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 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

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

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Atlantic Unbound | April 24, 2002
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
From: James Fallows
To: Todd Gitlin
Subject: The weirdness of being awash in media - Part Three

Dear Todd:

As I've read your two responses and now looked again at your book, I've seen something I hadn't expected when we began.

Are you secretly an optimist? Or perhaps a reformer?

Let me explain why I ask, and where I think you can close this discussion with some useful, even encouraging, thoughts for readers.

At face value Media Unlimited does not exactly come across as a feel-good book. Its subtitle is How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives. The book flap makes even that subtitle seem dewy-eyed and Candide-ish: "A charged polemic, Media Unlimited reveals the unending stream of manufactured images and sounds as one of the defining features of our civilization and as a perverse culmination of Western hopes for freedom."

"Perverse culmination" indeed! This makes it sound as if we're pretty far down the road to dissolution as a culture. I know that allowances must be made for flap copy. But I'm struck that in these exchanges, as in the final third of your book, you suggest that even today's perversely culminated Westerners can cope with the media onslaught. Or that they shouldn't despair.

For instance, I already feel better after reading, in the last response, your history of the high-low split in media. Yes, The New York Times and the local TV station's "Action News at Ten!" may be moving farther apart than they were a decade ago. But the culture has lived through processes like this before, as you point out, and presumably we can live through this one. And as you remind us, the media response to the terrorist attacks had its hopeful implications. It's not simply the obvious point, that print and broadcast news companies were jolted into sending more reporters overseas and doing more explanatory stories. The more significant discovery was that the whole media culture, producers and consumers alike, could recognize that this "spectacle" was different from others that had previously seemed worthy of 24/7 coverage, from O.J. to Monica to Diana to Gary Condit.

(I also agree, by the way, about the perverse uplift provided by the book-promo trail. The tour makes you feel worse about yourself. You recount the same points, tell the same jokes, get a year older each day because of the wear and tear of the road. But it can make you feel better about the world, because people are calling into the shows with real questions.)

The point I'm getting to concerns the desired consequences of your book. At first it would look as if you're preparing us for conversation with some French intellectual in a sidewalk café. "So the forces of capitalism really have crushed the individual will?" "Yes, mon ami, it is the perverse culmination of the Western struggle for freedom. There is no escape. Another glass of wine?"

But I think that's not really your sensibility. You sound alarmed by my own expression of Gallic resignation—that the economic structure of the media isn't likely to improve. And the implication of some of your historical analogies, in the book and here, is that society has coped with media challenges in the past and need not abandon hope now.

Therefore I ask you to spell out: what, exactly, would you like readers of your book to think and do?

I ask this, first, on the "policy" level. If enough people read this book and said, "He's right!", what business or regulatory changes would they be asking for? You've made clear that you're no Luddite. You don't want TiVo banned or the Internet slowed down to reduce the torrent of stimuli. I don't think you're recommending some policing or surveillance of "content"—either for right-wing reasons, to limit "anti-family" or irreligious material, or for left-wing reasons, to make sure there are no unseemly gender or ethnic stereotypes. So what are we to do, then? You didn't write this as a policy manifesto, but the question must have crossed your mind. If media really are important in our collective life, is there anything we should collectively do about them? Either in the ideal world, or the real world?

I am also curious on the individual level. Here I really am inviting you to summarize for readers the fascinating next-to-last chapter in your book—and go beyond it. In that chapter, you categorize the ways in which people cope with a flow of signals greater than any person can sensibly process. One strategy you call that of "the paranoid," interpreting everything as part of the Big Media conspiracy. There is also the "ironist," the "jammer," and others I'll leave to you to explain.

Beyond this nice taxonomy of the ways people might respond to nonstop media, I wonder how you think they should respond. You and I have both confessed that we pretty much live the frantic life your book is about. Do you wish you lived a different way? Without trying to preach to the reader, do you have advice about the sanest long-term strategy?

Me, I have two pieces of practical advice, or three, if I can include a rule I usually violate. One: leave "instant messenger" systems in "disabled" mode. Two: leave my cell phone turned off most of the time. (Hey, it will take messages.) The third, which I wish I could obey, is to avoid turning on the TV and then sitting on the bed with the remote in hand after checking into some Best Western room while traveling. Yes, it would be better to pick up a book, but...

You must have advice, or rules—those you obey, those you don't but wish you could. Despite yourself, I think you've written a reforming book. So I invite you to tell us what reforms you'd like to see—and, a different question, which you expect.

Thanks for the book and for this exchange.

Jim Fallows.

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