From two of America’s most prominent and accomplished journalists, an impassioned investigation of an endangered species, good journalism.
Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser—both reporters and editors at the Washington Post for nearly four decades—take us inside the American news media to reveal why the journalism we watch and read is so often so bad, and to explain what can be done about it.
They demonstrate how the media’s preoccupation with celebrities, entertainment, sensationalism and profits can make a mockery of news. They remind us of the value of serious journalism with inside accounts of how great stories were reported and written—a New York Times investigation of Scientology and the IRS, and a Washington Postexposé of police excesses. They recount a tense debate inside their own newsroom about whether to publicize a presidential candidate’s long-ago love affair.
They also provide surprisingly candid interviews with Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw. The authors explain why local television news is so uninformative. They evaluate news on the Internet, noting how unreliable it can be, and why it is so important to the future of the news business.
Coverage of the terrorist attacks on America in the fall of 2001 demonstrated that the news media can still do outstanding work, Downie and Kaiser write, but that does not guarantee a bright future for news. Their book makes exceedingly clear why serious, incorruptible, revelatory reporting is crucial to the health of American society if we are to be informed, equipped to make decisions and protected from the abuse of power. And it allows all of us to feel like insiders in one of America’s most powerful institutions, the media.
- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (February 19, 2002)
wo veteran reporters of the Washington Post have pooled their talents to produce “The News about the News”. Leonard Downie, Jr. and Robert Kaiser provide a detailed analysis of the problems with news today and how it got into the current condition. They take the position that the news used to be about good journalism but today the emphasis is on making a profit. How does one make a profit in the media business? Well the surest way is to make it entertaining. Could this be why there is a minimum of international reporting in the news today and an expansive reporting of the social life of celebrities? Downie and Kaiser argue persuasively that it is. When the focus is on increasing shareholder value then the method is to increase subscriptions or viewer share. The way to do this is to provide information that the purchasers or viewers want to see.
The whole situation reminds me of a conversation with a history book publisher when he was asked about the fact that the history book for middle school students had so many errors he stated that they are in the business to sell books and not to supply correct history texts. School Boards generally have parents that help select the textbooks for the system to use and so they print history the way the parents want it portrayed. It does not matter if it is correct, what matters is that it is accepted by as many schools as possible. This seems to be somewhat the same attitude of today’s news media. While what they state may or may not be correct, it is often highly biased and hard news is often left out in favor of news of minimal value. Apparently the current direction of news is to entertain more than it is to inform.
Downie and Kaiser make a point that unbiased, hard reporting will also sell papers and increase viewers. There are people who want a complete picture of the news and they will tune in to a news broadcast that is less entertainment and more informational. They note that fewer and fewer people are tuning into the news as the broadcasters scramble to try to increase their market share of a declining pool. What they don’t note is the effect that things like cable television have had. I know many, many people who have come to tune into the BBC News Channels so that they can get a decent news broadcast and actually know what is going on in the world. Perhaps the pool of people who are watching the news is increasing, but the group of people who watch it for entertainment purposes is decreasing.
“The News about the News” is a recommended read for anyone interested in what goes on behind the scenes at the news or a brief survey of how news has changed over the last twenty years. Well written in a style that is easy to read it is sure to dismay those still naive enough to think that the news is reported in an unbiased and complete manner. But the authors hold out hope that as the media realizes that it can also make money with hard-hitting and informational news it may start the pendulum swing back to good journalism. We can all certainly hope so.