Curtis Dahlgren
CBS News' Tom Fenton on "All the news that fits the fantasies"
By Curtis Dahlgren
March 7, 2010

" . . . And the prophets shall become wind, and the word is not in them." — Jeremiah

Tom Fenton was one of the most experienced correspondents in the history of CBS News. From 1966 to his retirement in 2004, he covered nearly every major European and Middle Eastern story of note [and was] the recipient of four Emmy Awards

So says the bio on the back cover flap of a book I recently stumbled across. The title is:

"BAD NEWS: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All" (2005, HarperCollins).

Never heard of it? I hadn't either — probably because it was a critique of the mainstream news media, especially television news. In the Preface, Fenton writes:

"At the time of writing, Dan Rather has announced he will give up the anchor chair at the CBS Evening News, and CBS News has fired several producers and executives after the report of the independent commission charged with investigating his bungled 60 Minutes story on the president's National Guard service found that much of the story was wrong, incomplete, or unfair . . . [no word on "bonuses" paid to the "retiring executives"]

"None of the networks is talking about providing more international news, more context, or serving the American people better in its time of need. Their vision is focused, as always, on the bottom line [not too well either, I might add, since 'the customer is always wrong' in their playbook] . . .

"Writing this book has been a sobering experience, as I watch the fundamental faults of the news industry . . become ever more pronounced . . . "

Chapter One: THE NEWS GAP [quote]

"AS THE MONITORS on the wall of the CBS News London Bureau all flashed the same mesmerizing images, I stood there spellbound. The possibilities rushed through my mind. In my four decades as a journalist and foreign correspondent, I had witnessed just about everything . . . but I had witnessed nothing like this.

"When the second airplane crashed into the second tower of the World Trade Center, I knew it was not an accident, not an incredible coincidence, but the horrifying climax of a chain of events stretching back for years.

"September 11, 2001, was my moment of truth. CBS News, like most of the broadcast news industry, had been sliding blithely downhill for years; on 9/11, we finally collided with a brick wall that we should have seen coming. This moment, I knew at once, represented the failure of scores of entities — but for me it was the failure of my own profession that cut deepest.

"Television journalists scrambling to reach the top of their profession may have other priorities, but as an industry our most important job is to see what is coming down the road and to alert the public to the risks we find there [not distracted, I might add, by phony 'crises' such as 'the seas are rising']. . .

"That's where we failed. I, and scores of my fellow American foreign correspondents, had been tracking stories about al Qaeda and its allies for more than a decade. But we rarely reported what we knew on network news — because, much of the time, our bosses didn't consider such developments newsworthy.

"When Islamic militants actually made news abroad, of course — attacking Americans in Saudi Arabia, in Africa, in Yemen — we duly reported the tragic events. But we never fully explained who was behind them, or what compelled them to blow Americans to bits. The public saw these terrorist strikes as disconnected events that occurred without warning.

"But we correspondents knew otherwise. For us, 9/11 was a catastrophe waiting to happen. And September 11 was not only one of our nation's darkest days: It was also the moment that Americans realized that we were suffering from a news gap — one that had been festering for many years. . . .[I must admit that I wasn't 'shocked' when I heard what had happened either, because coming events cast long shadows before them.]

"Like NBC and ABC, CBS News had demobilized at the end of the Cold War. We were caught without the reserves we needed, and it was largely our own fault.

"Consider the success/failure record of American foreign news reporting in recent decades — a record that closely resembles our government's own performance. As a member of the American public, how many of the biggest stories were you adequately informed about ahead of time — before they burst onto your television screens ["unexpectedly"]? The fall of the Shah in Iran? [although that was virtually promoted by CBS and 60 Minutes].

"The fall of the Soviet Union? Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait? The meltdown of Afghanistan and the rise of Osama bin Laden? [9/11?]

"None of these major events happened without a lead-up or clues to their arrival. They were years in the making. Yet to most Americans these events came from out of nowhere.

"How is it that the most advanced communications society in the history of the world consistently blinds itself to the germination of epochal events abroad, even as time after time they have come home with devastating effect on our own soil?

"Along with the horror and vulnerability felt by all Americans on September 11, serious journalists should also have felt that the disaster spoke directly to them. In short, they should have felt pangs of guilt [that would be a good place to stop quoting, but Fenton goes on to say-].

"We had failed to warn the American public of the storm clouds approaching our shores. And in failing to do so, we betrayed the trust of the public. 'The summer of 2001,' says Tom Bettag, executive editor of ABC's Nightline, 'was the lowest point in American journalism' . . . [o contraire, in my opinion; it has only gotten shabbier, and the summer of 2008 was another example of such failures'] . .

"During those months — a time when at least some members of the Bush administration were considering taking action against al Qaeda — the networks decided that the public was more interested in shark attacks than terrorist attacks. In the three months leading up to September 11, the phrase 'al Qaeda' was never mentioned on any of the three evening news broadcasts — not once.

"Instead, for example, on the eve of 9/11, here is what CBS Evening News offered: a report on the sexual exploitation of young people; a story with eye-catching video on dangerous aerial stunts by military pilots; another story . . featuring a Sacramento serial killer; a piece on declining consumer spending; and two health stories — one of them about dietary supplements.

"In short, on the eve of our Armageddon, the evening news was a mirror image of a nation eager for titillation and fascinated with its own navel. The network's veteran anchor, Dan Rather, covered the rest of the world in a few short paragraphs, most of it trivial . . .

"No doubt, it should be the government, first and foremost, that is charged with protecting its citizens and alerting them to danger. But what happens when officials are asleep at the switch? Whose task is it, if not the news media's, to prod and goad and awaken them to their duties?

"Had there been a drumbeat of segments on network news showing the steadily rising Islamist threat abroad, we might be living in a different world now." [end of excerpts; my emphasis]


Speaking of Islamist terrorism, it certainly does appear that our present media and government are both asleep at the switch. Every time there is a "curious" attack on our military at home, the first statement we invariably hear is, "Officials say that the incident does not appear to be 'terror-related'"!

Oh really? Conclusions, ladies and gentlemen?

Some critics say that foreign affairs were not a high priority for the Clinton Administration, that the press was "thrilled" with the new young President, and that when a "wall" was erected between FBI and CIA information, someone should have "protested." Domestic "affairs" seemed to occupy more White House attention, and in my opinion, the firewall on the vital information was more to protect President Clinton from investigations than a concern for "civil rights."

During the eight years of the second Bush's Administration, the media switched gears, gleefully reporting any bad news, talking down the economy — which was actually doing "better than expected" considering the damage done by 9/11. The press falsely accused Dick Cheney of "outing" a [non-covert] CIA employee, but almost simultaneously leaked CIA methods that probably caused the deaths of people cooperating with America overseas.

Now into the second year of the Oboma Administration, we have supposedly "bottomed out" of the recession months ago, and the words "Muslim" or "Islamists" has almost disappeared from the MSM's every day lexicon. Even as the Attorney General lobbies desperately for a civilian trial for Islamist "criminals" [not "terrorists" anymore], the Department of Homeland Security continues "spying" programs of the Bush era — except that those operations now seem more concentrated on American citizens than on known foreign terrorists.

As an aside, the shooter of a Wichita abortionist mustn't be allowed to attempt a manslaughter defense "because that would encourage violence," but the mastermind of the 9/11 attack is going to be allowed to change his guilty plea and supposedly be "innocent until proven guilty." Like DUH, won't that encourage "violence" too, if we are to be consistent?

We've heard it all before, and the media are desperately looking for excuses to blame "violence" on the Tea parties, but the Austin pilot was anti-Bush and anti-churches. The shooter at the Pentagon the other day turned out to be mostly a mentally ill Lefty. So "never mind"! Oboma promised change, and we do have protests by college students returning at least. Of course media coverage of college protests will soon bring us back to square one: "Just report the news; don't encourage it."

In conclusion, Michael Savage says that this Administration's chief strategy seems to be "just say YES" until the opposition becomes weary and totally distracted by multiple-front attacks on our Freedom. Oddly enough, the loyal opposition is showing no signs of being shut up. I don't think this President really knows his own citizenry. This is AMERICA, NOT VENEZEULA.

Oboma has wasted nearly a year and a half since he was elected, in the desperate attempt to ram socialized "medicine" down our throats like a horse pill or a cow magnet. And "his people" are now threatening "our people" with other "comprehensive reforms" such as amnesty and "citizenship" for illegals who have invaded our country from the south.

By the way, I was reminded today by NumbersUSA that "zero population growth" was a major "talking point" of the 1970s environmentalists. However, since the growth of illegal immigration has flooded our country with potential voters, seldom is heard anymore the word "sustainable population" growth. It is gone but not forgotten, though.

My high school class is planning its 50th year reunion this fall, which means we early Baby Boomers (the pre-WW2 ones) are getting older. The Social Security taxes taken in just recently went into the red, as compared with money being paid out. The recession has led to lots and lots of early retirements, and Medicare is a whole 'nother subject as well.

"Sustainable population" may be a verboten term for the time being, as is "death panels," but the closer we get to nationalizing so-called health care coverage, the closer we get to real death panels (to be more precise, the closer we get to Big Brother's supercomputer which may one day have the power to decide whether you live, or just take a "pain pill" and go quietly into the night).

And that's the good news. The really really bad news, speaking of coming events casting shadows, will probably occur in foreign affairs and distant events. The last college professor we had for a President, Woodrow Wilson, promised a War to End All Wars. But the realities of economic havoc led to another World War within 20 years or so. So, dumb question, why are we wasting so much political capital and working hours in Congress on a lost cause of socialized "medicine" that would only make costs and taxes skyrocket and destabilize our nation's strength further? God knows, but a final word about war and peace:

We never had a shooting war with the Soviet Union because both sides knew that the other side wouldn't back down. That was similar to a dog fight I recently witnessed between a neighbor's dog and mine. The first time they met, they attacked each other simultaneously, though mostly bluffing — without using the teeth. Then the next time they ran into each other, there was no fight because they knew that the other dog wasn't going to back down. DUMB QUESTION:

"How much of a priority is defense and foreign affairs to this Administration?"

Another question is, "If, God forbid, Iran attacks Israel and/or Europe, does Iran know that we won't back down?"

More to come, but if you follow the news closely, I think you may have some doubts. So the next question is, "Does our evident ambivalence to 'Islamist terrorism' make the risk of war greater or less?" You decide.

All of these issues (we call problems "issues" now), as enumerated above, illustrate the importance of Tom Fenton's 2005 book on the mainstream news media and its "fundamental faults"(his words). I just wish the book had been written sooner and it had gotten a little more "coverage."

P.S. I published a book in 2004 entitled "NO MORE BULL: America, Please Phone Home" and it didn't get any coverage either. Not complaining — just explaining. As Jeremiah said, the mainstream "Prophets" have become nothing but wind, and the Word is not in them!

© Curtis Dahlgren


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Curtis Dahlgren

Curtis Dahlgren is semi-retired in southern Wisconsin, and is the author of "Massey-Harris 101." His career has had some rough similarities to one of his favorite writers, Ferrar Fenton... (more)


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