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Bad NewsThe Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All
By Tom Fenton
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Tom Fenton
All right reserved.
The News Gap
As the monitors on the wall of the CBS News London Bureau all flashed the same mesmerizing images, I stood there spellbound. The possibilities rushed through my mind. In my four decades as a journalist and foreign correspondent, I had witnessed just about everything imaginable -- from wars and revolutions to natural disasters of nearly every kind -- but I had witnessed nothing like this.
When the second airplane crashed into the second tower of the World Trade Center, I knew it was not an accident, not an incredible coincidence, but the horrifying climax of a chain of events stretching back for years.
September 11, 2001, was my moment of truth. CBS News, like most of the broadcast news industry, had been sliding blithely downhill for years; on 9/11, we finally collided with a brick wall that we should have seen coming. This moment, I knew at once, represented the failure of scores of entities -- but for me it was the failure of my own profession that cut deepest.
Television journalists scrambling to reach the top of their profession may have other priorities, but as an industry our most important job is to see what is coming down the road and to alert the public to the risks we find there. You won't find this part of our work in our contracts of employment. Today, you won't even find it preserved in our networks' codes of news standards. But I believe it shouldn't even have to be there. This public trust should be something every one of us feels in our guts. That's where we failed. I, and scores of my fellow American foreign correspondents, had been tracking stories about al Qaeda and its allies for more than a decade. But we rarely reported what we knew on network news -- because, much of the time, our bosses didn't consider such developments newsworthy.
When Islamic militants actually made news abroad, of course -- attacking Americans in Saudi Arabia, in Africa, in Yemen -- we duly reported the tragic events. But we never fully explained who was behind them, or what compelled them to blow Americans to bits. The public saw these terrorist strikes as disconnected events that occurred without warning. But we correspondents knew otherwise. For us, 9/11 was a catastrophe waiting to happen. And September 11 was not only one of our nation's darkest days: It was also the moment that Americans realized that we were suffering from a news gap -- one that had been festering for many years.
In the months that followed 9/11, CBS News and the other major American media threw all their available resources into what the White House called the "war on terror." I spent that time searching the streets and mosques of Hamburg, a haven for Muslim refugees and al Qaeda cells, to track down the story behind the story of the nineteen hijackers. I investigated an aviation school in Cologne where one of the suicide pilots took lessons. I went to Pakistan and met Taliban officials. But the networks didn't have the resources to keep this frenzy of reporting up for long, or to do the job in depth. Like NBC and ABC, CBS News had demobilized at the end of the Cold War. We were caught without the reserves we needed, and it was largely our own fault.
Consider the success/failure record of American foreign news reporting in recent decades -- a record that closely resembles our government's own performance. As a member of the American public, how many of the biggest stories were you adequately informed about ahead of time -- before they burst onto your television screens? The fall of the Shah in Iran? The fall of the Soviet Union? Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait? The meltdown of Afghanistan and the rise of Osama bin Laden? The catastrophe of the 9/11 attacks? None of these major events happened without a lead-up or clues to their arrival. They were years in the making. Yet to most Americans these events came from out of nowhere.
How is it that the most advanced communications society in the history of the world consistently blinds itself to the germination of epochal events abroad, even as time after time they have come home with devastating effect on our own soil?
Along with the horror and vulnerability felt by all Americans on September 11, serious journalists should also have felt that the disaster spoke directly to them. In short, they should have felt pangs of guilt. As surely as 9/11 pointed up the myriad failures of official agencies in Washington, it also revealed the abject failure of the news media.
We had failed to warn the American public of the storm clouds approaching our shores. And in failing to do so, we betrayed the trust of the public.
"The summer of 2001," says Tom Bettag, executive editor of ABC's Nightline, "was the lowest point in American journalism." During those months -- a time when at least some members of the Bush administration were considering taking action against al Qaeda -- the networks decided that the public was more interested in shark attacks than terrorist attacks. In the three months leading up to September 11, the phrase "al Qaeda" was never mentioned on any of the three evening news broadcasts -- not once.
Instead, for example, on the eve of 9/11, here is what the CBS Evening News offered: a report on the sexual exploitation of young people; a story with eye-catching video on dangerous aerial stunts by military pilots; another story with in-your-face video, this one featuring a Sacramento serial killer; a piece on declining consumer spending; and two health stories -- one of them about dietary supplements. In short, on the eve of our Armageddon, the evening news was a mirror image of a nation eager for titillation and fascinated with its own navel ...
Excerpted from Bad News by Tom Fenton Copyright © 2005 by Tom Fenton. Excerpted by permission.
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