By Brett Yates
The University of Vermont’s commencement speaker this year was James Fallows, a journalist for The Atlantic magazine. I’ve followed Fallows’ writing off and on since Obama’s election, more for familial bonding purposes than for his ramblings about China and airplanes and his milquetoast political observations: the educated, reasonable, center-left perspective of Fallows seems to embody intelligent, responsible commentary for my dad and older brother, and at some point it occurred to me that to understand Fallows would be to understand their understanding of the world. I’m still not sure I get it, and maybe it’s time for me to give up, but I read his UVM address anyway.
The gist of the speech is that we are immersed in a troubling era of American life — specifically, the times of “our 45th president,” of “challenges to liberal democracies and open societies all around the world,” of “contested news, and siloed news, ‘fake news,’ and ever-emergent real news.” But we must remember that, historically, America’s greatest perils have called forth its greatest heroes, and while a certain quantity of horror appears inevitable during the Trump presidency, we must nevertheless apply ourselves vigorously to opportunities that exist to improve our communities — especially, Fallows argues, on a local level, at least until the stink in Washington clears. There has never been a more important moment than right now for young people to utilize their university-acquired problem-solving skills within the towns and cities where they live, so that these solutions can be translated on a national scale once our federal government has been restored to the stewardship of decent folks. In short, young people must practice engagement.
In what ways? Fallows has assembled a handy bullet-point list for the grads. First: vote. Well, duh. Second: run for office. OK, it’s not for everyone, but somebody’s got to do it. Third: subscribe.
Subscribe to what? An ideology of peace and equality? Not exactly. He means that young people should subscribe to “to a newspaper, a magazine (like The Atlantic!), to the sources of news that will keep us free.”
Hey, I like newspapers, too. And magazines! But imagine if, only a couple years ago, James Fallows had stood at the UVM podium in his cap and gown, before a couple thousand bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 22-year-olds looking for wisdom, and uttered this same shameless plug for his own employer. It would’ve been like that moment in “A Christmas Story” where Ralphie, brimming with excitement, uses his Little Orphan Annie decoder pin to decrypt the secret message on his favorite radio program only to hear nothing more than a dispiriting advertisement: “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” Was Fallows’ speech really just, in Ralphie’s words, a self-serving “crummy commercial”?
Today, I doubt it was received that way, and if I’m right, it symbolizes a shift in the status and perception of journalism in our country. Donald Trump’s constant scapegoating of the media, his fascistic hatred of the free press, his general indifference to truth and his love of falsehood — these qualities and tendencies have made embattled heroes of our nation’s reporters. Where the romantic valorization of old-school newshounds amid the growing financial difficulties faced by print media used to be a niche hobby for Luddites, it’s now gone mainstream to such a degree that Fallows’ self-aggrandizement no longer registers as a sin to himself or virtually anyone else. If the hyperbole, dishonesty, and outright nonsense of Trump is the enemy, then facts — embodied by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and maybe even a monthly commentary magazine and internet content farm like The Atlantic, as long as it uses big words and stuff — must be the resistance.
The hero is no longer Roosevelt’s “man in the arena” but the previously ignoble “man who points out how the strong man stumbles.” The journalistic sphere has, understandably, taken this narrative and run with it, and not only out of vanity: if “subscription” is now one of the top three civic virtues, then maybe newspapers will thrive as they’ve done in the past.
But what’s so odd is that the newfound pride of our journalists comes at a moment when they should all feel most deeply humbled — not only because (like me) they predicted November’s election incorrectly but because, in some sense, they allowed it to happen. If the role of the
press is to educate and inform the American public, why is the American public so ill-informed? Why should we trust The New York Times and The Atlantic to rid us of Trump if they couldn’t stop him from getting into the White House in the first place?
Where were these august publications in 2015 and 2016? They were acceding to the inevitability of a third Clinton presidency, with some gestures toward leftist criticism but mostly a complacent, post-ideological embrace of the serious-minded problem-solving style of governance she represented. And where was James Fallows, specifically?
He was on one of those cornball journalistic tours of the Heartland, where big-budget reporters occasionally go in search of “the real America” by talking to mom-and-pop proprietors, city councilmen, and Walmart employees. Fallows’ strikingly optimistic dispatches from the Midwest — of laid-off industrial workers starting their own successful craft breweries, of immigrants and refugees finding warmth and acceptance among their white neighbors — served to undermine Trump’s narrative of an apocalyptic Rust Belt of mass unemployment, drug abuse, and embitterment: the type of place that would vote for a guy like him. Fallows’ role was to reassure Democrats that, contrary to popular opinion, the economic gains of the last eight years were not confined entirely to elite coastal cities, allowing liberals to embrace the technocratic policies of Clinton without guilt.
Places like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania — they were doing just fine, thank you very much. They were thriving. Folks were practicing civic engagement on a local level, and the results were heartwarming. They knew their future was bright. They were on board, just like you and me.