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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.)
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.