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Wednesday, 20 September 2006 09:27

Jeff Cohen's 'Cable News Confidential' Gives an Eyewitness Account From Inside the News Room

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A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

I was lucky enough to have been inside a network program, managed by the top news division in television, NBC news, and I could see the corruption, the timidity, the news suppression day by day from the inside. It was something breathtaking to behold.

Jeff Cohen, long-time media critic and founder of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), has seen the TV news business from both sides now. He was hired -- and fired -- as either an on-air pundit or a behind-the-scenes producer by CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. In his new book, Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media, he describes the takeover of television news by entertainment conglomerates -- and the outcome that the news we get now is essentially a series of soap operas. As if that weren't bad enough, he fears our beloved Internet could go the same route, if Net Neutrality is not somehow upheld against the wishes of the corporate media giants. Jeff Cohen also watched decisions being made about news coverage in the lead-up to the 2002 election and during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, giving him a unique perspective on tv as the propaganda tool it has become.

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BuzzFlash: I’m just going to toss something out like a Rorschach blot, because it’s been in the news recently. Given your experience in cable news, just how do you explain "JonBenet Ramsey, The Sequel, Fourteen"?

Jeff Cohen: This tells you more about TV news than almost anything else. I mean -- JonBenet Ramsey! Those ten days in August were among the low points in the history of American television news. They hijacked the airwaves for one story -- and the story was very iffy to begin with. Even if true, it just was not of world historical importance. And they pushed aside all these stories -- the warrantless wiretapping was ruled unconstitutional during that period. There was a tentative peace in Lebanon, where the U.S. role is very questionable. Iraq continued to explode. We learned new evidence of American wages stagnating while corporate CEOs’ incomes were going through the roof.

None of this stuff gets the focus when they’re on JonBenet. And as I learned on the inside at cable news, it’s not an accident. These are the stories they’re hungry for. The stories they fear are the ones that will offend the Bush White House -- or stories that might offend a corporate sponsor or a media owner. But there’s no downside to the JonBenet Ramsey stories, the runaway brides, the child abductions, the shark attacks, because no one in power, especially no conservatives in power, get offended. So you don’t have to worry about bite-back. And they’re cheap to cover.

BuzzFlash: Let’s remove the fact that corporate media doesn’t want to offend the White House because it could hurt their bottom lines, and they need them for regulatory issues, tax breaks and so forth. It’s the big reality, but let’s take it off the table. Isn’t this the merger of the entertainment world and news for profit? This is like a tabloid that sells in the supermarket.

Jeff Cohen: It’s not the merger of entertainment and news -- it’s the takeover of news by entertainment conglomerates. Fox News is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s news corporation, happily an entertainment conglomerate. CNN is owned by Time-Warner, happily an entertainment conglomerate. I think that their goal is to hook the populace on a soap opera, so that we learn all of the names of the characters. It happened with O.J. Simpson. We knew the witness, the roommate, Kato. We knew the prosecutors. It was like an ongoing soap opera day after day. And once they hook you, then you’re part of their family. And, remember, these tabloid stories are spectacles. The impact is that they keep us as passive news consumers sitting on the sidelines -- watching.

Those other stories that you and I have alluded to -- tax policy and wars -- they’re killing our kids and our loved ones, spending our tax dollars -- those are stories that could draw us out onto the field, where we might take action as citizens, not just being spectators on the sidelines. I think the owners of media -- again, these entertainment conglomerates -- prefer dumb, passive spectators sitting on the sidelines to informed, active citizens. But the interesting thing about JonBenet is they always hoped it would have critical mass. She was killed shortly after O.J. Simpson’s trial was over, and O.J. Simpson’s trial changed television news -- forever, in a downward direction. When that trial ended, they went looking around for an alternative -- for something to replace it -- and this girl gets killed in Boulder. Unfortunately, it never achieved lift-off, for years, because of insufficient evidence.

Remember, Clinton-Lewinsky dominated ’98 and early ’99, and then Clinton is acquitted in the Senate on the impeachment charges. Then it looks like, oh, JonBenet’s going to achieve lift-off, because the prosecutor had a grand jury, and they were about to announce things. I remember that dark day in television, in October ’99, when the D.A. came forward and said, “No indictments,” because it was a dark day. It was like a pall descended over TV’s so-called news, because they wouldn’t get their JonBenet trial, and they wouldn’t get their ratings bonanza of a JonBenet trial.

I went on the air at Fox News -- I describe it in the book -- I say that I’m worried about mass suicides by cable news executives. The story goes away for years, and then this guy confesses in Thailand. Again, the cable news executives and management are thinking: here’s our payoff. We’ve waited ten years and, goddammit, we’re going to finally achieve lift-off on this story. We’re going to have our soap opera. They went to town on it, and it turned out to be a completely phony story. Nevertheless, it hijacked U.S. television news.

U.S. TV news is the laughing stock of the world. I was interviewed by reporters from around the world. They were stunned how moronic and irrelevant our TV news is. The good news for BuzzFlash and serious news outlets is people flock to you as they get driven away by the inanity of corporate media.

BuzzFlash: Before we get to your book, Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media, and your personal experience with the three major cable news networks, let’s just explore this topic a little bit more. We’ll play devil’s advocate. We’re the news producer working for the head of a network that's part of a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate. Don’t blame us, though. We’re just feeding the appetite of the American public. If we could broadcast public policy issues and the Iraq war in depth and get the same viewership, we would do that. Look at the American public. This is what they want to see. This is what gets the ratings up, and the ratings is what pays our salaries.

Jeff Cohen: As I learned when I was on the inside, there are a whole bunch of stories -- whole categories of stories -- that would be exciting, that would get ratings, that everyone in TV news knows you cannot do. I tell the story in the book. One story I repeatedly tell is about the mighty Hudson River in New York State which was contaminated by General Electric. For decades now, through their political power, they’ve blocked the cleanup. Now, this story is made for television news. When you talk to the hypothetical producer, they will tell you that what has been drilled into their heads by management is that you need "villains, victims and visuals."

BuzzFlash: That kind of sounds like Karl Rove’s master plan. The villains are the Islamic fascists; the victims are the people who were oppressed by Saddam Hussein; and there are visuals at every photo op.

Jeff Cohen: Right. Media management works the same way, whether you’re a political operative like Rove or you’re a high-ranking TV news manager.

BuzzFlash: But he’s got the formula that fits into television.

Jeff Cohen: Of course. But what I’m arguing is, there is story after story that you are not allowed to tell on TV news, not because they won’t get ratings, not because they won’t be blockbuster, but because they will get too much ratings and they’ll have the wrong villain. When I worked at MSNBC, I knew, as everyone did there, or at every TV network where GE is a major sponsor, that if you went to town on how this corrupt company has blocked the cleanup of this precious river for so many decades, and continues to do it today, and has victimized thousands and thousands of people -- they’ve wiped out the Mom and Pop fishing operation. They’ve destroyed or they’ve hurt tourism. You can’t eat the fish. You know, you have to essentially throw the story back. There are so many visuals, you wouldn’t know where to stop. There are so many victims, you wouldn’t know where to stop. But because the villain is General Electric, the story doesn’t get told.

If TV journalists went to town on U.S. corporations that victimize, for instance the exploitation of young children around the world as sweatshop laborers, that would be a graphic story. In fact, ABC has always been the pioneer in hidden camera journalism, and sometimes they’ve done it quite well and on quite important things. But if they took their hidden cameras into these sweatshops that produce items that are sold in all the Disney stores across the country -- if you’re an ABC news journalist, you’d lose your job.

What I’m getting at is there are dozens and dozens of stories -- of basic economics, about the exploitation of middle-class people, rip-offs of middle-class people, environmental degradation -- that would be gripping television dramas, almost melodramas, but because the villains are the entities that own and sponsor the news, you know not even to go in that direction. In the book, I talk about Tom Brokaw. He is protested when he goes to Minneapolis by peace activists who are saying, your coverage of Iraq is biased and G.E. profits from the weapons and aircraft that are used in the Iraq war. The local daily asked Brokaw about it. He says: gee, I don’t know if General Electric has any role in those aircraft. Here’s a guy who’s basically admitting he doesn’t even look in that direction.

So, my long-winded answer is, these big stories would get big audience, especially if done with excitement and the tabloid values that are used to cover JonBenet and O.J. You could really show the pictures of the villains. You could follow the villains into their office and try to get an answer from them on why they’ve destroyed this river and they won’t clean it up. They’ve got so much political power, over senators and governors and Congress members, that they don’t have to clean it up. If you bring that kind of excitement to these stories that affect millions of us in our pocketbook and in the air we breathe and the water we drink, I believe you’d get smash ratings. But that whole area is blocked. Because of that, you basically have only one other way to go, which is the soft crime and celebrity and tabloid story that management prefers.

BuzzFlash: Let’s not forget Natalee Holloway, who was abducted. There are countless abductions every day in the United States, but because she was a young blonde woman on vacation, this became the center of cable news for weeks.

Jeff Cohen: It’s what will sell. But it’s only -- and this is the key point -- what will sell after we’ve taken half of the stories off the table because of who the villains will be.

BuzzFlash: Your book has a very amusing cover that kind of describes the situation you just mentioned about Tom Brokaw, which is the three monkeys -- see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. But I guess someone might ask you -- -- why did you even bother working in cable TV? You were at three networks, and you went down on the ship with Phil Donahue. You were even working for Fox as an analyst. How can you work for Fox?

Jeff Cohen: Our mandate when we started FAIR back in 1986 was to take media criticism out of the ghetto of left-wing publications, that didn’t have big circulations, and bring progressive media criticism, serious media criticism, to middle America. Our sense was that if we could get on TV news to attack TV news and attack corporate media, we should do it almost every time we’re asked. And I was pretty good at it. Some of these channels started paying me to do it, and within the limits of what they would ask me to talk about, I could say what I wanted. Our mandate as a public interest group was to bring progressive and serious media criticism to the masses. I was appearing on "Crossfire" as a guest as early as the late eighties and early nineties, and I’d reach a million people just by being the guest. That is certainly more people than you could reach by writing progressive media criticism in "The Nation" magazine.

That’s how it started. I started as the toughest critic. I believe I remain that, and continue to be it, but I ended up wearing both hats. If Fox News wanted to have five of us sit around and discuss JonBenet Ramsey, it was hard for me to work in the military-industrial complex and all the waste it’s causing middle-class taxpayers. But I always felt that I had enough opportunities to say what I wanted to say, and attack the enemies I wanted attacked. That’s why I just sunk deeper and deeper into it, until, as you point out, we all got booted out on the eve of the Iraq war -- Phil Donahue and myself and others.

BuzzFlash: Why was that, from your perspective?

Jeff Cohen: We got kicked out for political reasons. I was in contact with top management at MSNBC from months before that show went on the air, and during that show being on the air, and there’s no doubt in my mind, or anyone’s mind, that Phil Donahue’s politics and the politics of a number of the guests that we booked on the show were driving management crazy. They didn’t like that we were having corporations attacked. They didn’t like that sometimes Israeli reactions were criticized. They certainly didn’t want the Bush administration criticized as consistently as it was on our show. They hired Phil Donahue in the early spring of ’02, and it wasn’t readily apparent yet that Bush was going to hijack the country and the media toward the war in Iraq. I believe that if it was readily apparent, Phil Donahue never would have been hired in the first place.

But in the last few months of the show, as the Iraq war was coming, we were ordered to book two guests that were pro-war for every one guest who was anti-war. If we booked two guests that were on the left, we had to book three on the right. At one meeting, a producer said she was thinking about booking Michael Moore, and she was told she’d have to have three right wingers for balance. I walked out of the room. I contemplated privately proposing that we book Norm Chomsky as a guest, but of course, our stage couldn’t accommodate the 28 right wingers I would have needed for balance.

I was lucky enough to have been inside a network program, managed by the top news division in television, NBC news, and I could see the corruption, the timidity, the news suppression day by day from the inside. It was something breathtaking to behold.

"Donahue" was pulled off the air. And more important than when he was pulled off the air, three weeks before the war, is how they had suppressed the show and given us these orders. If any producer during that period had tried to sneak in a balanced show of one against one, I witnessed management reprimanding them the next day for being balanced, when they were trying to tilt toward the war. The key thing was that an NBC internal report was leaked out that was never supposed to get public -- a report about MSNBC. It said that Donahue represents "a difficult public face for NBC at a time of war. He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush, and skeptical of the Administration’s motives." Then the memo went on to describe its nightmare scenario for NBC, where "Donahue" would become "a home for the liberal, anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."

That memo did not surface until the day after we were terminated. I’d never seen it, but when a reporter who it was leaked to read it to me, I said, well, that explains everything -- that’s no mystery to me. It’s exactly why we were muzzled tighter and tighter, week by week, as the war came. They were not going to allow the Scott Ritters anymore, who we booked a few times near the beginning of the show. They weren’t going to allow a discussion where those people could be heard. If they did get on in the last weeks of the show, they’d be out shouted by a couple of right wingers. So they sabotaged the show, and then they cancelled it. In spite of their sabotage, it was still the most watched program on MSNBC when it was cancelled three weeks before the war, in February ’03.

BuzzFlash: What do you say -- again, playing devil’s advocate -- to people who say, well, they allow Keith Olbermann on now.

Jeff Cohen: I guess people have different views on the Olbermann show. I’m sure glad he exists. The guest list has not been close to the guest list we were told we could put on when we were hired, and then they went back on their word. I, never would have left Fox News for MSNBC if I hadn’t been told at the beginning that the idea was to counter program against Fox in that one hour. And it would be passionate, and partisan. Before we went on the air, two months later, all those rules had been changed on us, and they said we couldn’t counter program. We couldn’t be a liberal, progressive show. We had to be scrupulously balanced. They basically were sabotaging the show from day one of us going on the air.

Olbermann doesn’t have the kind of guest list that an independent show would have. But I do like the way he takes on O’Reilly. Frankly, the rules are still pretty ironclad, but there are exceptions to every rule. I was an exception. I was on Fox News every week for five years. Did that mean Fox News is fair and balanced? Of course not. Olbermann has an hour. I’m very disappointed by the guest list. He seems to interview the same people that you see everywhere else on cable news, but it’s certainly better than anything else they have on MSNBC. The ironclad rule is that MSNBC is innocuous, corporate, soft on Bush coverage most of the time, and that’s clear.

BuzzFlash: Let’s go back to the title of your book: "Cable News" are the first two words in the title. When cable news first started, it was sort of promoted as being supposed to provide diversity of perspective. It didn’t even have advertising. I tell that to some younger people now, and they go: you’re kidding me. And I say, well, no, I’m not kidding you. Actually it was one of the selling points that you would pay for cable, and you wouldn’t get advertising.

Jeff Cohen: And you got lots of it.

BuzzFlash: But in the beginning, they would say the public’s going to get better education about public policy. There’s going to be a full spectrum of different perspectives, a lot of open access. What we’ve ended up with, and the three networks you worked with are the primary news networks, is not a diversity of viewpoint, but actually a similarity of viewpoint, and it’s mostly sensational. It’s not really educational whatsoever. It tends to be either sensational soundbites or programming or news headlines, for the most part. So we ended up with a bait and switch here.

Jeff Cohen: I’m glad you bring up that history, because I’ve been involved in independent media and media criticism for decades. I remember the era when cable news started, and I can remember people saying to me: Jeff, why are you worried about lack of diversity in the mainstream media, and corporate ownership of the mainstream media? Cable news is going to change all the rules. I was told there would be a gay channel. There would be a consumer rights channel run by Ralph Nader. There would be a labor union channel. I was told that each constituency in society would have its own channel. Then you look at what’s happened today. Sure, you have dozens and dozens of channels. But a few corporations own them all, and that’s the problem. This was a medium that had great potential. But no medium alone will ever solve the problem of maintaining our free press or maintaining our precious democracy unless there’s a regulatory scheme that allows diversity to flourish, unless there’s a regulatory scheme that prevents the takeover of an institution by a few powerful entities.

Cable news is controlled by Time-Warner, General Electric and Rupert Murdoch’s news corporation. From what was promised, we’ve really gone downhill. Interestingly, the deregulation -- I shouldn’t say deregulation -- the regulation in the interests of corporations, with regulations often drafted by and for these corporate lobbies -- that period of regulation for the few is almost in synchronicity with the launching of cable TV.

It started with Reagan. It continued through Clinton. We slowed it down a little with the uprising of 2003 against the FCC’s regulations that would have made the media even more Titanic.

BuzzFlash: In cable television and at the big news networks, what they call "news" is limited -- they define news as falling between points A and post B, when actually news goes from A to Z. But they’re the ones that do that defining. And they call it objective. Fox calls it "fair and balanced." But it’s only fair and balanced between A and B, because they exclude the rest.

Jeff Cohen: Right.

BuzzFlash: Given all that, isn’t there a lesson here on why we need Internet neutrality -- because if the telecom companies get a hold of the Internet, we’re going to have it end up like cable is now.

Jeff Cohen: No doubt -- you said it exactly. If the telecom companies get a hold of it, then the spectrum that you have easy access to will be the television news spectrum, -- which is the spectrum from GE to GM. When they have "debates" on cable news, it’s usually debates between this corporate viewpoint and that corporate viewpoint -- or a conservative Democrat and a conservative Republican. That’s their spectrum. If the gatekeepers are telecom companies, or media conglomerates, what the broad American public has easy access to will be the stuff that falls within their limited GE to GM spectrum. You’ve put it in a nutshell.

FAIR has done studies, beginning in 1986, ’87, of who gets to speak on television and who doesn’t. When you add up the thousands of appearances by talking heads on TV, then you see how clearly it’s a center right, corporate spectrum, a Beltway spectrum. All sorts of points of view are excluded, and they’re excluded systematically except, as I say, in the margins and as the exceptions. If we get to an Internet where the different points of view -- the oppositional points of view -- are off on the fringe, then the Internet will be imitating what we have on TV news. Independent voices are heard on TV news. They’re just on the fringe and they’re sporadic. And I would hate for that to happen to the Internet, because the Internet has frankly been our shining light for so many years now.

BuzzFlash: Let's talk about the power of television images. We’ve had politics and government by television. Bush is a television candidate -- they had him down in New Orleans, out in front of three trailers. But even The New York Times, which rarely goes outside of the visual frame that’s given to them by the White House in their stories -- The New York Times had three sentences saying, "But just outside the view of the trailers were houses falling apart, and a toilet seat hanging from a tree ..."

Jeff Cohen: Right.

BuzzFlash: For the first time that I recall, they actually opened up the Karl Rove Hollywood set to let you see what was on both sides of it. But television doesn’t often do that. Television just shows you the stage set that the White House sets up. I think, because they tend to look down on television, a lot of progressives don’t realize the power that these images have in middle America. People believe this because they see it. They say, well, he is carrying on our work. The people have new houses now.

Jeff Cohen: You’ve hit the nail on the head. Visual images are powerful, and we are still a TV culture. I’m hoping that’s evolving. Millions and millions of people are getting their news from television. As I say at the beginning of my book: Oh, you don’t have a TV? You killed your TV? Trust me -- your neighbors haven’t killed theirs.

It’s a powerful propaganda tool, and Karl Rove knows the images. I describe in the book what it was like to be at MSNBC before the mid-term elections of 2002. Karl Rove pretty much controlled the agenda of cable news because they’d have this Cabinet member going on at ten. They’d have this briefing at eleven. They’d have a big thing with Bush in front of a hand-picked audience with all the American flags at noon, so they could pretty much control the agenda. I’d sit there watching these images of our strong leader protecting us from terrorism -- I’m talking about July, August, September, October, November ’02, right up to the election. They couldn’t give a damn about fairness. They basically allowed these cable news channels to be hijacked by Karl Rove and the Bush administration and the GOP campaign.

I’d be sitting there at my desk, and I’d say, all right, they’ve let Bush go on basically with a campaign speech. He’s on the campaign trail, and he’s carried on here now for 45 minutes. Will there be any opposition? I knew there wouldn’t be a Democratic response or an independent journalist picking apart the distortions, the exaggerations, the leaps of logic. Maybe an hour or two later, they would have some other Bush person on live doing what’s called a presser, where the programming is interrupted and they go live. And they let Rove control these. It was stunning to see that, especially in the run up to this election -- and I think it’s important that we be on guard during the run-up to the ’06 midterm election that’s around the corner here.

They basically surrendered journalistic notions. The story was a visual story that was set by Karl Rove, with the pictures of Bush, and it was about protecting us not only from the terrorists, but now he had to protect us because the Democrats are obstructing him. He has to protect us from Saddam Hussein, who’s in league with the terrorists. It was stunning.

I was inside there, and I would pull the hair out of my head. I would argue. I would protest. But believe me, the last thing TV news management wanted to do in that period of the run up to the Iraq war, and earlier, in the run up to the November 2002 election -- the last thing they wanted to do was offend the Bush administration or Karl Rove. This is that same period where they were before the FCC, trying to get the rules relaxed.

It was truly something to be on the inside at that time. I was a pretty tough media critic. I was not naïve about bias, about catering to the right, and catering to the corporate. But to experience it in 2002-2003, when there was really intense politics, intense mobilization toward war, intense corporate media mobilization toward friendly regulation -- journalism just went out the window, and I was able to witness it from a front-row seat.

BuzzFlash: Jeff, thank you very much. A great book, which we highly recommend to our readers, because if we don’t take back the media, we’re not going to be able to take back the country. Thanks a lot.

Jeff Cohen: Thanks so much.

Interview Conducted by Mark Karlin.

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Resources:

Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media (Paperback) by Jeff Cohen, a BuzzFlash premium.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)

Jeff Cohen Bio -- http://www.fair.org/index....

A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

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