No Good News About the News
The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril
By Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser
Alfred A. Knopf
292 pages; $25.00
Book review by James M. Naughton
James M. Naughton is president of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.
There was a time when, dispirited about the damage that profit pressures were doing to journalism, I had the cockamamie notion that I might alert citizens to the peril by writing a children's book. It would be called "The Town That Had No News" and tell its cautionary tale in Seuss-like rhyme. It would captivate kids, whose parents would of necessity read it so often that they would come to understand why news matters.
OK, probably a dumb idea, but for at least two decades journalists have done little more than wring their collective hands about why corporate bosses, media company investors and citizens don't get it. We needed something persuasively powerful.
Here it is. "The News About the News" doesn't rhyme. But it makes the case that news is essential, that the quality of news has been in decline and that letting it go on declining is not just bad journalism but bad business. I wish I'd written it.
The two gifted journalists who did are Len Downie, the executive editor, and Bob Kaiser, associate editor, of the Washington Post. They had about finished their manuscript when the biggest news story of the last quarter-century demonstrated how low news coverage had gone. Kaiser and Downie quickly recast the book around lessons of September 11. "Good journalism holds communities together in times of crisis," they wrote, "providing the information and the images that constitute shared experience."
What is remarkable about the case they make is how solid and reportorial it is. This is not a polemic, not another broadside about greedy investors and indifferent corporations. The authors detail instances where quality news made a difference. They report what actually goes on when the Chicago Tribune documents inequities in death sentences in Illinois, or KHOU-TV in Houston reveals fatalities tied to Firestone tires, or their own Washington Post publishes compelling proof that police are trigger-happy in the nation's capital.
"Whether widely noticed or not," they explain, "good journalism makes a difference somewhere every day. Communities are improved by aggressive, thorough coverage of important, if everyday, subjects like education, transportation, housing, work and recreation, government services and public safety. Exposure of incompetence and corruption in government can change misbegotten policies, save taxpayers money and end the careers of misbehaving public officials. Revelations of unethical business practices can save consumers money or their health.... Examination of the ways society cares for the poor, homeless, imprisoned, abused, mentally ill and retarded can give voice to the voiceless. News matters."
They are explicit about where journalism has been changing--down in Knight Ridder and Gannett, up in McClatchy and Newhouse, for example--and why. They relate unflatteringly how Jack Fuller of Tribune Co. professed reluctance to strengthen the flagship Chicago Tribune's news staff because investors were skeptical about the company's purchase of Times Mirror. They compare, unfavorably, the evening newscasts in the year 2000 of Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw with the newsier shows each did in the early 1980s. They spend a day with one of Washington's better news stations, WRC-TV, and describe how thin is the report--and the staff. They quote the lamentations of journalists, such as Brokaw's concern that young journalists joining NBC are smarter, better schooled: "They're children of television and they really want to come to work here. And a lot of them, unfortunately, don't give a shit about the news."
Kaiser and Downie are hard on journalists who've succumbed to the temptation to be celebrated or wealthy; they're hard on TV news consultants; they're hard on now-mushy newsmagazines, including their sister publication, Newsweek; and they're hard on themselves. They relate at length their disagreement about whether the Post should disclose in 1996 Bob Dole's love affair of 25 years earlier.
Mostly they focus on perils to what they call "accountability" journalism--stories that media corporations are increasingly disinclined to publish. They say the "siege mentality" of public newspaper companies in the 1990s produced two thrusts. One, cutting costs to boost profits, succeeded. The other, trying to make newspapers more cuddly to readers, failed. As they put it, "The fact that cutting costs--reducing staffs and the size of the news hole--can actually make a newspaper less appealing and important to readers seems not to have occurred to many corporate managers."
Downie and Kaiser are buoyed by the investment of resources in coverage since September 11 and more optimistic than most journalists about whether "the demand for better journalism could increase the supply." They praise companies that produce high-quality national papers, but they don't note how skimpily the same company that produces the New York Times endows the staffs of its lesser newspapers.
Ultimately, this book cautions that "the fate of good journalism in the new century will be a leading indicator of the health of American society." If citizens are to obtain the information they need to govern themselves, "they'll only get that news if they demand it."
They might demand it if they read "The News About the News." The Poynter Institute, where I work, has put the first chapter on its Web site, www.poynter.org, and will distribute several hundred books to institutional investors in media companies. A foundation with even deeper pockets could do the nation a service by putting this book in the hands of every investor, so that perhaps none of us has to contemplate one day living in a town that has no news.###