Was Elon Musk just whining when he accused mainstream media outlets of tilting news coverage against Tesla to favor advertising giants from the incumbent automobile and oil industry?
Mainstream pundits rushed to scoff at Musk’s suggestion that a network’s corporate owner would censor news to please its sponsors. But corporate bias is an old malady with which I’m familiar from a long career as an environmental advocate.
In 2003, when environmental leader Laurie David and Arianna Huffington’s “Detroit Project” attempted to air paid advertisements touting automobile fuel efficiency, all the networks—then raking in $15 billion annually from the auto industry—refused to carry the ads.
“They wouldn’t run them,” Huffington told me, “and we ended basically not being able to use the money that was budgeted to buy airtime.”
Laurie David, a former David Letterman producer whose husband, Larry David, created Seinfeld and the popular series Curb Your Enthusiasm, told me, “I met with Lloyd Braun, the president of ABC, and brought the commercial up there to see if they could run the ads. He pretty much laughed me out of the office. He said, ‘We have three offices. We have an office in Los Angeles, we have an office in New York City and our third office is in Detroit.’ There was no way he was going to put something on his network that might piss off the auto industry.”
In May 2004, ABC canceled distribution of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11—a screed against George W. Bush’s pro oil policies. ABC President Michael Eisner explained that he wasn’t about to allow an ABC News report that imperiled Disney, the network’s parent company. According to Moore’s agent, Ari Emmanuel, Eisner feared that the president’s brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, would retaliate by rescinding tax breaks to Disney’s Florida theme parks.
I have considerable personal experience with corporate censorship. Veteran actor Charles Grodin often complained that I got him fired from the best job he ever had—as a nightly talk- show host on MSNBC. On Nov. 11, 1996, Grodin hosted me to plug my book Riverkeepers. Unlike the more seasoned MSNBC and NBC News hosts, he allowed me to talk at length about the record of the network’s parent company, General Electric. I recited how GE—which owns more Superfund sites than any other company—had polluted the Hudson River, leaving hundreds of fishermen jobless. NBC responded by cancelling the show so suddenly that Grodin didn’t even get to say goodbye.
In a post-mortem column, Newsday journalist Marvin Kitman mourned the surprise sacking of the popular host, which he attributed to my interview. Kitman commented that my appearance “was the longest attack on a General Electric-owned network on GE for polluting the Hudson” and lamented that Grodin “was one of the things that was good about TV, a genuine original, the closest thing we had to an Oscar Levant in this age of mellow-mouth talk-show hosts.”
In 2003, the North American winners of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, known as the “Nobel Prize for grassroots work,” were former FOX TV reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson. The two investigative reporters lost their jobs at Tampa’s Fox-owned WTVT after they refused to doctor a news report that had displeased Monsanto. The reporters had discovered Monsanto’s controversial bovine growth hormone (BGH) in virtually all of the state’s milk supply, despite commitments by Florida’s supermarkets not to sell hormone tainted milk. After Monsanto complained to Fox President Roger Ailes, the network ordered the reporters to re-edit the show in a way that was deceptive but favorable to Monsanto.
Akre later testified that the network had tried to force her and Wilson to declare BGH milk safe, despite abundant studies showing otherwise. When they refused, Fox fired the reporters. Akre and Wilson sued Fox. In August 2000, following a five-month trial, a Florida jury awarded Akre $425,000 under Florida’s private-sector whistle-blower’s statute, which prohibits retaliation against employees who threaten to disclose conduct that is “in violation of a law, rule or regulation.” The jury found that Akre had been fired “because she threatened to disclose to the Federal Communications Commission … [Fox’s] broadcast of a false, distorted or slanted news report that she reasonably believed would violate the prohibition against intentional fabrications or distortions of the news on television.”
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During that innocent period in American history, the FCC’s 50-year-old News Distortion Rule prohibited the broadcast of false reports. The First Amendment allows anyone who owns a printing press or newspaper to lie with impunity. But FCC had declared that Corporations broadcasting under federal licenses on the publicly owned airwaves had a legal obligation to serve the public interest by being truthful. Fox appealed the verdict and five major networks filed amicus curiae briefs supporting Fox’s argument that lying by newscasters should not be forbidden.
In a bizarre decision adopting Fox’s argument, an appellate court, dominated by former corporate lawyers, reversed the lower court’s finding, holding that the FCC ban on lying did not qualify as a “law, rule or regulation,” since it had been created over the years in decisions by FCC judges and never promulgated in a rulemaking process.
This decision effectively made it legal for networks to lie in news reports to please their advertisers. Fox then sued Akre and Wilson for reimbursement for $1.7 million in legal fees.
“What reporter is going to challenge a network that orders him to cover up for polluters or companies that abuse workers or engage in health and safety violations, if the station can retaliate by suing the reporter to oblivion the way the courts are letting them do to us?” Wilson asked me.
It was no surprise that a virtual media blackout greeted Akre and Wilson’s reception of the Goldman Prize. The mainstream press altogether ignored the embarrassing story. The judicial decision proved to be steroids for Fox’s explosive growth as a vessel for corporate propaganda sans fact checking. It also opened the floodgates for what has become habitual censorship by other networks in favor of corporate advertisers.
“The news today,” Akre told me, “is far more about the business of journalism than the journalism business.”
Due to my long, strange friendship with Roger Ailes—which began in 1975 when we spent the summer in a tent together in Africa (It’s a long story!)—the now deceased executive regularly allowed me to appear and express contrary opinions on Fox talk shows. He drew a line, however, against direct criticism of his advertisers. In 2014, I was involved in the creation of a documentary critical of big Pharma, I asked him for an opportunity to discuss the subject on Neal Cavuto’s talk show. His answer was a hard “No!”
“Bobby,” he told me, “during non-election years, the bulk of news division revenue comes from pharmaceutical advertisers. I would fire any Fox host who allowed you on their show. And if I didn’t Rupert [Murdoch, the network owner] would be on the phone with me in 10 minutes demanding scalps.”
Elon Musk has proposed a return to the old standard which holds newscasters accountable for lying on our publicly owned airwaves. Anyone who cares about American democracy ought to agree.