Every several days I manage to spend a few hours at the Newberry Library organizing some old files of mine they now have, and the last time I was there I came across a column I’d written in 1996. I’d forgotten the column, and I’d forgotten the acclaimed book the column focused on, Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, by James Fallows. And I’d forgotten that the menace to journalism costing Fallows hours of sleep once was public enemy number one of all high-minded media critics.
That menace was TV news. “Just about everything on television that pretends to be journalistic distresses [Fallows],” I wrote then: “the slapdash coverage, the celebrity of anchors, the nondifferentiation between what matters and what doesn’t.” The viewing public had become angry, cynical, and estranged, and I quoted Fallows trying to put his finger on the reasons why. He wrote: