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

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

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

Dear Jim,

I'm perfectly happy to jog sideways from Media Unlimited for a while. Actually, it turns out that your questions are not altogether divorced from the book's main topics—the saturation and speed of media in everyday life.

I agree with you that the current high-low split in the news is more marked than in recent decades. Still, this split isn't unprecedented. The historian Michael McGerr, in The Decline of Popular Politics, traced a striking split between quality press and sensational tabloids to the latter decades of the nineteenth century, when middle-class do-gooders, Mugwumps, and assorted other more-or-less rationalist types were frightened by the growth of (white, male) political participation in the industrializing North. Middle-class readers wanted a technically expert press removed from the passing fancies of the hoi polloi. Progressives embraced this model. So, more or less, did Walter Lippmann, whose defense of an elite (I'm not using the word pejoratively) press in 1922 has been neither surpassed nor superseded. Custodians of this model set up businesses permitting high-minded family control—the Sulzbergers and Meyer/Grahams are the two important ones left standing. Meanwhile, lowbrow publishers set out to rake in the bucks of less educated readers without so much scruple.

In the twentieth century, some straddles developed. William S. Paley, with his highbrow pretensions (and marriage), used entertainment to subsidize Edward R. Murrow. In the '40s, '50s, and '60s, pretty serious daily newspapers were published as tabloids: New York's pre-Murdoch Post, PM, and Daily Compass; Chicago's Sun-Times. (It's not incidental that these papers were all left-of-center, a theme I'll come back to below.) Even today, in the world of gargantuan network profit machines, we see straddles of lesser scale, info inserted within the 'tainment—60 Minutes, which enfolds news inside a Western format (good guy rides into town, exposes bad guy, rides out of town); occasional solid news features on the network news. But the difference is, as you write, the profit pressure on every single square inch of real estate in funland. The High-Minded Info Pavilion is expected to keep pace with the rest of the pavilions, too. When ABC/Disney embarrassed itself by publicly toying with Ted Koppel, it wasn't complaining that Koppel made no money. Nightline does make money. The head honchos simply thought David Letterman might make them more money because his audience demographics came in all of four years younger.

Today's news polarization is visible on a New Yorker's newsstand in the juxtaposition of the no-longer-gray Times and the shrieking Post. Surely the Times is a better paper than ever, the opposite for the Post. Outside New York City, local papers tend to be pretty flimsy, especially when the chains own them, but as you say, the rise of a national quality press is a considerable compensation. When I lived in Oakland, California, The Times landed on my doorstep around 10 the previous night, eight hours before the San Francisco Chronicle. (The Times used a printing plant just over the East Bay hills, downloading the national edition from a satellite.) So the high end has spread throughout the land. Then too, I'm not an Internet utopian by any means but I do think that the high end has gotten even higher because of the proliferation of news-from-everywhere sites. Meanwhile, the low end is so low that in many parts of the country USA Today constitutes an improvement.

I have to say that it pains me that you can't imagine the gravitas divide being overcome. Not because I have an Action Plan, or because I think the deregulatory fervor of recent decades has run its course, or because I'm any more optimistic than you, but because I still want to hope, and because I keep running into serious people who hold onto niches of seriousness—often by their fingernails—and are unwilling to whore out. In this way (though not others), a book tour is good for morale. Radio and some local papers are secret repositories of intelligent people who still read at least parts of books and want to have adult conversation. You have to slip the serious talk in between commercials, but it's not gone. I'm not even sure there's less intelligent radio around than, say, in the fabled '60s. At the cable networks (well, maybe not Fox) there are activists who want to do something intelligent, and, like noble guerrillas, keep looking for enclaves where someone other than barking pundits might camp out for a while—at least until the profiteers catch on, and they have to pull up stakes and wander elsewhere.

On Bias. First of all, I'm not sure what to conclude from bestsellerdom—either Bernard Goldberg's or, for that matter, Michael Moore's, Goldberg's number-one displacer. The numbers are, by big media standards, puny. A few tens of thousands of book sales can get you onto the list—not much more than two percent of a Stephen King's sales, say; one-tenth of one percent of a mediocre movie's attendance; less than that of a so-so TV series' audience. Also, right-wingers are fiercely loyal—they give Fox a big baseline audience to grow from, and they buy their folks' books. (Lefties are much more fickle, and since lots of their own are in the book game, they tend to score free copies.) There are no left-wing dailies left standing--no equivalents of The Washington Times or the New York Post. Nor is there any left-wing equivalent of Richard Mellon Scaife or the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, ready to put lots of money where their far-right mouths are. Left-of-center foundations prefer to fund local and segmented projects.

All that said, there's some reason to think that the liberal-media canard has some currency. As feeble as the evidence is that the networks tilt leftward (and I would defy the evidence-challenged Limbaugh and his listeners to produce more than anecdotes and to deal with the ample counterevidence), the popular belief is more than a Pavlovian response to the Limbaugh drumbeat. I tried to find good polling on public views of media bias, and the closest I came was a Pew Research poll from October, 2000, on attitudes toward campaign coverage:
Nearly six-in-ten voters believe that journalists often let their political preferences influence news coverage, and a plurality sees a pro-Gore tilt here as well. Twice as many voters say the media is pulling for a Gore victory compared to those who think the media is hoping for a Bush win.... Over the past eight years, there has been an increase in the number of voters who say that reporters often allow their political preferences to shape news coverage. Fully 57% of voters hold that view now, compared to 49% in September 1992. Nearly nine-in-ten (89%) say that journalists at least sometimes let their political views affect coverage, while just 9% say this seldom or never occurs....
Hard right-wingers harbor such views because the media don't accord with their prejudices: that's the easy part of the explanation. Much of the rest, I suspect, is red-state dislike for blue-state coastal cosmopolitans. A lot of what gets called "liberal bias" is cultural. In fact, reporters tend to be "liberal" with respect to gay rights, abortion, etc., while centrist to conservative in economics. Suspicion of coastal city slickers is as American as apple pie (just as suspicion of that suspicion is as American as apple crisp with passion fruit sorbet). This is what happens when cultural politics displaces economic and other types of politics, the process described in varying ways by E. J. Dionne, Michael Lind, and myself among others.

Technology and spectacle. All-spectacle-all-the-time is within reach, even if it's nothing more than "BREAKING NEWS: EMPTY PLANE FIRED UPON ON RUNWAY" (a story from yesterday's CNN that caught the eye of the fellow eating at the table next to mine, but didn't rate mention in today's Times). Hand-held cameras, helicopters, uplinks—none of that is going away. It's an interesting question, how people adjust, and what the limits might be. (In the book, I raised a counterpart question, also without a clear answer: Is there some biological limit to people's capacity to keep up with speeding images?) I suspect that there's a large audience that is reasonably content to lurch from one 24/7 spectacle to another, enjoying the speed bumps on the way, the suspense, the frissons of revelation, the celebrity drive-bys. This does lead to desensitization, in which Chandra Levy and Gary Condit take up as much space in one's heart and mind as Afghanistan. On the other hand, I have to believe that the human response is still possible. In this sense, September 11 was (for some viewers) exceptional. TV's nonstop spectacle was understood, I'm pretty sure, as something different from Princess Diana's death, or John F. Kennedy Jr.'s. The massacres demanded a different response—at least for a while: charity toward victims, wrath toward murderers and those who harbor them. Maybe even the response to Middle East coverage in recent weeks is of a different order—maybe there are too many screaming, desperate faces, too much rubble, for us to be able to blow by. At least this is true for some people, those who choose to let the suffering in and try to think their way through it.

But for most viewers, maybe not. Maybe inertia lined with pictures is the new normal.

Over to you.


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