Tom Fenton on How Dumbing Down the News Nurtures Terrorists

Tom Fenton

Tom Fenton is the author of Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger To Us All. A correspondent for CBS News from 1966 until 2004, Fenton covered nearly every major European and Middle Eastern story of the past 38 years. He is the recipient of four Emmy Awards, a Dupont Award, a Weintal Award, and numerous overseas press awards.

Brian Montopoli: In your book, you write that “reality has never been so slippery, so seemingly impossible to nail down.” Why?

Tom Fenton: I think that the basic problem is the dilution of actual reporting. Spin and bias proliferate in a news vacuum. In spite of the fact that there seem to be many more outlets for so-called news, I don’t think the sum total of actual on-the-ground, first-hand reporting, especially investigative reporting, has increased. In fact, you can make the argument that it has decreased — it certainly has in international newsgathering. There are far fewer reporters on the ground, far fewer eyes and ears, than there were ten or fifteen years ago.

BM: It almost seems like it’s impossible for someone to hear a fact now and just take it as such. Why can’t Americans just look at an image on CNN or Fox News or CBS and say, “OK, well, there’s bombing going on in Afghanistan,” and not see that report as somehow biased?

TF: Part of this, of course, is the situation in which our country finds itself today, this poisonous polarization where civil discourse doesn’t seem possible when it comes to politics. I live and work in England, and it hits me in the face every time I come back to the States. I find it shocking, and it’s reflected in reporting, and it’s reflected in the way people receive and interpret the news. We’ve got so much opinion and commentary now, and people of course go for their side’s opinion, their side’s propaganda, and don’t listen to the other side. I don’t know how strongly you feel about it, but I find it astounding. In all the years that I’ve been reporting, I can never remember a period America was as polarized as it is now — even back in the ’60s, when I was covering the freedom riots. It just surpasses understanding.

BM: You argue in the book that the television news media condescends to viewers by feeding them soft news instead of important, reported stories. But you also write that networks have the power to monitor newscasts minute by minute, and, at the mention of a word like Azerbaijan or Indonesia, they can actually see viewership declining. To some degree, then, it’s difficult to fault them, in a bottom-line oriented business, for saying, “OK, we’re not going to talk about Azerbaijan or Indonesia.”

TF: Well that’s the problem. The news business shouldn’t be a bottom-line oriented business. I won’t argue that this business should lose money. I think they should at the very least break even. But there’s always been a balance between the responsibility to the public — what news is supposed to deliver, because it has a public function — and the responsibility to the stockholders and to the bottom line. And this has gotten seriously out of balance. It began at the end of the Cold War. It was also partially the result of heavy lobbying by the broadcasters who got the FCC to drop the requirement for public service. That left them free to pursue ratings without any real sense of responsibility to the public.

When I first went into the business, CBS News had in its book of standards a forward written by the then-president of CBS News, Richard Salant. He said that we won’t give the viewers what we think they want to see, or what some expert tells us they want to see, but what we, in our best news judgment, think they need to know. That attitude has totally disappeared.

BM: Is the solution to get the FCC to reverse itself?

TF: Well, I think that’s pie in the sky. It would be wonderful if they would. Somehow, the mainstream media have to be shamed into going back to performing their prime function. In the book, I use the analogy — it’s not a perfect analogy — of how far Detroit fell in the ’60s and ’70s when they were turning out inferior cars. We’re turning out inferior news. And somebody needs to stand up and say, “That’s enough. Stop dumbing down the news.”

BM: You write that after the Cold War the media hollowed out their news organizations around the world. Let’s say the Middle East bureaus of the cable news networks and major broadcast networks had been given unlimited resources and ample airtime well before September 11, 2001. Do you believe their reporting might have resulted in a different outcome on that day?

TF: I do. I do. The example cited in the book is Mohammed Atta visiting a Department of Agriculture loan officer in Florida and asking for a loan to convert a small plane into a crop duster. And then when that loan was turned down, talking to the loan officer about al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Of course, neither of these names rang a bell with the USDA employee, because they had barely been mentioned in the months leading up to 9/11. There are other might-have-beens. Walter Cronkite believes that if there had been adequate in-depth reporting in the Middle East prior to the first Gulf war, that we might have avoided that war through diplomacy and dissuading Saddam Hussein from invading Kuwait. And he believes that almost certainly we would have avoided the second Gulf war.

The problem is that the television news organizations do not adequately cover the Muslim world. And in fact at least one — my old organization, CBS News — has no full-time correspondent stationed in the [entire] Muslim world. We’ve got two correspondents in Israel, and we send — excuse me, “they send” I should say, it’s not “we” anymore — they send correspondents in and out of Baghdad, but there’s no one stationed permanently in the Arab world or in the Muslim world.

BM: There’s one line in the book that stuck with me, when you said that the networks “cut their throats when they cut the news.” It seems that — and I don’t want to put words in your mouth — but it seems like you argue that, even from a bottom-line perspective, it makes sense for the networks to do good reporting. They lost millions of dollars because of what happened on September 11. It seems as though better newsgathering, from a long run perspective, might actually be better financially for these companies.

TF: You just put words in my mouth. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

BM: Well, I did just read the book, so …

TF: No, but it’s absolutely right. It’s so shortsighted. And, in addition to being shortsighted, it’s not working, this business of dumbing down the news. They’re not even holding on to the audience that they have. It’s just dropping off every year.

I’m getting into another subject now, but I’m convinced that there is a real audience out there for real news. News that’s well explained, made relevant, interestingly presented, done on-the-ground. I’m sure if any of the big three would rebuild their international newsgathering organization and start doing real reporting again, that the public would come.

BM: I want to believe that. I really do. But is there evidence? What can you say to convince someone that it would turn out that way?

TF: Yes, yes, there is. Here’s the evidence. The one bright ray in an otherwise bleak landscape: NPR. NPR does news in-depth, news with context, news that is international. And their audience has grown. There is a hunger out there for this sort of thing. I don’t think everybody wants to be entertained with fluff. I think people will turn on the news to find out what’s going on. If they want to be entertained, they turn on something else.

BM: Any words of advice for whomever ends up filling Dan Rather’s shoes at the “CBS Evening News”?

TF: Go back to reporting. Go. I’ve noticed that under Bob Schieffer they have started putting the emphasis on the correspondents in the field, pointing out that they have correspondents in the field. Mind you, there are not many that are left. The ones that we still have are good, but they’re very thin on the ground. I would put more resources back into reporting. The budget, as it’s now used by CBS, is so restrictive that it’s very difficult to get permission to send anyone to a story. You have to go through the whole budget process, you have to explain why you’re going for the story. There’s no going out to look for news — basically, you go out with a preconceived story. That’s an unfortunate restriction. I think they should hire more correspondents. Get them out in the field. Boots on the ground. Eyes and ears. They don’t have to be horribly expensive. You can even go for one-man bands if you prefer. Young people, like yourself. People who think this is a great calling, and who could go out with a DVD and laptop editing [setup] and email stories back. That’s another way to go. It doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive.

Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.