Published on Sunday, March 27, 2005 by the Toronto Star
U.S. Networks Build Their Own Fortress America
Why CBS eye no longer watches the world
by Antonia Zerbisias
As Mohammed Atta and his fellow hijackers were boarding the planes they would crash on 9/11, the U.S. media were preoccupied with shark, not terrorist, attacks.
If only journalists had focused more on foreign affairs.
Perhaps then Johnell Bryant, a Florida government official, might have called the FBI when Atta showed up in her office in 2000 talking about bombing U.S. cities and crowing about Osama bin Laden. As she told the New York Times in 2002, "I didn't know who he was talking about."
Who can blame her?
The media and, in particular, networks from which most Americans get their news had failed them. Despite tracking al Qaeda and its allies for a decade, they rarely reported on them. They never helped viewers understand why people on the other side of the world hate them enough to blow them to bits.
"Sept. 11, 2001 was my moment of truth," says veteran CBS foreign correspondent Tom Fenton, now retired, on the line from London.
In his new book Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, The Business of News and the Danger to Us All (Regan Books, 262 pages, $36.95), Fenton lists the trivial and the titillating that passed for news in 2001.
"(O)n the eve of 9/11," he writes, "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."
Sept. 11 was expected to change that. But, even with pressing problems like Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Syria, says Fenton, "none of the networks is talking about providing more international news, more context, or serving the public better in its time of need."
Consider last week. Italy announced the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq. There was international uproar over U.S. President George W. Bush's naming the hawkish deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz to lead the World Bank. Iraq's new National Assembly opened while under mortar fire. But TV news delivered the trials and tribulations of Scott Peterson, Martha Stewart, Michael Jackson and Robert Blake.
"The major news organizations have forgotten their responsibility to the public and have replaced it almost completely with responsibility to stockholders," says Fenton.
The decline started in the 1980s. Corporate takeovers resulted in news divisions being relegated to profit centres, expected to deliver eyeballs to advertisers rather than information to citizens. Before then a credible news operation was considered not only prestigious but also a public service — the price paid for mining the public airwaves.
What's more, the end of the Cold War gave network executives a false sense of security. Now nobody feels safe. But the wake-up call goes unheeded.
Says Fenton: "Last year CBS pulled its correspondent from Moscow, (Canadian) Liz Palmer. Nobody batted an eye. ABC did it the year before. With a resurgent Russia and an authoritarian (president Vladimir) Putin, they don't think it's worth covering?"
Some would argue that there's no need to staff costly bureaus when technology and a large roster of freelancers allow networks to buy coverage à la carte. Trouble is, the people making the choices are in New York, too close to the bean counters who follow the nightly ratings.
And ratings, not relevance, are what too often drive a network news lineup. In 1996, when Fenton pitched an interview with the then-little-known bin Laden, already threatening Americans, "the bosses saw him as an obscure Arab of no interest to our viewers."
Living abroad, Fenton can see not only how Americans are poorly served by their TV junk news diet, but also how the world sees Americans.
"I have been a foreign correspondent since 1966 — and I can't ever recall a period in which there was so much hostility, if not downright hatred, of the United States as now," he says.
He wonders why, in Europe, he can get CNN International but, when he was stateside recently, all he could get were CNN's domestic channels, the same as those piped into Canada.
"All of a sudden, the world disappeared. It was gone!" he says. Fenton fears that TV has "dumbed down people to the point where they don't know (the world) is even out there."
Still, he believes that foreign news can sell, and there should be more of it. In fact, ABC, CBS and NBC should expand their news to an hour.
"News doesn't have to taste bad. It doesn't have to be medicine. But it has to be relevant," he insists. "You have to explain to people why this is important to you, because, in the long run, your husbands or sons and daughters are going to be fighting in a war that could have been avoided. Or you're going to be paying twice what you now pay for your gasoline."
The information gap doesn't just hurt Americans. Last Wednesday, when Bush met with Prime Minister Paul Martin and Mexico's Vicente Fox to discuss immigration and border issues, the story was all but ignored, even though our "porous borders" are always a hot topic on partisan talk shows.
"We don't cover Canada, period," says Fenton. "Look how poorly Americans understand the Canadian psyche and Canada's point of view. It's because they're so rarely exposed to it.
"And when your government does things that seem to run counter Washington's policy, I am sure they don't have a clue as to why Canada walks a different road."
© 2005 Toronto Star