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How Public Is Public Radio?

When National Public Radio was launched in 1971, it promised to be an alternative to commercial media that would "promote personal growth rather than corporate gain" and "speak with many voices, many dialects."

In 1993, when FAIR published a study of NPR's guest list that challenged the network's alternative credentials, incoming NPR president Delano Lewis was still boasting about being a place where the unheard get heard: "Our job is to be a public radio station. So therefore the alternative points of view, the various viewpoints, should be aired."

Today, current NPR president Kevin Klose insists that diversity and inclusivity are among NPR's top priorities: "All of us believe our goal is to serve the entire democracy, the entire country."

NPR, which now reaches 22 million listeners weekly on 750 affiliated stations, does frequently provide more than the nine-second-soundbite culture of mainstream news broadcasts. But is the public really heard on public radio? And is NPR truly an alternative to its commercial competition? A new FAIR study of NPR's guest list shows the radio service relies on the same elite and influential sources that dominate mainstream commercial news, and falls short of reflecting the diversity of the American public.

FAIR's study recorded every on-air source quoted in June 2003 on four National Public Radio news shows: All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition Saturday and Week-end Edition Sunday. Each source was classified by occupation, gender, nationality and partisan affiliation. Altogether, the study counted 2,334 quoted sources, featured in 804 stories.

In addition to studying NPR's general news sources, FAIR looked at the think tanks NPR relies on most frequently, and at its list of regular commentators. To ensure a substantial sample of these subsets, we looked at four months of think tank sources and commentators on the same four shows.

Elite sources dominated NPR's guest-list. These sources -- including government officials, professional experts and corporate representatives -- accounted for 64 percent of all sources.

Current and former government officials constituted the largest group of elite voices, accounting for 28 percent of overall sources, an increase of 2 percentage points over 1993. Current and former military sources (a subset of governmental sources) were 3 percent of total sources.

Professional experts -- including those from academia, journalism, think tanks, legal, medical and other professions -- were the second largest elite group, accounting for 26 percent of all sources. Corporate representatives accounted for 6 percent of total sources.

Journalists by themselves accounted for 7 percent of all NPR sources. For a public radio service intended to provide an independent alternative to corporate-owned and commercially driven mainstream media, NPR is surprisingly reliant on mainstream journalists. At least 83 percent of journalists appearing on NPR in June 2003 were employed by commercial U.S. media outlets, many at outlets famous for influencing newsroom agendas throughout the country (16 from the New York Times alone, and another seven from the Washington Post). Only five sources came from independent news outlets like the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the National Catholic Reporter.

The remainder of elite sources was distributed among religious leaders (2 percent) and political professionals, including campaign staff and consultants (1 percent).

Though elite sources made up a majority of sources, the study actually found a substantial increase in the number of non-elite sources featured. Workers, students, the general public, and representatives of organized citizen and public interest groups accounted for 31 percent of all sources, compared to the 17 percent found in 1993.

The increase comes largely in the general public category. These are "people in the street" whose occupations are not identified and who tend to be quoted more briefly than other sources -- often in one-sentence soundbites. More than a third (37 percent) of general public sources were not even identified by name -- appearing in show transcripts as "unidentified woman No. 2" and the like. General public sources accounted for 21 percent of NPR sources.

Spokespeople for public interest groups -- generally articulate sources espousing a particular point of view -- accounted for 7 percent of total sources, the same proportion found in 1993. Though not a large proportion of NPR's sources, public interest voices were still about twice as common on NPR as on commercial network news, according to a FAIR study published in 2002 that found that such sources made up only 3 percent of voices on network news shows.

Public interest voices on NPR reflected a wide range of opinion, from conservative groups like the National Right to Life Committee and Texas Eagle Forum to progressive groups like MoveOn.org and Code Pink. Types of organizations represented included political organizations, charitable foundations, public education groups and human rights and civil liberties advocates. Eighty-seven percent of public interest sources appeared in domestic policy stories.

Sources identified as workers on NPR programming in June accounted for 2.3 percent of overall sources and 1.8 percent of U.S. sources. But spokespersons for organized labor were almost invisible, numbering just six sources, or 0.3 percent of the total. Corporate representatives (6 percent) appeared 23 times more often than labor representatives.

Women were dramatically underrepresented on NPR in 1993 (19 percent of all sources), and they remain so today (21 percent). And they were even less likely to appear on NPR in stories as experts -- just 15 percent of all professionals were women -- or in stories discussing political issues, where only 18 percent of sources were women.

Women were particularly scarce in stories about Iraq, making up just 13 percent of sources. Nearly half of these women, 47 percent, were general public sources -- that is, they appeared as non-expert "people in the street" -- as compared to 22 percent of male sources in Iraq stories. Thirty-three percent of female sources commenting in Iraq stories appeared as professionals or experts, while 66 percent of male Iraq sources appeared in such capacities.

Female sources lagged markedly behind men in most occupation categories. Women accounted for 17 percent of journalistic sources, 12 percent of corporate sources and 12 percent of government officials. The only category where females appeared more often than males was among the small sample of students (12 of 23); women and men were equally cited as families of military personnel.

Six women tied for most often quoted, with three appearances each. Of these, four were from government: National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. Abigail Thernstrom of the conservative Manhattan Institute and University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman rounded out the list of women who appeared most frequently on NPR.

It was not feasible to do an ethnic breakdown of more than 2,000 radio sources, but an examination of NPR's commentators (see sidebar) suggests that the network may have made more progress in racial inclusion than in gender balance since 1993.

That NPR harbors a liberal bias is an article of faith among many conservatives. Spanning from the early '70s, when President Richard Nixon demanded that "all funds for public broadcasting be cut," through House Speaker Newt Gingrich's similar threats in the mid-'90s, the notion that NPR leans left still endures.

News of the April launch of Air America, a new liberal talk radio network, revived the old complaint, with several conservative pundits declaring that such a thing already existed. "I have three letters for you, NPR. . . . I mean, there is liberal radio," remarked conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan on NBC's Chris Matthews Show (4/4/04.) A few days earlier (4/1/04), conservative columnist Cal Thomas told Nightline, "The liberals have many outlets," naming NPR prominently among them.

Nor is this belief confined to the right: CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer seemed to repeat it as a given while questioning a liberal guest: "What about this notion that the conservatives make a fair point that there already is a liberal radio network out there, namely National Public Radio?"

Despite the commonness of such claims, little evidence has ever been presented for a left bias at NPR, and FAIR's latest study gives it no support. Looking at partisan sources -- including government officials, party officials, campaign workers and consultants -- Republicans outnumbered Democrats by more than 3 to 2 (61 percent to 38 percent). A majority of Republican sources when the GOP controls the White House and Congress may not be surprising, but Republicans held a similar though slightly smaller edge (57 percent to 42 percent) in 1993, when Clinton was president and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. And a lively race for the Democratic presidential nomination was beginning to heat up at the time of the 2003 study.

Partisans from outside the two major parties were almost nowhere to be seen, with the exception of four Libertarian Party representatives who appeared in a single story on Morning Edition.

Republicans not only had a substantial partisan edge, individual Republicans were NPR's most popular sources overall, taking the top seven spots in frequency of appearance. George Bush led all sources for the month with 36 appearances, followed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (8) and Sen. Pat Roberts (6). Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Secretary of State Colin Powell, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and Iraq proconsul Paul Bremer all tied with five appearances each.

Senators Edward Kennedy, Jay Rockefeller and Max Baucus were the most frequently heard Democrats, each appearing four times. No nongovernmental source appeared more than three times. With the exception of Secretary of State Powell, all of the top 10 most frequently appearing sources were white male government officials.

Read NPR's response to FAIR's study href="http://www.fair.org/press-releases/npr-study-response.html">here.

Cowed Media Disease

It's the day after U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced the first case of mad cow disease in the United States, the telephones at the Center for Media & Democracy in Madison, Wisconsin are ringing constantly with press inquiries.

"I've never seen anything like this in my 30 years of activism!" John Stauber, executive director of the center and co-author of the 1997 book Mad Cow U.S.A., is saying. Stauber has been warning for years about the threat of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), better known as mad cow disease, coming to America.

And after years of very limited press interest, this is something else. In between taking calls on December 24, he recalls a 1992 conversation with a reporter from the Wall Street Journal--an experience typical of the difficulty he had trying to get media to sound the alarm.

He had begun investigating mad cow disease as an outgrowth of research he was doing on recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), the genetically engineered drug designed to increase a cow's milk production, while at the Foundation on Economic Trends, a Washington, D.C. group that examines developments in science and technology and their impacts.

"I got a call from a retired Eli Lilly drug researcher who told me that if rBGH came on the market in the U.S., we would be seeing mad cow disease," recounts Stauber. He didn't see the connection. The scientist explained: "If you inject cows with rBGH, you will have to feed them fat and protein supplements," because rBGH takes a heavy toll as it hikes milk production. Likely to be used, he said, would be "the cheapest form" of fat and protein: slaughterhouse waste. And this waste, the researcher said, would inevitably include parts of animals infected with mad cow disease -- and the disease would be passed on. The use of slaughterhouse waste was how mad cow disease had spread in Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe in the 1980s.

Then Stauber filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, obtaining a 1991 report that discussed the pros and cons of banning feed containing slaughterhouse waste: "The advantage of this option is that it minimizes the risk of BSE," it read. "The disadvantage is that the cost to the livestock and rendering industries would be substantial."

Stauber called a Wall Street Journal reporter who specializes in agriculture and told him of all this. The reporter said it was "a theoretical issue. Call me when they find the first cow" with mad cow disease.

Stauber told him: "They'll be calling me when they find the first cow."

Media cowed

"And now they've found the first cow and [are] calling me," he says as the phones ring non-stop at his public interest organization, a non-profit dedicated to investigative reporting on the public relations industry. (The center's website declares: "Whether the issue is health, consumer safety, environmental preservation or democracy and world peace, citizens today find themselves confronted by a bewildering array of hired propagandists paid to convince the public that junk food is nutritious, pollution is harmless, and that what's good for big business and big government is good for the rest of us.")

The Wall Street Journal reporter's stance was representative of the media view on mad cow disease coming to the U.S. that he encountered, says Stauber, even after the publication of Mad Cow U.S.A., with its pages of documentation, much obtained through FOIA, pointing to the disease reaching America -- unless strong steps were taken. The book, co-authored by Sheldon Rampton, editor of the center's PR Watch, was "ignored by the mainstream media."

The attitude, says Stauber, was akin to, "You don't need a yellow light or a red light at the intersection until there is a pile-up and bodies strewn across the intersection."

There were some journalists interested -- indeed, "excited" about the issue, says Stauber -- but he was told that their editors, news directors or executive producers didn't want them to pursue it. An offensive by agribusiness contributed to the inaction. There was the lawsuit following an Oprah Winfrey show in 1996 titled "Dangerous Food" on which ex-rancher Howard Lyman warned of the spread of mad cow disease to the U.S. "Today we could do exactly what the English did and cease feeding cows to cows. Why in the world are we not doing that?" asked Lyman, going on: "Because we have the greedy that are getting the ear of government."

The Texas Beef Group sued Winfrey, Lyman and King World Productions for $2 million, based on a then-new "food disparagement" law in Texas. The case was dismissed, but had a chilling effect. Stauber says a TV network producer later told him his orders were to keep his "network from being sued the way Oprah was."

Meanwhile, the meat industry and the government, notably the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and what Stauber terms "front groups" -- the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and the Center for Consumer Freedom -- were working to convince "the media this was a non-issue."

Also, some new U.S. regulations on feeding cattle slaughterhouse waste were put into effect in 1997, but Stauber describes them as "a farce." Potentially infected blood, fat, bone meal and other parts of dead animals continued to be legally fed to livestock.

There was a continued attempt to mislead reporters and deceive the public, says Stauber. "Rather than watchdogging the issue, the press just passed on the false assurances. The media, dumbed down about this disease, kept the public in the dark."

There was an exception in alternative media: Joel Bleifuss of In These Times did investigative reporting on mad cow disease using material Stauber provided. The journalism by Bleifuss on mad cow disease was cited in 1994 as one of the "most under-reported" stories in the U.S. by Project Censored at Sonoma State University.

Then, on December 23, 2003, came the Veneman announcement.

A torrent of interest

Stauber and Rampton had gone together to see Shattered Glass -- the movie about the New Republic reporter who didn't simply pass on the PR spin but made up stories out of whole cloth -- when they got a phone call from CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight program to comment on the announcement.

Stauber appeared and was very glad to do so, he said, because he was able to promptly rebut the claims by Veneman and industry that the 1997 rules were a "firewall," and the denial that mad cow disease could be passed to people by eating muscle meat. (Nerve tissue, which prions tend to infect, permeates muscles.)

That afternoon and evening, a torrent of other media were calling. "It seemed like a dam broke," says Stauber. He and Rampton were extensively quoted in the New York Times the next morning. The Times article included a 1997 Food and Drug Administration estimate mentioned in their book that forecast that if "a single case" of mad cow disease was found in the U.S. and a "total ban" on slaughterhouse feed was immediately begun, still as many as 299,000 infected cattle could be expected in the following 11 years. That would be due to the latency period of up to 10 years before mad cow disease manifests in animals. The latency period for the human form of the illness, the always-fatal variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, is five to 40 years after eating infected meat.

"Listen," CNN anchor Dr. Sanjay Gupta said to Stauber on CNN American Morning, "one of the things that you have said is that this is probably the tip of the iceberg. Don't you think that's a little bit dramatic?"

"No, I don't think it's dramatic at all," replied Stauber. He pointed out that in 1985 in Great Britain, when mad cow disease "first appeared it was in one or two cattle. Five years later, it was in hundreds of thousands." And he cited the FDA estimate. Great Britain "has been to hell and back on this issue" and "overcome it by doing two things -- an absolute and complete ban on feeding slaughterhouse waste to livestock...and testing virtually every animal." But the U.S. meat industry and government "still refuse to accept that."

Solid reporting, at long last, was being done on the subject by some mainstream media -- including after December 30 when Veneman announced additions to the supposedly already-toughened "firewall" of federal rules.

"On the surface, it may look like the USDA is finally waking up. But these new measures are not enough," wrote Arlene Weintraub and Janet Ginsburg in Business Week. Todd Hartman in the Rocky Mountain News reported: "Below the drumbeat of reassurances from government and the cattle industry that mad cow disease poses no threat to public health, a small universe of scientists working on a family of related illnesses are finding disturbing evidence to the contrary."

"Federal agencies have more power to recall defective toys and auto parts than they do tainted beef," Sabin Russell reported in the San Francisco Chronicle.

CBS Evening News broadcast a "Food Chain" segment by Bob McNamara on "what's in the meat that we eat" and the mad cow disease connection, with a stress on how the meat industry had long manipulated government policy.

"Mad Cow Forces Beef Industry to Change Course," was the front-page headline of the New York Times. A team of Times reporters wrote: "In an attempt to rescue the market for American beef, the industry is being forced to accept regulation it has long fought." Nation after nation was banning the import of U.S. meat, signaling an annual loss of many billions of dollars for the meat industry.

Stauber's center offered a free download of Mad Cow U.S.A. at its website: prwatch.org. Between the original Veneman announcement and mid-January 2004, there were 70,000 downloads. (Common Courage Press has just publised a new paperback edition of the book.)

Corporate reassurance

Meanwhile, government and meat industry PR machines and "front groups" were on the move. "Meat-industry trade groups were scurrying during the recent holiday season to coordinate key messages and media lists as they responded to reports of mad cow disease rearing its head in the Western U.S.," stated John N. Frank in PR Week.

The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis criticized the newly hard-hitting coverage. "The coverage of mad cow disease is demonstrating the tendency for reporters and editors to play up the dramatic, the frightening and the controversial aspects of risk stories, and to play down or omit altogether information that puts the risk in perspective," the center's David Ropeik said in an op-ed in the Washington Post. "Why is this front-page news, given that the overwhelming scientific evidence, developed from years of rigorous testing in Britain at the height of the epidemic there, shows that meat is not infectious?"

Ropeik, former reporter and news anchor for WCVB-TV in Boston and a longtime leader of the Society of Environmental Journalists, is the center's director of risk communication, "responsible for," according to its website, "communicating the center's approach of keeping risk in perspective to the press, policy makers and the public."

Ropeik berated media for barely mentioning a study his center did -- with an $800,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, says Stauber -- which "found that if mad cow disease occurred in the American cattle herd, the chance that it would spread to other animals or pose a threat to human health is extraordinarily low." And Ropeik concluded, "Mad cow disease offers a warning to America: We need more balanced journalistic coverage of this, and all risks, in the name of public health."

The Harvard center is "a front group for industry with massive Fortune 500 funding," says Stauber. "They will whitewash corporate issues especially on food safety and pesticides." The center receives funding from such companies and groups as the American Petroleum Institute, American Plastics Council, ARCO, Business Roundtable, Chemical Manufacturers Association, Chlorine Chemistry Council, DuPont, Edison Electric Institute, Exxon-Mobil, General Electric, Monsanto, National Food Processors Association, Texaco, Union Carbide--and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But "it has the wonderful name 'Harvard' in front of it,"says Stauber.

Another "front group" seeking to quell the coverage has been the Center for Consumer Freedom. Set up by the lobbying firm Berman & Co. in Washington in 1995 as the Guest Choice Network with money from the Philip Morris tobacco company, its initial focus was fighting laws restricting smoking in public places. With its name change, it developed a broader mission: campaigning through the media against what it terms "food cops, health care enforcers, anti-meat activists." It now receives substantial funding from the meat and restaurant industries.

The Center has attacked Stauber personally, saying he is involved with the Organic Consumers Assocation in using the Veneman mad cow disease announcement "to drive U.S. shoppers away from the grocery meat counter and toward more expensive organic and so-called 'natural' options" (PR Newswire).

Some media see no threat even now. "What's the Beef?" editorialized Newsday. "There's no reason to let the single case of mad cow disease that has turned up in Washington State change New Yorkers' eating habits. The chances of it bringing affliction down on a consumer here are immeasurably miniscule."

"Candidate Mooing," editorialized the Washington Post, berating Democratic presidential candidates for criticizing the Bush administration "as soft on mad cow disease." (It noted that Sen. John Kerry urged George W. Bush "for once not to listen to the demands of corporate America and act on behalf of the health and economic needs of all Americans.") The Post observed: "There is no particular reason to think that the regulatory systems designed to prevent an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in this country didn't function as intended."

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury, hosts the Enviro Close-Up TV series. This article has been republished with permission from EXTRA!, a publication of the media advocacy group FAIR.

The Ratings Mirage

Reporting on the ratings rivalry between the Fox News Channel (FNC) and CNN is often misleading -- and almost always over-hyped.

"Fox Tops CNN as Choice for Cable News," declared one typical headline in the Chicago Tribune. "Fox News Channel Continues to Crush CNN," reported Knight Ridder in a column comparing the rivalry to a party primary titled, "Fox News Channel is winning the Nielsen caucuses." Last August, the New York Times Magazine declared, looking back at the period of the Iraq invasion, "Fox was -- and still is -- trouncing CNN in the ratings."

After exposure to countless similar stories published since January 2002, when Fox was reported to have surpassed CNN in the Nielsen ratings, one might naturally conclude that Fox has more viewers than CNN.

But it's not true. On any given day, more people typically tune to CNN than to Fox.

So what are the media reports talking about?

With few exceptions, stories about the media business report a single number for ratings (often expressed two different ways -- as "points" or "share"). This number is often presented as if it were the result of a popularity contest or a democratic vote. But it is actually the average number of viewers watching a station or a show in a typical minute, based on Nielsen Media Research's monitoring of thousands of households.

The average is arrived at by counting viewers every minute. Heavy viewers -- those who tune in to a station and linger there -- have a greater impact, as they can be counted multiple times as they watch throughout the day.

When an outlet reports that CNN is trailing Fox, they are almost invariably using this average tally, which Fox has been winning for the past two years. For the year 2003, Nielsen's average daily ratings show Fox beating CNN 1.02 million viewers to 665,000.

But there is another important number collected by Nielsen (though only made available to the firm's clients) that tells another story. This is the "cume" or the cumulative total number of viewers who watch a channel for at least six minutes during a given day. Unlike the average ratings number the media usually report, this number gives the same weight to the light viewer, who tunes in for a brief time, as it does to the heavy viewer.

How can CNN have more total viewers when Fox has such a commanding lead in average viewers? Conventional industry wisdom is that CNN viewers tune in briefly to catch up on news and headlines, while Fox viewers watch longer for the opinion and personality-driven programming. Because the smaller total number of Fox viewers are watching more hours, they show up in the ratings as a higher average number of viewers.

CNN regularly claims a cume of about 20 percent higher than that of Fox. For instance, in April 2003, during the height of the fighting in Iraq, CNN's cume was significantly higher than Fox's: 105 million viewers tuned into CNN compared to 86 million for Fox. But in the same period, the ratings reported by most media outlets had Fox in the lead, with an average of 3.5 million viewers to CNN's 2.2 million.

Even among Fox's core audience of conservatives, CNN has an edge in total viewership. A study by the ad agency Carat USA found that 37 percent of viewers who call themselves "very conservative" watch CNN in the course of a week, while only 32 percent tune to Fox.

Show Me the Money

Journalists who publish Nielsen numbers ought to explain that the data are not simply measures of popularity, and they are not produced as a service to journalists or the public. The figures are gathered to provide advertisers with complex data about viewer habits. It pays to remember that neither cable news stations nor Nielsen Media Research are primarily in the business of serving the public interest -- both are in the business of delivering audiences to advertisers.

Advertisers would rather see larger numbers of viewers see each ad a few times than have a smaller number watch the ad over and over again. But having a large number of viewers tune in for so short a period of time that they see very few ads is not desirable either. As Sherrill Maine, CNN's senior vice president of marketing, was quoted in the Cablefax, "We'd like Fox's [average] ratings; Fox would like our cume."

But in the race between these two for-profit ventures, the bottom line is the bottom line: From their profitmaking perspective, the channel that gets more ad revenue is winning the real ratings war. Earnings for the two channels are a contentious subject since neither network reports its revenues separate from its corporate parent, and each claims to earn more income than its rival. But many industry analysts say CNN still makes more money. Stock analyst Michael Gallant told the Chicago Tribune that while Fox is growing faster, CNN is still earning about $200 million more per year than Fox.

Furthermore, CNN apparently continues to command higher ad rates, or CPM. CPM stands for "cost per thousand" (M being the Roman numeral), the price a television outlet charges advertisers per thousand television households reached by a commercial. Though Fox claimed to have reached CPM parity with CNN last summer, CNN chair Jim Walton insisted that CNN's rate was still 40 percent higher.

In interviews with Extra!, ad buyers for three different firms (all of whom declined to be named) confirmed that CNN continues to command a higher CPM, though their estimates of the gap in prices was less than half that quoted by Walton.

One of the reasons for CNN's lead in CPM, according to the buyers, is the advertiser preference for lighter viewers. Such viewers tend to come from the most desirable demographics -- younger, busier, more free-spending. And because they're harder to reach with ads, the law of supply and demand drives their cost up.

One media buyer we interviewed analyzed the contrast between Fox and CNN in terms of programming and viewing habits, telling Extra!: "CNN is like news radio where people drop in for the news; Fox is like talk radio, where they stay longer for the opinion shows."

Interviewed in Media Week last year, media business analyst Larry Blasius suggested that snob appeal was part of the reason that he didn't think Fox would soon catch CNN in the race for ad dollars: "There are two kinds of news advertisers. If you're talking cold remedies, you're buying eyeballs. Others are looking for an environment, an image. They're looking to reach decision-makers and influencers who watch news. If you're an image-oriented product -- a BMW, Mercedes, Lexus -- it's not even a question, you go with CNN. There's no comparison in the quality of the journalism -- CNN is light years ahead in objectivity and reporting -- and I don't think Fox's 'New York Post on TV' approach appeals to the most desirable consumers."

Fox vs. Everyone Else

Fox News Channel, then, is so far neither the choice of most people who watch cable news, nor the more successful business model. But the perception that Fox is "trouncing" CNN -- based largely on the fact that the number Nielsen releases to the public emphasizes heavy viewers -- is of great use to Fox, which trumpets these ratings as a vindication of its partisan, "fair and balanced" approach to the news. Reacting to a guest's charge that Fox had a rightwing bias, Brian Kilmeade, co-host of the successful "Fox and Friends" morning show, boasted: "Then what does that say about the country when they made us No. 1?"

But even in the limited sense of average hourly watchers, Fox is only No. 1 among 24-hour cable news channels. Fox, like CNN, now reaches about 4 of every 5 television households, so comparisons with broadcast news shows are increasingly valid. And among all television news sources, Fox's performance is nothing to brag about.

The O'Reilly Factor is the best-rated show on Fox, with about 2 million viewers a night. CBS Evening News, the least-watched broadcast network evening news show, routinely gets four or five times as big an audience, and that's seen as a ratings disaster. Fox's flagship news show, Special Report with Brit Hume, gets a million viewers on a good night -- a few thousand more than the local newscast of New York City's WNBC.

Fox likes to position itself as the alternative to all the other news that's on TV. As Fox News president Roger Ailes claimed in the New York Times, "If we look conservative, it's because the other guys are so far to the left." If it's true that news can be divided into two categories: Fox and everything else, then when "Special Report" airs at night, everything else beats Fox by at least 30 to one.

Steve Rendall is FAIR's senior analyst. He is co-host of CounterSpin, FAIR's national radio show. This article has been republished with permission from EXTRA!, a publication of the media advocacy group FAIR.

Making the Invisible Visible

"We’d like to thank the mainstream media for showing up," quipped Cheri Honkala, adjusting her baby son on her jeans-clad lap. The executive director of the Philadelphia-based Kensington Welfare Rights Union, a multiracial organization of, by and for poor and homeless people, Honkala was opening a Saturday press conference last October in a claustrophobic classroom at Temple University. The occasion: "Break the Media Blackout: A Conference on Media Democracy and the Struggle to End Poverty," of which KWRU was a co-sponsor. The absence of mainstream reporters only reinforced one reason the meeting was taking place: to address and remedy what organizers saw as a lack of meaningful coverage of poverty.

Honkala, 39, a former teenage single parent who has been homeless and on welfare, is no stranger to dealing with the press. Since helping start KWRU in 1991, she’s become a local celebrity and gadfly, treated as a figurehead by the city’s press. (The Philadelphia Inquirer has called her "the queen of civil disobedience"--8/9/00.) It’s a typical problem, she told Extra!: "The press don’t talk about life-and-death issues the poor deal with every day. They don’t talk about the poor as a group, they’d rather do individual profiles to sell papers."

But while Honkala and other grassroots antipoverty activists, along with members of the independent media from coast to coast, convened in part to share techniques for working more effectively with established news outlets, that goal took a backseat to a more proactive focus: developing and expanding their own media "infrastructure" to convey the untold stories of the more than 33 million people living in poverty in the United States.

With technical training and advice from more experienced independent media makers, poor people’s groups composed of struggling citizens, immigrants and their allies are becoming reporters, video producers, radio hosts and Web spinners, using old and new media in innovative yet inexpensive ways.

Why media, why now?

The conference coincided with huge changes on the horizon for both the news media and government social services. On one hand, there’s the proposed slackening of Federal Communications Commission rules on concentration of media ownership. On the other, the question of whether Congress will reauthorize funding for Temporary Aid to Needy Families, and the still unfolding effects of dropping unknown numbers from welfare rolls due to time limits.

"It’s not an option to be media savvy if you want to make social change," maintains Jay Sand, a volunteer with the Independent Media Center of Philadelphia, another conference co-sponsor. Ubiquitous as it is, mass media content "defines reality," declared Honkala. "The rich communicate across borders. We need to as well."

Participants concurred that the first hurdle to gaining a bigger voice in the public discussion is visibility. But, they say, the media monopoly and demographics-driven news values have "disappeared" the needy from the news.

Joy Butts, a mother of three who still receives some forms of public assistance, said she daily scans the papers of record, local publications, and cable news for economics and poverty-related stories. In any given week, she says, she can count them on her hands. "The board of ABC, CBS and NBC sit on other corporate boards," she adds. "They don’t want this story out because people would demand change."

The KWRU, which now claims several hundred members, has direct experience with being rebuffed. In 1996, some members met with the Inquirer’s editorial board to discuss dismissive coverage of their attempts to bring attention to the plight of the city’s poor -- which have included HUD housing takeovers and setting up a tent city at the Liberty Bell. According to Chris Caruso, a computer media skills trainer, the group was told, "We refuse to allow KWRU to manipulate the press."

Honkala maintains the incident represents a typical Catch-22: "The only way we get any coverage whatsoever is by doing actions, yet they call us media hogs!" Sometimes even demonstrations aren’t enough: A February, 2002 sit-in by KWRU and a variety of antipoverty activists at the Olympics, she recalls, "got more international coverage than local press."

When they are covered, antipoverty activists are frequently portrayed as troublemakers. In 2000, when marchers were refused a permit to march down the city’s main drag to bring attention to poverty issues during the Republican National Convention, reporters focused more on whether there would be Seattle-style trouble than on why they were marching. When the demonstration went off without incident, Honkala said, it was framed as "'both sides cooperated.’ But the real story is that our First Amendment rights were denied." Moreover, she said, the Inquirer’s pre-convention coverage sought to generate fear of economic human rights demonstrators by running her photo (12/2/99) with an article about the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. The headline: "Are We Next?"

Missing pieces

Besides limited or slanted coverage, conference attendees said they see a disconnect between their actual experiences and what is portrayed in the news.

Butts, who lost her educational funding due to welfare revision, says the "vicious cycle" of obstacles to getting on one’s feet has not been addressed. Commenting on recent articles in the New York Times on welfare and homelessness (10/6/02, 10/13/02, 10/14/02), Butts said they were "OK, but didn’t go far enough…. They need to take the case of a woman with small children and do a budget on a day-to-day basis." She added, "No one talks about women in poverty in rural areas, who are very isolated."

Glenda Adams, whose grandson died after being unable to receive medical treatment because he was on welfare, says the indigent’s struggle with health care costs also get short shrift. "The mainstream media don’t care," Adams, a member of the Atlantic City, N.J.-based Poor Voices United, told Extra!, "If a tragedy happens, they will bring [cameras], but as soon as that day is over, they’re gone."

Conference participants concurred that reporters often ask the wrong questions, based on clichés and assumptions about welfare recipients and other groups of poor people similar to those documented by FAIR (Extra!, 5-6/95; 5-6/97; 11-12/97). For example, a participant at one workshop described questions she is commonly asked when arguing for the need for a better government safety net: "You talk about your rights, but what about your responsibilities?" and "Come on, aren’t you grateful to live in a country with a standard of living so much higher than in the rest of the world?"

Honkala is convinced that "there are lots of good writers who want to do content, but they can’t," because higher-ups won’t allow it. She cited a demonstration by KWRU last fall at the local housing department, at which children spoke about what it’s like not to have safe, permanent homes. "One reporter told us he would lose his job if he went forward with the story."

The biggest critique echoed by antipoverty and media democracy activists alike was the media monopoly itself. Media giants are "like chain stores," commented Liza Dichter of Media Channel, a website focused on global media issues. "They try to take over all communication so people can’t talk to each other or speak with a collective voice." Many participants noted that Philadelphia is headquarters of ComCast Corporation, the country’s third largest provider of cable services (currently merging with AT&T, the first largest), yet also the only major U.S. city without public-access television. And participants feared that, as such companies rush to control cable, broadband and Internet portals, their voices will be completely pushed out.

Grow your own

Antipoverty activists, determined to "make the invisible visible," have turned to homegrown magazines, video, Internet sites and more. In this way, they intend to "break the isolation" and communicate directly with one another and the general public. Explained Terry Maguire, chair of KWRU’s Media Committee, "We need to take our small scattered voices and collect them into one powerful voice that people have to listen to," uniting the poor into a mass that will "force the issue" into public policy debates.

Among the most promising channels for such a project are relatively high-tech media like computers or television. "Experience is not necessary if you have vision and commitment," said Butts, who began producing and hosting Marching On, a half-hour local interview show focusing on economic human rights issues, in 1999. "Walked through" the basics by the station manager of DUTV, the Drexel University cable station that carries it, she runs the show on a budget of zero. College interns and volunteers serve as camera people and stagehands, using the university’s studio and equipment. Recent segments have ranged from healthcare for the elderly to finding employment after prison.

With technical assistance from award-winning filmmaker Peter Kinoy, about 20 KWRU-affiliated volunteers shot and edited "Copy This Tape," an 18-minute video on how mass media affect public perceptions, for about $100. The short was cobbled together from talking-head interviews and found images, from TV screen captures to book and magazine illustrations.

Kinoy works with the web-based Media College of the University of the Poor, which provides a free virtual meeting place and live training in sophisticated media techniques to antipoverty activists. He and partner Pamela Yates have made numerous documentaries through his Manhattan-based Skylight Films, which these groups in turn use as educational tools. He believes films like his--which include 1991’s Takeover, about homeless people moving into abandoned HUD housing--have helped these issues "break into the national news…. It was the first time I heard the term 'economic human rights' used by the media."

Then there’s good old print, like Survival News, a biannual Boston-area newspaper written and read by poor women. Put out by Survivors Inc., which focuses on welfare rights and economic justice, it costs about $4,000 per issue to publish, raised from grants and subscriptions. Written in both English and Spanish, issues are handed out at welfare offices. The most recent issue (Autumn/02), themed "We Are a Movement," includes "Survival Tips" for dealing with bureaucracy; "Dispatches from the Front Lines," a journal documenting people’s struggles to obtain social services; and a discussion of "What We Want from a Welfare Bill," such as childcare and access to education.

Survival News was spearheaded by Sharron Tetrault, a single mother who said she once believed it was easy to get off welfare--until she herself was forced to turn to public assistance. The paper, she told conference attendees, requires "meetings, meetings, meetings" and "never gets out on time," but is worth the effort because of reader response. Tetrault said that when women see these stories, they realize, "'Oh my god, it’s not just me!'"

Internet as information backbone

The Internet is the format that seems to most excite these media activists. For those needing to reach a global audience on a shoestring, it’s the most accessible and efficient means of disseminating their own news and commentary. It’s also a way of correcting or augmenting the reporting of major media outlets. As Chris Caruso put it, "the Internet is an information backbone for other media."

Poverty activist-journalists at the Blackout conference told of reading web pages and other digital data at the library, then printing out useful information and stapling it into booklets. Or using donated (or discarded) computers to start a multimedia and link-filled website, purchasing Internet service from discount servers. Or "culture jamming" -- creating parody sites by copying open-source HTML code from sites like that of radio giant Clear Channel.

One popular use of websites is to chronicle ongoing activities, providing frequently updated, even daily, dispatches. That’s proving effective for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an organization of mostly Latino and Haitian farmworkers in southwest Florida who are battling exploitative labor conditions. Working with Human Rights Tech, which trains activists in computer technology, they decided to use the Web to chronicle a "Taco Bell Truth Tour" they staged in March 2002. The goal: establish a boycott of Mexican restaurant chain Taco Bell, whose major tomato supplier is the company whose crops they pick.

CIW decided to target the fast food giant’s favorite demographic, 18-to-24-year-olds--who also happen to be the most common users of the Internet. Trainers followed Truth Tour buses with a van that became a rolling Internet and media newsroom for the farm workers, who learned web design and digital video editing software as they went along.

A new site called economichumanrights.org plans to highlight "tribunals," featuring personal accounts of economic human rights violations from activists and other citizens. "Jurists"--movement leaders, legal experts and, they hope, celebrities such as Michael Moore--will have an opportunity to weigh in on the charges and consequences. This may sound one-sided, admitted Willie Bishop, KWRU’s education director, but "it’s meant to be more of a mock trial or moot court to encourage discussion and debate."

Reframing the issues

As the invention of economichumanrights.org suggests, one of the fundamental goals in creating these new outlets is reframing poverty as a human rights violation. As conference attendees emphasized, food, clothing, shelter, education and healthcare are guaranteed by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the U.S. is a party. So is a right to communication--the "freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." As Honkala explained, it’s important to "use those terms. A homeless child is a human rights violation!"

Such concepts are not so accessible to the public in a country that often portrays poor people as undeserving. So these activists have made it their mission to collect a critical mass of real-life stories of the effects of budget cuts and lack of services by interviewing neighbors and, say, people in shelters.

Such stories are designed to "get past people’s defenses, people’s sleepwalking" by presenting images that are as "moving, striking and outrageous" as anything broadcast on the six o’clock news, said Greg Asbed of the CIW.

Said the KWRU Media Committee's Maguire, "You can’t end poverty without winning the hearts and minds of people. It’s a battle of ideas, a battle of images and ultimately a battle of stories." Added Galen Tyler, a formerly homeless father of four, "The secret is, people don’t respond to statistics, they respond to human beings who could be them." A family that’s just been evicted from a rat-infested building. Workers stooping to pick produce in blazing heat. An exhausted but determined phalanx of marchers.

Besides using a human rights frame and vivid testimonials, another benefit activists see in homegrown media is the context omitted from the mainstream, the connections between issues typically viewed as distinct social problems: globalization, disability, and healthcare, for example. As Jay Sand of IMC told Extra!, anti-poverty efforts and the globalization movement are "inextricable." Both question the fairness of "billions in poverty simultaneous with great wealth." As Tyler put it, "Every question is summed up in the poor…. The power of these stories is in [making] the connections."

Eyeing the future

These people believe there is a demand for these stories, however harsh, especially in a tanking economy. Said Chris Caruso, "People…don’t believe Dan Rather at six o’clock anymore. They’re looking for something else."

And if they wish, mainstream news outlets can use poor people's media as reference material for their own work--if only when they stumble upon an economic human rights website while doing a keyword search for a business and technology story.

Kinoy, though a self-described "high-end filmmaker," maintains that even those who work for powerful media companies feel stymied by corporate control. He believes the economic human rights movement, through gathering support by reporting its own news, will ultimately help ignite a "cultural explosion," in much the same way the civil rights movement did some 40 years ago.

Small wonder KRWU and others have made staying "wired" a top priority. As Honkala told Extra!, "If we have to use a tent hooked up to a pole in North Philly, we will!…The last thing you really have is your voice."

Miranda Spencer is a frequent contributor to Extra! who lives in Philadelphia.

Hype in Health Reporting

You've heard of junk science -- a term coined by corporations to describe research they don't like -- but the real danger to public health might be called "checkbook science": research intended not to expand knowledge or to benefit humanity, but instead to sell products.

Every day it seems there's a story touting a "promising" new medical product or treatment. Unfortunately, many of those news stories are based on public relations spin machines going into overdrive on behalf of the company that sells the product -- whether it's a pharmaceutical company, a chain of diet clinics or a plastic surgery practice selling a new technique.

Do reporters know that so much medical news is actually unpaid advertising? The most effective industry influence is so well-hidden that many reporters and producers are totally unaware of it. The role of pharmaceutical companies and other health care industry interests in shaping news coverage of medical products and treatment is as invisible as it is pervasive.

The phone calls, press releases and press conferences that bring attention to new studies are the most obvious ways that companies shape medical news; but there are subtler strategies that are much more effective. For example, Excerpta Medica is a PR firm hired by pharmaceutical and other medical companies to launch new products. On their website and in other public documents, they have claimed responsibility for developing several new medical journals and other strategies to "establish a scientific base" for expanded use of their clients' offerings.

What about medical stories based on articles in prestigious medical journals? In some cases, these articles are also bought and paid for. When the stakes are high, companies hire public relations firms that hire medical writers to ghostwrite academic-style articles for medical school professors to submit to well-respected medical journals. The companies also establish speakers' bureaus -- lists of selected professors who are paid thousands of dollars in honoraria and travel expenses to speak at newsworthy national and international conferences.

It's a win-win for the "experts" and the companies. The professors benefit because their employment status is based on being published in journals and invited to conferences. The companies benefit by having the name of a faculty member from a major university attached to an article or presentation endorsing their product. It's a real winner when the news headline refers to the industry's new study by its author's affiliation -- e.g., "the Harvard study" -- thus ensuring that the results will be taken seriously.

Few reporters ever know that the prestigious expert speaking on behalf of a new product is, one way or another, a paid spokesperson for the product. The author can honestly say that he or she is not paid by the company -- because the money comes from the PR firm (which is paid by the company or its corporate foundation).

Diet Pills: Safe or Not?

One of the most notorious examples of PR-driven medical reporting is the story of fen-phen, the combination of diet pills that was removed from the market in 1997 when Redux (or fenfluramine) was determined to be dangerous. Fen-phen was hailed by the media as a great breakthrough when it gained popularity in the mid-1990s. There was a newsworthy stampede as patients sought the prescriptions from their doctors, at weight loss clinics and over the Internet. By 1996, 7 million women and men were taking fen-phen.

When research was first published linking fen-phen to potentially fatal heart valve damage, the media took notice. Lawsuits and a settlement totaling $13 billion resulted in front-page coverage. But then a funny thing happened: New research articles were published in medical journals, indicating that fen-phen wasn't really dangerous after all.

Again, the popular media took up the news with great enthusiasm. "Study: No Heart Damage from Diet Drug," proclaimed a front-page headline in USA Today (4/1/98). The study in question, paid for by Wyeth-Ayerst (the manufacturer of Redux) and authored by Dr. Neil Weissman, found only a small, statistically insignificant increase in heart-valve damage for women who took the diet drug compared to women who didn't.

Let's give credit to the reporter: He mentioned that the company paid for the study, and that the women in the study took the diet pill for only three months. He mentioned that the study was presented at a medical meeting, although he didn't explain that such presentations are not held to the same standards as peer-reviewed medical journals. Unfortunately, those fine points were somewhat lost, because the headline and lead focused on the "news" that the drug was safe. The L.A. Times (4/6/98) and Boston Herald (4/1/98) versions of the story were even more reassuring and less questioning about the data.

When Weissman and Wyeth tried to publish the study in the New England Journal of Medicine, the editor required that they modify their data analysis. As a result, the findings were no longer so reassuring. The published article (9/10/98) was not promoted by the company, for obvious reasons, and received little press attention.

A year later (10/1/99), the New York Times' Gina Kolata wrote about another new study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (Vol. 34/No. 4), showing that fen-phen wasn't so bad after all. The Times did not disclose that one of the authors, Dr. George Blackburn, was paid by Wyeth-Ayerst to speak on behalf of fen-phen at medical meetings across the country. As a member of the company's speakers' bureau, Blackburn was paid honoraria and travel expenses when he spoke about the company's drugs.

Perhaps the New York Times reporter was also influenced by the editorial in the same issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, which concluded that the story of fen-phen was just a big scare. In the fine print, the editorial stated that it was written by a consultant to American Home Products -- Wyeth's parent company.

Only later did anyone learn just how active Wyeth was in making sure that medical journal articles supported their legal defense of fen-phen. Legal depositions revealed that Excerpta Medica, the aforementioned PR company, was paid by Wyeth to supply writers who would ghostwrite or edit medical journal articles to the company's specifications. Well-known experts were sometimes paid to lend their names as authors. Upon hearing this news, Dr. Robert Tenery, chair of the American Medical Association's Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs, told the Dallas Morning News (5/23/99), "What they're doing here is clearly an advertisement."

Last year, when journalist Alicia Mundy revealed these unethical arrangements in a book about fen-phen, Dispensing with the Truth, she found it difficult to get the media to cover the story. "As a journalist, I had a great network of friends and colleagues that could have helped me to bring attention to these scandals," Mundy told Extra!, "but most of the media did not cover the story of how drug companies shape media coverage of their products."

Breast Implants: Ignoring new Science

Reporting on breast implants provides another example of media manipulation, with coverage that used to focus on science and health increasingly treating implants as a popular if questionable fad. The most important recent studies -- three last year and two this year -- received little attention, although they showed potentially fatal risks from implants or startlingly high complication rates. With the major public relations efforts on the "implants are perfectly safe" side of the story -- paid for by implant manufacturers as well as the organizations representing plastic surgeons -- the largest, best-designed studies barely attracted one day of coverage.

When two studies that linked implants to cancer were published in medical journals last year, the newspaper headlines reflected the varied coverage: USA Today's "Studies Suggest Link Between Breast Implants and Cancer" (4/25/01) was similar to the New York Times' "Study Links Breast Implants to Lung and Brain cancers" (4/26/01), while Associated Press (4/26/01) decided to emphasize the positive: "Breast Implants Cancer-Safe; No Risk for Most Cancers from Breast Implants, Study Says." The AP headline seems like satire -- how many kinds of cancer does an implant need to be linked to in order to be considered unsafe? -- but, to be fair, it was apparently taken directly from the National Cancer Institute's press release, which led with the good news, only later mentioning that implants were linked to several cancers.

A third major study, showing that implants often broke and leakage was linked to deadly diseases, received brief mention in the Washington Post (6/1/01) and was ignored by most other media.

These implant studies were newsworthy because they were the only government studies that had been conducted, and were based on an unusually large sample of patients with a longer history of implants than in previous studies. Two of the studies were conducted by the National Cancer Institute, the other by scientists at the Food and Drug Administration along with an impressive list of medical school researchers. Since the results were not favorable to implants, there was no multi-million dollar public relations machine encouraging press coverage. Consumer groups contacted the media to tell them about the studies, but the placement of the articles, on pages B6 (Wall Street Journal, 4/25/01), D7 (USA Today, 4/25/01), A19 (New York Times, 4/26/01), and A28 (Newsday, 4/27/01), ensured that the bad news would not attract much attention; there was virtually no TV coverage.

In contrast, a 1999 report that had concluded that implants probably did not cause diseases was embraced by the implant manufacturers and plastic surgeons -- and was very big news on all the major networks and newspapers. The New York Times broke a press embargo with a front-page story, "Panel Confirms No Major Illness Tied to Implants" (6/21/99), and other media followed: "Study Again Clears Silicone," (Washington Post, 6/22/99, A2); "No Deadly Danger in Silicone Implants," (USA Today, 6/22/99, D1); "Study Clears Gel Implants of Some Ills," (L.A. Times, 6/22/99, A1).

In July 2002, two unpublished studies of saline implants were presented at a public meeting of the FDA's Advisory Committee on plastic surgery medical devices. Neither the FDA nor the two manufacturers involved publicized the meeting, so few reporters were present. The meeting focused on the first five-year studies of saline implants, and the results were important because of very high complication rates for both manufacturers and the exceptionally low response rate for the studies by one of the manufacturers. The manufacturers provided some spin in response to media inquiries, but their major goal was to keep the story quiet. Without an industry-backed PR machine, that's exactly what happened.

Hormone Replacement Therapy: A Shock to the System

The recent controversy about hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has all the makings of another fen-phen saga -- even with one of the same manufacturers -- but we don't know the entire story yet. For years, HRT has been prescribed and described as if it were a fountain of youth that prevents much of the physical and mental deterioration associated with aging. As recently as June 1999, for example, a New York Times article (6/1/99) headlined "New Therapy Builds Bone Without Unpleasant Side Effects" touted the benefits, and a week later a Times article headlined "Study Plays Down Estrogen Link to Breast Cancer" (6/9/99) minimized the one risk that was well-established. Two years later, an AP story (5/16/01) went even further, with the promising headline, "Hormones May Lower Risk of Breast Cancer's Return."

So imagine the shock to the more than 6 million women taking HRT when just over a year later the National Institutes of Health decided it was unethical to continue administering hormones in an enormous study because the risks of the treatment were too great. The researchers concluded that HRT not only increased the risk of breast cancer, heart disease and blood clots, but it also was not as beneficial in preventing osteoporosis or other diseases as previously claimed.

The New York Times (7/10/02) captured the mood with its headline: "Hormone Replacement Study a Shock to the Medical System." Most media covered the story as if this was enormous news that came out of nowhere. The truth is quite different. For several years, article after article published in major medical journals had described the growing evidence that hormone replacement therapy increased the risk of breast cancer and did not help and possibly hurt women with heart disease. Other studies questioned the assumed benefits. Although some of these studies were covered in major newspapers, without a PR machine behind them they received limited media attention. (See Extra!, 3-4/97; CounterSpin, 7/19/02.)

Meanwhile, Wyeth and other manufacturers promoted their products directly and indirectly, with a celebrity spokeswoman and many health experts. As recently as May 2002, a nonprofit women's health organization held a black tie, standing-room only dinner for almost 1,000 Washington, D.C. luminaries, completely underwritten by Wyeth. The theme was midlife women, and as part of the entertainment program, the audience was reminded that midlife women have better lives than ever before, thanks to hormone replacement therapy and other wonderful advances in medicine.

The media coverage also included a gem about the "father" of hormone replacement therapy, Dr. Robert Wilson. In the early 1960s, Wilson promoted hormones as a miracle cure for the "living decay" that besets the often "dull and unattractive" menopausal woman. His book, Forever Feminine, was enormously influential, and hormone replacement therapy has grown in popularity ever since. Wilson seemed to be speaking from the heart, but in interviews during the July 2002 media onslaught (New York Times, 7/10/02) the late doctor's son told a reporter that the book and his father's work were paid for by Wyeth.

Cutting Through the Hype

As I write this conclusion, I receive a call from the Detroit Free Press. The editors are interested in publishing an op-ed I wrote, but first they want to know where the center I work for gets its funds. This is the question that every reporter should be asking, every time they quote me or publish my writing on any medical issue. Almost none of them do. The caller is noticeably uncomfortable as she asks me about possible conflicts of interest, as if she's asking some terribly personal questions. If more reporters and editors and producers don't always ask these questions, and dig deeper when they do so, we'll never cut through the hype that is overwhelming medical news coverage.

Diana Zuckerman is president of the National Center for Policy Research for Women & Families, a D.C.-based think tank. This article was originally published in EXTRA!, a bimonthly magazine published by FAIR.

No Community Voices Wanted

The campaign for the "professionalization" of radio is surreptitiously removing community voices from the dial. National Public Radio affiliates nationwide have been devouring locally produced community and university stations as educational institutions seek to end financial support for their stations.

The use of the takeover form known as a "local management agreement" is growing nationwide. Minnesota Public Radio, for example, has used these to take control of two college radio stations in California. Carol Pierson, president and CEO of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, believes that the takeover of these small community stations "is sometimes a good thing because [NPR affiliates] will bring in a lot of money and be able to upgrade the operations." In practice, however, upgrading operations and bringing in money often means elimination of community programming, because these shows rarely raise as much money from individuals, and especially from corporations, as standardized NPR-style programming.

WYMS radio in Milwaukee is licensed to the Milwaukee Public School System. For decades it has been broadcasting locally produced jazz, news and ethnic community programming. Recently, WYMS was almost given to a local university's NPR affiliate, WUWM, in a secret deal between Milwaukee public schools superintendent Spence Korte and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. According to published reports (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, DATE), under the deal, the school system would pay the university $375,000 the first year to operate WYMS, with declining payments over the next five years.

When the terms became public, the deal was killed and Korte was publicly chastised by the board of education; he later resigned. However, instead of returning the station to the community produced jazz and ethnic programming, the school board decided to air Jazz Works, 24 hours a day of satellite jazz. The school board convened a committee to study what should be done with the radio station; a report is due in October.

Milwaukee Public Schools "has a $30 million deficit and we want to make sure our kids can read, write and do arithmetic," said schools spokesperson Don Hoffman. But a source involved in WYMS operations (who asked not to be named) noted, "We had just completed our spring fundraiser during which we were able to raise over $100,000 dollars ... This had nothing to do with economics; it was purely political -- they did not like the individuals running the station."

"There are already two other stations that air NPR programming in Milwaukee; why is there a need for a third?" asked Jim Denomie, a WYMS producer and member of the Bad River Chippewa band. Denomie's program, the only show that deals with Native American news and issues in Milwaukee, had been serving the community for five years. The station's ethnic programming serves very distinct sectors in the Milwaukee market: German, Ukrainian, Polish, Italian, Jewish, Irish, Latino and Native American. Nowhere else on the dial are these communities' voices heard, particularly in their native languages.

Voice of Diversity

Chicago's Loyola University currently owns and operates WLUW, "Loyola’s Voice of Diversity," as the station is known. In the 1990s, Loyola's communications department decided to stop broadcasting non-stop dance music and instead directed the station to engage the very heterogeneous community that surrounded the university and become a social justice advocate.

WLUW currently broadcasts to Vietnamese, Guatemalan, Polish, Haitian, Bulgarian and Native American communities in native languages. The station also carries Radio Nation, FAIR's CounterSpin, Making Contact, Labor Beat and Free Speech Radio News -- programming heard nowhere else in Chicago.

In December of 2001 Loyola's president, Father Michael Garanzini, announced that the administration had decided to "de-fund" the station. The administration, he said, had come to this decision because the university is running a $20 million deficit, but TV and film professor Jeff Harder sees another agenda: "The conservative administration has never appreciated the pro-social justice curriculum put forth by our department, and by removing the radio station the administration removes our department’s connection with these communities."

On June 27, 2002, the administration notified the staff at WLUW that the radio station was in preliminary discussions with WBEZ, Chicago's NPR affiliate, to complete a local management agreement and take over operations. The administration also notified the staff that after the end of August their services would no longer be required and that a new format would be put into place.

"We lose the only outlets these communities have to local media," says Craig Kois, station manager at WLUW. "Because of concentrated ownership in the media in Chicago, our function at WLUW becomes even more important."

Tracy Jake Siska is a freelance journalist from Chicago. This article was published in EXTRA!, a magazine published by the media advocacy group FAIR.

White Noise

"[Public broadcasting] should provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard...[and] help us see America whole in all its diversity."
-- 1967 Carnegie Commission Report, which served as the basis for the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967


How Diversity Is Stifled

Created by the Public Broadcasting Act and signed into law by President Johnson in 1967, the government-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) is legally required to "constitute an expression of diversity and excellence" through programming "that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities." It was also mandated to promote "locally relevant" programming that is "reflective of America's common values and cultural diversity."

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Power Sources

On an average weeknight, ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News are tuned in by approximately one-quarter of television-viewing homes in the U.S. (Nielsen Media Research, 2001) -- about two-thirds of the U.S. public that claims to follow current events regularly (Pew Research Center, 2000).

In 22 minutes the newscasts deliver snapshots of national and international news that not only frame current events for the public, but influence story selection at local affiliate stations, at radio outlets and in print media. In addition to putting topics on the nation’s agenda, the networks help set the range of debate on those issues by selecting sources who ostensibly represent the interests and opinions of the population.

In this role as agenda setters and debate arbiters, the networks’ broadcasts profoundly affect the democratic process. While conservatives from Spiro Agnew to Bernard Goldberg have accused the news media of using this influence to promote liberal ideals, a comprehensive analysis of the sources used on the big three networks’ evening news shows in 2001 suggests otherwise.

Instead of a liberal bias, the study found, source selection favored the elite interests that the corporate owners of these shows depend on for advertising revenue, regulatory support and access to information. Network news demonstrated a clear tendency to showcase the opinions of the most powerful political and economic actors, while giving limited access to those voices that would be most likely to challenge them.

On the partisan level, the news programs provided a generous platform for sources from the Republican Party-- the party in power in the White House for almost the entire year-- while giving much less access to the opposition Democrats, and virtually no time to third party or independent politicians. Based on the criterion of who got to speak, the broadcast networks functioned much more as venues for the claims and opinions of the powerful than as democratic forums for public discussion or education.

Partisan imbalance

This study was based on data compiled by Media Tenor Ltd., a non-partisan, German-based media analysis firm with an office in New York City. During 2001, for each report on ABC World News Tonight, NBC Nightly News and CBS Evening News, Media Tenor researchers coded the topic, time period, location, protagonists and detailed source information (including partisan affiliation, gender, and race or nationality, when determinable). If special programming pre-empted the news shows’ broadcast in New York City, transcripts were analyzed when available. For this study, data was analyzed for the time period between January 1 and December 31, 2001, which included 14,632 sources in 18,765 individual reports.

In 2001, the voices of Washington’s elite politicians were the dominant sources of opinion on the network evening news, making up one in three Americans (and more than one in four of all sources) who were quoted on all topics throughout the year. Of sources who had an identifiable partisan affiliation, 75 percent were Republican and only 24 percent Democrats. A mere 1 percent were third-party representatives or independents.

The three networks varied only slightly in their selection of partisan sources. CBS had the most Republicans and the fewest Democrats (76 percent vs. 23 percent); NBC (75 percent vs. 25 percent) and ABC (73 percent vs. 27 percent) were marginally less imbalanced. CBS had the most independents (1.2 percent), followed by ABC (0.7 percent) and NBC (an almost invisible 0.2 percent).

Small as they are, these latter figures may overstate the presence of independent politicians on the nightly news. Sen. James Jeffords, the centrist Vermont Republican who broke with his party in May (giving Democrats control of the Senate), made up 83 percent of the independent sources who were quoted throughout the year, suggesting that networks highlighted independent politicians mainly when they impacted the fates of the two major parties. The only avowedly anti-establishment independent who appeared in 2001, Ralph Nader, made up 3 percent of independent or third-party sources-- 0.03 percent of all politicians quoted.

Although the attacks of September 11 exacerbated the tilt toward Republicans, the difference was pronounced beforehand as well. Prior to the attacks Republicans made up 68 percent, Democrats 31 percent and independents 1 percent of partisan sources. Afterward, Republican sources surged to 87 percent, with Democrats (13 percent) and independents (0.1 percent) falling even further behind.

Dispelling "Democratic bias"

While these figures ought to dispel the persistent notion that network news has a liberal or pro-Democratic bias, they do not in themselves necessarily prove a conservative or Republican bias. Rather, they may reflect the networks’ definition of news that prioritizes the actions and opinions of the executive branch. Members of the Bush administration (and Clinton administration, for the pre-inauguration period in January), including the president, vice president, cabinet members and official spokespeople, made up 17 percent of all U.S. sources and 62 percent of all partisan sources. When these are set aside, the remaining partisan sources showed a rough parity between the two major parties, with 51 percent Republicans, 48 percent Democrats and 2 percent third-party members or independents appearing as sources.

This breakdown suggests that in 2001 there was a strong advantage on the nightly news for the party that held the White House; after the administration had its say, there was roughly one source from its own party to defend it for every representative from the opposition party that might criticize it. Unfortunately, complete data do not exist from 2000 or earlier to determine whether the same ratio held true during a Democratic administration.

The leading topics on which partisan sources were quoted, however, suggest that the disparities in sourcing could indicate a more substantial bias than mere reverence for the presidency. Partisan sources from both parties were most likely to appear in stories on domestic politicking, such as speeches or debates in Congress. After that area of coverage, however, their next most common appearances were qualitatively very different: Republicans appeared in reports on the widely supported war in Afghanistan, while 12 percent of the reports in which Democrats were quoted focused on corruption and scandals, with Democrats in most cases defending themselves or other party members. Republicans, by contrast, were presented in such reports in only 1 percent of their total appearances. By focusing so much on largely nonpolitical scandals (e.g., Chandra Levy, White House gifts) involving the party out of power, the networks bolstered the Republican image-- not only by showcasing Democratic "character" questions, but by reserving the vast majority of Republican quotes for more dignified policy discussions, thereby disassociating the party from the "dirty politics" of scandal-mongering.

The top individual sources on the news reflect the emphasis given to the administration at the expense of the opposition. George W. Bush alone made up 9 percent of all sources and 33 percent of partisan sources, putting him far ahead of any other individual voice for the year. The next most common sources were Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (2 percent), former President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Palestinian Authority President Yassir Arafat, Vice President Dick Cheney, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani (with 1 percent each). Clinton faded from prominence shortly after the Bush inauguration (80 percent of his appearances occurred in the first four months of the year), leaving Daschle as the only other top 10 source from the domestic opposition party. The remaining top U.S. sources were all members of the Bush administration, with the exception of the Republican mayor of New York (89 percent of whose appearances occurred after September 11).

Women’s restricted role

After U.S. politicians, "unclassified citizens"-- a category that can be used as a proxy for ordinary Americans-- were the most common individual type of source, providing 20 percent of all quotes. While it’s valuable to hear the voices of ordinary citizens on the nightly news, the context in which most of their soundbites appeared makes it unlikely that their viewpoints did much to shape the nation’s political debate: They were more often presented in human interest stories, crime reports and entertainment news than in all "hard" news topics combined, leaving discussion of most policy issues to "expert" political and economic elites.

While women made up only 15 percent of total sources, they represented more than double that share-- 40 percent-- of the ordinary citizens in the news. This reflects a tendency to quote men as the vast majority of authoritative voices while presenting women as non-experts; women made up only 9 percent of the professional and political voices that were presented. More than half of the women (52 percent) who appeared on the news were presented as average citizens, whereas only 14 percent of male sources were.

The balance was roughly equal among networks. NBC, with 18 percent, had slightly more female sources (of whom 53 percent were non-authorities), while ABC and CBS both presented 14 percent (of whom 48 percent and 55 percent, respectively, were ordinary citizens).

Even in coverage of gender-related policies (which made up 0.2 percent of coverage), women made up only 43 percent of the sources. On such issues as equal opportunity, gender equality and discrimination, partisan sources made up 24 percent of the total; 71 percent of these were Republicans and 29 percent Democrats. All of these partisan sources were men. Women were presented as non-expert citizens 77 percent of the time in gender stories. Men, by contrast, spoke as experts in their fields 100 percent of the time in such stories.

Ordinary citizens (all women) made up 33 percent of sources on gender policies, followed by George W. Bush (17 percent), company representatives (10 percent, all men), Alan Greenspan (10 percent), soldiers (7 percent, all men), writers (7 percent, half men, half women), and other groups that each constituted 3 percent or less of the total. In keeping with other areas of coverage, white Americans clearly dominated the quoted sources, making up 89 percent of sources for whom race was determinable.

Two women from the Middle East represented the only non-U.S. women quoted on issues of gender policy. It’s noteworthy that the Taliban’s oppression of women did not become a topic for the evening news in 2001 until First Lady Laura Bush "introduced" the long-recognized problem during the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan in mid-November.

Racial underrepresentation

The racial balance of all sources was firmly tilted toward the historically most powerful segment of society as well. Among U.S. sources for whom race was determinable, whites made up 92 percent of the total, blacks 7 percent, Latinos and Arab-Americans 0.6 percent each, and Asian-Americans 0.2 percent. (According to the 2000 census, the U.S. population is 69 percent non-Hispanic white, 13 percent Hispanic, 12 percent black and 4 percent Asian.) A single source who appeared on NBC (7/26/01) was the only Native American identified as appearing on the nightly news in 2001-- 0.008 percent of total sources.

Among all sources, white Americans constituted 67 percent of the total, followed by Middle Easterners (9 percent), black Americans (5 percent) and Northern Europeans (mostly British) at 3 percent. No other racial or regional group made up more than 2 percent of the total.

The networks presented a remarkably similar distribution of races among U.S. sources. On all three networks, 92 percent of racially categorized U.S. sources were white, while 7 percent were black. Latinos were the next most quoted sources on all networks (0.6 percent on NBC, 0.5 percent on ABC and 0.7 percent on CBS) followed by Arab-Americans (0.6 percent, 0.5 percent and 0.7 percent respectively) and Asian-Americans (0.2 percent, 0.3 percent and 0.3 percent respectively).

As with the network’s presentation of women as non-experts, racial minorities were disproportionately presented as ordinary citizens rather than as authorities or experts. Non-white U.S. sources made up 16 percent of average citizens and 11 percent of expert sources. When race, gender and nationality are considered together, white American men clearly dominated the evening news, making up 62 percent of all sources, far ahead of the next most commonly quoted sources: white American women (12 percent), Middle Eastern men (6 percent), black American men (4 percent) and Northern European men (2 percent).

Even on racial issues like affirmative action, racism and asylum policy (which made up 0.9 percent of overall coverage), the majority group was still afforded far greater opportunity to televise their opinions than the populations most directly affected by those issues. White Americans made up 68 percent of sources on such stories, followed by residents of Latin America (14 percent), African-Americans (7 percent), U.S. Latinos and people of the Middle East (3 percent each).

Among U.S. sources quoted on minority policies, whites made up 87 percent, far ahead of blacks (8 percent), Latinos (4 percent) and Asians (1 percent). Even in reports specifically on racism, 59 percent of quoted sources were white Americans, 29 percent were African-Americans, and 6 percent were Asian-Americans, with no Arab-Ame-ricans, Latinos, Native Americans or other minority groups quoted at all.

Of partisan sources quoted in racial stories, 84 percent were Republicans, a group so dominant that they made up more than one in four overall sources on these issues throughout the year. Democrats made up the remainder, with no independents or third party representatives quoted at all.

Who are the experts?

After ordinary citizens, the next largest categories of sources on the nightly news were various professional or expert voices of industry, science and government. The most common among these were corporate representatives, providing 7 percent of all sources, along with economists and academics, also at 7 percent; the visibility of these categories reflects the networks’ heavy coverage of business and financial stories. The economists were unlikely to provide perspectives that challenged the corporate spokespersons, since they generally came from major investment banks such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, from conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, or from elite business schools such as those at Princeton and Stanford.

Non-partisan government employees and officials-- such as Environmen-tal Protection Agency representatives, National Security Council spokespersons and mail carriers (especially in the midst of the Anthrax attacks)-- were the next most quoted sources (6 percent). Medical doctors provided 5 percent of soundbites, reflecting the nightly news’ interest in health issues. No other professional or social group provided more than 4 percent of the total.

Representatives of non-governmental organizations, which might have provided an alternative perspective to the U.S. government, business community or establishment experts, made up only 3 percent of the sources. Not all of these were from organizations that were likely to challenge the status quo, however; groups represented ranged from the United Nations and Human Rights Watch to the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association.

Organized labor was granted even less access to the airwaves. Even as the country lost 2.4 million jobs in 2001, union representatives made up less than 0.2 percent of sources on the evening news, making company representatives 35 times more likely to be heard.

This lack of interest in labor was reflected not only in sourcing but in topic selection: The unemployment rate, layoffs, strikes, wage levels, workplace discrimination and all other labor issues combined were only 1 percent of total coverage. By contrast, other business and economic issues made up 14 percent of the total. Product reports alone were twice as likely to appear on the news as labor-related stories, making up 2 percent of overall coverage. Even on labor stories, union representatives were rarely heard, making up a mere 2 percent of quoted sources. This was far behind corporate and business association representatives (26 percent), economists (19 percent) and politicians from the major parties (15 percent). Of the partisan sources presented on labor issues, 89 percent were Republicans and 11 percent were Democrats.

Ina Howard is the U.S. research director of Media Tenor International. She can be contacted at i.howard@mediatenor.com. Extra! is the magazine of the media watch group FAIR.

The Keys to Success for Grassroots Campaigns

In this media age, advocates who want to win social justice campaigns must add media skills to their tool box. But marginalized communities must deal with mainstream media outlets that are streaked with social bias. People of color, gays and lesbians, low-income people and other disenfranchised groups have to adopt a two-pronged media strategy: employing innovative publicity techniques that go beyond traditional P.R. tactics, as well as engaging in media activism that puts public pressure on news organizations to report on issues fairly and accurately.Public interest and community-based groups are often deficient in these areas. Strategic publicity skills such as reframing stories and controlling the terms of debate in media interviews are seldom mastered by activists. Even when public interest groups receive media training, it's frequently modeled on corporate P.R.: The assumption is that if social justice groups just conducted their P.R. campaign well, they would receive good coverage.Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Organizations that represent marginalized communities often face media biases or stereotypes. Media training for these groups has to address the specific obstacles that stand in the way of fair coverage.However, there are models of successful, innovative media campaigns by public interest groups, including several launched by the San Francisco-based Public Media Center, and a tobacco-control initiative by activists in California. In these winning campaigns, the keys to success are often the same. The California anti-smoking campaign (described in Wallack et al, Media Advocacy and Public Health) provides a model for effective and strategic use of the media: successful message development, framing and advocacy.The Tobacco ExampleAnti-smoking organizations once used their ads to target individual smokers, providing health information and encouraging quitting. They saw the smoker as the problem, and thus presumed that affecting the smoker was the key to the solution.But over time, public health data showed that providing individuals with health information alone was not the most effective way of improving public health. What did lower rates of dangerous health habits was creating an environment where healthy behavior choices were easier to make. The point was not to stress individual responsibility but to change public policy. This involved identifying who profits from unhealthy health habits and either limiting the availability of dangerous substances, or limiting the way advertisers market their products.In light of these new insights, anti-smoking forces switched strategies, emphasizing the institutional responsibility of the tobacco industry. The advocates' media message became: "The tobacco industry is profiting off a substance that kills people." Their media strategy complemented their policy advocacy goals: Their efforts to limit tobacco advertising, sales and the number of public places where smoking is allowed became much more effective as public opinion toward the tobacco companies changed.Anti-smoking advocates have had tremendous success in California, achieving restrictions on smoking in public places, limits on tobacco advertising and a decline in smoking rates. Combined with sustained community organizing and lobbying, anti-smoking media advocates won significant victories against the tobacco industry despite its lobbying power.Keys to SuccessThe keys to success in the anti-smoking campaign are applicable to many other kinds of media campaigns:Advocates were willing to take an extreme position to pull the terms of debate to their side. As Herb Chao Gunther of the Public Media Center says (and his successful media campaigns demonstrate), successful media activists are willing to take an extreme position while explaining it in mainstream language and framing it in terms of fundamental values that are shared by the audience you are trying to reach.The message communicated what was fundamentally at issue. Often advocates get bogged down in details or in responding to opponents claims, rather than sticking to the fundamental issues at stake: what the issue will mean for our communities, our children, our world. In the case of anti-smoking advocates, the fundamental issue was whether corporations would be unrestricted in selling a substance that killed people.The message frames the issue as institutional rather than individual responsibility. Mainstream media tend to focus on personalized explanations for social evils. News coverage of welfare, for example, focuses more often on individual choices about education or parenthood than on economic policies that prevent full employment. This focus on "personal responsibility" for individual hardship obscures the corporate and government policies that make such hardship probable or inevitable. In order to change public policy, societal problems need to be seen as public responsibility-which is why anti-smoking advocates shifted focus from the smoker to the tobacco company.The media strategy anticipated the institutional bias of news outlets and proactively reframed the issue. Tobacco control advocates anticipated news outlets propensity to frame issues in terms of individual responsibility and proactively focused their media messages on the tobacco industry.The effort united a hard-hitting, strategic media campaign with grassroots organizing. Advocates sometimes think a media campaign can substitute for a grassroots organizing or advocacy effort-or that a real organizing effort doesn't need decent press. In reality, most winning efforts include smart media and effective organizing.In an era of scarce resources, strategic use of media is necessary to maximize the success of public interest activism. This requires that media messages and media strategies be informed by what we know about media as an institution-its unique biases and constraints. It means viewing media both as a potential tool to be used and as an institution to be held accountable. It means knowing when to use traditional PR strategies, when to employ cutting-edge reframing techniques, and when to lobby and pressure outlets for fair and representative coverage. All these tools are necessary for public interest advocates in the '90s.Kim Deterline is the executive director of We Interrupt This Message, an organization that builds capacity in public interest groups to win fair media coverage of their issues and communities.Extra! is a publication of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Inc.). FAIR is the national media watch group that offers well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship. For further information on FAIR: 130 West 25th Street, New York, NY 10001; (212) 633-6700.

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