May 23, 2018 — Time magazine dubbed 2001 the “Summer of the Shark.”
“All they talked about was shark attacks because they had some dramatic examples,” Jeff Cohen, a media critic, journalist, professor and documentary producer, said.
Cohen is the founder of the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He was also a regular commentator on FOX News Channel, MSNBC and CNN.
“All of the cable channels were talking about shark attacks,” he said.
The media began fixating on shark attacks after an 8-year-old boy was bitten by a bull shark in Florida. Further attacks throughout the summer were extensively covered, but the hype didn’t match the reality. Shark attacks had actually decreased in 2001 — 76 compared to 85 in 2000, according to the International Shark Attack File.
“It was the chasing after ratings, the elevation of ‘fluff’ over real news,” Cohen said. “At MSNBC every morning, the top producers would get the ratings from the previous night and we could see how the ratings changed every 15 minutes. There was a real obsession with finding anything that grabs the audience. If you could hook the viewers, you would just go with that story, hour after hour, day after day.”
The constant barrage of shark coverage stories created a culture of unnecessary fear about attacks, which Cohen felt raised anxiety and garnered cheap, quick ratings.
“It turned viewers into spectators,” he said. “What the hell are you going to do about shark attacks? Circulate a petition in Florence, Ore. about sharks? The reality did not change, only TV news reality changed. Not real reality.”
By fixating on this type of fluff, instead of more substantive issues, the media can disallow citizens in taking an active role in democracy.
“What you learn in television news is that fear sells,” Cohen said. “It gets ratings and grabs an audience.”
Cohen will be arriving in Florence on Friday, May 25, at 6:30 p.m., to exhibit the recent film “All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception and the Spirit of I.F Stone,” which Cohen helped produce. The production covers a wide variety of topics, from how multiple administrations from both parties manipulate facts, to how mass media is complicit in deception.
Cohen spoke with Siuslaw News about the film and the issues he sees in the current media climate.
At the heart of the film is a conversation about Stone, who was an independent, investigative journalist and writer who released a four-page weekly publication that covered topics from McCarthyism and racial discrimination. Stone’s type of journalism, independent and free of corporate ownership, is what Cohen would like to see a resurgence in.
“Independent outlets have smaller owners, or they’re nonprofits,” he said. “They don’t have powerful corporate bosses telling the journalists what they can and cannot investigate.”
Cohen stated he had seen media manipulation first hand in his career in cable news. He had been a media critic for years, starting FAIR in 1986. But after speaking out against bias and censorship, something odd happened — he was invited onto these channels to be a commentator.
“It was a fluke,” he said. “I was someone who worked in mainstream media news, but was somewhat of an outcast, a critic of mainstream TV news.”
Cohen’s main argument against television news, along with major news outlets such as The Washington Post, is that stations are owned by massive media conglomerates.
“When I was in TV news, they would say you need the three V’s: visuals, victims and villains,” Cohen said. “But, villains are usually powers that be in society, especially greedy corporations. And corporations own the media. A lot of these exciting stories that have those visuals, victims and villains can’t be told on television. But the villain can be a shark.”
Cohen likened the current media situation to that of the Chinese. Democratic governments are often critical of the country because the party tightly controls its media outlets, and censors certain stories that could place the party in a negative light.
“By that same token, we have a society that’s dominated by giant corporations,” he said. “They dominate our economy, our politics and our culture. And you can judge mainstream media systems by how well it covers those dominant institutions, and I would say it fails. I would say the U.S. media systems covers the corporate state deficiently, just like the Chinese media system is deficient.”
As an example, Cohen brought up his dealings with MSNBC, which at the time of his tenure, was owned by General Electric (GE). For almost 30 years, GE polluted the Hudson River by dispensing polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) in the water stream, causing harmful environmental effects.
“For years, if a kid fell in the river, you had to almost decontaminate them,” Cohen said. “If you caught a fish, you couldn’t eat it. Mom-and-pop fishing shops were closing up. It’s a dramatic story. It’s got visuals on the river, it’s got victims of fishing operations closing and it’s got a villain. But the villain owns the television station.”
Of particular concern was GE’s attempts to delay the river’s cleanup. In 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a study regarding PCB contamination in the Hudson, and the cleanup project would cost GE hundreds of millions of dollars. But the dredging of the river didn’t take place until 2009.
“The real crime was that they spent decades preventing Washington, D.C. from cleaning it up,” Cohen said.
The report was released around the time Cohen was working for MSNBC. But the network did not cover the issue.
“I go to the president of MSNBC, and we’re making small talk,” Cohen recalled. “I said that MSNBC was not telling the truth about the Hudson River. (The president said), ‘I know they’re lying, and we both know that we’re not going to go on NBC and say that GE is lying.’ It’s how people talk. They talk privately about the crimes of their boss, and they know that story will never get on the air.”
The Siuslaw News reached out to MSNBC for comment about Cohen’s claims, but did not receive a reply by press time.
However, actual directives do not come down from media owners to squash these stories.
“I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” Cohen said. “I don’t believe there are 10 evil people running the world. Institutions are very subtle, and the people who get promoted are very diplomatic and soft, and the people who don’t get promoted are the toughest journalists. They’re not encouraged, not ‘disallowed’ (from covering those topics).”
It should be noted that while the Siuslaw News is owned by News Media Corporation, an entity that is independently owned and not influenced or owned by larger corporations. Journalists for this publication have not been asked to alter or suppress coverage, and are autonomous in their selections of stories.
“Your company is not owned by General Electric,” Cohen pointed out. “You’re not trying to do a story on the Hudson River. Your boss is a small, regional company. My boss was one of the most powerful corporations on planet earth. That’s the difference.”
MSNBC did cover the river clean up in a smattering of articles throughout the years, particularly after GE sold the company to Comcast.
Cohen explained, “There are exceptions to every rule. I know that there were some references to the Hudson River. But if you find thousands and thousands of stories, and only two of them refer to the Hudson, that’s an issue. I was at Fox News. Does that mean that Fox News is not conservative because they have a progressive like me on the air? No. It meant that I was the exception to the rule.”
But even being a token voice in a partisan network can have its limits. Cohen stated that after raising questions about the veracity of the evidence supporting the 2003 Iraq invasion by the U.S., the networks began cancelling his appearances, and he was essentially drummed out of the cable news business.
“I feel totally vindicated by questions I was posing, but those questions got me terminated and my TV career ended,” he said.
It was then that Cohen became a writer and a film producer, and was later recruited by Ithaca College to help create the Park Center for Independent Media. It was there that he created the annual award for outstanding achievement in independent media, the Izzy, named after Stone.
“Some of the best journalism is being done at places like Democracy Now!” Cohen said. “You have these independent news sites like TruthOut and Truthdig that are doing excellent reporting. You have community radio which has become so important. You have individual bloggers which have become so important.”
Cohen defines independent journalism as institutions free of corporate owners. However, this is not to say that they are completely free of bias.
“Even though they may have smaller owners and smaller boards, whoever the managers are, they have their own bias,” Cohen said. “(Democracy Now! Host and Executive Producer) Amy Goodman has her biases toward social justice, but she doesn’t have a corporate owner saying, ‘You can’t cover that environmental story because it’s going to hurt DuPont.’ That doesn’t enter into her mind.”
Still, Cohen stated that media bias is not a completely bad thing, as long as the bias does not interfere with fairly and accurately reflecting reality. In fact, pure objectivism can be an enemy to accurate reporting.
“The (media) that purports to be middle of the road elevates balance over accuracy,” he said. “Sometimes the balance leads the reporting to be inaccurate. Sometimes it can be totally inaccurate if it leads people to believe that there’s a debate among scientists when there was none.”
Cohen brought up the example of climate change. According to literature by NASA and the National Park Service, 97 percent of climatologists believe that the climate is warming and that trends point to human activity being “extremely likely” a cause. However, there are the three percent of scientists who disputed the findings. By giving voice to the three percent, Cohen felt it delegitimized the science.
Cohen also believes that mass media is preventing certain voices from being heard, particularly progressive liberalism, which he unabashedly claims as his political leaning. While he believes that FOX is adept at showing the right’s point of view, outlets such as MSNBC fit squarely in the left of center spectrum.
“Baby step of left of center,” he said. “During the fight between Bernie and Hillary, with Hillary being a political centrist and a war hawk, and Bernie being an actual political figure on the left, NBC tilted toward Hillary. And so did Rachel Maddow. If they were a left-wing network, they would be going crazy about Bernie Sanders, but that’s not what they were doing.”
And then there’s the coverage of President Donald Trump and accusations of Russian collusion, which networks like CNN cover on an almost minute-to-minute basis.
“The main reason that Hillary Clinton lost had nothing to do with Russia,” Cohen said. “That’s the left point of view. The left point of view is that the main obstacle of peace in the middle east is not Iran, it’s countries like Saudi Arabia and the Israeli oppression of Palestine. But if you watch the news, all you hear about is Iran and Russia.”
These are the topics that garner ratings.
In 2016, CBS Executive Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves discussed how the often-chaotic Republican primary was good for the company’s bottom line.
“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” Moonves famously said. “Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? ... The money’s rolling in and this is fun. … I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Whether or not one believes Cohen’s politics, gaining a wide variety of perspectives is vital to a healthy democracy. So far, mainstream media outlets on television is not fitting the bill.
“I don’t blame the viewers because I’m one who believes if cable TV news was talking about the big issues facing the citizens in democracy, and doing it in an exciting way, it would get bigger ratings than shark attacks,” Cohen said.
To get broader viewpoints, Cohen believes that audiences should turn to other forms of media, including radio, print and online blogs.
And the public should also look at multiple points of view.
Cohen points to the National Review as a prime example of a publication that differs from his political beliefs that he reads on a regular basis. Even though he disagrees with many of the viewpoints, he has maintained a friendship with the editor.
“We can get into bubbles,” he said. “I encourage people, whether they see themselves as right, center, left or none of the above, to always consult media sources that are diverse. That’s my main concern is that we just consume information that’s just your worldview.”
Cohen’s film, “All Governments Lie,” will be shown on Friday, May 25, in the Bromley Room at the Siuslaw Public Library, 1460 Ninth St. The event, which was organized by local resident Rand Dawson, will begin at 6:30 p.m. with a meet-and-greet with Cohen, followed by the film at 7 p.m. A Q&A will follow the presentation.