GERGEN DIALOGUE: JAMES FALLOWS
JANUARY 25, 1996
Is American journalism sliding into mediocrity by pandering to ratings, advertisers and special interests? David Gergen discusses the current status of the Fourth Estate with James Fallows, author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermined American Democracy.
James Fallows answers your questions in a special Online Forum.
DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: Mr. Fallows, you issued a very tough indictment against the national press corps. Essentially, you've been arguing that the press is full of bread and circuses now, or spectacles and scandals, and that's driving the public away from the public square. What's gone wrong with journalism?
JAMES FALLOWS: I think the same thing has happened to our business, yours and mine, as has happened to some other businesses and cultural groups in the last decade or two. You saw in the military in the aftermath of the Vietnam War a kind of crisis where what was good for the individual officer ended up being bad for the whole institution. Similarly, in the carmakers 15 years ago the way that an executive could maximize his earnings was at the expense of the business in the long run. I think something similar has happened to us, but what is best for the individual journalist financially and in terms of notoriety ends up being bad for sort of public life because it turns things into sort of a snarling contest, and also bad for the credibility of journalism. And I think the evidence is the decreasing audience that news shows of all kind are claiming.
DAVID GERGEN: And that--one of the phenomena which you describe in your book that I have found both in journalism and days in government is there is a tendency in contemporary journalism to take issues of policies and turn them into issues of politics, who's ahead, who's behind on a particular--on the balanced budget fight, for example. Is Gingrich and Dole, are Gingrich and Dole winning, or is Clinton winning? Is it going to help the Republicans or help the Democrats, as opposed to how will this affect the country?
JAMES FALLOWS: If you take reporters as a, as a group, the one thing in which most of them are most interested and most expert is the politics of life, i.e., who's going to win the next election, who's being clever and managing a bill through the Congress, things of that sort, and that is one legitimate part of public discourse. It's something that should be covered, but it often, especially over the last 15 years, it's driven out other considerations and so you have this sense when any kind of issue comes up, a new crime bill, a health bill, a dealing in Bosnia, a dealing someplace else in the world, the main thing that people want to compete with each other for the best interpretation is what this means politically. It's as if the only story that really matters is how do the events of the last day affect the next presidential election. That's part of reality, but only a part.
DAVID GERGEN: And with it has come a change in attitude, or what you call--the story approached with attitude as a--
JAMES FALLOWS: Well, I think there's been a very--this term attitude had a strange history over the last say twenty or twenty-five years. Part of the function of journalism and the part of the reason why journalists are never all that popular even when they're doing their job as well as they can, is they're supposed to look into some of the bad sides of life. They're supposed to expose truths people in power may not want exposed, but in the years since the Watergate expose, I would say, some of that real investigative zeal has been replaced by a kind of lazy attitudinizing, i.e., at a White House press conference you may be asking a question that's all just about operational politics or a question that the President knows is coming, but if you ask it in a snarling and hostile sounding and suspicious sounding way, that makes you seem tough. It's a kind of bogus toughness and bogus attitudinizing, as opposed to real investigation.
DAVID GERGEN: But that's rewarded within the industry.
JAMES FALLOWS: It is rewarded in the industry. It is rewarded both partly in the sense that you're not in the tank, which, of course, is the fate no one wants to have at any, any cost. Also, it's rewarded in, in one, one sub-category of this business which has begun to be the tail wagging the dog, which is if you are peppy seeming and energetic seeming on TV, in a TV press conference, then it's more likely you'll be on TV talk shows, journalist panel shows, which then leads to the lecture circuit, and so there's the kind of perverse reward system for seeming to have that kind of a daytime talk show spirit in your journalistic way.
DAVID GERGEN: Now, many journalists would say, you know, this is really coming from the new competition that exists within journalism, all these outlets on television, all these different competing magazines, or various forms of print journalism, that the only way they get the audience's attention is to be more provocative, to have food fights on television, or the like, but your argument is that there is also a personal incentive.
JAMES FALLOWS: Sure. There's, I think, the institutional argument, you need this to attract an audience, that is really a doomed case, because if a news magazine, if a TV news show is trying to out National Inquirer the National Inquirer, or out Oprah, Oprah, they're doomed. They can never do it, that Oprah can always be a better version of Oprah than a news show can be, and so institutionally, I think this is a losing competition. Individually, there is now a powerful incentive for journalists to get into this kind of argument talk show because there is a whole financial empire which is connected to that.
DAVID GERGEN: Talk to me a little bit about that, because you have a chapter on the gravy train and I'm mentioned in that chapter as someone who's been on the lecture circuit, which I have been, but let's put the issue on the table, and what you think about it.
JAMES FALLOWS: Right. The fundamental point I'm making here is that if as a print journalist you want to increase your income by a large magnitude, by a factor of four or five, there are two ways to do that. One is the role of the dice of writing a best-selling book, which happens to one or two people per year. The other is to get on the corporate lecture circuit where there are-- there's a large income, several hundred thousand dollars a year, people can make that way, and the transmission belt, the way you can get from the world of print to the world of lecture circuit is TV talk shows. There really is--they don't have big audiences nationwide but they are influential among the people who are arranging these bookings. I think this has a corrosive effect on the way journalists do their work. There's not that much time to do actual reporting, also on the image of journalism. I should say for the purpose of your viewers that I very much applaud what you do, of having disclosure of these engagements you have and who you've been talking to, and for how much money, because I think the refusal to do that by journalists in general is a terribly corrosive thing which undermines public faith in them.
DAVID GERGEN: I went through a disclosure of the money I've made through lectures both to corporate groups as well as to universities and others when I went into government in the Clinton administration in 1993, and I must tell you I am now in favor of much more public disclosure. I think it--this is an issue over which I happen to view--believe it is, not a, not a serious conflict of interest, or not a conflict of interest. There are some people who believe it might be, and that disclosure is the best way to deal with it. But my own personal experience was that disclosure didn't, you know, there was life after disclosure. You know, I got--I took some hits from a few people, a few people--eyebrows went up, it's cited in your book, but you still feel more comfortable at the end of the day. You feel this is the right way to do it.
JAMES FALLOWS: Well, I think there is a useful analogy with politics here. The average politician says I take a contribution from contributor X, I know I'm not selling myself out for that, but still it is reassuring if people know that, if they have on the record where the money came from, and journalists have imposed this on politicians for a long time. By the same token, journalists operate on a margin of public trust. They are operating with certain constitutional liberties. They are being able to, to make accusations against people, and so it--if there is a suspicion in the minds of people of where, where are the money coming from, it is much better to clear that up, I think, so--
DAVID GERGEN: Right. Let me tell you, I do think that there is a tendency because of the lecture circuit and because of the way the substance is covered, and to politicize everything and just make it seem like a form of entertainment which drives people away, and I think journalism is guilty of that, but I have to tell you I also think that more and more politicians are guilty of the same thing, judging their policy decisions based on the polls and how they will play in the press, how they will look in tomorrow's headlines, and that there's a reason more and more journalists are covering it that way.
JAMES FALLOWS: Yeah. I think you've hit on the core of what I was trying to write about in this book because I think we've locked two major institutions, the political establishment and the press establishment, in a destructive, vicious cycle where each is bringing out the worst in the other now, and both of them bringing out the worst in the public. All journalists--all politicians, we can assume as a starting point, have a certain amount of political calculation. That's how they stay in office.
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
JAMES FALLOWS: And it's a balance of political calculation and substance. I think the way in which what they do is treated by the press now magnifies the political cynicism and minimizes the substance and so you have each group chasing each other down, and the public looks at this and says, we can't stand any of 'em; the reporters are crooks; the politicians are crooks. You know, just forget about public affairs altogether.
DAVID GERGEN: And you think they're now leaving, essentially, the political system, or they've become very cynical about the political system, and about the press?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes. Almost every serious news outlet, a few little exceptions, but in general, all serious news outlets have lost audience over the last generation and political establishment has lost public trust. This would be fine if we could do without politics, but we can't. Somebody is going to make our laws, somebody is going to govern us, and so we're sort of having this spectacle of letting the worst parts in the system evolve and emerge.
DAVID GERGEN: But public life is not going well?
JAMES FALLOWS: It is not going well, as the philosophers have put it, and so it is going to go on though, and there we all have a stake in making it go better than it is now.
DAVID GERGEN: At the end of your book, you argue that the answer perhaps is public journalism. Can you explain that?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes, there's a movement that's especially strong at small newspapers and smaller broadcast outlets called the public journalism movement or civic journalism movement, and it's been very controversial in the newspaper business. Fundamentally, what it's saying is that journalists have to take seriously the effect of what they do on public life. For example, if they present all political issues as just being a mud fight among politicians, they have to recognize what this will do to the public sense of politics in the long run. So I think this movement, it has strong points, and it has weak points, but its basic argument that journalists need to think about their impact on public life in the long run is a sound one.
DAVID GERGEN: Do you--can you cite an example where you think it's worked well?
JAMES FALLOWS: I think there in your own native state of North Carolina, the "Charlotte Observer" has done a number of stories where they've tried to approach political issues not from the sheer horse race perspective but I'm saying what issues, environmental, economic development, race relations, et cetera, are most at stake in our next senatorial election, our next gubernatorial election, and try to make people feel they have some lever, some handle, some understanding of the consequences of choosing one politician or the other, and they have found that it affects the kinds of campaigns the candidates run. They are sort of forced to run a more issues-oriented campaign.
DAVID GERGEN: And you think that raised the level of the Senate debate there, the Senate campaign there. I think it did too.
JAMES FALLOWS: Yeah. That is my impression. You've been there more recently than I, but that's certainly what I've heard from people there.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, thank you very much for coming, and good luck as you go around the country.
JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you, David.