TalkBack

Dear Mr. Fallows:

Given your stance on journalism, your lucid comments on our trade policies, and your efforts so far at US News, I must say I am impressed. I may become a subscriber to US News because of your attempts at honesty.

But I offer two warnings: 1) David Gergen cannot continue as a purveyor of opinion at any news organ of any kind, let alone one which is now attempting to win back credibility which he himself has done so much to lose. Is he a journalist? Or a paid shill for the administration du jour?

2) The Washington press corps, like the French aristocracy surrounding the court in 1788, is thoroughly corrupt. They will turn on you and your magazine. God forbid you should pay attention to the horrible payoffs that go on between corporations, political groups, and Talking Head Newspersons. They will attack you with righteous indignation, and destroy your reputation, if not your career. Be careful.

Brian Els

Bloomington, Indiana

To Brian Els --

Thanks very much for your gracious comments. I appreciate being known for some part of my life and writing that predated my current arguments about journalistic-reform (eg, trade policies and so on).

On the warning front:

1) I view David Gergen as being a different sort of character from many others that were portrayed in that Frontline program. While a lot of people may judge him harshly, to my mind he has always had a large degree of public-spiritedness in what he has done. As I mentioned on the show, it would be a genuine problem if he were being positioned at the magazine as a 'normal' journalist. But he's not. He writes an editorial -- clearly labelled as that -- every other week, and does occasional commentary pieces. It seems OK to me. (Also, of all the big-shot lecture-circuit journalists you might htink of, he is about the only one who has been saying that disclosure of outside income is necessary and right.) 2) As for watching out for trouble... this advice may come a little too late!

Dear Mr. Fallows,

I have only read portions of your book, but I am troubled by what I perceive to be a central element of your criticism: namely, that reporters now make too much money, and have become media celebrities in their own right. Inherent in this critique, and made manifest in the excellent Frontline program, is that "rich" reporters will no longer be able to identify with average working people. If this were a problem, why do so few reporters question the Kennedys, for example, on similar grounds.

This country was founded upon core principles-- including the right to property, and the right to earn an income. While there are legitimate concerns associated with the danger of a conflict of interest in the media, I remain less concerned about that than about the revolving door that moves members of the media from politics to the front pages. The media can no longer pretend to be "objective" so long as former Presidential speechwriters--of whom you are only one of many--pretend to be "objective." The public would be better served by a group of men and women who honesly admit to their own biases, and then write their news stories with those biases laid clearly on the table.

I had forgotten that you had been named to a senior position at U.S. News and World Report, but I will read that magazine with new interest for two reasons:

1) I want to see whether your own biases move the tone of the magazine from right to left of center (I think it likely) and

2) I want to see whether your "principled" decision to dismiss Roberts makes any difference in the tone of your magazine's criticisms, particularly as they relate to corporate pork barrel spending. (I am doubtful, as I have never observed a Washington reporter reluctant to criticize corporations for taking the people's money, while I have rarely seen one willing to criticize the federal government for doing the same.) Thank you for your candor and for your eloquence. It appears that you have caused at least some of your colleagues to ponder these issues. I only wish more of my fellow citizens were paying attention. Sincerely,

Christopher Preble

Swedesboro, NJ

To Christopher Prebl:

On the largest theoretical point you raise, my argument was NOT that the status-shift affecting journalists is all bad. Part of the problem here is the sheer compression that any TV program, even one as careful as Frontline, must apply. The argument I lay out in my book is more or less the following: In the two generations since WWII, national-level journalists have gone from being high-end members of the working class to being medium-level members of the professional class -- and in some celebrity cases, much more than that. This change has had good and bad effects. It means that on average you have possibly-smarter and certainly-better educated people in the business. When they write about science, they know (more) about science.But it is dangerous in that it imparts an *unadmitted* bias to many journalists' observations. The class ic illustration on the Frontline show came from Fred Barnes, who said: Hey, we thought there was no problem with Zoe Baird's nannies, since everyone has illegal nannies. Because reporters are aware of other kinds of bias (eg, political view, religion) they at least try to deal with them. The effects of this bias are worse because they are unrecognized.

As for your other questions, all I can say is: watch and see what you think.

Mr. Fallows --

It was asked on the broadcast if you fired Mr. Roberts because of his lecture circuit activities and you replied that that was not the case. However, what is your position on journalists making the lecture circuit and remaining objective?

Darrell Stewart

Long Beach, CA

To Darrell Stewart

In my book I spend a long, long time developing the argument on this point. Essentially I say: some engagements are corrupting on their face, and when journalists accept big pots of money from groups that have a stake in how the journalist writes about them, this is clearly dangerous and corrupting. Even though every self-respecting journalist will swear that his or her judgment could not POSSIBLY be affected by the $10k payments from the insurance lobby, this is an argument that would be laughed out of court if it were made by doctors, real estate assessors, or any other group. I believe that most journalists actually see themselves as incorruptible (as most politicians probably do too). Nonetheless the appearance problem is so great that our business is just asking for huge trouble if we don't clean up this situation.

There are other activities that I view as basically constructive -- for example, speaking at universities and civic groups. When reasonable amounts of pay are involved for these efforts, that seems normal and fine -- but in these cases, I think it is sensible for our business to disclose the outside income, so the public can judge for itself.

Mr. James Fallows:

I do not believe that a "laissez faire" attitutde can work when, in fact, many of these so called journalists of this "Permanent Govermnent, are at least as powerful or more powerful than many politicians.

Therefore, do you believe that by law it should be either fully disclosed or strictly prohibited for all Television Journalists to take any type of speaking fees-- or at least striclty limited ?

It was a superb show, but I believe that you should have also discussed the increasing concentration of corporate ownership in fewer and fewer hands ? How do you belive that we can solve this Murdoch problem ? Thank you very much and it would be greatly appreciated if you respond to my E-Mail.

David Korn, Rego Park, Queens, NY

For David Korn:

About speaking fees, I believe that a strict legal prohibition would be a constitutional nightmare. (There are not many laws limiting what other private-sector employees can earn.) There are limits applying to doctors and lawyers, but those are after all licensed professions, which journlaism is not. But to limit or contain public hostility and suspicion, I think people in my business should take the lead in limiting unseemly engagements and disclosing the rest.

About the concentration of corporate ownership: I agree 100 per cent. But that is the subject for another show. (And for a special issueof the Nation this last summer.)

Mr. Fallows:

For several years now, U.S. News & World Report has been the only national news magazine that many of us out here in boondocks feel we can actually trust for unbiased reporting and an honest view of events. However, over the past several weeks or months, I've noticed what appears to be a slippage to the left in political coverage and a "slickening" of the magazine with the inclusion of what I can only call trivia, i.e., fluff articles and columns more suited to Time and Newsweek than the U.S. News of old.

Is this due to your influence or is it an attempt by the magazine to pull in more Baby Boomers and Generation X'ers? Can we expect the magazine, under your editorship, to continue to give us fair to conservative reporting? With everyone else going by the wayside, is John Leo safe? I've been a subscriber for several years now, but I am beginning to wonder, with this new "slickness," if maybe I should look somewhere else for the type of reporting I've always expected from you.

Hugh R. Taylor

Oklahoma City, OK

For Hugh Taylor:

The goal of US News remains the same: to present information and analysis in a way that is not 'attitudinized' like some other magazines. But in the last two months I have, in fact, been trying to make the magazine do that job in a more lively way. The headlines, the photo captions, the covers, et cetera are supposed to be written with more verve. My very deep view is that there is NO conflict between being substantive and being interesting and lively. Look at the Economist magazine: it is lively and even sarcastic, but it also gets its info across. That is what I hope (minus the sarcasm) we could do for you: to get information to you, without BORING you.

Yes, John Leo is safe. He is a natural columnist and a very good one.

Mr. Fallows:

I think you are correct about the too cozy relationship between reporters and newsmakers. As a former political reporter for statewide newspapers in South Dakota and North Dakota, I can assure you that the same sort of relationship exists outside of Washington. I left journalism when I discovered how little I really knew and how poorly prepared I was by a journalism education.

I wonder if you have any thoughts about the education of journalists. I am just finishing my M.A. in History and have begun applying to Ph.D. programs in Journalism. It has been my experience (I did rub elbows with the national media during South Dakota Presidential primaries, and during the time I covered Tom Daschle) that journalists are often poorly educated, particularly when it comes to history. On a recent Brinkley show, Sam Donaldson actually said with a straight face that America's Founding Fathers created a government which would be activist and would "do things. They didn't want gridlock." Of course they did.

Apparently, Donaldson didn't study. And he's not alone. One of the classes I currently teach (U.S. to 1877) includes 35 journalism majors, few of whom can write well and many of whom are taking their one and only history class. How can a young reporter be expected to understand events of today without a history background?

I'd appreciate your thoughts on the education and training of journalists. Thank you for having the courage to stand up and say there is something wrong with the press. Finally, congratulations on your job at U.S. News. If you can put your ideas to work, many of us will support you any way we can. Thanks again.

Matthew Cecil

For Matthew Cecil:

The education of journalists is obviously a crucial issue. My views on this have generally been at odds with those of the business. I never went to any kind of formal journalism school. I studied American history in college, and economics in graduate school. (Meanwhile, I spent six days a week on the college newspaper and was its editor in my last year in college.) So I have always been suspicious of formal journalism training, because I have believed that (a) most of the skills could be learned on the job, and (b) what is harder to learn on the job is the fundamental background in history, science, world affairs, and so on that journalists must draw on for the rest of their working lives.

I have some friends at journalism schools who say that I am wrong to disapprove of the schools. They contend that journalism schools ARE the modern salvation of liberal education. They say that as the rest of higher education becomes more specialized and fragmented, the one place where people actually get a generalist's training is in journalism school. I don't know whether that's true. I do know that the ideal preparation for a journalist should involve very hefty doses of history, geography, basic science, and basic social science. However people get that, it's what they need.

To James Fallows:

I Iwas happy to see and hear your comments about what we both consider to be a deficiency in journalism today, and am glad that you'll get a chance to try to enact some of these ideas at USN&WR.

Do you think a decrease in the level of punditry may allow politicians who have an honest streak to strive to become the statesmen that we've all imagined they should be? Or are there other factors (campaign funding) which will always drive politicians to be the most venal of creatures.

max chandler

Seattle, Wa

For Max Chandler:

I have a 'better than nothing' view on the point you raise. I think that today's runaway punditry really does make it hard for today's politicians to be anything but shills. If journalism were perfect, would politicians also be? No. A lot of other forces, especially campaign fund raising, have pernicious effects. But better journalism would certainly be a start.

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