half dozen media conglomerates are sitting on the windpipe of the first amendment
Where Is the Liberal Media? An interview with Jeff Cohen
by Christopher Brown (christo)
True progressive media types shiver when the names of CNN, MSNBC or FOX
are thrust in front of them. Many swear that they never would bother
watching "so called" news broadcasts on these cable outlets, much less
work there. However, one decided to give it a whirl. Jeff Cohen is a noted
media critic and pundit. A true progressive and not just "playing one on
TV" as he puts it; Cohen ventured into the world of Cable News for...gasp
In fact, he had a weekend show on the FOX network for five years called
"Newswatch." He was a frequent guest co-host on CNN's show "Crossfire" and
was a senior producer for "Donahue" on MSNBC.
Cohen, somehow, managed to survive this ordeal and lived to write about it
in his new book,
Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.
On Nov. 16 I had the opportunity to speak with Cohen, who is also
co-founder of the media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
(FAIR), via telephone as he battled a cold, and the onslaught of several
interviews around the issue of the elections.
QUESTION: Could you talk a bit about your experience at FOX, MSNBC, and
It was often otherworldly, in that I was a ferocious critic of those
channels while simultaneously appearing on them. So, it always felt a
little odd but it deepened my understanding of what the problem is in
corporate media. You have to be on the inside to see the fear, the
timidity, the careerism, to see that the people that rise to the top are
often the ones who are best at corporate politics and not rocking any
boats, and not so keen on tough independent journalism.
In these corporate hierarchies you see a lot of good people, but they're
usually the ones with the least power.
One fear that is easy to find in TV news is the fear that might get you or
your TV network accused of being liberal.
QUESTION: In your book Cable News Confidential, you wrote about being a
senior producer for Donahue (Phil Donahue) and how you wanted to have a
true progressive voice on television, yet the executives of MSNBC
continually rebuffed you. Is this correct?
Yes that's completely right and the odd thing is, why did I believe them
in the first place? I left FOX news where I had this weird perch as a
media critic every weekend for five years on "Fox Newswatch," and I was
saying a lot of stuff that no one was saying anywhere.
But I gave that up because I convinced myself that bosses at MSNBC assured
us that we would be counter-programming against [Bill] O'Reilley, that we
could be as progressive as he is conservative in our outlook. I convinced
myself that that they might be telling the truth, but they weren't.
The major factor was the coming of the Iraq War. When they hired Donahue
in the spring of 2002, it wasn't complete clear that an invasion of Iraq
was coming. But before Donahue even went on the air (July 15, 2002), it
was clearer that the war was going to happen. Indeed, our very first
debate included Scott Ritter. Even before Donahue went on the air, the
suits at MSNBC were second-guessing why they hired this raving anti-war
advocate. And so they turned the screws on us almost from the beginning
and kept turning them tighter.
So by the end, they were ordering us, if we booked one guest that was
anti-war, we had to book two that were pro-war. If we booked two guests on
the left, we had to have three on the right. At one meeting a producer
suggested booking Michael Moore and she was told for ideological balance
she would need three right-wingers. It became more of a nightmare, as the
war got closer; and then we all got terminated three weeks before the
invasion was launched, and it was purely political.
I challenge people to come up with another example where a TV channel
cancels its program that is the most watched on its channel.
It was political timidity, fear of having dissent, which I thought our
country was supposed to be about. As I say in the book, a half dozen media
conglomerates are sitting on the windpipe of the first amendment.
QUESTION: FCC commissioners Michael Kopps and Jonathan Adelstein have
been going around the country to hear the concerns of citizens over the
consolidation of the airwaves by the major corporate outlets. Further, the
COPE bill, which passed the House of Representatives, would further
undermine, among other things, public access TV and community radio. There
is concern among independent media folk that if the Internet is taken over
by ATT, then there will be no voice for anyone other than corporate news.
Are these measures designed to silence our free speech first amendment
I think the Bush administration is thoroughly weakened because of the
election. But I think that there is a bigger picture and a longer-term
thrust that began long before Bush and will continue after Bush. And that
is the fear of democracy.
The famous writings of Samuel Huntington in the 70s reacting to the
student movement, the women's movement, and the Black movement, they were
worried about the threat of democracy. And I think that it is a
longer-term thing. The economic powers that be are taking more and more
control of the means of communication, one because of commercial reasons
and two, they don't want those means of communications to be in the wrong
hands, meaning the public.
That's why you'll see corporations like General Electric (GE),
Archer/Daniels/Midland (ADM), and other conservative corporate powerhouses
spending a lot of money on public broadcasting. They feel the more money
they spread around, the more presence they have, the more they can squeeze
off dissenting views.
I see it as a long-term thing. You are exactly right about the Internet.
As I say in the book, independent media are booming. And almost all
independent media are booming because of the Internet. The Internet has
been a huge assist to Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now!," which is largely TV
and radio. The Internet has been a huge assist to Robert Greenwald and
other documentarians, because it allows them to raise funds and market
their movies better; let alone Internet outlets like Web sites and blogs
that are booming.
In fact, I speak as an author of a progressive book, that if it weren't
for the Internet; who would know about my book? I've been locked out of
cable TV news. I've been locked out of most of the mainstream media. If it
weren't for the Internet, progressive authors wouldn't be able to see
their books the way they can now.
QUESTION: After the Democrats took back Congress, journalists like Tom
Brokov and Tim Russert went on air and said that the people were against
the Republicans and not for the Democrats. That those who managed to win
are conservative or centrist at best however, this is not the case is it?
The reason that none of this is brought out is because of who gets to
speak and who doesn't. The spectrum of the "punditocracy" is center-right;
GE to GM (General Motors).
In so many contested races the candidate who questioned corporate friendly
trade deals defeated the apologists for those deals. And in so many of the
contested races, even Jim Webb (D-VA) who's not progressive, was pretty
strong on the war.
The corporate media elite has one reaction to Democrats in elections,
which is to prod them to be corporate centrists. It's all you ever hear,
"the Democrats are going to have to move to the center." This is because
the spectrum is only from the center to the right.
I watch CNN and a supposed progressive said the same thing as the others;
the party will be in the center. The reality is that the Progressive
Caucus in Congress has grown by huge strides. And perhaps half the
standing committees in the House will headed by members of the Progressive
Caucus. The Progressive Caucus is likely to be over 70 people, and that's
bigger than the two caucuses you hear about on election day; the Blue
Dogs, who are mostly Southern conservatives; and the "so called" New
Democrats who are real big on corporate friendly trade deals.
QUESTION: We hear often from right-wing pundits like Sean Hannity, Ann
Coulter, Pat Buchanan and others that the media is liberal. However,
conservative corporate giants control all the major news outlets. Where is
this so-called media that the far-right are talking about?
I've been looking for it myself! I tell that story in the book, when I get
to MSNBC, where I'm working like 10 or 11 hours every day I'm looking all
over to see if there are any co-thinkers, and I couldn't find them. I
found a total of seven but I included the camera operators, the make-up
artists, and the interns.
The reason that Ann Coulter is a household face is because of her huge
role on TV. The same thing could be said for Rev. Jerry Falwell, Frank
Gaffney one of these uber hawks. You know that's the funny thing, if the
media is so liberal how come it's dominated by these right-wingers? How
come the most prominent opinion shapers are conservative in talk TV --
that's O'Reilley, Hannity, Scarbourgh, Tucker Carlson, Glen Beck, [Robert]
Novak -- on talk radio the right-wing dominates. And in opinion pages, the
most widely syndicated columnists are conservative. It's people like
George Will and Bob Novak.
So, they have the sweep of opinion shaping. And because they're so
dominant in opinion shaping they can talk about the liberal media. The
fact that the liberal media charge gets made so much in the mainstream
media shows how much the right-wing dominates it.
It's not like Noam Chomsky is a household name to the American public, or
other progressive media critics. But gee you sure see a lot of Cal Thomas,
Ann Coulter, Hannity, and O'Reilly that are always blasting the liberal
QUESTION: Finally Jeff Cohen, what can ordinary citizens do to be able to
take control of the disinformation that is being given out by the
corporate elites and the right-wing punditry?
The first thing the average new consumer needs to do is aggressively seek
out independent voices; support independent media, support Internet based
media, then spread the word to their friends and neighbors about
Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now!," doesn't have an advertising budget so it's
word of mouth. That's the most important thing is keep building the
Secondarily, the media reform movement. Now that there are Democrats
running these committees there can be hearings on media conglomeration;
and not just FCC but Congress. There are any number of reforms that can be
There's no reason why we can't apply antitrust standards to the media.
There's no real reason why Clear Channel should be allowed to have 1,200
radio licenses. There's no reason why many licenses can't be divided up
and given to non-profit groups. There's no reason why we're lacking
genuine public broadcasting.
Most of Western and Northern Europe have public broadcasting where some of
the best journalists in those countries can work. In our country, we've
never had "real" public broadcasting. Our politicians have always had the
ability to shut the funding off, which is why public broadcasting has
always been so timid. And because of the lack of money the corporate
underwriters come in and decide which programs go on TV and which ones
It's not hard to see where the reforms need to be to diversify the media,
democratize the media, allow more non-profit owners and minority owners.
It's just a question of whether we can build a political movement to force
Washington to make those changes that would reverse the course we've been
on for decades.
Christopher Brown is an independent grassroots journalist based in San
Francisco, CA. He reviewed Jeff Cohen’s book; Cable News Confidential: My
Misadventures in Corporate Media for Ohmynews. He has a blog on Palestine