Media and the Election

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Common Dreams

Media and the Election

You all know about journalists embedded with the troops in Iraq. I started out as a media critic at FAIR and, as if in a slow-motion nightmare, I ended up embedded inside the mainstream media. I've worked as a panelist/commentator over the years at all three cable news channels.

What I've found inside TV news is a drunken exuberance for stories involving celebrity, lurid crime and sex scandal -- matched by a grim timidity and fear of offending the powers that be, especially if they're conservatives. The biggest fear is of doing anything that could get you or your network accused of being liberal.

In 2002, I was an on-air commentator at MSNBC, and also senior producer on the "Donahue" show, the most-watched program on the channel. In the last months of the program, before it was terminated on the eve of the Iraq war, we were ordered by management that every time we booked an antiwar guest, we had to book 2 pro-war guests. If we booked two guests on the left, we had to book 3 on the right. At one meeting, a producer suggested booking Michael Moore and was told that she would need to book 3 right-wingers for balance. I considered suggesting Noam Chomsky as a guest, but our studio couldn't accommodate the 86 right-wingers we would have needed for balance.

When we look at the media's role in the 2004 election, we make a mistake to focus on election coverage per se. The basis for Bush's victory was in place way before 2004. At the end of last year, a huge study done by the University of Maryland's PIPA, the Program on International Policy Attitudes, found that most of those who got their news from the commercial TV networks held at least 1 of 3 fundamental "misperceptions" about the war in Iraq (and some held 2 or 3 of them):

  • that Iraq had been directly linked to 9/11
  • that WMDs had been found in Iraq
  • that world opinion supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Viewers of Fox News, where I worked for years, were the most misled. But strong majorities of CBS, ABC, NBC and CNN viewers were also confused on at least one of these points. Among those informed on all 3 questions, only 23 percent supported Bush's war.

How can you have a meaningful election in a country where, according to polls, half or more of the American people don't know who attacked us on 9/11? They think Saddam Hussein was involved.

To help Bush mislead Americans, Fox News Channel required that the banner "War on Terror" run when Iraq was discussed.

I was at MSNBC when Tom Ridge was holding a news conference at Homeland Security in late 2002 about alleged new terror threats from Al Qaeda -- and MSNBC ran a lower third: "Showdown with Saddam."

At MSNBC, I was asked to debate Frank Gaffney, the former Reagan official who seems to live on TV, in a segment based on Gaffney's claim that not only was Saddam Hussein behind 9/11, he was also behind Tim McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing! I'm not kidding.

Last month, PIPA released a new study that found majorities of Bush supporters, sometimes huge majorities, not only had major misunderstandings of the basic facts about Iraq, but they were misled on all sorts of other Bush positions. 74 percent of Bush supporters believed that Bush favors inclusion of labor and environmental standards in trade agreements.

60 percent of Bush supporters said the US should not have initiated a war with Iraq unless evidence established that Iraq had WMDs and was supporting the Al Qaeda terrrorists. This should have been a bloc of Kerry voters. But they were unaware the evidence did not exist.

These are faith-based voters -- not fact-based voters.

Among the reasons some of us worked for Bush's defeat was to get a new Federal Communications Commission. Many of us were ready to fight for the elevation of commissioner Michael Copps, a Democratic appointee, to FCC chair, replacing Michael Powell, Colin's son. Powell is the best friend of the media conglomerates. We need to stop Powell from any further media concentration over the next 4 years, and unions need to be in the forefront of that resistance.

Thanks to media deregulation started during the Reagan administration, and unfortunately continued by Bill Clinton: there are now 8 companies that largely determine what Americans see, hear and read through the media -- 8 companies sitting on the windpipe of the First Amendment.

We can thank Clinton's Telecommunications "Reform" Act of 1996 for the right-wing Clear Channel's dominance of radio and for the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group becoming the biggest TV chain in the country. Clear Channel owned 40 radio stations before the Telecom bill and 1200 soon after. Sinclair had 11 stations before the bill, and now has 62 TV stations.

TV news is dominated by 5 corporations.

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

NBC, CNBC, MSNBC are owned by GE. When I worked at MNSBC, some of the constraints imposed on the "Donahue" show were the result of GE ownership and a conservative NBC boss who'd come out of GE Financial and GE's plastics division.

Fox News is owned by the right-wing Rupert Murdoch (and News Corporation), and does Murdoch's ideological bidding.

ABC is owned by Disney. You'll remember that CEO Michael Eisner said that Disney wouldn't distribute "Fahrenheit 911" because Disney "didn't want to be in the middle of a politically-oriented film during an election year." Eisner's comment was allowed to pass only because so few people realize that Disney is one of the biggest purveyors of political opinion this election year and every recent election year -- almost all of it right-wing political opinion. Each day in major radio markets nationwide, Disney radio stations serve up hour after hour of Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Laura Ingraham, Matt Drudge, etc. etc.

CBS News, owned by Viacom, got taken in by forged documents -- and then censored accurate reporting critical of Bush, apparently at the behest of Viacom's CEO, Sumner Redstone. Six weeks before the election Redstone endorsed Bush on behalf of Viacom: "From a Viacom standpoint, the election of a Republican administration is a better deal. Because the Republican administration has stood for many things we believe in, deregulation and so on."

Until broadcasting is demonopolized and removed from the control of these corporations, and until major insulated funding goes to genuine public broadcasting, misinformed voters will be easy prey for political demagoguery in election after election.

When I lecture about media in culturally conservative places, as I did this week in West Virginia, what comes as a shock to people, including the so-called "values voter," is that what they see as sleaze on TV and radio is not brought to them by the "liberal media" but by Republican-endorsing media moguls like Murdoch and Redstone.

The spectrum of debate in our country keeps getting pushed further rightward by corporate media. Look at what passes for left-right debates in the distorting lens of national TV. Many complain about the Fox News pairing of forceful, telegenic Sean Hannity on the right against the less telegenic, often backpedaling Alan Colmes. But Fox News Channel did not invent the narrow center-right, GE to GM spectrum. That was firmly in place thanks to PBS and CNN years before Fox News Channel was invented. Indeed, FAIR has recruited thousands of members and subscribers over the years through full-page magazine ads with pictures of folks like Michael Kinsley, Mark Shields and others -- with the headline: "I'm not a leftist, but I play one on TV."

Almost all those who regularly represent the left on TV support corporate globalization and NAFTA; a TV rightist like Pat Buchanan opposes it. TV leftists tend to defend the immorality of media corporations while only rightists attack it. On CNN and NBC this election season, Time magazine's Joe Klein was presented as the left side of the debate against various hardcore rightwingers. A few months ago in a Time column, Klein hailed the corporate sponsored Democratic Leadership Council for supporting "fiscal responsibility and free trade" within the Democratic Party and for "gleefully assaulting the reactionary left -- the trade unions and bureaucrats."

Every day on TV and radio, you can hear from regular hosts and pundits who are proud allies of the anti-abortion movement, proud allies of the NRA movement, proud allies of the religious right movement. You don't hear from regulars who are proud allies of the labor movement.

Moving briefly from punditry to what passes for "objective reporting," too many reporters have become easily manipulated by Republican operatives. They allowed false and defamatory Swift Boat ads to dominate coverage for weeks; their fact-checking of campaign and debate claims has often meant that if they identify 2 huge whoppers from Bush, they have to inflate or invent 2 Kerry claims in the name of a false balance that actually distorts the news. FAIR has written thousands of words this year on "false balance" in election coverage.

Ending on good news: The movement to challenge media bias has never been stronger among progressive and union activists, and the movement to challenge media concentration has never been stronger. We had a real victory in 2003 in resisting FCC proposals to allow even greater media consolidation, with a coalition that started with groups like Free Press and FAIR and MoveOn and Common Cause and then attracted groups on the right to the effort: the NRA and the Parents Television Council. One easy way to get involved in these battles is to sign up for activist alerts at FAIR's website: http://www.fair.org.

Remarks made at ILCA workshop in Washington, D.C., Nov. 12, 2004

Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen is an associate professor of journalism and the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, founder of the media watch group FAIR, and former board member of Progressive Democrats of America. In 2002, he was a producer and pundit at MSNBC (overseen by NBC News). He is the author of Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media - and a cofounder of the online action group, www.RootsAction.org.

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