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.”