Features Archive - Respond to this Article

Jan/Feb 1999 - Volume 31 Issues 1 & 2

Special 30th Anniversary Section - JUST THE FACTS
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James Fallows:

is author of six books, most recently Breaking the News.

The problem the Monthly's getting at is not confined to news stories with loaded lead-ins. ("Dogged by criticism of his role in the Lewinsky case, President Clinton today raised a man from the dead with the slightest touch of his hand.") It's just as common, and has an even longer history, in the portentous-sounding but vapid zingers that end the typical TV or radio news report. ("The president may have conquered death today. Whether he can beat Kenneth Starr tomorrow Š is not so clear.") And whether used at the beginning of a story or the end, such fillips are not the real problem. The menace is the incredibly shallow, incurious, and cynical view of life that lies behind them.

Within limits, the effort to put attitude into a news story is a worthy one - or, at a minimum, one this magazine should be slow to condemn. In one way or another it has urged for years that reporters use as many tools as they can to share what they've seen - what they know - with the reader. It was in this very magazine, a mere 25 years ago, that I wrote (at the dictation suggestion of the editor) a review of Ward Just's book of short stories, The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert. The point of that review, and of other Monthly articles passim, was that a Flaubert-like, novelistic sensibility can add to a full understanding of public life. This was in contrast to the preceding "just the facts" wire-service ethic that led some of the funniest people in the press to write dull, constipated stories and to use euphemisms like "tired and emotional" to describe politicians who were drunk and stuporous on the Senate floor.

Yes, there should be places where the facts come through straight and plain. The lead of a story is usually such a place. Yes, there should be clues to the reader about what is a clear-as-we-can-make-it factual summary and what is the extra interpretation. But trying to move beyond the straight facts is not the big problem here.

The problem, I think, is that the people writing these stories are less interested, and therefore less interesting, than reporters really need to be. The mark of a great reporter is boundless curiosity - a desire to find out all there is to know. Name your era, and anyone we think of as a great reporter from that time was distinguished by omnivorous curiosity. Stephen Crane in Cuba. Charles Dickens roaming through America. John Hersey in Hiroshima. James Agee in the South. The grossly underrated John Gunther, in his Inside series of books. They made their mistakes, but they wanted to learn every single thing they could about as many topics as they could.

Today's most famous journalists, by comparison, (a) spend a much larger proportion of their time spitting out opinions and predictions, especially on TV, rather than taking in new material, and (b) are curious about a much narrower slice of the world. It's somewhat exaggerated, but basically fair, to say that today's pundit and star political-writer class is not driven by fascination about the world in general, or even about politics in the broadest sense. Rather, its members are fascinated by one specific question: which politicians are gaining or losing power. That's why they package every public event in a "Dogged by criticismŠ" wrapping. That's why they spend so much time on pointless prediction and speculation about future shifts in strength. That's also why they're so cynical, since boiling life down to this one simple struggle is as deadening as any other reductionist view. (Imagine a coroner who let his dealings with other people be reduced to calculations of how long before they showed up on his slab.)

The game of musical chairs that leaves some people in office and some out is a legitimate topic. But it makes up about 2 percent of what's significant and interesting in life. As long as it occupies most of the imagination of the political-writer class, their claim on the public imagination will shrink.


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