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Cable News Confidential: FAIR Founder Jeff Cohen on his misadventures in corporate media

StoryOctober 11, 2006
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Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) founder, media critic and pundit Jeff Cohen has written a new book. Cohen dissects the cable news channels and finds serious failures in how they cover the most urgent issues of the day. He joins us in our firehouse studio. [includes rush transcript]

A new study by the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting criticizes PBS”s flagship news program, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. The study found that NewsHour interviewed many more male sources than female and that people of color made up only 15 percent of U.S. sources. FAIR also found that on the issue of Iraq, Newshour interviewed five times as many guests who advocated staying the course over withdrawing troops.

Well in his new book–“Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media,” media critic Jeff Cohen dissects the cable news channels and also finds serious failures in covering the most urgent issues of the day. Jeff is the founder of FAIR and has been a co-host of CNN”s Crossfire, a weekly panelist on Fox News Watch, and a daily commentator on MSNBC. He joins me in the firehouse studio.

  • Jeff Cohen. Founder of the Media Watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Jeff has been a co-host of CNN”s Crossfire, a weekly panelist on Fox News Watch, and a daily commentator on MSNBC. He is the author of the new book “Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, in his new book, Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media, media critic Jeff Cohen dissects the cable news channels and also finds serious failures in covering the most urgent issues of the day. Jeff is the founder of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, though not with them anymore. He has been the co-host of CNN’s Crossfire, weekly panelist on FOX News Watch and a daily commentator on MSNBC. He joins me in the firehouse studio now. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JEFF COHEN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with me. First, talk about Cable News Confidential, your experiences in the media, and how it relates to the climate of today.

JEFF COHEN: I lived to tell about it. I was inside as deep as a progressive media critic has ever gotten, and what I found at places like CNN and MSNBC, the number one fear among the working reporters, the producers is of doing anything that could get them or their channel accused of being liberal. And I saw the spectrum that’s constructed. The spectrum of debate is center to right.

And, you know, people blame that on FOX News — Hannity & Colmes, a phony GE-to-GM spectrum — but it was really CNN and PBS that invented that years before there was a FOX News. So, in the book, I describe how that gets constructed and why, and why almost half of the political spectrum is kept out of political debates on a regular basis on TV news, especially cable.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how it happens. And you were also a producer for Donahue, for the Phil Donahue show.

JEFF COHEN: Well, we were trying to change the situation at Donahue. But, I mean, the people that were on TV, they have a corporate view. Their idea of balance is to get a conservative Republican to debate a conservative Democrat. For years on Crossfire the host was Michael Kinsley of The New Republic, and every night he announced, “I’m Michael Kinsley, from the left.” After doing that for six years, he gave up his seat, and that’s when they tested me to be the co-host. And a reporter asked Kinsley, after six years, “What are your politics?” And he described himself as a wishy-washy moderate. And that’s typical.

When I was tested for the show, I was co-hosting with Bob Novak, Crossfire. And I asked Novak, “You know, settle this for me Bob. Who’s further” — during commercial break — “who’s further right, you or Pat Buchanan?” And he starts railing about Buchanan being a liberal New Dealer on economics. He said, “Look, I was an Eisenhower Republican in the '50s. I've moved further right every year since.” And, you know, look at who represents the left on TV. It would never be someone who said, “I was a Kennedy Democrat in the ’60s and have moved further left every year since.” It’s just unheard of.

So they construct a situation where it’s center-right. And by having the center represent the left, they don’t have to worry about corporate sponsor flight. They don’t have to worry about corporations being attacked in a serious way. When I was tested for the CNN Crossfire job, that was a concern of theirs, that I would be criticizing the nightly sponsor. There’s no doubt; they made it explicit to me.

And then, you know, when we were trying to redress this problem on MSNBC years later — I’m the senior producer at the Donahue show — and the war starts coming, and management — you know, we have to remember — FAIR has always talked about how these media outlets are strict corporate hierarchies and the power’s at the top. Well, it’s theoretical until you’re on the inside and it happens to you.

And in the last months of Donahue, we were ordered by management at MSNBC: every time we booked one guess who was antiwar, we had to book two that were pro-war. If we booked two guests on the left, we had to book three on the right. One meeting a producer suggested booking Michael Moore and was told, for ideological balance she would need three right-wingers. And, you know, I used to think about proposing Chomsky as a guest but our stage couldn’t accommodate the 38 right-wingers we would have needed for balance.

I mean, when you see this kind of suppression — when we would talk about booking Scott Ritter, one of the most articulate dissenters, a skeptic of the WMD evidence, because we had a steady parade of weapons experts that got everything wrong and they were unrebutted. On MSNBC, I was a pundit, I couldn’t have discussed the weather without being balanced by at least one fire-breathing right-winger. But the weapons experts got on all by themselves, and everything they said was wrong.

And we tried to book Scott Ritter. And it was like clockwork. We’d hear in the building at MSNBC, “Oh, we hear he’s covertly — he’s getting covert funds from the government of Saddam Hussein.” It was completely false, a smear aimed at getting an articulate dissenting voice off of mainstream TV. I’m sure it wasn’t just being heard at MSNBC. It was being heard at other channels.

And the irony is, I learned years later that one of the experts, one of the advocates I was always debating on MSNBC, was in fact a recipient of covert government funds. The covert government funder was the Bush administration. I’m talking about Armstrong Williams, who got all that money to push No Child Left Behind. No one invited me into the “No Pundit Left Behind” program.

So, yeah. I mean, the spectrum that I saw in TV is enforced. There’s always exceptions. I was at FOX News on weekends every week for five years. There’s always exceptions to the rule, but the rule is a general parade of a narrow center-right, GE-to-GM spectrum.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, of course, Donahue was forced off the air. Was it because his show was failing ratings-wise?

JEFF COHEN: Well, think about it. When his show was taken off the air three weeks before the Iraq invasion began, it was the most watched program on the channel. And it’s very rare in TV news, where the most watched program — or TV — where a most watched program gets cancelled.

And, you know, the day after Donahue was terminated, that memo leaked out. It was never supposed to get public. An NBC internal memo about MSNB, it said: “Donahue represents a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. He seems to delight in presenting guests who are antiwar, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.” What they really worried about is we had — we tried to get dissenters on there that would say, “You know, this might not be about weapons. This impending invasion might be about oil or military bases or empire.” And to question motives is almost a cardinal rule, to say that the motives of U.S. foreign policy might not be pure, that’s not something they want.

And, you know, that NBC internal memo that leaked a day after Donahue was terminated, it went on to describe their nightmare scenario: “Donahue would become a home for the liberal antiwar agenda” — I’m quoting — “at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”

Now, I know what you were doing in that period, and I know what independent journalists were trying to do, which was ask the tough questions before our young men and women are sent to kill or be killed overseas. They wouldn’t let us do it, and they wanted us waving flags. And what I saw inside the mainstream at MSNBC and elsewhere is when journalists are so busy waving flags, they don’t have the energy to do their jobs, which is to ask the questions before the bombs start flying.

AMY GOODMAN: What you think about MSNBC host Keith Olbermann now. You wrote a piece, “Is Olbermann on Thin Ice?” He is speaking out vociferously.

JEFF COHEN: Right. Olbermann is an exception to the rule, like we were briefly. The warning — I think media activists have got to be on guard. I know FAIR is on guard. I know Media Matters for America is on guard. Olbermann is the top-rated show on MSNBC. His ratings are booming because he does independent journalism. But he’s got the same management, and the owner of MSNBC, we should have mentioned, is General Electric, makes a lot of money from war. I know these management people.

What’s changed for Olbermann, the reason he’s possible is the political zeitgeist has changed. Politics has changed. This upcoming election is one of the most important in years, and politics may really change. That’s what is helping Olbermann. But if things went the other way and somehow the conservatives were on the ascent again, if you’re working at a big corporate media outlet, they did not let you kick the conservatives if they’re up. The only time you get a chance at the conservatives is when they’re down. And it’s important that the political zeitgeist change and continue to change in a progressive direction. And then the Olbermanns get a little support.

But if anything were to happen to Olbermann, the media activism movement, Amy, is so much stronger now than when they were suppressing us at Donahue years ago. A lot has changed in four years. And one of the real changes in the environment is media activism is stronger, internet activism is stronger. Olbermann is ready to be supported in a way — people weren’t even getting the news that Donahue needed support, _Donahue_’s being muzzled. It’s a great change in the last few years.

AMY GOODMAN: Also, I mean, just in terms of the business decision, Olbermann’s doubled his audience, is the highest rated show now.

JEFF COHEN: But we could have doubled our audience. They knew that. They wouldn’t let us double our audience. They were less interested in us ramping up our ratings than in tamping down our content before the war. Remember, when Donahue was on the air, Bush’s popularity was pretty high, the war was just coming. Now, the war is in a shambles, and Bush’s popularity is very low. That’s giving Olbermann the breathing room, and I commend him. I think he is doing a great job.

AMY GOODMAN: A Reuters editor might have lost his job for writing the book, Brainless: The Lies and Lunacy of Ann Coulter, according to the New York Times. On Tuesday, Joe Maguire, one of two editors in charge of markets coverage at Reuters, handed his bosses the galleys of his new book. And on Wednesday, Maguire discovered he would have plenty of free time to promote his book. Neither side in this dispute would say that he was fired.

JEFF COHEN: Right. Well, look, I mean, I was on the inside. People get terminated for political reasons, and they say it’s ratings. But the word got out that Donahue was the highest rated show. We should say that one thing that’s changed is something that FAIR brought about. I mean, this intensified media activism, the boom in independent media, the boom in the media reform movement that’s going to be gathering in Memphis in January, it’s in some ways because FAIR 20 years ago started.

And we’re celebrating — shall I mentioned real quickly? We’re celebrating our 20th birthday tomorrow night at Cooper Union, the Great Hall, in New York City, for anyone who’s in this area. Amy Goodman’s going to speak; Barbara Ehrenreich; the great cartoonist, Tom Tomorrow; Deepa Fernandes. You name it, they’re gonna there celebrating FAIR tomorrow night at Cooper Union. And that’s a big thing.

I mean, Olbermann knows that part of his audience, it’s the web-based audience. He says something last night, and it’s all over the web this morning. And it’s really a new thing.

And, you know, by the way, when I was at Donahue, I kept talking to management. I said, “Look, Amy Goodman has moved from radio to TV. She’s booming. DailyKos, these new blogs, they’re booming. Let us be the one hour on TV that offers a dissenting view on the war, and our ratings will boom.” But they were less interested in ratings when Donahue was at MSNBC than their fear of the content of letting Phil Donahue be Phil Donahue.

AMY GOODMAN: What about when you were on FOX? Did you face the kind of pressure you did on MSNBC?

JEFF COHEN: That’s the irony. I was on a weekend show. I was on their media criticism show. I got away with more at FOX News than at MSNBC. People assumed I was fired at FOX News, because they know my progressive views. I left voluntarily, because I was sure I would get a better forum for my views at a more middle-of-the-road channel like MSNBC, which was managed by NBC News, the top news division in television.

And, you know, I immediately went over at MSNBC. I had heard so much about the liberals that inject their politics into the news. I went searching for the liberal media there. I found about seven liberals. I’m including the camera operators, the make-up artist and the interns.

So, no, it was a mistake. At FOX News I did blast Murdoch and FOX News repeatedly. I was given special — I had special leeway being on the weekend. They would never have let the show be Hannity & Cohen. I remember times that people went up to Hannity and said, “Are you afraid of Jeff Cohen? Why don’t you have a real debate? Instead of Hannity & Colmes, Hannity & Cohen?” And, of course, it wasn’t going to happen. You can’t represent the left — this is a rule, CNN, FOX, MSNBC — you can’t represent the left every night on American TV, if you’re actually on the left.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, Jeff Cohen, founder of FAIR. His new book is called Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.

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