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Jeff Cohen's Journey Through the Cable News Looking Glass

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Message Randolph Holhut
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - Cable news is shallow and dumb.

That's not exactly an original observation. But if you really want to find out how truly shallow and dumb it is, read Jeff Cohen's new book, "Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media."

Cohen comes to the case with a rare distinction. Not only is he one of the few authentic left-wingers to regularly appear on cable news programs, he is the one of the few people who has worked at CNN (1987-1996), Fox News Channel (1997-2002) and MSNBC (2002-2003).

If you are looking for a guide to the sausage factory that is cable news, here is someone who has toiled at all three networks as a pundit (at CNN and Fox) and producer (at MSNBC) and knows exactly what goes into the sausage. Cohen's long history as a media critic - he was a founder of Fairness and Accuracy in Media (FAIR) and is a prolific writer on media issues - means that he never became disillusioned with the TV business because, as he puts it, he never was "illusioned" in the first place.

Cohen's first misadventure in cable news was appearing regularly on CNN's "Crossfire." While Cohen felt it was a modest accomplishment to get any progressive views on TV, he constantly bumped up against the conventions of how political opinions get presented on cable news.

"Imagine if the American right had been represented year after year on TV not by the Buchanans and the Hannittys, but by moderate Republican pundits allied with Christine Todd Whitman and Arlen Spector - moderates dismissive of their party's activists," writes Cohen. "Now imagine that the American left had been represented on TV not by the Kinsleys and Colmeses, but by progressive pundits like Barbara Ehrenreich and Jim Hightower. Neither scenario is easy to imagine, which says a lot about the real biases of TV news. ... Genuflecting to the right was the natural bent of every cable news executive I ever met."

After being passed over for a permanent spot on "Crossfire," despite acquitting himself well during his tryout, Cohen decided to try his luck at the newly-organized Fox News Channel. Oddly enough, he had his happiest times in cable news there as a regular panelist on its Sunday media criticism show, "Fox News Watch."

"Over time, my "News Watch" gig became as sweet as one could be for a progressive at Fox. I savaged the corporate media week after week and got paid for it...by Darth Murdoch," writes Cohen. "Life doesn't get much better than that."

So how did Cohen happily survive in a place that is not exactly friendly to liberals? He has two theories. One, he did most of his work on weekends, so the bar was lower. The other? "I give good television," he writes, meaning that he prides himself on being properly prepared for broadcasts so that he can present his arguments in a pithy way without backing down.

Although his Fox gig was sweet, Cohen decided to depart for MSNBC in 2002 for an offer that was hard to pass up. He had an opportunity to not only be a pundit, but to also be a producer for one of the legends of the business, Phil Donohue.

Corporate fecklessness combined with bad timing made Cohen's hitch at MSNBC a nightmare. The reason why could be summed up in two words - General Electric. GE's heavy-handed corporate culture stifled creativity and made for a very uncomfortable atmosphere for Cohen.

As the distant No. 3 in the cable news wars, MSNBC tried to carve a niche for itself with tabloid-style news - "if it scares, it blares," as Cohen put it.

The formula, which the other two cable news operations also follow to the letter, is a simple one. "Visuals trump words. Live, "breaking" news trumps everything, even if its about nothing at all, and crime - particularly if it involves cute white girls, is great TV," writes Cohen. "Scary is good. Scary and live is better. Scary and live with powerful footage is best of all."

This would have been a minor annoyance, except that Cohen's tenure at MSNBC coincided with the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. When MSNBC decided to try and more like Fox and pound the war drums, Cohen's on-air role gradually diminished. "Countdown: Iraq," a nightly one-hour show highlighting the latest developments in the march to war, became MSNBC's signature program. Network executives were looking forward to the Iraq war to give MSNBC a ratings boost. They, like Fox and CNN, kept anti-war perspectives off the air, lest they be accused by conservatives as not being sufficiently pro-war.

What happened to Phil Donohue's show was illustrative of how the cable channels believe that pandering to conservatives is the key to success.

MSNBC hired Donohue in 2002 and gave him the time slot opposite Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor." So what did they do with arguable the most famous and successful liberal talk show host in the history of television? Cohen said Donohue was ordered to "be balanced," which quickly translated into not being able to have a liberal on the program without having at least two conservatives for "balance."

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Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at randyholhut@yahoo.com.
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