Cover image for The news about the news : American journalism in peril
The news about the news : American journalism in peril
Downie, Leonard, Jr.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : A.A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2002.
Physical Description:
292 pages ; 25 cm
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PN4855 .D64 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
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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 Post exposé 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.

Author Notes

Leonard "Len" Downie, Jr. (born May 1, 1942), was the executive editor of The Washington Post. He held this position since September 1, 1991, after serving as managing editor for seven years. During Downie's tenure as executive editor, The Washington Post won 25 Pulitzer Prizes.

He grew up in and around Cleveland, Ohio. He received his BA and MA degrees in journalism and political science from The Ohio State University. he is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Rules of the Game.

He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife, Janice. He is the father of four grown children, two stepchildren and grandfather to two grandchildren.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

For much of the 1980s and '90s, the news media were in a slump. Largely nonconsequential stories on celebrity weddings and car crashes made headlines. But on September 11, according to veteran Washington Post staffers Downie and Kaiser (executive and associate editor, respectively), things abruptly changed. "Hard news was back in the forefront," they say, and in this powerful and timely assessment of the present state of the news, the two present compelling evidence of the shaky ground newspapers and television news stand on today. By describing the profound impact the news can have (e.g., the Salt Lake Tribune's uncovering of the corruption in the bidding process for this winter's Olympic games), Downie and Kaiser prove that even in our celebrity-driven age, news does matter. They mainly focus on newspapers and television news in this succinct, unpreachy treatise, briefly skimming over the Internet and the rise of and, among other Web sites. Not surprisingly, the authors are biased toward newspapers for their unsensational, in-depth coverage of current affairs; they even suggest exercises for readers to compare television with print news. But they're not above admitting print's problems, either, namely, the increasing importance of enhancing shareholder value and the emphasis on the bottom line. Downie and Kaiser give a fairly brief yet meaningful history of newspapers and television news, juxtaposing the history with interviews with today's leading journalists, from NBC icon Tom Brokaw to former New York Times national editor Dean Baquet. This is an important, up-to-date study that should be required reading for journalism students and serious consumers of the news. Agent, Amanda Urban. (Mar. 1) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Part of this comprehensive tour of current problems in the US news business is straightforward reporting about the news industry. But Downie and Kaiser (both at The Washington Post) argue candidly that the industry has sacrificed quality of news for profits and popularity. The authors discuss, among other issues, the strengths and pitfalls of enterprise news reporting, and they provide an overview of the current quality of US newspapers. They devote chapters to local television news's slide toward marketing and gimmicks and to how the Internet fosters multimedia collaboration. In one of the book's final two chapters, the authors decry the decline in news devoted to government, politics, and international events and the increase in reporting about crime, weather, health, consumers, investing, and entertainment. Downie and Kaiser write exceptionally well, and they include post-9/11 insights and cite numerous examples from across the US. Though not intended as a comprehensive literature review of the field, the book includes helpful footnotes. It is an especially good companion (and post-9/11 update) to Leaving Readers Behind: The Age of Corporate Newspapering, ed. by Gene Roberts, Thomas Kunkel, and Charles Layton, and Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel's The Elements of Journalism (both published in 2001). Highly recommended for journalism collections. R. A. Logan University of Missouri--Columbia

Booklist Review

Downie and Kaiser, a former and a current editor with the Washington Post, explore the developments of the past 20 years that have placed journalism at the crossroads--in need of a higher level of accountability and an examination of the values that drive the business of news gathering. They recount how the press developed in the U.S. and look at recent trends in competition, ownership, and technology that have resulted in news organizations becoming more profitable businesses but not necessarily better practitioners of journalism. The authors detail the process of investigative reporting from beginning to end and the ultimate impact of a story on the local community and the nation. They explore the triumphs and failures of newspapers and television news operations in their efforts to uncover and deliver the news. Interviews with reporters, editors, producers, managers, and network anchors provide an insightful and penetrating look at how journalism has changed for the better and worse and how principled--and not-so-principled--journalists are responding. This collection of essays from members of the Poynter Institute, a journalism education foundation, touches on every aspect of modern journalism, focusing on how new technologies and changes in ownership affect the day-to-day business of reporting. Each section is preceded by a brief description that places the topic in the context of changes in the profession. Topics include ethics, the craft of writing, diversity, corporate ownership, and the role of the free press in a democracy. Essayists explore journalism in the overall American culture, the philosophy--or what one essayist describes as the "poetics" courage and ethics among media leadership, and community connectedness, or the pressure to encourage citizen engagement in public life. Essayists also explore the conflicts of journalism and business values and considerations in writing, editing, and design in an age of technology. --Vanessa Bush

Library Journal Review

Americans and others around the world relied on the news media for coverage of the events of September 11. Downie and Kaiser, both Washington Post executives with extensive reporting experience, contrast this coverage with recent negative trends in journalism, such as a focus on entertainment and celebrities. The result is an insider's perspective on the deterioration of news reporting in all forms of media, from newspapers to the Internet. Drawing on their experiences at the Post, the authors show how excellent journalism, such as reporting on the education of black children in North Carolina, brings attention and action to social problems. They also offer a fascinating account of the decision-making process used to determine whether to publish a story during the 1996 presidential campaign on Bob Dole's infidelity during his first marriage. Further, they discuss how the demand for profits has led to more sensational news coverage to boost ratings, which has reduced the amount of space or time given to international and hard news. Interviews with the three network anchors and analysis of local television news programs reveal problems with news coverage in the electronic media (e.g., if it bleeds it leads). Written in journalistic style, this accessible, elegant, and, most importantly, persuasive account will be of interest to both public and academic libraries. Judy Solberg, George Washington Univ. Lib., Washington, DC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One News Matters The story is a legend now, but it really did happen. Early in the morning of June 17, 1972, inside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington's Watergate office building, police arrested five men wearing business suits and rubber surgical gloves and carrying cameras and sophisticated bugging devices. The Washington Post assigned a longhaired newsroom roustabout named Carl Bernstein and one of the paper's newest reporters, Bob Woodward, to report the story. Over the next two years they unraveled a tangled conspiracy of political spying and dirty tricks, wiretaps, break-ins, secret funds and a criminal cover-up-all orchestrated by President Richard Nixon's White House. For a long time the Post was the only news organization to take Watergate seriously. The Washington establishment brushed the story off, and Nixon's allies put pressure on the Post to drop it. But after months of Woodward and Bernstein's revelatory stories, government investigators and then the Congress joined the pursuit. Impeachment proceedings began, and on August 9, 1974, Nixon became the first president of the United States ever to resign his office. Watergate became an example for the ages, a classic case when journalism made a difference. Good journalism does not often topple a president, but it frequently changes the lives of citizens, both grand and ordinary. When Robert Hopkins telephoned Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, he was sixty-five years old, a diabetic on kidney dialysis three times a week and the desperate father of three young children, ages four, five and six. Their mother had abandoned the family soon after the birth of the youngest child and shortly before Hopkins's illnesses had been discovered. When Milloy met the Hopkins family, they were squatters in an abandoned apartment complex in a run-down Washington neighborhood. The children charmed Milloy, as did Hopkins's determination to hold his family together, get his kids off to school and find them something to eat. They were surviving on $566 a month in social security benefits. "Robert Hopkins says he hopes I can help," Milloy wrote in the Post . "With his health deteriorating and his children's needs skyrocketing, he reluctantly places his case before the court of last resort." After Milloy's column appeared, Hopkins received $10,000 in donations from readers. A widow with a comfortable house invited Hopkins and his children to move in with her. Other readers offered to take the Hopkins children to restaurants and amusement parks, to mentor and tutor them, to buy them clothes. In a second column, Milloy described Hopkins opening letters containing checks and offers of help: "'Who are these people?" [Hopkins] asked, tears of amazement in his eyes. 'Are they real?'" Good journalism holds communities together in times of crisis, providing the information and the images that constitute shared experience. When disaster strikes, the news media give readers and viewers something to hold onto-facts, but also explanation and discussion that can help people deal with the unexpected. So on September 11, 2001, and for some time after, Americans remained glued to their televisions, turned in record numbers to online news sites and bought millions of extra copies of their newspapers to help absorb and cope with the horrors of a shocking terrorist attack on the United States. In the weeks that followed, good reporting allowed Americans to participate vicariously in the investigations of the terrorists and the government's planning for retaliation. Journalists could educate Americans about Islamic extremists, the history of Afghanistan, the difficulty of defending the United States against resourceful and suicidal terrorists and much more. Journalism defined the events of September 11 and their aftermath. In those circumstances the importance of journalism was obvious, and much discussed. Whether widely noticed or not, good journalism makes a difference somewhere every day. Communities are improved by aggressive, thorough coverage of important, if everyday, subjects like education, transportation, housing, work and recreation, government services and public safety. Exposure of incompetence and corruption in government can change misbegotten policies, save taxpayers money and end the careers of misbehaving public officials. Revelations of unethical business practices can save consumers money or their health. Exploration of the growing reach of computer databases can protect privacy. Disclosure of environmental, health, food and product dangers can save lives. Examination of the ways society cares for the poor, homeless, imprisoned, abused, mentally ill and retarded can give voice to the voiceless. News matters. In 1999 the Chicago Tribune documented the experiences of scores of men sentenced to death in Illinois who had been beaten by police into confessing crimes, had been represented at trial by incompetent attorneys or had been convicted on questionable evidence. Soon after the newspaper published its findings, the governor of Illinois suspended all executions. Houston television station KHOU began reporting in February 2000 that Ford Explorers equipped with certain kinds of Firestone tires had been involved in dozens of fatal highway accidents. Its reports led to nationwide news coverage, federal investigations and the recall of millions of tires, undoubtedly saving many lives. The Star-Ledger in Newark, investigating the 1998 shooting of four men by New Jersey state police, used the newspaper's lawyers to force the state to disclose records that showed state police had targeted black motorists by using racial profiling. The paper's stories drew national attention to the police practice of drawing up the profiles of "typical" criminals based on race and stopping random suspects based on such profiles. This reporting helped create a national political issue and led to action by both the state and federal governments to reduce the use of profiling. Salt Lake City television station KIVX and the city's two daily newspapers, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News , uncovered corruption in the bidding process that had won the 2002 winter Olympic games for Salt Lake City. The city's Olympics promoters had showered gifts and financial favors on members of the International Olympic Committee and their relatives. This news mushroomed into the biggest scandal in the history of the Olympics and led to changes in bidding for future games. It also shook the pillars of the Salt Lake City community. The Oregonian newspaper in Portland found that many of the 140,954 holders of disabled parking permits in Oregon were not disabled at all but had obtained their permits fraudulently. By using a computer to compare the state's permit records with Social Security Administration data, the newspaper discovered that holders of 13,412 disabled parking permits were dead; able-bodied relatives were renewing and using the dead people's permits to park free at meters. State officials promised a crackdown on abusers and changes in procedures for issuing and renewing permits. The Miami Herald exposed pervasive voter fraud in the 1997 Miami mayoral election. Campaign workers for the mayor and other candidates registered nonresidents at phony addresses in the city, validated absentee ballots for people living outside Miami, punched other voters' absentee ballots without their permission and paid $10 each to poor and homeless people to persuade them to vote. The election result was subsequently overturned in court. The Philadelphia Inquirer revealed in 1998 that police had manipulated their crime records to make the city appear safer than it was in widely publicized FBI statistics. The police erased some crimes from their records entirely, and downgraded robberies, burglaries, car break-ins, stabbings and assaults to minor offenses like "threats," "lost property," "vandalism," "hospital cases" and "disturbances," which are not included in the FBI's accounting of serious crimes. The Inquirer reported later that Philadelphia police had also failed to investigate thousands of sexual-assault complaints, rejecting many of them as "unfounded" and hiding others in file drawers. Official investigations and reforms of police procedures followed. Little Rock's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette brought to light beatings, sexual assaults and other mistreatment of delinquent children in a state detention center and wilderness camps in 1998. A year later, the Baltimore Sun reported that guards were brutally beating teenagers in Maryland's state boot camps for delinquents. Investigations, resignations and camp closings followed in both states. Good journalism-in a newspaper or magazine, on television, radio or the Internet-enriches Americans by giving them both useful information for their daily lives and a sense of participation in the wider world. Good journalism makes possible the cooperation among citizens that is critical to a civilized society. Citizens cannot function together as a community unless they share a common body of information about their surroundings, their neighbors, their governing bodies, their sports teams, even their weather. Those are all the stuff of the news. The best journalism digs into it, makes sense of it and makes it accessible to everyone. Bad journalism-failing to report important news, or reporting news shallowly, inaccurately or unfairly-can leave people dangerously uninformed. The news media failed to report adequately on the overextended and corrupt savings and loan industry before it collapsed and cost depositors and taxpayers billions of dollars during the 1980s. The press failed to discover and expose the tobacco industry's cover-up of evidence of the addictive and cancer-causing effects of smoking and its clandestine marketing of cigarettes to young people until plaintiffs' lawyers discovered both in the course of liability lawsuits during the 1990s. At a time when nearly half of eligible Americans don't vote, the news media have steadily reduced their coverage of government and elections, leaving citizens vulnerable to negative and misleading political advertising that fills the airwaves instead, enriching television and radio stations during election campaigns. Although Americans are more globally connected than ever, most news media steadily and substantially reduced their coverage of foreign news during the last years of the twentieth century, depriving Americans of the opportunity to follow the world around them. This fact was widely discussed after the terrorist attack of September 2001, when foreign stories suddenly became fashionable again. Bad journalism can misinform. Television newscasts and many newspapers routinely overemphasize crime news, so Americans continue to fear that crime is getting worse when it has actually been decreasing steadily for years. Journalists eager to attribute the deadly bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 or the catastrophic explosion of TWA Flight 800 over Long Island to Islamic terrorists misled Americans before they knew that the real culprits were Timothy McVeigh and an exploding fuel tank on the Boeing 747. Glowing, uncritical coverage of new technology companies in the late 1990s encouraged many Americans to sink their savings into speculative stocks and mutual funds that soon crashed, collectively costing them billions of dollars. Much bad journalism is just lazy and superficial. Local television stations lard their newscasts with dramatic video fragments of relatively inconsequential but sensational fires and auto accidents. Broadcast and cable networks devote news time to mindless chat and debate. Newspapers fill columns with fluffy trivia and rewrites of press releases and the police blotter. Bad news judgment is commonplace. "If it bleeds, it leads" is a self-mocking slogan among local television journalists, but also an accurate description of the reflex of television news directors to make gory crime stories the first news items on the 11 o'clock news. The celebrity divorce, the police raid on a massage parlor, the opening of a county fair-all too often, it doesn't have to be new, or factual, or interesting, or important to be labeled "news." Journalists have a special role in preserving one of America's greatest assets, our culture of accountability. Americans expect their leaders to behave responsibly, and usually take remedial action when they don't. This is an important reason why American society works better than many others. Accountability is a crucial aspect of our national ideology, which was based on the rejection of tyranny, defined by the founders as the unjust use of power. Americans in positions of power generally assume that someday they may have to account for how they have used their power. This is especially true for those who hold power in our government "of the people, by the people, for the people," but for others as well. Corporate officers hold power over companies and their customers. Foundation officers hold power over the distribution of vast sums of money. Those with power in film studios, television networks, book publishers and recording companies shape our popular culture. American society is diverse and decentralized; countless citizens exercise some power over the lives of other citizens. Accountability is an important check on that power. Our politicians know that informed voters can throw them out of office; corporate CEOs recognize the authority of their boards of directors and the influence of their stockholders; a cop taking bribes knows he doesn't want to get caught. Good journalism is a principal source of the information necessary to make such accountability meaningful. Anyone tempted to abuse power looks over his or her shoulder to see if someone else is watching. Ideally, there should be a reporter in the rearview mirror. Solemn obligations are far from the only justification for good journalism. The journalist's ability to connect readers or viewers to the comedy and tragedy that surrounds us all makes life richer and more rewarding. One of the rewards of being alive is watching the world change. During our nearly four decades in journalism we've seen amazing changes that have redefined the American experience: the creation of a middle-class majority in the United States; economic and cultural globalization; the celebrification of just about everything; the power of America's youth culture to infect the country and the world; the emergence of women, African Americans and gay people; and great migrations from Latin America and Asia; the long and frustrating struggle with terrorism. Journalism described all of this, though not always as quickly or thoroughly as it could have. Any attentive American could keep up with this changing world by following the news. Good journalism gives every one of us the opportunity to be real citizens of our own time. Human beings are instinctively curious, and journalism relieves curiosity. The real workings of big-time sports, the backstage gossip from the worlds of movies and television, the personalities and company histories behind the names listed on the New York Stock Exchange, new cures and old remedies for every kind of ailment, the condition of our environment, details of community and neighborhood life-virtually the entire range of human curiosities is covered by good journalism. So it should matter to Americans that the news is at risk today. In an information age, when good journalism should be flourishing everywhere, it isn't. Excerpted from The News about the News: American Journalism in Peril by Leonard Downie, Robert G. Kaiser All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 News Mattersp. 3
Chapter 2 Americans and Their Newsp. 14
Chapter 3 News That Makes a Differencep. 30
Chapter 4 Newspapers: Where the News (Mostly) Comes Fromp. 63
Chapter 5 The Network Newsp. 111
Chapter 6 Local Television News: Live At 4, 5, 6 and 11p. 157
Chapter 7 The New Newsp. 195
Chapter 8 News Valuesp. 219
Chapter 9 The Future of Newsp. 252
Notesp. 269
Acknowledgmentsp. 277
Indexp. 279