BOOK REVIEW / The world is going to hell out there: 'Who Stole the News?' - Mort Rosenblum: Wiley, 16.95 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Online
RADIO journalists often complain that everything they say goes in one ear and out the other. Hey, heard you on the radio this morning, their friends tell them. Can't remember what you were talking about, but it was great. In an extension of the same principle, many of us like to complain - when we are shocked by our own ignorance - that it is all the media's fault for not informing us better.

Often this is merely a way of saying that we are too busy to read the papers. The press does indeed have a duty to keep us abreast of world affairs, but we can't expect it to make us a cup of coffee, nip out to the newsagent for us, light our cigarette and hold our hand until we concentrate. So when Mort Rosenblum asks, in the title of this sprightly attack on American news habits, 'Who stole the news?' it is tempting to reply: no one. It is still there. All we have to do is pay attention.

It is a neat title, all the same. Who did steal the news? It was here a minute ago, goddamit, where the heck has it got to? And the subtitle is even more beguiling: 'Why we can't keep up with what happens in the world, and what we can do about it.' Rosenblum is a long-serving foreign correspondent who has watched the space available to him shrink. His argument is that the more noisy and far flung the news business becomes, the more narrow and conventional it tends to be.

When the killing in Yugoslavia began in 1992, he writes, Bosnia-Herzegovina was still too many syllables for most editors - let alone readers. The items seen on our television and read on our front pages are not so much news as novelties - an artificial cocktail of marketing impulses and shock-horror frissons. As Rosenblum's metaphor has it, the news machine is not interested in watching lava heat up; it likes volcanoes only after they have exploded.

The paradox is that big-bucks news corporations and bright new technologies do not help: as in the financial markets, today's speed-of-light information systems mean only that everyone jumps the same way, at the same time. Swarms of journalists land on this week's vogue trouble-spot, like twitchers after a rare bird. Then they go somewhere else. Swift communications threaten the livelihood of the overseas correspondents - so much simpler to jet people in as and when.

Rosenblum does not spend nearly enough time answering the interesting question he has posed; and rarely pauses long enough to consider the implications of his own journalistic shorthand. He declines to wonder why stories 'break', why journalists like calling each other 'hacks', or why a reporter's work is called 'copy'; he is even happy to refer to the South African writer Rian Malan as 'one thoughtful insider'. But he does consider the various different branches of the media with sharp aplomb, and lets fly with a tidy collection of pointed anecdotes. These sometimes sound like not much more than the excited reminiscences of an old hand propping up the Hilton bar ('I ever tell you about that time in Mogadishu?'). But he is good on the way the news was massaged during the Gulf war, and heated on the subject of Washington's indifference to events in 'remote' places.

'During 1992,' he writes, 'the number of children who died worldwide for lack of simple attention - a little food, a measles shot - surpassed five million. Most were Africans. That is as if every four minutes, for an entire year, a school bus full of kids plunged over the north rim of the Grand Canyon. If that began to happen in Arizona, someone would put up a railing. Why is Africa different?'

Rosenblum concentrates on attacking the structures that lie behind the headlines, and he might be right. But it is a shame he does not also consider the question of style, for the news has become a genre, and a highly mannered one at that. As Bryan Appleyard pointed out this week, the clever satirists on The Day Today give us a good view of the overblown reflexes and loud cliches of current affairs. It is like looking at distant events down the wrong end of a telescope; it becomes all too easy to see the world as a faraway place where people, er, bribe their uncles and buy their exam results. So when Rosenblum concludes his book by responding to his original question (Who stole the news?) with a tart put-down, we have to nod in agreement. 'Grinches at the top,' he declares, 'have pushed aside serious reporting for stuff they think will make more money.' Grinches - that's telling them, Mort.

Rosenblum is a one-time editor of the International Herald Tribune and chief reporter for the Associated Press in Paris. He is a hard news, get-out-there foreign correspondent of the old school, and Who Stole the News? is above all a plea on behalf of foreign reporting. At its worst, it reads like a whingeing memo from a reporter fed up with head office for cutting out his jokes and not returning his calls. Rosenblum's own prose has a clipped, agency edge to it; we can almost imagine it being phoned over from a hotel bar in some sweltering trouble-spot. 'This book is the result of talking for 25 years with nobody listening,' he begins. (Stop close quotes new para open quotes.) 'The world is going to hell out there.'

One of the most convenient things about Rosenblum's complaint is that it does not, at first sight, concern us; it is an out-and-out critique of American news organisations. The British media are hardly mentioned: there is an obliging tribute to the BBC ('for correspondents of every nationality, it is a religion'), but otherwise this is a work wholly about the United States.

We need to be careful, though, not to smirk over the shallowness of American news. Britain seems eager to follow a transatlantic lead. We might be tempted to think that our news is in better shape than America's but only have to look at the shoddy coverage of Stephen Milligan's death to see that it is pretty damn close. Still, stories about how ignorant and insular Americans are always play suspiciously well over here (America is the one place where even Brits feel cosmopolitan, or so we fondly imagine), and there are several good old chestnuts in these pages. One Japanese researcher interviews some North Carolina high school students about Pearl Harbor and asks them what comes to mind in connection with Japan. The answer is: 'Tiananmen Square'.

Rosenblum's heart is obviously in the right place - 'We need solid news judgement,' he writes, 'not a carnival barker's flair for what appeals' - and, if nothing else, his work is urgent enough to make us wonder why there are not more, and better, books of this sort. Media consumption is at an all-time high. Average families, we are told, spend a couple of days a week watching the telly. Yet this extraordinary aspect of modern life has not yet attracted an articulate, everyday critical vocabulary. The 'meejah' remains a sneer to to those who feel ill-used by it, and a widely available drug to news junkies in need of a quick fix. 'The point is not whether to give people what they want or what they need,' Rosenblum writes. 'It is helping them see why what they need is also what they want.' He is right to point out that the media is in the hands of the consumers, we who only read, watch and listen; and he is surely right to warn that, if we are not careful, we really will end up with the news we deserve.