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Fighting the Fallows Effect

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In 1942 when John H. Johnson was trying to launch his first magazine, Negro Digest, he couldn't find a print shop anywhere that would take his business on credit. So he resorted to trickery. At the time he was responsible for the house organ of the insurance company where he worked, and he began slipping Digest copy in with the copy of the company monthly. When the company's printer finally caught on Johnson convinced him "that since he had already set most of the Negro Digest copy, he might as well finish the job."

Ben Burns, Johnson's first editor, tells this story in a new memoir, Nitty Gritty: A White Editor in Black Journalism. It's the latest book I've read, and it cut down to size the book I finished just before it, the one rapturously received by guilt-stricken journalists as the diagnosis of everything that's wrong with their business. James Fallows critiques the media by hitting the broad side of the barn--the Washington press corps. What Fallows does not take into account in Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy is suggested by Burns's anecdote. It's journalism's fecundity.

Though breast-beating can't hurt, the better antidote to journalism that's incompetent has always been journalism that isn't. Burns's career testifies to that. The black press during its heyday in America, like the ethnic press before and since, held a mirror up to a minority that the mass media couldn't be bothered with. Burns was national editor and later editor in chief at the Chicago Defender, and he founded and ran Negro Digest and Ebony for Johnson. Ebony in particular was historic: it half identified and half created a national market of black readers who either aspired to or had entered the middle class. Journalism in a democracy is irrepressible, which is why James Fallows's hysterical subtitle ("undermine" is set off on the jacket in red ink) commits one of the sins his book claims to abhor: it reduces complexity to a catch phrase.

(Who wrote that subtitle--Fallows's bete noire, John McLaughlin?)

Breaking the News is a useful synthesis of the received wisdom of journalism critics over the past 10 or 20 years. It's been through four printings already and will have no lasting impact. But early in an election year--as journalists ponder the sins of omission, derision, and trivialization they know they're going to commit--applauding Fallows is an easy act of preemptive expiation.

In his book he observes that surveys revealing the depths of the public's dismay with journalists receive "muted coverage in the national media." The coverage of Breaking the News has been anything but. Its release last month was heralded by an Atlantic excerpt, Pantheon Books shipped the galleys out to likely columnists ("We knew pretty much who his friends were," a Pantheon publicist told me), and Fallows spread his views among local talk-show hosts eager to fix blame for an age shot with cynicism. A day or two after my copy arrived in the mail I spotted Frank Rich's seconding speech in the New York Times (Fallows and Rich were pals at Harvard and worked together on the Crimson), and other encomiums quickly followed. Within just a week or two the counterreaction made its appearance--David Remnick's New Yorker piece wishing the "priggish" author had spent a day of his life in a newsroom. And the weekend brought a counter-counterreaction: James Warren of the Tribune found Rich too generous, Remnick too harsh, and Breaking the News an "important effort," though a little whiny and a little careless in lifting material from Warren's "Sunday Watch."

(In the name of full disclosure, Warren reported that he was mentioned, "albeit favorably," in Fallows's book. Actually, not all that favorably. Warren is mentioned as someone who made a name for himself in Washington with his "Cokie watch," a weekly chronicle of big-name reporters who pop up "shamelessly on the gravy train," and then bought his own ticket on the train by taking a TV gig: last summer Warren joined the cast of CNN's The Capital Gang. Fallows's tsk-tsk is a faint one, as befits the censure of someone whose reporting you're cribbing from.)

The archvillain in Fallows's screed is McLaughlin--for reducing punditry to buffoonery and reminding men of high purpose of the gold that can be theirs for acting like idiots on camera. But then just about everything on television that pretends to be journalistic distresses him: the slapdash coverage, the celebrity of anchors, the nondifferentiation between what matters and what doesn't. There's at least one solution to these evils that Fallows doesn't go into. It's to not watch much television, and believe me it works. But if Fallows didn't watch television he wouldn't have been able to write this book, which makes cosmic generalizations that always seem to come down to denouncing what's on the tube:

"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."

Who can argue with that? But when Fallows is correct, which is most of the time, he's often--not always--correct at this self-evident level of analysis. Sometimes when he's right he could have been more right if he'd thought a little harder about his subject.

For example, he writes, "The truth that today's media establishment has tried to avoid seeing is that it will rise or fall with the political system. [The emphasis is his.] The ultimate reason people buy the New York Times rather than People, or watch World News Tonight rather than Entertainment Tonight, is a belief that it is worth paying attention to public affairs. If people thought there was no point even in hearing about public affairs--because the politicians were all crooks, because the outcome was always rigged, because ordinary people stood no chance, because everyone in power was looking out for himself--then newspapers and broadcast news operations might as well close up shop too, because there would be no market for what they were selling."

Here Fallows makes clear he's not writing about the media generally, and certainly not about the vineyards where Ebony's Ben Burns toiled (for an audience who believed with good reason that the outcome was always rigged against them). He's writing about the media establishment and a civil elite, the people who read the New York Times instead of People. Those Times readers are the last people who'd ever lose faith in public affairs, which will serve their interests long after it's failed everyone else's. In midparagraph this elite magically becomes "ordinary people," as Fallows slogs through murky class waters he doesn't seem to notice. Of course, the multitudes already do read People, but he ignores them.

At one point he relates a truly insignificant incident involving Michael Kinsley, then editor of the New Republic but "not yet well known as a TV figure," and Charles Peters, editor of the Washington Monthly, when they spoke years ago to a group of students considering careers in journalism. Peters told a woman in the crowd that it was better to study anything rather than journalism--you could always learn that on the job. Kinsley felt embarrassed for the woman, whom he recognized as an official of a journalism school. Somehow Fallows concludes that Kinsley's sensitivity illustrated "the danger of spending time on a lecture circuit populated mainly by corporate officials. No matter how steely your resolve...if you have normal human sympathies you'll be more reluctant to offend people with whom you have spent a pleasant day than ones you have never met."

What this sermon probably illustrates instead is that while you and I might buy Fallows's book seeking wisdom, back east they're reading it for his connections. Kinsley was another of Fallows's colleagues at the Crimson, while Peters, who appears frequently in Breaking the News as an eminence grise, was once his boss at the Monthly. As for the point he makes about normal human sympathies, I'm not sure what it is. I'd put taking the money of corporate officials right at the top of my list of reasons why journalists should stay off the lecture circuit, and I'd put getting to know them as people at rock bottom. Fallows lacerates journalists for their destructively negative approach to public matters--but the ones who feel some human warmth for their subjects he denounces too. Apparently empathy is nearly as unforgivable as antipathy.

The shift in terrain from Fallows's book to Ben Burns's was swift and dramatic. As Fallows suggests, John Dewey might protest the state of today's mass media, but surely he'd applaud the career that Burns recalls. Burns served a public disdained by the media establishment of a half century ago but engaged by its own press, which sprang up to fill the void. "Black journalism I quickly recognized as having a dual raison d'etre," Burns writes, "serving a cause and at the same time profiting from it."

This dualism made his relationship with his employer, John H. Johnson, an uncomfortable one. A longtime member of the Communist Party and a devout believer in integration, Burns writes that he wanted to advance a social agenda Johnson wouldn't risk. The prize the publisher had his eyes on was his own fortune, and to achieve it he felt he couldn't afford to offend white advertisers. At one point, Burns recalls, Johnson suggested an editorial on the theme of "Why Negroes Buy Cadillacs." Burns complied "tongue in cheek and hat in hand."

He wrote, "The fact is that a Cadillac is an instrument of aggression, a solid substantial symbol for many a Negro that he is as good as any white man. To be able to buy the most expensive car made in America is as graphic a demonstration of equality as can be found."

Burns recalls that the editorial made black militants furious. For them, "the Cadillac polemic was a summary self-indictment by Ebony, setting forth Johnson's doctrine as bluntly as a Chinese Communist wall proclamation."

Burns edited Ebony from 1945 to 1954, by which time the relationship was so frayed that Johnson fired him. Johnson went on getting richer, and Burns wound up in public relations. At 82 he's retired and still lives in Chicago.

Before joining the Defender in 1941 Burns had toiled for various Communist Party papers. "I had learned well the tricks of angling news stories to the left to savage 'reactionaries' and writing headlines to play up protest stories. My Communist apprenticeship served me well in Negro journalism.... I did not hesitate to accept the pro-black 'angle,' since I saw the scales tilted so unfairly against Negroes and believed strongly in the goals of racial integration."

Was Burns wrong to perform this angling? He believed the white press did it too--part of his job, he tells us, was rewriting white papers so that "posse" became "lynch mob" and "big burly Negro rapist" became "suspect." And he was certain the Defender served a greater good. "In some respects the Defender's national edition [which he edited] was like a traditional community newspaper for blacks in the Deep South states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. In a carryover from the 1920s the paper still boasted more than two thousand agent-correspondents who mailed in typical small-town items about births, weddings, and deaths and then sold the paper to their fellow townspeople. When I arrived, the paper still carried four full pages of such community news each week. A secretary worked full-time to decipher scrawled letters from agents who often were barely literate."

The Defender is no longer what it was, but journalism hasn't changed. I see new titles almost every week, and hear reports of new programming on access cable and new home pages on the World Wide Web. Journalism continues to send up fresh shoots around every great fallen log. Unlike Fallows, I think John McLaughlin has been a threat only to his own dignity, which lost that battle years ago.

Starts and Stats

Explain why it was that as the Bulls closed in on a mark of 39-3, everyone in town reported that they were chasing a record set by the 1971-'72 Lakers for the best start in NBA history.

Since when do 42 games constitute a "start"? That's over half the season. If 42, why not 48? According to a chart in last Monday's Sun-Times, the 1966-'67 Philadelphia 76ers won 37 of their first 40 games, lost a game, then won 9 in a row to climb to 46-4. Is that also a record? That same Lakers team of '71-'72 finished at 69-13, which still stands as the all-time-best 82-game start.

Two seasons ago the Houston Rockets won their first 15 games. Which was a start, and perfection--and a record that'll mean something until a team wins 16.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / Peter Barreras.

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