Tom Fenton's Bad News
by Aaron Alper


Originally published in the Eckerd College Triton, April 2005

Tom Fenton isnít happy with the news media today.
But he is doing something about it.
With his new book Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All Fenton (known primarily for his thirty year stint as a foreign news correspondent for CBS) takes a brave and amazingly un-biased look into modern day media ethics and in an telephone interview with the Triton, and implores American citizens, both young and old, to question just exactly where their news stories come from.

Aaron Alper: In a few short words, what is Bad News really about?

Tom Fenton: Itís about the dumbing down of the news, of what I think is the
very real danger to our country. The mainstream news has, to large extent, has
turned itís back on itís primary job, which is giving the public what news that it needs; news that will effect peopleís lives. This is particularly relevant for young people; youíre the ones who are going to fight our wars, youíre the oneís who are going to pay off the national debt. Youíre the ones who have to clean up after the current generation.

Absolutely.

What gets me even more is that the corporations that own the mainstream media, particularly network news, insult the young people that they so treasure. They think they have to give you fluff to get you to watch their shows. Itís fluff, itís irrelevant. They think all you can watch is the [Daily Show with Jon Stewart]

Thatís funny that you said that because thatís actually where I found out about Bad News.

[laughs] It was wonderful and Jon Stewart is a man who gets it.

What would be an idealistic television news show?

The networks need to give the public more than an eighteen minute news cast; thatís about what you get. In that eighteen minutes, itís just the first part that is news. The rest of it you could walk away and not miss anything important; health stories of bizarre diseases that affect only a small number of people or stories that are pushed by drug companies. Ideally you would have an hour long show. Thatís been the dream for decades.

What do we get these days as far as foreign news?

Youíre lucky if you get one foreign story. I hate to call it foreign because it makes you think that it doesnít involve you; itís just things that go on beyond our shores. There is a great big world out there and we never talk about it.

What are some examples?

How the networks cover the Muslim world. You can argue that that is national interest, but we have no full time correspondent covering the Muslim world. Or take Asia; just walk into Wal-Mart and see where everythings made. That would have a huge impact on our future. And China has the power to effect American interest rates, yet each of the three main networks has exactly one correspondent designed to cover that critical one third of the world. And Africa? Forget it. With have no one over there.

You discuss a lot about the news and spin. What would you do if someone turned around and accused you and Bad News of spin? Have you encountered that?

I havenít actually encountered it but I would say Ďgive me the factsí. The antidote to spin is facts.

What sources could you suggest as the least spin-oriented? Where would be a good place to start researching Ďbetter newsí?

If you got the time and the inclination go to the networkís websites; theyíre better than their evening shows. There is also BBC.co.uk.

You talk a lot about some of the older television journalist who you respect in Bad News. Are there any newcomers to the field that strike you as promising?

I wish there were; we desperately need them. That could be the answer for networks; hire young people, send them out and let them spend some time in an area to become familiar with the problems and the people.

How would one initiate it if theyĎre interested?

Itís hard to do it as a freelance. You have to work for a wire service or a big newspaper and work your way up through the networks. We need people who have the will and the guts to go out and be foreign correspondents. Itís dangerous business and itís often unrewarding but somebody has to do it.

In your book, you say ďAmericas ignorance has more weight than foreign correspondents?Ē What could an informed nation do?

If we were informed we could effect foreign policy; I am convinced of that. If there had been better coverage of Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden throughout the 90ís, which was the lowest of the low decade in foreign news, perhaps, just perhaps, 9/11 might not have happened at all.

To be honest, I had no knowledge whatsoever of Bin Laden or Al Qaeda before 9/11.

Remember the summer leading up to 9/11? What was the big story on the networks?

The shark attacks.

Right. And it wasnít even a bad year for sharks.

In your book, knowledge on geography and historical background is written as a matter of life and death. Explain why that is.

We donít do those either of those very well but they often have a real impact on what countries do. For example, during the Cold War, everybody knew where Russia was. People knew what mattered, what was crucial to the United States. Now weíve lost our compass because we know so little about the rest of the world. It isnít that its going to immediately save your life, but its going to make you more capable of understanding what youíre government is getting you into.

Have you considered promoting ĎBad News' on a college tour?

Thatís just what I am getting ready to do. I have had requests from a couple of colleges and Iíd like to do more because they are the people that Iíd like to be talking to.

Before I let you go, any final words?

Iím delighted that the younger generation is asking questions. That, to me, is the most hopeful sign.


Photos courtesy of CBS

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