James Fallows has “sort of a primitive and possibly self-destructive aversion” to revisiting the topics of his dozen books. But revisiting friends, as he plans to do Thursday in Little Rock, is different.
A longtime Atlantic correspondent and 1982 National Book Award winner, Fallows will be in town to give the J.N. Heiskell Lecture for Journalism for the Central Arkansas Library System at the Ron Robinson Theater.
He’ll likely touch on some topics he examined two decades ago in “Breaking the News,” a prophetic look at regrettable trends in news coverage, from celebrity journalism and cable TV punditry to “horse-race” political coverage emphasizing who’s up and down, as opposed to illuminating true policy issues.
Fallows will also discuss the vision of 21st-century America he and his co-author gleaned over several years of flying a single-engine plane to dozens of U.S. towns. He and Deborah Fallows published “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America” about three months ago. It profiles towns where local coalitions are defying divisive national political rancor and teaming up against opioid addiction, crime and economic displacement.
The audience is likely to include Bill Whitworth, a Hot Springs native and Fallows’ editor for 20 years at the Atlantic. Whitworth, an Arkansas Gazette reporter in his youth, followed “True Grit” author Charles Portis to New York in 1963 for fame at the Herald Tribune and then New Yorker, where he wrote “Talk of the Town” and celebrity pieces and eventually became an associate editor.
Groomed to succeed legendary New Yorker Editor William Shawn, Whitworth instead hired on as editor-in-chief at the Atlantic after real estate mogul Mortimer Zuckerman bought the magazine in 1980, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.
A National Magazine Award for general excellence came in 1993, and Whitworth remains editor emeritus. After retirement he returned to Little Rock, where he’s edited Anjelica Huston’s memoir, “A Story Lately Told” — Huston thought he sounded “just like Bill Clinton” — and a biography of Franklin Roosevelt by former media mogul Conrad Black.
“I’m very much looking forward to catching up with him,” Fallows said, underscoring his “loyalty and respect” for Whitworth.
One thing Fallows won’t be doing soon is a Part II to “Breaking the News,” he said in a phone interview from Washington. “It’s been 22 years since the book came out, and it seems in retrospect to be like a lost Eden,” he said. “Cable news was just getting revved up then, and you could still make the point that there should be some distinction between entertainment and journalism. Now that’s almost an impossibly quaint concept.”
Fallows said journalism has faced disruption for hundreds of years. Each era’s technology — radio, television, and even advanced printing itself — led the upheaval. “Time magazine seems antique now, but when it started in 1920 it was kind of the Facebook of its era, delivering new messages to a new audience in a new way,” Fallows said.
But he feels today’s agents of media industry disruption, technology companies, “are not taking responsibility for what they have wrought.” Radio and TV were publicly regulated when they shook things up, and “there was a way to call them into account.”
Now there’s a “faux naive stand” by Facebook, which has begged off weighing the news, arguing instead that it simply connects people. “They’re shocked, just shocked that anything false might be on their site,” Fallows said. “I think a reckoning is coming, not a big government crackdown, but society saying these technologies are too disruptive and potentially destructive to be run with no awareness of their external effects.”
Vanishing local news coverage has become something close to a “civic emergency,” Fallows said. Local exhibit: the shutdown of nearly a dozen small Arkansas papers in a little over a year by GateHouse Media Group.
“We saw everyplace the importance of local journalism, but what’s affecting the industry in general has hit local journalism with a special pressure,” he said. “We could see a combination of actions by universities, NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and entrepreneurs finding new business models.”
He thinks philanthropists could help prop up journalism much as Gilded Age titans supported museums and universities over a century ago. “Retired people and young people could contribute to a sort of ‘Report for America’ model.
“There may be no one answer for saving local journalism,” Fallows said, “but the struggle to find the combination of 10 answers is a genuinely important one.”