Janine Jackson interviewed FAIR founder Jeff Cohen about FAIR’s beginnings for the August 13, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Jeff Cohen founded FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting) in 1986, and was executive director for many years. He went on to be the founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. And he has since co-founded the online initiative RootsAction, where he is policy adviser.
He’s been a regular pundit on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. And he’s the author of the book Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media. He joins us now by phone from Woodstock, New York. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Jeff Cohen.
Jeff Cohen: Always great to be on CounterSpin.
JJ: Let’s start at the start. In the early 1980s, you were involved in activism around US policy in Central America, police brutality, nuclear energy…. What made you think that new work was needed around news media? How did that connect with, or grow from, those other things that you were concerned with?
JC: I was an activist in Los Angeles and—even though I had good relations with a number of mainstream reporters—I could see the political bias against activism, against progressives, in the mainstream corporate media. It was just clear to me.
And I used to be one of these people that consumed a lot of mainstream news, including mainstream television news, and I’d find myself yelling at the television screen. So I think it was inevitable that at some point I was going to do something about the problem of corporate media bias, corporate media censorship and exclusion.
In the early ’80s, I taught classes at the New American School in Los Angeles—held in the First Unitarian Church—on how to get media coverage for your social movement, or your progressive nonprofit. So I was always in the media frame of mind.
The person we have to thank for 35 years of FAIR, perhaps more than anyone, is the right-wing police chief of Los Angeles in the ’70s and ’80s—Chief Daryl Gates—because, as you mentioned, Janine, one of my main issues for years in Los Angeles, as an advocate, as a journalist, as an activist, was challenging and opposing political repression, political spying on progressive groups, political repression aimed at the Black Liberation Movement of the ’60s and ’70s. That was my field.
In doing that advocacy in Los Angeles, if you criticized the LAPD, the LAPD in the early ’70s and ’80s would spy on you. And they spied on me. They spied on my allies.
Along with my colleague, Linda Valentino, we convinced the Southern California ACLU to sue the LAPD Red Squad over political surveillance of nonviolent and noncriminal groups. And, after years of struggle and depositions and interrogations, we were about to go to trial in 1984; we’d exposed embarrassing spying of the LA police on farmworker leader Cesar Chavez, on Reverend Jesse Jackson every time he came to LA, on the first Black mayor of LA Tom Bradley, on Jackson Browne, on Stevie Wonder….
I exposed, in the mainstream dailies that were covering the progress of our civil lawsuit, all of this outrageous spying. And, in 1984, the city settled. And they settled for almost $2 million. They gave all sorts of damages in the settlement to victims of spying; that included me.
And the lawyers on the case—I was a junior attorney by the time we were ready to go to trial—I got a bonus as an attorney. So I took the money and I traveled.
And one of the places I went to was London, England, where they had a group that we often refer to as “British FAIR,” the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. I saw the great stuff they were doing in England, and that sort of gave me the idea to come back to the US and start FAIR.
JJ: We should, of course, also shout out Martin Lee and Pia Gallegos, who were in at the beginning of FAIR. “Three people, a card table and a phone,” as office lore has it.
But people may not remember, in 1986, when you were getting ready to start FAIR, media were not…problematized, if I can say it that way.
JJ: It wasn’t seen as an issue where the public even had standing to demand change or redress, you know? So did you have trouble, in the beginning, convincing people that news media were not meta-phenomena, or a secondary concern?
JC: Yeah, you’ve really nailed it. Before I started FAIR, and in the first year or two of FAIR, that was something I would do. I would ask for a show of hands—I’d speak to big activist groups—“Let me see, how many of you have ever protested outside of a federal building?” All the hands would go up.
“How many of you have ever protested at a corporate headquarters over race or gender or labor mistreatment?” All the hands go up.
“How many of you have protested outside of City Hall?” All the hands go up.
And I’d ask these same progressive activists, “How many have ever protested outside of a mainstream news outlet?” And almost no hands would go up.
So that, I think, was the essence of why we needed FAIR, and why FAIR took off in the middle-1980s. It became clear that—if you’re progressive-oriented, if you’re a critical thinker, if you’re someone who’s civically active—you have to be active around the problem of corporate media bias, corporate media censorship, exclusion, racism…. And I think that’s something that FAIR really contributed to the broad progressive community.
JJ: FAIR emphasizes that we are critics because we are pro-journalist, you know?
JJ: We support thoughtful, independent, critical reporting. Many current and former FAIR staffers were themselves journalists. And you spent some time on the other side of the camera, as it were, from which we get your book Cable News Confidential.
A lot of that experience, I’m sure, confirmed the concerns that led you to start FAIR. But what did you see from the inside—from seeing the sausage being made, if you will—that surprised you, or educated you, or that you think people might not know?
JC: When I was on the inside, I started at CNN, appearing as a regular guest representing FAIR. And then Fox News started, and I was on Fox News every week, representing FAIR. And then MSNBC—I went over there every day, as just a media pundit.
And the thing that I saw from the inside is that everything FAIR said about the mainstream media was true—but even truer than I knew. You know, the thing that FAIR talked about from the beginning is the impact of corporate ownership. And what I saw—especially when my career came to a crashing end within television as a pundit, at MSNBC—is that these institutions are strict corporate hierarchies. It really matters who owns the company.
I mean, I knew who my boss was; I reported to her. I knew who her boss was; she reported to the president of the channel. I knew who his boss was, the president of MSNBC. He reported, basically, to NBC and General Electric. And the guy that General Electric had appointed to run the NBC channels was a guy who came out of General Electric’s plastics division.
So the thing that I saw from the inside, as a mainstream TV pundit—after having started FAIR—is that FAIR doesn’t know how bad it is! And I remember calling you guys at FAIR when outrageous things had happened to me at MSNBC, or even when I was at Fox. And I’d be like, “This is worse than we thought it would be!” As bad as we think it is, it’s even worse.
And I think a lot of CounterSpin listeners will know that, when my career came to a crashing end, and I was the senior producer of the Phil Donahue Show on MSNBC, it came to a crashing end because MSNBC would not allow anyone to do journalism and question the march toward the invasion of Iraq.
And there were quotas. If we booked a guest who was anti-war, we had to book two that were pro-war. If we booked a guest on the Donahue primetime show—a couple guests who were on the left, we had to have three on the right. When a producer could book Michael Moore, she was told, to balance Michael Moore, you have to have three right-wingers.
This is the kind of crap that I was witnessing from the inside—as you said, Janine, how the sausage is made— it revealed to me that all of the critiques that FAIR had put out about the ultimate content of the news, and how detached from reality the content can be, I saw how it happened. And it happened because of corporate ownership, and timidity on the people who were the top media executives, who were often less journalists than they were diplomats and corporatists.
JJ: Right. I remember you telling us that when you first started giving talks about media criticism and activism, that reporters would come up to you afterwards and say, “You know, it’s true what you’re saying, but it’s not as bad as you say.”
JJ: And then, not that many years later, they come up and say, “It’s true what you’re saying, but it’s so much worse than you’re even talking about.”
JC: You know, in the first issue of Extra!, FAIR’s newsletter, we had a cover article by Ben Bagdikian about the concentration of media ownership into fewer and fewer corporate hands. And, in the late ’80s, I would often hear from mainstream reporters, “I love that FAIR exists—keep up the good work—but you’re overemphasizing corporate ownership. A lot of the problem is us, and that we aren’t willing to push. You’re overemphasizing corporate ownership!”
And then the mergers got worse. And the entertainment companies take over the news, television news.
JJ: And the layoffs….
JC: And, before you know it, as you say, these same journalists who thought we were overemphasizing corporate ownership were saying: “You really nailed it. You were right. You were ahead of your time.”
JJ: In some ways, of course, the media landscape in 2021 is quite different than 1986, when FAIR began. There wasn’t social media to this extent, there were more local papers.
But then you look at coverage of Cuba or Venezuela, and really you need a freaking calendar to tell you that it’s not 1986, you know? If I could just get you to talk about what’s changed and what hasn’t in lo, these past 35 years.
JC: Yeah, what hasn’t changed, as you mentioned, is that if the executive branch of the US government has an official enemy overseas, that the coverage will be completely biased and exaggerated and extreme against those governments. And if it’s a government that the US executive branch is supportive of, the mainstream media coverage will be softer than it should be.
That was horrific in the ’80s when we started, and Reagan was waging wars of terrorism against Central America. And, as you say, it’s horrific today. When the media will cover demonstrations in Cuba in huge fashion, but the demonstrations that are bigger and have been going on for months in Colombia just don’t get the coverage. And you need FAIR to point that out.
I would say the biggest difference between now and 1986 is that the right-wing media are much more powerful today. I mean, we set up FAIR and there was no Fox News. Limbaugh hadn’t even gone national. Talk radio wasn’t nationally right-wing, although it was right-wing even in liberal cities in the mid-’80s. But the right-wing media have gotten bigger and more powerful and more dominant.
And then, as you mentioned, we have social media that reinforce all of the myths and concoctions of right-wing media. I’d say that’s one of the biggest differences. That’s the bad news.
The good news is there is another difference in the 35 years, and that’s that independent, progressive, journalistic-oriented media, non-corporate media, are more powerful now than ever. In 1986, we didn’t have Democracy Now!. We didn’t have the Intercept. We didn’t have CommonDreams.org and Truthout.org. The Nation was a small magazine; now it’s TheNation.com. It’s because of the internet that independent, journalistically sound, progressive-oriented publications have been able to grow.
Are they as powerful as the right-wing media? They’re not even close. But they’re more powerful than progressive media have ever been, I would argue, in US history. More powerful than the big socialist press before World War I. More powerful than the counterculture alternative weeklies in the late ’60s, early ’70s—the height of the New Left media.
So that’s the good news, is independent progressive media—the kind of journalists that you feature on CounterSpin regularly—that’s bigger. People can come out of journalism school, and they don’t have to work for the New York Times or NBC News. There are alternatives where they can get a decent salary—not as good as NBC News or New York Times, perhaps—but they can earn a living doing journalism in the independent progressive sector. That’s a big improvement since 1986.
JJ: Absolutely. And, probably as a result of that, I would say a difference is an orders-of-magnitude increase in public savviness and understanding about media. The idea we were just talking about—the idea that you shouldn’t just swallow what comes at you from the nightly news. I feel like people are more critical about media, and that has to do with groups like FAIR making clear that you have to think about the news that you’re consuming, and you shouldn’t just think, Oh, it’s on the TV, so it must be true. That’s another thing that’s changed.
JC: Yeah, I believe FAIR has played that crucial role. Everywhere I go—and, remember, I basically quit being the executive director of FAIR in about the year 2000.
JJ: A while ago.
JC: And you guys have had 21 years of incredible work since then. And everywhere I go, people praise me for the last issue of Extra!—which, of course, I had nothing to do with. Or the last broadcast of CounterSpin, which I also had nothing to do with!
So there’s no doubt that there’s more savvy, among critical thinkers and progressive people and liberal-minded people, that you can’t take the media lying down.
JC: During the height of the Nuclear Freeze Movement, at FAIR we would say, “Better to be media active than radioactive.” And this idea that you have to challenge mainstream media—if you’re an activist, if you’re civic-minded—you have to support independent media, you have to donate to groups like FAIR.
The media are an arena for struggle. The media are an arena for activism. And, I think—I go back; you were there, I was there, at all these huge media-reform conferences, and these media-democracy conferences—and FAIR has played a big role from 1986 onward in this notion that, as you say, you don’t swallow the media whole. You’ve got to challenge what they’re feeding you.
I think FAIR has been instrumental in getting people to question who are the sources and experts in mainstream media. It’s something that FAIR pioneered, in these studies of Nightline, the study of public TV’s NewsHour, the studies of who are experts and sources that are constantly quoted in the New York Times and who are not quoted. And I think we’ve got a lot of people that pay attention to, “Wow, there were missing points of view in that New York Times article. There were missing experts in that NBC News or Time magazine story.”
And I’ll say this, Janine—one of the interesting things for me, in the years of working on FAIR’s newsletter Extra!, working at FAIR, was talking to the sources that were used by mainstream media regularly, and even those sources would complain about bias. I’m thinking of, for example, the US Catholic Bishops Conference. They would always complain to us and say, “The mainstream media only quotes us about our opposition to abortion, and they never quote us on our opposition to war or our opposition to poverty or our advocacy for immigrants’ rights. We only get quoted on abortion!” So it’s fascinating.
And, during the ‘90s, we would talk to Human Rights Watch, and they said, for years, Helsinki Watch—which was their group that monitored abuses and repression in the Communist countries of Eastern Europe—they were always quoted! But what was then called Americas Watch—which used the same exact criteria to criticize the US-supported human rights–abusing regimes of Central and Latin America—they would rarely get quoted.
We did a lot, I think, in getting consumers to understand, you have to look critically at which sources are quoted and which sources and experts are ignored. But it was always fascinating to talk to the sources themselves on how they were misused by the New York Times and other news outlets.
JJ: In 1986—I feel like I’m bringing us back to the beginning—folks thought, “Well, you don’t like what’s in the paper? Don’t buy it,” you know?
JJ: “If you don’t like TV news, well, turn it off.” I feel that, now, that sounds a bit like, “If you don’t like climate change, just close the window.”
JC: You don’t hear that much anymore. And I believe it’s to FAIR’s credit.
I used to see the bumper stickers “Kill Your Television.” You know, you might kill your television. You might’ve turned yours off. But your neighbor is listening to Fox News, or thinks MSNBC is the left-wing alternative to Fox News on the right (which it isn’t).
Other people are getting misinformation on a daily or hourly basis from mainstream media. It’s not something one can ignore. And I think progressive-minded people, critical thinkers, understand that if you care about society, if you care about democracy, you have to care about the problem of the media.
And that’s why I tell people to support FAIR, donate to FAIR, support independent journalism, and—as you used the academic term—problematize the media. It’s not neutral.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Jeff Cohen. He’s policy adviser at Roots Action. They’re online at RootsAction.org. He’s also author of the book Cable News Confidential, and founder of the media watch group FAIR. Thank you, Jeff, for building this ship we’re still sailing on—and also for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
JC: Thanks, Janine! Thanks to you and Jim and others who’ve worked there for decades—Deborah—who’ve kept the ship floating.
JJ: Thanks a lot, Jeff.
This content originally appeared on FAIR and was authored by Janine Jackson.