From the Archives: Why We Hate the Media

By James Fallows
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I've gotten a lot of mail about the recent exchanges between Jon Stewart and Chris Wallace, which I'll get to in the next few days. For the moment, it might be worth posting a link to an Atlantic cover story from 15 years ago, which ran as "Why Americans Hate the Media," with the illustration at right. That article was adapted from my 1996 book, Breaking the News.

It has short-term relevance, in that the opening anecdote recalls a kind of TV program hard to imagine in today's environment (the "Ethics in America" series) and and also explains some background on Stewart-v-Wallace.

I think the article as a whole is surprising, in a 15-year perspective, for what it suggests about the things that are the same in today's media environment, the things that have gotten irretrievably worse, and the things (there are a few) that have gotten better. On the "getting better" front, I have this recent cover-story update. All this offered in "for the record" spirit. If I had the heart, I'd re-do Breaking the News, but I've got enough other things to juggle.
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UPDATE: If someone were starting on a mid-2011 update, an item from today's news could be a case study. Al Gore's new essay in Rolling Stone, about impending climate disasters, is mainly about the failure of the media to direct adequate attention to the issue, and to call out paid propagandists and discredited phony scientists. That's where the essay starts, and what it covers in its first 5,000 words. The second part, less than half as long, and much more hedged in its judgment, is about the Obama Administration's faltering approach on climate change. But of course the immediate press presentation on the essay has been all "OMG Gore attacks Obama!" For instance at Slate,* TPM, NY Mag, Huffington Post, the AP, and the Atlantic's own Wire site.

(Example of the hedged judgment: "In spite of these obstacles [financial crisis], President Obama included significant climate-friendly initiatives in the economic stimulus package he presented to Congress during his first month in office. [Long paragraph of other signs of Obama efforts on the topic.]... But in spite of these and other achievements, President Obama has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change.")

Yes, the news value here is Gore-v-Obama; yes, that's part of the story. But the theme I tried to lay out in that essay is that the media's all-consuming interest in the "how" and "who's ahead" of politics, and "oh God this is boring" disdain for the "what" and "why" of public issues, has all sorts of ugly consequences. It makes the public think that politics is not for them unless they love the insider game; it makes the "what" and "why" of public issues indeed boring and unapproachable; and as a consequence of the latter, it makes the public stupider than it needs to be about the what and why.

The reaction to Gore's essay illustrates the pattern: from his point of view, it's one more (earnest) attempt to say "Hey, listen up about this problem!" As conveyed by the press, it's one more skirmish on the "liberals don't like Obama" front, and one more illustration of the eyes-glazing-over trivia and details about melting icebergs and scientific disputes.

Remember Jon Stewart's argument, that the real bias of the mainstream media is not "liberal" but in favor of conflict and sensationalism. Hmmmm.

* Slate uses a classic form, explaining its political emphasis by saying that this is what the press is emphasizing: "Still, it is Gore's take on Obama's energy and climate agenda that is drawing the most media attention, largely because the essay represents the first time that Gore has directly criticized Obama's White House on the topic."

** Update-update: Ezra Klein argues that in today's audience-metrics-uber-alles media environment, the fact that TPM highlights the political angle of the story is a sign that inside politics are popular with the public, rather than the reverse. My answer is: Yes, of course -- if we're talking about a site optimized for coverage of politics, like TPM. The larger point I'm trying to make is that most Americans don't care as much about political maneuvering as TPM readers do, or as both Ezra Klein and I do. But they are finally affected by disastrous changes in climate. If public affairs comes to seem one more niche activity, for political zealots, we're worse off -- as I know that TPM staffers, Klein, and I agree.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/06/from-the-archives-why-we-hate-the-media/240854/