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Why do Americans mistrust the news media? It may be because show like "The McLaughlin Group" reduce participating journalists to so many shouting heads. Or because, increasingly, the profession treats issues as complex as health-care reform and foreign policy as exercises in political gamesmanship. These are just a few of the arguments that have made Breaking the News so c Why do Americans mistrust the news media? It may be because show like "The McLaughlin Group" reduce participating journalists to so many shouting heads. Or because, increasingly, the profession treats issues as complex as health-care reform and foreign policy as exercises in political gamesmanship. These are just a few of the arguments that have made Breaking the News so controversial and so widely acclaimed. Drawing on his own experience as a National Book Award-winning journalist--and on the gaffes of colleagues from George Will to Cokie Roberts--Fallows shows why the media have not only lost our respect but alienated us from our public life. "Important and lucid...It moves smartly beyond the usual attacks on sensationalism and bias to the more profound problems in modern American journalism...dead-on."--Newsweek


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Why do Americans mistrust the news media? It may be because show like "The McLaughlin Group" reduce participating journalists to so many shouting heads. Or because, increasingly, the profession treats issues as complex as health-care reform and foreign policy as exercises in political gamesmanship. These are just a few of the arguments that have made Breaking the News so c Why do Americans mistrust the news media? It may be because show like "The McLaughlin Group" reduce participating journalists to so many shouting heads. Or because, increasingly, the profession treats issues as complex as health-care reform and foreign policy as exercises in political gamesmanship. These are just a few of the arguments that have made Breaking the News so controversial and so widely acclaimed. Drawing on his own experience as a National Book Award-winning journalist--and on the gaffes of colleagues from George Will to Cokie Roberts--Fallows shows why the media have not only lost our respect but alienated us from our public life. "Important and lucid...It moves smartly beyond the usual attacks on sensationalism and bias to the more profound problems in modern American journalism...dead-on."--Newsweek

30 review for Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jimmy

    Almost accidentally, I started reading James Fallow's blog at the Atlantic a few months ago and found it to be one of the most refreshingly insightful blogs I've read. It's rare to read someone who, even if he may not always be correct, has obviously given a lot of thought to what he writes. So I decided to read this book by him. It was written in the 90's and thus is kind of dated, but that doesn't diminish the points it makes. I thought I wouldn't learn many new things about the press that I wo Almost accidentally, I started reading James Fallow's blog at the Atlantic a few months ago and found it to be one of the most refreshingly insightful blogs I've read. It's rare to read someone who, even if he may not always be correct, has obviously given a lot of thought to what he writes. So I decided to read this book by him. It was written in the 90's and thus is kind of dated, but that doesn't diminish the points it makes. I thought I wouldn't learn many new things about the press that I wouldn't have already known by watching the movie Network, but I was wrong. This book goes in depth and really clearly outlines what is wrong with the media today, where it went wrong, how it could be better, and what's stopping us from making it better. At times, the situation seems so absurd that it felt like something Kafka made up, and it is similarly amusing and funny in that way, and would be funnier if it weren't so depressing and so true at the same time. I won't sum up what the book says, as it isn't a long book and you should really read it for yourself. I do think a lot of the issues are still relevant today, and I wonder what Fallows would say about the media now, in the year 2009, with the advent of Fox News, the internet, the blogosphere, and a bunch of other developments. The only complaint I have is that the book gets a little repetitive at times. If it could have been cut by about 30 to 50 pages by a very good editor, it would be even more powerful.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Bill Chaisson

    I have been a big fan of James Fallows since his days at The Atlantic Monthly in the '80s and '90s. I knew that Fallows was a media critic, as I associate him with the idea that journalism changed for the worse when it went from being a working-class occupation to a middle- or upper-middle-class career, especially after the 1960s. He alleged that formerly reporters and the people they interviewed had nothing in common socio-economically and that made for more critical and objective reporting. Th I have been a big fan of James Fallows since his days at The Atlantic Monthly in the '80s and '90s. I knew that Fallows was a media critic, as I associate him with the idea that journalism changed for the worse when it went from being a working-class occupation to a middle- or upper-middle-class career, especially after the 1960s. He alleged that formerly reporters and the people they interviewed had nothing in common socio-economically and that made for more critical and objective reporting. Through the late 20th century it became progressively more the case that the reporters and the people they covered would have gone to college together, thus forming an insider community on both sides of the microphone, to the detriment of news coverage. In a way, this is the jumping off point for Breaking the News, where he implies that Walter Lippman is responsible for this trend. In this 1996 book, Fallows criticizes the news media for covering all topics as conflict. He further alleges that they use their vaunted objectivity as an excuse to dodge responsibility for how covering everything as conflict affects the people's relationship with the government. He pins a certain amount of the blame for the American disengagement from public life on the media itself, the very industry that is supposed to connect them with the civic sphere and with one another. A disspiriting, not to say depressing, aspect of reading a book published in 1996, during the very end of the 2020 election is to realize how accurate and current-seeming many of Fallows's complaints remain. He has been a frequent contributor to NPR over the years, and public radio is praised in these pages, but I have been listening to it regularly since well before this book was written, and over the years they have slid into the same pattern as commercial media: they are obsessed with conflict. After some elected official makes a statement, they now have a strong tendency ask each other "how is this going to play?" rather than "how does this actually address the issue?" In a chapter called "The Gravy Train" Fallows takes journalists to task for spending too much time on television. He documents the shift in the tenor of political talk shows over the decades from a substantial discussion of issues to the equivalent of over-caffeinated Monday-morning quarterbacking. He pins much of the blame on The McLaughlin Group and Crossfire, who have substituted conversation for a polarized trading of insults and zingers. He is particularly unhappy with a triangular pattern that he identifies as "buckraking"; print journalists write witty, barbed opinion pieces that get them on the television talk shows, where they perform in an animated manner in front of an audience much larger than their readership. This makes them attractive on the lecture circuit. The pay for television appearances and lecture gigs significantly augments their income, but also draws them away from covering the news and into the world of entertainment, where conflict most definitely plays. Fallows argues that the buckraking circus as a tainting effect beyond the participants and on the whole of media. On the one hand, the general public sees these media personalities less as reasonable providers of information and more as low-rent entertainers, pale versions of movie, music, and sports stars. This decreases their credibility as journalists. On the other hand, within the media the journalists who are not on the buckraking circuit begin to imitate the style that got their colleagues there. This is partly in order to get in on the action, but also because the buckrakers become role models in a society more interested in entertainment than reasoned discourse. Three-quarters of the book is a critique of the media. In the last quarter Fallows offers a solution in the form of "public journalism." In the 1990s Jay Rosen of New York University and several editors at mid-size newspapers around the country abandoned the conflict model and began to invest in surveying their readership systematically to discover their actual concerns. Their newspapers began to run front page stories that explained the science behind a particular environmental problem, for example, rather than how a particular public official's statements about that issue played with his political opponents. The response from the public was quite favorable and the journalists felt better about themselves too. It should be noted, however, that one of the chains that Fallows lauded in 1996 for embracing public journalism, the Knight-Ridder chain, was purchased by the McLatchey group in 2006, which immediately shut down many of the former Knight-Ridder papers. In other words, journalism has continued down the road that Fallows saw it going, Americans continued to disengage with public life and be less and less informed about the issues. And then in 2016 they elected Donald Trump, a reality television star, as president of the United States. Breaking the News is a sobering read. This is in part because Fallows is such a humane person and refuses to really savage any of the journalists he criticizes. And yet, he cites such damning evidence for their complicity in the grievous despoiling, if not destruction, of his profession and our democracy. Margaret Atwood's Handmaiden's Tale leapt back into the spotlight during the Trump presidency because it seemed so prescient and apt (and spawned an excellent television show). In a more low-key way, Fallows's book is worth reading 26 years after it was first issued for the same reasons.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sally Sugarman

    This is a thought provoking book. Essentially Fallows thinks that because of the model of television, journalism has become entertainment and that too many newscasters and journalists become celebrities in their own right and are thereby compromised in giving the public the information that it needs to make informed decisions. He talks about the enormous speaking fees that people like Cokie Roberts gets. He also talks about their need for access or at least their perceived need for that. They fo This is a thought provoking book. Essentially Fallows thinks that because of the model of television, journalism has become entertainment and that too many newscasters and journalists become celebrities in their own right and are thereby compromised in giving the public the information that it needs to make informed decisions. He talks about the enormous speaking fees that people like Cokie Roberts gets. He also talks about their need for access or at least their perceived need for that. They focus on process and not substance. They are constantly analyzing strategy and the questions they ask are not the questions that the public asks when given the opportunity. They put everything in the model of a contest and are busy making predictions, which they forget when they are proved to be false. He does a fine analysis of how the Clinton Health plan was sunk by the media reporting. It was clear that a plan was needed but by focusing on strategy the press muddied the issue. They also gave as much uncritical attention to a stupid woman politician who later became New York’s lieutenant governor who hadn’t understood what she had read. He makes the comment that others have about what is not being covered and he notes how much the O. J. Simpson trial was kept in the news. Yet, what was important about that trial, which Fallows doesn’t even note, was that there was such a division between whites and blacks about the outcome. He also says that reporters have become lazy and that they don’t know their audience, who they are or what they need to know. He contrasts Walter Lippman and John Dewey who had different ideas about the role of the press and the people in a democracy. Lippman felt that technology had made the world too complex and that the ruled had to allow experts to rule. Not surprisingly, Dewey felt that a democracy could only function if its citizens had a sense of their own power to understand and help to decide. Fallows gives some examples of what he sees as responsible journalism where the reporters take an active role in finding and reporting the news. He also notes that this model is opposed by papers like the NY Times because they believe that it undermines objectivity. Fallows questions that idea. He sees public journalism as necessary for an informed electorate. The cynicism that is a part of the focus on strategy and on scandal disillusions voters. They are led to believe that all politicians are crooks as well as all newsmen being untruthful. Until his chapter on the alternative to this, I thought that Fallows was contributing to this general malaise as far as the view of the press was concerned. He really believes that events need to be put in a context and not just be fragments of gossip and sensation. These are not new criticisms but he does a good job of providing evidence for his contentions and to show how the situation evolved.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Ronald Wise

    This book should be required reading for anyone who has ever been exasperated by television news coverage and those talk shows were the pundits exchange meaningless sound-bites. I bought and first read this book about ten years ago and have relied on its material many, many times since in political discussions. It was time to refresh my memory on the details, though the names of the main culprits have changed some since the book was written - back then making outrageous political statements got This book should be required reading for anyone who has ever been exasperated by television news coverage and those talk shows were the pundits exchange meaningless sound-bites. I bought and first read this book about ten years ago and have relied on its material many, many times since in political discussions. It was time to refresh my memory on the details, though the names of the main culprits have changed some since the book was written - back then making outrageous political statements got you occasionally on shows like Crossfire, while now it might result in regular appearances on one of the partisan news networks, if not your own show.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Will Byrnes

    about how media undermines democracy - Quite good

  6. 4 out of 5

    Hope

    Essentiallly this book was a long essay that did a deep dive into the ethics of journalism and the responsibilities of the work. I can understand it not being for everyone, but since this is part of what I studied at school, I enjoyed it. I appreciated the detail that the author went into with the different points he was trying to make. Despite it being an older publication and focusing mainly on the problems of the Clinton campaign and presidency, it made so many points that were still relevant Essentiallly this book was a long essay that did a deep dive into the ethics of journalism and the responsibilities of the work. I can understand it not being for everyone, but since this is part of what I studied at school, I enjoyed it. I appreciated the detail that the author went into with the different points he was trying to make. Despite it being an older publication and focusing mainly on the problems of the Clinton campaign and presidency, it made so many points that were still relevant to this day. I am glad I decided to pick it up in the present political climate. Fallows makes many compelling points about the responsibilities of journalists and how the changing media climate has twisted their ability to do their job which is essential to the well-being of democracy, whether local or global.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Carl Pag

    the only way we can sort out what's important and what's not, is Numbers. But few media clips include any. This always puzzled me. Is it that people who major in journalism are bad at math? Fallows explained it! Journalists work on deadline. Each number needs to be fact checked by someone else. So number free (and I would say information free) articles can be turned in at the last minute. the only way we can sort out what's important and what's not, is Numbers. But few media clips include any. This always puzzled me. Is it that people who major in journalism are bad at math? Fallows explained it! Journalists work on deadline. Each number needs to be fact checked by someone else. So number free (and I would say information free) articles can be turned in at the last minute.

  8. 4 out of 5

    How

    As relevant today as it was when written in 1996 (unfortunately.)

  9. 5 out of 5

    Eric

    James Fallows was the editor at U.S. News and World Report when he wrote this book. I subscribed to it for six months a few years ago and canceled, because it was indistinguishable from Time and Newsweek. I don't know if Fallows is still with the magazine. It's safe to say that Fallows has issues with his contemporaries in the press, and he's not shy about naming names. George Will, Michael Kinsley, Cokie Roberts, and other big-name journalists come under his fire. I wonder how they all reacted t James Fallows was the editor at U.S. News and World Report when he wrote this book. I subscribed to it for six months a few years ago and canceled, because it was indistinguishable from Time and Newsweek. I don't know if Fallows is still with the magazine. It's safe to say that Fallows has issues with his contemporaries in the press, and he's not shy about naming names. George Will, Michael Kinsley, Cokie Roberts, and other big-name journalists come under his fire. I wonder how they all reacted to this book when it first came out. The press seemed to like it - the front cover, back cover, and introductory pages are filled with glowing reviews from newspapers and magazines. So what are Fallows' beefs? Here's the quick version: * The rise of TV news and lust for viewers creates shows like The McLaughlin Group and Crossfire, in which real debate is replaced by dueling talking heads shouting over one another. It may be entertaining, but it does not help the viewer understand the issues. * Too many reporters ignore the substance of complex issues and legislation and concentrate on the political implications of issues and legislation. Rather than explain the merits of a certain bill, the press focuses on how it could help or hurt its sponsor, supporters, and opponents. Politics is just a sporting event, with winners and losers. * Too many journalists command huge speaking fees to lecture at conferences conducted by special interest groups those same journalists cover. This creates a conflict of interest and suggests the journalists are giving these groups preferential treatment. It also makes the entire journalism profession look bad. How does this affect American democracy? All these practices turn people off the media and political affairs, and those that still watch are ill-informed and badly served. A democracy relies on an educated citizenry, among other things. Fallows does see hope in a new brand of journalism he calls public journalism, in which editors encourage their reporters to write on the substance of issues, and also promotes public values like civic involvement and public participation in politics. To many hard-nosed reporters, this sound like cheerleading, though Fallows insists it need not promote a specific individual, candidate, party or cause - it just encourages people to get involved. This, according to Fallows, is what people want from the media. I share Fallows' frustration with the media's focus on political horse-racing rather than substantive issues, and the debate shows often do get out of hand when all the participants are trying to out-shout everyone else to push their talking points. From a reader standpoint, I don't care about columnists speaking for hire - it's their right and they are paid to write their opinions. If they're slanted toward a group or issue, so what? Reporters, I think, should be held to a different standard, because they are not paid to state their opinions. Fallows discounts a media liberal bias, which I think is the major reason so many people are turning off the mainstream press outlets and tuning into talk radio, the Internet, and Fox News. His analysis suffers from this mistake. This is a fun book, though, filled with interesting anecdotes and journalism inside baseball. I recommend it.

  10. 5 out of 5

    David Stephens

    There has been quite a bit of discussion about the leaks of Edward Snowden recently—whether they were helpful or harmful—and within those debates, there has been even more discussion about what the role of journalism should be. Should it simply present people with information in the most "objective" way possible, or should it advocate for certain positions over others? Long time journalist for The Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows, makes it clear why this is a highly specious question to answer. He There has been quite a bit of discussion about the leaks of Edward Snowden recently—whether they were helpful or harmful—and within those debates, there has been even more discussion about what the role of journalism should be. Should it simply present people with information in the most "objective" way possible, or should it advocate for certain positions over others? Long time journalist for The Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows, makes it clear why this is a highly specious question to answer. He posits that there is no objectivity in the news, and even reporters who believe they are merely laying out the facts are gravitating toward one position or another. To put it pointedly, he quotes Jonathan Cohn: "advocacy of elite interests comes so easily that it scarcely seems like bias at all." By not stressing whatever aspect of a story journalists find the most salient, they are unknowingly cheating people out of what they need to know. Fallows doesn't limit himself to defining what it is journalists should do, though. He gives an overall account of the state of journalism, including how, in many cases, it's become infotainment, how it often gives precedence to political maneuvering over policy details, how important issues go unreported on if there is no disagreement between major figures of the two parties, and how journalists have ascended from the level of the common man up to celebrity status. All of this, of course, does a disservice to the public, who get disconnected from the world of journalists and discouraged by the sense of helplessness they feel. Fallows links many of these problems to the rise and influence of TV. The medium lends itself to style over substance. There is a telling anecdote about the way people watch TV that I have heard before and still find unbelievable. In 1984, Leslie Stahl ran a piece about President Reagan's hypocrisy on mental health: posing at the Special Olympics and a newly opened nursing home while he was cutting funding for these same things. A Reagan official soon called Stahl and lauded her for the piece, explaining that people only saw the images and didn't pay any attention to the story itself. While the book is fascinating and well done, for anyone who follows any kind of media criticism, it doesn't break a whole lot of new ground. Perhaps the most enlightening part to me was the exploration of the ongoing debate that began with Walter Lippman and John Dewey about just how much everyday citizens are able to maintain their own democracies without the help of any group of elites. Unfortunately, the book also acts as a reminder that these problems were around fifteen years ago and still persist today.

  11. 4 out of 5

    John Jaksich

    While this book was originally published in 1996, it has not lost its timeliness nor lustrous value. Mr. Fallows may one day reap generous accolades for this book-- and all his publications that he richly deserves. However, I have taken my time in finishing this book and I am glad I did so. I started to read this book during the Obama President administration-- and I learned much from the wisdom contained herein. While reading this book over a period of a few years-- I have come to understand how While this book was originally published in 1996, it has not lost its timeliness nor lustrous value. Mr. Fallows may one day reap generous accolades for this book-- and all his publications that he richly deserves. However, I have taken my time in finishing this book and I am glad I did so. I started to read this book during the Obama President administration-- and I learned much from the wisdom contained herein. While reading this book over a period of a few years-- I have come to understand how (I believe) the press can be too easily manipulated. Manipulated by forces meant to take freedoms away from many of us. These freedoms are a part of the US common fabric-- While it may sound trite to say that Democratic values can not flourish when the press is restrained-- that is in part what happened as hatred took took over parts of what was once a free press. Mr. Fallows has done the US a service by shining a bright light on what was once a press that was being attacked . Presently, parts of the press have been manipulated by forces hell bent on disseminating falsehood and robbing people of their basic freedoms. The present volume serves the reader well.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    This analysis applies equally well today. There is no reporting on policies, just on who's ahead, the politics of the policies. Upper echelon journalists are making a killing on the lecture circuit, compromising their integrity in the process. The ethics of journalism is that coverage trumps compassion. But today things are worse, as people simply lie about the facts. This analysis applies equally well today. There is no reporting on policies, just on who's ahead, the politics of the policies. Upper echelon journalists are making a killing on the lecture circuit, compromising their integrity in the process. The ethics of journalism is that coverage trumps compassion. But today things are worse, as people simply lie about the facts.

  13. 4 out of 5

    David

    This book very nearly got 5 stars from me (I generally avoid 5 star ratings). It was very eye-opening to see the forces at work that encourage reporters to cover things in the unhelpful way that so many of them do. It ends by offering a glimmer of hope in the fact that there is a movement in some journalism circled to correct these growing errors.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jennie

    I first read this about ten years ago in college and picked it up again not too long ago. It is a great read, but really depressing for anyone who looks to the media to act as a watchdog on government.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Brent

    I seem to recall reading most of this in excerpts in The Atlantic, then checking it out from the public library in hardback. I'll read Fallows on most topics, but this was just before the internet changed everything, and captured the bitter pills of the mid-1990s. I seem to recall reading most of this in excerpts in The Atlantic, then checking it out from the public library in hardback. I'll read Fallows on most topics, but this was just before the internet changed everything, and captured the bitter pills of the mid-1990s.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

    While dated with its examples, the book is prescient in content. The situation Fallows describes is even more true today than in the 90s and the warnings more important. An important read.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Hera Diani

    Confirming that journalists from developed countries are not necessary better (paging Jane Perlez!!) :)

  18. 5 out of 5

    Anastasia Sijabat

    Pardon my subjectivity since I'm a communication science student, but I think what Fallows wrote in this book was quite mindblowing. I absorb a lot of knowledge and good analysis here. Good job. Pardon my subjectivity since I'm a communication science student, but I think what Fallows wrote in this book was quite mindblowing. I absorb a lot of knowledge and good analysis here. Good job.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jess

    It's true. The title, that is. It's true. The title, that is.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Polly Callahan

    recommended by AP government teachers

  21. 5 out of 5

    Glendora

    Well-argued and clearly written. What Fallows found to be true about the media system in 1996 has only increased along the same lines today.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    Of course, things have only gotten worse since.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Steven

    Wow. Holds up incredibly well and makes a lot of sense today, even though things like Twitter weren't around when it was written. Very impressive. Wow. Holds up incredibly well and makes a lot of sense today, even though things like Twitter weren't around when it was written. Very impressive.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Caro

    Interesting review of the media industry analyzing it as a competitive sport, rtaher than as a genuine, earnest provide of information.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Don McNay

  26. 4 out of 5

    Denton Peter McCabe

  27. 4 out of 5

    Chris Griger

  28. 5 out of 5

    Samantha McGuire The Writers Web Archive

  29. 5 out of 5

    David

  30. 4 out of 5

    Rickey

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