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The Failure of the Media in the 21st Century
By Tom Fenton
Fulcrum PublishingCopyright © 2009 Tom Fenton
All rights reserved.
Blinkered and Blindsided
The Great Crash of 2008 that ushered President Barack Obama into the White House hit Americans like a bombshell. It opened our eyes to the real state of our country. Our bankers had been playing fast and loose with borrowed money, recklessly lending and taking enormous risks that eventually brought down many of the pillars of the financial establishment. Our government had failed to protect us — our jobs, our pensions, and the future prospects of our children. And the American news media, which should have seen it coming and sounded the alarm bell, failed to detect the warning signs of the economic tsunami that engulfed us and the rest of the world. We had been blindsided. Our media had lulled us into a false sense of security by feeding us a steady diet of junk news, celebrity gossip, health fads, and fluff rather than the real news we needed to keep us alert and our government on its toes.
As a journalist, I am acutely aware of the failings of my profession, and the fact that the mainstream media have contributed to the public's ignorance and disinterest in economic, government, and international news. As a citizen, I am deeply worried about what that means for America. I have found that roaming the world as a foreign correspondent has given me a clearer view of my country. Distance puts things into perspective. I also notice when I return home that years of living abroad have given me a fresh eye for details that most Americans miss or take for granted. Walking beneath a rusty bridge in Boston, for example, I wonder why the folks back home do not spend more money on maintenance. Don't they notice the state of their crumbling urban infrastructure? And as I look at American society, with all its strengths and weaknesses, I ask myself why my compatriots tolerate inner-city schools that fail to give the urban poor the skills to compete in a modern society. And do they also assume that universal healthcare is an unaffordable luxury? In Western Europe, governments provide full health coverage as a matter of course, just as they provide decent roads and schools.
What worries me most is the blissful ignorance of many Americans about the real state of our country and how it compares with other advanced societies. Americans these days seem to be living in a big cocoon that isolates them from the realities of the world. Most spend their lives in their own space, with a horizon that reaches no farther than the shores of their continent. They do not know how the rest of the world lives and thinks. From time to time, their television programs and newspapers, or the Internet, give them glimpses of the world beyond their shores, but these fragmented reports from abroad have no more impact on their lives than radio waves from a distant galaxy.
Since most of us rarely travel beyond the safe confines of our cocoon, we have little idea of how our government's actions affect the other citizens of our world. We did not fully understand how much America was hated during the George W. Bush years by ordinary people in such places as Palestine and Pakistan. Yet the American public cannot be blamed for knowing so little about the rest of world. There is something fundamentally wrong with the way we gather and disseminate news, with the news media that are supposed to keep us alert, aware, and informed. Our news business is not working the way it should in a healthy democracy. It is sick, broken, and increasingly dysfunctional.
We are paying a steep price for the failures of the media. American journalists sleepwalked into the war in Iraq in the footsteps of the Bush administration. They only woke up when the president's grand designs came crashing down in the wreckage of the occupation. Too late they reported how our government had squandered lives and money in a failed crusade to remake the Middle East. And that's not all our media missed: at home, it took the chaos of New Orleans and the collapse of a Minneapolis bridge to open our eyes to the dangers of years of underfunding and neglect of our national infrastructure. And today, the media continue to overlook much more that needs to be fixed in our country. The media have failed, and are still failing, to do their duty as the public's watchdogs.
Interestingly, America actually had an official watchdog during both the William J. Clinton and Bush years: David M. Walker, comptroller general of the United States. Most of the public did not know he existed, because the media largely ignored him. In the latter years of the Bush administration, Walker toured America like a modern Cassandra, trying to sound an alarm. He warned of "striking similarities" between the problems that America faces today and the circumstances that caused the Roman Empire to collapse. His list of dangers included "an overconfident and overextended military in foreign lands and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government." Events have since proved that Walker was not a wild-eyed alarmist. He spoke with authority as the head of the Government Accountability Office (the investigative arm of Congress) when he said that America faces "unprecedented fiscal risks" because of the "looming retirement of baby boomers, spiralling healthcare costs, plummeting savings rates and increasing reliance on foreign lenders." Walker tried in vain to stir up a national debate, yet the media paid little attention to these dire predictions from the government's watchdog. Were they fast asleep?
It's axiomatic that a democratic society needs a vigorous press in order to function properly. It needs journalists who are not afraid to ask the right questions of our elected officials, who can see through government spin, who are not too lazy to dig for their own facts, and who can help frame the public debate. Journalists need editors who will give them the time and resources to do their jobs. And news organizations need corporate bosses who believe they have a duty to the public as well as to stockholders. The utter lack of these essential elements is why I am so alarmed by the state of the American media today.
Our news media not only failed us in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. They failed to report the rising threat of political Islam in the 1990s. They failed to connect the dots that led to the attack of September 11, 2001. Even in the latter years of the Cold War, they often failed to report the signs of rot in the Soviet empire that led to its inevitable collapse. For years, systemic weaknesses have been robbing the American media of the ability to see what is coming down the road and to alert the public to what lies ahead.
The tipping point for the news media came at the end of the Cold War when their corporate owners decided they could turn their backs on the world. They began closing foreign bureaus, firing experienced correspondents, slashing news-gathering budgets, and progressively feeding the public a diet that contained more infotainment and lifestyle items and less of what is commonly called hard news.
Television networks in particular were under pressure from their corporate owners to increase profits by cutting costs. Accountants took over from journalists. The bottom line became such an obsession that in 1997, for example, networks that paid me to report from abroad refused to spend the money to send me and my London producer to Afghanistan to conduct an interview we had arranged with Osama bin Laden. That incident occurred more than a year before followers of bin Laden carried out the devastating bomb attacks on two American embassies in Africa. My bosses in New York apparently saw the leader of Al Qaeda as an obscure Arab who was of little interest to our viewers.
There is no doubt that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon caught America by surprise. They should have been a wake-up call for everyone, including the big television networks that had failed to track Al Qaeda in the 1990s. Indeed, the networks were shocked into action. They sent correspondents to Germany, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in a surge of news gathering, but they no longer had the bench strength for a sustained effort. Too many experienced journalists had been fired. Too many foreign bureaus had been closed. The networks no longer had the boots on the ground to do the job. And when the United States invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, the mainstream media sent correspondents into the field who had little or no experience in war reporting. Geraldo Rivera popped up in Afghanistan. Lifestyle reporters were embedded with soldiers in Iraq. Not surprisingly, their reports lacked depth. The public got more action footage than content.
Our government was waging two foreign wars with very little oversight from a supine Congress and a press that feared to be labeled as unpatriotic if it questioned the conduct of the wars. That made it all the easier for White House and Pentagon spin doctors to sell their own version of events. They were even able to pull the wool over the eyes of The New York Times, which parroted the administration's arguments for going to war. Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather felt there was fear in the newsrooms. As the wars dragged on, the media began to ask questions, timidly at first. They hesitated to call Iraq a civil war, because the Bush administration insisted the carnage in the streets was the work of a bunch of losers or an insurgency led by foreign elements. Most of the American media remained behind the curve as events unfolded, failing to see the costly mistakes the administration was making until they became crashingly obvious in the scandals of the Abu Grhaib prison, the corruption and mismanagement of billions of dollars by American contractors in Iraq, the terror in the streets in Iraq, and above all, the lack of a realistic exit strategy.
The Bush administration tried to conduct the wars as if we were at peace, and the media were happy to oblige. The public was urged to go about its business as usual. Congress voted for tax cuts. No one was asked to make sacrifices except our armed forces and their families, and since America no longer conscripts soldiers, few Americans felt the cost of war personally. As time went on, the media's coverage of the wars became thinner — Iraq became the background noise of roadside bombs, and Afghanistan almost disappeared from our television screens. Television news comfortably slipped back into offering us eye candy and junk news rather than the real news we should have been watching.
On March 22, 2007, the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, a few sick dogs and cats in America were getting more attention than the fact that hundreds of innocent Iraqis were being killed. Veteran CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey was on assignment in Baghdad at the time and vented his frustration in a blog:
As I sit typing this, the rattle of heavy machine gunfire is coming from across the Tigris River, on whose banks our office sits. It began with the dull thud of an explosion, probably an IED by the sound of it. The firefight has been going on intermittently for about 45 minutes. Somebody is having a bad day, but I have no idea why, what kind of a battle it is, where it is or between whom.
Even if I did know all that, it probably wouldn't make the news ...
What is depressingly clear is that what seems important here is far removed from what viewers in the US seem to be concerned about.
The pet food "scandal" is a case in point. As far as I can tell from what is coming through the dust-encrusted TV monitors in our office, a dozen or so pets have died, apparently from eating well-known brands of cat or dog food. No doubt the owners paid premium prices for high nutritional value, so they have a right to be upset that instead of the glossy coats and tailwagging promised by the ads they got organ failure. Being a pet owner, I can understand being upset when one dies.
How 12 dead animals in a country the size of the US rates with the sliding scale of mayhem here is what I'm finding hard to gauge. When only 12 human bodies are found on any given morning in Baghdad with marks of the kind of torture the ASPCA would quite rightly have a pet owner in court for, it is judged as "progress" for the security plan.
The pet food story was not an aberration. A few months later, the American media again showed a lack of proportion and a preference for entertainment rather than hard news by indulging in the media frenzy surrounding pseudostar Paris Hilton, who was jailed for driving with a suspended license while intoxicated. Although the networks denied it, they reportedly offered large sums of money for Hilton's first interview after her release from prison. (Compare that to the unwillingness of CBS News a decade earlier to spend the money to send a news team to Afghanistan for what would have been the first American television interview with bin Laden.)
The owners of the news media seem to believe that Americans do not want to know what is going on in the world around them and are not interested in real news that will affect their lives and their country's future. I am convinced that they are wrong. Their fixation on profits has dulled their sense of duty to their country. It is not surprising that public confidence in the media continues to fall. According to "The State of the News Media 2007," an annual report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, only a quarter of Americans believe what they hear on television and less than one in five believes what they see in print. CNN is not really more trusted than FOX, and the local paper is not viewed much differently than The New York Times. The report notes that "since the early 1980s, the public has come to view the news media as less professional, less accurate, less caring, less moral and more inclined to cover up rather than correct mistakes."
The public is right. It senses that it is being shortchanged by the media, but it has no idea how much it is missing. For example, how many Americans realize their country has more than seven hundred military bases abroad? That seems an excessive number when you consider that at the height of its imperial power, at the end of the nineteenth century, Great Britain had only thirty-six. Some of the countries that grant base rights to the United States try to keep it a secret from their own people because they would resent the infringement of their sovereignty. But shouldn't the American people know? And shouldn't our media investigate the purposes and needs for these bases? And don't the revelations that the Central Intelligence Agency was using a secret system of extraordinary renditions to transfer suspected terrorists to foreign prisons where they might face torture raise the question of what else our government is doing abroad that our media have been ignoring?
As our government extends its global reach, our ability to see what it is doing is shrinking. Four of our country's best dailies — The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Boston Globe, Newsday, and The Baltimore Sun — have closed their remaining foreign bureaus. The Washington Post has cut back its foreign coverage, and US News & World Report, despite its name, no longer maintains bureaus outside the United States. CBS News, which once had twenty-four foreign bureaus and stringers in forty-four countries, now has only a skeleton staff of foreign correspondents, most of them in London. Its rivals have also sharply cut back their foreign staffs (although ABC News may have started to reverse the trend by assigning reporter-producers with small digital cameras to one-person bureaus in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and South America). CNN stands out among the American television news media by maintaining a worldwide network of foreign correspondents but, strangely, airs little of their output in the United States. At home, corporate owners of newspapers are shedding hundreds of journalist jobs each year in an effort to squeeze more profits from shrinking markets. Out of sheer desperation (some would also say greed), they are eating their seed corn. The public is finding that hollowed-out newspapers and junk television news programs are increasingly useless.
This ruthless reduction of the number of people who actually go out and cover events — shoe-leather reporters rather than news packagers — can have serious consequences for a superpower. For one thing, we fail to see the world as it is. If the mainstream media had been doing a better job of covering the Middle East in the years leading up to the invasion of Iraq, would the American public have believed the Bush administration's promise that our soldiers would be greeted as liberators in a quick and easy war? If the media had paid more attention to Turkey, would we have been surprised when that key North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally refused to allow American troops to transit their country to invade Iraq? Americans hear so little about the rest of the world that we assume foreigners think just like us.
Excerpted from Junk News by Tom Fenton. Copyright © 2009 Tom Fenton. Excerpted by permission of Fulcrum Publishing.
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