Voices Inside the Industry

excerpted from the book

Bad News

The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to All of Us

by Tom Fenton

ReganBooks, 2005, hardcover

Tom Bettag, executive producer of ABC News program Nightline with Ted Koppel

I asked Bettag what he thought was missing in our international news coverage.

"I think the important thing is not that we are missing this big story and this big story and this big story. I think what we are missing a sense of reality, that what we get (due to inadequate coverage) is an overall distortion. We don't get a sense of the world as it really is. I don't care what foreign news you put on. It can be a fascinating story from Botswana. But how can [we make] people realize that we Americans are a tiny part of a much larger whole and that everybody isn't alike? That's one of our huge American failings-our sense that all human beings are created equal and alike. We don't realize that Iraqis think differently from the way we think. That they don't necessarily subscribe to the things we consider absolutely obvious. The big failure is not having a sense of people around the world, people seeing things differently, having different things to contribute, people we can learn from, and refuting our own insularity, or myopia. That's a big loss."

As Bettag sees it, that myopia is finally catching up with us. "What is hurting us in a big way is the Islamic world's frustration with us-which is not getting very well reported. The largest thing that we are not reporting is the simply grotesque inequity between societies, between our world and the rest of the world. That either makes people resentful, or leads to [the] flood of immigrants that is changing our own society" - a flood that has included a "damaging brain drain" from the Arab countries. "Those are the big stories. Robert Kaplan did a book about chaos theory around the world, the exploding populations and the increasing urbanization and stripping of resources. He overstated the problem, but [what's important is] understanding these huge growing problems in the world that nobody is addressing." But the process of educating the public must go beyond the occasional piece of cultural-tourist reporting, he warns. "We should begin with not trying to throw those stories singly at people, but trying to open their eyes consistently to the fact that there is a world out there. Instead, we are helping people close their eyes."

And what are the consequences of helping people close their eyes?

"A 9/11 suddenly out of no place," he answered, "where people, in disbelief, say Why do they hate us? Why in the world would anybody hate us? Which shouldn't be hard to figure out. We suffer the consequences of our doing things, or corporations doing things, in other countries that are truly grotesque, that we would be ashamed [of] if we knew, from labor and human rights abuses to abuse of the land and natural resources. Every now and then something pops up, like blood diamonds, and gets coverage, [that reminds] us that we are doing unpopular things around the world." For the most part, though, Bettag says ruefully, "If it happens overseas, it doesn't happen."

When I asked Andy Rooney how far the American public is from being well informed, he let loose a broadside.

"Oh, a hell of a way. For one thin they have a great tendency to turn away from the truth anyway. Beginning with religion, for Christ's sake. How are you going to speak truth about anything to a religious community? And America is that religious, largely-eighty percent or more. I can't imagine what news is among the Muslims. Are there any good newspapers there?"

"Not many," I said. "They are mostly government controlled. But there is a! Jazeera television."

"We keep attacking it, but it sounds good to me," he joked.

"Do you think there are dangers in being underinformed?"

"Oh, I think so for a democracy," Rooney said. "It is amazing that this democracy has lasted for as long as it has. There is no guarantee that it is going to survive .... Look at where the country is going. In the last four years there have been a lot of consequences of a dumb electorate. Letting Bush do the things he has done. The attorney general [John Ashcroft]! I don't think the people are aware of our history in matters of civil rights."

At age 88, Walter Cronkite remains a towering figure in American broadcast journalism. From the CBS Evening News anchor's chair, he helped define the American landscape from 1962 to 1981. Yet after he left the anchor chair, his successor, Dan Rather, could find no room on the Evening News for occasional reports by the man who was widely known as the most trusted figure in American public life. Cronkite still makes numerous appearances and documentaries, but on other networks. In his memento-crammed corner office at the CBS corporate headquarters, I asked him to define the responsibilities of the news media.

"Well, if you are talking about what responsibility management believes we have, and the responsibilities I believe we have, we would be talking at cross points," Cronkite said. "You've got to acknowledge, yes, that they have what they consider responsibilities to shareholders. This has been the story preached by management every time this matter comes up-they think it's responsibility to the shareholders. I think the responsibility is to the public, the electorate."

As Cronkite notes, the networks have not yet learned to "balance their two responsibilities. There is no question that they are formed as profit earning institutions, and they have to fulfill that job-unless we want to go for public broadcasting entirely, and then how do you support that? Through appropriation, through government bodies which in turn politically manipulate it. [That] would be worse, probably, than commercial manipulation.

"Meanwhile," Cronkite says, "the networks must understand their responsibility to the populace. It is the responsibility vested in the stations through the Communications Act. The Communications Act provides for a local community to take to the Communications Commission any plea that [a] local station trying to renew its license is not entitled to that license because it is not living up to its obligation to the public. One of the problems we have in the United States," he noted, is that "community groups do not take action against their local stations."

When the subject turned back around to the matter of the media's responsibility to the public, Cronkite's response seemed far more engaged than those of his younger colleagues. "I think that the responsibility is in providing information [about] the community, the nation, the world," he says. "It has frequently been said-and I am inclined to agree-that it is not the journalist's role to educate. That's up to the education people. It is, however, our role to inform in such a way that the educators can have the raw material to teach." Why? Because without an educated populace the news is a service without an end user. "We who depend on the intellect at work in the community as our customers for the news, either print or broadcast-we must also be constantly supporting the improvements in the educational system."

But perhaps Cronkite's most stunning answer came in response to a simple question: "Do you watch the CBS Evening News now?"

"Not regularly, no," said the man who made that very program an American institution. "There's nothing there. There's nothing there but crime and sob sister material. It's scandal sheet stuff, tabloid stuff for the most part, I find. That's too bad. I would like to see it more responsible, if you please."

I also wanted to know whether the anchors shared the current belief in our business that foreign news is bad for sales and ratings. They agreed that no reliable data seem to support that belief. Still, they were hard-pressed to explain the dwindling amount of foreign news on network broadcasts in any other way. Dan Rather put it this way:

"I do not subscribe to the idea that if you lead foreign, you die-that if you have a broadcast that is fairly heavily infused with foreign coverage, on a day-in-day-out basis, you lose. I am unconvinced-I started to say totally unconvinced-I am unconvinced that's true." So what explains the networks' reluctance to feature foreign stories? In Rather's view, foreign news is simply an easy target for network costcutters. "What happens is, in the evening news broadcasts, so many things go into deciding whether your ratings go up or down. What comes before you and after you is every bit as important, if not more important, than what's on the broadcast. But when it comes to cost control, when you are looking for things to blame, you get asked, Why are we [CBS] down two-tenths of a point? Which, by the way, is a big deal. They say, You know what? That's because you had more foreign stories. Or, did you notice last week that you led three times with foreign news?"

In fact, the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather airs roughly one foreign story a night-even including the events in Iraq. Rather told me he has sometimes argued with management over whether to cover a major foreign news story, but he noted that he has had to choose his battles carefully.

"Part of the responsibility in a job such as I have," he said, "is to wage the good fight without fear or favor. And I think we can all be faulted for not fighting hard enough, not taking enough risks to fight. Because who knows if we did, what the results would be?" For years, Rather says, he argued that the CBS Evening News needed to be extended to a full hour if it were to do justice to the events of a given day. But in our interview he conceded that he could no longer win an argument with the front office on a question of principle, by talking about the company's responsibility _to the public "It's gone out of fashion. It's gone. To talk in those terms is the equivalent of wearing spats to the office. Or driving a horse and wagon. Basically, you get tagged as yesterday's man, or woman."

Rather was careful to qualify his criticism of the front office. "Don't let me overstate this," he told me. "There is certainly a strain of [idealism] there. When the current war [Iraq] broke out, when the attack was made on Iraq, [Viacom Co-COO] Les Moonves, who is the decision maker, was prepared to blow out coverage right across the board. And the first night that we did that, we had a terrific night. Nothing to. regret. We had smart coverage-a lot of coverage. The audience responded. Now, what happened, unfortunately-a bad break. We were contracted to carry the NCAA basketball tournament, beginning on Thursday night. The war began on Wednesday night." According to Rather, Moonves pushed to preempt the basketball to cover the war live in prime time that Thursday and Friday-" at some cost to himself, and considerable cost to the network." Rather says he gives Moonves credit for trying. "But he got pressure from the people who made the contract: Hey, the contract-you've got to do it. And also the affiliates that had a team in the tournament - I won't say all of them, [but] most of them," pressured CBS to go with the basketball. "Les wanted to do what he knew to be in the best interest of public service. He made a lot of telephone calls. There was a lot of maneuvering behind the scenes. But in the end we got killed, because the basketball got us off to such a horrible start."

When it comes to deciding how much foreign news to put on the air, the bottom line is clearly... well, the bottom line. Dan Rather may be right that cutting foreign coverage is sometimes just the easiest refuge of network bean-counters-but Tom Bettag is also correct when he points out that it costs at least twice as much to cover a foreign story as a domestic story. Andy Rooney sums up the situation with his usual frankness: "Money has taken over news. It was always a factor, but never what it is now. I think it's that these people at the top are driven to make money." His reading of Les Moonves's motives is somewhat different from Rather's: "Moonves, his only desire is to keep the price of the stock up, to make more money for himself," Rooney carps. "And it's the business of winning, too. He wants to win, and his idea of winning is to make more money."

Bad News

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