficit” without seriously proposing to do anything about it. “The question of how the US should tackle its mounting national debt has been relegated to a bunch of Punch and Judy bumper stickers that bear as little relation to its fiscal reality as astrology does to astronomy,” a Financial Times analyst wrote on the day before the election. “The same applies to infrastructure, education, immigration—pretty much anything that touches on America’s future competitiveness.” The same as well for the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; nuclear threats from North Korea or Iran; world trends in food and energy. Elections are how we face big issues, except when we can’t.

Just before the midterm elections, Barack Obama answered questions from students at George Washington University and made a point like Koppel’s. After a young man asked Obama what had surprised him about the actual work of being president, Obama said wryly, “Where do I start?” Then he started with the dysfunction of the modern press.

I’ve been surprised by how the news cycle here in Washington is focused on what happens this minute. Sometimes it’s difficult to keep everybody focused on the long term. The things that are really going to matter in terms of America’s success 20 years from now, when we look back, are not the things that are being talked about on television on any given day.

Embedded in complaints like these is a series of related concerns: that the media are doing a worse job than they used to, that their failures make it harder for the country as a whole and for individuals trying to understand the world to do business and make sensible decisions—and that all these trends are only going to get worse.

Also see:

Why Americans Hate the Media
(February 1996)
Why has the media establishment become so unpopular? Perhaps the public has good reason to think that the media's self-aggrandizement gets in the way of solving the country's real problems. By James Fallows

Massless Media
(January/February 2005)
With the mass media losing their audience to smaller, more targeted outlets, we may be headed for an era of noisy, contentious press reminiscent of the 1800s. By William Powers

End Times
(January/February 2009)
Can America's paper of record survive the death of newsprint? Can journalism? By Michael Hirschorn

Journalism and Morality
(September 1926)
Confessions of a yellow journalist: "Not defensively, but that the record may be straight, let me say that I did very little faking, although there was no special prejudice against it, so long as the fake wasn't libelous." By Silas Bent

I am an easy target for this sort of message. Fifteen years ago, I published a book, Breaking the News, which argued that a relentless focus on scandal, spectacle, and the “game” of politics was driving citizens away from public affairs, making it harder for even the least cynical politicians to do an effective job, and at the same time steadily eroding our public ability to assess what is happening and decide how to respond. And this was in an era that in retrospect seems innocent. The big, fatherly anchor figures—Brokaw, Jennings, Rather—were still on the evening news shows. Newspapers were mildly concerned about falling circulation rather than in an all-out panic about imminent collapse. Fox News Channel had yet to begin operations, and Craigslist had just started up. To serve the public and to remain in operation, I argued, the news industry had to re-embrace its special role as a business that was not just about business. Journalists should commit themselves to the challenge of making what matters interesting, and resist the slide into the infotainment age. How quaint it all looks now!

But, as I was reminded when I recently talked to people in the news business, historians, political scientists, and others about the current predicament of the news, every previous era looks innocent. Those talks changed my mind about what the press should do next. I haven’t changed my mind about the dysfunction of American public life; as I argued a year ago in these pages (“How America Can Rise Again,” January/February 2010), most things look promising for America—except our ability to face and solve big problems through our political system. But I no longer think it’s worth arguing whether journalism is getting “worse.” The fond retrospective view offered by Koppel and others is highly selective, as Koppel himself admits in his article. I now think it’s worth facing the inevitability of the shift to infotainment and seeing how we can make the best of it. To show why, let’s visit Gawker.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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