The week after Sept. 11, when most of us were glued to our television screens following the unfolding terrorist story, I found myself switching constantly to C-SPAN 2, whose coverage featured the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and its corps of sterling reporters, led by anchor Peter Mansbridge. American networks did commendable work, especially at first. Peter Jennings of ABC News was particularly good, and Jim Lehrer's NewsHour provided its usual competent, professional analyses.
The CBC, however, was exceptional. While American coverage emphasized Washington interviews with government spokesmen -- Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, et al. -- and daily White House press briefings by the vaguely condescending Ari Fleischer, the CBC was everywhere, reporting one moment from "Ground Zero" in New York, with dramatic man-in-the rubble interviews, and the next from some Middle Eastern venue, with insightful commentary on Moslem attitudes and reactions.
As time passed, our domestic television news bureaus tended to rally around the Bush administration, accepting its informational handouts and trying not to disturb the nation's patriotic consensus. The CBC, on the other hand, relied upon critical objectivity and hard fact gathering. It was the CBC, for example, that aired the first report I can recall questioning the conventional wisdom that Pakistan would be a unified, enthusiastic member of the anti-terrorist coalition.
This sober approach contrasted sharply with the mindset at such stateside organizations as CBS News, where anchor Dan Rather figuratively offered to enlist for the duration of the conflict. It's far too early to write off Rather, a courageous journalist who took on the Nixon White House during Watergate, becoming a bête noire of the American right. Nevertheless, his emotional response to Sept. 11 raises worrisome questions about the nation's mainstream press.
So-called hard news and firsthand, in-depth reporting have become increasingly rare commodities in our news broadcasts, as Rather himself has openly admitted. Others have commented on the tendency of American reporters to become mere "stenographers" at times of crisis, jotting down and passing along the official government line. When it comes to international coverage, the US media are ever more dependent on secondhand news provided by foreign press agencies like Reuters, because penny-wise budget and staff cuts have crippled their own overseas bureaus. No less an authority than Pulitzer Prize-winner David Halberstam has publicly skewered domestic media proprietors for decimating their cadres of foreign correspondents in the name of profit.
This brings us to the essential difference between Canada's CBC and its American counterparts, as it affects news gathering. The CBC, like our own PBS, is a nonprofit public institution; unlike the PBS, it receives relatively generous government support and is neither dependent upon periodic fund-raising, nor beholden to corporate underwriters. Superficially, its status as a government-owned entity would seem to be the CBC's Achilles' heel, but following in the tradition of Britain's BBC, it has enjoyed decades of censorship-free operation and has earned a well-deserved reputation for excellence. ABC's Peter Jennings, among others, is a product of the Canadian system.
In contrast, America's private news outlets, which are constitutionally exempt from any government interference, have begun to succumb to the insidious pressures of outside corporate ownership. This is especially true for television news. Until the mid-1980s, our major TV networks were all independent companies that regarded their news divisions as prestigious adjuncts to commercial programming and not sources of revenue. Gradually, with the takeover of the networks by large conglomerates, that all changed. Between 1986 and 1996, NBC was absorbed by General Electric, CBS by Westinghouse, and ABC by Disney. In the process, television news ceased being an obligatory public service and became a profit center geared to "infotainment," the better to enhance corporate balance sheets.
Almost the first things to be sacrificed were the networks' foreign news bureaus, replaced by a reliance on overseas stringers. This was accompanied, according to a survey by Harvard's Shorenstein Center, by a precipitous drop in program time devoted to international coverage, from 45% in the 1970s to less than 14% in 1995. The second casualty, less easy to quantify, was the freedom to report fully and objectively on matters concerning ownership's vested interests and on corporate interests in general. For example, Westinghouse and General Electric, respective owners of CBS and NBC, are also involved in financial investing, defense contracting, toxic-waste disposal, nuclear-power construction, banking, and insurance, activities that regularly generate controversy and newsworthy, but often underreported, stories.
These problems are not restricted to television news; they affect the print media as well. Earlier this year, eight overseas bureaus maintained by the Knight-Ridder chain (publishers of 35 newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Detroit Free-Press, and Miami Herald) were closed down. And those papers still providing international news are increasingly reliant on foreign wire services and syndicated copy instead of their own "in-country" correspondents. The days of globe-trotting American scribes in the mold of Richard Harding Davis are about over, pending a reevaluation in the boardrooms of the conglomerates that now rule mainstream journalism.
As Ben H. Bagdikian reveals in his eye-opening exposé The Media Monopoly, 10 corporations now dominate the American media scene. Through mergers, the 10 (AOL Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, News Corp., Sony, Tele-Communications Inc. [TCI], Seagram, Westinghouse, Gannett, and General Electric) control most of the nation's newspapers, magazines, television and radio outlets, movies, and publishing houses. Under the aegis of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which was falsely billed as a means to increase competition, they are also moving rapidly to incorporate Internet, cable, and telephone operations into their far-flung empires.
This concentration has been good for business; it's boosted stock prices for the firms in question (at least prior to the economic downturn). For American journalism, however, it's been an unmitigated disaster, leading to across-the-board staff and budget reductions by managements focused on profit to the exclusion of professional excellence. Until the current national crisis, the American public hardly noticed the slow degradation of the fourth estate. So what if, as Bagdikian points out, 99% of American cities have only one daily newspaper? So what if television news has only the resources and personnel to cover one major story at a time?
It makes no difference at all, if every major story relates to some political scandal. The events of Sept. 11, however, have created a new reality. Americans need to know (and, it appears, want to know) much more about the wider world outside their borders, in order to understand their present predicament and how to avoid something like it in the future. Our system of corporate journalism has clearly fallen down on the job. One step toward improving it would be a revision or repeal of the monopoly-friendly 1996 Telecom Act. For now, though, I recommend reading the independent alternative press, including this journal.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.