When Tom Fenton stepped down from CBS News in December after 34 years of service, he was praised by the president of the network as “the embodiment of the wise and worldly CBS News correspondent.”
Now, Fenton is going public with criticism of his own network and television news in general, with his forthcoming book, titled “Bad News.”
“I wrote this book out of conviction,” Fenton told the Buffalo News. “I don’t have a lot of illusions it’s going to change things.”
The publication, which is due out next week, condemns what Fenton calls the declining standards and bottom-line mentality of the news business.
As an example, he says cutbacks in foreign news quashed an interview he was setting up with Osama bin Laden in 1996.
“Our bosses saw him as an obscure Arab of no interest to our viewers,” Fenton writes. “More concerned with saving dollars than pursuing the story, they killed the project.”
“Perhaps I could have fought harder,” he added. “But eventually, you really do get beaten down. Reporters work in the field. We can propose. The editors and producers dispose. There’s no way you can force them to put something on the air.”
Fenton, who said he wrote his book as a reporter not pulling any punches, said it’s not possible for networks to provide in-depth coverage of worldly events when they’re compacted to just 18 minutes of broadcast time.
“Once you get halfway through the CBS Evening News, the rest of it you can turn off,” Fenton told the News. “There’s nothing there you need to know. It’s an attempt to entertain people and pump up ratings. If I want entertainment, I’ll watch ‘The Daily Show.'”
“We have literally dumbed down our public,” he continued. “We have trained them to accept the coverage they’re getting. We so rarely explain what’s going on, there’s no context. So, people of course, aren’t interested. They have no idea what’s going on.”
CBS came under heavy fire in the past year after the network’s anchorman Dan Rather broadcast a report on President Bush’s National Guard service based on fabricated documents.
Fenton thinks that issue is symbolic of the problems facing network news, writing, “the networks can no longer vouch for much of what they put on the air. Just as Dan Rather did … with those phony Bush memos … they take it on trust.”
But, “Dan was let down by the people who served him,” Fenton told the paper. “He’s over-used. He was working on four or five things that day and didn’t get involved in the story to the extent he should have. That being said, CBS management and Dan himself should have been a little more wary about putting a story of that nature on the air in the midst of an election campaign without being damn sure they had everything nailed down.”
At Fenton’s retirement two months ago, CBS News president Andrew Hayward called the veteran correspondent, “a true gentleman.”
“Now I’ve become slightly radioactive as far as some of the CBS hierarchy is concerned,” Fenton said. “I started the book last year before all this happened and I’m sorry it’s coming out when everybody is jumping on CBS. The timing is coincidental.”
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