'Why Don't You Go Out and Do Some Work?'

In the midst of Halperin-gate, last week, Fallows linked to his mid-90s cover Why Americans Hate The Media. I was familiar with it, but had never read it--an oversight I quickly corrected. If you're like me, I recommend you do the same. Here's clip of Fallows' critique of mid-90s broadcast news media:

In the early spring of last year, when Newt Gingrich was dominating the news from Washington and the O. J. Simpson trial was dominating the news as a whole, The Washington Post ran an article about the pathos of the White House press room. Nobody wanted to hear what the President was doing, so the people who cover the President could not get on the air. Howard Kurtz, the Post's media writer, described the human cost of this political change: 

Brit Hume is in his closet-size White House cubicle, watching Kato Kaelin testify on CNN. Bill Plante, in the adjoining cubicle, has his feet up and is buried in the New York Times. Brian Williams is in the corridor, idling away the time with Jim Miklaszewski. An announcement is made for a bill-signing ceremony. 

Some of America's highest-paid television correspondents begin ambling toward the pressroom door. "Are you coming with us?" Williams asks. 

"I guess so," says Hume, looking forlorn. 

The White House spokesman, Mike McCurry, told Kurtz that there was some benefit to the enforced silence: "Brit Hume has now got his crossword puzzle capacity down to record time. And some of the reporters have been out on the lecture circuit." 

The deadpan restraint with which Kurtz told this story is admirable. But the question many readers would want to scream at the idle correspondents is Why don't you go out and do some work? Why not go out and interview someone, even if you're not going to get any airtime that night? Why not escape the monotonous tyranny of the White House press room, which reporters are always complaining about? The knowledge that O.J. will keep you off the air yet again should liberate you to look into those stories you never "had time" to deal with before. 


Why not read a book--about welfare reform, about Russia or China, about race relations, about anything? Why not imagine, just for a moment, that your journalistic duty might involve something more varied and constructive than doing standups from the White House lawn and sounding skeptical about whatever announcement the President's spokesman put out that day? 

What might these well-paid, well-trained correspondents have done while waiting for the O.J. trial to become boring enough that they could get back on the air? They might have tried to learn something that would be of use to their viewers when the story of the moment went away. Without leaving Washington, without going farther than ten minutes by taxi from the White House (so that they could be on hand if a sudden press conference was called), they could have prepared themselves to discuss the substance of issues that affect the public.

The chilling aspect of this piece is how well its criticisms work today. My only question is an old one--How much of this preference for hollow opinion over information is driven by thick-witted "reporters," and how much of it is driven by thick-witted Americans? 

Questions aside, it's a great--and surprisingly funny--read.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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