New Part Three - April 24:
James Fallows
Todd Gitlin

Part Two - April 12:
James Fallows
Todd Gitlin

Part One - April 3:
James Fallows
Todd Gitlin



Todd Gitlin is the author of eight previous books, including The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars (1995), The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (1987), Inside Prime Time (1983), and the award-winning novel Sacrifice (1999). He is the North American editor of the Web site openDemocracy.net and a member of the editorial boards of Dissent, The American Scholar, and The Journal of Human Rights. He is a professor of culture, journalism, and sociology at New York University.

James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996) and of Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel. To learn about his new book and look through an archive of his recent articles, visit jamesfallows.com.



Previously in Fallows@large:

Policies of Power (December 6, 2001)
James Fallows exchanges e-mail with Walter Russell Mead, the author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World.

Beyond the Tech Bubble (August 29, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Michael Lewis, the author of Next: The Future Just Happened.

The Waste Land (June 21, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Alex Kerr, the author of Dogs and Demons.

More by James Fallows

More on books

More on politics and society




Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.


Atlantic Unbound | April 12, 2002
 
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
 
.....
 
From: James Fallows
To: Todd Gitlin
Subject: The weirdness of being awash in media - Part Two

Dear Todd:

Thanks very much for answering as fully as you have. I think your first response introduces readers not just to the substance but also to the tone of the presentation in your book. One of the book's most engaging aspects is its easy combination of actual scholarship and informal pop references. You give a little taste of that combination here; for more, readers know where to go.

As your reward, I'm going to subject you to the familiar journalistic practice of bait-and-switch. In the first round ("bait"), I faithfully asked you about the arguments you advanced in your book. I'll come back to that in the final round—especially, in drawing out the implications of your final chapters, how people cope with info-overload. But for this middle round ("switch"), I'd like to ask about certain aspects of the modern media that you intentionally don't stress in the book. I'm interested now in what certain parts of the media say, as opposed to the fact that they say so much of it, which is the main theme of your book. And I'd like to concentrate on what is distinctive about the news media, rather than considering, as the book does, the traits that all varieties of visual and auditory stimulation share.

That is, I invite you to act as Press Critic again, as you've done in previous books. Here are three questions about the news business that I don't think you've addressed in just this form before.

First, the "high-low split." To my mind, the big change in journalism in the last generation is its conversion into just another business. As recently as the 1970s, major news operations differed in obvious, structural ways from other major American corporations. The biggest newspapers were family owned, or at least locally owned. The national TV networks were highly regulated quasi-monopolies—and their news divisions weren't expected to make money. The news business could be highly profitable—as it was for Hearst, Luce, or Chandler— but like, say, the practice of law, it was assumed to involve values beyond purely making money.

For reasons familiar to all, the situation has changed. The news divisions of big corporations are expected to hold their own financially with the other "business units." With no obvious limits on chain ownership or concentration, news organizations become little parts of the few big media combines—the House of Disney, the AOL Empire, and so on.

Respectable people say this is bad—but to me, it's both good and bad. The change has converted "news" into one more product for the American market, like food or housing or college education. And like those other products, news is now adapting to satisfy market demands, in keeping with the "high-low split." The mass version of the news, which has to compete with outright entertainment, is dumber and more infotainment-ized than it used to be. People becomes the model for weekly newsmagazines; if the network news broadcasts still have gravitas, it's mainly because three relics from the earlier era are still there as anchors.

Meanwhile, the "news product" available for high-end consumers is in many ways getting better and better—like the food in good restaurants or the priciest American houses or the best American universities. In most parts of the country, you can get The New York Times each morning—and where you can't, you can get The Wall Street Journal. High-end magazines have their problems, but as a group they provide more good writing and reporting than any sane person could read each week (or month or quarter). That's to say nothing of the ceaseless flow of books. Thus the high-low split: the information geared toward the average citizen is arguably dumbed-down and celebritied-up from a generation ago, while on the top layer people have a better chance to know more than ever before.

For a long time I worried about this divide, because I thought there was something to do about it. I've pretty much given up thinking it can be changed. The regulatory and financial underpinning of the shift toward news as just another product seems unalterable. And as long as news media have to hold their own against outright entertainment, we'll get the result I describe. But what say you? Do you agree that we're seeing this split? Is there anything to do about it? Am I a quitter for giving up?

Now a second, shorter question: why do most Americans think the news business has a "liberal" slant?

The most amazing literary success story in the last year is Bernard Goldberg's book Bias. Rush Limbaugh's success as a talk show host has never puzzled or surprised me. During his years of ascent, the man was funny. I didn't have to agree with him to enjoy listening to his show, and for people who did agree the payoff was all the greater.

That Goldberg's book should become the number one bestseller is an incidental tribute to Limbaugh, who beat the drum for it on his show. But even more it's an impressive ideological indicator: people bought this book even though it has almost none of the entertainment value of the early Limbaugh. (When the book is humorous, it's not for the reasons Goldberg intended.) People bought it because they agreed with the pitch, that pinkos were running the newsrooms.

It is no secret that you are a man of the left. When you write about the political impact of news, your biggest complaint is not that the established press is too liberal. Why do so many Americans—most, perhaps?—feel just the opposite way? False consciousness? If Limbaugh let you on his show, how would you persuade his audience to buy your book rather than Goldberg's?

Third question: the role of "spectacle." In Media Unlimited you mention a phenomenon that has long fascinated me. This is TV's natural tendency to convert life into an endless series of undifferentiated spectacles. The nature of TV is to make whatever happens at this moment so important that you have to keep watching, and then to follow it with the next must-watch thing. By any common-sense standard these interchangeable events can be wildly out of scale with one another—who will be kicked off Survivor, where the next bomb will hit in Afghanistan, who will guess right on Final Jeopardy, whether the buzzer-beating shot will go through the net. But TV has a hard time doing what newspapers can do easily, with different headline sizes and column layouts: indicate that one thing is more important than another.

There seems to be a direct connection between technology and spectacle-mindedness, as you suggest in your book. With the coming of TV fifty years ago, we could see spectacles beyond those of our own family or neighborhood. With the coming of mini-cams about fifteen years ago, local news could serve up spectacles every single night. If your own city didn't happen to produce a car wreck or fire each day, you could run the tape from Miami or LA.

Now, with a 24-hour news cycle, with numerous cable outlets, with satellite cameras, and of course with the Internet, it is possible to imagine TV coverage that is essentially nothing but spectacle. And the question is: what happens then? Do people have some kind of adjustment system or immune response, which will let them put things back in perspective. Or will they, instead, become so desensitized to all spectacles that nothing can evoke a humane response? How should we think about spectacle in the news?

And if that's too much of a nuisance to answer, you can deal with this question, instead: what have we learned from media coverage of war in the Middle East over the last week?

Next time, back to Media Unlimited, I promise. Thanks for the book and your participation here.

Jim Fallows.

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