Are The Media Going To Hell In A Handbasket?


How the Media Undermine American Democracy

By James Fallows

Pantheon -- 296pp -- $23


All Talk, All the Time

By Howard Kurtz

Times -- 407pp -- $25

Media, oh media, how do we hate thee? Let us count the ways. Americans today distrust not just their government but the sources of news about their government. From strangers to our own family members, folks tell those of us in the business about it constantly. "You media people," goes the refrain, "are a bunch of arrogant, untrustworthy windbags who slant the truth and only stir up trouble."

Now come two journalists' books purporting to document what the public suspects: America's media are indeed going to hell in a handbasket. In today's America, "the media actually get in the way of efforts to deal with important issues," James Fallows asserts in Breaking the News. The media sabotage crucial initiatives such as health-care reform and scare people away from public service by focusing on scandals and spectacle and away from critical issues. Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz aims at a much easier target in Hot Air: America's new "talkathon culture." He surveys a wide assortment of pundits, commentators, and hucksters, including some who pose in journalistic garb to dress up their sensationalism. The price? "The national conversation has been coarsened, cheapened, reduced to name-calling and finger-pointing and bumper-sticker sloganeering," he asserts.

You'll find no knee-jerk defense of my craft here. Both books are delicious to read, puncturing the pompousness, fatuousness, and ethical backsliding that have indeed crept into America's media. But the books are also interesting because the authors--posturing as media high priests--are conflicted about what precisely the problem is. And in the end, both miss the bigger picture: Our industry is in the throes of a revolution that should correct most abuses.

Fallows hits on two key problems. In political coverage, "the reportorial elite" are constantly handicapping popularity races rather than concentrating on issues of substance. Then there's the journalistic "gravy train." Instead of lusting to uncover another Watergate scandal, reporters try to get on TV so they can later command lucrative speaking fees. "The best-known and best-paid people in journalism now set an example that erodes the quality of the news we receive and threatens journalism's claim on public respect," Fallows argues.

For example, both he and Kurtz tell how Tim Russert, moderator of TV's venerated Meet the Press, recently took his act onto the stage of an American Banker's Assn. convention in New York, posing tough questions for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin to entertain the elite money crowd. Dole and Rubin are barred by federal ethics laws from accepting speaking fees. But Russert walked off with $20,000, according to the ABA. It's one thing to get paid big bucks by the network you work for, it's another to use your visibility to collect from people you may have to report on. Yet Russert didn't see how this might be perceived as ethically questionable.

This problem is easy to fix. BUSINESS WEEK and many other media outlets bar such payments to their journalists, and the TV networks have recently begun curbing honoraria. Amen.

If Fallows' work is something of a meditation, Kurtz's is a livelier, more journalistic investigation. He takes the reader backstage with the likes of Larry King, Howard Stern, and Phil Donahue, who make candid confessions about the failings of their occupation. When a college student asks Ted Koppel what advice he would give young people considering a career in journalism, Koppel answers dryly: "Get a good makeup man." How depressing.

Both books are at their best when they skewer what Kurtz calls the "drive-by journalism" of such commentators as George Will, former U.S. News & World Report editor David Gergen, and ABC News commentator Cokie Roberts. But as Fallows and Kurtz wade into the wild and crazy world of talk radio, dueling TV pundits, and instant-audience-reaction shows, they lose their focus. Fallows, for example, condemns talk radio for keeping alive rumors-- driven by partisan critics of the Clintons--that White House lawyer Vincent Foster was the victim of a Whitewater murder plot, not a suicide. But he fails to see the existence of a corrective mechanism: In time, the Foster rumors were silenced by the media's own follow-up investigations.

Kurtz is similarly conflicted. He skewers talk radio. But at the end of his book, Kurtz tells us that he hosted his own Washington radio talk show, which was canceled as a result of poor ratings. He attacks those who accept honoraria, then reveals (to his credit) that he has taken some himself but now accepts only those from more benign nonprofit groups and universities. He assails the intoxicating appeal of television appearances, yet his is a common face on talk shows, where he happily opines on the sins of the media.

Both authors overstate their case, missing the fact that our industry is bursting at the seams in a dynamic period of growth and change. From online news to wire sources to ever-expanding cable channels to proliferating niche magazines, America is drowning in information. For every Rush Limbaugh, there is C-SPAN's unfiltered broadcast of congressional committee hearings. For every radio shock jock like Stern, there's CNN host Larry King, giving viewers a kinder, gentler view of guests. The media industry is far from perfect, but it's moving in the right direction--providing more diverse and unfettered coverage of events so that people can make up their own minds. It's up to consumers to choose their information wisely and not rely on journalists or the government to choose for them. That's what American democracy is about.

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