Watching the Media
A talk with Jeff Cohen
Founder of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (F.A.I.R.)
What inspired you to create FAIR?
The need for a group like FAIR was so pressing in 1986, when I launched it. Mainstream news coverage of Reagan then was often more cheerleading (it was a new "morning in America," we were told) than reporting. Also, news outlets were concentrating into fewer and fewer corporate hands under Reagan (a dangerous trend that accelerated under Clinton). And right-wing media watchdogs were intimidating working journalists who uncovered unpleasant truths about poverty, environmental abuse, human rights catastrophes abroad abetted by our government. Those were the negatives.
A positive motivating force was that I had helped win a settlement of an ACLU lawsuit against the LA police for spying on nonviolent activists. That gave me some money to travel around Western Europe for a year, where I saw that TV dominated by strong public broadcasting systems delivered smarter news programming and more diverse discussion than our commercial driven TV. Also, the lawsuit left me a bit of money with which I could launch FAIR. It's ironic that the LAPD and its right-wing police chief helped me get the funds to start FAIR.
I remember hearing you interviewed by Teri Gross on Fresh Air in the late 80s about FAIR'S exposé of ABC'S news magazine, Nightline. Was that exposé initially responsible for exposing FAIR to a large audience? Can you also comment on what fruit was born as a result of FAIR'S Nightline Project?
Actually, our first big national attention came as soon as FAIR was launched in ’86 -- which, luckily for us, happened to be shortly before ABC unleashed its 14-hour miniseries “Amerika,” in a payoff to the right wing. The miniseries depicted a joint Soviet/United Nations invasion and conquest of the United States. How the Soviets evaded thousands of nuclear missiles aimed at them was never explained. I got a copy of the shooting script; FAIR sparked much of the protest activity. I was quoted widely in the media at the time denouncing Cold War propaganda coming out of Hollywood and referring to “Amerika” as “a 14-hour commercial for the Star Wars missile system.” Star Wars still haunts us today, thanks largely to the Clinton administration, which refused to kill the beast during its 8-year tenure.
“Amerika” was just one of the Cold War paranoia products coming out in the mid-1980s. Hollywood was scaring us that the all-powerful Commies were coming to conquer us; in reality, the Soviet Union was falling apart. One cinema lowlight of that period was another Commie invasion fantasy called “Red Dawn,” which made a big impression on one American patriot who viewed the video over and over and shared it with friends. His name: Tim McVeigh.
Our “Nightline” study was probably the most thorough inquiry ever into a news program (40 months from 1985-1988, 865 different shows), conducted by sociologists Bill Hoynes (now at Vassar) and David Croteau. The idea was to see who gets to speak, and who doesn’t, as an expert on that influential news program. The four most frequent guests interviewed by Ted Koppel in the 40 months were former Sec. of State Henry Kissinger, former Sec of State Alexander Haig, former Assistant Sec. of State Elliot Abrams and Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority. Rev. Falwell appeared on Nightline once to give his expertise on AIDS; on another show, he opined about homosexuality. While these guys were appearing a dozen or more times each, dissidents like Noam Chomsky and Helen Caldicott never appeared once. Of the U.S. guests, 90% were white and 90% were male. On “Nightline” programs discussing economic issues, there were 7 corporate representatives for every one representative of a labor union,
Our study received significant mainstream coverage, including some of the first negative press Koppel and “Nightline” ever received. There was no arguing against the data showing a narrow, center-right, white, male, elite guest list. Some columnists started referring to the show as “Whiteline.” The study provoked minor, mostly cosmetic changes and improvements at “Nightline.” Dissenters were put on the air a few times more that they otherwise would have. I was told by a high level "Nightline" producer than when assembling a panel of three white male establishment types, someone on staff would ask "What will FAIR say?" The study got me invited to meet Koppel and the staff once. But “Ted” -- as you’re supposed to call him to show you’re in the club -- is far more comfortable and disposed toward interviewing those in the elite, rather than articulate dissenting voices. The funny thing is that some on Nightline's staff know that if the show were more adventurous and diverse, viewership would increase. I remember a headline of one article about FAIR’s study: “Insomnia? Watch Haig Again Tonight on Nightline.”
You are correct that I appeared on Terri Gross’ “Fresh Air” show on NPR. She was fairly apologetic on Koppel's behalf on the air and off. I’ve never been invited back on her show.
How was that work received by the public? Did that exposure increase interest and support for FAIR'S work?
Within a few years, our research and advocacy against media bias and censorship had gained wide esposure -- which led to many new subscribers to our publication, "Extra!". It led to increased donations from foundations, and some support from well-off folks in Hollywood and the music industry. It helped us solidify relationships with some of the more conscious mainstream journalists (especially those who cover TV, a beat our research could help with).
Then came the Gulf War and the blatant censorship and propaganda served up by national media outlets, which distorted the causes of the war and the human toll to Iraqi civilians (thousands of whom, mostly kids, keep dying year by year due to sanctions). Whether people support or oppose the war or sanctions should be based, in a democracy, on full, fair and balanced news -- which you can't get from the New York Times or the TV networks that slavishly follow the Times on foreign policy. FAIR helped sparked a glorious protest against news censorship during the war in which thousands marched to the headquarters of CBS, NBC and ABC. All the noise sparked ABC anchor Peter Jennings to come out to the streets to dialogue with protesters. Marchers did not go to CNN's offices, a strategically wise decision, since CNN covered the protest, though its war coverage was hardly better that the others.
Gulf War media censorship helped further put FAIR on the map with activists. I just saw a widely-circulated Web article by a young "Black Bloc" militant about her experience in the Genoa globalization protests -- and she said she first became politicized during the media censorship of the Gulf War.
Over the years, where have you seen the main impact of FAIR'S work, with media professionals, activists, college students?
We’ve had some impact on working journalists – encouraging independence and boldness. We’ve gone to the defense of mainstream journalists who’ve been muzzled.
The truth is that many mainstream media professionals have had their eyes opened by the force of events. When FAIR was first formed, the attitude of a number of journalists was: “We’re glad FAIR exists, a media watch group on the side of journalists and against censorship. But you’re a bit paranoid in your emphasis on corporate influence on the news.” By the mid-90s, with the onset of tabloid OJ-JonBenet-JFK Jr. sex and celebrity sensationalism imposed by the entertainment conglomerates that own most TV news, some mainstream journalists acknowledged that FAIR had been prophetic on the issue of corporate ownership.
Let’s face it: the media owners use their news outlets as Weapons of Mass Distraction. Voting is down, as is public information on which to base a vote. Corporate America is not unhappy with that. Most Americans may not be able to identify their member of Congress, but they can probably identify Monica Lewinky or Chandra Levy.
FAIR’s main impact has been in creating public skepticism about corporate-dominated and manipulated news. And in encouraging and empowering groups and activists to talk back to the media. We have a big following among activists for civil rights, the environment, labor, feminism, etc. Our materials on media bias are also used on college campuses. I’d love to get a teaching job on campus working with students in deconstructing media content – and analyzing the structural forces that deliver such content.
FAIR is a big booster of independent, small or nonprofit media, typically referred to as “the alternative media.” It’s a label I’ve grown uncomfortable with because it might imply that the mainstream media are the real deal covering the big issues, and then there’s this derivative “alternative media” off in the margins with fringe issues. This turns reality upside down. Increasingly, the big corporate-dominated media are serving up irrelevancy, diversion and propaganda; if you want the big economic and environmental issues presented in complete fashion, you need to seek out smaller, independent (i.e. not corporate-controlled) media. These outlets may not have major resources, but what they do have is the independence to pursue the big issues without compromise.