‘Genius’ panel: American journalism will survive… somehow

James Fallows, Rick Perlstein, Tom Geoghegan

James Fallows, Rick Perlstein, Tom Geoghegan

SUMMARY: Some in the audience were not convinced–that American journalism will survive economic upheaval, that it will provide unprecedented opportunities for young people and minorities, that it can even help to save American politics by making sure we eat our spinach and by opening our eyes to the world.

Last night  the University of Chicago hosted a panel on the state and the future of media and politics in America. I introduced the panelists–James Fallows of The Atlantic, the author Rick Perlstein, and activist attorney Thomas Geoghegan, and then I liveblogged their remarks as best I could.

I missed chunks of conversation, not because I was typing or taking notes–reporters are used to that–but because I was wrestling with our WordPress software, which disappeared paragraphs and occasionally signed me out. I invite anyone who attended to offer additions or corrections.

Please note that the language below is paraphrased unless it appears in quotes. Our panelists:

James Fallows is national correspondent for The Atlantic, former speechwriter for President Carter, and the University of Chicago’s Robert Vare Non-Fiction Writer in Residence. He authored the current Atlantic cover story, “Inside Google: The Company’s Daring Plan to Save the News (and Itself)”.

Rick Perlstein is the author of The New York Times bestseller “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America” and “Before The Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.” He has been a senior fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future, a correspondent for the Village Voice and The New Republic, and has written for most of the nation’s leading newspapers and news magazines.

Thomas Geoghegan is a labor attorney and activist in Chicago, a former contributing editor for The New Republic, and the energy official in the Carter Administration who served as editor in chief of the National Energy Plan II. He recently ran unsuccessfully for the Congressional seat vacated by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

7:20 And we’re underway. Fallows asks Perlstein about Republican obstruction, the block of voting no. “Is there any reason to think this current polarizing situation will heal itself of its own volition” or that it can be repaired through intervention?

Perlstein: The idea that the Democrats hold down some sort of extreme is empirically false, but the story that they hold down an extreme is an important one. The polarization set up creates a kind of game, in which there are always two sides of every issue, so that the Democrats represent the extreme left and the Republicans represent the extreme right. That’s a game that continues with more than a little complicity from the mainstream media. My question is, to what extent did that gamesmanship coming from the right eat away at the foundations of the journalistic enterprise?

Geoghegan: To repair the polarization of the United States, we should let the South secede.

But seriously, he says, we can’t let 8 percent of the country prevent such important issues as climate change legislation. “We’re going to get rid of the filibuster, we’re going to get rid of gerrymandering” and we’re going to fix this, he says.

7:30 Fallows: How can we make American politics more open and more informed without saying, “In Sweden they…” or “In Germany they…”

Geoghegan: Why do we run this huge deficit that requires either citizens to go into debt or the country to go into debt? The fact of the matter is that the core European countries have solved this problem. So why not look to other countries to see what we can learn from them? He asks Fallows and Perlstein, how can we get Americans to open up to the possibilities we can learn from other countries?

Fallows: Many of our national institutions are connected to the outside world, including businesses. (When he visits China, he’s often the only American around who’s not representing a business). It’s the media and the government that are not as open as they should be to the world.

7:40: Perlstein and Fallows both have optimism about the future for young people in journalism. The good old days of the 1970s, Perlstein says, weren’t all that great: with 10,000-word self-indulgent articles that began with 1000 words about the writer’s big toe. Good 10,000 word articles still get written, but often piece by piece and over time, in blog posts.

Fallows asks Geoghegan if he feels optimistic or pessimistic about the media.

Geoghegan is going into a discourse about American optimism from the 1930s to the 1960s, a country that believed in freedom from economic insecurity. What happened to it? Now we want to promote economic insecurity, he says. But that higher value “is in our character. It’s got to come out again. I just hope it happens again in our lifetime.”

7:50: Perlstein urges everyone to go to the Lincoln Library in Springfield and look at the political cartoons: Abraham Lincoln as a monkey, Abraham Lincoln as someone who wants your daughter to sleep with a black man, Abraham Lincoln being vilified in the same way presidents are today. That’s also in our character, he says, but we can overcome it.

Fallows: Moderate voices are in decline in American media and more edged voices are on the rise.

Perlstein: It’s not that hard to move a narrative into the mainstream if you’re willing to use sophisticated techniques of public relations. (Obamacare death squads, for example).

Fallows offers the students in the audience a maxim: “The more of your time you spend interviewing the people whose job it is to talk to reporters, the worse a job you’re doing.”

Geoghegan: A cabal of elitist Democrats that controls the party lacks the imagination to craft its own narrative. Into that gap step the likes of Glen Beck.

8:00: Perlstein remembers watching Walter Conkrite and “it was really boring.” Katie Couric is not boring. There are lifestyle stories, there’s fluff. David Brinkley and Garrick Utley and Conkrite and those guys were serious guys, they took their jobs seriously. The affect was completely different. The idea was this was a serious business. The corporations that owned the media served people some spinach. The people need some spinach.

Fallows: The news business used to be a particular kind of business, like law or medicine; now it’s just another business. Therefore, what’s entertaining will prevail.

8:10 Audience Question: Our son is graduating from journalism school in two weeks. Asks for opinion of journalism’s future, role of page views….

Fallows recaps his Atlantic cover story, about the interest of Google in saving the business. Page views is one of many models.

Perlstein: “The worst thing in the world is for a journalist to sit down to write and say, How can I make more money?”

Audience Question (from Tracy Van Slyke of The Media Consortium): I think you’re all geniuses but I’m a little disappointed the panel is all older white men, especially with so much creativity coming from young people, women, people of color. What are their prospects in journalism’s future?

Fallows, Perlstein: more voices, more diversity rising in new media.

Van Slyke: We need to go beyond “pale, male, and stale” in established media, too, in order to create opportunity for those voices.

Geoghegan: As a labor attorney sees more and more people disenfranchised, people of color and white.

8:20 Audience question (from Claire Bushey): How is the modern news business being just another business different from the journalism of the early 20th Century, with yellow journalism?

Fallows: In the early 20th Century, newspapers were large profit making enterprises owned by family fortunes, etc., able to buffer themselves from the demands of quarterly reports. Now news is just in the mix with other products and services. Likewise, early free TV news was exclusive to three networks, now just part of vast number of cable television options.

Perlstein: That story is slightly apocryphal, but it has a kind of truth to it.

8:30 Fallows: “At any stage in journalism there are good things and bad things. In the next stage there will be things that are probably worse and there will be things that are probably better too.”

Perlstein: “Every era of journalism has had good and bad, and every era of journalism has points of entry for brilliant energetic young people who are going to do things in a way that hasn’t been done before. That’s the engine of renewal.”

Audience: Who’s going to fund that innovation?

Fallows: Not any one thing will work, but everything will. A combination of new models.

Geoghegan: See Fallows’s cover story. There’s a lot of reason to have hope that journalism will survive. Paraphrases Churchill: “You can always count on the United States to the do the right thing… after every other possibility has been exhausted.”

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