What’s wrong with national news media?

It’s undermining democracy, author James Fallows argues.

Is the consolidation of media outlets bad news for democracy?

Atlantic Monthly national correspondent James Fallows addresses that question to open the fourth annual BIAHC Humanities Inquiry, “Breaking News: The State of Today’s Information Media.”

The stakes are high, Fallows says; at issue may be the future of the national conversation that informs democratic decision-making.

“There’s a reason that the news media are in the Constitution,” Fallows said. “It’s more than just a business.”

Fallows holds up media magnate Rupert Murdoch as embodying and driving the changes sweeping the industry, including the control of news outlets by fewer hands and the welding of news production to distribution.

Murdoch’s $17 billion News Corporation includes Fox News, Fox broadcast networks and cable channels; Fox Sports, FX, 20th Century Fox; 35 local U.S. TV stations; The Times and The Sun of London; The Weekly Standard magazine; the New York Post; HarperCollins publishing house; and publications in Murdoch’s native Australia.

Murdoch also controls such distribution channels as England’s Sky satellite system and the Star satellite system in Asia, and aims to purchase a one-third share in DirecTV, the leading satellite-broadcast system in North America.

While Murdoch is construed by many as an idealogue pushing a right-wing agenda through his media outlets, to Fallows he represents a phenomenon that has more to do with the bottom line than a political agenda.

“He’s basically a businessman who’s found the right wing congenial,” Fallows said.

And it’s smart business to increase his holdings, a move made easier by changes in Federal Communications Commission regulations that would allow TV stations to own newspapers in the same city for the first time, and increase the number of TV stations a single company can own nationwide.

Murdoch is not just a rapacious acquisitor, Fallows says, but a pioneer of what he believes may be the 21st-century model of information production and distribution.

At the heart of Murdoch’s vision, Fallows says, is the notion of “vertically integrated” news – a model that streamlines information production and dissemination, merging the two into a seamless whole.

With fewer and fewer people controlling what information is packaged, how it’s processed and then where and how it’s presented, the notion of intellectual diversity – to say nothing of integrity – comes under heavy fire, Fallows believes.

The global impact for the 21st century may be as far-reaching as Henry Ford’s assembly line was in the 20th.

“(Murdoch) has figured out that news is a commodity,” Fallows said. “There are many things not to like, but it’s not his fault. It’s what the environment is like when news is a commodity.”

One effect already in evidence is the further polarization of the news into low-end and high-end outlets, Fallows believes.

The low end of mainstream information has been, “McMassified,” pureed into the pap of “infotainment.”

“If you were looking at it as an economist, at the news as a business, pure and simple, you’d say it was the best of all possible worlds,” Fallows said, “and that Murdoch was a brilliant innovator.”

Perhaps as insidious are the effects of market pressure on local news, as the top end of the readership is skimmed off by national outlets and advertisers divert dollars to other venues.

As the civic function of the news is displaced by news-as-commodity, the market mentality also has been adopted by some journalists.

With more money paid to reporters for major papers in big cities – elevating them, in many instances, from near-working class to upper-middle class – reporters identify more with “haves” than “have-nots.”

And, for celebrity journalists who make the rounds of the “talking head” TV shows, the monetary rewards have been even greater, Fallows says.

But the news isn’t all bad.

Pointing to the New York Times as a proxy for a generalized greater richness of information, Fallows acknowledges that the narrow “high end” has been elevated, while news, overall is more accessible.

“Twenty years ago, unless you lived on the East Coast you couldn’t get the daily New York Times,” Fallows said. “Now you can get it anywhere, and in the Times itself, the range of coverage is far greater because of the resources it’s able to throw at stories.”

Fallows has been published in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker and the e-zine Slate, worked as a commentator for National Public Radio, and written seven books. The Atlantic Monthly, where he works, is flourishing.

“This polarized news environment favors publication likes ours,” he said.

Targeted, Fallows says, to “the diaspora of intelligent people around the country,” the magazine has grown in the last three years.

“I have the luxury of working for a publication I’m entirely proud of,” he said. “I like it very much personally and respect the integrity of the people I work with.

“But we are a symbol of the kind of journalistic work that’s being lost.”

* * * * *

Extra! Extra!

• February 27, Keynote speaker James Fallows, 7:30 p.m. the Playhouse.

• March 1, The Media and the Law. Bruce Johnson, media lawyer from Davis Wright Tremaine, and John Merton Marrs, journalism instructor at Everett Community College, discuss the constitutional underpinnings of the press, landmark cases, and current issues, 7 p.m. at the Bainbridge Library.

• March 8, The Impact of New Technology on the News Media. Panelists include: Cyrus Krohn, publisher of; Alex M. Dunne, managing editor of Blue Ear Daily; and Doug Schuler, from the Seattle Community Network Assoc. Moderated by Stephen Silha of the Washington News Council. 7 p.m. Bainbridge Library.

• March 13, Dear Editor: A Playreading of Letters to The Bainbridge Review. Island Theatre presents a dramatic reading of letters to the Bainbridge Review (and its predecessors), highlighting the role of a local paper in community life. 7:30 p.m., Island Center Hall.

• March 20, “Media Matters: A Conversation with Youth and Adults about Living in a Media World.” A forum sponsored by Imagine Bainbridge, 1-4 p.m. at the Commons. Free.

• March 22, Television News: If It Bleeds, It Leads? Panel discussion of “infotainment” vs news. Panelists include: John Arthur Wilson, former KING TV reporter, and Enrique Cerna, executive producer for local production at KCTS, 7 p.m. Bainbridge Public Library.

• March 26, Washington News Council Mock Hearing. Bainbridge High School students adjudicate a 2002 complaint against KIRO-TV by the state Beef and Dairy Commissions for a series of stories, followed by a discussion on how the real WNC voted and why. BHS, time TBA. Free.

• March 29, “The Role of the Reporter: Journalistic Ethics, Objectivity, Accuracy, and Fairness.” John Hamer, executive director of the WNC, moderates a panel that includes Christian Science Monitor reporter Brad Knickerbocker; Seattle P-I foreign desk editor Larry Johnson; and Seattle Pacific University instructor Rick Jackson, 7 p.m. Bainbridge Commons.

• April 2, “The News Media and Society.” A community forum, led by a panel of experts and moderated by Ross Reynolds, host of The Conversation on KUOW, examines the current role of news media in a democratic society. Panelists include Margaret Gordon, professor and Dean Emeritus of the Evans School of Public Affairs at UW; Mark Trahant, editorial page editor for the Seattle P-I; and Steven Silha, WNC member, communications consultant and former newspaper reporter. 7 p.m. BHS LGI Room.

• April 5-8, Breaking News Film Festival closes the Inquiry with films about journalism and the news media business: “His Girl Friday” (1940); “Ace in the Hole” (1951); “All the Presidents’ Men” (1976); “Absence of Malice” (1981). Monday – Thursday, - 8. 7 p.m. Hat Factory Studios, 310 Madison Ave. S. Free.

Events not specified free are $10 for adults, $5 for seniors and students.

A month-long exhibit of political cartoons is on view at Bainbridge Library.

Information: 842-7901 or

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