Interview with James Fallows
Interviewed June 1996
S. Talbot: We covered one of the White House correspondents dinners. The press, Hollywood stars and politicians all get together at these kinds of events in Washington. There are a series of these dinners, these events, with the media. Are they significant?
J. Fallows: I think any institution has its sort of tribal mating rituals where you go and have a good time every few months or once a year. I think that while it is enjoyable to go to these things a few times, as I have been, I think most people who are not in the news business would be somewhat scandalized or horrified if they saw what was going on here.
Because apart from the normal spectacle of a great big well lubricated banquet, you have people in the press who allegedly are telling us, in the public how to think about public affairs. Kissing up, number one, to the news source that they are reporting on. Because there is a great game ritual where you try to bag the biggest trophy, whether it is George Stephanopolous or some Supreme Court Justice, to sit at your table.
Second, there is an unbelievable kissing up to the Hollywood luminaries who also come too. And so you see the way that hard-nosed reporters can be glamorized by politicians and then the politicians and reporters together are just knocked off their feet by the stars they can bring.
S. Talbot: It is quite a scene. With all the paparazzi it really did look like a Hollywood movie opening. Except there was governor so-and-so and John McLaughlin.
J. Fallows: I think, you know, each culture can often be wowed by specimens from opposing culture. And if you are on a professional sports team and some governor comes in, the athletes will pause for a moment. Similarly, in Washington. If you can bring in even sort of a second tier Hollywood celeb. Usually that is more interesting than the Cabinet Secretary or Senator you have hanging around. And if you can bring in somebody above the second tier, a Sharon Stone, for example, then you really have done something at these dinners.
S. Talbot: And the Democrats have their Hollywood people and the Republicans have their Hollywood people.
J. Fallows: The Republicans had a built-in advantage, of course, during the Reagan era when there were Hollywood figures of a certain time who Reagan could attract. And I think that especially in the first year of the Clinton administration there was a deliberate opening to Hollywood, of trying to bring in younger and snazzier stars.
The Clinton people felt that maybe they went a little too far with that and they were suffering on the character front by having too many instances of Hollywood actresses being around the President. But now, I think the balance has been set.
S. Talbot: What about the adversarial nature of the press?
J. Fallows: In today's Washington, strangely, the relationship between politicians and press is both too adversarial and too non-adversarial or too cozy.
It is too adversarial in a kind of tone. I think people in the viewing audience see this mainly during a Presidential press conference, where you have this rat pack type atmosphere... or hounds around a fox or some kind of other primal nature imagery...where a pack of reporters are just acting very surly and sort of pushing their way to the camera... getting their own face time, seeming mean to a President and acting as if everything he says is self-evidently preposterous and deceptive and lying.
At the same time, these reporters are living in the same sort of social and financial circles as many of the people they are reporting on, the senators and the upper echelon officials. And at these great spectacles of the annual dinners they are trying to get these officials to sit at their table.
Also, on matters of intellectual engagement, I think that part of the problem is the press is not forced to have real engagement on the issues the politicians stand for. And so you have much less of that real scrutiny there should be and more kind of a superficial snarling and yapping that we see at the press conferences.
S. Talbot: One person we interviewed was talking about Sam Donaldson as kind of the icon of the press in the eighties and that he had perfected asking the softball question in a very hardball way and that was sort of a style that people began to emulate. Is that true?
J. Fallows: There is a secret about Presidential Press Conferences in particular that I think very few people in the viewing public know, which is that a President is never, ever surprised or taken by surprise with the questions the reporters ask.
I worked for Jimmy Carter for a couple of years. Before his press conferences we always would make up lists of sample questions and always, without exception, we have covered things reporters are going to ask because so many of the questions are just one-inch either side of conventional wisdom about how you are going to handle the politics of this or that.
That means that most of the encounters between reporters and Presidents in particular, yield almost no useful information. The President is prepared for what he wants to say and he makes his on-the-record statement. Perhaps as a way of sort of getting their own against the unequal balance a President has, the reporters make it up in attitude. They make it up in tone. They make it up in snarl. And that is why Sam Donaldson was often referred to as sort of the iconic figure of the Reagan era, because he never asked anything that took Reagan even by surprise... but he always sounded tough while doing it. And I think, again, that was the worst of both worlds. Reporters sounded nastier than most people would want them to be and yet they made less real progress on the substance of what they were supposed to find out.
S. Talbot: What happens to someone in the Washington press corps if, in a Presidential press conference or a similar event, they ask a substantive question about an issue that is not within the confines of conventional wisdom? What happens to a person like that?
J. Fallows: Much of Washington, both politics and press, I think can be thought of, well, of being back in high school. If you think of the place as one big high school, with cool kids, with nerds, with people who you think might bloom later on, etc. and
if you are in the press corps at a Presidential televised news conference, by definition you are kind of a cool kid. And a way to lose that status and become a loser and nerd is to ask a boring question. Or to ask something that makes your colleagues think you are being too weak... you are in the tank. You are not really talking about what is hip right now.
And usually if you ask a substantive question -- what are you doing to do about paying for X or Y or Z in the future as opposed to how you are going to sell X or Y or Z against Newt Gingrich, how you are going to sell it against Bob Dole -- it just marks you with a big N for nerd on your forehead. And I think that, that is enough of a tribal custom to deter a lot of people from doing it.
S. Talbot: Is it a tribe, the Washington Press Corps?
J. Fallows: It is even physically a tribe. When you travel, again talking particularly about the White House press corps and the press corps following campaigns, you live as a band of brothers and sisters traveling around. As a campaign swings into gear, you are either living on the bus or living on the airplane and your life is taken care of.
Somebody is telling you when to get up, when to eat or when your bag is going to be collected, where to go, where to stand, where to file. And you become just a sort of not unthinking member of the team...a member of the herd... as if you are on the high school football team....or as if you are part of a big travel group on a school trip someplace.
And customs evolve within that world that are very hard to justify. For example, if you were the reader in Los Angeles, or in Seattle or in Chicago saying, "What are these people telling me about the news?" Because they are often transmitting little signals to other members of their team with us in the reading public as kind of the sideline spectators... the collateral victims of the rituals they are playing out.
S. Talbot: Well, let me ask you... are you a member of this tribe?
J. Fallows: Who me? Yes, of course.
S. Talbot: And you have been here in Washington for a while.
J. Fallows: Right.
S. Talbot: As a journalist. Why did you write this book now?
J. Fallows: I wrote it because I felt that people in my business were at a kind of crisis point. To put it a different way, if I, as a reporter, were looking as I often have at some other line of work... be it the car industry or the semiconductor business or... r part of the military... and saw the same indicators that you see about the press now, I'd say, "Hey, there is an institution in trouble whose troubles are worth writing about."
You do have historically low levels of public trust and esteem for us. You have market pressure. And you go to a newspaper convention and people are saying, "Why is everybody not reading our product anymore?"
You have people recognizing that feeling uncomfortable ten or twenty years after they got into the business about what they are actually doing day-by-day. And making these nervous jokes about how they don't really believe in the kind of performances they are putting on, but you know that is what this or that show requires.
So it seemed to me like this was an institution that had reached a certain critical point, and I wanted to try to make my case both to people inside and outside about what was wrong.
S. Talbot: I want to take you through the case that you make and the examples that you give. But first of all, you have had some very positive response to this book, but you also, from within the tribe, have gotten slammed by a lot of people.Let me just ask... what do you think when a Howell Raines writes a signed editorial in the New York Times called the Fallows Fallacy. What do you make of that?
J. Fallows: Part of what you are in business for as a writer of books or magazine articles is to have people listen to your message. And so anything that calls attention to your message is, in some way, beneficial. That particular editorial by Howell Raines left me puzzled because, for somebody as smart as he must be to have that job, I thought it was a particularly wooden-headed piece of reasoning. And the point he tried to say was that, if you argue, as I do, that there is such a thing as being too cynical, too nihilistic, too destructive of the whole body politic... That the only other alternative, he is suggesting, is to be some kind of lick-spittle, lap-dog, servile chronicler of whatever any politician wants.
Surely reasonable people can see that just as with doctors, there is some middle range between Dr. Kevorkian and some guy who is trying to save every person at every stage of life. There is a middle ground.
So with the press there is a middle ground that I think many of us have lost sight of.....where you can be harshly skeptical, as you must, of people who are abusing the public trust and yet realize that there is a reason our business is defended by the First Amendment.
There is a reason that we came into this business and that is to help people better understand their world. It is not simply to make fun of everybody in this world, and I think that distinction most people can see.
S. Talbot: Another person who has criticized you several times is Maureen Dowd. What is your reaction to her criticism?
J. Fallows: In my book I describe Maureen Dowd of the New York Times in what I thought was fairly positive and respectful terms, pointing out that she has, in effect, taken over the baton from Sam Donaldson of being the representative White House journalist in describing things often with an attitude and an edge. And I said that she often and usually was clever enough to carry this off, but her many imitators were not. And there was a kind of knee-jerk sophomoric cynicism that came through in her wake.
Like many journalists, Ms. Dowd is better at dishing it out than taking it, and I think that she was irritated by what was objectively an almost positive description of her role. I think there is an interesting difference you see among print journalists who have written books and those who haven't. It is not that you write something wrong. It is that if you have written books, you are used to people criticizing you by name. I know because I have written five or six books. People will criticize a lot in them: some people are going to agree, some people are going to disagree and you have to roll with the punches.
If you don't write books, it is rare for you as a print journalist to be criticized by name and there is a certain thin-skinnedness in this that seems to occur the first time you get criticized by name.
S. Talbot: Let's talk about some of the specific deadly sins of the media. Television, my own industry, and the McLaughlin Group, which as you say in the book, really changed television when it got started in 1980. Now there are a host of imitators.
J. Fallows: Right.
S. Talbot: Why has that, in your words, "undermined democracy"?
J. Fallows: I argue in a way that I think is, again, weirdly flattering John McLaughlin, that he might be the most important figure in modern Washington journalism in the last ten or fifteen years, because he both invented an intellectual style and invented an economic underpinning to make that intellectual style go.
The intellectual style, if that is not too loose a term, is this very pugnacious, pro-wrestling style combat over issues. Where, for example, it is now second nature for people to say, on a scale of one to ten, how do you rate Christianity or whatever. That didn't exist before John McLaughlin's show.
You know, on a scale of one to ten how good was Charles Darwin? That is something that really became second nature after he did it and also these predictions and these panelists who have to pose as experts on each subject that pops up that week.
So that style he created, he crucially backed it up with money. Not money that he pays his panelists themselves, who get a couple of hundred dollars per show, but the linkage between frequent appearance on these panel shows and an extremely lucrative corporate lecture market. And that is how print journalists can really move up the income food ladder, or the food chain, if they can get on these shows.
The payoff here is that if you are ambitious in terms both of having people know your face and name, and just in having money in the pocket, one long shot is to try to write some best-selling book, like Bob Woodward or like Theodore White in the old days. But the better payoff is to get onto these shows. Because that is the way you can most reliably make it, once you get on.
S. Talbot: So you now have journalism students asking Ted Koppel, "What is the most important thing to get ahead?" And he says, "A good makeup man."
J. Fallows: Well he, at least, is being whimsical, I hope.
S. Talbot: But these shows really do hold out a lot of money and you talk about specific people. That is one of the main points you have made, I would say, that has reverberated with people.... that the Sam Donaldsons, the McLaughlins, even the Jack Germond, the Cokie Roberts, the Steve Roberts are out there really making a lot of money on the lecture circuit.
J. Fallows: There are several tiers of economic change that affected journalism, and they are sort of pushing the same direction but it is important to keep them separate.
One is being the sort of salaried TV star: if you are Ted Koppel, you are making perhaps ix or seven million dollars a year. If you are a network correspondent, you are making big money, bigger than almost anybody in print....So the same star pressures that operate in professional sports operate there too.
A second change is a status revolution for all of elite journalism. Everybody who works for Time or Newsweek or the New York Times or a national magazine of any kind, is better off now than thirty years ago. These people are now professional-class paid as opposed to more or less working-class paid. That has good effects and bad effects.
The other change is a sort of bastard child of those two realms, of the TV realm and the print realm. We have people who are basically print reporters for newspapers, for magazines, who have a foot in the TV world through TV talk shows.
And the reason that matters is the connection it has to the speaking market, where in doing something a journalist has done through history -- going out and making their case in person with a speech rather than in writing... suddenly they are doing it more and more not to the Chautauqua circuit or the Town Hall of Fresno, but to the American Bankers' Association....the insurance industry lobby. And they are doing it for a ton of money, for $20,000 or $30,000 a crack.
This has a big effect on how they live their lives, how they schedule their lives, what kind of ambitions they have to get on talk shows, and it really has changed the business more than most viewers can guess.
S. Talbot: And do you think that this has a corrupting effect to the extent that a reporter talks to a tobacco association and is given a big fee, a weekend at a resort, that sort of thing, that it would affect his reporting?
J. Fallows: I am sure there is no reporter who does a sort of obvious tit for tat. You know, I will get this big speech and I will write something good about cigarettes from now on.
But the reason these industries put on these events, the reason they pay the money... At least they told me when I interviewed them, is they think there is some kind of subtle immunization. That if somebody has sat down with you... They have had a nice dinner or they have played golf, you know... You gave their spouse a nice time and also you sent them away with $30,000 or $40,000... You don't think they are going to explicitly carry your water in the future, but you think they are going to pause before doing you in. They are going to think, oh, gee, I know old Joe down there at the tobacco lobby. Maybe I should call him and see what he has to say.
And the point one lecture booker made me is that you are not really buying positive coverage, but you are buying a sort of access that simply would not exist if you hadn't had them down to the lecture event.
So I think there is a subtle corruption that reporters would recognize in a nano-second if they were talking about a committee chairman in Congress, a White House counsel, somebody else, you know, a general dealing with defense contractors. They would say, of course, there is corruption there. I think there is for us, too.
S. Talbot: Well I can't help but think of one of the staple stories about "Prime Time" and Sam Donaldson chasing someone in the Congress down to the Bahamas or a Caribbean Island and saying, "Look," to this guy and then racking up on the screen the totals of what the taxpayer is paying for....
J. Fallows: Well, there was a particular case where, I believe it was a somewhat junior congressman going on a junket sponsored by the insurance industry and, unfortunately for Sam Donaldson, this same industry had paid him, I believe, in the range of $30,000 to deliver a speech a few months earlier.
I think if he had at least disclosed that, that would have defanged most of the problem. Saying, "Look, you know, viewers should know that while I am chasing this congressman for his $4,000 trip, I actually had a $30,000 honorarium."
The value of disclosure, I think, it that if people believe they had to disclose a lot of these things, they wouldn't do them. You know, it wouldn't be worth the money to have to say, "Well I was down with the insurance people, too."
Many people in this business have a sort of hairsplitting definition that they are not really public figures because they are not elected to office, and can therefore impose standards on a congressman, on a senator, even a first term congressman who has one zillionth the influence any major network figure has. They can impose standards on that person they wouldn't accept for themselves and I think, again, they would recognize that as fatuous in any other realm.
A Supreme Court Justiceis not elected by anybody... Yes, he is confirmed by the Senate, but he is not elected. And yet there are standards this person has to meet because of the power he wields. Similarly, in our business, we operate on tremendous margins of public trust. We are protected by the Constitution. We can destroy people's reputations in ways they can't recover
from. We can do a lot of things, and I think if you don't want to be a subject of scrutiny yourself, then get out of this business. Choose some other business.
S. Talbot: How hard is it, though, to resist the temptations of money? I mean it wasn't so long ago when the most you could make as a political reporter was $50,000 or $60,000, top of the line. And now you are talking about people making that in a couple of speeches.
J. Fallows: The general change in the financing of journalism is something that I am happy for. You know, I make more money than I could have working for the Atlantic Monthly thirty years ago. I am glad. I have a child in college, I have to pay his college bills and so, you know, you can't assume that people in any business are going to have the hair shirt as their operating principle.
But I think there are differences of degree which, again, we recognize in other realms. We look askance at some college athletic coaches. We look askance at doctors if they are running Medicare or Medicaid mills....And we should look askance at people in my business when they seem to be doing things mainly for the money. Everybody does things partly for the money. That is how the business world works. But when there are things that you wouldn't dream of doing except that a lobby is going to pay you $30,000 for it, again it is time to think why are you in this business? Maybe you should be in some other more explicitly money-making business where that is the main point.
S. Talbot: Do you think some of this is going to start to change now because of what you have and others have written and talked about? I mean there are some news organizations who won't let people do these speaking engagements for these huge fees.
J. Fallows: My mind is in the process of changing on this point. Six or eight months ago, when I was finishing my book, getting ready for it to come out, I thought critical mass was assembling for changing the norms about speaking.
There had been a controversy at ABC over a number of their employees which led them to toughen their rules. Several magazines, the American Journalism Review, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the Washington Monthly had had exposes about journalists speaking.
I had a book coming out about this. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post had a book all about this. You know, purely about this subject. And I thought that there was one of these tidal waves of history that simply would make people say, "I am embarrassed."
So far, speaking now in the middle of 1996, I am not so sure. I may have over-estimated the power of shame when up against the battle with greed. So we'll see. I am hoping the shame button can be pushed somewhat more strongly.
S. Talbot: Fred Wertheimer once told us that we were over-estimating the power of embarrassment in Washington. That this was not a town that embarrassed easily.
J. Fallows: I may be learning that lesson anew.
S. Talbot: Let me ask you a different aspect of this. Most people who cover politics would say that the power of political parties has declined in the twentieth century. And at the same time the power of the media has increased. Can you talk about the power of the media in setting political agendas and screening candidates?
J. Fallows: I think the power of the press to sort of set the agenda was something that first came into my mind during the two years I spent actually working in the government. I was speech writer for President Carter during the first two years of his administration. And from time to time, I would stray from the reservation...in addition to cranking out speeches, I tried to write memos about ideas I thought were interesting. You know, maybe we should do this or that policy.
And because it was just a memo by some guy in the Administration, it had basically no power to legitimize an idea. I found that what I had to do was to leak this memo to friends in the press..or even sometimes anonymously write op ed pieces to get something legitimized. Because if it were on the op ed page, "Hey, this was a real idea." The press had talked about it. It was on the map. If it was in a memo by some underling, you know, you could forget it.
And so the image that struck me then was the political parties and the people in them were like the players on the football team, moving the ball up and down the field. But the referees and the people who laid out the field were essentially the press.
The press were the ones who said, here is where the game is going to be played. Here is the ball. We are going to blow the whistle. We are going to call the fouls. We are going to call the penalties. We are going to make you sit down. We are going to keep the clock.
S. Talbot: You have been telling us how bad things are, but if you want it, there is good journalism out there, isn't there?
J. Fallows: Certainly there is and I think for people who want to go find information, this is the Golden Age. Between the Internet and the range of the world publications and a million channels on cable TV, one or two of which are good, there are lots of different sorts of information. And, I think, the publications operating in those niches actually do well.
The difficulty is in political terms with the mass media, which ideally helps glue the country together in some way and helps provide the public shared information...as when we vote for a president, for example..... as they weaken and are resented and are thinned out, it is destructive in terms of democracy.
You know, it made a difference when I was a kid in the '50s and '60s that Life magazine, for example, was near universal in its presence in people's homes and that there was a certain authority to network broadcasts, even though they had their flaws. I think the big journalistic problem at the moment is the thinning out of the mass media. The shared democratic information we have.
S. Talbot: The Right Wing has always had this argument that you and I and our colleagues are too liberal, have a liberal bias. Do they have a point?
J. Fallows: The complaint about a liberal media bias is true, but not important in the way that most conservatives think. It is true in that, you know, study after study has shown that the elite national media, network people, news magazine people, big newspapers, you know, are Democrats. They voted something like 90% for Bill Clinton in 1992. Historically they voted for Democrats in national elections.
And on certain social issues, especially abortion, religious affiliation, tolerance of gay rights, etc. they are distinctly to the left of the national norm. And I think that in coverage of those social issues, in particular, that bias shows through.
I contend that that doesn't explain most of the political coverage the national press does. For example, most of these people voted for Bill Clinton and he has not gotten a free ride from the press. And so if their political loyalties were the main driving factor, they would have just been singing his praises every single day. And they would have suppressed Whitewater, for example, much more than conservatives think it has been suppressed now.
So I think there is a Democratic identity which shows up in social matters. The real ideology the reporters have, however, is a kind of free form destructiveness, in my view....which affects people of either party they are covering.
S. Talbot: Talk about that a little more.
J. Fallows: Well, let me back up and talk about a Clinton illustration once more. If you had to find a single issue on which Bill Clinton and Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich and Jessie Jackson and people from any part of the spectrum would agree, it would be the difficulty of getting their message across through the filter of the press. Because what all these people feel is that the real ideology of reporters has to do with process and popularity, strength and combat, as opposed to any of the issues... whether those issues are Republican ones of tax reduction and empowerment or Democratic ones of minimum wage and social justice.
The politicians feel that the real bias they are up against every single day is that the press wants to know how are you going to sell this bill? Are you going to lose the next election? Are you going to get this appointee through? And that is the ideological battle between all politicians and most people in the press.
S. Talbot: Isn't that a kind of status quo? If you are obsessed with the process itself, you are not going to get them changing the process or questioning the process.
J. Fallows: Yes, indeed, it is a status quo bias where you are not interested, in principle, in any body's ideas about changing things whether they are Jack Kemp's, whether they are Henry Cisneros', wherever they come from. You are interested only in how the game is played.
And this, I think, is a way in which the press does deeply misrepresent the interests of the public it is supposed to be serving. Because I think the public is certainly less interested in the mechanics and certainly is more interested, with a variety of political perspectives, in how you can address the problems the country has.
S. Talbot: So why is it, in these talk shows, Crossfire, McLaughlin Group, etc. that when they get on to talk about what is going on, one of the last things you hear about are political ideas? It is always a horse race. It is always the scale of one to ten. It is always the insiders' game.
J. Fallows: I think there are a couple of explanations for the bias towards process and against ideas and substance you see in the talk shows. One is the sense that in a superficial way it is more interesting to have people yelling at each other. You know, "You ignorant twit! No, you don't understand. Oh, Dole's going to be... Dole is going to lose." And with the predictions, there is a kind of drama that is supposed to come with it, even though the evidence is, this doesn't attract big audiences.
You know the advertisers for these shows are all lobbyists. Advertising to insiders rather than consumer product people. So they think it is interesting and keeps things moving along.
I think the more important reason, however, is simply that it is the only alternative they have. Let's suppose that you and I, this coming weekend, have to discuss the five big issues that happened in the coming weeks. The odds are that we will each know about one of them, maybe in any kind of detail. Let's suppose one of them is a conflict in the former Yugoslavia, and one of them is some new outbreak in Rwanda, and one is some problem in Mexico and then there is another train crash or something like that.
The one thing we could certainly talk about is how it is going to affect the election. We could say, well, this is going to help Clinton. There is a train crash, we need more infrastructure. And so the Democrats can talk about that. And if there is something in Liberia, we can say well Dole's steadiness in foreign policy will come into play here. And you don't have to know anything about the thing itself.
And I think that is the main explanation. Because people will show up and they have to make chat about things they don't know about. So if you show up and you have to talk about things you don't really know about, if you shoehorn it all into the one thing you do know, which is Clinton versus Dole or Republicans versus Democrats, then you can talk.
S. Talbot: Jack Germond, he has said a couple of times that, if he could get paid the money he makes to be a horse handicapper, that is what he would prefer doing.
J. Fallows: There is a reason that Jack Germond is more respected and liked in that role than most of the people who have the talk show identity. It's because he has no pretensions about it. He realizes that he is just performing and being essentially a horse race handicapper with a different kind of horse flesh you are talking about. So at least he is being honest.
S. Talbot: Other people make comments like "Well this is a sitcom and we just play our role."
J. Fallows: Yes. And that is how I size it up, too. The structure of these shows is sitcom-like with somebody who is the stern father, somebody who is the errant teenager, etc. And that is fine for entertainment. But if you want to make a lot of money in a sitcom, then be a sitcom actor. Don't spend your day job being somebody who is purportedly conveying real political news to people and dealing with politicians
Reporters would probably sniff and get uppity if some of the people on the weekends were working as strippers. You know, either male or female strippers at Chipendales or whatever, they would think, well, this is somehow wrong for the dignity of our job. I think it is even worse for the dignity of the job to use your identity as a journalist for this performance, this sitcom performance, on the weekend.
S. Talbot: Bill Clinton has had a lot of scrutiny on various "scandals" all through this campaign with Whitewater, Paula Jones... What about scandal?
J. Fallows: I suspect that the scandal fixation of the Washington press may have reached some kind of pendulum point from which it will recede for a while. What I have in mind is several converging factors.
I think in the still echoing reverberations of the 1988 race, where Gary Hart was essentially driven out because of his philandering, many people thought, "Gee, maybe it's right for Hart to be driven out because his sort of carelessness about all of this may have had some implications for his conduct in office." But still, that was the first episode which made reporters think, "Gee, are we, are we asking too much here?"
Second, I think it is significant, that despite all of the allegations made with considerable evidence about Bill Clinton in 1992, that he was elected then and that through the summer of '96, at least, he has a strong lead and a chance for reelection.
This may make some reporters think that personal hygiene and related matters are not the main issue or concern of the electorate. There are other things which they may be looking for in a leader. They want to assess that as part of it, but it is not the only thing.
I think a third episode, which may have lasting effects, even though it is not logically on point, was the suicide in the Spring of '96 of Admiral Borda. In that case, Newsweek magazine, to the best of my understanding, did what a sensible news organization should have. That is it went to Admiral Borda with the allegations he had not earned his medals correctly and to ask him for his real explanation. And they had no reason to expect that he would kill himself, rather than have that appointment. So logically Newsweek was doing a sensible thing.
Emotionally, however, this will last as some kind of symbol of a press that has gotten out of control, that has become too destructive, that is grinding up too many people. And even though Newsweek, I believe, was beyond blame in this case, I think it will symbolize just a big machine that is chewing people up. And there will be second thoughts about how to turn that machine down.
S. Talbot: We keep talking about criticism of the press. At the same time the campaigns, of course, are always trying to manipulate the press. And it seems that we are now kind of in warp speed with spin control and opposition research driving the press. What do you think?
J. Fallows: That is certainly true. And I think that when you observe the relationship between today's political campaigns, today's press, you are reminded anew that Darwin was right.
Because organizations to survive respond to the environment they live in. And the environment the press has helped shape in the last decade or so is one where, if you respond more and more quickly to these counterpunches, these punches and counterpunches, you will win. You will have good spin and good buzz and people will think you are doing an effective job.
And so you have this ever-intensifying sort of spin cycle and reaction cycle. And the press often pooh poohs this as being an evolution of ever nastier coverage... an evolution of more spinology. But they also created the environment. We created the environment which makes it necessary. Because we admire candidates who do this and we laugh at and scorn at say, the Dukakis campaign, which wasn't good at counterpunching. Nobody will make Dukakis' mistake again. They will be like Clinton.
S. Talbot: What are your realistic hopes for this campaign?
J. Fallows: Before mentioning my realistic hopes, let me mention my sort of upper level hopes. The task that I wish people in the press would set for themselves, as they are beginning to cover the general election campaign, is to make the candidates behave better. And to provide the public a fairer ground for choice than otherwise would be the case.
If the emphasis reporters give different issues forces the candidates to comport themselves in a way where they have to explain themselves more fully to the public... .where they have to spend more time talking about what they are going to do and less time just putting in the short knife in each other...
that would be the ultimate hope.
Now, my realistic hope is that in the back of correspondent's minds -- stopping them before they say, "in a move designed to pander to X and Y interest group, candidate Z said this" -- they would at least pause for a moment and think about how to explain to people what is going on. For example, as we speak, a week ago President Clinton made a speech offering some tuition tax credit in a speech at Princeton. The stories I saw, almost everyone in the first six or eight paragraphs, were all about the politics of this issue. The actual proposal was buried in the article. So again, you had a proposal covered as if it were, not just partly politics, which it clearly was, but as if it were only politics.
And so, realistically, if the coverage could be not exclusively politics... but also telling us something of what these guys are proposing... That would be my realistic hope.
S. Talbot: And one of your big points is that by focusing on it as pure politics, by the gamesmanship of it constantly -- which is not of interest to the American people -- voters are essentially alienated.
J. Fallows: As a Presidential campaign moves into final gear, people do get interested. And you want to know is the gap closing and who is moving up, who is going to take what state. I think there is kind of broad interest in that. But the evidence over months and years is that this same sort of minutiae of politics, the positioning and strategy which so obsesses campaign consultants and so obsesses many in the national press corps, including me... is not of interest to most people in the public.
It is like the shop talk of any industry. It would be as if, rather than watching movies we had to sit around and listen to producers talk about structuring deals. Or we had to just listen to sports agents only talk about the salary cap and not the game.
So what the public wants is the movie, it wants the game, it wants the effects of government, not the shop talk. And I wish we could change the balance.
S. Talbot: What about politicians who are leaving government in part because of the negativity of the press, like Bill Bradley?
J. Fallows: I think that, you know, I have only limited sympathy for the hand-wringing of politicians as they leave office. Because it has always been a demanding field. Maybe in the times of the founding fathers they treated each other with courtliness, but even then there were partisan papers and so it has always been a contact sport.
I think the place where today's balance has gone too far is in the decision of somebody about whether to get into politics at all. Because you recognize that the personal cost is likely to be so extreme that many reasonable people feel I can't take this.
....They know that on judgment day in the press, it is only the minuses and nothing else will ever be heard of them. They think, who needs it? Who needs to be, again, ground up this way and I think that that balance has gone too far.
After Admiral Borda killed himself, Newsweek conducted a survey and realized they had not mentioned his name before in their magazine except in one kind of agit-type listing. You know, there had been no mention of this guy who had been Chief of Naval Operations. So the things that people do wrong should be publicized, but when that is the only thing that is going to be said about you when you go into public life, again, sane people say, who needs it?
S. Talbot: Another topic. Revolving doors. You yourself used to write speeches for Jimmy Carter. You only crossed that line once back and forth. There are some people, I think of David Gergen right away, who goes from being a pundit on television to advisor to Presidents and back to the media gain. What do you think?
J. Fallows: My own view is, I view it as an actively good thing for reporters to have worked once in their life somewhere else. This may be a self-serving view since I once worked in politics, but that was my view even before I did it and my idea was that there are things you learn first hand by working in politics, in business, in sports, in the military that you can't learn second hand, that give you a reservoir of things to draw on.
The reason that I think for most people it is bad to do it more than once is you become sort of untrustworthy in either role. When you are in politics people think you are storing up information to tell later. When you are outside they think you are currying favor to get a job again. So I think in general it is an unwholesome thing to have people moving back and forth.
I think, in the particular case of David Gergen, I think he was well intentioned and well motivated and thought this was an act of public service but as a rule I think it is not good.
S. Talbot: I turn on these shows now and it is John Sununu and Geraldine Ferraro. It is hard to find real journalists.
J. Fallows: Well I think the more damaging kind of line blurring and revolving door is not so much people going from job to job as the shows which present them as if they are one big blob. What I mean, for example, is the weekend discussion shows will often have three or four pundits and a politician or two. Somebody sitting on the House Budget Committee, somebody working in the State Department, sitting cheek by jowl with people who are just pundits, just talking heads.
And the impression this creates for the viewers at home is this is all one team. These are all the same people. They are all doing the same job, they all have the same values.
S. Talbot: At some level this is true, isn't it?
J. Fallows: Yes. But to the extent the press has ideas about its independent function, that depends on being something other than just part of the same team. And so I think that is why they should be more careful about maintaining these distinctions. There is a kind of chumminess that comes through that I think is unsettling to many viewers.
S. Talbot: What else gets your dander up?
J. Fallows: I think the world would be better off and America would be a happier country if there were no Crossfire and no Capital Gang and no McLaughlin Group.
Because, first, these take a limited resource and asset, that is skilled journalists, and demean and cheapen them by having them do things that they shouldn't do.
Second, they take something which again has its own intrinsic preciousness, that is ideas about politics and real issues and cheapen them, too.
On "Crossfire" the cheapening is by making everything something where the two acceptable views are, you know, nuclear war or do nothing at all. You know there are always two equally irrational views about everything that comes down the pike. And the idea behind "Crossfire" is that whatever happens, neither side can ever persuade the other of anything. If you ever admit that your opponent has a good point, you are dead. You are a wimp. You won't come on the show any more.
Whereas real life requires people to recognize good point by the others. The other weekend talk shows, again, convert something that matters... .the way we govern ourselves, the way we have health care, the way we educate our children into something that doesn't matter, and it is just a spectacle. So that is something I would like to see done away with.
S. Talbot: You were talking before about the news cycle and how these shows feed into the weekly news cycle -- everyone would be assessing who had had a good week and who hadn't had a good week.
J. Fallows: Well, I just love the idea if you transplant this judgment to other eras of history. You know, Abraham Lincoln, a good week or a bad week. And I think James Wolcott in the New Yorker had a parody about, you know, on a scale of one to ten how does Hitler match up against Stalin. And you know, is Stalin having a good week.
And it is preposterous when you try to measure any real events, which journalists are supposed to be doing. Now suppose William Shirer, reporting from Nazi Germany, saying well, you know, Goebbels had a good week this week. Goebbels very effectively got across his case and held off Himmler in a power struggle and he is really looking confident now. He is answering these criticisms. But a kind of weak week for Hitler...
And, you know, as soon as anything matters, you think, this is preposterous. This is the way moron's talk. And yet this is the way that, more and more, you are paid to talk. You know, in our modern culture.
S. Talbot: A quick question. You used the image in your book that more and more politics and our own business, covering politics, is pro-wrestling. Pro-wrestling is the metaphor here.
J. Fallows: Yes. Let me explain why I use pro-wrestling as a metaphor, perhaps revealing too much about my youth in front of the TV set when I was a kid.
Pro-wrestling is entertaining at one level. There is always drama going on. It always looks like somebody is about to be crushed, have their back broken, about to be rubbed out. Their tag team member won't find them in time and then at the last moment something happens. And you know as soon as you are past the age of seven you realize that it is all a big fake. And the emotions put on in the ring are all just sham. Just to entertain you.
And if I were a real wrestler, I would grit my teeth whenever I saw pro-wrestling, saying, "Oh, you know, that is not how it is. That is cheapening it, it is making it all look idiotic."
I think talk shows are the pro-wrestling of public life because there is put-on emotion, there is build-up confrontation, there is people in the Masked Avenger-type role and it is all a fake. That is the fundamental similarity.
S. Talbot: And the fear is that all that fakery in the end makes people throw up their hands and walk away?
J. Fallows: Well, when you know that pro-wrestling is a sham, sad as this may be to understand, you can stop watching it. When you start thinking that politics is a sham, you can stop watching it, but it is still going to go on. There is still some way we are going to have to govern ourselves. Somebody is still going to have the power to make war. Somebody is going to be levying taxes. So pro-wrestling I can now ignore. None of us can ignore politics in the long run, and something that makes us think it is laughable and should be ignored is a problem.
S. Talbot: Are we making too much of the talk shows? Who watches them?
J. Fallows: The Washington talk shows have a very limited effect on the nation as a whole. If they were operating on normal commercial standards, the networks would have killed them off long ago.
The reason they survive is, first, they are an efficient advertising medium for people trying to reach Washington insiders, where they are watched quite avidly. And that is why the advertisers are all interest groups and lobbyists.
They survive, second, because they are so cheap to put on. You know they pay the people very little to show up and there is a willing supply of labor but, third, their real importance is the warping effect on the culture of Washington journalism.
There may be fewer than a hundred people who are regulars on these shows, but there are probably a thousand people or two thousand who wish they were or have lived their lives so as to be eligible to be on the shows.
S. Talbot: Don't they also, within Washington, perform a role of sort of sending up smoke signals? A totally inside the beltway communications system?
J. Fallows: Yes. Naturalists often wonder how it is that ants know to follow each other in a line and how bees know where the hive is or how journalists know what the conventional wisdom is. And the answer is the Saturday talk shows, the weekend talk shows. Because that is what people can learn and can watch and see what the take is on this or that issue.
And so the main transmission belt for the conventional wisdom is the institution of the talk show. Now if there were no talk shows, the conventional wisdom would have this crucial gap it couldn't get across, and people might be forced to think more independently for themselves what they thought about things.
Maybe most people in the public should not have to learn about the event itself, but journalists who are writing about the budget, for example, should be forced to go learn about the budget.
I have used earlier the example of Washington as a big high school. If you think of the talk shows as a high school assembly or the morning announcements. That is where all the kids kind of get the formal news about team spirit and who is doing what or why and then they can all go and talk about it the rest of the day.
S. Talbot: Last question here. With all the television available to us, all the other media outlets, it seems like there is more coverage today than ever before in the history of the United States. Is there more coverage but less reporting?
J. Fallows: Yes. There is more coverage and less reporting and with a few noble exceptions, C-Span, of course, is the one that comes to mind, there is more coverage of the same thing.
And the way this is most dramatic is if you go to a campaign event, you will see reporters from every corner of the globe all cramming around trying to get a picture of the poor hapless candidate shaking somebody's hand. And so is anybody better off if you have a hundred cameras covering that or just five cameras covering it? And that is what more coverage is, it is more coverage of the same stuff, basically.
Let me answer your question better. The nature of today's pack journalism is you have 99% of the energy going into covering 1% of the stories which means there is 99% of the stories which only have 1% of the people to deal with them. And so if you think for a second about writing about things that are not in that 1% that everybody else is on, suddenly the world is full of interesting stuff that no one else is writing about.