Media Watchdog Aims to Expose Flaws of Cable News
JEFF Cohen likes to say he's been to the belly of the beast and lived to talk about it.In fact, the Saugerties resident has written a book about the experience: "Cable News Confidential - My Misadventures in Corporate Media."
Cohen doesn't claim to be disillusioned with the corporate media, but only because he never had illusions. He founded the group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting in 1986 and entered the fray with a heavy dose of skepticism as he appeared on CNN and Fox News as a political pundit. But he said the flaws were made abundantly clear during the nine months he worked for MSNBC leading up to the Iraq war.
"Every mainstream news outlet or national network had a choice: act journalistically and skeptically or give Bush a free pass," he said. "Most chose to give him a pass."
Cohen, who used to co-write a column that was carried in the Freeman, said there are a couple of culprits for the media's missing-in-action status before the war. First, he cites changes by the Federal Communications Commission that allowed media ownership to be consolidated to a handful of corporate owners, including General Electric, AOL Time Warner, Disney and Viacom. Fear following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was another big factor.
Television news was something that stations used to do at a loss as a public service, Cohen said. Now, corporations aim to make a profit from it.
"In the '60s and '70s, TV news wasn't great, but it was serious," said Cohen, 55.
True investigative reporting comes with too many risks to be profitable, Cohen said. So instead of true journalism, the major outlets now focus on a formula to hook viewers on a soap opera that keeps them watching. The recent death of former Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith was a perfect example, providing weeks of coverage that was cheap and came with little to no risk, he said.
In the introduction to his book (which is published by PoliPointPress and retails for $14.95), Cohen hypothesizes that cable news can be broken down into proven Hollywood genres: The O.J. Simpson trial was a lurid crime drama, the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal was a sex comedy, stories about the Beltway sniper attacks that killed 10 people in October 2002 were a suspense thriller. And there's also war.
"Those stories can't get you into trouble, can't lose you sponsors," Cohen said.
Partly for the sake of sponsors, networks often load up on right-wing pundits because they advocate big business, and shun far-left pundits, even on supposedly liberal stations like CNN, Cohen said. He said the problem with shows like CNN's "Crossfire" is that the debates are never a true conservative-liberal debate but a conservative-moderate debate.
"You're not allowed in unless you're within the corporate spectrum," he said.
Cohen said the off-balance debate structure was especially evident during the build-up to the Iraq war when almost all of the pundits advocated for the war and few spoke against it.
This utter lack of balance, he said, has driven independent viewers to seek their news on Comedy Central from the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Cohen thinks that says something about the cable media.
Cohen said he tried to end his book on an optimistic note. In a perfect world, Cohen said, he would have continued as a TV pundit. But the state of the media won't allow it. So, for now, he is in the midst of a tour to support his book and writing columns for his Web site, jeffcohen.org.
Cohen finds solace in the fact that more people are abandoning cable news for more reputable content at the British Broadcasting Co. and such Web sites as commondreams.org. But without radical restructuring, cable news may be beyond saving, he said.
"I say turn it off," Cohen said. "Turn off TV."
©2007 Daily Freeman