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

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Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

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

Dear Jim,

I'm tempted to say that if I'm an optimist, this is a secret I've succeeded in keeping from myself. (There I go: first tempted, next fallen.) But your second surmise is right: however bleak the immediate prospect, I can't forego the reformist impulse.

As it happens, just before reading your third letter, I spoke to a group of journalists, one of whom posed exactly your question: What do we do? She works at a major network (having left another one because of commercial pressures). She's won awards for real journalism. Now her boss tells her, "Think sixth grade." The news executives at her network monitor her show's minute-by-minute ratings. As a matter of plain human response, I'm not willing to say, "Roll over." What I said, however inadequate, was that at the least journalists should be talking among each other. This isn't a matter of individuals grousing that their budgets are being cut and their glory years are over. It's a matter of professional obligation. Doctors should speak out if hospital conditions are worsening. Lawyers should speak out about corruption in the judiciary. And if the best of TV news is endangered by their companies' helter-skelter pursuit of profit, journalists had better figure out something to do about it. Conscientious objection is good but cooperative action is better. What's the best action? Hard to judge from the outside. Surely the collective outrage against the blundering ABC/Disney threat to "Nightline" helped save the show. For now. There's a bit of inspiration.

As for policy: While conglomerates are only part of the problem, they're definitely not part of the solution. To the contrary. But for more than two decades now, the Federal Communications Commission has been escorting the electromagnetic spectrum down the slippery slope toward conglomerate takeovers. Just when you think they might call it a day and rest on their laurels for having fattened the Viacoms, Disneys, AOL Time Warners, Murdochs, & Co., they make yet another decision increasing the power of these conglomerates to define the public interest—granting them the right to hold more licenses, control a larger possible share of access to local media, and so forth. So the first thing to say about policy is: Stop deregulation and do no more harm. A next step for Congress might be: Go utopian and change the law to make it possible for news organizations to own themselves, along the lines of Paris's Le Monde. Okay, I said "utopian." Here's another one on the utopian front: Change the copyright laws so they apply strictly to individuals, not corporations. Disney wouldn't get to benefit from Mickey Mouse now that Uncle Walt is gone. The torrent wouldn't be arrested by such expedients, but better stuff would come floating along.

Reforms I expect? Neither of the above unless and until a major-league bankruptcy wipes out one of the major players. This isn't impossible. One scenario would be that the remaining major players combine to prevent any one of them from getting any bigger. But this wouldn't affect the speed and triviality of the torrent, overall.

As for what individuals do about the media torrent, I itemize eight navigational styles in the book. In these styles, we act more or less as follows: (1) The fan picks and chooses. (I'll pay attention to the blues and ignore hip-hop.) (2) The critic finds certain images, songs, and stories particularly egregious, for political or aesthetic reasons, and hopes to improve the mix and thereby improve the world. (3) The paranoid thinks the media are uniform and controlled by Them in order to brainwash us. (4) The exhibitionist fights back by getting on-screen. (5) The ironist rises above the fluff by claiming that it's all trivial, so nothing to get hung up about. (6) The jammer defaces and refaces certain largely corporate images, hoping to stop being a passive receiver by becoming an active transmitter. (7) The secessionist opts out, unplugging "as often as possible." (8) The abolitionist wants to fly overhead with a giant electromagnet, or whatever it would take to wipe out all the transmissions.

These styles have multiple causes and aren't mutually exclusive: We can be fans in the morning, exhibitionists in the afternoon and jammers at night. I suppose I'm mainly fan, critic, ironist, and secessionist. The thought of a TV in the bedroom sets me to Borkian prophecies of the decline and fall of nearly everything. Like you, I've never abled an instant-messenger system, and mainly leave the cell phone (a post-September 11 purchase) off. Personal sanity probably requires some combination of these four. But this is as far as my self-help strategy can reach.

As to how anyone should respond, I'm partial to the romantic notion that people should make the acquaintance of all their senses—including touch, smell, and taste, unserved as they are by screens. A walk in the streets or the woods is a good idea. Loaf and invite your soul, as Walt Whitman did. Conversely, you could converse. Love those whom you love. Bowl together. Learn languages and single-handedly strike a blow against American isolationism. The need for political actions hasn't gone out of style, though lots of the actions have. That Paris café sounds like a good idea, too.

Speaking of which, I can't sign off without noting that your hypothetical French intellectuals might start out by noticing that, as they cast their protest votes for Trotskyists and Greens, they succeeded in knocking the Socialist Lionel Jospin out of the running for the final round of the French presidential election. So the fascist Le Pen came in second. Despair is not just an attitude, it's a position, usually a wrongheaded one, leading to more of what it despairs about. It still matters to be practical. It always does.

Thank you for the pleasure of dialogue.


Todd Gitlin
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