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Published: Saturday, 7/20/2002

When the news makes news

BY JACK LESSENBERRY

THE NEWS ABOUT THE NEWS: AMERICAN JOURNALISM IN PERIL. By Leonard Downie, Jr., and Robert Kaiser. Knopf. 292 pages. $25.

Nearly everyone in America knows, in excruciating detail, what Monica Lewinsky did with Bill Clinton. We know all about Chandra Levy and Jon-Benet Ramsey.

But far fewer of us have any real idea how our pension funds are safeguarded (if they are at all), how the terrorist war is affecting our economy, what's really going on in Russia, or how the towns in which we live decide to build roads and sidewalks.

The news business is widely, and correctly, thought to be in crisis - which is the reason for this timely book, which for those who are not in journalism is an excellent guide to how it all works.

News, after all, is in some form essential to us all. Besides just needing to know, what we call “news” is what makes us a community. And there are clear signs of rot in the meeting house. Earlier this year, I was talking to a longtime Newsweek executive about a man we both admire - Fernand Auberjonois, The Blade's now-retired legendary European correspondent.

What was great about Fernand, he said, was that while he was a wonderful writer, “he resisted as long as he could the replacement of news values by entertainment values.”

He was in a distinct minority, which is one of the main reasons for this book. Len Downie, executive editor of the Washington Post, and Bob Kaiser, one of the paper's top foreign correspondents, set out to examine what's wrong with so much of what passes for “journalism” today, both print and broadcast. What they uncover is not a pretty picture. Though both men (like this reviewer) have devoted their lives to the news business, they paint a portrait of a profession largely corrupted by greed and sensationalism.

In the '90s, “the pressures from owners to make more profit undermined good journalism; frivolous subjects often displaced more important topics; celebrities became more important newsmakers than presidents.”

This had a price. Last year, though Osama bin Laden was committing terrorist acts against Americans abroad, and his long-term intentions were fully known, they didn't get a tenth of the coverage accorded to the disappearance of a congressional intern who allegedly had an affair with a California congressman.

But then came Sept. 11. Suddenly, everything seemed to change. For the first time since Watergate, America had an insatiable appetite for news - real news, serious news. And despite years of budget-stripping and neglect, everyone in the business “reporters, editors and producers, columnists and anchors, all knew what to do. They tossed aside commercial considerations to give Americans vivid, thorough, responsible and informative coverage of the biggest story of modern times.”

For awhile, anyway. However, for the last month, the war has sometimes seemed almost forgotten, eclipsed by the story of the Utah teenager allegedly kidnapped at gunpoint from her bedroom. That is a compelling and terrible human tragedy, but not one that will have a direct impact on most of our lives.

Does this mean the media are being bad citizens? Not necessarily. Gathering news costs money, and revenue has to come from somewhere. The finest news program in the world wouldn't be worth much if nobody was watching it. The best in-depth newspaper articles are useless if they aren't read.

And many are not watching or reading. The traditional nightly network news shows have lost half their audience since the coming of cable and the Internet. The nation's newspapers sell five or six million fewer copies each day than they did on a typical day in 1965 - when we had about 100 million fewer people.

Few agree on just why this is. Some say those delivering the news are failing to connect with and interest younger and fast-paced audiences.

Others, however, think those in the news business are losing faithful consumers by trying to cater to an audience that just isn't very much interested, period.

Regardless, as the authors rightly note, Americans will need good journalism more than ever in coming years. Apart from terrorism, we must be able to “monitor and understand the changing environment, master a competitive global economy and keep watch on government at all levels.”

Needing is one thing. The public, Downie and Kaiser conclude, will “only get that news if they demand it.” What that likely means is pockets of quality, a few great elite newspapers - and otherwise, a whole of lot of coverage of Britney Spears' boyfriends, at least, that is, until the next world crisis.

The News About the News doesn't offer a perfect road map for how to fix this. But it goes a long way to explain why we'd better.

Jack Lessenberry, The Blade's ombudsman, is a professor of journalism at Wayne State University in Detroit.



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