Voices Inside the Industry
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
Tom Bettag, executive producer of ABC News program Nightline with
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
"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
"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
"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
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."