AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 1997

Missing American Papers and TV News   

From across the Atlantic, they look pretty good, particularly when compared to the British media.

By Barbara Matusow
Barbara Matusow, a former AJR senior contributing editor and Washingtonian magazine contributor, has written about the news media for more than 20 years.      

Yes, yes, I know. American journalism can be shallow, sensationalistic and, at its worst, inaccurate and mean-spirited. I've said as much myself in the pages of this magazine. But after two months of full-body immersion in British newspapers and TV news, the Yankee version is looking better and better to me.

Admittedly, two months is not a long time, and I offer my views in the knowledge that they are bound to be somewhat impressionistic. Still, try as I might, I can't imagine seeing the following report on national television in the States: A surgeon in a provincial hospital faces the loss of his license for permitting his teenaged daughter to help him perform an operation. She held one of the instruments; the patient emerged unhurt. That's all there was to the story. At least that's all we found out from the report I saw on the BBC, which neglected, among other things, to say how old the girl was. (I later read that she was 16.)

I've also been here long enough to be amazed at the number of inane stories the newspapers resort to, and I'm not just talking about the tabloids. Take a recent story on the front page of the Daily Telegraph – one of the so-called "quality" broadsheets – headlined "Mobile Phoneys Dial M for Macho." It cited a study by a British psychologist showing that "young men across the world" are using mobile telephones as status symbols to attract women and went on to say that in Venezuela "one in three young men ostentatiously making calls on mobiles in night clubs was, in fact, carrying a plastic imitation."

Dubious studies of this kind are practically the lifeblood of British newspapers; both the tabloids and "heavies" print them by the dozens. One that made the front page of several papers recently linked people's personalities to the color of the cars they drive, stating that "buyers of blue cars lack imagination, those choosing silver are pompous.." and so on.

Stories about sex – better yet, studies about sex – are another staple. Just about every newspaper gave prominent play, with photos, to the town council in East Riding, which hung "modesty curtains" around its meeting tables to keep male councilors from ogling the legs of their female counterparts.

The press itself is a big story here; media flaps get tons of ink, like the recent spat between the editors of the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, who traded insults over whose coverage of the royal family had been more despicable – all of which was reported in detail by other outlets. While the affair was at its height, you couldn't pick up a newspaper without finding two or three stories and columns on the topic.

It's not just the pseudo quarrels and the triviality that gets to you.

After reading British newspapers for a while, you realize how much more seriously American reporters take matters like accuracy, balance and the need for attribution. Was Henri Paul, the chauffeur of Princess Diana's car, really glassy-eyed, staggering and "drunk as a pig," as one tabloid claimed? Were Prince Charles and Tony Blair in cahoots against the queen over the funeral arrangements? Or was it the Spencers and the Windsors who were at each other's throats? Every paper featured a slightly (or radically) different account, invariably with little or no attribution.

To stand a chance at figuring out what was going on, I was told, you have to know which papers backed the monarchy and which ones were the most keen to put Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labour Party in the best light. As a newcomer to the Byzantine ways of this openly partisan press, however, I made a rule of not believing anything until I read it in the International Herald Tribune.

Oddly enough, you'll find more reliable and sober reporting in the broadcast media. (I, at least, have been unable to detect the BBC's supposed left-wing slant.) On the major news outlets the interview segments often run upwards of five minutes, and by the time you've heard the BBC's Jeremy Paxman or Channel 4's John Snow finish grilling a minister, you feel as if you've really learned something. The trouble is, the subject matter tends to be a little narrow. Both the print and broadcast press are fixated on politics and political in-fighting to an almost maniacal degree. One day the lead story is William Hague, the leader of the Tories, blasting Tony Blair for exploiting the funeral of Diana. The next day, it's Labourites lashing out at Hague for criticizing Blair. The following day, it's Hague's fellow Tories bashing him for being foolish enough to take on Blair. This, of course, leads the columnists to muse on whether or not Hague can survive, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

In effect, most of what is presented on television and in the press is reactive. Investigative journalism, once a proud British tradition before Rupert Murdoch came along and dumbed everything down, has virtually disappeared. Good trend stories are hard to come by, and analysis is thin compared to what we're used to in the States (except on Sundays, when the articles tend to be meatier). The Times, for example, ran a series purporting to analyze the impact of the Blair government's first hundred days in areas like labor, social welfare and finance. The stories, which were very brief, relied almost entirely on interviews with the relevant ministers.

So far, from what I can see, news here mostly consists of what people say, as in, "The Minister Without Portfolio today criticized so-and-so" or "The government issued a report today which finds fault with..." Stories that involve ordinary people, particularly in situations with no political implications, like a murder or a suicide, tend to be cursorily reported, as in the example of the doctor's daughter.

You could see this top-down attitude at work in the way TV covered Diana's death. The BBC, ITN and SKY all did a splendid job with the funeral itself, but that first day or two, when we were all glued to our sets, it was frustrating to have to listen to so many experts while seeing so little of the action in the streets. Periodically, the producers cut away for live reports from the various palaces, but mostly we heard about the crowds and the flowers. Good pictures were few and far between at the start. And it was annoying to have to hear the same man-on-the-street interviews all day long.

Later that week, when the lines began forming to sign the condolence books at various spots around the country, I was curious about what strategies the mourners had fashioned to be able to wait in line for eight or more hours. Had they formed little mutual assistance societies, with people holding each other's places? Had they brought their own food? How were the children holding up? The only interviews I heard were from those complaining about their treatment, which indeed was part of the story, but American producers would have done a much better job finding additional angles.

In an extraordinarily candid article in the Times, Tony Hall, the chief executive of the BBC News, acknowledged that he and his colleagues did not realize at the start that the real story was not inside the studio or with the experts, but outside on the streets, with the people, which seemed to stun him. "We heard from all kinds of people, of all ages, ethnicities, sexual orientation and social background. And the way they expressed themselves was highly cogent. This was a lesson for me. We must make sure that this diversity of voice stays in our programming."

Elitist attitudes tend to make British television news a bit stodgy at times. The same cannot be said for the newspapers, which, for all their faults, are great fun to read, thanks to the witty, caustic, often brilliant writing. I wish we could import some of the columnists like Simon Jenkins, who writes for the Times, John Lloyd of the New Statesman, and Polly Toynbee of the Independent. The profiles in the Sunday magazines are terrific, as are the reviews – cultural coverage overall is excellent. And the obituaries manage to be interesting even if you've never heard of the person. Take the Times' obit of Dodi Fayed, which, typically, did not hesitate to call a spade a spade.

"Although frequently described as the 'heir' to the Fayed business interests," the author wrote, "Dodi Fayed had shown no inclination to acquaint himself with the nuts and bolts of the world of retail trade. Likewise his flirtation with a military career had left no tangible martial stamp upon him. Rather, until his sudden projection onto the world stage as the romantic consort of one of the world's most glamorous women, he had been content to occupy a niche in the gossip columns which could only be counted a minor one." You won't find writing like that in the New York Times.

But this same obit is also a prime example of what's wrong with the once highly respected British press. While it's brilliantly written, it's longer on style than facts. No sources are quoted, and although the piece did not appear until two days after the accident, there is no evidence the extra time was used to do any reporting or research. Still, it was such a good read, I cut it out.

When I get back to the States, I plan to take it out to remind myself that for all its flaws, the American press still does a pretty good job of informing the public.