Just as Dan Rather, under a dark cloud from “Memogate,” was approaching his departure from the anchor chair, Tom Fenton’s book blasting CBS and other broadcast media hit the bookshelves. A flurry of media coverage has followed. Fenton is a former CBS Senior Foreign Correspondent and to read his book you’d think foreign news collecting has become the equivalent of stamp-collecting, a quaint hobby that has little or no impact on the world.
While any book by an insider is bound to be of interest, of what import is Fenton’s book? The book is dramatically titled “Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All.” Are his conclusions right or of any use? Fenton says he wants “fundamental, lasting changes in the way the news media serve the American public” and that’s a worthy goal. He portrays a news business (focusing on broadcast news) hobbled by an excessive devotion to the bottom-line, and characterized by a decades-long gradual divorce from substantive international news. In the three months before 9/11 Fenton says no network even mentioned Al-Qaeda. Much of his research and reporting work wound up in the circular file, or on the cutting room floor. He quotes network executives as saying incredibly ignorant things like, “Where’s Central Asia?” before cutting coverage of the region.
Fenton thinks we should care because international news is critical even to national security. He writes, “Stories that seek to explain the relevance of incremental developments in far-off countries rarely see the light of day. They get spiked by evening news producers preoccupied by ratings, because most people in our business are convinced-wrongly, I believe-that the public couldn’t care less about foreign news.” He also blames corporate bean-counters at length for dismantling foreign bureaus and cutting international news.
But Fenton is wrong when he says it’s incorrect to believe people are relatively disinterested in international news. In a former position as a researcher at a newspaper, I recall all the data we had indicating the public is indeed least interested in international news -when they are asked to comparatively rank their interest in various news categories. Local news always comes out on top. So when the Editor-in-Chief was told he had to cut back on some category of news, he came to the research department to ask what category he should choose. Our director was right to steadfastly refuse to answer the question, even terming it inappropriate. But the editor later used research data we had to make the decision to cut back on international news. This is hardly a unique story.
As far as terrorism reporting goes, Fenton notes that “The barbarians are inside our gates.” That means the journalists missed the story about terror threats and the terrorists are now here, ready to strike again. So what groundbreaking domestic reporting has CBS done on this issue? They should be doing it on a regular basis, seeing how important it is. International news now has an urgent and timely domestic component. This makes it local.
Accusations of news lacking in context, prompting people to ask “What else have we missed?,” are hardly new. The CBS record goes far beyond the Fenton book. One has only to recall the Alar apple scare, in which consumers were scared to death about a safe chemical used on apples to preserve their shelf life. AIM did a lot of work on these outrages, but Walter Olson, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, wrote a fascinating article about them, entitled, “It Didn’t Start With Dateline NBC.” That was a reference to an NBC story about how the network rigged trucks to explode, making them look unsafe. After you are familiar with the history of CBS, you’ll laugh at Fenton’s claim that Don Hewitt of 60 Minutes was an authoritative and admirable news figure.
Diane Rehm of National Public Radio asked Fenton a good question: If things were really that bad at CBS, why didn’t he leave? Fenton said he hung in there because of “hope.” And most probably to secure his retirement pay and continue to collect a good paycheck. So, Tom, spare us the crocodile tears. For decades, while you were working your boring beat for CBS, AIM was faithfully exposing your network’s errant reporting. Now you stand to make a killing from turning your lackluster and disappointing career into an anti-CBS book. It’s mostly old news, and you’re very late in telling it.