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
262 pages; $25.95
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (email@example.com), AJR's senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
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
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
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
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."###