Jan 23, 2023Liked by James Fallows

Jim and Deborah

Excellent piece, as always, just like your flying. When I was a staffer on the Church Committee (not the Jim Jones Church Committee of the 21st Century) One of my jobs was to oversee the investigation of the CIA's effort to assassinate foreign leaders. The most extended interaction at the CIA was with their Historian - Walt Elder. Walt was a Rhodes and did his D.Phil on Kant's Aesthetics. After most every convert mission Walt would interview the participants so the Agency would have a complete history of the mission's success or failure.

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Jan 22, 2023Liked by James Fallows

I believe that there must be some inherent institutional bias that allows it to continue to happen so blatantly. There is something deeply wrong with news rooms that continue to try to placate the loudest, vilest voices when, as you say, they will get attacked with the same vehemence regardless. At root is the loss of integrity as a first principle. But no matter how hopeless it seems it needs to be called out forcefully and frequently.

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Jan 22, 2023Liked by James Fallows

One of my favorite things to read for a few minutes of relaxation is the journals of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. You may think, what? Well, I'm a history professor, and it's fun to read about a history professor who talks about teaching a seminar, then having drinks with a Kennedy to discuss political plans, then has his friend "Betty Bacall" over for dinner.

Anyway, Schlesinger has a great comment in there. From November 19, 1980, and a dinner party at the home of his friend Marietta Tree:

"Last night we went to Marietta's for a dinner given in honor of Dick Gardner. Max Frankel, the editor of the Times's editorial page, was there too. The Times has a terrible effect on people who work for it. They cannot bear any criticism of anything the Times ever does; they act as if it were lése-majesté. To question the Times is as if one were questioning their religion. Frankel had recently run an editorial denouncing Bill Sullivan for writing his version of the events in Iran. I sent a letter to the Times saying that, as an historian, I welcomed such disclosure and, as a citizen, I was entitled to it. Frankel disagreed. He said he had attacked Sullivan because his article was a 'cheap shot' at the President> Stimulated by a couple of pre-dinner bourbons, I exploded. Why, I asked, did the Times feel compelled to rush to the defense of the most powerful man in the land against the testimony of an ex-ambassador now consigned to a trivial job as head of Columbia's Arden House? What had happened to the 'people's right to know,' about which the Times became so pious on other occasions? Max became furious--a fury that took the form of a glum and angry silence. He simply could not bear the thought that anyone might doubt the Times's infallibility. Abe Rosenthal is the same. Harrison Salisbury and Tom Wicker are not."

Now, Mr. Fallows worked in the Carter White House and may say that Schlesinger was wrong about Sullivan. And I can understand Frankel being upset when criticized at that place and time--if I had been in Schlesinger's place, I would not have done that.

But Schlesinger nailed it. He could have added Russell Baker (all rise) to the list of those who was happy to puncture the notion of Times infallibility. But I notice that the editors in New York tended to suffer from it--Rosenthal and Frankel, and some who have followed (helloooooo, Dean Baquet). But the Washington correspondents didn't seem to suffer from it, and now those who cover politics do. Boy, do they. And the Daily Kos headline the other day was way off--"The New York Times is bad for America." But when it comes to what passes for political "reporting," it is bad for the country and the world, and for journalism.

I'm reminded of someone on Twitter who pointed out this sentence from a story on President Biden and the documents: "It was a classic legal strategy by Mr. Biden and his top aides--cooperate fully with investigators in the hopes of giving them no reason to suspect ill intent." That is not merely bad journalism. That is an example of stupidity. I worked at a little newspaper that couldn't even afford to pay its staff. If I had written that sentence, the editor would have tattooed my fanny.

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Jan 22, 2023Liked by James Fallows

From my rather uninformed perspective, I have come to think that there must several, not mutually exclusive, reasons for this state of affairs. One, must be predominantly corporate in origin. I think it's likely (but, what do I know?) that many mainstream media are owned by conservatives (writ large), and in any event and are consciously (or not) representing a world view. In and of itself, representing a particular slant has, I would guess, a long journalistic history. But, in current implementations, such as the NYT, there feels like (to me) an inherent dishonesty to it. In particular, it seems to me that many headlines, sub headings, and stories, serve more of a propagandistic purpose than a journalistic one. To put it another way, the numerous articles about the coming "red wave" in the NYT (and others) weren't simply expressing a wrong headed philosophy of journalistic practice; instead, they cumulatively seem to be creating a feedback loop in order to advocate for a desired outcome.

Another aspect of current journalistic practice that seems increasingly prevalent is the adoption of terminology that is never clearly defined, but is used in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink sort of way. Terms (woke!) are therefore malleable and loose any grounding semantics whatsoever. Terminology becomes a form of signaling weaponry, but serves rather to give the appearance of thought, without bothering with the messy business of thinking. This, I think, is related to your large points about scandals: "Whitewater" seemed to mean something, and that was enough. The fact that it wasn't clear only helped to employ it more broadly as a cudgel to beat the reading public over the head. And, of course, clear thinking is not the hallmark of having been beaten over the head repeatedly.

Finally, I have a question. Historically, has there ever been a period when a better, more honest, form of journalism was the norm? I am not asking this cynically, but I'm pretty unaware of journalistic history.

Great article.

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Jan 22, 2023Liked by James Fallows

Opinion setting media are incorrigible. And ignored.

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I loved this article pointing out how bad national reporting has become. I think that many of the headlines and subheadlines bait click, which is fine for social media but to for a national newspapers. The NY Times and Washington Post do a lot of bait click in there newspapers. They also repeat the same story multiple times written by different reporters. The major newspapers should stop trying to compete with social media and do what they do best, provide in-depth news articles. Give the pro/con views of information, it's important to have a national newspaper that is not swayed by any political views and that looks at the facts and provides unbiased news. I think that national newspapers have a responsibility to provide accurate, factual information to the public, and that means not resorting to sensationalized headlines and bait click.

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Jan 22, 2023Liked by James Fallows

Since the industry began simulator based, full crew LOFT (Line Oriented Flight Training) in the 90's the airline flight crew training environment has changed dramatically, and for the better. The single most important part of it is the debriefing, both the good and not-so-good. Public Editors are the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) of the press, which is why the news industry should amplify their role, not eliminate it. And thanks for remembering Eric Boehlert, another lucid and tenacious voice who held the media to account.

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Jan 22, 2023Liked by James Fallows

Teaching civic engagement strengthens our communities and promotes resilience in the face of tragedies such as the mass shooting in Cali. Where is our country going if our kids do not know how government works?

"The need for civic education in 21st-century schools"

Rebecca Winthrop


Director - Center for Universal Education

Senior Fellow - Global Economy and Development


The origins of civic education

The fact that children today across the country wake up in the morning and go to school five days a week for most of the year has everything to do with civic education. The idea of a shared school experience where all young people in America receive a standard quality education is inextricably linked to the development of the United States as a national entity and the development of citizens who had the skills and knowledge to engage in a democracy.

In the early 1800s, as the country struggled to navigate what it meant to be a democratic republic, school as we know it did not exist as a distinguishing feature of childhood. Even almost midway into the century—in 1840—only 40 percent of the population ages 5 to 19 attended school.[2] For those who did attend, what they learned while at school was widely variable depending on the institution they attended and the instructor they had. Several education leaders began advocating for a more cohesive school system, one in which all young people could attend and receive similar instruction regardless of economic status, institution, or location. Chief among these leaders was Horace Mann, often referred to as the “father of American education,” who argued that free, standardized, and universal schooling was essential to the grand American experiment of self-governance. In an 1848 report he wrote: “It may be an easy thing to make a Republic; but it is a very laborious thing to make Republicans; and woe to the republic that rests upon no better foundations than ignorance, selfishness, and passion.”

....To date however, civic education experts argue that civic learning is on the margins of young people’s school experience. The 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education examined the status of civic education and found that while reading and math scores have improved in recent years, there has not been the commensurate increase in eighth grade civics knowledge. (very interesting full article at link)

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Jan 22, 2023·edited Jan 22, 2023Liked by James Fallows

thank you for the interesting article, JF!

Debate club in high school and good teachers taught us critical thinking. Bring back these important classes that prepare students for life :

"Begin by having students read a story, article, or analyze a piece of media. Then have them excavate and explore its various layers of meaning. First, ask students to think about the literal meaning of what they just read."

"What is critical thinking and how can we integrate it into the classroom?"

Education Week

Larry Ferlazzo, Opinion Contributor, Education Week

An award-winning English and social studies teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif., Larry Ferlazzo is the author or editor of 12 books, including Helping Students Motivate Themselves: Practical Answers To Classroom Challenges, The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide, and Building Parent Engagement In Schools. He also maintains the popular Websites of the Day blog. https://www.edweek.org/by/larry-ferlazzo

‘Adventures of Discovery’

Elena Quagliarello is the senior editor of education for Scholastic News, a current events magazine for students in grades 3–6.

Critical thinking blasts through the surface level of a topic. It reaches beyond the who and the what and launches students on a learning journey that ultimately unlocks a deeper level of understanding. Teaching students how to think critically helps them turn information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom. In the classroom, critical thinking teaches students how to ask and answer the questions needed to read the world. Whether it’s a story, news article, photo, video, advertisement, or another form of media, students can use the following critical-thinking strategies to dig beyond the surface and uncover a wealth of knowledge.

Begin by having students read a story, article, or analyze a piece of media. Then have them excavate and explore its various layers of meaning. First, ask students to think about the literal meaning of what they just read.

Ask the Tough Questions

The next layer delves deeper and starts to uncover the author’s purpose and craft. Teach students to ask the tough questions: What information is included? What or who is left out? How does word choice influence the reader? What perspective is represented? What values or people are marginalized?

Strike Gold

The deepest layer of critical thinking comes from having students take a step back to think about the big picture. This level of thinking is no longer focused on the text itself but rather its real-world implications. Students explore questions such as: Why does this matter? What lesson have I learned? How can this lesson be applied to other situations? Students truly engage in critical thinking when they are able to reflect on their thinking and apply their knowledge to a new situation. This step has the power to transform knowledge into wisdom.

Adventures of Discovery

There are vast ways to spark critical thinking in the classroom. Here are a few other ideas. (full article at link)

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Jan 22, 2023Liked by James Fallows

The elephant in the room (which you did not address) is which way these "mistakes" tilt. The error is almost never in favor of democrats - a fact our beloved Eric Boehlert never failed to shout out.

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Jan 22, 2023Liked by James Fallows

Thank you so much for your article that clarifies why I feel so outraged when reading a story with excessive "both sidesisms." I mentally shake my fist at reporters/editors who blow some things out of proportion or try to say two wrongs are equally bad when it just isn't so. I've heard that outrage draws readers in and holds their attention, but I could tune into Faux News if I wanted outrage every day. Most days I just want accurate information.

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Jan 22, 2023Liked by James Fallows

Seems to me the "Fair & Balanced" mythology introduced in the 1990's by a certain TV "News" outlet looking to make its name in an already crowded field is at the bottom of all three of these. By creating the myth of the "liberal media" (a myth that was debunked beautifully, if inelegantly, by not-yet-Senator Al Franken), Ayles & Co. essentially beat the "MSM" into submission by convincing the general public that if a media outlet failed to portray liberal and conservative views as equally valid they were obviously heavily biased toward liberals. Since then, we've seen more and more of this "partisan battle" nonsense to describe some of the most egregiously unbalanced situations imaginable. I'm reminded of the classic observation: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal loaves of bread”

Speaking strictly from an editorial standpoint, "it would appear that" once the NYT decided to step into the ring with "Rupert's Raiders," the match was over.

I have used a much simpler method over the past dozen years for sorting out news from distortion: how I react internally. If I feel outrage growing from inside, that's an alarm bell that I'm not being informed, I'm being manipulated. Years ago I told a friend that; he replied with some version of, "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention." I took this as somewhat equivalent to, "All politicians lie." It's a cop-out, designed to free us from the critical thinking that is essential to being a responsible citizen of this democracy.

Thanks for a great lesson in filtering out the wheat from the chaff. Let's hope this notion catches on - because it's clear we can't rely on the media to correct its own errors unless they begin to lose credibility, viewers/readers, and those ever-so-precious advertising dollars.

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For years I have been glued to the news - from cable news to the NYT and Washington Post. But I realize how destructive it can be to happiness and having a balanced perspective. There's always something to worry about or become angry about. I an now very wary of headlines with words such as "some say," "..might," "unnamed sources report," etc.

My solution is to stop taking the stories seriously, because they tend to be more about what might happen than what actually is happening now.

Reporters feel a need to look at the current events and try to weave it into a story about what might happen in the future. Two of many that come to mind are Peter Baker of the NYT and Ashley Parker of the WaPo. So much of what they write is speculative or opinion cloaked as fact. I've come to believe that much of what's written about the future should be ignored, because much of it never occurs.

The NYT has become a huge disappointment. I subscribe to it mostly for Spelling Bee.

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Of course, the debt ceiling issue is directly about spending already committed to, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be used to pressure reductions in future spending. The current path of increasing debt the country is on is unsustainable. We either cut spending or increase taxes or some of both. There is no other long term solution. Both parties are wrong here. The Republicans in refusing to consider defense cuts would impose unacceptable cuts on the rest of the budget and the Democrats (my party) simply refuse to even consider any cuts at all. The president says he will not negotiate. The end result can only be a significant devaluation of the dollar, read rampant personal savings killing inflation. Reasonable across the board cuts seem to be the best compromise solution.

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Every news story on the debt ceiling "issue" should include a reminder that failing to raise the debt ceiling has NOTHING to do with restraining federal spending or reducing the federal deficit. I suspect that 95 percent of American voters don't understand this.

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Thanks for this. I'm going to broadcast it to my email list. It's important for people to know where the media are falling short.

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