James Fallows: Old dog learns new media

by Jeff McMahon on March 14, 2011

James Fallows

The genius of James Fallows’ new piece in The Atlantic is that he takes some of the best values of traditional journalism—skepticism, research, fairness, eagerness to question authority and topple conventional wisdom—and he applies them to traditional journalism.

He disputes the tediously common view that old journalism is better than new.

Unless they are different from anything the news business has yet undergone, the technological and market changes now disrupting journalism will have effects that are both good and bad. The reason to point this out is not so we will shrug and say, “Whatever!” It is to identify the likely problems so that we can try to buffer them—and remember that we will be slow to recognize the most beneficial possible effects.

via Learning to Love the (Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable) New Media – Magazine – The Atlantic.

I love Fallows most at moments like this—not because it’s the first time I’ve heard him say “Whatever!”

Part of this writer’s appeal has long been his measured optimism, which is contagious and heartening. Good things are happening for China, he’ll tell us, but not so good that Americans need worry about China taking over the world. Google has been destroying newspapers, he’ll tell us, but now it’s going to save them. Etc. The charm of his writerly persona (and, I suspect, his bodily one) is rooted in his willingness to offer us deeply researched reassurances.

Optimism about new journalism is neither new nor rare, and it has been rising up with increasing petulance against the Henny Penny fear that journalism is dying and taking democracy with it.

Journalism has never been all that good, Fallows reminds us, and it has frequently been in technological and economic flux. Better still, he makes a list of our worries, shows us that he’s quite serious about them, then shows us why we needn’t be quite so worried about them.

I should have known this is where Fallows stood, but I wasn’t always sure.

When True/Slant shut down last summer, Fallows mourned it as a new journalism experiment that had failed:

The years ahead for the journalism biz will amount to “experiment, experiment, experiment” — figuring out what will work as a new business model by exploring all possibilities and learning, as quickly as possible, what doesn’t work…. Sorry that True/Slant will go down as an illustration of what didn’t work, rather than what did.

via True/Slant RIP – James Fallows – Technology – The Atlantic.

But Fallows wrote that hasty post without asking anyone the journalistic question he deems so vital in his current piece: Why? Why was True/Slant closing? Even a Google search would have told him that True/Slant closed not because it failed but because it succeeded, and Forbes wanted its formula. The links in his own post would have told him.

Instead, Michael Roston of True/Slant told him in an email that Fallows republished the next day. “For the record,” Fallows wrote, “a reply from a True/Slant vet.”

But Michael Roston was much more than a veteran blogger, he was a denizen of True/Slant’s “Mountain Lair,” the start-up’s loft headquarters in SoHo. He was the homepage editor who sorted through the writers’ posts each day—including mine—selected a few for the front page, and topped them with brilliant headlines—a job he now does for The New York Times.

Fallows quoted Michael’s letter in full under the headline “Another View on True/Slant,” which struck me as a weak headline for a correction. After quoting Michael’s letter, Fallows wrote, “I hope that Michael Roston is right.”

Well of course he was right. Look at True/Slant. Now look at the new Forbes.

At the time I thought Fallows was acting a bit like a brontosaurus, a Jurassic journalist throwing his weight around, accustomed to being in control of the official record, if not of the truth itself, only grudgingly open to correction, and reserving for himself the last word.

He’s blogging, I thought, but he still thinks he owns the ink, the paper, and the printing press.

Now, in “Learning to Love,” a different insight. Fallows writes:

The regular journalistic reflex is to correct error by applying fact and logic. In moot-court competition, this pays off. In much of the rest of life, it does not. On being told “You’re wrong,” some people will say “Thanks for the correction!” Most will say “Go to hell.”

Fact correction isn’t the solution to incorrect facts, Fallows now asserts. In other words, you won’t get anywhere by sending an email to a brontosaurus.

The new technique of correction is the reassembly of facts into a contrasting narrative. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert don’t fact-check Fox News, Fallows says: “They change the story not by distorting reality—their strength is their reliance on fact—or creating a fictitious narrative, but by presenting the facts in a way that makes them register in a way they hadn’t before.”

Who’s to say what’s true anywa y? You are.

Cynthia Newberry Martin March 14, 2011 at 10:46 am

Fascinating, Jeff. Especially this idea at the end about the new technique of correction being “the reassembly of facts into a contrasting narrative.”

Jeff McMahon March 14, 2011 at 11:22 am

Thanks, Cynthia. I underestimated Fallows in my first reaction to his non-correction, but one problem with this new notion of correction is that it preserves the privilege of the most powerful media. If they shrug off corrections, which will then have to thrive on tiny blogs elsewhere, which contrasting narrative is most likely to be seen? The market decides.

Michael Washburn March 15, 2011 at 6:48 am

heya Jeff, thanks for this. a few thoughts. first off, i don’t find much substantive difference between the the assembling of a contrasting narrative today and, well, anything that’s been done for the last 100 years. it was on the op-ed page then, and now it exists either as the news model (for networks like FOX) or as the content for satire (a la Colbert) which ends up standing in for any “first hand” engagement with “facts,” or if that’s too strong a word “events.” moreover, yr comment about the market deciding which narrative wins out is well-taken. i’m not convinced this development will prove positive.

second, i like Fallows’ calm response to the chicken-littleism that’s the rage today: if we’re afraid city hall isn’t going to be covered then make efforts to ensure the continued coverage of city hall, but don’t use that as an excuse to broadly bemoan change. surely. that said…

third, i find Fallows piece kind of stale, the type of thing that might have been revelatory 6 or so years ago. Nick Denton? Come on. (lest other readers of this post not know what i’m talking about, the Fallows piece spend a lot of effort and a lot of time engaging with Gawker’s Nick Denton.). can’t can’t go to a lizard and ask him to teach you about lions. your post, Jeff, is much succinct and just as provocative.

finally, and this is just an irritation with current habits of language: i’m sick of analysts relying on the “nobody wants to eat their veggies” metaphor for what’s wrong with traditional journalism. the phrase is, of course, boring and unimaginative, but secondly i like my veggies, i like a palate of news that i didn’t seek out b/c the site offers a glimpse of Lindsey Lohan. that’s one aspect of the contented narratives of decline that gets left behind: the unheralded, nerdy majority that thrive on non-niche journalism platforms. or am i kidding myself that those people exist, and that i am one of them? am i just being lazy and, uh, contrary?

Jeff McMahon March 15, 2011 at 12:48 pm

I don’t think you’re kidding yourself at all, Mike (although you are quite contrary). Through new media we can discover, have discovered, millions who care more about, say, carbon capture than Lindsey Lohan. And that can be as heartening as Fallows, if we care to look at it. I wonder to what extent media powers today, including Fallows, are obsessed with surfing the wave of trends. Everyone wants to write a story that hits the jackpot, springs to the top of Google News, and collects hundreds of thousands of page views. Since we tend to see Lohan or Sarah Palin on top of those trend lists, we assume people care about them more, but the unheralded, nerdy majority is busily attending to the millions of arcane topics below, the topics that don’t ever make the top ten or twenty or 100 but that, in sum, must amount to most of the reading and most of the readers online.

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