Since 1986 journalist, media critic, and professor Jeff Cohen has become one of the most outspoken and influential watchdogs when it comes to keeping an eye on the media. From the creation of FAIR (an American media watch group) to his current standing as one of the founding members of The Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, Cohen has made his career largely based on being the outside looking in. The only key difference between Cohen and other media critics is that he knows a lot more about the inner working of corporatized news outlets than most of his brethren.
In his book Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media, Cohen documents his rise from radical outsider, to occasional talking-head pundit on cable news, to becoming a regular contributor for CNN, Fox News (where he was a hit despite leaning considerably towards the political left), and MSNBC, and then back again.
Not only did Cohen live to tell the tale about his time stuck in the media spin machine, he also appears on screen in theatres this coming week in Jean-Philippe Tremblay’s documentary Shadows of Liberty, an indictment of the controlling nature of big media and a look at the links between corporate interests and the news people see on a daily basis; sadly a topic that Cohen knows far too much about.
While in town this past spring to promote the film’s debut at the Hot Docs International Documentary festival, Cohen sat down with us to talk about his rise through the corporate news ranks, why Fox News was arguably the best of his three major on-air gigs, the rise of independent media, his work at Park Center, and why Tremblay’s film is important.
Dork Shelf: When you go to get a job in the media I think there comes a time in everyone’s formal career when it becomes apparent that there are these massive corporate interests that try to run and regulate everything we see and hear. Was there ever a sort of “a-ha!” kind of moment for you when you realized this in your own life?
Jeff Cohen: No, because I had always been a critic of these big corporate media operations before I had seen them from the inside. I’d started the national media watch group FAIR in 1986 and I worked mostly in independent media until then. So for me it was sort of a fluke that I had managed to get inside. It was a fluke in that I was never someone who started in the mainstream media and grew disillusioned; I was never illusioned. (laughs) So the answer to your question is that it was ultimately worse than I had ever imagined even with all the work I had done.
I had written articles and books about how bad the mainstream media were for years and then I got an inside look, first at CNN and then Fox News and ended at MSNBC in 2003 when we all got fired for political reasons because we were doing journalism about whether it was wise to invade Iraq. None of us had been rehired. We were right. The people who got it wrong, which was 95% of them, have seen their careers flourish. The short answer to it is that I was never illusioned, and yet when you see it from the inside – the tabloidization, the orders coming from the top – it’s worse. I saw it at Fox and I saw it at MSNBC in that period and in the run up to the invasion when they were telling us what guests we could put on the air. They said that if we ever had a guest on the show that was antiwar, we had to have two that were pro for invading Iraq.
DS: So if you have someone like Michael Moore on you have to have three right wing guys there to offset him.
JC: (laughs) Yeah, and the punchline I have to that is that I privately thought about proposing Noam Chomsky as a guest, but the stage wouldn’t be able to support the 28 right wingers that are needed to book for that one. (laughs) I would go back to my colleagues who were still at Fair and talk to them and say that from being on the inside, everything they are saying was true, but they didn’t even know how true it really was. It was stunning!
There were guests who were blacklisted and never allowed back on the air. I thought that had gone out in the early 60s when they were wrapping up the McCarthy era. The tabloidization leaves them lurching for the next child kidnapping or shark attack. We used to write about it when I was just an outsider at FAIR, but I think (Jean Philippe) did a great job here in the movie showing how news has become a form of entertainment, like with the rise of How to Catch a Predator. It’s horrible.
DS: It seems like that’s a problem that’s inherently missing in the education of people who want to go into the media. It’s not something that’s really taught…
JC: Well, a little bit more now, you are…
DS: True, and there is a new rise of journalists that seem to understand that, but there’s also a huge “old guard” quality to the media that will still push stories like that, and I think it’s important to know what you’re signing up for.
JC: That’s right. You have to navigate the big media. I’m a professor now at the Ithaca College Journalism Department, and I say that “the bad news for you journalism majors is that the huge media conglomerates haven’t been doing too much hiring lately; the good news for you journalism majors are that the huge media conglomerates haven’t been doing much hiring lately.” It cuts both ways. I teach my classes about independent media, how they succeed, why they started, and how you can start your own. I think increasingly journalism students realized that because the revenue model for mainstream media has been collapsing – because of the flow of advertising money and a progressively lesser flow of customers all around – that they just aren’t hiring. People are thinking about starting their own newspaper, blog, or website. It’s increasingly where students are at.
I think the students that do go through our journalism program, and they do get hired by New York Times, I think they are fully aware of the pitfalls of working for the majors. We actually had one. The top editor of our newspaper has a paid internship at The New York Times which could very well lead to a paid job. And they are also aware of the good things, and primarily that you have a lot more influence, and you can get something in there and more people will see it than if you are working at an alternative. But I think young journalism and television majors at our college are getting pretty sophisticated about how they’re unlikely to get hired in those place and how there might be problems.
DS: And that really speaks to the rise of the citizen blogger that’s come about in recent years because you could make just as big of a name for yourself by going that route than by languishing and having stories that get buried on page 12 every week.
JC: Yeah, and that’s what I really teach. I teach the success stories. I’ve only been at Ithaca for four years and they just set up this programme and I’m the founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media. So I brought to campus some of the great success stories in modern media. We had Josh Marshall from Talking Points Memo, who was the first blogger to win the Polk Award. He brought down (former) Attorney General Alberto Gonzales by exposing how the Bush White House was firing federal prosecutors across the country for political reasons in a scandal that was called Attorneys-gate. 30 years ago you would have expected something like The New York Times or The Washington Post to break that, but no, a blogger broke it. He started as a solo blogger in his pyjamas working part time at night, and now I think he’s got a staff of about 15.
I bring Amy Goodman from Democracy Now up there a lot. She started in the 90s with a radio show that was literally run out of a broom closet, now they own a floor of a building in Manhattan and they have a staff of about two dozen. They have a huge network of TV, radio, a bunch of small stations that they have across America.
I’ve had Arianna Huffington there, and she was kind of special case in that she was a billionaire’s wife. I love her and I know her well. I knew her well because I was an original blogger for Huffington Post, but she also has some really interesting things to say because she gets and understands the internet a lot more than most people her age. I brought in Matt Taibbi from Rolling Stone who had started an exceptional publication in Russia called Exile, and he really gets independent media. So in the program we try to bring in all of these movers and shakers, and even some filmmakers who have been Oscar nominated. We recently had Josh Fox who made Gasland on our campus, and that film documented a social movement and quadrupled the movement against fracking.
What we tell the students is that it is such an exciting time for journalism because you can start your own thing and there are so many different ways about going about it. You can make a name for yourself, and it’s not going to be easy. Still only a minority will succeed, but there are a lot of people making a great living in the blogs, websites, and start-ups. Arianna Huffington says this all the time that it might be a horrible time for the media, but it’s an incredible time for journalism, and I believe a lot of the exposes of the mainstream media from within the independent media is the reason that journalism students are so sophisticated in terms of what they see in front of them with warts and all. So in turn that’s an exciting time for me to be on campus to try and reach out to young people, and they all love that I was both on the inside and that I’m a critic of the inside.
DS: You were in pretty deep, and even beyond what most people on a critical level would go. I can’t think of very many media critics who would want to go in that far with Fox News.
JC: (laughs) Man, I loved working there. I learned a lot. I was always good on air, and as I say in my book, there was a time when CNN was the only news network on 24/7 and whenever there was a media controversy no matter how tangential to journalism it was they would call me and ask if I would get into a debate about something. I would say sure and I started becoming a regular, and eventually they would start having me hosting things and they would start paying me to be a guest, and that was certainly something because normally I would go on and criticize (Fox). At Fox News I got paid for five years and I was attacking (Rupert) Murdoch by name and Fox News by name and The New York Post – which they owned – by name. People used to watch every weekend – I was on a weekend show because they never would have allowed me on prime time – but on that show I got away with a lot.
The irony is that when I left Fox it wasn’t because I got fired. They loved me at Fox because I was bringing them ratings. I was their leading left voice. There’s no doubt that people like to see the counterpoint, and I built up a following that was beating CNN. They had a media criticism show and we were killing them in the ratings I think because we had a full debate, and CNN had a narrow centre. Their show was namby-pamby and timid, and we had the full right wing and left wing and centre, and we were just a more exciting show. I left there thinking that I would clearly do better at MSNBC because it’s middle of the road and owned by NBC and there we all got suppressed.
DS: Which is what makes it even more interesting to see how Keith Olbermann was able to stick around there as long as he did.
JC: That’s an interesting story, the Olbermann thing, because he joined right as we were getting kicked off. He was pro-war. There are documentaries now about the pro-war cheerleading leading up to the invasion of Iraq, and he’s part of it. He’s one of the culprits in parts of these movies. When they hired him, they assumed he was pro-war and that he wouldn’t give them the same kind of trouble that Phil Donahue did. So he came on in 2003, and it wasn’t until 2006 that he did his first special comment against Bush.
Now in a huge part of the book I talk about how I would argue with management and say that if they want ratings or ask if they were afraid of controversy, and they would always say they were afraid of controversy. So we would have had huge ratings back then at the time in 2003 when things like Democracy Now and all of the progressive blogs took off based on scepticism around Iraq, and I said to the boss – and I was at a high level enough so that I could talk to THE bosses of the channels – and I would tell these guys that they were fools. If you unleashed Phil Donahue, your ratings would go through the roof.
I was able to see the mythology behind the statement that if you can get ratings that management won’t care. Management knew we could get ratings by being the one show capable of criticizing the invasion of Iraq and dare to be questioning Bush, and then they got rid of us. Years later, Olbermann by fluke starts becoming disapproving of Bush and ratings go through the roof like I said they would in ’03, and so they lost out on several years of profit, but they gained the loyalty of the Bush administration during a key period there.
When they were giving us the quota system of guests favouring Bush, the top lobbyists – and this is in the movie – were all going to Washington urging that all major restrictions on ownership caps be eliminated and Bush was giving it to them. Right then no big outlet wanted to offend Bush, and that’s when we got all these orders to make the show less antagonistic, less journalistic, and more pro-Bush.
DS: You would think that they would realize to include that left counterpart to at the very least maximize on ratings, because from the late 80s to the mid 90s people on the right were saying the same thing; that they only had people like Morton Downey or Rush Limbaugh all over television.
JC: (laughs) And that’s kind of the career that I’ve made off the argument that you’re making. I talked to management everywhere. I talked to Roger Ailes from Fox News and I said if you want ratings, there’s some hosts out there. I was always pushing people like Jim Hightower, who can be really funny. I said you might be able to get Michael Moore maybe once a week, not every day but he would have brought huge ratings. For a while before 2000 I would say that even Ralph Nader would bring ratings. He’s not a scintillating personality, but he would bring ratings.
So they knew that you could counterpose, but they want a spectrum that’s centre-right. A corporate spectrum is by definition centre-right, because if you are on the left you are critical of big business. It’s almost definitional. If you decided that you can’t have that spectrum, they your span is the boring centre against the flaming right, and that’s what we’ve had for most of the last 30 years. Olbermann was the one who ultimately put MSNBC on a slightly different path, but it’s still very corporate.
It was a huge scandal in our country when the parent company of GE was found to have not paid any taxes. You didn’t hear much about it on MSNBC, and that’s what’s now considered the left wing, but it’s still within that corporate spectrum. It’s a step left of centre and five steps to the right. That’s our spectrum now. It was dead centre and five steps right. I like to still call it the spectrum from General Electric to General Motors. There’s a broad spectrum of views in our country that just aren’t a part of the mainstream debate. That’s where the independent media comes in and flourishes.
DS: And that kind of leads into the concept of “the debate” itself. You did a little bit of work on the CNN show Crossfire, which has also strived for that just centre and to the right view, but you also worked with Robert Novak who is quite considerably conservative and beyond the viewpoint of the show overall itself.
JC: Well, again, they always let you go far, far right, but you always had to go a baby step to the left of centre. They always had Pat Buchanan, Bob Novak…
DS: And even then you have to kind of dilute that…
JS: Yeah, and it was sad because when I was on with Bob Novak it was electric. We worked great because it was a full spectrum, and he never apologized for the Republicans because he thought half of them were BS artists. I never apologized for the Democrats because I knew most of them are BS artists. And you can’t have a philosophical debate on CNN because they have a Democratic Party hat and Republican Party hat, and they somehow feel it makes them superior to MSNBC. If you look at CNN and you apply that to the state of the country, the spectrum of views is a lot wider than what goes on in the home of Mary Matalin and James Carville, but that’s what they prefer on CNN. Party hats. I watch TV all the time and I just see these party hats and I want to say they are both wrong. They are wrong philosophically, but they are both right when they both tell each other they’re corrupt! (laughs)
The reality is that if they would never allow someone like a Ron Paul type person to be a pundit. It’s just not allowed. They’re antiwar, so they’re hated at Fox. I think Ron Paul’s hated as much at Fox News as Dennis Kucinich. And I know because I speak from experience. (laughs) But I have always loved the idea of a full philosophical debate. The last time we had that on TV was when we had (William F.) Buckley on in the US and he would bring on people like Chomsky and just do a full hour on US foreign policy. That would get ratings today, but it’s just not allowed under corporate ownership.
And the interesting part of that is that now people are going to places like Current – which Olbermann has already been in a fight with because he’s very difficult – and we have people like Cenk Uygur who built up The Young Turks into the biggest independent web TV. (Uygur) came out of MSNBC and he claims when he let them go and they took away his show – and I know who he talked to, and it was Phil Griffin. I knew Phil Griffin as sort of a boss, not the total boss when I was there, so that’s completely believable. Phil Griffin always lies. You can quote me. He denies these things happen when he knows that they do – but Phil Griffin according to Cenk said something along the lines of how you could be cool and you could wear your leather jacket and be anti-establishment, but it was interfering with booking guests in Washington, even Democrats, when you attack both parties. It was like saying we aren’t the antiestablishment in Washington and that we are the establishment.
That’s at least what Cenk says Phil Griffin told him, and that’s why he was let go. He was getting great ratings. And also Olbermann, too. When Phil Donahue was let go and we all left he was the highest rated program on the air. How many channels would ever get rid of their top rated show?
DS: It sounds suicidal even from a bottom line perspective and a corporate perspective.
JC: When you say corporate perspective that is if your corporate perspective was just that channel. But since your entire corporation is so much bigger than just that one channel, getting rid of someone like Donahue or Cenk or Olbermann makes sense because you can offset it. The ratings you sacrifice by toning down someone like Phil Donahue or firing someone like Keith Olbermann will be made up by the fact that there’s a lot less boat rocking and you’ll have better relations with politicians in Washington and etcetera and etcetera. My criticism with MSNBC is that it’s too much of a Democratic Party outlet, and it’s not even trying to be progressive in that respect. We already have Fox, and I would have preferred something a bit more independently progressive if they were trying to balance Fox, but they’ve fallen into this thing where they have someone like Obama who’s just a talker and his policies are in many cases Republican-light just won’t get criticized. The head of GE was the chair of President Obama’s jobs task force. This is the guy who was exporting jobs to third world companies and running a company that pioneered that. Again, if you had an independent, progressive MSNBC on the left they would be pillaring Obama for having a guy like GE CEO Jeff Immelt as his head of jobs. It’s laughable, but it doesn’t get laughed at over at MSNBC.
It says a lot about what’s wrong about the news channels in our country when the two best news shows are on Comedy Central. (Jon) Stewart and (Stephen) Colbert are more independent and insightful and independent of the party system.
DS: Well they also have what good journalists should have and that’s to be fearless, and sometimes the best way of going about that is through comedy.
JC: They’ve shown the way. The demographic and people that I’m teaching generally watch it every night, and during the first class they have with me they get a little sheepish because I ask them where they get their news from, and they say “I watch Jon Stewart,” and they are shocked to hear that I never miss it. I say that if I miss a show one night, I’ll be sure to watch it the next day. But journalism is supposed to be fearless, and it some countries it is a lot more like that. In the U.S. mainstream media is probably a lot more fearful than in any industrialized country.
That’s thankfully why indies are growing and why this movie is so important. This movie just nailed it, and it’s got a great historical sweep. The best thing about this movie – and I’ve seen every movie there is on this theme, even though this film has the best production values and the best budget, which will hopefully allow it to have more of a mainstream audience – is that it has that historical scope from a country founded by people like Thomas Payne who were revolutionary journalists and pioneers to a media empire that’s dominated by the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone and General Electric, and how it’s almost become criminal.