Speaking to a group of nearly 100 at the Yale University Art Gallery auditorium Wednesday, James Fallows said that now more than ever the media needs to maintain its traditional role as a key component of American democracy, and urged the press to fight the increasing focus on the bottom line.
In the Gary Fryer Memorial Lecture, Fallows, a Harvard graduate and national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, discussed the notion of “us-ness” and the changing role of the media in light of America’s self-proclaimed war against terrorism.
The lecture, entitled “New Media, New Menaces: What America’s New War is Showing Us About Ourselves,” was part of the Yale “Democracy, Security, and Justice” series, and was sponsored in part by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.
Fallows opened his lecture with several anecdotes from his life that he felt exhibited his shifting sense of belonging. He said he hoped to illustrate the ease with which an external event, day-to-day contact or even strong leadership may change one’s sense of “us-ness,” or identification with a specific group.
He said that changes in technology, recent events and the shifting role of the press from a “sensory system of democracy” to a business venture have been “destructive to the concept of us-ness.”
Citing past conflicts, Fallows said he believes the current war will have profound effects on the American identity, and noted that the press has been sobered by the role it now has in “explaining the world we are getting into.”
Fallows also asked whether the increased sense of unity since Sept. 11, demonstrated by “largely feigned sympathy” for New York and an increased public sense of service, is lasting.
Fallows said he believes the endurance of unity will depend primarily on whether a sense of community service remains strong among Americans.
In closing, Fallows addressed the life of a journalist, paralleling his opening talk at a Saybrook College Master’s Tea earlier in the day. He said journalism is “terrifying but also exhilarating,” and urged those considering a career in the field to use more realistic reporting to help “increase the chance that people will come away with a more useful and correct sense of the world.”
Following Fallows’ talk, Ruth Conniff ’90, political editor of The Progressive Magazine; Tish Durkin ’88, staff writer for The National Journal and contributor to The Atlantic Monthly; Seth Scheisel ’94, media and communications correspondent for The New York Times; and Jacob Weisberg ’86, chief political writer for Slate, discussed both Fallows’ lecture and their thoughts on the current state of the press.
A large part of the discussion focused on the duty of the press to remain objective even when the news is made in the newsroom, as well as the difficulty the press faces to ensure the government does not completely control media coverage of the war.
Scheisel told of how he observed a room of New York Times reporters, trained to be impartial, applaud hazardous materials workers emerging from the paper’s offices after an anthrax scare. Conniff expressed disapproval of the current trend for television journalists to wear the American flag.
Durkin pointed out that, despite all of the discussion about the press’s duty to remain uninfluenced by connections to business and the government, much of today’s media coverage is shaped by the wishes of the American public.
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