BROOKE GLADSTONE: If sports reporting has hit new lows, network news reporting has been in a downward spiral for a while. The reason, some say, is that ratings show the public really isn't interested in hard news. But right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I asked Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president for news coverage at CBS, if those terrible events might lead to a new emphasis on foreign reporting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Is it a wakeup call for the networks to say "Public be damned; we're going to do more foreign coverage, whether you're going to watch it or not?"
MARCY MCGUINESS: I don't think we say we're putting something on TV, and whether you watch it or not, we're putting it on anyway. I mean, if you're K-Mart, and you say I'm going to sell mink coats, and nobody in K-Mart buys them, K-Mart goes out of business. So, we're going to cover the important stories here, and there are certainly going to be enough interesting and important stories for us to cover that the viewer is going to watch them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Fenton was a CBS foreign correspondent for 38 years, until he retired in 2004. He covered nearly every big story that broke in Europe and the Middle East, amassing a heap of awards, and he says foreign news did get a boost after 9/11.
TOM FENTON: I'll tell you what happened. Right after 9/11, there was this huge renaissance of foreign news gathering. They threw away the budget. They told us there wasn't a budget any more, and we went out and beat the bushes. I went to Germany; I talked to people connected with Al Qaeda. I went to Pakistan. It was wonderful. But it didn't last.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In his new book, called Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All, Tom Fenton surveys the landscape of network news and despairs.
TOM FENTON: We're back to where we were before, pre-9/11. We're back to, perhaps, on, say, the CBS Evening News, one foreign news story a night, and, in fact, most of the time it happens to be Iraq, which is, you might say, is a domestic story as well. And it's fairly thinly done.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But what do you say to the argument that people really aren't interested in the news?
TOM FENTON:People are not interested in, in the news or people are not interested in the foreign news, because we haven't sold it. We have dumbed down the audience to the point where most people don't know what they're missing. Look what happened in the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communism. Most of the news organizations turned their backs on the world. They cut down their foreign staffs. They closed bureaus. They were cashing in on the "peace dividend." The problem was, we weren't at peace. There were people who were at war with us, and as you recall, there were the attacks on the American servicemen at Kubar Towers in Saudi Arabia, in the early 1990s. That was followed by the attacks on two American embassies in Africa, followed by the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, and in each case, we reported the stories, but we gave almost no context. We didn't try to connect the dots for the American public. And then, when 9/11 came along, people asked "Why do they hate us?" I mean, that was the most damning indictment of what we had failed to do during the 1990s.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, do you blame the networks for the fact that, after the Cold War, the public's interest in the rest of the world seemed to wane?
TOM FENTON: It's a chicken and egg thing. I think, if we had explained to the public what was going on - we made no effort whatsoever. It's just - I'll give you an example, and - because we're still doing the same thing. The recent election in the Ukraine. Most people, if you had watched network news, would have seen it as an election with two big groups, one Russian-speaking, one Ukrainian-speaking. There was an election. There was some hanky-panky in the election. It was re-run, and then the candidate who was pro-Western came out on top. Almost entirely missing from this story was the over-arching story of Russia trying to claw back parts of the old Soviet Empire. This was an immensely important story, but the way we explained it, I, I don't think attracted much interest. It, it would be like me, watching a story on an election in Brazil, with no context. I'm not interested.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've noted that one of the reasons, perhaps, why there is less context is because there are fewer correspondents based abroad, and those who are tend to be based in London. We spoke to Marcy McGuinness about that, and she said there's very good reasons for that. It's more cost-effective, and you can get places quicker.
TOM FENTON: Parachuting people in at the last minute is, is not the way to go. It means you, you go there when the fire breaks out. You're not there when it's smoldering. You know how many permanent correspondents CBS News, for example, has in the Muslim world to cover what presumably is a story of some interest to the United States? Zip. Zero. Do you know how many correspondents the three big television networks have covering Asia, a crucial third of the world? One each.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One each.
TOM FENTON: Do you know how many we have in Africa, where there is a lot going on, but we don't hear about it, including a secret war which involves American troops training Africans to combat affiliates of Al Qaeda. We have zero correspondents.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. I take your point. But Mr. Fenton, I've been covering the media now for ten years, and as I have, the complaints have grown increasingly pointed and angry, but they're pretty much the same complaints as yours. Aren't you coming a little late to this party?
TOM FENTON: I'm coming very late to the party. I wish I could have spoken out sooner. The news industry allocates to itself the right to criticize everyone and, and everything. It is remarkably thin-skinned when it comes to talking about its own problems. I saw what happened to one of my former CBS colleagues who spoke out and wrote a book, and he became a non-person after that. That was Bernie Goldberg. I had to wait until I retired. And now, I'm a free agent. I can say what I feel, and I feel this is a very important message to be gotten out to the public. People don't realize how much the news has been dumbed down, how much they themselves have been dumbed down, to the point where they don't know what they're missing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, thank you very much.
TOM FENTON: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Fenton is the author of Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All.