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THE NEWS ABOUT THE NEWS: American Journalism in Peril, By Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser, Alfred A. Knopf: 294 pp., $25

April 21, 2002|DAVID SHAW | David Shaw writes about the media for The Times.

CBS News and the Philadelphia Inquirer were once among the crown jewels of American journalism. Through the early years of television and well into the 1980s, CBS even styled itself the Tiffany of American network news organizations: the home of Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Mike Wallace, the broadcast gold standard for serious national and international news, with bureaus across the globe, manned by the best correspondents in the business. The Inquirer, from 1975 to 1990, won 17 Pulitzer Prizes for labor-intensive stories on such important local and national issues as police brutality, massive deficiencies in the IRS processing of tax returns, a secret Pentagon budget and corruptions and incompetence in the Philadelphia court system.

But as Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of the Washington Post, and Robert G. Kaiser, a longtime Post reporter and editor, note in their unsettling new book, "The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril," although it is extraordinarily difficult to build a great news organization, it is "tragically easy to disassemble" one.

"Bad things can happen to good newsrooms," Downie and Kaiser say, and over the last decade or so, an industrywide push for ever-increasing profit margins has made many bad things happen at CBS, at the Inquirer and at other newspapers and television stations large and small.

Rather and Wallace are hanging on at CBS, but Cronkite retired 20 years ago, at 65, and most of the best correspondents have either followed him or gone to other networks or other endeavors; most of the bureaus have been shut, and CBS is now "the least ambitious of the three networks," Downie and Kaiser say.

At the Inquirer, top editors and reporters have quit in alarming numbers, frustrated and enraged by repeated cutbacks in staff and news space dictated by the profit demands and budget-cutting of its parent company, Knight Ridder.

"Most American corporations would be thrilled with a 10 percent profit margin," Downie and Kaiser write, "but most newspaper proprietors consider a 15 to 20 percent profit from their monopoly businesses a minimal sign of good health." Many insist on 25% to 30% or more.

Those margins can be difficult to achieve without damaging the news-gathering effort, even in good economic times. In bad times, when advertising revenue plummets--as it did in the early 1990s and as it has done even more precipitously during the last 16 months or so--it is virtually impossible to have both high profit margins and high journalistic quality. But having repeatedly promised Wall Street bigger and bigger profit margins, the media moguls say they must fulfill those promises or risk losing the big institutional investors whose defections can send stock prices into a nose dive.

In a shortsighted effort to avoid that, most newspapers "have shrunk their reporting staffs, along with the space they devote to news, to increase their owners' profits," Downie and Kaiser say. "Most owners and publishers have forced their editors to focus more on the bottom line than on good journalism. Papers have tried to attract readers and advertisers with light features and stories that please advertisers ... and by de-emphasizing serious reporting on business, government, the country and the world."

The expectations and recommendations of Wall Street stock analysts have become more important to today's press barons than debates in Congress and famine or genocide abroad, so in an attempt to retain or regain an increasingly fragmented audience, they've presided over the tabloidization and celebrification of their news organizations. It's all O.J. or all Princess Di or all Monica Lewinsky or all Gary Condit all the time.

Downie and Kaiser make clear that they are exempting the Post--as well as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal--from their scathing indictment of contemporary journalism. At those three papers, they say, the news staffs have "never been more talented, and their journalism ... never been more ambitious."

Downie and Kaiser also praise the Los Angeles Times and the Dallas Morning News, and they cite significant recent improvements in the Portland Oregonian, Raleigh News & Observer and New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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