If journalists had done their job better, the Sept. 11 attacks could have been prevented, former CBS correspondent Tom Fenton said in a speech last night at Rackham Auditorium.
Fenton’s talk, “Bad News: The Decline in Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All,” explored the role journalists could have in helping prevent disasters such as Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina if they would focus more on in-depth reporting.
Fenton said the media have provided incomplete news coverage that has caused Americans to hold inaccurate perceptions about the rest of the world.
“The reporting is so thin,” he said. “We hear so little about the rest of the world. Americans don’t know why Iraqis weren’t throwing flowers on American troops.”
LSA student Nida Javaid said she agreed with Fenton’s assessment of the media.
“I guess it’s presenting one-dimensional reports,” Javaid said. “They don’t really probe into the history or the reasons behind attitudes toward the U.S.”
Fenton also said the goal of television news outlets today is to maximize ratings and that to achieve this, they “dumb down the news.”
“By dumbing down the news, we’ve dumbed down the public,” he said.
Fenton said U.S. news organizations ignore some of the most important stories.
For example, he said he offered to conduct an exclusive interview with Osama bin Laden in 1997 but was turned down by his editors at CBS. He added that reporters have mostly neglected to investigate why 95 percent of shipping containers aren’t checked for the possibility that they contain bombs or other dangerous weapons, though a recent report in The Baltimore Sun documenting lapses in port security spurred local officials to institute stricter security policies.
Fenton said another problem is that most foreign news is gathered from wire services.
He said U.S. news organizations should have more permanent correspondents in the Muslim world and sub-Saharan Africa and that reporters in Muslim countries are not providing thorough coverage out of fear for their safety.
Fenton also took aim at America’s public health system, calling it “woefully unprepared” for a biological attack and potential outbreaks such as the avian flu.
He said the solution to the problems that plague American media is to write about what’s smart and meaningful and beneficial to the audience. He said journalists need to ask themselves not whether people want to know something, but whether they need to know it.
“You’re the early-morning messenger,” he said. “It’s our job to look down the road and tell you what’s coming. That role should never change.”