Saturday, January 08, 2005

Tim Rutten Writes A Good But Not Perfect Column

The central point of Tim Rutten's column today (Saturday, Jan. 8) is certainly accurate -- that the main stream media is essential, because of its vast resources to cover a big story, when something like the South Asian tsunami strikes.

But there are two things in Rutten's column I am going to take issue with, as showing weaknesses in both the column itself and the Calendar section as a whole.

Most immediately important is Rutten's report that CNN eventually got more personnel on the scenes of the tsunami and increased its viewers by a greater percentage than Fox. I do not challenge Rutten's statistics for the most part, because I know him to be an honest, careful journalist, although I might point out that since Fox normally has more viewers than CNN, each percentage point gain of viewers over the normal background level comes easier to CNN than Fox. Each 1% of gain for CNN is a smaller number than a 1% gain for Fox.

Where I most take issue with Rutten on the CNN-Fox part of this column is in two areas. First, Rutten, as an earlier Calendar article by someone else, fails to mention that in the first day or two of tsunami coverage, Fox got the jump on CNN. It made the judgment that the tsunami story was huge in the first hours, and had extensive reporting on it while CNN, especially on Sunday, Dec. 26, failed to break into its regular programming and had comparatively sparse coverage. This showed that in news judgment, initially Fox was superior.

I also think Rutten goes too far in making this comparative comment on CNN and Fox: "While Fox is a series of chat shows linked by snippets of fragmentary information, much of it derived from other sources, CNN not only has maintained its domestic and international news-gathering capabilities, but -- in recent weeks -- also has renewed its managerial commitment to the primacy of hard news."

The fact is, Fox is more than "a series of chat shows linked by snippets of fragmentary information." Fox News is often sharper and more comprehensive than CNN, it just depends on the day and the story. Also, Fox is better at handling more than one subject at a time. When CNN did get more personnel on the scene and begin focusing on the tsunami story, Fox still had good coverage, while also covering better a vital period in the runup to the impending Iraqi election.

The fact is that Rutten and the Calendar section in general lose few opportunities to denigrate Fox, while extolling the virtues of CNN. This follows strong criticism of Fox by Times Editor John Carroll. I have to acknowledge, however, that on most days I myself watch more of CNN than Fox.

The other part of Rutten's column this morning that I find some objection to has to do with his criticism of "cost-cutting" in some of the mainstream media.

I agree with Rutten when he observes, "Even the handful of major newspapers that have remained in the hands of family owners face constant pressure from Wall Street to boost their share price," and that doing so involves cost-cutting.

However, in his discussion of "cost-cutting," Rutten fails to mention the Tribune Co. (which is not family owned, by the way) as enforcing "cost-cutting" in an attempt to increase its profit margins and share prices at The Los Angeles Times and other former Times-Mirror-owned papers.

Perhaps it is too much to expect Rutten to run the danger of cutting his own throat by being explicitly critical of the cost-cutting Tribune Co. has done since buying Times-Mirror papers and ending family ownership of those papers. But Rutten, as a deputy metro editor, was courageous in defying the policies of Mark Willes when he was CEO of Times-Mirror and if he is going to write about cost-cutting, the least he and Calendar can do is give a mention or two to the destructive cost-cutting the Tribune owners have forced at The Times. It's the reason I have urged someone else, with a higher sense of journalistic responsibility, to buy The Times and restore California ownership.

Or am I being too Quixotic and holding today's Rutten column to too high a standard? Maybe so.

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