At the end of 2004, CBS’s respected and reserved London correspondent, Tom Fenton, retired. A month later, segments of his memoir began to leak to the press. After having countless stories rejected over the years, and beaten down by what he called “corporate greed,” Fenton said that the London bureau “doesn’t do much reporting anymore. What it does is called packaging,” assembling video and facts gathered by other organizations. The philosophy, according to Fenton is, since it is cheaper, “take it on trust. Don’t shoot it, don’t report it – just wrap it up and slap the CBS eye on it.”1
Fenton’s perch, a quarter-century in London, is hardly at the center of the storm. His memoir has to be taken as one man’s view, a limited one. CBS executives have also been harsh, and in some ways quite persuasive, in their own defense. One executive went back and was able to disprove many of Fenton’s specific recollections. Stories he thought were ignored had actually been broadcast. Other correspondents had covered the stories he said had been rejected.
But Fenton’s larger argument about changes in network TV, while stated as a polemic, reflect sentiments that are widely felt among network news professionals and also sensed by audiences. Network news has changed. For those who arrived when the news divisions had the idealism, and the arrogance, of oligarchies, things are very different. There is a good deal less idealism, and a good deal more of the sensibility of the counting house. That change is general, and may even have been unavoidable. It has been most severe at CBS. Both the cost-cutting and the breakdown of standards it can lead to were evident in the embarrassment of “Memogate.”2
Network news remains a unique asset in television. While it has become a difficult and declining business, it has not fully relinquished the goodwill of the American public. Even after all the turmoil of 2004, on Election Night twice as many people watched the three networks as tuned to cable news. That ratio is shrinking, but it remains enormous. The brands have diminished, but they are still there.
1. Howard Kurtz, “Osama Who? When No News Is ‘Bad News,’ ” The Washington Post, January 24, 2005.
2. Howard Kurtz, “Rick Kaplan, Putting more NBC in MSNBC,” The Washington Post, January 31, 2005.