Media critic takes on major TV networks

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Mainstream media outlets are tools of America’s most powerful corporations, media critic Jeff Cohen – who formerly worked for CNN, MSNBC and Fox News – told an audience of roughly 50 people in Salomon 001 last night.

Corporate leaders are concerned with protecting their power and reputations, while leaders at major news networks focus on maximizing ratings rather than delivering “real journalism,” said Cohen, who worked as a weekly panelist at Fox News, a co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire” and a senior producer at MSNBC before leaving the mainstream media in 2003.

Since corporations’ interests are aligned with the interests of conservatives, conservative opinion dominates “hopelessly imbalanced” television networks, Cohen said, adding that corporate pressure caused journalists to “utterly fail the country” leading up to the war in Iraq.

“When journalists are busy waving flags they don’t have time to do their jobs – asking tough questions before sending young men and women to war,” Cohen said.

Cohen said that while he was working as senior producer for MSNBC’s “Donahue” in 2002 and 2003, top managers at the channel became “very worried that the show not appear liberal in any way” and pulled it three weeks before the war in Iraq began, Cohen said. “The war was coming, and they needed to make room for something called ‘Countdown,’ which didn’t allow for the kind of debate I was having,” Cohen said in an interview with The Herald before the talk.

Cohen began his career as an investigative reporter before founding the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting in 1986. Through a “weird series of flukes” he began appearing on television shows and eventually became a paid pundit who was “embedded inside mainstream media,” he said.

Since leaving MSNBC, Cohen has written columns in major newspapers and published several books. His latest, “Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media,” chronicles his time at MSNBC, Fox News and CNN.

Cohen said during yesterday’s talk that corporations are interested in covering sordid stories with high shock value because they increase ratings and are more profitable than hard news.

“The sponsors do better if the content around the ads is dumbed down,” Cohen said. Three days after Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf staged a coup in the country in 1999, “Fox News Watch” ran segments on JonBenet Ramsey and O.J. Simpson, according to Cohen. Stories on Ramsey are “cheap to cover” and “can fill up 24 hours of time through speculation, instead of reporting, which is expensive,” Cohen said.

Cohen said he has encountered many journalists who were “energetic, sincere, but ultimately powerless” in the face of network leaders who did not want to antagonize a government that shared their interests.

“(President George W.) Bush is 100 percent on the side of the corporations, and (former President Bill) Clinton was only 80 percent,” he said.

Cohen also alleged that corporations are “terrified of progressives” and never allow true liberals into debates. “Corporate television wants a battle between conservative Republicans and Republicans,” Cohen said.

But corporations are most concerned with preserving their power, Cohen said. MSNBC, he charged, will never include coverage that is injurious to General Electric because the company owns MSNBC.

Every corporate sponsor has stories that are off-limits to journalists, Cohen said.

But the Internet – which Cohen says is “tailor-made for real debate” – has empowered liberal, independent media.

“Progressives dominate the internet,” Cohen said, adding that those interested in the news can take advantage of this growing format.

“Active news consumers have far better access now to alternatives of corporate media,” Cohen said.

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