U.S. Journalism's Response to the Demands of Sept. 11...and Its Echoes

By RJI on April 1, 2002 0 Comments

by Jeffrey Dvorkin, Executive Director - Committee of Concerned Journalists, Ryerson University, Toronto, CANADA

Thank you. I am very grateful to Ryerson University, the Atkinson Foundation, the Department of Journalism and to Vince Carlin for this marvelous reception and opportunity to talk about how US journalism has fared over the past six months.

The American poet Marianne Moore once said …"it is a privilege to be witness to so much confusion." Truly a journalist’s credo, if ever there was one.

But I consider myself fortunate to be a witness as well, to these monumental and historic events and from the vantage point as Ombudsman at NPR. Although there are many aspects of Canadian journalism that I think about and miss almost on a daily basis, I have to say that the transition from Canadian to U.S. public radio was less of a shock than I thought it might be. The values of public radio in both countries – the commitment to service, to mission and the concern for the audience as citizens first and listeners second exist just as strongly in the U.S. as they do in Canada.

National Public Radio as you may know, owes an enormous and openly acknowledged debt to CBC Radio. It was “As It Happens” that was the inspiration for NPR’s flagship program, “All Things Considered.” The first director of NPR News and producer of “All Things Considered” was Bill Siemering. Bill is still around, setting up radio skills courses in Mongolia and Mozambique. But back in the late ‘60s he was a producer at WBFO in Buffalo, New York and he listened to the CBC as it drifted across Lake Erie. Bill was asked to come to Washington to launch NPR in 1971. He came to NPR with the voices and values of Peter Gzowski and Barbara Frum in mind.

It is six months almost to the day when the United States came under attack on its own soil and in a manner designed to kill as many innocent people as possible. I have tried to imagine something in our experience as Canadians and as journalists that was as horrifying and that provoked as huge a response. Perhaps the October Crisis of 1970 comes close. Or maybe the Montreal Massacre.

But at NPR we all know someone who lost a friend, a relative, a lover, a wife, a husband. Someone in Washington told me that his Brooklyn high school lost 20 graduates – 10 in the World Trade Center and 10 in the New York police and fire departments. To give it another perspective: more lives were lost at the Pentagon alone than were killed in the Oklahoma City bombing.

September 11 was an extraordinary day and just as life in the United States will be forever changed because of what happened, the same can be said of American journalism.

I would like to describe what I think was the state of play of U.S. journalism prior to September 11, how the media in general and public radio in particular responded to the demands of that day, how we in the U.S. have done since then, and what echoes or warnings this might hold for Canadian journalism.

First, I am saddened to say that the events of September 11 revealed quite clearly that commercial broadcasting in general and television particularly have now abandoned any pretense of being in the news business. Most of the reporting of any seriousness came from public radio and from the newspapers. Even public television, with the exception of a few “Frontline” documentaries, failed to convey the events adequately to their audiences.

Indeed, while the broadcasters were able to respond with reasonable rapidity to the events, they were unwilling and unable to sustain the coverage for more than a few days. While reporting remained intensive in New York and Washington, and while there was some reporting from around the U.S., there was little or no reporting from the rest of the world. U.S. broadcasting leaped to grasp at the encouragement from President Bush to get “back to normal” as soon as possible.

It was, in my opinion, a flagrant abandonment of a once proud journalistic tradition. How could this happen? How could it happen on our watch? The reasons are complicated and I believe, speak about the failure of U.S. broadcast journalism to play a role in the civic life of the country.

U.S. journalism was, I believe, living in an unreal but hugely profitable world prior to September 11. Hindsight is, as we know, more acute than prescient, but in retrospect, it seems increasingly clear to many of us that the deregulatory environment in the United States under the Clinton administration was a boon for media moguls and a disaster for journalism. With the arrival of the Bush administration, it has only become worse.

Let me be specific.

The Clinton administration allowed the marketplace to define the needs of its citizens when it came to news and information. The regulator, the Federal Communications Commission under William Kennard, approved one merger after another.

Let me use the radio industry as an example. It wasn’t quite the same for print or for television. In some cases the effects were slightly better. But in many cases it was worse.

In the United States, there are about 10,000 radio stations. Under the deregulatory environment, by 1997 eighty percent of them had been sold, merged or amalgamated into larger corporate entities. The few “mom-and-pop” stations that were still around by the mid-90s simply could not resist the financial pressures to sell, or the competition from the radio giants who could – using digital technology – program stations in Texas, for example, from giant delivery systems based in Chicago or Denver. It created the illusion of greater journalistic and programming choices. But in reality, there are now fewer voices on the radio and less local and original journalism being practiced. I understand that a similar merger has happened in Canada, and I’ll talk about that in a few moments.

One American station illustrates the story nationally. That station was in Washington, DC. It was WUDC – a 4,000-watt station, licensed as many public radio stations are, to a small college – the University of the District of Columbia – hence the call letters – WUDC. The college had a long financial history that was troubled, in part because it is owned by the city of Washington that, as you know, suffered from years of fiscal neglect. The university decided to sell its radio station, simply to raise the money it needed as an educational institution that it had been able to get from City Hall. WUDC was never a financial success, but it had a solid reputation. It was a station which had found its niche as a wonderful jazz station, serving with a strong sense of mission and deep musical and cultural values in a city where Duke Ellington was born and where the population is more than 60% African-American.

The University hoped it could get $400,000 to $500,000 for its license, along with its tiny studios and sporadically efficient local transmitter. To the astonishment of the industry, the station was finally sold for $21 million to C-SPAN radio after getting into a bidding war with a Christian evangelical broadcaster.

WUDC was pretty typical. The go-go ‘90s were wild for radio no less than for all media circles. AOL, Time-Warner, News Corporation, Clear Channel Communications, Vivendi, Viacom, General Electric and Disney. Big, bigger, biggest… And the price for those mergers was to be found and lost in the newsrooms of the nation.

In 1998, I was chatting with the Congressional bureau chief for the Midwest papers of Knight-Ridder. It was during the impeachment process and on a daily basis the Washington press corps was roiled by revelations of sexual impropriety and assumptions of financial shenanigans.

It seems like such a long time ago. The bureau chief was complaining about how idiotic the Lewinsky story was, but he was stuck. “Why?” I asked. He moaned and said that the year before he had 12 editors and reporters to serve eight newspapers. That day, he had only two reporters and one editor. The rest had been fired in order to pay to maintain and insure an annual rate of return of 20% to 25% for Knight-Ridder. There were many more important Congressional stories he wanted to cover; stories of real importance to his Midwest readers. Stories about the economy, about the price of cattle and grain, about a reduction in pollution controls in Chicago and St. Louis. But it wasn’t about sex in the Oval Office. His papers were yelling for the most important story of the day. He wanted to do what was really important to a local readership aside from the impeachment of a President. He ended up assigning his only two reporters to the scandal.

How could this happen? How could a tiny little station like WUDC be worth so much money? And how could an important news bureau be turned into a shadow of its former self, starved for reporters but still enormously profitable?

One story that may indicate why goes back to 1986. Dick Salant was heading CBS News in those days. He was one of the old school – not a journalist. He was a budget manager who was told to run CBS News. But he understood implicitly and instinctively that news had a role that is simply, to serve the democracy.

So the story goes that one day, in 1986, he came back to the CBS News office on West 57th Street in New York after a budget meeting at corporate headquarters at Black Rock – the corporate headquarters on 6th Avenue. He announced to an all staff meeting that he had “good news and bad news. Which do you want first?”

“Well”, said one staffer, “give us the good news first”.

“We have,” said Salant, “the largest audiences ever in the history of the news division. And for the first time in our history, we have made a profit.”

“And that’s also the bad news”.

After that, it became clear that news was big business. The questions were: What do you consider news? How do you keep profits high? And what can you do without?

For the managers and business people who took over media organizations in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, news was about “growing the audience,” finding the right demographic and maximizing profits. And what profits there were...

In the mid-80s, newspaper publishers and broadcaster moguls were considered financial geniuses if they returned an annual profit of 4%.

But by the 1990s, it was normal and even expected for media organizations to return 15 to 25% annually.

And they did it by a brilliant combination of new technologies and eviscerating newsroom staffs. But mostly they did it by changing the public’s taste for what news is supposed to be. If a foreign bureau was too expensive, television took a lesson from talk radio: Put them in a studio and make it raucous. Rush Limbaugh – meet Jerry Springer.

And there was more. By the 1990s, news departments in newspapers, and in broadcasting organizations were told that they could not, but should not expect to be supported by advertising or by the revenues generated by other programs or newspaper sections. News divisions were expected to be “profit centers” of their own and to match if not exceed the revenues brought in by the sports and entertainment divisions that once supported news.

News doctors and consultants were hired. While I won’t go into the sorry details of which we are all too well aware, one of the first things to go was foreign news. I confess that I am not entirely innocent. As managing editor at CBC Radio I closed bureaus that only a few years before I had proudly opened.

Foreign news was not interesting said the news doctors – both in the U.S. and in Canada. And in fairness to the interests and tastes of the American public, after the end of the Cold War, there were enough compelling national, political, diplomatic or military reasons for Americans to pay attention to foreign news. It wasn’t all the fault of the spinmeisters: Foreign news was often reported in a particularly boring way – a lot of men in suits walking in and out of government buildings. Great for the politicians and diplomats; terrible for the readers, viewers and listeners. There were exceptions – the coverage of the Balkan Wars being one, but diplomatic processes did not make for exciting front-page bylines or grabby openings to the Nightly News.

So in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, in spite of the research that shows that audiences are interested in hard news, whether it is local, national or international, the news menu changed. Political reporting was dismissed as “mere process.” And after Watergate, the processes had become so complex and so un-photogenic. That made it easier to cut the budgets for Washington bureaus. But the money did not go to other places where news could be gathered. Except for talk shows that can be useful but often are the television equivalents of slugfests and food fights. They garnered good ratings for a time, especially among a younger target audience and they are, of course, very cheap to produce.

So Congressional bureaus were reduced, and the money went to pay for the mergers, or to investor dividends. Regional bureaus were reduced and foreign bureaus were closed. Greater reliance was made of foreign news services such as Reuters, and the BBC. Huge stories were missed, ignored or reported in the most cursory manner. The massacres in Rwanda and the spread of AIDS were heard of infrequently on U.S. television. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and yes, NPR, remained notable exceptions to this.

Let me cite the situation of CBS News. I return to CBS since it has an entirely noble tradition. Founded by Bill Paley and ennobled by Edward R. Murrow who hired some of the finest journalists ever in the history of American broadcasting. They were known as “Murrow’s Boys,” and their reputation and that of the company they served is part of the lore.

I was lucky in my first job to work with one of the original of Murrow’s Boys, Charles Collingwood. I am also privileged to work – still – with one of the last from that golden age of CBS News – Daniel Schorr. Dan, who is now in his mid-80s, is NPR’s senior news analyst. He provides thoughtful and incisive commentary for NPR News programs several times a week. As Vic- President of News at NPR he thanked me once – kind of out of the blue. When I asked him why he said that I was the only boss he ever had who hadn’t fired him.

CBS through the McCarthy period and through the war in Vietnam was everything a news organization should be. It had its internal struggles, and the pressure on Bill Paley by the Nixon White House was extraordinary and resulted in Dan Schorr being let go – much to the benefit first of CNN and now of NPR.

But overall and for many years, CBS was the standard against which others were measured. Until the 1980s.

But CBS now has become a full service entertainment provider with news as a deeply secondary department. I single CBS out not because it hasn’t happened to NBC and ABC, but because the fall from grace at CBS seems to me to be so great. And what has happened to CBS has happened to NBC, ABC and in a way to CNN.

Sure, CBS still has “Sixty Minutes” and “Sixty Minutes II.” But the quality of the reporting is often soft. And when it’s not soft, it’s just tabloid. As once was said, “Sixty Minutes” is happy to go after a crooked Arkansas lawyer, but it won’t go after General Motors or Enron. Well maybe it will now.

In foreign reporting, CBS at its height had 38 overseas bureaus. Today they have four, while NPR has eleven with a twelfth to be opened this spring in Istanbul.

And still the senior managers of the networks don’t get it. ABC’s “Nightline” may be dumped in favor of David Letterman and more stupid pet tricks. Just the thing that will help us understand why there will be another wave of terrorist attacks.

Since September 11, the American media has tried with some exceptions to play catch-up…trying to tell this story after more than a decade of newsroom evisceration.

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the American public in poll after poll gave the media high marks for its coverage. But a divide remains. Americans want to be kept informed of the war. But they warn against being given too much information.

Even the high profile journalists are confused by that. On the one hand the American public want to the facts. They want their news and they want it without any dressing.

One the other hand, some journalists – especially the celebrities on the cable shows and even on the main networks, have become the amen corner for the Bush administration and its conduct of the war.

At one level it’s understandable: If you don’t have the reporting staff you once did and if the only thing you’ve got to report is your own opinion as on talk-radio or on the Sunday politics shows or when the news hole in your paper is being made smaller to plug in more ads, the presence of the pundits in print and on-the-air becomes disproportionately large.

And that’s what has happened. There is now more bloviating on the news than before. And when the consumers of the media see and hear opinion as opposed to reporting, it’s easier to question whether any of it is true.

The result is that Americans still hear, read and watch the news. But they consume less of it and of what they take in, they believe less than ever.

So what’s next? Well, to paraphrase Dick Salant, let me give you the bad news first and the good news second.

The bad news is, as I said, Americans – when faced with the decline in reporting and news standards – trust the media less than ever. Under the circumstances, that may be a logical response.

Those of you who know me from my CBC days may recall that I had then and still have a measured distrust of polling. But the consistency of the polling on the media leads me to conclude that the pollsters may be indicating something very serious and dangerous for the future of journalism and for the civic society it purports to serve.

Between September and late November last year, Gallup and the Pew Research Center for Press, Politics and the Media did a series of polls on media credibility.

While the initial polls showed that the public gave the media high marks for its handling of the immediate crisis (one poll gave the media an 89% approval rating), the public thinks that the media just doesn’t get it. The public repeatedly doesn’t understand why the media acts the way it does or what it is trying to accomplish.

Most recently that 89% rating has fallen to 46% in a Pew survey. Pew found that while the public “holds more favorable opinions of the press’s professionalism, morality, patriotism and compassion,” the public wants tighter government control over news and fewer details about national security. Most respondents told Pew that they trust Pentagon

officials to tell the truth. A plurality of people surveyed (47%) criticized the media as politically biased and 51% said the media actually gets in the way of society attempting to solve its problems.

A later poll by Time/CNN found that 68% of those surveyed thought the media was giving out too much information about potential U.S. military activities.

By November, Pew found that 54% disapproved of the way the media was handling the war coverage.

Gallup observed that “one reason for the low rating of the news media may be that their role in a democratic system of government makes them the bearers of bad news and often puts them at odds with government officials – who at this time, are perceived by the public in very positive terms.”

I would agree with that. Historically, in times of crisis, the news media suffers along with civil liberties as citizens rush to support in a legitimately patriotic manner their country, which is seen as being under attack from outside forces. In the longer term, studies show that support for civil liberties and for the media swing back when that danger is seen to have passed.

But for now, the media in general in the US has fallen far from its perceived role as acting as an agent of the democracy it serves.

So where is the good news in all this? I think that Americans by and large still hunger for news that is serious, contextual and that gives them what they want from a national and international perspective, but that doesn’t neglect its local duties and responsibilities.

In short, it sounds like public radio.

And while audiences and readership are falling, public radio is undergoing a boom of staggering proportions. In the mid ‘90s, public radio had a weekly cume of around 13 million listeners.

Today, after September 11, it has captured more than 22 million listeners…the second largest radio audience in the U.S. Two reasons for that are, I believe, because of the public radio’s commitment to provide reporting both overseas and locally. And second, there is no one else doing it.

I think some short explanation of the structure of public radio is in order. Unlike the BBC or the CBC that provide a predominantly national service, public radio in the U.S. is intensely local. There are more than 1,000 station that are locally owned and sustained – for the most part by the biannual pledge drives that are the source of so much hilarity. Two-thirds of the stations are in fact licensed to colleges and universities. The others range from private not-for-profit like WNYC in New York, to WLRN in Miami which is, in fact, owned by the Dade County Board of Education.

NPR is one of a few public radio services that provides programs and a few other related services. NPR owns no stations and no transmitters. Its total staff is about 500 people, half of whom are in News, mostly in Washington, DC but also in bureaus across the country and in eleven foreign bureaus as well.

The right and the obligation to raise money are left entirely to the stations. The stations then pay NPR an annual fee for the right to broadcast its programs. That amount is based on the size of the local audience, the amount of money the station raises from the pledge drives and the amount of money donated for underwriting (advertising by any other name) from corporations and foundations. The stations are free to air the programs when they see fit. The only exception is for the hourly newscasts that must run in real time. And that’s basically it.

The stations are also free to purchase programs from other vendors such as the BBC, the CBC and another public radio institution called Public Radio International that distributes, among other programs, “A Prairie Home Companion” from Minnesota Public Radio.

Coming from a highly-centralized system such as the CBC I was frankly astonished at how this hodge-podge of stations in the US – some enormously powerful in their markets; others desperately weak and hardly heard – manage to survive and continue.

It is the ability of public radio to act as an agent of community that is at such variance with the disembodied media that purport to act in the interest of the consumers.

In fact, they do not and the folks down south know this instinctively – hence the doubt and suspicion about the media and why whatever is said on TV or in the papers or on the radio (commercial that is) is greeted with so much derision and doubt.

Last year the Roper Organization – a very straight-laced polling organization – did a study on which institutions are the most trusted in the United States.

Public radio came in second. Public television came in third. We can recognize that. But some values in Canada are different from those in the United States. So you also may not be surprised when I tell you that the military came in first. It would be nice if the institutions we value came in one and two, but life is often more complicated and more surprising than we would like.

Now I understand that here in Canada you have been undergoing some interesting media shifts, especially as it concerns CanWest and the Asper family. All I can tell you is that what happens in Canadian media circles is closely watched in the United States, as I know the opposite to be the case as well.

The fight over editorial control of the Southam papers, the demands for editorial consistency and the looting of local news has made a fair bit of ink and radio time in the U.S.

When compared to the media mergers in the U.S., CanWest, with its 14 major metropolitan daily newspapers in every city, 126 other newspapers, the Global TV Network, Canada.com (which is the third most popular Internet site in the country), along with six digital TV channels….it’s hard to imagine a comparable US conglomerate.

Knight- Ridder, for example, is a hugely successful newspaper chain. It has 32 newspapers. Gannett owns 99 papers.

Of the 1,500 daily papers in the U.S., 1,200 are owned by five chains. If CanWest, with its 134 dailies, were American, it would be equivalent to owning all of those five chains, all 1,200 papers plus a few more. While CanWest maintains a unitary editorial policy and continues its disinclination to staff its newsrooms, the need for strong service oriented journalism is greater than ever. We need to treat our listeners, readers and viewers as citizens and not as eyeballs to be delivered to advertisers. News is not meant to compete for profits.

Our jobs as journalists, teachers and even as ombudsmen is now clear. Our listeners, readers and viewers are telling us that they want good journalism. They want to hear about their communities, their country and their world. They know when they are being manipulated or pandered to. And they don’t like it – although they are willing to be amused by it in the short term.

It useful to point out that while other media are making greater profits, they are doing so with fewer readers, listeners and viewers. The market value for these corporations is at variance with their value to the public. Through the recession only four journalistic organizations managed to maintain or increase their audiences – The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and NPR. It’s no accident that all four have increased their reportorial staffs and deepened their coverage around the world.

In the aftermath of September 11, our listeners have told us that they rely on NPR as never before. Whenever we provide reliable and solid information, the listeners and viewers and readers respond.

There is some hope that this may start to change. Leonard Downie and Robert Kaiser of The Washington Post express the hopes and optimism for many of us when they say, “The longer term consequences of a new war on terrorism (might) not be visible for years, but it seem(s) possible, at least, that those horrific events might rekindle a commitment to public-spirited journalism not only in the best news organizations, but in the more numerous ones that previously skimmed lightly over the news, giving their readers and viewers the intellectual equivalent of thin soup…But those who own and lead this country’s news media ha(ve) a new opportunity to consider the appeal of revelatory, aggressive, intelligent journalism.”

The best way I can think of doing that is by considering the best reporting to be local reporting. If we are telling true and compelling stories about people, and why they act and live the way they do – whether it is in Kabul or Kamloops, then we are performing a vital, reliable and essential public service.

When Bill Siemering started NPR News in 1971, he wrote a philosophical statement of principles about public radio that still stands, to my way of thinking.

I’d like to think that the values of Canadian and American public broadcasting are here as well:

National public radio will serve the individual: it will promote personal growth; it will regard the individual differences among men (and women) with respect and joy rather than derision and hate; it will celebrate the human experience as infinitely varied rather than vacuous or banal; it will encourage a sense of active constructive participation, rather than apathetic helplessness."

Not a bad set of ideals to guide us through these times.

Thank you.