The anger comes from the problem that John Dewey identified: the public's sense that it is not engaged in politics, public life, or the discussion that goes on in the press. The media establishment seems to talk at people rather than with or even to them. When anchormen travel to the site of a flood or bombing or hurricane, when correspondents do standups from the campaign trail or the White House lawn, they usually seem to be part of a spectacle . . . rather than part of a process that would engage us in solving or even considering shared problems.
I thought that this was blather: in the name of a public presumably yearning for a more highfalutin level of engagement in the nation's civic life, Fallows was expressing an elitist's distaste for a mass medium. Fallows's archvillain was John McLaughlin—for, in my words, "reducing punditry to buffoonery and reminding men of high purpose of the gold that can be theirs for acting like idiots on camera."
McLaughlin was the bombastic host of public television's The McLaughlin Group. His monument, in Fallows's words, was television's "political talk industry," the passing of journalists on TV as inquisitive reporters in favor of journalists as pundits "flinging views at one another."
It was all so terribly bad.
The interesting thing about McLaughlin 16 years later is that he's television's forgotten bogeyman. He's still on public television, but I'll be honest here—until I googled him I wasn't sure he was even alive. TV news is now Sean Hannity and Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow, and also Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert; if it was once a wasteland, now it's a rainforest. A lot of TV news is as awful as it ever was, or even worse; but it's no longer the villain of the melodrama "Lady Journalism Loses Her Virtue."
Lady Journalism would soon come a cropper, ravaged by a highwayman still just up the road in 1996, out of sight of Fallows. But by 2002, when Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert Kaiser, two Washington Post veterans, published The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril (a book on my shelf that I didn't write about when it was new), they took due note of the digital age, just then setting in but not yet a reign of terror.
Downie and Kaiser said the usual about TV news: "Local television stations lard their newscasts with dramatic video fragments of relatively inconsequential but sensational fires and auto accidents. Broadcast and cable networks devote news time to mindless chat and debate." (But they ignored McLaughlin.)
They offered the conventional wisdom about newspapers: "Most newspapers have shrunk their reporting staffs, along with the space they devote to news, to increase their owners' profits. Most owners and publishers have forced their editors to focus more on the bottom line than on good journalism."
And as for digital news, just then taking form, it was "increasing the competition to be first with the most enticing story while loosening traditional standards of confirmation, accuracy, taste and fairness." But it was also stretching to near infinity the nation's capacity to transmit news and rapidly multiplying consumers' means of receiving it—each an exciting development. It was splintering audiences; and it was menacing fat cats, guaranteeing "further strain on the businesses of most news-media owners, threatening their exceptional profitability and their budgets for news coverage."
Downie and Kaiser wrote, "Some old ways of doing things have been displaced by new ones. But nothing has yet challenged the pre-eminence of broadcast and cable television, and ink-on-paper newspapers and magazines." They didn't make any promises about this continuing for long.
My 1996 column compared Breaking the News, a book that didn't impress me much, with a book that did, Nitty Gritty: A White Editor in Black Journalism, a memoir by Ben Burns, an early editor of Ebony. I wrote that Burns, a Communist and an integrationist, had a social agenda to advance, and that he "served a public disdained by the media establishment of a half century ago." In other words, he had something specific to say to an audience the mainstream media ignored. He also had an employer who eventually fired him—John H. Johnson, who was less in interested in social agendas than in making himself a fortune by selling middle-class African-Americans a magazine they could call their own. Today a Ben Burns can set up shop online (crossing his fingers that his audience will find him there), and a John H. Johnson can look for some other way to get rich.
What I was thinking, as I reread the old column, was that when eras of upheaval finally run their course and historians sort them out, they like to point to the now clearly discernible rot that left the old order a lot more vulnerable to collapse than anyone would have guessed at the time. In the case of journalism at the turn of the century, the historians can say that when the Internet ambushed mainstream media it caught them fat and flaccid, their pants down and their chambers empty, thanks to the myopia of corporate profiteers. Evidence: the bloated profit margins. Evidence: TV news.
But what moved me as I reread Fallows dwelling on John McLaughlin wasn't the disaster McLaughlin presumably portended. It was his irrelevance—except as an emblem of what troubled the media's best minds at a time when they didn't know what was about to hit them.