Volume 90, Issue 71
Thursday, January 30, 1997
U.S. media ethics under the microscope
Breaking The News
By James Fallows
Random House of Canada
Paperback, $16.95, 337 pages
In 1987, ABC reporter Peter Jennings appeared on the television show Ethics in America and was told to imagine the U.S. was at war and he was travelling with enemy military units.
Asked if he would roll his camera if these units set up an ambush which would gun down the Americans, Jennings hesitated. When he answered no, he would try to warn the Americans, CBS reporter Mike Wallace blasted Jennings for not doing his job.
The host of the show asked Wallace if Jennings should have a higher patriotic or human duty to do something besides roll tape. "No," Wallace said. "You don't have a higher duty. You're a reporter."
* * *
So begins James Fallows' first chapter called "Why We Hate the Media" in his book Breaking the News. The book takes a disturbing look at a sordid American press and tries to offer concrete solutions for some of its problems.
Despite being part of the media establishment (Fallows is the editor of U.S. News and World Report), he makes no qualms about bringing inadequacies of the media to the surface. His analysis is very critical of the establishment but his arguments are sound.
One of Fallows' main concerns is the trend of news stories to concentrate on political fighting over issues rather than the issues themselves. Life is portrayed as a spectacle and issues fall by the wayside, he argues. He compares today's newswriting to sportswriting because without conflict there is no story.
Much of his criticism is focused on the TV medium. Programs worry more about entertaining than informing and the struggle for viewers is emphasized more than good or bad reporting styles. He especially attacks media celebrities and "buckrakers" who command five-figure salaries for single speaking engagements.
Fallows also writes that the media has forgotten how important time lines are to put stories in perspective. Covering issues on the surface without any history is too easy and too common, he writes.
Because of these internal problems, Fallows says the gap between what is important to viewers and news people is growing.
There is a glimmer of hope, though. The author praises the new emergence of public journalism which tries to be useful to the public by listening carefully and reporting on public concerns.
Fallows uses countless examples of media reports to back up his statements. He prints the names of journalists who have failed in his eyes and criticizes both Republican and Democratic organizations.
The focus of the book is only on American media and politics and it would have been interesting if he had mentioned foreign press and questioned whether there are any countries whose media should serve as a model for the U.S.
The picture he does paint is intriguing. American media establishments should take note and use this book as a wake-up call.
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