Editors Note: Jeff Cohen is a co-founder of the media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, or FAIR. He has written articles for dozens of newspapers, including USA Today, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe; he has been a commentator and producer on Fox and MSNBC; and has co-authored four books on mass media and politics. He is speaking on May 18 at 7:00 p.m. at First Unitarian Church at 1011 SW 12th Ave. This event is sponsored by The Portland Alliance. The Alliances Alex Taylor had an opportunity to speak with Cohen on April 19 about conditions in todays media and whether there was cause for optimism.
Hear Jeff Cohen Speak Wednesday May 18th.
Doors open at 6:30 PM with program begin at 7 PM.
First Unitarian Church at 1011 SW 12th Ave.
Alex Taylor: The media environment is bleak. How bleak would you say?
Jeff Cohen: These are the bleakest of times (for corporate media) and these are the brightest of times (for independent media). A half-dozen media conglomerates Time Warner, Murdoch, GE, Viacom, Disney, etc. dominate what most Americans see, hear and read in the media. These conglomerates sit on the windpipe of the First Amendment. Despite a dizzying array of new channels of communication, these companies seem more adept at restricting the flow of serious news and information than in expanding the flow.
I know TV news from the inside having been a pundit at CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. In other words, Ive taken a paycheck from half of the half-dozen companies mentioned above. I was on-air at MSNBC every day for months in 2002 (challenging the coming war in Iraq and suppression of liberties at home). I was also a senior producer on MSNBCs most watched primetime show, Donahue. But as the Iraq war approached, I lost my airtime, and then Donahue was terminated. Thats when an internal NBC memo leaked out that described Phil Donahue as a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war it worried that his show would be a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity. MSNBCs solution to the problem: Drop Donahue, pick up the flag.
Those of us who questioned the rationales for war and were vindicated by events can enjoy our vindication from the sidelines because, for the most part, weve been removed from TV. Those who echoed the deceptions that led the world to war have generally seen their careers flourish.
AT: Where are the beams of hope? What are your favorite alternative media sources?
JC: Independent and progressive media are booming. Amy Goodman and Democracy Now! have a bigger profile than ever, on both radio and TV. Amy and her team are some of the best journalists assembled in one place. Other progressive radio programs are expanding, including FAIRs show, CounterSpin. Air America has brought liberal talk radio to AM dials across the country offering constant (if not always sophisticated) opposition to Bush policies.
Progressive blogs and websites are finding significant audiences tompaine.com, zmag.org, blackcommen-tator.org, alternet.org, gnn.tv, etc. My favorite daily destination for one-stop shopping is CommonDreams.org which gathers the best in independent, mainstream and international journalism. Millions of people visit that site.
Robert Greenwald, who produced the un-trilogy of documentaries Unprecedented about the Florida 2000 vote theft, Uncovered about Iraq, and Unconstitutional about attacks on civil liberties has pioneered in alternative distribution. Without the backing of a movie studio or TV network, his movie Outfoxed (on Fox News and corporate media) became one of the hottest-selling DVDs in the country thanks to grassroots Internet-driven marketing from MoveOn.org and other groups.
AT: You wrote an article in December 2003 about the Bush administrations conduct of the war that noted the strong relationship between public ignorance and public opinion. The administration manipulated public opinion by keeping us uninformed. In this sense, were the elections any different than the run up to war?
JC: In our country, there is an information-rich minority that has access to Amy Goodman, KBOO, The Portland Alliance, CommonDreams, etc. And an information-poor majority that knows more about Michael Jackson, Laci Peterson and Britney Spears than about Bush, DeLay and Scalia. This information divide is as important as red vs. blue.
Coverage of the run-up to war presaged coverage of the election campaign, and it favored Bush. Right before the election, a polling group at the University of Maryland found that strong majorities of Bush supporters were horribly misinformed about Iraq and about many of their candidates positions. 60 percent of Bush supporters, for example, said the U.S. should not have started the war unless evidence established that Iraq had WMDs and was supporting Al Qaeda terrorists. But they were largely unaware the evidence did not exist. And they went on to vote for Bush. These are faith-based voters not fact-based voters.
The Bush administration has shown contempt for facts, journalists and voters. Reporter Ron Suskind quoted a senior Bush advisor who dismissed journalists as being part of the reality-based community and explained: Were an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while youre studying that reality...well act again, creating other new realities.
VT: Does a media controlled by a handful of corporations stand to gain by keeping us ignorant, just as Bush keeps maximum leverage by enforcing our ignorance? If so, what does it stand to gain?
JC: While there are conscientious journalists working at the lower and middle levels of big national media, even in TV news, the media system itself is corrupt. These media operations are corporate hierarchies; the executives who rise to the top are not journalists, questioners or boat rockers they are corporate-friendly politicians. Those working journalists out on the limb who were correct on the war were mostly punished, not rewarded.
What I found in TV news was palpable fear: about standing alone outside the pack, about asking questions others in the mainstream werent asking. The number one fear was of doing anything that could get you or your network accused of being liberal. Whether its the eve of a war or of an election makes little difference.
At the elite level, its obvious what media corporations gain. Their soft coverage helps Bush retain power; the Bush team uses its power to help these corporations get their deregulatory and monopolistic agenda enacted in Congress, at the FCC. Sumner Redstone, seen as a liberal media mogul (Viacom/CBS), publicly endorsed Bush before the election on behalf of his company: A Republican administration is better for media companies than a Democratic one. He explained: The Republican administration has stood for many things we believe in, deregulation and so on.
AT: Some have called the media environment in the United States and elsewhere a cartel, an intertwined oligopoly one of many such transnational corporate oligopolies. Is the ailing media environment another symptom, or is it an organic part, (or both or neither), of neoliberalism?
JC: As Bob McChesney and Ed Herman have written, these companies are an organic part of, and key engine of, neoliberalism. They operate globally much more as partners than as competitors. As part of a cartel, they fight to strip public broadcasting of subsidies in country after country while pocketing subsidies themselves. They promote and benefit from free trade and privatization arrangements. In country after country, these companies try to obliterate rules that democracies have established to protect their domestic TV/radio production; they attack these rules as unfair restraints of trade.
AT: It seems clear that patriotism is the guise under which a lot of intimidation of the press operates. Dan Rather has noted the administrations accusations that may chill an impulse to scrape for deeper information. But problems with the media are not simply the product of this administration. In fact, in many ways the mass media seems complicit in the undercutting of its own journalism. Do you think this complicity exists?
JC: During the first Gulf War, reporters in the field were corralled in pools, their movement and access restricted, their copy requiring Army approval. That was bad. But as FAIR noted at the time, the worst censorship was at home inside the TV studios in New York and Washington where independent and critical voices were systematically silenced. That was 14 years ago.
My view today is not of a big bad Bush administration intimidating noble media figures like Dan Rather (or Sumner Redstone). Rather has been a major ally of U.S. interventions and disinformation for decades. The biggest CIA operation of the 1980s was the proxy war in Afghanistan deploying Islamist fundamentalists against the Soviets (an operation that helped birth both the Taliban and Al Qaeda) and Rather was a willing propagandist for the effort.
For me, the most telling comment from Dan Rather was made during
his Letterman appearance after the 9/11 attacks: George Bush is the
president. Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where. Thats
total abdication of a journalists (patriotic, if you will) responsibility
in a democracy. Karl Rove and the Bush team were counting on just such abdication
as they pushed through the USA PATRIOT Act, Guantanamo, immigrant roundups
and ultimately, the Iraq War.
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Last Updated: May 11, 2005