James Fallows Interview (2005): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

U.S. Foreign Policy and the Bush Administration: Conversation with James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly, March 28, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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The Press since 9/11

Let's talk about the press. You've written about the press. Its performance in the buildup to the war was not outstanding. Was the press being patriotic, or what?

The press situation was fascinating for a variety of reasons. Again, a whole bunch of circumstances just happened to come together in a particular alignment. One of those circumstances was that the attacks of September 11 were in the two centers of the press, New York and Washington. The effect in New York was profound, because a lot of the normally liberal New York media establishment was made understandably hawkish by the fact that they had been attacked. The culmination of this was when the New Yorker magazine, the week before the war began, ran an editorial essentially saying, "Let's go to war!" -- something you would not have seen in the Vietnam era, you wouldn't have seen in any other era, but it was because New York had been attacked. So, the New York establishment was much less dove-ish than it would have been.

The Washington establishment -- the minor factor was an attack in Washington. It wasn't as bad as the one in New York, obviously. The major factor was the feeling, starting in September of 2001, of Washington as an imperial war capital. There was a powerful, powerful atmosphere there, and if you weren't with the program, saying, "There's business to be done and we have to go clean their clocks in Iraq," you were not really a participant, you weren't really a man, you weren't really playing ball with the big guys.

So, both New York and Washington were militarized in a way they [wouldn't have been] otherwise. And the press, for one reason or another, didn't feel as if they could challenge as directly as it should the case for war. There're lots of incidental reasons, but the bottom line is, as you were saying, it wasn't engaged to expose these arguments to scrutiny.

What about the larger media environment? Has there been a ratcheting up of the failure of the media? I'm now talking about things like CNN and Fox News, and so on, where we're bombarded with all of these images and it's almost like a preview of the coming war, making the war an exciting movie.

Let me give you my unified field theory in thirty seconds on this point. What's interesting to me about the change in the media during my time in working in it, which is to say the last thirty years, is that it's gone through an important and simple transition. The transition is from being a very unusual kind of business to just a business. There was a time when the media was like, say, law or medicine. It was a business, but not really. There was a larger function it was supposed to play. Now it's just a business. That means that at certain ends it's very good -- there's a high-end media that's very good -- but the mass media can't survive unless they can command your attention minute by minute. So, on cable news in particular, whatever is the spectacle of the moment, whether it's O.J. Simpson, or Princess Diana being killed, or a war, they're all sort of the same. They're all a spectacle.

Almost entertainment.

Yes. It's something that will command the attention because that's what they need to do to survive. You see this on local TV news, especially. So there is a natural bias of TV news in particular for the next spectacle, and a war trumps almost anything, including O.J. So, I think that is a predisposition. The "embedded" reporters in the war -- that was very, very interesting to see.

It also means there's less foreign coverage, because it's very, very expensive to do and only a few high-end publications can afford it anymore.

Especially in the period before 9/11, there wasn't a virtue that you always have demonstrated in your work, that if you were covering [a place], you go out and stay, as you did in Asia. That was not the case here.

We get the news the market provides. There are high-end specialized publications for a few, but for most mainstream TV, the more time reporters spend learning about something, the more it costs. If you're stationing somebody in Beijing or in Jakarta, or wherever, that's expensive. The natural force of things means there's less and less of that and more [things like] cable talk shows where people have opinions on each subject that comes up, whether or not they've spent any time looking into it.

Do you think the new media can contribute to our insights here, or will they become part of the problem?

I think both of those things. The new media contribute to the fact that it's simultaneously the best and the worst time for media. It's best in the sense that if you want to, you can find out more information now than anybody before in history could. You can read daily newspapers from Baghdad, you can read translated versions of the Saudi Arabian press, all stuff nobody could've done ten years ago. So, that's great. Bloggers and independent journalists fit in that, because it's easier for somebody who happens to know about a particular subject to get his or her views heard than ever before. But also, there's more of a chorus of people doing the equivalent of cable news talk shows, having opinions about X, Y and Z. So, it's both better and worse at the same time.

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