Whose news?

How things get missed, such as bin Laden before he was popular

Jeremiads about the news media abound. Journalists are too politically liberal, too much lapdogs of the power structure, too lazy, too venal, too stupid, too predictable, too interested in sensationalism, too xenophobic - you name the alleged shortcoming, a critic has written about it.

The big mistake most of them make is to lump all news organizations together into the word "media," then issue statements such as "The media did a terrible job covering the invasion of Iraq." Any critic who fails to distinguish one news organization's coverage from another's loses credibility, in my mind.

Tom Fenton's jeremiad is a welcome relief. He quit CBS News last year after 34 years of reporting from around the earth. All those years of immersion in the journalism realm would seemingly guarantee a clear-minded critique, and in Fenton's case they have.

Fenton focuses his criticism on the big three television networks, especially his former employer. The major theme: Network television news decisionmakers regularly kill or downplay unpleasant news from outside the United States. When they do allow unpleasant news about terrorists and such to appear, the reports are often stripped of context and so do little to inform viewers.

Fenton can cite chapter and verse from his own experiences, and does - persuasively. Here is an example: "CBS News turned away from foreign news so blindly that I could not even sell them on an interview with the then little-known Islamic activist named Osama bin Laden [in 1996].... [Producer Randall Joyce] and I saw that bin Laden was the leader of a terrorist network bent on attacking American interests. Our bosses saw him as an obscure Arab of no interest to our viewers."

It might seem that CBS and some other news organizations have performed so poorly on international coverage because of bottom-line financial considerations in an age of corporate ownership by greedy nonjournalist tycoons and their stockholders.

Fenton says the problem is a complicated mixture of profit motive, limited vision, skewed ideas about what is good for audiences, kowtowing to those in political power.

Fenton hopes news managers will start listening to their correspondents in the field. He hopes they will allow journalists to act "as the public's early warning system to danger from within our borders and without," that they will not "be intimidated by censorship disguised as patriotism," that they will never allow "the parent corporation's interests to prevail over the public's."

Until that happens across the board in journalism, consumers of news who care about becoming well-informed will have to choose their media outlets carefully, seeking quality coverage that is accurate, provides context, and reports without fear or favor. Such newspapers, magazines, online sites, book publishers, and even broadcast outlets exist.

Steve Weinberg teaches journalism at the University of Missouri and is a freelance investigative reporter.

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