'JFK, Oswald Differences Lead to Violence,' and Other Great Headlines of Yesteryear

Two innovative ways out of a journalistic dead end

1) A few days ago I spoke with NPR's media reporter, David Folkenflik, about the whole false-equivalence fandango. Just now I heard the resulting story, which took a form I hadn't expected — in a good way.

Usually for broadcast stories, on radio or TV alike, the practicalities of the medium and the conventions of journalism dictate this cycle: A reporter talks with one source for a few minutes; then talks with other sources; and then interleaves little snippets in the final story. "Mr. X says this [8 second clip from him], but Ms. Y says that [10 second clip from her]." I'm not being catty about this. It's what the time constraints of the medium often require; it's a version of what print reporters like me do (talk to someone for half an hour, then use two or three quotes in a story); and often it is the best way to get a range of views across.

Instead, Folkenflik presented the story in a way that talked about its stated subject -- "false-equivalence" reporting -- but that also, in its very structure, illustrated a way to work around some normal journalistic constraints. He ended up pairing two reporters who differed in many ways including overall political outlook -- Robert Costa, of National Review, and me. He pointed out that, despite other differences, each of us was presenting the shutdown story in a fundamentally similar way, as a fight within the Republican party. Then he contrasted that with the mainstream "Obama and Boehner: Who will blink first?" Washington-dysfunction narrative. You can listen to his story here. Completely apart from my own involvement, I thought this was a real step forward in explaining how and why the media can portray today's changed political realities.*

2) A reader with a political-literary-legal background suggests the way our current mentality might apply to headlines from yesteryear:

 JFK, Oswald Differences Lead to Violence
      Fateful Lincoln, Booth Collision Repeated
[See photo above]

Rights Marchers Clash with Fire Hoses and Dogs
    Standoff as Marchers Doused and Canines are Photographed

Astronauts, Moon Meet at Last
   Historic Moment as Lunar Soil Makes Contact with Human Boot

Animosity Flares Between Jap Planes and Shore Batteries at Pearl Harbor
    Both Sides Unleash Firepower

*The Folkenflik story includes an unfortunate on-air clip from Fox News's Brit Hume (whom I've known for years and like personally).

Hume was complaining about a WSJ story saying that the most "reasonable" solution would be for the House to go ahead and pass a "clean" budget bill. This would get the government going again and would save health-care debates for later. Hume said that was unfair, since it would be just as "reasonable" for the Senate to pass the House's version of a budget bill.

Think about this:

  • On the one hand, the House could do what a majority of its own members (R and D) clearly want, and that is in keeping with what usually happens through the years, decades, and centuries. Namely, keep the government open without making its very operation conditional on other demands. OR
  • On the other, the Senate could accept the House's bill — which keeps the government open but also undoes Obamacare — even though a majority of its members consider this anathema, it goes against all precedent, and it would force a recently reelected president to accept the minority-opposition program. 

As a matter of politics, people can differ on which of those results they would prefer. But I don't think many people outside D.C. journalism would think of calling them equally "reasonable."

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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