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Thursday, March 17th, 2005


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

by Tom Fenton

Old News

A review by Alexander Barnes Dryer

In Bad News, veteran CBS foreign correspondent Tom Fenton argues that the media, by failing to keep us adequately informed, are putting democracy itself at risk. If that sounds familiar, it should: A seemingly endless array of media criticism books have already made the same argument. Like its predecessors, Bad News (which carries the genre-appropriate subtitle, The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All) is too small in scope. Fenton's argument may seem sweeping: He writes that the media is dominated by spin and out of touch with the rest of the world -- two fatal flaws that leave Americans uninformed and thus unprepared for global trends, such as those that led to our current war with radical fundamentalism. But for all its breadth, Fenton's critique doesn't reach the root causes of the media's failure and the public's ignorance.

Fenton seems to believe that if only the profit-driven executives who control the TV networks would fund some serious reportage -- particularly overseas reportage -- they could revive the media and educate the public. Such an argument is sophistic. Fenton may have fond memories of his career during CBS's "Tiffany Network" heyday, but the truth is that the nightly news has always been a poor vehicle for in-depth reporting. It may be a media-criticism cliché to point out that the entire transcript of a half-hour newscast wouldn't fill a single newspaper page, but the observation is a fitting illustration of the medium's shortcomings -- shortcomings that Fenton doesn't acknowledge. The CBS News of the 1970s undoubtedly was better than the CBS News of today, but the judgment is one of relative rather than absolute quality.

Yet Fenton's book does not falter merely because he bases his argument primarily on broadcast rather than print journalism. A veteran newspaperman could have written a nearly identical book from a slightly different perspective and made the same mistake, because the real problem with the media -- the problem that neither Fenton nor other contemporary critics seem capable of addressing -- is the role that we have assigned it in our democracy. Walter Lippmann outlined this dilemma more than 80 years ago in his masterful study Public Opinion. Lippmann observed that our democracy is, by itself, incapable of supplying citizens with the information they need for true self-government. We have responded by shifting that burden to the media. But expecting journalists to create spontaneously what Lippmann called a "machinery of knowledge" is unrealistic. The problems with how citizens receive information in a democratic society, he argued, are deeper than anything the media can be expected to solve on its own. Lippmann's ideas about how to fix this situation were flawed. But at least he was acknowledging that the fundamental question of how to create an informed and engaged public was bigger than journalism itself. Unlike contemporary media critics, he was not merely offering professional suggestions for improving the craft.

To his credit, Fenton does an excellent job within the narrow purview he has chosen. Fenton won four Emmys in a career spanning 34 years, and he still believes in such old-school ideas as Truth and Objectivity. This is the passion that led him to write Bad News, which he describes as "the beginning of a campaign to galvanize America" based on the belief that "we need more and better news" because "our lives depend on it." Such dedication to the news itself is unfortunately rare in many recent critiques of the media, which are usually little more than attacks on the print and broadcast establishment from partisans of the left or right. Fenton's earnestness has a certain nobility. But ultimately Fenton, like the rest of the media-criticism crowd, leaves the big questions unaddressed. Lippmann first raised them in 1922. We're still waiting for answers.

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