Dan Quayle, move over. Jeff Cohen wants to talk about the real "media elite"--big business, whose scions, he says, are engaged more in cover-ups than in coverage.
Cohen, executive director and founder of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a New York-based media-watch organization created in 1986, will speak Tuesday at Arizona State University.
The cover-up, Cohen explains in a telephone interview, is perpetrated by reporters, producers and editors who ignore significant events and slant news coverage. Cohen argues that "the media are undemocratically controlled by a narrow elite"--corporate interests that actually own most daily newspapers and major television and radio outlets. This trend toward big-business control has accelerated in the years since Cohen founded FAIR, he says. But the syndicated columnist--whose investigative work has appeared in many publications, including New Times--is undaunted in his zeal.
FAIR, he says, "is raising a lot of consciousness of the real biases in the news and who owns the media. I'd say aside from [David] Letterman making jokes about [General Electric] being cheap, there's been one group out there telling people who owns NBC."
The public perception of media bias is often contrary to FAIR's, especially in this conservative state. Bruce Merrill, an associate professor at ASU and a pollster for GOP politicians, says many Arizonans view the press as sensationalist, devious and biased. "Here in Arizona, there's no question that [the media are] perceived as extremely liberal," Merrill says.
Cohen calls it the myth of the liberal media.
"To the degree that some of the public believe it, I would say that it's the best myth money can buy. . . . This myth has been promoted by well-financed conservative think tanks and conservative pundits," he says.
Cohen aims to debunk the myth. His tool: systematic analysis. His target: among others, the so-called objective national TV news shows.
The people at FAIR count. They count the number of "conservative, big business" experts versus those representing other concerns--the environment, feminism, labor. And what they have found, Cohen says, is proof of their theory.
FAIR studied the guest lists of two reputable news shows--ABC's Nightline and PBS' MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour--and found that an overwhelming number of the shows' guests represent the conservative, big-business establishment.
"It's not required that MacNeil or Lehrer break into ten-minute-long partisan monologues," Cohen says. "They serve up pretty soft questions and then the expert has a lot of time to answer."
FAIR studied MacNeil/Lehrer's coverage of the environment over a six-month period. Of the 18 guest experts on topics involving the environment interviewed during that time, Cohen says, 17 represented either government or corporate interests; just one could be classified as an environmentalist.
"That program discussed the environment without the benefit of environmentalists," he says.
Cohen adds, "In a sense, the shows that have an objective veneer . . . I think often impart the idea, 'Wow, we're having a real debate here.' And it's often a phony debate." News shows have not significantly changed their guest-selection processes as a result of the studies. But, Cohen says, "One thing that's changed is me personally. I'm not naive like I was."
In his 1992 book Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy, journalist William Greider commended FAIR's studies of TV news shows, adding that, in his opinion, the results apply to the rest of the media.
Of the studies, he writes, "Even supposed critics were usually drawn from within the safe bounds of elite opinion. A similar study of most newspaper editorial pages--or of the sources on whom most reporters rely--would likely produce similar results." Indeed, Cohen's criticism of the media reaches past the pundits and into the newsroom. Too often, he says, journalists simply follow the actions of government agencies and call it national politics. They're ignoring the major player: corporate America.
"What I would want mass media to do," Cohen explains, "is stake out corporations, have investigations of what the corporations are doing [and] which candidates are they underwriting."
In addition to examining trends in media coverage, FAIR sponsors lectures, encourages members to write columns for daily newspapers and publishes a magazine called EXTRA!. The organization raises a little more than half of its funds from member contributions and magazine subscriptions; foundation grants account for the rest. FAIR's annual budget is approximately $700,000.
FAIR is just one player in a media-analysis cottage industry that has burgeoned since the founding of the conservative news-watchdog group Accuracy in Media. Organizations like the Media Research Center (an outgrowth of the notorious National Conservative Political Action Committee) and the Center for Media and Public Affairs also perform exhaustive studies of news reporting--from a conservative perspective.
Consequently, newsletters like the Media Research Center's Media Watch proffer conclusions that are diametrically opposed to FAIR's. In fact, the efforts of Accuracy in Media and the Media Research Center have done much to convince Americans that reporters and editors have a liberal bias.
Tim Graham, associate editor of Media Watch, doesn't attempt to mask his newsletter's conservative agenda; he says he has no interest in tracking the veracity of Rush Limbaugh. He blames divergent reports of media bias more on methodology than on philosophy. While Graham's Media Watch focuses on tidbits of reportage, Accuracy in Media attempts more comprehensive exposs on narrower subjects and FAIR examines the political bent of sources employed.
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"He [Cohen] focuses more on the people who are interviewed than what the reporters say," says Graham, whose organization has a $2 million annual budget, much of it donated by individual conservatives and corporations.
Cohen insists that FAIR's methods are best. Other watchdog groups determine ideology by trying to label journalists' political affiliations, while FAIR examines the sources those journalists choose to interview, he says, adding, "If there's a bias in so-called objective journalism, it's the bias of the sources." But Cohen maintains that his organization--unlike some of the others--does not have an ideological agenda. Rather, he says, FAIR attempts to further the cause of the disenfranchised.
It all might prompt the reader-viewer-listener to wonder: Who will watch the media watchdogs?