Thom Hartmann: Hello, I'm Thom Hartmann in Washington DC and welcome to The Big Picture.
For decades a staple of the far-right has been the story that the news media in the United States is unreliable, doesn't tell the true story, and even promulgates outright lies. There was the "absolute reality" that the moonshot was faked, that the government is filled with communists, that whites are the superior race, or that both 9/11 and the Newtown massacres were false flag government psychological operations. Conspiracy theorists and right-wingers have long pointed the finger of doubt or damnation at the corporate news agencies in our country.
But 2016 was the year when that perspective on the mainstream news went mainstream itself. The man just elected president of the United States has promoted outright lies, like there being three million illegal voters, or that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese, where the immigrants and Muslims are responsible for crime way out of proportion to "average Americans", also known as white people in his world.
Both the president-elect and the entire Republican Party not only embrace outright lies, but damn the mainstream media for not embracing them too. On the other hand, what would you call the refusal of MSNBC to cover net neutrality in any meaningful way - some speculate because its parent company is hostile to net neutrality - or their unwillingness to call out advertisers in the defense and oil industries with anything at all resembling investigative reporting? Is that fake news by omission?
For that matter, why won't they cover the consequences of Republican voter suppression efforts, as in Interstate Crosscheck and others? Is it because they need Republican guests to come on their shows to maintain their profitability? And their "news" stars need to suck up to them to maintain their multi-million dollar salaries?
Whatever the answers to these questions, the media in the U.S. is being questioned now both as to veracity and bias like never before, and it's no longer just the John Birch Society doing the questioning.
In tonight's show we're taking a deep dive into the state of the American media both corporate- and government-funded with one of our nation's most experienced, credible and knowledgeable media observers and critics: Jeff Cohen.
Jeff is the former on-air talent at CNN, was the producer for MSNBC's Phil Donahue show when that
show was taken off the air in 2003
because he wasn't going along with the push to the war with Iraq. He's the founder of Fairness And Accuracy In Reporting and author of Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media, a book about his time in the media.
He's also co-founded the online activist group Roots Action.org. Jeff is also the founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, where he is now an associate professor of journalism. Jeff Cohen, welcome back.
Jeff Cohen: Always great to be with you.
Thom Hartmann: It's great to have you. So what do you make about all this talk about fake news? Is this is as serious a problem as people are making it out to be?
Jeff Cohen: Well, I think fake news - I hate the phrase - I call them hoaxes, Internet hoaxes are important. There were these Internet hoaxes that went around pushed by Trump people, I have to believe that the Trump supporters who are sending around "Pope shocks the world - endorses Trump", as ridiculous as it sounds, huge numbers of people were circulating that and that's a problem. There was an Internet hoax, we know the originator, he's like a horrible comedian, he circulated the hoax that you could get paid $3500 to go to a Trump rally and protest against Trump. And that was something that was recirculated by the campaign manager for Trump, Donald Trump jr., Sarah Palin. So these things are going around.
But to me what's more important than these Internet hoaxes is what happened in mainstream media, especially mainstream television news. I mean, that's where I want to point my finger of fake news. Think about it, Thom, when one of the biggest news outlets - ABC World News Tonight - eight, nine, ten million people watch it every night. When they give, during the primary season of 2015, when they give Donald Trump 81 minutes of coverage and they give Bernie Sanders only 20 seconds, it's certainly not news. It's certainly not journalism. It's fake. It's not journalism in a democracy.
When the Washington Post in March of this year ran 16 negative stories about Bernie Sanders in 16 hours, and anyone can just google that and it will pop up, and we look at those stories and we realize how crazy they were, how fake they were. So many of the stories were about how Bernie Sanders in the Michigan debate had screwed up, he lost the debate, he did the wrong thing, and then a couple days later Bernie Sanders won the Michigan primary.
So, you know, you can look at what the mainstream media did, but especially television news, and say, "gee, a lot of that looks fake, a lot of that looks biased, a lot of that looks just indefensible from a journalism perspective", so I sometimes wonder if that's why mainstream media are focusing at the Internet hoaxes as fake news.
Thom Hartmann: Yeah, well, it's certainly convenient. So, if we're talking about fake news as a problem, whether it's the hoaxes on the Internet making their way into the media or whether it's the fake news in the New York Times and Washington Post like you've talked about, or Judith Miller promoting in the New York Times the war in Iraq, nonetheless, how do we deal with it? I mean, it seems like this is a very dangerous area for governments to wade into, but on the other hand, how do we fully trust corporations like Facebook if we doubt what's fake either? I mean, what happens when they decide that you and I are fake?
Jeff Cohen: Yeah. No, it's a good question. I mean, these corporations, these corporate gatekeepers have too much power. You don't want the government wading in. Certainly Facebook with their huge, huge profits could make sure that they're not giving huge currency to hoaxes like that the Pope had endorsed Trump, or people are getting paid $3500 to protest at a Trump rally.
You know, the fascinating thing about that last hoax, about people getting paid to protest Trump, the comic that originated it, he's been interviewed in the Washington Post, and Rolling Stone, he said he makes ten thousand dollars a month based on how many people will share his what he views as comedic stories, stories that are absurdly wrong, and the more money he makes is based on how many people will share it and bring eyeballs to his hoax. And he says that the reason he's got so rich, he told The Washington Post, is that the people that support Trump don't do any fact-checking. They're so gullible. They just share everything without checking it. And it's quite an indictment.
I have to believe when the Trump masses are sharing things like that or like that the Pope had endorsed Trump, I have to believe they're not sharing things that they believe - that they know to be false - but here was a guy who does the hoaxes who says, you know, the good thing about the Trump voter, the Trump supporter, is they're totally gullible and they never do any of their own fact-checking.
Thom Hartmann: Yeah. You know, many many liberals think that during the election the media created this false equivalency between the very real Trump scandals and Hillary Clinton's I would say so-called scandals. I mean, the email server and Benghazi and all that. There's no there there as far as I can tell. Do you think that false equivalency is true? And if so, why? And to what extent is it emblematic or symptomatic of a larger problem? And might that include things like right-wing capture of the media narrative or right-wing pressure to change the media narrative?
Jeff Cohen: Yeah, well, the right wing has so much power to inject narratives and to inject their think tanks and their so-called experts and the power of Fox News. You know, it's bigger than the other cable news channels so what you find on the not Fox News channels is there's often a false equivalency where they have to, like if they're doing a story about Trump totally distorting reality, they feel the need to show well Hillary Clinton got this wrong. And it's often absurd.
You know, there was a great reporter all through this election and it's not a surprise he's at the Toronto Star and he was counting every day how many distortions, inaccuracies, lies were coming out of the lips of Donald Trump. And it was dozens, but in the mainstream media if you want to avoid being accused of bias or liberal bias, you have to pretend that Hillary Clinton has been distorting things just as badly. But again, these things are quantifiable and there is often a false equivalence.
The worst false equivalence went on for years and years, which was over climate change, where you have a 98-percent scientific consensus that climate change is happening, it is caused by a greenhouse effect and burning fossil fuels and then you'll have some scientists at some community college, probably funded by the oil industry, and for years we had like these debates when there was in reality no scientific debate and that's because the mainstream media wants to make everything balanced. Sometimes when you impose balance when the story is not balanced, you're doing misleading journalism, you're distorting the story.
Thom Hartmann: This is not what I remember from the sixties, seventies, and even the early eighties. It seems to me like this whole false equivalency thing started or the let's overlook the conservative lies - for lack of a better word - really started during the Reagan administration with Lee Atwater and his "work the refs" strategy. And out of that came this, what was it, Accuracy In Media or something, Brent Bozell's organization...
Jeff Cohen: Yeah.
Thom Hartmann: ...Yelling and screaming every time NPR did a story of about how, "hey, higher taxes might actually be a good thing" or whatever. Am I just imagining that or is there a straight line or is this much more complex than that?
Jeff Cohen: I think you may be exaggerating how good mainstream media were. I mean, the seventies was the high point for mainstream media but that period around Pentagon Papers and Watergate is seen as the high point of mainstream media but wasn't great when they were promoting Joe McCarthy like they promoted Trump this time around. But I think you're right to point the finger at the big funding of these media bashers and the way the right-wingers have ideologically worked the refs.
The famous admission from Rich Bond, the then chairman of the Republican Party in 1992, he said you watch any good basketball coach, you see them working the refs. Maybe the ref will cut you some slack on the next one. And they realized the more they yelled 'liberal bias, liberal bias, liberal bias' that they'd have the New York Times, Washington Post, CBS News sort of backpedaling. It works.
The interesting thing is Trump, it's not an ideological thing for Trump in my view. In my view it's just he's a bully and he knows that if you call journalists names and, you know, he was upset at Fox News. He was telling people Fox News was unfair to him for a period there of weeks during the primaries. But here's a guy who has contempt for reporters - not all of them - there were many reporters in the entertainment field, gossip columns, you know, in the business press who helped create the whole Trump myth over a period of years.
Thom Hartmann: Jeff, we've got...
Jeff Cohen: But nowadays Trump knows that working the refs works.
Thom Hartmann: Yeah. And we have to take a break. We'll be right back. More with Jeff Cohen right after this break.
Thom Hartmann: And welcome back to The Big Picture. I'm speaking about the year in media with Jeff Cohen, associate professor of journalism at Ithaca College, founder of Fairness And Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) and author of Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.
Jeff, it seems like with Trump, with his outrageous tweets, he's almost intentionally creating fake scandal, fake hysteria to basically distract us all from real scandals or shift the focus of the news cycle at the very least. And he also seems very good at sowing confusion which historically many have pointed out as a trait of autocratic leaders. How does the media avoid playing into his game? And do you think that this is a harbinger of autocratic activity to come?
Jeff Cohen: Yeah. I think everyone's got a right to have this fear of his narcissism, his authoritarianism, his contempt for political reporters. He loves the soft reporters that built his career and his brand is a media brand, but he has real contempt for reporters. And you're right, he uses Twitter. What was fascinating, and there's all these academic studies now from Harvard Shorenstein Center, from the University of Wisconsin, George Washington University, looking at how the role that the media played in elevating Trump against all the Republican rivals. And, you know, he got so much more coverage.
Think about it, the summer of 2015 when Donald Trump is getting more coverage than all of the other 20 candidates combined and he was getting the coverage he wanted. You have apologists for the mainstream media: 'yeah, but we were negative'. I said no, Trump wanted to get coverage that he was the extremist in the race, that he wanted to ban Muslims from entering the country - obviously violates the First Amendment and the freedom of religion - that he wanted to build a big wall. You know, when the media are giving him more coverage than all other candidates combined, then he's getting the coverage he wants, and he got the coverage he wants because he was able to elevate himself by saying these things that were extremist and the media completely played into his hands.
The way you don't play into his hands is you give other people some time. You don't give Donald Trump like a hundred and fourteen minutes of the summer 2015, out of a hundred fourteen minutes Trump got 60 minutes more than all the other candidates. That's not how you handle Trump. The way you handle Trump if you're doing serious journalism is you give some equal weight to people that actually have the facts. And it wouldn't have been hard to point out that immigrants commit less crime than native-born people, that immigrants - illegal immigrants - contribute to the economy and they can't get so many welfare benefits because they're not citizens. It's not hard to debunk. But you can't debunk if you're giving Trump 15 minutes to go on and on and then one and a half minutes of fact-checking.
Thom Hartmann: To what extent do you think that that's driven by the media's need for ratings, which of course translates into profit? In other words, being driven from the from the suits in management who really have no background in news, don't care about news, well, they may have a background but don't seem to be caring about news as much as they're caring about the quarterly P&L's.
Jeff Cohen: No doubt, I think that's the main explanation. There's never one, but that's the main explanation. We have the quote from the CEO of CBS, Les Moonves. In fact, there were two different public quotes, they're on tape, where Les Moonves is saying the election circus may not be good for the country but it's damn good for CBS. The money's rolling - I'm quoting the head of CBS - the money is rolling in, this is fun, keep going Donald, go ahead, go out, stay out there.
So, you know, there's no doubt that they were getting ratings from Trump and then they were pocketing the money from the Republican candidates that were getting very little coverage that had to pay. Think about Jeb Bush. He paid about 84 million dollars in paid ads in a campaign that lasted eight months and he had to do that to try to get into the media because it was all Trump all the time. So the corporate media, especially the TV networks, they're pocketing money from the Trump circus and then they are pocketing money from other candidates like Jeb Bush trying to counteract Trump.
Thom Hartmann: Yeah. One of the big debates within the media this year was how to report on leaked documents from WikiLeaks. There were many folks out there, particularly Clinton supporters, who said that reporters shouldn't cover those leaks at all because to do so would be to abet a Russian intelligence operation. But even if Russia was behind those leaks, isn't that a really dangerous road to travel down?
Jeff Cohen: Yeah. I mean, we learned a lot from the leaks. We learned about the corruption of the Democratic National Committee and how they were tilting, they had their their whole elbow on the scale in support of Hillary Clinton against Bernie. We learned some of the excerpts from the speeches that Hillary Clinton gave when she was so soft on Wall Street and they were paying her huge amounts of money and she lied in her debates with Bernie Sanders, saying she was tough on Wall Street. So we learned a lot. I mean, leaks are leaks.
I believe that the mainstream media should be going after all people that are in power or seeking power. That includes Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, the Koch brothers, Adelson, Bernie Sanders. If you're in the public eye, leaks are a good way that aggressive journalism exposes those in power. So I, mean, what scares me is what's coming in the future. You know, independent media - that's what I study at Ithaca College - is booming. Independent non-corporate, non-conglomerated media is booming.
It's booming because of the Internet. And what is Donald Trump's view on the net neutrality? He wants to end it. He put out a tweet a couple years ago where he claimed that net neutrality was a top-down power grab, will target conservatives. That was his tweet. And that tweet was no more accurate than his tweet about the concept of climate change was invented by the Chinese to hurt US manufacturing.
But the reality is he's appointed to his Federal Communications Commission transition team two guys from American Enterprise. They're foes of net neutrality. If you lose net neutrality and Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable can push the independent media into the slow lane and have a fast lane that's only for websites that they own or that they favor or that pay them, then the independent media which has been growing - exposing misdeeds in both political parties - the independent media will be effectively extinguished.
So what we really need is to galvanize and be ready to fight, to preserve net neutrality, and that fight's going to happen probably beginning in the summer of 2017 if Trump is in office and he's able to fill one of the FCC commissioners seats will come vacant.
Thom Hartmann: Right. It seems to me, and again, let me reality check this with you, it seems like the Koch brothers and their political activity used to be in the news. It's still reported in the print media but it used to be on television and then Koch Industries started advertising heavily and suddenly I haven't heard a word, I don't consume that much television media, but I haven't heard a word about the Koch brothers in at least a year, it seems, maybe a year and a half.
And similarly, you mentioned net neutrality. You've got several of the big companies that own the big cable networks who are literally as we speak suing the federal government trying to end net neutrality, and those media outlets don't ever discuss net neutrality. Is there an association here?
Jeff Cohen: Yes. I don't believe in conspiracies but, and you're not outlying, you're not purporting to suggest a conspiracy, but yeah, ownership matters. It matters that Comcast owns NBC and MSNBC. It matters that Verizon took over AOL which has Huffington Post. And Huffington Post for years was one of the great crusaders to preserve net neutrality. But in terms of the Koch brothers, they don't just give major ads now to mainstream TV news.
One of the Koch brothers was on the board of so-called public TV. It would be unheard of in Europe where they have actual independent public broadcasting, but in this country one of the Koch brothers was on the board of channel 13, the biggest PBS station in the country. And there was some monkeying around with a documentary that was critical of Koch called Citizen Koch and it didn't get on public TV because Koch is on the board of public TV - he was in New York City and in Boston.
So look, Koch brothers are not a charitable institution. General Electric is not a charitable institution. The oil companies are not charitable institutions. When they advertise on the news shows and the Sunday politics shows and on public TV and public radio, they're doing it because they want to soften the coverage of themselves. They want to intimidate, and believe me, there's been a lot of intimidation in public broadcasting because of the presence of one of the two Koch brothers.
Thom Hartmann: Jeff, we just have about a minute left. What do you see as the major trend going forward with regard to the media right now?
Jeff Cohen: Well, the good news is independent media are booming. That's why we need to save net neutrality. But Trump hates independent journalism. He calls independent journalists dishonest, disgusting, slime, scum, they have blood coming out of whatever, wherever. So, you know, it's important that people understand that journalists aren't meant to be popular with those in power. Your loyalty if you're a journalist is to the public not to those in power and that's what I think we need all journalists to remember. And it's independent journalists for independent media outlets that have been really carrying the ball as mainstream media has faltered
Thom Hartmann: Yeah, and that's, as you said, happening mostly on the Internet whether it's in a video format or a print format, is that right?
Thom Hartmann: Yeah.
Jeff Cohen: And that's why the ultimate freedom of speech battle, freedom of press, is saving an open Internet, saving net neutrality.
Thom Hartmann: Amen. Jeff Cohen, great to see you, thank you so much.
Jeff Cohen: Thanks, Thom.
Thom Hartmann: And that's the way it is tonight. And don't forget, democracy is not a spectator sport, get out there, get active, tag, you're it!
Transcribed by Sue Nethercott.