Letters to the editor

Responses and reverberations


The April Atlantic featured several stories on the new media landscape, including “Learning to Love the (Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable) New Media,” by James Fallows, and Newton N. Minow’s “A Vaster Wasteland.” Both stories had readers weighing pros and cons—of print journalism, online news delivery, modern television, and the Internet itself.

Fallows emphasizes … that in a competitive metric-rich landscape your incentives tend to point away from highbrow “important” stuff toward lowbrow mush … Sad. And to a large extent true. But the thing that I think journalists sometimes forget is that the point of writing on worthy topics is presumably to get people to read stories on worthy topics … Part of what it means is that people in the “writing about important things” business need to roll up our sleeves and try harder to make our output compelling to people. If an article about the school board falls in the middle of the wilderness and nobody reads it, it doesn’t actually make an impact.

Matthew Yglesias
Excerpt from ThinkProgress.org blog post

I think Matt Yglesias is too optimistic [in his response to Fallows] … Stories about payment fraud in Medicare will never dominate “most popular” lists. But so long as they’re in a publication that regulators and hospitals fear, they can have an impact—even if the vast majority of the paper’s readers never notice them. The fact that those readers could notice them is enough to prod the relevant parties into acting. That’s one of the benevolent inefficiencies in the traditional newspaper model: the popular stories subsidize the unpopular ones.

Ezra Klein
Excerpt from WashingtonPost.com blog post

James Fallows dramatically lives up to the “shallow” description he pins on the new media by conjecturally pointing out “how many of Fox’s female on-air broadcasters are babes in very short skirts.” The answer is none. Mr. Fallows should do as I have just done: check the bios of every female on-air Fox personality. He would find more than 30 résumés brimming with journalism degrees from the most prestigious universities in the land, as well as Juris Doctor degrees, awards, and on-site experience of newsworthy events that is unparalleled by the decimated staffs of ABC, NBC, and CBS.

John Covell
Pharr, Texas

What really struck me about the [Fallows] piece was that the default mode we need to adopt in the face of these massive changes is cheery optimism. Anything else shuts you down and makes you look stupid in the long run. Better to ride the tiger with a soppy great grin on your face than sit on the sidelines frowning at the kids and their silly ways. You’re going to be wrong most of the time anyway. Why not be wrong and enjoy it?

Lloyd Shepherd
Excerpt from LloydShepherd.com blog post

Television wasn’t an open system in 1961. The Internet is. It needs to be defended from throttling, unfair prioritizing, data capping, metering, and media merging. And it needs to be given a chance to compete on an even playing field with broadcast TV and cable.

In short, the Net needs to be protected from being turned back into what television was when Newton Minow made his “vast wasteland” speech.

Matthew Lasar
Excerpt from ArsTechnica.com blog post

James Fallows replies:

When I wrote that many members of Fox’s on-air team, despite their background and training, are presented as “babes in very short skirts,” I meant exactly that. John Covell and anyone else who doubts the fairness or accuracy of that description should visit http://bit.ly/hTO6EV—one of a large number of YouTube collections of Fox News short-skirt moments for which there is no imaginable counterpart at other news operations.

The Median Divide

In April’s “The 12 States of America,” Dante Chinni and James Gimpel mapped income inequality in the United States. One letter writer blamed Republicans for the growing gap between rich and poor, while another blamed Democrats. Jim Clark took a bipartisan approach, heaping scorn on all of Washington, D.C.

Chinni and Gimpel’s conclusion that “income inequality has fractured the nation” by creating “entire communities of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’” is the ultimate in misplaced pessimism. The highest-income areas, termed the “Monied Burbs,” have less than twice as much median family income as the lowest-income “Minority Central” areas, which are largely populated by descendants of slaves or vanquished Native Americans. Such “inequalities” might largely be explained by differing investments in training and education. But if you take into account the cost of living, these differences largely disappear or even reverse!

If I were interested in exposing income inequality, I might add a 13th category, “Beltway Wizards,” made up of the Washington, D.C., suburbs, the wealthiest area of the country. In 2009, five of the 10 wealthiest counties in the country were Washington suburbs, all of which boasted median family incomes between $91,000 and $107,000. But plainly, the area that devises and implements government “solutions” to “problems” like regional income inequality deserves much higher pay than the rest of the country.

Jim Clark
Alexandria, Va.

Dante Chinni replies:

I admire the cleverness behind Jim Clark’s “13th category,” though I am a reluctant member of that region—and so is he. The point is, when you adjust for inflation, many counties actually had a lower median family income in 2010 than they did in 1980. More to the point, while Clark takes comfort in the idea that education and skills are driving the income split (something I too believe), I’m less sanguine about the impact of that. It’s certainly good that the educated and skilled can succeed in the transforming economy, but what do you do about everyone, and everyplace, else? That’s the implicit and disturbing question.

Tiger Mother, Hear Me Roar

In April, Sandra Tsing Loh (“My Chinese American Problem—And Ours”) and Caitlin Flanagan (“The Ivy Delusion”) weighed in on the parenting debate sparked by Amy Chua’s memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, while Christina Schwarz (“Leave Those Kids Alone”) urged parents to let their children play.

What’s most impressive—and perhaps most threatening to American parents—is the inherent selflessness of the Asian parenting model. Seldom as tyrannical as the stereotype that Chua wryly undermines, these parents devote nearly all their resources to their children’s potential. Chua listed all the activities forbidden to her children, but she just as easily could have rattled off every luxury she and her husband forwent—all of which raises the idea that guilt rather than disgust is the key force fueling the Tiger Mother backlash.

Matt Struckmeyer
Los Olivos, Calif.

“Leave Those Kids Alone” and “The Ivy Delusion” are the two ends of the tug-of-war rope I stand at the middle of. My childhood memories include climbing trees as high as possible, exploring the neighborhood by myself, and doing homework on my own. My children’s experiences are different. My heart wants to give my kids the Tom Sawyer childhood, but my mind says “tiger cubs” may leave my children in the dust.

Fakhra Akbar
Wylie, Texas

Sandra Tsing Loh is a delight and the reason I read The Atlantic. Give the poor woman a raise so she can give her kids a few fiddle lessons, for crying out loud.

Adrianne Merlo
Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada

I am no parenting expert, despite having four children. But I do have a perspective on Ms. Loh’s writing that I suspect few of your readers share, since I first encountered it grading her homework and exam papers when she was taking sophomore physics. It has improved tremendously since then. Surely that is in part because of practice at her craft. But I have no doubt that much of the improvement comes from writing about what interests her rather than trying to please her father.

Michael Shatz
Brookline, Mass.

By the Numbers

Of the readers responding to Graeme Wood’s April story, “The Fortunate Ones,” about the secret fears of the super-rich, 7% said they were rich. 17% felt sorry for the rich. 23% rolled their eyes and expressed no pity. 83% of rich readers expressed wealth-based worries.

Anti–Tiger Mother readers outnumbered Amy Chua’s defenders 3 to 1.

Least Catty Tweet of the Month

“I love the ‘Letters to the Editor’ part of The Atlantic where they let the writers respond. SO MUCH GLORIOUS CATTINESS.”

Correction: In the May issue, The Atlantic announced the winners of the 2010 Student Writing Contest. The Fiction list should have included two other honorable mentions: Naira Kuzmich, of Arizona State University; and Chloe Carter Brown, of Williams College.

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