The News Gap,
excerpted from the book
The Decline of Reporting, the
Business of News, and the Danger to All of Us
by Tom Fenton
ReganBooks, 2005, hardcover
The content of the evening news is influenced, sometimes directly
and always indirectly, by network executives. And these executives,
who decide what the nation wants to know, believe that tabloid
news sells. Stories that seek to explain the relevance of incremental
developments in far-off countries rarely see the light of day.
They get spiked by evening news producers preoccupied by ratings,
because most people in our business are convinced-wrongly, I believe-that
the public couldn't care less about foreign news.
... polls show television is still where most Americans turn for
their news. In 2003, 83 percent of the American public said that
they got most of their news about national and international issues
from television-and that figure has remained remarkably constant
for more than a decade. Only 42 percent said they got their news
from newspapers, 19 percent from the Internet. (The survey questions
usually allow more than one answer.) But here's the reality check:
only 23 percent gave NBC, ABC, or CBS news the highest mark for
believability. The independent media study that quoted these figures
reported that the public's opinion of the media has been declining
for nearly twenty years. It found that "Americans think journalists
are sloppier, less professional, less moral, less caring, more
biased, less honest about their mistakes and generally more harmful
to democracy than they did in the 1980s." Coming from the
people we are supposed to serve, that is a damning indictment.
Yet the public's verdict has had little
impact on the mindset of media executives. You won't see any media
heads roll for neglecting to give the public enough news, or better
and timelier information on the state of the world. Heads roll
for other reasons, of course-on television, for low ratings; on
network news, for not garnering maximal advertising revenue, not
eking out the fullest profit for the parent corporation.
In mid-2004, the New York Times and the Washington Post announced
publicly that they had failed to scrutinize the Bush administration's
given reasons for invading Iraq sufficiently in advance of the
war. The Times printed an apology on May 26, admitting that it
had misled its readers on the issue of weapons of mass destruction.
"Editors at several levels who should have been challenging
reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent
on rushing scoops into the paper," the extraordinary statement
read. "Accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed
against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted. Articles
based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display,
while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question
were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at
all." Even leaving aside whatever political agenda such an
admission may imply, Times readers could be forgiven for wondering:
Was this confessed oversight a unique situation? What else ad
the paper missed, and for how long?
Almost simultaneous to the admission,
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared smugly at a news conference
that it was the military, not the media, who had uncovered the
abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. After the story
became a global scandal, the Columbia Journalism Review took up
the matter, asking, "Why did it take so long for the media
to break the story of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib?" The
Review pointed out that the watchdog organizations Amnesty International
and Human Rights Watch had been complaining of persistent prisoner
abuse in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay for two years. The U.S.
military in Iraq had itself released information of an ongoing
internal investigation months before, in January 2004. At the
time, some papers had run short items reporting the press release-once
again, in their inside pages. The story would have died there
if the CBS News program 60 Minutes II, more than three months
later, had not broadcast the infamous pictures that set off a
firestorm of protest around the world.
In the decade leading up to 9/11, I had been beaten down by the
corporate bean counters. I had seen so many of my stories rejected,
so many proposed trips in search of news turned down by executives
more interested in furthering their careers by coming in under
budget than in breaking real news, that I had almost given up.
You can be rejected only so many times before you stop trying,
before you stop informing the public fully. In my view, corporate
greed and indifference have all but killed the kind of newsgathering
ethos that produces results.
And there is another problem, more insidious
because the public isn't aware of it. The London Bureau of CBS
News, where I have spent more than a quarter century, doesn't
do much reporting any more. What it does is called packaging.
We take in pictures shot by people we do not know, and wrap them
in facts gathered by anonymous employees in news agencies owned
by others. Call it the news media's version of outsourcing. All
the television networks now do most of their "reporting"
this way, to save money on old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting
by full-time correspondents. And as a result, the networks can
no longer vouch for much of the foreign news they put on the air.
Martin Baron, the editor of the Boston Globe, admitted post-9/11
that "we [journalists] do bear some responsibility for American
ignorance" on world affairs.
Loren Jenkins, foreign editor for National Public Radio, has been
among those lamenting the Bush administration's skill at news
management. "I have never seen greater news management in
thirty-plus years in this business," he says. But he admits
that such stonewalling isn't supposed to stop the inquisitive
journalist: "That's what the Fourth Estate is all about-poking
holes in news management."'
Talk radio and television shows may be popular, exciting, and
sometimes wickedly funny. But they shouldn't be confused with
In the two decades before September 11,
American newspaper editors and television executives reduced their
coverage of foreign news by 70 to 80 percent.
Americans can sense that they're underinformed. They know that
they don't know enough. A pervasive feeling has haunted many Americans
since the attacks of September 11a fear that all manner of shadowy
forces and strategies are at play beyond their ken, and that we
the people are powerless to shape or even react to them-in large
part because our access to information is so flawed. If their
news media could ignore or miss so big a story as the coming attacks
on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, what else have they
missed Ld what are they missing today?
Most of the world gets international news that differs significantly
from American news or from the American point of view. Much of
this is dismissed stateside as mere antiAmericanism, but it is
also true that America's actual role in the world is more visible
the further one gets from America's shores. Foreigners are regularly
exposed to some of the more awkward facts about U.S. policy-facts
that simply don't surface in our mainstream news media.
Most Americans, for example, had no idea
that during the 1990s U.S. agents were working with the Taliban
in Afghanistan with a view to establishing a "friendly"
regime that would allow western oil companies to build a pipeline
across their country. I first stumbled on that story in neighboring
Turkmenistan in 1995, but could never get it on the air; CBS didn't
think it was news. Perhaps it wasn't front-page material at the
time, but a proper investigative operation would have grabbed
at the chance to show the American government cozying up to wild-eyed
fundamentalists, because of the potentially unpredictable consequences.
Like America's earlier clandestine support for bin Laden and his
anti-Soviet "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan, it was
another case of America's chickens coming home to roost. Although
the story eventually became widely known in the Middle East, it
wasn't until Michael Moore's film that most of the American public
knew anything of these inconvenient facts. Facts like these may
each only represent small parts of the total picture, but they
add up. Eventually, they may or may not mean anything important
in the larger picture, but how can Americans judge if they don't
know in the first place? Any foreign correspondent with a modicum
of experience will tell you of such facts by the dozen floating
around that never reach the American public.
Donatella Lorch, former foreign correspondent for the New York
Times, Newsweek, and NBC News
"It is terribly frustrating when
you can't persuade your executive producers that what's happening
in Afghanistan is more worthy of airtime than Laci Peterson or
The gatekeepers of the news-the executives, editors, and producers
who decide what information will make it to the public-will tell
you that the average reader simply cannot absorb that much hard
news, especially about events abroad. On one level, they're merely
restating the problem: Americans are too broadly underinformed
to digest nuggets of information that seem to contradict what
they know of the world. Yet whose fault is that, and whose responsibility
is it to correct? Instead, news channels prefer to feed Americans
a constant stream of simplified information, all of which fits
what they already know. That way they don't have to devote more
air time or newsprint space to explanations or further investigations.
Clearly, the media executives who control the new do not believe
it falls to them to undertake such complex longterm investigations
as these authors did. That kind of work is expensive, after all,
and it can lead to complex stories that may be hard for the public
to follow. Much easier to feed them brain candy.
... complicated stories - especially ones that tail place within
foreign cultures-have to be explained and given context before
the public can be counted on to understand and take interest in
them. Too few executives have been ready to take on the challenge
of making Americans understand context and relevance-a grievous
omission. This is particularly true in a country such as ours,
where the education system seems unable to teach history and geography
effectively. Foreign news, by its very nature, requires the kind
of cumulative context that only comes with long-term attention-in
other words, more than just spot reporting. Why? Because world
events have complex historical causes.
But long-term attention requires effort.
And American news bosses simply don't have faith in the American
public's attention span.
The ABC News program Nightline, which
still does penetrating, intelligent journalism in a commercial
television environment littered with trashy magazine shows, is
proof that Americans will listen to well-prepared, well-explained,
foreign news. Time and again, Nightline's success disproves the
lazy axiom of our business that stories from abroad-especially
from Africa-spell death to ratings. Ted Koppel, the program's
anchor, introduced one weeklong series called "The Heart
of Darkness" from Goma, Congo, on September 7, 2001:
At the heart of the continent, genocide
in a tiny country; a genocide that horrified the world, brought
chaos to a country almost 100 times its size. And you probably
haven't heard a word .... It has claimed more lives than all the
other current wars around the world combined. But outside of Africa,
no one seems to have noticed. Three years, two and a half million
dead. We thought someone should tell you. Koppel was talking about
Rwanda and the Congo, and the public listened. Tom Bettag, the
show's executive producer, found to his own surprise that the
show got a "terrific response": the ratings went way
up. Bettag points out that no reliable data exist to prove that
foreign news bores the viewing public-despite all the advice from
consultants, and the self-serving protests from broadcast executives
that paying for foreign news coverage is a costly extravagance
that the public doesn't want anyway. Quoting his late mentor Fred
Friendly, who resigned from the CBS News presidency on a matter
of principle, Bettag reminds us: "When they say it isn't
about the money, it's about the money."'
Depth of knowledge serves us in many ways:
it helps to prevent our leaders from allying with special interests
abroad without our knowledge, as the Clinton administration did
with the Taliban in years prior to 9/11, and to prevent our newsmen
from brainwashing us in favor of one side or another in foreign
conflicts. Nobody mentions this last problem too loudly in the
news business, but we need only recall how the American media
(myself included) demonized the Serbs during the civil wars in
former Yugoslavia. We left out the context that the ethnic Albanians,
who were the victims in the 1990s, had themselves routinely slaughtered
Serbs in World War II. And now that America has come to the Albanians'
rescue, the Albanians are busy trying to ethnically cleanse Kosovo
of all Serbs.
Central Asia was and still is a black hole for American news.
Few reporters are sent there. In the mid-1990s, when the formerly
Soviet central Asian republics were struggling to keep both Moscow
and fundamentalism at bay, my late CBS News colleague Bill McClure
was approached by a freelance journalist who was well versed in
the region. Over the course of several decades, Bill had done
scores of stories for 60 Minutes; now, in his seventies, he pitched
only the stories he found genuinely important. Together, Bill
and his freelance colleague decided that this was a crucial story
about a region that would play a determining role in the world's
Hemmed in by their borders with China,
Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Russia, these now independent republics-Turkmenistan,
Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan-held large amounts of oil and
gas. The Russians wanted to reassert control over their old possessions
by denying them access to world markets for their raw materials,
except through Russia. And how did the United States attempt to
block that Russian strategy? By quietly cozying up to the Taliban,
so that pipelines could be built from Central Asia through Afghanistan,
free of Russian influence.
As the Daily Telegraph correspondent Ahmad
Rashid detailed in his book Jihad in Central Asia, the Russians
responded by fomenting their own Islamic fundamentalists against
their previous colonies. That allowed Moscow to restation troops
to "protect" the republics against what they called
"destabilization." In short, they created an excuse
for reoccupying these republics, which had been independent since
the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia and the United States
played a lethal backstairs game in that area during the 1990s-Russia
forcefully, the United States rather drowsily-but the affair backfired
for both countries. And most Americans remained ignorant of the
What exactly are the responsibilities of the news media in a time
of war? Predictably, as with so much else, the news industry has
missed this all-important topic, perhaps the most critical issue
for public debate for our profession. What exactly should we do
differently from before? Here's a list, with the clear understanding
that it's hardly exhaustive or definitive-and, in my view, represents
only things that we should have been doing all along.
1. Act as the public's early warning system,
to danger from within our borders and without.
2. Monitor the government's performance
in the service of our safety.
3. Make sure that the public knows what
the government does abroad in our name.
4. Do not reveal information endangering
the public or its defenders.
5. At the same time, do not be intimidated
by censorship disguised as patriotism.
6. Do not shy away from educating the
public in the historical and geographical contexts behind the
1. Train and select professionals competent
in these tasks.
8. Make sure government does not abuse
its powers at home.
9. Never allow the parent corporation's
interests to prevail over the public's.
10. Help the country focus on the task
at hand without trivial distractions.
Surely we can find a more balanced approach? J Wartime puts special
pressures on the media as they monitor the government's performance.
Journalists who pursue their rightful role to probe, investigate,
and criticize the government are too easily, and often unfairly,
accused of a lack of patriotism, as Peter Jennings knows firsthand.
In the months preceding the Iraq war, Jennings says, he felt the
heat from conservatives who did not like his coverage of Iraq:
"World News Tonight was regarded as the most critical [of
the networks], and it made people in the shop-some people in the
shop-a little bit nervous, because the vocalness of the conservatives
in the country is very considerable, and it spooks some people
a little bit. When the war began to turn out less like the conventional
wisdom thought it was going to turn out, and our pre-war analysis
looked a little more intelligent, there was a little less criticism."
On some nights prior to 9/11, the network news shows featured
no foreign news at all. The was a major shift from the heyday
of network news in the 1970s, when the networks dominated the
airwaves-and almost half the content of most network evening news
broadcasts was devoted to foreign news. The same phenomenon occurred
in the newspaper business: foreign news fell from 10 percent of
the average daily's news content in 1971 to roughly 2 percent
[by 9/11]. The major news magazines cut back their foreign news
from 22 percent in 1985 to 13 percent in 1995. And yet the popularity
of news broadcasts fell consistently throughout those years. The
more they dumbed down in the race for ratings, the more viewers
And no wonder: When skimpier news resources
chase an ever more unstable world, the outcome is a kind of herd
reporting where all reporters and news channels chase after the
same Big Story, or Big Scandal, and neglect the rest. Such a strategy
may help a network to cut costs, but in the end it can only alienate
the public, which will not be fooled for ever
... the industry's structural fundamentals have not changed. Indeed,
the networks have almost gone out of the foreign news gathering
business. The foreign bureaus they had closed before 9/11 have
not been re-opened; the networks remain complacently content to
"package" a lot of canned news in London, with all the
compromises that process entails. No one batted an eye when CBS
News followed ABC's example in 2004 and decided it no longer needed
a resident correspondent in Russia-a country with a rusting nuclear
arsenal, an acute terrorism problem, and an increasingly authoritarian
leader. U.S. News and World Report has closed all its foreign
bureaus-making one wonder how its editors can justify calling
their magazine a "world report" at all. The news purveyors
still serve their pockets before the public.