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Should We Shoot the Messenger?

Books: James Fallows takes the media to task for watering down politics and undermining democracy. Oh, did we mention he's also a journalist?

February 18, 1996|BRIAN ALCORN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bob Dole is the old guy.

Steve Forbes is the rich guy.

Pat Buchanan is the mean guy.

Lamar Alexander is the plaid guy.

Bill Clinton is the guy who wants to keep his job.

If this is the rough sum of your knowledge of the 1996 presidential race, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Or, of course, the media.

In "Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine Democracy in America" (Pantheon), James Fallows argues that the news media are directly responsible for the decline of American public life, for the reduction of politics to mere sport, for presidential campaigns in which a guy has to wear plaid to be taken seriously.

Fallows pulls no punches. He believes the media's obsession with conflict, its rampant cynicism and the inside-the-Beltway tunnel vision of its elite stars deserve the enmity of the public. Indeed, all this is corroding democracy itself by alienating voters from the political process.

"The process drains [candidates] of their flavor and, worse, it creates the impression that none of it really matters," Fallows said in a recent interview. "Every politician now knows that spontaneity is their worst enemy. You can spend seven hours and 58 minutes of the day making your pitch, and two minutes straying from your pitch, and that two minutes is what gets covered. It's a hostility that is almost a reflex action on the part of the media."

The losers, Fallows said, are the voters who have to pick a world leader from a pack of cardboard figures as seemingly phony and prepackaged as "The Brady Bunch."

"We have helped create this," he said.

What makes his condemnation interesting is that Fallows, 46, is a member of the media elite himself. As Washington editor for Atlantic Monthly and a regular commentator on National Public Radio, he knows the opinion-making industry firsthand. A Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar, he has traveled the same path to the top of his profession as many of the journalists he excoriates in his book.

But to Fallows, those journalists who breathe the rarefied air of power, wealth and prestige have become too arrogant and too cozy with the ruling class they are supposed to cover.

In "Breaking the News," he writes: "The more prominent today's star journalists become, the more they are forced to give up the essence of real journalism, which is the search for information of use to the public. . . . The most influential parts of the media have lost sight of or have been pushed away from their central values."

*

Fallows said he got the idea for "Breaking the News" while watching "The Capitol Gang," CNN's entry in round-table punditry, where journalists shout sound bites at each other about issues of the day.

"I realized that I personally knew all the people there. Some of them were friends of mine," he said. "And they were opining with great certainty about China or whatever the subject was, even though I knew they had no idea what they were talking about. At that point, something snapped in my head."

When he's not on the air, Fallows speaks rapidly, as if he has a deadline he cannot possibly meet. But there is no trace of glibness. Instead, he conveys a monkish thoughtfulness and sincerity--exactly the kind of person you'd want as a congressman or a designated driver.

Fallows grew up in Redlands and his parents still make their home there. He says he came to journalism by accident, intending all along to become a doctor but getting sidetracked by a stint as editor of his college paper. He got his start in professional newspapering as a copy boy at the Los Angeles Times in the mid-1960s. From there, his career followed an ordinary, if steep, path from a neighborhood paper in Alabama to Atlantic Monthly. He is probably best known for his weekly commentaries on NPR's "Morning Edition." He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and two teenage sons.

Not surprisingly, "Breaking the News" hasn't been universally embraced by Fallows' colleagues. The New Yorker worked him over pretty good. In Newsday, media critic James Ledbetter wrote that "James Fallows is a very smart man who should have known better than to publish this volume. . . . Not since Janet Malcolm's insistence that all journalism is morally indefensible have I read so many sweeping and easily refuted assertions about a profession that, after all, includes James Fallows."

Despite a thick skin developed in writing two equally controversial books ("National Defense" [Random House, 1981] and "Looking at the Sun," [Pantheon, 1994], which warned of Japan's global ambitions), Fallows seems rankled by the criticism. The New Yorker piece, he said, "willfully misunderstood what I was saying." And his response to Ledbetter? "Get a life."

Criticism and controversy may be hard on authors, but they're great for books. "Breaking the News" is in its fourth printing and sits at No. 8 on this week's Los Angeles Times bestseller list.

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