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James Fallows

"People everywhere," A.J. Liebling once noted in the pages of the New Yorker, "tend to confuse what they read in newspapers with news." If this dictum can be applied to all channels of modern journalism, including television and talk radio, one gets an exceedingly sorry conception of what our nation considers pertinent these days. Most local television newscasts suggest something along the lines of America's Most Viscerally Depressing Home Videos, a daily high-intensity pastiche of ugly shootings, ghastly car wrecks, and freak disasters, mitigated only by the weather and the local baseball game.

Meanwhile, newspapers and round-table talk shows cover politics as if they were at a basketball game, forgoing in-depth consideration of important issues for endless debate and speculation concerning politicians' campaign strategies. Add to this the increasingly frequent bouts of hysterical media tabloidism, as with the deaths of Princess Diana and JFK, Jr. (and, of course, the coverage of that woman, Miss Lewinsky), and you don't need Brill's Content to tell you that the Fourth Estate has veered horribly out of control.

Enter James Fallows, former editor of The Atlantic Monthly and US News and World Report and frequent commentator for NPR. His 1996 book, Breaking the News, expertly examines the causes and implications of journalism's recent infatuation with confrontation, negativism, and punditry. According to Fallows, most of the modern media establishment has blurred the line between news and entertainment, lost touch with the sentiments of average people, and overaccentuated conflict as the cornerstone of news reporting. As a result, in constantly portraying all events as overblown catastrophes and all political figures as self-aggrandizing opportunists, modern journalism has led to the proliferation of a corrosive cynicism that has undermined the foundations of our civic institutions and threatened the basic process of American democracy.

Comparing the decline of the journalistic establishment to those of the post-Vietnam military and the Big Three-automakers in the '70s and '80s, Fallows spends much of the book admonishing his colleagues for being stuck in an occupational "denial stage," even fingering such golden calves of broadcast journalism as Mike Wallace, George Will, and Cokie Roberts. Fallows deftly skewers the aforementioned telepundits, citing distortion by the star-making realities of television exposure as the main contributor to modern journalistic malaise. This lamentable byproduct of the video age, coupled with the excessive attack-dog brashness bred in reporters since Watergate, has, according to Fallows, exacerbated rather than alleviated our current national crises: widespread electoral apathy and community dissolution.

To my mind, this type of blunt insider scrutiny has been long necessary to stem the tide of tabloidism in today's media establishment. Fallow's book clearly and thought-provokingly diagnoses the nature of the ills befalling the modern media. Breaking the News deserves a read by anyone interested in how our journalistic establishment, once the nation's dutiful watchdog, became rabid, broke its chain, and started running around the country biting all the hands that feed it. As the local news might put it, "Fallows slams the media. Film at Eleven."

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that, since reading Mr. Fallows's book, I have come to know him personally through his son Tom (a good college friend who also rowed in my national championship boat at Harvard.) His private demeanor, much like his public persona, is one of warmth, humor, and integrity.

Follow to Fallows.

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