Eat At Joes

Just a regular Joe who is angry that the USA, the country he loves, is being corrupted and damaged from within and trying to tell his fellow Americans the other half of the story that they don’t get on the TV News.

Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

CBS News Correspondent Tom Fenton Discusses the Dumbing Down of News by Corporate Bosses

Online article here.

American TV's information gap creates a new world of danger

Sunday April 10, 2005


Anyone who has travelled to America knows how difficult it can be to find out what is happening back home, particularly if a TV set in a hotel bedroom is your main source of information; the US networks seem to regard foreign news as an expensive turn-off.

With hundreds of correspondents in Rome and Windsor this weekend to cover the Pope's funeral and Prince Charles's wedding, it may not be the most appropriate moment to bemoan the paucity of American foreign coverage. But veteran CBS foreign correspondent Tom Fenton, who retired earlier this year at the age of 74, believes that its virtual absence has had a devastating effect on the quality of public debate in America, with potentially disastrous consequences for the rest of the world.

In his 34-year career at CBS, much of it based in London, Fenton has covered momentous events, including the fall of communism and numerous wars, winning eight Overseas Press Club awards and four Emmys. Now he has written Bad News , arguing that the slow but gradual relegation of foreign coverage to the bottom of the networks' news agendas needs to be reversed.

'There are parts of the world that just don't exist as far as the American media are concerned - especially the broadcast media,' Fenton says from his London home. More than 80 per cent of Americans cite the broadcast media as their main source of news, a far higher proportion than British consumers, so the network's blinkered approach to the world - the Arab-Israeli conflict aside - is potentially far more damaging.

Even September 11 didn't shake the networks from their torpor for long, he argues. 'There was a brief revival of reporting and money was no longer the object for some months. I went to Hamburg and Pakistan on the trail of al-Qaeda, but it didn't last'. Fenton argues that the 'dumbing down' of news in general, and foreign news in particular, can be explained by a confluence of events; the corporate takeover of American TV news and the Cold War's end.

The collapse of the Soviet Union gave the conglomerates which bought the major broadcasters an excuse to scale back expensive overseas operations. At the same time remote conflicts easily explained in the context of the ideological struggle with communism became harder to understand, allowing news editors to ignore complex foreign stories.

'At the end of the 1980s the American mainstream media began to demobilise. They closed bureaux, got rid of foreign correspondents, almost precisely the same thing that the intelligence agencies did. When the mainstream American media turned their backs on the rest of the world, I think the corporations assumed they could cash in on the peace dividend. They thought we were at peace. The problem was we weren't at peace. We were at war.'

The bombing of US embassies and military targets in Yemen, Kenya and elsewhere didn't go unreported, but the motivations of the perpetrators were not examined or properly understood, he says. 'It was almost impossible to get the gate-keepers interested in the story of al-Qaeda or the terrorism threat. In 1996 CBS weren't even interested in an interview with al-Qaeda when we set one up,' Fenton complains.

If Americans are less interested in news from abroad, it is also true that the cost of gathering it has proved prohibitive in an age when major networks are in the hands of large corporations. ABC is owned by Disney, NBC by General Electric and CBS by Viacom. CNN is part of Time Warner and Fox News is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

'The other, more impor tant, factor was money,' says Fenton. The strict regulatory controls designed to guarantee editorial impartiality, which were enforced by the FCC, the US media regulator, have gradually been eroded. 'Over the years, the corporations have successfully lobbied the government for their removal, so they can pursue the bottom line. It was incremental. You didn't notice it, but the networks began to concentrate almost solely on their responsibilities to shareholders. In the old days, news was considered a loss-leader. Now they are profit centres in their own right and they are required to meet the same profit targets.

'Foreign news is twice as expensive as domestic news [and] today to get out of the door you have to hand in a budget to New York for approval, and tell them what you're going to bring back.'

It was all very different when Fenton moved from newspapers to join CBS as a junior in its Rome bureau. 'The most important thing was beating the competition. If you needed a Lear jet, you got a Lear jet. When I first started, I was worried because I came from a newspaper background where you had to count every pencil. I sent a telex to the foreign editor [on ways to cut costs]. He said: "Fenton. You're in the news-gathering business, not the money-saving business".'

All this could be easily dismissed as the romantic musings of an old-timer pining for a golden era of TV journalism that never actually existed. But Fenton has wheeled out the most senior members of America's news establishment to back his argument, including legendary anchor Walter Cronkite and his successors, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather. 'They all felt [disturbed] at the cost-cutting. Rather and Jennings were so worried they offered to give back $1 million a year from their salaries.'

Fenton fears that the lack of foreign news may deter young journalists from travelling abroad. 'Foreign correspondents are no longer big names. Christiana Amanpour is one of the very few. We don't have an equivalent of John Simpson, for example. Working in the field is no longer seen as the highway to promotion, it's much better to do domestic stories. It's lost its allure. In fact, it's hard to get people to do it because it's difficult, it's dangerous and you don't get much airtime.'

The results of being badly informed are potentially catastrophic, he argues. 'A few months before 9/11, Mohammed Atta [who piloted one of the planes that hit the World Trade Centre] went to a US Department of Agriculture loan officer and applied for a loan to rent a commercial plane, convert it and use it as a crop-sprayer. He started to talk to her about an organisation called al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, who would be a great world leader one day. None of this meant anything to her because so little had been written about it. It was only after she'd seen his picture in the paper she went to the FBI.'

Fenton believes that she may have done so earlier if the media had acted more responsibly. 'Now there's a "What if?"'

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

So if TV and radio news outlets were putting their efforts towards informing the American public about the complex world issues that surround us instead of trying to make as much money as possible and cutting costs as much as possible 9/11 could have been stopped before it started!

We the people of the United States actually own the airwaves that broadcast media (Corporate-Owned for the most part) receives a license to use absolutely free of charge. All they are required to do is to use the airwaves in the public’s best interest. So which would be using the airwaves in the public’s best interest: informing the public of complex world issues so that we are aware of the dangers and can aid our nation in its self defense or to make as much money as possible by cutting costs that would be put toward covering those complex issues? The FCC is responsible for enforcing the rules that keep the broadcasters accountable to the American people, but the FCC Commissioners (primarily the ones from President Bush’s party) are too busy receiving trips (for their entire families) to Hawaii and other exotic locations provided by the Broadcasters presumably to have a brief discussion with the FCC Commissioners. This is nothing less than legalized bribery! The FCC doesn’t require the Broadcasters to pay for their licenses by fully informing the American public because they are getting their backs scratched! We the People of the United States need to take back our airwaves! We need to boycott the networks until they fulfill their obligations to use the airwaves in the public’s best interest by fully informing us of all the news, not just the part that their Corporate Owners want the public to know!



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