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Less than Meets the Eye

by Ralph Heller

he air attack launched against Iraq when the House of Representatives was about to impeach the president was officially called "Operation Desert Fox." That name— "desert fox"—was vaguely familiar to many Americans, but what did it signify? What did it mean?

Curiously, not even one U.S. newspaper in 10 tried to identify the phrase. The man known as the "desert fox" was Nazi Field Marshall Erwin Rommel who with his army had matched wits against General George S. Patton in North Africa. Later he would turn against Hitler and ultimately commit suicide, but at the time he earned the nickname "desert fox" he was Hitler’s favorite general.

That famous military campaign across northern Africa was fought only a half century ago, so what are we to conclude about a nation of journalists for whom the sobriquet "desert fox" no longer rings a bell? Just as curious, of course, is the decision of President Clinton or some high ranking advisor to name a military operation after a Nazi general. Surely Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who is related to victims of the Holocaust would have known the identity of the original "desert fox."

Perhaps the most intriguing question, then, is whether the nation’s press has become a sad reflection of what America has become, or whether America has become a sad reflection of what its newspapers have become. A few months ago Fortune magazine published its "1998 Satisfaction Index," measuring customer satisfaction with 34 different products and services. At the top of the list were soft drink beverages and pet food with a customer satisfaction score of 84 each, and at the bottom of the list with a score of 54 was the Internal Revenue Service.

Newspapers ranked far down the list, number 26 on the list of 34 products and services, tied with the U.S. Postal Service and well below the level of customer satisfaction enjoyed by solid-waste disposal, insurance and tobacco. Next to the very bottom of the list were local police and network news.

Last spring the Project for Excellence in Journalism and Medill News Service released the results of a study entitled Changing Definitions of News: A Look at the Mainstream Press over 20 years. The study compared 3,760 print and broadcast reports for the month of March in both 1977 and 1997. Included were the front pages of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, all three nightly network news broadcasts, and the entire contents of Time and Newsweek magazines. Some of the findings are alarming:

  • 52 percent of all stories in 1977 were straight news accounts of what had happened, but by 1997 that percentage had fallen to 32 percent;
  • The number of articles about government and government accountability dropped from one in three stories to one in five; and
  • The number of stories about foreign affairs dropped from nearly one in four to one in six.

So what has the press been focused on instead of "hard news," government accountability and foreign affairs? The answer to that question will come as a surprise to very few of today’s newspaper readers:

  • The study found that the number of articles about celebrities or celebrity status tripled in 20 years from one in 50 to one in 14; and
  • Time and Newsweek had the same front cover as People magazine seven times as often in 1997 as in 1979.

It is in light of the transparent deterioration of quality in today’s newspapers that organizations like the Nevada Policy Research Institute have become necessities. In this issue of Nevada Journal, for example, readers will find the most complete list ever published of Nevada tax and fee increases enacted in the last two decades. But are the state’s newspaper readers not also entitled to this information?

As often as not today’s typical newspaper is pursuing a political or ideological agenda, usually mixed with liberal doses of "government apologetics." A northern Nevada newspaper, believe it or not, has in the last decade published photos of a police chief who later became county sheriff more often than it published photos of all other city and county officials combined—elected and appointed. So who do the publisher, editors and reporters of that newspaper really care about, their readers or their uniformed hero?

Perhaps a Nevada journalism professor summed up today’s newspapers especially well when he noted, "In most of today’s papers there is a little less than meets the eye." But be of good cheer; you can count on NPRI to continue to provide for you the candor, honest analysis and government accountability that no longer interests most newspaper editors. NJ

Ralph Heller is senior consulting editor of Nevada Journal.


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