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Let's Challenge TV's Lockout of Progressives

Jeff Cohen

Martin Luther King Jr. often referred to 11am on Sunday as "the most segregated hour in America" -- his way of highlighting hypocrisy and racial exclusion in Christian churches.

Today on television, that hour remains a time of exclusion and discrimination. It's the time that the high priests of Washington's Beltway gather on TV to pontificate about politics.

Just as churches preached about brotherly love as they excluded African-Americans, TV's beltway pundit shows preach about elections while typically excluding nearly half of the political spectrum -- the progressive half.

With the winds of change threatening to blow open the 2006 election, I've been turning more and more to the Sunday morning politics shows. But I find the same old players, a narrow mix of tired pundits -- and virtually no one sympathetic to the new winds raging.

These programs tend to feature solid rightwing pundits vs. waffling liberals -- a spectrum no broader than from GE to GM. Viewers regularly see proud conservative advocates like George Will, Brit Hume, William Kristol and Robert Novak; we rarely see proud progressive advocates.

And it's not just Sunday mornings. Evenings on cable news are also dominated by rightwing hosts -- Hume, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Joe Scarborough, Tucker Carlson, Glenn Beck, etc. -- with only Keith Olbermann offering any backtalk. And "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric" has just hired as its Democratic pundit, Mike (telecom industry lobbyist against net neutrality) McCurry.

If the November elections sweep dozens of conservative incumbents out of Congress, it would be the perfect time for progressive activists to take on the conservative-leaning punditocracy and demand an opening up of the old boys' club to new, progressive voices.

Activist groups like MoveOn.org have already taken action to expand TV punditry -- and media watch groups like FAIR and Media Matters have spent years documenting the discrimination against progressive viewpoints in TV news.

In my book "Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media," I offer an inside look at TV's standard "debate" format that pits proud, aggressive conservatives against backpedaling, barely left-of center liberals. These narrow center-right disputes leave out policy proposals that are -- or would be, if heard -- hugely popular among middle-class Americans: universal healthcare, corporate responsibility, tax justice, fair trade.

When "our side" is represented by apologetic, retreating liberals, viewers get the mistaken impression that American progressives are weak, evasive and lacking in values and firm principles (especially in foreign policy). When "our side" is represented by corporate Democrats who feel the need to establish their Beltway credentials by deriding MoveOn or liberal bloggers or unions, it reinforces the notion that we -- and not Team Bush -- are extremists.

Progressives are mobilizing like never before -- through the Internet and small-dollar fundraising and independent media -- to change the faces of those who represent us on Capitol Hill and in government throughout the land. Isn't it time we mobilized to change the faces of those who represent us in big media forums? We have a right to speak for ourselves to the American people day after day on what is still our country's dominant medium, television -- just like the O'Reillys, Hannitys, Falwells and Coulters.

If this election shakes up the corrupt, conservative political system, that should be our signal to take on the media system that has enabled the corruption to flourish.


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Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen is an activist and author. Cohen was 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. He is the author of "Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media" - and a co-founder of the online action group, www.RootsAction.org. His website is jeffcohen.org.

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