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.

The news business has never been stable. Like everything else in American society, it has kept changing, often in dramatic and unforeseen ways. For instance, Time and Newsweek now seem like legacies practically from the age of the Founders, but they were the result of sudden, market-driven experimentation by young Henry Luce and his imitators in the late 1920s through the Depression years. (The market opportunity identified by Luce and his partner, Briton Haddon, as entrepreneurs fresh out of Yale: people who lived far from the big East Coast cities wanted to know more about national and world affairs than they could learn from their local papers.) National Public Radio seems just as venerable, but when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, it did not exist. Indeed, the relative stability of big media in the golden-age decades after World War II left a misleading impression of how tumultuous the news business had been through most of America’s past. The mid-1940s to the late 1970s was a time when newspapers were fat, national magazines were widely read, and TV news reports were sober and “responsible.” Like the idealized sitcoms of the same era—Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, Happy Days—they presented as normal and traditional what was in fact an exceptional moment in American existence.

As technological, commercial, and cultural changes have repeatedly transformed journalism, they have always caused problems that didn’t exist before, as well as creating opportunities that often took years to be fully recognized. When I was coming into journalism, straight from graduate school, in the 1970s, one of the central complaints from media veterans was precisely that the “college boys” were taking over the business. In the generation before mine, reporters had thought of themselves as kindred to policemen and factory workers; the college grads in the business stood out, from Walter Lippmann (Harvard 1910) on down. A large-scale class shift was under way by the time of Watergate, nicely illustrated by the team of Bob Woodward (Yale ’65) and Carl Bernstein (no college degree). The change was bad, in shifting journalists’ social sights upward, so they identified more with the doctors and executives who were their college classmates, and less with the non-college, blue-collar Americans whose prospects were diminishing through those years. And it was good, in equipping newspapers and TV channels with writers and analysts who had studied science or economics, knew the history of Russia or the Middle East, had learned a language they could use in the field.

Similarly, the rise of TV changed all of journalism, even for those who worked in print or on the radio. It had effects that were bad, like the disproportionate emphasis on spectacles like car chases or tornadoes. And mixed, like the new importance of physical attractiveness in opening or closing career possibilities for newsmen and (especially) newswomen. And it had effects that were revolutionarily positive. For the first time in human history, people could see events taking place beyond their immediate line of sight. They could therefore envision and, perhaps, understand the world with a richness never possible before. How different would the psychic effect of the first moon landing have been if people had only read about it the next day? Or of the battlefield conditions and relentless casualties of the Vietnam War?

Unless they are different from anything the news business has yet undergone, the technological and market changes now disrupting journalism will have effects that are both good and bad. The reason to point this out is not so we will shrug and say, “Whatever!” It is to identify the likely problems so that we can try to buffer them—and remember that we will be slow to recognize the most beneficial possible effects.

If we accept that the media will probably become more and more market-minded, and that an imposed conscience in the form of legal requirements or traditional publishing norms will probably have less and less effect, what are the results we most fear? I think there are four:

that this will become an age of lies, idiocy, and a complete Babel of “truthiness,” in which no trusted arbiter can establish reality or facts;

that the media will fail to cover too much of what really matters, as they are drawn toward the sparkle of entertainment and away from the depressing realities of the statehouse, the African capital, the urban school system, the corporate office when corners are being cut;

that the forces already pulverizing American society into component granules will grow all the stronger, as people withdraw into their own separate information spheres;

and that our very ability to think, concentrate, and decide will deteriorate, as a media system optimized for attracting quick hits turns into a continual-distraction machine for society as a whole, making every individual and collective problem harder to assess and respond to.

Our protection against these trends is partly defensive, or conservative. Economic history is working against “legacy” news organizations like the BBC, The New York Times, NPR, and most magazines you could name. But historical forces don’t play out on a set schedule, and can be delayed for a very long time. Economic history is also working against museums, small private colleges, and the farm-dappled French countryside, but none of them has to disappear next week. Even as it necessarily evolves, our news system will be better the longer it includes institutions whose culture and ambitions reach back to the pre-Gawker era, and it would be harder and costlier to try to re-create them after they have failed than to keep them on life support until their owners find a way to fit their values and standards into the imperatives of the new systems.

But the new culture also creates positive opportunities—as, it’s worth saying again, every previous disruption has. An odd symbol of the new possibilities is Roger Ailes, the guiding force behind Fox News since its start.

To people who are worried about journalism’s future, Ailes would seem a perverse symbol of anything positive. The “news” system he has created is correctly understood to be a political rather than a journalistic operation, and to be free of inner conflict about “getting it right” or “going too far.” (Here’s the thought-experiment test: What assertion from Glenn Beck on his broadcasts would finally lead Ailes or his producers to say, “Glenn, are you sure?” “Real” news operations don’t always get the right answer to that question, but asking it is how they can think of themselves as journalists rather than propagandists.) But to me, Ailes is an instructive example because of what he shows about the way discourse will be conducted in the coming journalistic era. Ailes flatly denied my request for an interview on this story, which surprised me. I have interviewed him before, with no harm to either side.

As it happens, what I wanted to ask him about was covered by Tom Junod, of Esquire, in a recent profile. The core of Ailes’s success, Junod says, has been not simply that Fox was more entertaining to watch than pallid CNN. It has been, in the words of Richard Wald, the former president of NBC News: “You can’t beat Roger fighting on territory he’s left behind.” That is, Fox is doing something different from the other networks. If you say that Glenn Beck got a fact wrong, or if you point out how many of Fox’s female on-air broadcasters are babes in very short skirts, Ailes’s answer will be “So?” He’s doing something new—as Henry Luce did with the power of photographs at Life in the 1930s, as Ted Koppel did when satellite connections made Nightline the first regular TV show to have live interviews with prominent guests from around the world.

No one knows exactly what forms the next Ailes, Luce, or Koppel will invent. But here, again, are some of the risks of whatever those forms are, along with some possibilities of heading them off in advance:

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent; his blog is at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. 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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