| Home | James Fallows, correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly -- July 2001
September 16, 2014

James Fallows is The Atlantic Monthly's national correspondent. He served as the Atlantic Monthly's Washington Editor from 1979 to 1996. In 1996-97, he was the editor of U.S. News & World Report. He's been an editor of the Washington Monthly and Texas Monthly. From 1977 to 1979 he was President Jimmy Carter's chief speech writer. He is a columnist for The Industry Standard, and writes frequently for Slate and the New York Review of Books. Fallows has written several best-selling books including, "Looking at the Sun," "More Like Us," "National Defense," and most recently, "Free Flight." He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University in 1970, and was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University. Fallows gained national attention in 1996 with his controversial book "Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy." He made the case that American journalism was sliding into mediocrity by catering to ratings and special interests, and that "objective" journalism was over.

James Fallows Now more than five years after its publication, did "Breaking the News" have the sort impact you hoped for? Did it alter the course of American journalism?

James Fallows: It would be depressing if the answer were yes because then you'd have to say the descent into carnival-dome of the last five years was something I contributed to. I think the main thing that's clear to me looking back five years, is things that were controversial or debated in the mid-1990s about whether news really was becoming infotainment and about whether it was becoming 'just' another market product and whether the political journalism business, in particular, was being driven by the talk industry -- those things aren't even debated anymore. I wrote this before Monica Lewinsky, before Diana, before Gary Condit, so I view this book as sort of a period piece at a time when the actual struggle was going on, and the struggle is over now. Do you think it's continuing in some ways?

James Fallows: Sure, it's continuing in some ways. I think there are certain things that have gotten better in the intervening years. The main pattern of the press now is that like any other product or commodity, it's becoming better and worse at the same time. The top end is better than it was before. The riches that are available online are deeper and more available. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are better established as national papers. The big difference is that mainstream media, especially broadcast coverage, has become more an entertainment. And that's the sort of market pattern. That's the pattern of anything that's left purely to the market. There are some things which are provided outside the market, like education or medical care, where you think there has to be a basic level for everybody. I think that purely by the market, the top end is extremely good and the mass end is pretty mass. I think the mass news coverage has become like mass magazine, where it's more and more just about movie stars. Was it hard to run U.S. News & World Report on the heels of writing "Breaking the News"? Did you feel like you set yourself up by accepting that job -- that everybody would be watching to see if you practiced what you preached?

James Fallows: When I was doing the book I had no idea that I would actually have a chance to be running my own publication. It probably was good that I was responsible for saying, 'Okay, you think news can be different in these various ways. Let's see what you can do.' Within the little sort of waff-like world of Washington journalism, it made a lot of people unhappy. Some people were understandly gunning for me. Apart from the evitable collision with the owner of U.S. News -- basically saying we're going okay there -- our advertisement was up, the journalistic buzz was up. [The book] probably added to the stress level, but I'm glad to have had the chance. What was the biggest challenge running U.S. News & World Report (other than getting along with Publisher Mort Zuckerman)?

James Fallows: [Laughs]. The news magazine field in general has for 40 years been under continual pressure, because first TV, then improved national newspapers, continually ate away at what news magazines were originally for. So the challenge for the category in general was particularly acute for the smallest, poorest and weakest three news magazines, that being U.S. News. Figuring out how the smallest competitor in a troubled field could thrive was the biggest challenge. Did you succeed at raising the bar?

James Fallows: I think that again -- apart from the personal battle component between me and Mort -- the indicators were going in the right way. The business indicators were positive, and so were the various ones we could have -- you know, magazine awards, citations in the press, and things like that. I think the larger point here is that the many people who have had a chance to run that magazine in the last 15 years -- they've all sort of been pushing in the same direction, which is that because it is smaller and poorer than both Time and Newsweek, it can't simply compete head on with Time and Newsweek. In order to thrive it has to do its own way of doing things where it can be the best. Each editor has sort of gotten back to this idea that a combination of education coverage, business, technology -- things other than the latest celebrity news -- is what the magazine needs, and they're going in that direction again now. While there's been apparent extreme chaos at the top of the magazine, each editor has ended up going in the direction of some kind of way to out-flank Time and Newsweek by doing something different... It's unfortunate that there's been such continual turnover in the people running the magazine because that's difficult for anybody. All of the different editors from their very different backgrounds have sort of ended up going in the same direction. You are a big proponent of civic journalism. Has it reached its peak? What is its legacy?

James Fallows: If I were writing this book over again I probably would avoid using that term because it is so poisonous, within the world of newspapers in particurlar. It's like using the word Islamic Jihad or something. The actual premises of what the reform journalists were arguing I think fit very well with what classic journalistic practices have been. You know, arguing that journalism in the long run has to be useful for the reader or people won't pay attention to it, that it has to give some big picture context. While I think the term "civic journalism" has become extremely controversial, the underlying premises are what successful publications do.

The example I would use is, if you take high-end journalism -- which is increasely separating into high-end versus mass -- the high-end publications in print, namely the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, are building a strong national base by having thorough and useful coverage of things that are not just driven by the latest scandal, that give people a sense of perspective on how the news is put together. The high-end are going more high-end. The mass is going more mass. You know I wrote this before the days of FOX Cable News and MSNBC -- kind of all talk, all the time. I'm not saying that's bad. I'm saying that just as the magazine world has been sort of -- most of what's on the newstand is glamour magazine, have a better sex life, lose weight -- mass TV, particurlarly cable TV, is becoming more like that. It's just that the news environment is becoming more of a hierarchy than it was before. What are your thoughts about the coverage of missing intern Chandra Levy? Is the press overzealous in its coverage?

James Fallows: I think this is a force of nature. There's certain stories that through history that have the magic combo of violence, celebrity, mystery and sex, and those things kind of just drive everything out like a tornado. I guess the point is that if you look at the cable news networks right now, there's really nothing but Chandra at this moment. Just like there was nothing but Diana four years ago and O.J. before that. And nothing but Florida recount. The real point is not Chandra Levy, it's this sort of this "all or nothing" approach by the cable news outlets in particular. And why is that bad?

James Fallows: Because it's an entertainment rather than a news approach. The news by definition is meant to give you some sense of the various things happening in the world, and in proportion. If you look at the front page of the New York Times, it shows you there's a lot of stuff going on. If you watch cable news, there is only one thing happening. So it's finding what is the most entertaining thing and just running that into the ground. It's not that it's wrong to cover Chandra Levy; it's like with Diana and O.J. It's just one story that eclipes everything. Was the CBS Evening News courageous or stubborn for not covering the Levy case until recently?

James Fallows: I don't watch that show so I can't really comment. To the extent that they did it to have more time for other stuff, I say that's good. But I haven't seen their show so I really don't know. If you were still at U.S. News, how would you handle the Levy coverage?

James Fallows: I think it's reached the scale where you need to cover it because it's actual news. For U.S. News it probably would not be a cover story as it was for Newsweek last week [July 16]. Again, U.S. News' niche is a little different. How can the media strike a balance between what the public needs and what the public wants? The public may need to know about policy decisions that affect their lives, but in reality, they want to know about stories like Chandra Levy.

James Fallows: I think that if you ask any hardboiled reporter, "Should you only look at the stories that score big on Oprah or something," any reporter would be offended by that. Part of their job is to tell people about things that people don't previously know they should care about. Clearly the news business is a business, and needs to remain profitable to stay in business. But there is a difference between running a successful business and being driven simply by what can get the largest mass ratings. Because what will get the largest mass ratings will always be some entertainment-like thing. Oprah will always beat any news show. The Superbowl will beat any presidential speech. A sex scandal will beat any policy issue. If you're simply looking for the greatest ratings, you will go for what the entertainment division of the network already does. But the reason you're called the news division is that you think that it is something important to the reader. It's finding a way to run a successful business based on things that matter to readers. What writers or books had the greatest influence on your journalism career?

James Fallows: I think the people of the so-called new journalism era, at a time when Tom Wolfe, David Halberstam, Norman Mailer -- that whole group of people. That's when I was in college. A lot of colleagues from sort of the Washington Monthly camp -- Taylor Branch, Nick Lemann -- people who went through the same sort of boot camp, and whose works I was kind of able to learn from as they evolved. What about books -- I know you mentioned once that you admired Ayn Rand.

James Fallows: [Laughs]. That was in junior high school. I'm glad to sort of know about her, but I wouldn't claim her as a big influence. You've written several books about large organizations -- the Defense Department, the media industry, etc. Do you try to look for a sociological angle when covering a story?

James Fallows: Sort of. When you're in and around an organization, you get a feeling for what the people are like, and what constitutes success or failure within that organization. And that usually ends up being some component of how the whole organization behaves. I think in the last 20 years, journalism in general has included more of this. Growing up, you wanted to be a doctor like your father. You stumbled into writing for your college paper at Harvard by accident. Looking back, are you happy you chose the life of journalist?

James Fallows: That's a good and hard question and the answer is yes. This line of work is hard. Writing is hard. It doesn't make people really rich. I have no financial complaints, but I'm hardly rich. It can be frustrating because you're in the fray. But saying all those things, I can't imagine anything that I would have enjoyed as much as this.

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  • Sydnie Kohara, anchor, -- January 2001
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  • David Plotz, Washington Bureau Chief, -- November 2000
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