Jeff Cohen Interview

A Watchdog's Bark and Bite

—A Los Angeles Times interview by Howard Rosenberg, 12/27/99.

Media require monitoring. That need has generated special-interest watchdog groups ranging from the highly conservative Accuracy in Media and Media Research Center to left-wing Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, whose executive director, Jeff Cohen, 48, is a former Californian.

Cohen was a journalist-activist and former attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union living in Venice Beach when he and some friends created FAIR with "a few thousand bucks" and began running it from a tiny flat in New York.

That was 1986. Thriving FAIR now operates from spacious offices in midtown Manhattan with a full-time staff of 11 and an annual budget of nearly $1 million derived from memberships, small donations, fund-raisers and foundations.

In addition to its alternating Extra! and Update publications, which are distributed every other month, FAIR's weekly radio program, "CounterSpin," runs on 100 stations, including KPFK-FM (90.7) in Los Angeles.

Cohen, who also is a columnist for the media magazine Brill's Content, was interviewed by phone from his home near Woodstock, N.Y.

Question: How would you define FAIR?

Answer: As a sort of consumer advocate of news. Conglomerates have taken over the news business. There needs to be a group that looks out for consumers in terms of what news they are getting and the conflicts of interest within the news industry.

Q: You've always disdained being identified as liberal. Instead you label yourselves progressive, implying that everyone disagreeing with you is regressive. Is that what you call being fair?

A: Throughout the 20th century, progressives have been reformers who put public interests ahead of private interests. FAIR is progressive because we stand for structural change. Corporate liberals see a roof with a large hole, and they want to patch it. They don't solve problems. You could call us a left-of-center group. But liberal would not be accurate in describing us. When I first got involved in activism, the liberals were giving us the Vietnam War.

Q: As we head into the next century, how do you assess the state of media in the U.S.?

A: Dangerous. Democracy is at risk. Journalism is in decline. Voting is in decline. What's not in decline is the corporate media process. Since FAIR was formed, fewer and fewer giant corporations have taken over more and more of the news. They are sitting on the windpipe of the 1st Amendment.

These are largely entertainment companies. So more and more of the news resembles harmless entertainment. Real news can be threatening. Tough investigative news can be threatening. When the owners of news are Time Warner/CNN, Disney/ABC, Murdoch/Fox and General Electric/NBC, I don't think it's paranoid to think that they would be more happy if we were a nation of mindless consumers as opposed to a nation of informed, active citizens.

Q: Instead of generalizing, be specific. What stories have we missed or distorted in 1999?

A: One story you missed until the riots broke out in Seattle was the World Trade Organization. It shouldn't take a riot for the news to cover one of the most powerful institutions in the world.

Q: But once that did happen, the coverage was vast—literally all over television—don't you agree?

A: Well, there was vivid coverage of glass shattering. That always leads the news. This is the one industrialized country where the labor movement would be an invisible player in something like this. Instead, who was on TV discussing world trade organizations? Patrick Buchanan, who to my knowledge brought no one to Seattle. But in the media, he's the one allowed to discuss corporate trade. I saw him on TV far more than I saw Ralph Nader.

Q: So that's it? We botched one story?

A: Another one is corporate welfare. Over $100 billion is given every year by the government to corporations in the form of subsidies, and some of the big recipients are the media companies. They get free broadcast licenses, free digital spectrum. It's no mystery why corporate welfare gets so little coverage when media conglomerates are such beneficiaries.

Another story was genocide in East Timor, annexed in 1976 by Indonesia, whose U.S.-supported forces were accused of allowing and even perpetuating massacres of independence-minded Timorese earlier this year.

Q: Which the media reported.

A: Yes, but it's been in process for decades, with U.S. funds and U.S. guns, in one of the worst holocausts since World War II. But until the barbarism this year, that issue has been virtually ignored. The big media are supposed to be the fourth estate, but in foreign coverage, they are the fourth branch of government. If it bleeds, it leads, unless the U.S. government is doing the killing.

And if you want me to keep going, I will. Overseas sweatshops—where glamorous household brands get their product made—are another one. American TV viewers could relate to an expose on that. ABC News has pioneered the use of hidden cameras. But they have never taken their hidden cameras to the sweatshops of Haiti and places that produce T-shirts for Disney.

Q: Is there nothing about the media that's positive from your perspective?

A: Very little. In TV news, it's hard to find anything to defend.

Q: What about diversity? The national dialogue has never been greater, thanks to talk radio and nightly discussions on the 24-hour news channels.

A: You mean talking heads, and the even bigger disorder, talking sluts—those people who will discuss any issue any day whether they know anything about it or not.

Q: Whatever you call it, isn't this eclectic mix of opinion a good thing?

A: You always hear there are so many different options with cable. But as Bruce Springsteen said, 57 channels and nothing's on. That's because these channels are owned by companies with similar interests and similar biases. The person who brought this home to me was Vladimir Pozner, a former Soviet spokesman. He said they had far more papers, book titles and magazines in Moscow than we have here, but that those papers, titles and magazines had the same owner.

I don't know about you, but I don't go to sleep at night happier knowing that the History Channel is partially owned by Disney and General Electric. Not only do they own the news, they own history as well.

And 24-hour news channels are a misnomer. They look for the same story, and they cover it for the entire week. When it became apparent there would be no trial in the JonBenet Ramsey case, I worried that there would be a rash of suicides on the 24-hour news channels.

Q: Which are the media that matter most in the U.S.?

A: The main agenda-setting newspapers are the New York Times and the Washington Post. And the second tier are the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. They set a lot of the agenda for the national network news shows that are still watched by tens of millions every night. And people are watching local TV news a lot. So the American people aren't uninformed, they are selectively informed.

Q: What about public TV? Why does FAIR so often criticize it?

A: PBS was set up to give voice to the unheard and be a forum for controversy and debate. Instead, it's become a forum for the elites. They have four, five, six business shows, but no labor shows, no weekly show about the environment. You have these right-wing foundations that fund conservative programs like "National Desk" that have advocacy journalists who are presented as hard-hitting reporters. Why is the day-to-day lineup so right-wing and so corporate, with not one weekly show on PBS that's hosted by an advocate from the left?

It's part of an imbalanced pundit spectrum all across TV, where the voices of the far right are heard daily and the voices of the mainstream left are not. Instead, TV offers centrists as voices from the left. FAIR has taken out ads, with pictures of Al Hunt, Michael Kinsley, Mark Shields and Sam Donaldson, saying: "I'm not a leftist, but I play one on TV."

Q: Be honest. Despite your call for fairness and balance, what you really want is the same thing that your counterparts on the right want, for the media in this country to reflect only your point of view. Isn't that true?

A: No. What we've called for is independent journalism and balanced commentary. I would be horrified if journalism in society reflected only my point of view.

—From Rosenberg's column of four days later:

In response to those faulting me for being even more obnoxious than usual, when appearing to be especially testy with Cohen in our Q & A, I was hoping to achieve some balance by playing devil's advocate. That's because I agree with him on nearly all issues regarding media.

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