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The Men Behind the Curtain: or Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media

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The Men Behind the Curtain
Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media, Jeff Cohen, PoliPointPress, 2006.
Joan Brunwasser, Voting Integrity Editor, OpEdNews September 29, 2006

I'm trying to finish this book review before leaving for the Cleveland We Count 2006 Conference early tomorrow morning. I'd prefer not to, but when I come back, I'll be inundated by impressions from the conference. I'm delighted that Mr. Cohen doesn't "need" my review. He's doing just fine, thank you, without it. His back cover is peppered with blurbs by an illustrious band the likes of Molly Ivins, Howard Zinn, Studs Terkel, and others. No, he definitely doesn't need me.

I'm constantly looking for the often invisible threads that tie seemingly disparate items together. In this case, I'd like to weave a net that includes Cohen's expose, Keith Olbermann, Bob Woodward, and Arianna Huffington. Please bear with me. By the end, they should all tie together.

I'd like to start with a disclaimer - I don't really watch television and haven't for years. It's partly a statement, I suppose, but mostly a matter of priorities. If I have free time, I'd rather read a book. Occasionally, my husband will call me to watch a program he knows will interest me. But for the most part, television is simply not a part of my life. If I didn't own a TV set, I'd be perfectly fine - a view not shared by the rest of my family, not to mention the average American. Many if not most, Americans still get their major news fix from television, despite the proliferation of online news sources. While not that many people watch cable news, it has a disproportionate impact because of the large number of politicians and policy makers who do. And that is why what Jeff Cohen has to say is so important.

How does cable network news affect those who don't even turn on the set? When the thirst for ratings unthinkingly advocates administrative policies and backs them up with continually wrong-headed analysts, we find ourselves subtly pushed into false frames and wrong decisions that can have devastating effects on our nation. Take the war in Iraq, for example. The cable news networks helped to sell the war as surely as they use sleaze to sell their advertisers' wares.

Since 1986, Cohen was involved with FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting), a media-watch group. His book takes the role of outside critic from inside enemy territory, and focuses on the networks of CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, at which Cohen worked and had the opportunity to view the beast from the inside out. While he marveled that he was getting paid to critique, he was ultimately deprived of any real power. The suits got what they wanted and their agendas were not the same as Cohen's. His saga is not a pretty one.

Anyone who recalls the story about the blind men and the elephant knows that there are many versions of the 'truth.' Which version we see or hear has much to do with how we understand the world and on what basis we make decisions. While we may not be aware of it, media bias is a very potent, though often subtle, tool. It shapes both what we are allowed to know and how we know it which, in turn, determines policy and public opinion. Much has been said about how we as a nation were misled leading up to the war in Iraq. Cohen makes a point about how the drumbeat of the corporate media did much to make war inevitable. In the baldest terms, they needed something to sell, and the war became a convenient product.

Everything about my tenure at MSNBC occurred in the context of the ever-intensifying war drums over Iraq - the rise and fall of my on-air career, the rise and fall of Donahue, the rise and fall of debate on the channel. The war drums were beating sporadically and faintly when I arrived at MSNBC; they grew louder as invasion day approached, until the din became so deafening that rational, journalistic thinking could not occur. To hear those drums today, all I have to do is picture myself at my desk at MSNBC. (p. 135)

He goes on to talk about how MSNBC was at the bottom of a ratings war and needed a hit, a lift, a new lease on life.

Inside MSNBC's newsroom, it was clear that war had become the centerpiece of management's rating strategy. We could see it in who was hired and who removed; in the birth of Countdown: Iraq as Donahue was squelched; in the diminishing of dissent even as the public remained divided. What originated as a subtly felt need for war seemed to evolve into an on-air push for war. And the push grew stronger as Washington's war drums beat louder. (p. 147) (Bold added for emphasis.)

War as marketing ploy. Oh, my. And there were such high hopes when cable was first launched, as "An exciting opportunity to provide an independent, informative and irreverent look at the news." (p. ix)

Cable network news was characterized by lunging for ratings and a tremendous fear of being called 'liberal.' The way they treated Phil Donahue is a case in point. Lured out of retirement, he was then handicapped by the network's tremendous fear of what he might do, what he might say, what guests he might invite and how it would look. The constraints that he operated under assured that he would fail, and fail he did. If he had a 'liberal' guest, it had to be balanced by a right-winger. When that proved insufficient, he was instructed to have two or three right-wingers to balance the left-ness of his guests. And, he was supposed to tone it down, squelch the passion and the power that had made his daytime show such a success. They wanted him to be anyone other than himself. It's not coincidental that he was yanked on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. He was just too controversial, even in his muffled form, too anti-American. The proof of the network bosses' paranoia can be found in a leaked internal report.

Cohen's response to it is strong and spare. "I'd always thought the role of journalism in a free society was to present diverse sources, including critics of officialdom - and that it was our patriotic duty to be skeptical, in times of peace or war. That view of journalism was clearly not shared by NBC News brass." (p. x)

The NBC document went on to describe a nightmare scenario in which Donahue would become "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity." MSNBC's solution: Drop Donahue and pick up the flag.

If you watched MSNBC on the eve of war - with Phil fired and rightwingers hired - you know that MSNBC was second to no one in "waving the flag at every opportunity." The prewar period offers a lesson: when journalists are so fervently waving the flag, they often lack the energy to do their jobs - to ask the tough questions before the bombs start dropping, before our young people are sent off to kill or be killed." (p. 186)

That's it in a nutshell.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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