Have 'the biggest stories of our era' been missed?

Ben Wattenberg, a former newsman and TV commentator himself, harbors strong views on how the press could do its job better. In ''The Good News Is the Bad News Is Wrong,'' he writes:

''The problem is that they (the media) are missing the biggest stories of our era - about progress - and missing them regularly, consistently, structurally, and probably unwittingly. It's not that they are often getting the story wrong. They are often getting the wrong story.''

During a recent interview in Boston, he enlarged on some of his criticisms.

Speaking hypothetically, he outlined a story about poverty among black Americans: ''Take poverty area A, where the population has gone down from 100 to 50 over 20 years because the upwardly mobile got out.'' A reporter coming to that area will probably write a negative story, Mr. Wattenberg says, because conditions there may be even worse than they were a decade ago. But the real story, he contends, may be in the suburbs where many of the former ghetto dwellers have moved. And that, he adds, would be a story about progress.

Do such stories exist? Many would refute the notion, rallying their own set of statistics to counter Wattenberg's. But the premise of his book is that they do - in abundance.

''What they (journalists) don't ever seem to do is to go to the data,'' the author laments. If the story has a demographic angle, as with poverty or education, ''why doesn't someone call up the Census Bureau?'' he asks. Acknowledging that some of the best reporters will do just that in order to get the broader picture, Wattenberg says he clearly believes such thoroughness is rare in the media generally.

''Watch those network news stories,'' he says. ''They present those anecdotes (about poverty or unemployment) as symbols of trends,'' minus corroborating data.

TV news draws special criticism. When the evening news shows expanded, says Wattenberg, they became commercial assets to the networks. Now, he claims, ''they look for scandals, and for bang-bang war stories.'' In his view, ''they're out there trying to get ratings points.''

All this is part of what Wattenberg sees as an ingrained ''bad news bias'' - a journalistic tendency which, he says, took a ''quantum jump'' after the ''trauma twins'' of Vietnam and Watergate.

He sees a growing lack of confidence in the media on the part of the public, forcing considerable soul-searching among journalists. ''I hope my book will accelerate that process,'' Wattenberg says.

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