Practicing independent journalism cost Jeff Cohen his job.
Cohen, author and media analyst, will visit Western May 1 to talk about how he saw the bias and censorship in TV news that helped enable the Iraq War.
Cohen is currently traveling and lecturing to promote his latest book “Cable News Con-fidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media”, which is based on his experiences at MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN.
Prior to the Iraq War, Cohen appeared regularly on national radio and television. He was a co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire” in 1996, a weekly panelist on Fox News Channel’s “Newswatch” from 1997 to 2002, and an on-air pundit on MSNBC. He founded the non-profit media watch group FAIR, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, in 1986. He now writes columns for independent news websites, and occasionally speaks on Pacifica Radio and community radio stations.
Before the Iraq War, Cohen worked at MSNBC as an on-air commentator and was a senior producer of Phil Donahue’s prime time show.
“It was obvious to me and everyone else in the MSNBC news room that as the war grew closer, management was more afraid of independent journalism and skeptical analysis,” he said. “They wanted cheerleading rather than journalism.”
Cohen and his colleagues tried to present guests who were skeptical of invading Iraq on Donahue’s show, which was contrary to what MSNBC wanted on the air.
“We were terminated three weeks before the Iraq invasion, for political reasons, be-cause our host [Donahue] was anti-war and he questioned the wisdom of invading Iraq,” said Cohen.
Cohen said that he and his colleagues learned later from leaked internal memos that they were terminated for what he called practicing independent journalism.
“Bush was very popular at that time, and [MSNBC] didn’t want to polarize with the ad-ministration,” he said. “They didn’t people questioning their patriotism.”
Cohen calls the Iraq War a failure of journalism because the media served corporate and political interests.
“People sometimes call [the war] an intelligence failure, or a political failure, or a military failure, but in many ways it was a media failure,” he said. “The media failed to act inde-pendently.”
Corporate conglomerate media, Cohen said, is in part to blame for the focus TV news takes on sex, crime, and celebrity scandals. Tabloid stories are inexpensive to cover because networks don’t have to pay reporters to dig up a story.
“[Tabloid] stories don’t offend people in power,” he said. “You don’t have to worry that you’re going to be offending a powerful corporation or a powerful politician or a corpo-rate advertiser.”
Cohen said six corporations dominate U.S. media, and people in the news industry learn early on that networks are a corporate hierarchy that generally allow conservative individuals to rise to the top.
“Big corporations, or media owners, aren’t happy with criticism or dissent,” he said.
Cohen said that his favorite part of his former job as a news commentator was an op-portunity to speak on controversial issues.
“I took those opportunities to say things no one else was saying on TV news, which was probably why ultimately I was fired,” he said.
There is good news, too. Cohen said that independent and nonprofit media is booming today, and that is has great potential for social change because many people no longer trust TV news and look for alternative news sources. He said blogs and community ra-dio are booming in audiences.
Cohen praised The Planet, the environmental advocacy magazine published through Huxley College, as a fine example of independent student journalism.
Cohen will speak on Tuesday, May 1, at 7 p.m. in the Fairhaven Auditorium. His lecture is free.