Television coverage of world affairs has been reduced to a diet of dissociated disasters and human interest. Now here is a plea for more serious news-gatheringby Suzanne Franks / August 28, 2005 / Leave a comment
Bad News by Tom Fenton (HarperCollins, $25.95)
In May 2000, Mohammed Atta went to a US department of agriculture officer in Florida and tried to get a loan for a “crop dusting” scheme. He told the loan officer, Johnell Bryant, that he wanted to replace the six seats in a twin-engine aircraft with a chemical tank. She rejected the application as impractical. Atta meanwhile noticed an aerial photograph of Washington on her office wall and offered to buy it. He asked her to identify key landmarks: the White House and Pentagon. As they chatted, Atta asked if she had heard of an organisation of people called al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, who would one day be known as “the world’s greatest leader.”
None of these details rang any bells with Bryant at the time. But after 9/11, she recognised Atta’s picture and went to the FBI. Her recollections confirmed that al Qaeda had originally intended to use small planes packed with explosives rather than hijacked airliners. Bryant was mortified that she had not been able to alert anyone before the disaster. But as she said to ABC news: “How could I have known?” Tom Fenton, a CBS reporter for 34 years, argues that if journalists had been doing a better job, then people like her would have heard of Bin Laden and al Qaeda and lives could have been saved.
For most people, news comes via the television—and it is the impoverished state of foreign coverage on television that Fenton laments. The paradox is that as communications have improved and it has become easier to report from far away, we are less inclined to do so. The end of the cold war precipitated the decline in foreign coverage. Wars and troubles abroad were no longer explicable in a simple framework and appeared to matter less. Expensive foreign operations were closed. This trend was more extreme in the US, where it coincided with a relaxation of federal rules on editorial regulation. Simultaneously there was much corporate restructuring, with the emergence of giant media empires. News became a tightly budgeted operation.
Fenton outlines how foreign coverage is frequently a “packaging operation” (nowhere more so than Iraq). Disconnected agency pictures are voiced over by a presenter far away and cut with the occasional studio interview. The result is boring and confusing for viewers. When they switch off, this supports the claim…