James Fallows

This article, via Nick Beaudrot, demonstrates that James Fallows (he has a blog too) had been very good for a while now.

He discusses problems in the Media. It is from 1996. On the flip I have an extended excerpt of a small part of it that is brilliant. But read the whole thing.

[Harvard Law Professor Charles] Ogletree turned to the two most famous members of the evening's panel, better known even than Westmoreland. These were two star TV journalists: Peter Jennings, of World News Tonight and ABC, and Mike Wallace, of 60 Minutes and CBS.

Ogletree brought them into the same hypothetical war. He asked Jennings to imagine that he worked for a network that had been in contact with the enemy North Kosanese government. After much pleading Jennings and his news crew got permission from the North Kosanese to enter their country and film behind the lines. Would Jennings be willing to go? Of course, he replied. Any reporter would—and in real wars reporters from his network often had.

But while Jennings and his crew were traveling with a North Kosanese unit, to visit the site of an alleged atrocity by U.S. and South Kosanese troops, they unexpectedly crossed the trail of a small group of American and South Kosanese soldiers. With Jennings in their midst the Northern soldiers set up an ambush that would let them gun down the Americans and Southerners.

What would Jennings do? Would he tell his cameramen to "Roll tape!" as the North Kosanese opened fire? What would go through his mind as he watched the North Kosanese prepare to fire?

Jennings sat silent for about fifteen seconds. "Well, I guess I wouldn't," he finally said. "I am going to tell you now what I am feeling, rather than the hypothesis I drew for myself. If I were with a North Kosanese unit that came upon Americans, I think that I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans."

Even if it meant losing the story? Ogletree asked.

Even though it would almost certainly mean losing my life, Jennings replied. "But I do not think that I could bring myself to participate in that act. That's purely personal, and other reporters might have a different reaction."

Ogletree turned for reaction to Mike Wallace, who immediately replied. "I think some other reporters would have a different reaction," he said, obviously referring to himself. "They would regard it simply as another story they were there to cover." A moment later Wallace said, "I am astonished, really." He turned toward Jennings and began to lecture him: "You're a reporter. Granted you're an American" (at least for purposes of the fictional example; Jennings has actually retained Canadian citizenship). "I'm a little bit at a loss to understand why, because you're an American, you would not have covered that story."

Ogletree pushed Wallace. Didn't Jennings have some higher duty to do something other than just roll film as soldiers from his own country were being shot?

"No," Wallace said flatly and immediately. "You don't have a higher duty. No. No. You're a reporter!"

Jennings backtracked fast. Wallace was right, he said: "I chickened out." Jennings said that he had "played the hypothetical very hard."He had lost sight of his journalistic duty to remain detached.

As Jennings said he agreed with Wallace, several soldiers in the room seemed to regard the two of them with horror. Retired Air Force General Brent Scowcroft, who would soon become George Bush's National Security Advisor, said it was simply wrong to stand and watch as your side was slaughtered. "What's it worth?" he asked Wallace bitterly. "It's worth thirty seconds on the evening news, as opposed to saving a platoon."

After a brief discussion between Wallace and Scowcroft, Ogletree reminded Wallace of Scowcroft's basic question. What was it worth for the reporter to stand by, looking? Shouldn't the reporter have said something ?

Wallace gave a disarming grin, shrugged his shoulders, and said, "I don't know." He later mentioned extreme circumstances in which he thought journalists should intervene. But at that moment he seemed to be mugging to the crowd with a "Don't ask me!"expression, and in fact he drew a big laugh—the first such moment in the discussion. Jennings, however, was all business, and was still concerned about the first answer he had given.

"I wish I had made another decision," Jennings said, as if asking permission to live the past five minutes over again. "I would like to have made his decision"—that is, Wallace's decision to keep on filming.

A few minutes later Ogletree turned to George M. Connell, a Marine colonel in full uniform. Jaw muscles flexing in anger, with stress on each word, Connell said, "I feel utter contempt."

Two days after this hypothetical episode, Connell said, Jennings or Wallace might be back with the American forces—and could be wounded by stray fire, as combat journalists often had been before. When that happens, he said, they are "just journalists." Yet they would expect American soldiers to run out under enemy fire and drag them back, rather than leaving them to bleed to death on the battlefield.

"I'll do it!" Connell said. "And that is what makes me so contemptuous of them. Marines will die going to get . . . a couple of journalists." The last words dripped disgust.

Not even Ogletree knew what to say. There was dead silence for several seconds. Then a square-jawed man with neat gray hair and aviator glasses spoke up. It was Newt Gingrich, looking a generation younger and trimmer than he would when he became speaker of the House, in 1995. One thing was clear from this exercise, Gingrich said. "The military has done a vastly better job of systematically thinking through the ethics of behavior in a violent environment than the journalists have."

That was about the mildest way to put it. Although Wallace and Jennings conceded that the criticism was fair—if journalists considered themselves "detached,"they could not logically expect American soldiers to rescue them—nevertheless their reactions spoke volumes about the values of their craft. Jennings was made to feel embarrassed about his natural, decent human impulse. Wallace seemed unembarrassed about feeling no connection to the soldiers in his country's army or considering their deaths before his eyes "simply a story." In other important occupations people sometimes face the need to do the horrible. Frederick Downs, after all, was willing to torture a man and hear him scream. But Downs had thought through all the consequences and alternatives, and he knew he would live with the horror for the rest of his days. When Mike Wallace said he would do something horrible, he barely bothered to give a rationale. He did not try to explain the reasons a reporter might feel obliged to remain silent as the attack began—for instance, that in combat reporters must be beyond country, or that they have a duty to bear impartial witness to deaths on either side, or that Jennings had implicitly made a promise not to betray the North Kosanese when he agreed to accompany them. The soldiers might or might not have found such arguments convincing; Wallace didn't even make them.

I have thoughts about this one small piece of the story but I would rather you absorb the whole piece without my biases.

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    I will interject one bias (none / 0) (#1)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 09:03:28 PM EST
    To what degree do you think Fallows' description of the Meida resembles today's blogosphere?

    I say a whole lot.

    There's a lot to process (none / 0) (#2)
    by andgarden on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 09:33:38 PM EST
    and I'm not even half way through, but this stood out to me:
    When Edward Kennedy began giving his views about the balanced-budget amendment, Rather steered him back on course: "Senator, you know I'd talk about these things the rest of the afternoon, but let's move quickly to politics. Do you expect Bill Clinton to be the Democratic nominee for re-election in 1996?"

    Heh (none / 0) (#3)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 09:45:14 PM EST
    Of course, the "politics" do matter (none / 0) (#4)
    by andgarden on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 09:49:00 PM EST
    that's why we have political parties and partisanship. The question of "the most important question" really doesn't always come down to what ordinary people might ask their Senator--or the President.

    Fallows says:

    In fact [journalists] ask questions that only their fellow political professionals care about. And they often do so--as at the typical White House news conference--with a discourtesy and rancor that represent the public's views much less than they reflect the modern journalist's belief that being independent boils down to acting hostile.
    Allow me to be arrogant for a moment: shouldn't ordinary Americans--you know, the voters--actually give a damn about the mechanics of politics. The sausage making really is interesting (to me. . .), even if it's infuriating.

    On the other hand, one of Bill Clinton's great successes was to make most people believe that he cared more about substance (his famous "laundry list" SOTUs) than "politics."

    Ugh, I don't know what I think about this.


    What is politics? (none / 0) (#5)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 09:53:49 PM EST
    The point Fallows is making is the coverage of politics does not cover what the sgnificance of voting in Republicans or Democrats means?

    The policies matter.


    Well, politics to me is (none / 0) (#7)
    by andgarden on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 09:55:40 PM EST
    why the politicians do what they do. You just gave the answer to "why be partisan?"

    They do what they do to win elections (none / 0) (#8)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 10:00:04 PM EST
    The question is not significant or should not be to the Media.

    The question is what wiull it mean if that guy or gal wins?


    Fair enough (none / 0) (#9)
    by andgarden on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 10:01:48 PM EST
    but would I be reading political blogs if I didn't care about the play-by-play?


    I would have expected this section on Bill Bradley to raise your interest.


    Nah (none / 0) (#10)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 10:13:59 PM EST
    I see what you are getting at but that is just Bradley screwing up.

    He was a lousy pol.

    But the point is to tie the policy to the politics.


    That's a really elegant way of putting it (none / 0) (#11)
    by andgarden on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 10:16:46 PM EST
    It's why Bowers and Stoller looked so stupid trying to "whip" Congress on the original supplemental--it was obviously bad policy. The politics could never have been good on it.

    More (none / 0) (#6)
    by andgarden on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 09:54:09 PM EST
    Have you ever read "The Deferential Spirit" by Joan Didion?  It's about Bob Woodward's transcription service. The article isn't free on the web, but I think I have a PDF somewhere. Yep:
    His preferred approach has been one in which "issues could be examined before the possible outcome or meaning was at all clear or the possible consequences were weighed." The refusal to consider meaning or outcome or consequence has, as a way of writing a book, a certain Zen purity, but tends toward a process in which no research method is so commonplace as to go unexplained

    James Fallowes (none / 0) (#12)
    by sab on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 10:16:48 PM EST
    James Fallowes has been an amazing journalist for many decades. He was banished to journalism's utter darkness about ten years back when he fired Steve Roberts at US News because he thought Robert's obsession with the lecture circuit interfered with his independence and integrity as a journalist. This got him in trouble with NPR, among other groups. Anyone who has observed either Roberts' subsequent careers has to at least admit that Fallowes maybe had a point.

    He has been doing remarkable work about China this year. Since we are revving ourselves up for a trade confrontation with China, it's really great that there is somewhere a journalist willing to actually report (in contrast to mere uninformed comments) on the topic. I am expressing no opinion on either side of the China trade issue. I have strong feelings going in both directions. I just feel very grateful to the tiny handful of reporters and publications that feel this is an issue where information might be helpful and worth their while to provide.

    Before he covered China, Fallowes had some frighteningly prescient articles on the Iraq war.

    Interesting (none / 0) (#13)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 10:22:33 PM EST
    Never heard that.

    SAB (none / 0) (#14)
    by sab on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 10:31:22 PM EST
    I totally admire the guy, but I can't even spell his name right in my comment. Fallows, not Fallowes. Sheesh.

    One interesting tidbit about Fallows (none / 0) (#16)
    by Molly Bloom on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 11:19:14 PM EST
    He swore off the barking head circuit at one point, criticising journalists who do the roundtables. His point is, a journalist may be an expert on a given topic, but they are not experts on all topics and have no business pretending they are.

    I note that Fallows now appears time to time on Diane Rehmn's Friday news round table, so clearly he has backed off his original position.


    One final thought upon finishing (none / 0) (#15)
    by andgarden on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 10:37:33 PM EST
    It isn't difficult to imagine that Jon Stewart read this and carried the message with him onto crossfire. (Or he just naturally understands the problem.)

    More on Fallows (none / 0) (#17)
    by ctrenta on Mon Jul 30, 2007 at 04:10:01 AM EST
    Shortly after Fallows wrote that piece, he wrote a book called Breaking The News, which turned out to be a really great book. I heard it shook some people up in the MSM and they derided it in reviews, but I've always found Fallows to be spot on with sober and hard hitting analyses.

    Check it out.

    It's Edmund Burke's fault - (none / 0) (#18)
    by Alien Abductee on Mon Jul 30, 2007 at 04:10:49 PM EST
    giving the ink-stained wretches a collective-noun reality as the Fourth Estate. Maybe otherwise we'd be reading that "freedom of speech, or of the press" as metonymy, as in "the power of the pen," "the power of the purse," or "lend me your ear," and considering it belonging simply to all of us as human beings rather than belonging to Those People over there, those members of the elite fraternity of The Press.

    In that case there would have been no answer but Peter Jennings' first, human outburst - acting on the basis of his own personal moral code. How ridiculous and pompous of Mike Wallace, at least in the absence of having taken a formal oath to that effect in order to join the fraternity, pledging ideal "objectivity" and "detachment" like the physician pledging to first do no harm.

    So what *are* your thoughts on it? (none / 0) (#19)
    by Alien Abductee on Tue Jul 31, 2007 at 07:33:06 PM EST
    I have thoughts about this one small piece of the story but I would rather you absorb the whole piece without my biases.

    It also strikes me that Obama is trying to jump over this problem of too much emphasis on "pure politics" vs substance with the approach he's taking in his campaign. Axelrod is telling his story as a person in such an immediate and personal way that it forces the cynical horserace stuff from the pundits to take a back seat. It leads to fanatical and not always well informed Obama worshippers, but maybe that's not such a bad thing if otherwise they wouldn't be engaged in a political campaign and fighting for their interests at all.