Cable News Confidential
Having worked for all three major cable news channels, Jeff Cohen has witnessed firsthand how corporate media conglomerates are killing our democracy. He talked to AlterNet's executive editor Don Hazen about his experiences and his new book "Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media" (PoliPoint Press, 2006). Two video clips of his appearances with Robert Novak on CNN's "Crossfire" in 1996 are also available: "For Vengeance" and "Feminist Weenies."
Don Hazen: You were a Fox on-air personality for years and are a red-blooded American progressive. Isn't it ironic that you had a semicomfortable home at the premier right-wing network?
Jeff Cohen: It was more than ironic, it was a fluke. I was allowed to stay on the air primarily because I was a weekender. I wasn't ready for prime time. I can remember a couple incidents where Sean Hannity came into the green room when our show, "Fox NewsWatch," was waiting to go on. A couple of the people started haranguing him, saying, "When are you going to have a debate with Jeff Cohen? Are you afraid of him?" I survived -- it was a media criticism show. I was able to say things that you wouldn't normally be able to do anywhere else on Fox News. I mean, I regularly criticized Fox News and Rupert Murdoch by name. There were a couple of times I thought my career was in jeopardy, but it's important for people to realize I left Fox News on my own.
Hazen: We've got a couple of clips of you going at it with Robert Novak (VIDEO: For Vengeance, and Feminist Weenies), who's been at the center of the Joe Wilson/Valerie Plame scandal. Tell us a little bit about the Prince of Darkness.
Cohen: That's the funny thing about the Prince of Darkness -- he was always good for me. When you're on cable news and you're in an ideological debate, it's great to be going up against someone who seems to concede the center, and almost pushes himself to the extreme. Like when we did our debate on the death penalty and he's basically saying, "I don't care if it's a deterrent, I want vengeance." I'd already compared him to the ayatollahs of Iran, and I'd said that Western democratic countries had all moved toward the abolition of the death penalty, and he sort of said those countries are maybe too civilized.
There was an important moment -- the exact quote is in the book -- where I asked him during a break, "Are you further right of Pat Buchanan?" He said, "Well, Buchanan is taking liberal democratic principles now. I was an Eisenhower Republican in the '50s and I've moved further right every year since." He's boasting about it. When I heard that, I thought to myself, there's no one close to that on TV who can say, "I was a Kennedy Democrat in the '60s and I've moved further left every year since." What you have on TV is usually the conservative Democrats debating the conservative Republicans.
Hazen: What about Roger Ailes? Is he a genius, or does he just happen to be in a lucky spot?
Cohen: I think it's both. He's a brilliant propagandist. He was brilliant when he had 30-second attack ads going after Dukakis, and he's brilliant now that he's got 24/7 handed to him by Rupert Murdoch, the right-wing media mogul owner of Fox. It's very lucky when someone who thinks visually, as Ailes does, and is skilled at political propaganda of the lowest common denominator, and a media mogul comes along and says, "OK, you run it." Obviously Ailes had no background in journalism.
Hazen: What about Rupert? He just paid half a billion dollars for MySpace, the most popular destination for young people on the web; he now owns satellite DirecTV. Why does Murdoch seem to be smarter than the rest of the media moguls?
Cohen: He's got a little more of a killer instinct, I think. He was one of the first to global, and he always understood that you have to go immediately for the centers of political power. He endorsed Carter over Ted Kennedy because he wanted something from Carter.
Hazen: Now he's supporting Hillary in New York.
Cohen: Right. Now he's close to her and held a fund-raiser for her at the News Corp. building in midtown Manhattan in July. He's always been great at cozying up to national power across the continents. He's even done it in China -- in China, he's suppressed materials, he's had a book suppressed. He kept communicating to the leadership there that he would go soft on them, and he was in there before most of the others, in a bigger way than most of the other corporate media conglomerates. I just think he's very skillful at wielding the levers of power, very close to Tony Blair in England. It has to be understood that you always hear that this is called "Bush's war," but it was, in many ways, Rupert Murdoch's war. He sold this war across continents.
Hazen: Say more about that ...
Cohen: The main media pushing this in England were his media. Now, in England, there was a wide-ranging debate, so he wasn't able to completely snow the people of England. There were some news outlets that weren't owned by Murdoch that did something called "journalism." In our country, the Murdoch outlets were pushing for war ferociously, and among the outlets in the mainstream, they seemed to be imitating him during the runup to the war. But Rupert Murdoch was crucial to bringing this world to a destabilizing war that has done very little except inflame and mobilize Islamic extremists.
Hazen: You were featured in Robert Greenwald's popular documentary, "OutFoxed." Can you tell us about the influence of that film, and is it your sense that Fox is as strong as ever, or is the Fox model slipping?
Cohen: I think Fox is slipping a little, and I think that "OutFoxed" was one of the most successful insurgent documentaries in history. I was at my local deli this morning and a guy came up to me and said he'd just seen me in "OutFoxed." High school, college kids and say, "I saw you in 'OutFoxed.'" It has gotten so many legs. It started huge because of alternative distribution through the internet and grassroots organizations. And it keeps on going. As I say in the book, I get recognized more from appearing in "OutFoxed" than all my national TV appearances combined.
The scrutiny of Fox by critical journalists and by "OutFoxed" has caused the middle-of-the-road person who used to watch Fox to be more skeptical. And they did have middle-of-the-road people; I know because they would write me. It isn't all right-wing viewers; it's mostly right-wing viewers. On the show I was on, I had progressive viewers that were writing fanatical fan letters.
I think the criticism -- and AlterNet has played a role in this the criticism of Fox News -- has been brought to the mainstream of America and middle-of-the-roaders are more cautious when they turn that channel on now. I think that's probably hurt them.
Hazen: So you left all that at Fox, and at his urging, you followed Phil Donahue over to MSNBC. A good chunk of your book is about the horror show there, especially in the face of the lead-up to the war in Iraq. But on page 100, you say you would follow Phil just about anywhere, just to not such a dysfunctional place again. It sounds like you might have regrets about that decision.
Cohen: Well, it was a probably bad decision as a TV pundit, and a great decision for me as a media critic and author of this book. I was leaving Fox News on my own because I thought I'd find a better platform for my progressive advocacy on a more middle-of-the-road channel, like MSNBC, which is run by the top news division in television, NBC. Who knew I was getting a much better platform for my views back at Fox? I didn't know that until I got over there.
I was in the middle of the media system during a huge crisis. As a student activist in the late '60s, we used to say, "The system reveals itself in a crisis." You can learn more about a system in a month of crisis than in years of normalcy. And I was there during months of crisis. The Bush administration was pushing for war without presenting evidence. And at the very same time the owners of the media are trying to get regulatory changes that would allow them as titans to become even more titanic.
I'm in there when the management is scared witless about offending the administration. I'm on the air every afternoon and I'm merciless in going after their lies and distortions. Not just about foreign policy but about clear skies and healthy forests and you name the issue. I was blaming them for not stopping Sept. 11th. A lot of great evidence at the time was just coming out about how inept the Bush administration was. I called them asleep at the wheel in the advent of 9/11. They should have prevented it.
And then you have Phil Donahue who came on in July of 2002 and they're petrified at MSNBC at this point. When they made the move to hire Donahue, it was in the early spring of 2002. No one could really see the war in Iraq. Obviously they knew about it in the inner reaches of Team Bush, but at MSNBC they had no or little clue. That's why they hired Phil. Then there was a 2.5-month gap between when they hired him and when he went on the air the first night.
In that 2.5-month gap, these normally timid MSNBC executives -- and believe me, I was in touch with them week by week -- they became even more scared. And that's why they put a straightjacket on the Donahue show even before we went on the air, and it just got worse and worse as they tightened the screws. At the end they were trying to turn us into a Fox News program look-alike.
Hazen: Let's pursue this a little bit. Frank Rich's new book is "The Greatest Story Ever Sold," about how Bush and Cheney have sold everything, but particularly the invasion and the occupation of Iraq. Given who owns the networks and cable, is there any way to fight the propaganda model of fear and patriotism?
Cohen: How do we fight it? We turn it off. Frankly, the only way you can maintain your sanity and your connection to the reality-based community is to either shut this stuff off, or when you watch corporate TV and cable news, you're so armed with the facts that you can see through it. The good news is that there's been that steady migration away from corporate in the last few years. During the run-up to the Iraq war, people were looking hungrily for alternatives. Amy Goodman and Democracy Now! moving from radio-only to radio and television. People sought out the BBC.
Independent media were booming during that period because people just couldn't trust what they were getting, and it's a migration that's continued -- away from corporate media, toward independent fare. Independent media don't have the resources that corporate media do, but independent media are not shackled by corporate management or fears that the corporate sponsors will flee if we do good, bold journalism. The freedom an independent journalist has is the reason they've become so attractive, why blogs are booming.
In corporate media there might be good journalists at the bottom -- I certainly met many of them when I was on the inside -- a lot of good, aggressive journalists, especially young ones. But they have no power. The rhetoric that I spouted before I got on the inside about corporate hierarchy, it was hitting me in the face every single day. The people who rose to the top within MSNBC -- and I saw it at CNN as well -- were the ones who didn't rock the boats, the ones who were least interested in journalism and more interested in careerism. The people who got spat out of the system the fastest were the tough independent journalists who just got fed up and either got fired or quit.
To me, what's important is to look at what happened right after those of us who were correct about the war had been spat out of the system. Phil Donahue and myself we warned about the chaos. We warned that this is would interfere with the fight against Al Qaeda, which is a serious fight. We said it would destabilize an already unstable region. We said it was being done for domestic politics, that was a major focus, a major purpose.
Those who got the war 100 percent wrong had seen their careers flourish within the corporate hierarchy. I'm not aware of a single TV news executive or correspondent or pundit or "expert" who suffered as a result of getting such a monumental story so totally wrong as almost all of them did.
Hazen: Let's talk about one of the few bright lights -- Keith Olbermann whose Countdown show is on MSNBC. He whacks Bush every single night; he drives Bill O'Reilly crazy. He seems to have done what Phil and you weren't able to do. Have the times changed? What's the key to his success?
Cohen: Keep in mind that we would have had bigger success faster if they hadn't put the straightjacket on us. When these independent media and blogs are booming and MoveOn is doubling or tripling its membership, and we're stagnating because they're encouraging us to imitate Fox, remember that we would have gone much bigger much faster than Olbermann in ratings. But ratings were less important to MSNBC than acting on their timidity and fear of our content.
By the last months of the show, MSNBC management was ordering us that every time we booked a guest who was anti-war, we had to book two that were pro-war. If we booked two guests on the left we had to book three on the right. When a producer in a full staff meeting said that she was thinking about booking Michael Moore as a guest, she was told that she'd need three right-wingers for ideological balance. (Laughing.)
Hazen: How's Olbermann doing it differently?
Cohen: We were on the advent of a war, and Bush was popular, and now Bush is unpopular and the war is unmitigated disaster by everyone's account. So the environment is a little different, and our desires were different. What Donahue was hoping to be, and what I was promised it would be as a top producer of the show before I even agreed to take the job at MSNBC, was a forum for articulate progressive voices that don't get on TV. We wanted to be a regular place for the Amy Goodmans and the Jim Hightowers and the Barbara Ehrenreichs and the Cornell Wests. And that's not something you see on Olbermann even today.
Hazen: Are any of those people getting on TV now?
Cohen: Not a lot. That's what they fear the most, that instead of the Ann Coulters and the Frank Gaffneys and those kind of right-wing extremists who couldn't get a fact straight if it hit them in the face, is that you're a regular forum for these tough voices who are experts in their field. I think that's what really scares them the most -- more than the 90-second editorial from the host. Olbermann is not an expert in a field. But if you have these alternative, legitimate experts who are saying things no one's ever said on TV before, people are going to go to their websites and going to buy their books. That was what we envisioned the Donahue show to be, and I believe even today that's not possible. And I respect Keith Olbermann -- I've always respected him as an on-air personality. But that's certainly not his vision for his show.
Hazen: In the introduction to your book, Jim Hightower refers to your epilogue which reads that progressives are creating mass-market media through websites, blogs, video, and Amy Goodman. Do you think that's happening now in independent media? And to the extent that's it's influencing the public discourse? Or is it just strengthening the progressive forces?
Both. It's always been a dream of mine since I founded FAIR in '86 to have a huge mass-based slugging arm, so that when the media are doing outrageous things, they hear loudly and clearly from independent-minded and progressive people. That's happening now. Part of the reason Olbermann has a much longer leash at MSNBC than we ever did is because of this background noise of this growing independent media. He makes a commentary on TV and the next day the transcript and the video are all over the internet. It's, of course, building his ratings.
By the way, I went to MSNBC with exactly that argument: If we start delivering content, we're going to get all this pass-around the next day or two on the internet. And it was as if I was speaking Greek to them. Frankly, they were too fearful of what bosses would say, what the Bush administration would say. Maybe Karl Rove would make a call. Certainly the right-wing owners wouldn't be happy.
Yes, it is happening. It's not ever easy for it to happen on a channel owned by GE, but these independent voices are making names for themselves. You have Markos from DailyKos sprouting up a little bit on TV because he built something big. And obviously Amy Goodman for a while was even appearing on the Chris Matthews show.
Amy has built up something big, too. She's given jobs to about 20 people or so, top-notch journalists. We're doing what I envisioned, and we're doing it in the independent media, which I think ultimately it's the only place this stuff will come to pass.
Hazen: What about Air America? Where does that fit into this vision?
Cohen: Struggling. I wish them well. I'm so glad Air America exists, and it isn't still a right-wing monopoly on that form of talk radio. I always was offended by talk radio, and I assumed it was because it was always so right-wing. But I realize that it's not just that it's all right-wing -- I like reason, I like argument, I like logic, footnotes and facts. You don't get that lot on talk radio. There are some great Air America hosts. And again, I wish them only success, I'm not sure about the choices they've made but I'm just hoping they hang on and thrive.
Hazen: Your book is kind of a potpourri of dozens and dozens of issues that you talked on the air -- from populist economics to drug testing to Iraq to Martha Stewart. Which of these issues seems to resonate to motivate moderates look at the progressive point of view?
I think that corporate/government corruption is always a winner. It was my favorite on the air. And it's so rarely heard on TV that is so dominated by a half-dozen media conglomerates, but when I could get it on the air, it was electric. And I would get emails when we talked about where Bush got his money and we named names. I did it on CNN's Crossfire, Fox News and MSNBC. You can talk with specifics with "Bush just held a fundraiser, and he raised a million dollars, and here were the corporations there giving him money." Then you point out that some of these corporations are also funding Bill Clinton or Joe Lieberman, and that's why they're getting policies that favor the insurance industry, for example. That kind of thing is really powerful.
It's what I think the Democratic politicians can use to win elections. It's what the independent media should focus on, because it does get middle-of-the-road people and swing voters, it connects with their lives. The reason the factory shut down and moved to some cheap labor or slave labor country, it wasn't their fault -- they weren't asking for too much. I think the way you reach lower-middle class people, especially lower-middle class whites in swing districts, in red states, is with explaining the economic realities and corruption that has so squeezed their lives at work and their family lives. I think that's the key.
I think the most effective issue is economic populism. Point out who really runs our economy and our political systems, how corrupt it is and how behind-closed-doors it is. That'll open up people's eyes even if they disagree with you on gay rights or abortion rights.
On the strength of my TV appearances, I've developed sort of a lecture career on campuses and I often end up on campuses in red states. Before I walked into the classroom or the lecture hall, they see these media moguls as part of the "liberal media conspiracy" (laughing), and then I point out that Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone were going around endorsing their candidate, Bush, for president in '04. These shows that they find so distasteful are not so much the liberal media but the libertine media; they are put on by media moguls who are endorsing their so-called "family values" candidates.
Hazen: The book is available now. What's coming up for you?
Cohen: We're promoting this book heavily through the internet. I'm expecting progressive bloggers and websites to pick up on it. I'll be doing traveling and on Air America, and this book has been sent to everyone in TV, and who covers the media. It's been sent to every show at CNN (laughing). We know we're going to get huge support from the independent media, who are already spreading the word. But it's going to be a challenge to see whether a book that's by an insider is allowed to be discussed on mainstream television. Bernie Goldberg, who'd been at CBS for years, who is not a very astute critic of the media, wrote a book from the right-wing point of view, and he was everywhere in cable news. This'll be interesting whether I can get on cable news. Bill O'Reilly is always accusing guests, especially Hollywood celebrities who won't go on his show, of not having the guts to come on the air with him. I've got the guts, but we've got to see whether Bill O'Reilly is macho enough, whether he's got the guts to have me on.
I believe that this book is going to be another test of independent media. So far indications are great that the book is going to get out there, but I feel it'll also be interesting to see whether mainstream media does anything with it. Let's face it, the two best shows of media criticism and media ridicule are on Comedy Central -- The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. They do media criticism of the highest order, and then you can see what they do the next day on independent media like AlterNet or Crooks & Liars, plus all sorts of websites that aren't even progressive ones.
I can remember being in rooms with you how many years ago where we envisioned an independent media that would be networking like it is around the great Greenwald documentary, "Iraq for Sale." And creating an echo effect where we never have to worry about some corporate owner saying, "You're going too tough on that issue, can you tone it down? We're hearing from sponsors!" That used to happen to Phil Donahue.
Hazen: Thank god for the internet! (laughing)
Cohen: Yes, thank god for Al Gore and the internet! (laughing) Donahue used to get lectured about "badgering guests," they'd say, "He's got to tone it down." Management would come to me at MSNBC and try to get me to tone Phil down. And here we were up against a raving right-winger! Bill O'Reilly is over there being encouraged to bash away, and we were not allowed to counter-program against Fox News for even one hour a day. If we had, I believe our ratings would have gone through the roof.
Hazen: Any parting thoughts?
Cohen: There was a great document that was leaked when they finally pulled the plug on the Phil Donahue show, three weeks before the Iraq war began. It was an NBC internal memo about MSNBC and it said, "Donahue represents a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. He insists on presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives." To me that says it all. Good journalism, I thought, was when you questioned those in power. But at NBC, our top news division, that was something to be fearful of. Their main fear was that Donahue would become a "home for the liberal anti-war agenda, at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity." They wanted, in getting rid of me and Donahue and the rest, to quit doing journalism that might get in the way of an onrushing war, pick up the flag and do cheerleading. That memo says it all.