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Journalist-Author Fallows Writes Off National Press Civic Journalism On Local Level May Solve Problems, He Says

The nation’s top journalists are forgetting their responsibility to make society work and that what they write or broadcast each day “really matters,” author James Fallows said.

Instead, they feed the voters’ cynicism, distort the public’s view of government by emphasizing the negative and compromise their principles by taking cash for “performing” before special interests.

The critique of the nation’s media - delivered in Spokane on Tuesday by one of its own members - was the basis of the first annual lecture on Ethics and Media for Washington State University’s Thomas S. Foley Institute.

It’s also the theme of Fallows’ new book, “Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy.”

The Washington editor for The Atlantic Monthly, Fallows criticized newspapers and television for painting “a needlessly bleak, distorted picture of the world.” Some recent examples:

When Commerce Secretary Ron Brown died this month in a plane crash, coverage of the memorial service were filled with descriptions of Brown as a person who built coalitions among different groups. Before he died, the embattled secretary was described as “the eyesore of the Clinton administration.”

“There is no well-rounded sense of the good and bad a person accomplished in life,” he said.

The vast majority of coverage of the Republican presidential primary dwelt on the candidates’ negative aspects and described them as lackluster. They were serious candidates who deserved better, he said.

Fallows reserves some of his harshest criticism for national reporters who become stars, appearing on television shows that discuss news and politics. These reporters, whom he labels “buckrakers,” cash in on their celebrity by collecting large speaking fees from business or lobbyist groups.

“They are often talking about things they don’t know about,” he said at a news conference before his speech.

Although Fallows received $7,500 for his speech Tuesday in the Crescent Court ballroom downtown, he draws distinctions between himself and such buckrakers as George Will and Cokie Roberts. He sets a limit on fees, speaks mainly to educational institutions, and only talks about things he knows about - in this case, his book, which he spent 1-1/2 years researching.

While the problems with journalism are most noticeable in the national press and television networks, the solution may come from local and regional newspapers, he said. A practice called public or civic journalism attempts to reconnect reporters and editors with their readers or viewers.

Local newspapers sponsor forums to discuss their cities’ futures. They poll to find out which issues their communities consider important, then tailor political coverage to those issues rather than the candidates’ topic of the day.

Public journalism can be misused, he cautioned. Marketing consultants can prod newspapers into giving people only the things they want to hear or changing to “happy talk news you can use,” he said.

“It can become a gimmick that can entrap news organizations,” Fallows said. “But we have to be tolerant of experimentation. It’s better to try 10 new ideas, even if seven of them ultimately are bad.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo