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From AJR,   April/May 2005  issue

Empowering the Foreign Correspondent   

A critique of less-than-serious TV news argues that reporters often know best.

Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All.
By Tom Fenton
ReganBooks
262 pages; $25.95


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

Editor's Note: Due to a production error, the print version of this review contained the wrong subhead for the book. This online version is correct. AJR regrets the error.

Former CBS correspondent Tom Fenton's lusty new indictment of the networks underlines one of journalism's most ancient truths: Sometimes you just need to listen to the reporters.

Fenton's theme isn't overly original, but it is heartfelt and from a front-line point of view. In ever-dangerous times, the news media are reducing serious coverage, leaving Americans unprepared for the day's many perils.

Foreign reporting is down, he says, 70 to 80 percent since the early 1980s, supplanted by "junk news" and "tabloidism." Meanwhile, the all-news cable channels once our great hope have degenerated into celebrity and commentary formulas, offering little credible reporting.

Fenton cites the standard villains: the discovery that cheap, gimmicky news can turn huge profits; the obsession with ratings; the infatuation with glitz over substance; the domination of news by crass corporatism; and the shameful failure of the FCC and government to care.

All this rings true enough, but you can already stock a pretty large bookcase with volumes presenting similar complaints. Where Fenton gets beyond the standard critique is in his lament for the fading art of on-the-ground, authoritative reporting. In confusing and perilous times, what sometimes matters most is to hear from trusted, dispassionate reporters offering straight talk and hard evidence culled from what they see with their own eyes.

Think Edward R. Murrow and Ernie Pyle from World War II, Walter Cronkite from Vietnam, Peter Arnett and Christiane Amanpour during the first Persian Gulf War and subsequent clashes.

Where are such giant figures now?

"Sadly," Fenton writes, "today foreign correspondents are losing their individual identities slowly but surely to the predetermined political and commercial needs of their news channels. They're essentially bought-and-paid-for opiners standing on location to share the company biases from a picturesque locale for a day or two."

In Fenton's eye, the ideal foreign correspondent is a knowledgeable knight in journalistic armor, a globe-trotting specialist with a strategic overview of world issues and a mandate to bring depth and meaning to viewers.

Instead, these days, we get too many stories packaged in London or New York by correspondents not even on the news scene. They produce superficial this-sideversus- that-side reporting where spin and propaganda drown out truth. Fenton writes, "What if, amid the flurry of too-clever debating points, the truth never comes out?"

Fenton supplies many examples of how difficult it is to get serious stories on the air. In some cases, he comes across as an aggressive reporter often does petulant that know-nothing producers have rejected his fine ideas. There are several cheap shots in the book, in which he accuses one editor or another of rejecting stories with "too many foreign names" or too much focus on "those awful people" overseas.

But he doesn't need such personal jabs. There is evidence aplenty for his case.

One of the most stunning sentences in "Bad News," for example, is this one: "In the three months leading up to September 11, the phrase 'al Qaeda' was never mentioned on any of the three evening news broadcasts not once ."

"I, and scores of my fellow American foreign correspondents, had been tracking stories about al Qaeda and its allies for more than a decade. But we rarely reported what we knew on network news because, much of the time, our bosses didn't consider such developments newsworthy."

Fenton even pitched an interview with Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s to CBS, but "our bosses saw him as an obscure Arab of no interest to our viewers."

Like any disappointed reporter, Fenton is outraged by all this. But in fact it raises a more subtle problem than he acknowledges.

The world is full of threats and stories with explosive potential. In retrospect, it is easy to see that we should have paid priority attention to bin Laden and al Qaeda. But in actual time, how do we decide which threats deserve immediate attention? How does even the best-intentioned editor choose what potential disaster to treat in-depth?

Fenton does offer some constructive suggestions. First, he says, give correspondents the time and resources to report completely. "How about simply explaining why an item of foreign news matters," he suggests, "how it affects the audience's lives, why they should care?"

But his best idea is to rekindle the relationship between empowered, truthseeking reporter and viewer.

Without that, network news becomes increasingly irrelevant. Even Walter Cronkite admits to Fenton that he doesn't watch anymore. "There's nothing there," Cronkite says. "It's scandal sheet stuff, tabloid stuff for the most part... I would like to see it more responsible."