BAD NEWS: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All
BY TOM FENTON REGAN BOOKS, HARPER COLLINS 2005, 247 PAGES, $25.95
Four decades as a journalist and foreign correspondent for CBS News make Tom Fenton one of the most experienced reporters in America today. Recipient of four Emmy Awards, Fenton retired in 2004, thus giving him time to write Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All. The subtitle pretty much says it all.
Fenton's "bad news" concerns the broadcast news industry's "sliding blithely downhill" since the end of the Cold War. Sept. 11,2001, marked a "moment of truth" for Fenton when he realized the broadcast news industry finally had collided with a "brick wall" that the media should have anticipated. Among the many failures exposed by 9/11, Fenton bemoans the failure of the broadcast news industry to realize the signs in time to alert the public. For more than 10 years, Fenton and many of his fellow American foreign correspondents had tracked Al Qaeda operations, but network news rarely reported what they had unearthed because the "gatekeepers" did not consider the developments newsworthy. In failing to release Al Qaeda news from abroad, domestic media abrogated its obligation of public trust. America suffers a news gap which, at this point, very well might present a danger for all Americans.
Fenton primarily attributes the news gap to the failure of media management to recognize the importance of news stories from around the world. A drastic reduction in the number of foreign correspondents and the reliance on "stringers" and "parachute reporting" (journalists and photographers "dropping" in on a story at the last minute) also exasperate the situation. Media gatekeepers no longer understand their roles or their duty to the public. According to Fenton, "the barbarians are inside our gates" and the threat to security makes hard information invaluable.
Appropriate to the time of the war with Iraq, Fenton dissects the differences between reporting in peacetime and during a war. Fenton not only discusses how to report on the situation in Iraq but identifies a second enemy correspondents encounter: the incompetence of an American news media industry plagued by underfunding, dumbing down, and pandering to ratings. Politicians, who have for years denied the U.S. was at war, now are trying to wage a war without "waking us up"; the media must not let it happen.