Jeff Cohen Interview

A Call to Media Activism

Excerpted from Martin Lee's and Norman Solomon's Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media.

. . . . Many individuals and organizations are already engaged in media activism. One of these is the media watch group FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting). We asked Jeff Cohen, FAIR's founder and executive director, to discuss what active citizens can do to promote media pluralism.

Q. In the face of concentrated media power, what can an individual do to make changes or improvements in the media?

A. The first thing to do is to snap out of the mode of passive media consumer. When you watch TV or read a newpaper, be alert and skeptical. In other words, don't take the media lying down. Be conscious of who the sponsors and advertisers are. Remember when you're watcdhing NBC, you're watching the network owned by GE. Remember that the other broadcast networks and mass publications are owned by big business. And remember who doesn't own or sponsor the news. When you see a report about a labor/management dispute, for example, be conscious that no unions own any daily papers or TV stations.

If you're informed about the impact of media ownership, pass on your knowledge to fiends, family, co-workers -- because it's not the kind of information they'll readily pick up from Newsweek or Nightline.

Besides watching and reading the news in an alert fashion, take action. Become an active citizen who speaks up. Write letters and make calls to the media, both local and national. If, for example, you see a news story on any NBC station involving General Electric, contact the station or the network to ask why the viewers were not informed that GE owns NBC. The question can be phrased simply: "Our society demands that politicians and government officials disclose their financial involvements; why shouldn't the media disclose theirs?"

If you support equality for women and you regularly watch a TV news panel show which rarely includes women as panelists, contact the program's producers to ask why they're having so much trouble finding women experts. Ask the editors of opinion pages why there are so few women writing political columns. Opponents of racism should be asking similar questions of media forums which typically exclude racial minorities. Individuals concerned about the environment, consume rights or other causes should be complaining directly to media outlets which exclude their advocates. The media always tell us what a great pluralistic society we have. We won't see this wonderful diversity reflected in the new media until they begin to hear from an aroused public. Until then, the viewpoints of conservative elites will continue to dominate the news. . . . .

Q. What's the evidence the media will listen to an aroused public?

A. There's evidence the media listen quite closely. Many of those who work in the media see themselves as "majoritarians" -- offering the stories and opinion that most viewers or readers want. Media owners and journalists are aware that media outlets are businesses selling access to their viewers or readers. More than news and entertainment, what they're selling is advertising time or space to corporations seeking customers. It is very important for them to attract and keep viewers and readers so that advertises will buy ads.

But the media have not heard enough from thoughtful individuals demanding tough journalism and wide-ranging discussions of the issues. Instead, they've heard thunderous clamor from well-organized right-wing and religious fringe groups. With a few thousand letter-writers, these groups have sought to convince the media that the public is dominated by conservatives who want censorship and conformity. . . . .

Q. How can people who want to lodge complaints with the media distinguish themselves from the organized right-wing fringe?

A. That's easy. First, contact the media only about stories or programs or issues you're actually familiar with. Second, don't join the right wing in calling for censorship of viewpoints you disagree with. At FAIR, we advocate for the inclusion of new, balancing viewpoints, not the exclusion of old, conservative ones. In other words, don't ask that TV networks of op-ed pages censor the voices of hard-line conservatives . . . . Instead ask them to open their pages and airwaves to the balancing voices of outspoken, unapologetic progressives. Fighting to get new voices into the media, fighting for free speech and an invigorated First Amendment, is exhilarating; working to silence someone is censorial and depressing. . . .

Q. What specific requests or demands can an individual make in the interests of media pluralism?

A. That answer is as varied and diverse as the American public. It depends on what issues concern the individual. Women and minorities should be demanding greater representation at every level of the media -- from hosts and panelists on news talkshows, to expert sources quoted in news stories, to reporters and columnists. If white men had a lock on wisdom, our country wouldn't have the problems it does. There is no more democratic demand than the one calling for new and diverse voices to be heard in the media. . . .

Why are there numerous national TV talkshows on business, and not one on labor? . . . These same questions about the predominance of pro-business columnists, business sections in newspapers and business programs on TV, can be raised by those concerned about the environment or consumer rights. Media managers are very big on studying demographics; yet they have largely ignored polls showing protection of the environment to be among the biggest concerns Americans have. It's not a fringe issue. why isn't there a single weekly show on national TV devoted to the environmental agenda? . . . It's questions of balance like these that we should be asking. . . . .

Q. Which raises the question of the tone of one's communications with the media.

A. Whenever possible, try to offer constructive criticism. If you contact a media outlet to complain about the narrow range of sources or viewpoints which it present, give the names of individuals or groups whose views you want to see reflected in that media.

If you're involved in the peace movement and you see a foreign policy story in a local newspaper or on a TV station based exclusively on official U.S. sources, contact the reporters -- even if it means calling Washington -- and ask if they are aware that a leading academic or peace spokespeson is located in their hometown ready to offer a differing view. Suggest that the next time they do a story heavily based on official sources, they seek out this policy critic for a balancing perspective.

When you criticize reporters or news editors, do so on the basis that they've fallen short of their professed standards of neutrality, balance and independence from the state -- not that they have lousy politics. You're not trying to convince them to adopt your advocacy position but to consult and quote experts with these perspectives as sources in their reporting. . . . .

Q. Do letters-to-the-editor really matter?

A. Informed, non-hysterical letters can matter, and they need not be published to have impact. Sometimes your letter will be passed on to the relevant journalists at a media outlet even if it's not published. If you take the time to write a letter, send copies of it to two or three places within that media outlet -- perhaps to the reporter, his or her immediate editor, as well as the letters-to-the-editor department.

If media outlets get letters from a dozen people raising the same issue, they may tend to publish one or two of them. If, instead, they receive only one or two total, they may just toss them in the trash, figuring, "No big issue here." So even if your letter doesn't get into print, it may help another one with a similar point-of-view get published. Surveys of newspaper readers show that the letters page is among the most closely-read parts of the paper. . . .

Q. What if well-documented criticism, even ridicule, doesn't work in bringing change?

A. Treat the media like you would any other political institution -- whether it be City Hall or a company polluting your neighborhood. If dialogue doesn’t work, there are many lawful, nonviolent ways of escalating one's tactics. Public demonstrations often focus attention on a problem. In Los Angeles, FAIR set up a picket line outside KABC to protest its lineup which feature the views of a righ-wing commentator unbalance by a partisan of the left. Picketers carried signs: "You can't fly a plane with just a right wing." KABC savaged the protest, but the newspapers gave it major coverage, and we were invited to debate the issue on the talkshows.

Q. How optimistic are you?

A. In an era when largely nonviolent movements have brought down corrupt governments throughout Eastern Europe and elsewhere, there are real grounds for optimism. Ironically, the same U.S. media pundits who are breathless supporters of democracy movements in Eastern Europe would be petrified at the prospect of a pro-democracy movement challenging eleite structures here in the United States. Let's not forget that in courntry afte country -- whether Czechoslovakia, Romania or the Philippines -- movements to trow aside corupt elites have targeted much of their efforts against media outlets associated with the old rulers, sometimes engaging in physical confrontations in order to seize TV or radio stations. My point is that if a pro-democracy movement emerges in the United States against entrenched concentrations of power, the battle over the media will be center stage.

[From Active Citizenship's How to Improve Press Coverage webpage.]

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