Tom Fenton couldn’t be more surprised by his new calling at age 74: activist.
A veteran foreign correspondent recently retired from CBS News after 34 years, Fenton now is sounding off about TV’s neglect of global news, and the resulting benightedness of the audience he says TV journalism has so ill-served.
He has compiled his concerns in a new book, “Bad News — The Decline of Reporting, The Business of News, and the Danger To Us All” (ReganBooks).
Its central thesis: The fall of communism coincided with growing concentration of U.S. media ownership. The nation became complacent about external threats, and less vigilant. So did news media, as their corporate bosses found it hard to justify the expense of pricey foreign bureaus and legions of correspondents stationed around the globe — especially when wall-to-wall coverage of a domestic spectacle like the O.J. Simpson trial attracted far more eyeballs than a complex story from a faraway land.
In that decade leading up to 9/11, Fenton argues, the news media abdicated its responsibilities.
“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,” he writes. “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.”
Cutbacks overseasAs just one instance of the media’s myopia, he writes that cutbacks in CBS’ foreign coverage scuttled an interview with Osama bin Laden he was arranging in 1996. “Our bosses saw him as an obscure Arab of no interest to our viewers.”
Fenton is neither a scold nor whiner; a dapper man in a double-breasted blue suit, he seems too much the gentleman. But he’s dead serious — except when catching himself in his unaccustomed role.
“This is all new to me,” he admits, breaking into a chuckle. “I’ve spent a lifetime reporting, not advocating. And now, all of a sudden, I have an agenda.”
Based at CBS’ London bureau for much of the past quarter-century, Fenton writes that, whereas CBS once maintained two dozen foreign bureaus, it currently has just three “staffed by correspondents in the entire world.” (A spokeswoman for CBS News puts the number at five staffed by full-time correspondents.)
For some coverage, then, footage is purchased from stringers and news agencies to fill the gap, with the network packaging that video into a story.
“I think CBS viewers began to think there’s a Harrods (department store) in just about every capital of the world,” Fenton cracks, “because we kept doing our standups in front of the CBS London bureau — and there’s Harrods in the background.”
But Fenton isn’t picking on CBS. His indictment includes all of TV news.
He wonders how any of the three broadcast networks can still justify a half-hour evening newscast, rather than expanding to an hour.
As for the cable news networks, where the problem with time is so much to fill, he complains that correspondents are kept on the air throughout the day — “they don’t have a chance to go out and do reporting. They bring us talk, not news.”
'Don't even know what they're missing'And, all too often, it’s news-talk dwelling on the woes of Michael Jackson and other crowd-pleasing pageantry.
Duly amused, does the audience feel shortchanged?
“No,” concedes Fenton, “because we have dumbed down the viewers, so they don’t even know what they’re missing. We have trained them to accept the coverage they’re getting. We’ve got to sell foreign news, we’ve got to get people interested again.”
With that in mind, “Bad News” isn’t so much a media-bashing book as a highly readable crash course in stuff you didn’t know you never knew — a sort of “Global Affairs for Dummies.”
“I want readers to be surprised at what they don’t know, through no fault of their own,” says Fenton. “Most Americans get their primary news, God help them, from television. We’ve got to do something about TV news.”
But what? For one thing, Fenton proposes that journalists form a pressure group to shame the media stewards into fulfilling their public trust — “a lobby for better news.”
“We need to get the debate going, to get people to start thinking about the news they’re missing, and how important it is,” he says. “We in the media have less credibility now than at any time I can think of, and the country is so polarized, I can’t believe it! But the real story of the news isn’t what’s left and what’s right — it’s what’s left out.”