‘Cable News Confidential’ talk

Jeff Cohen, founder of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting and author of Cable News Confidential, gave a talk at work earlier this week.

Jeff has worked as a reporter for CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. At all 3 channels, he found that power is concentrated at the top of the corporate ladder, and the reporters themselves have very little control over what stories get reported. In particular, the people at the top have suppressed many news stories that would hurt them and their allies: Fox News puts many more Republicans on its station and hand-picks stupid/weak Democrats, because their leadership views Democrats as anti-“big business,” and their views would hurt Rupert Murdoch’s empire. All 3 networks biased their stories in favour of going to war in Iraq because questioning/criticizing the government was viewed as bad for business (because it would sow the seeds of doubt in the public and might cause unrest). We won’t hear about the abuses of children in Nike sweatshops on the news, because it is bad for sponsorship.

So if the news channels can’t put those stories on, what can they do to keep the news interesting? They fabricate “news” from the lives of celebrities: no one would care about ownership of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby except that the networks are jumping all over it. A similar thing happened with Paris Hilton’s sex life. and Suzanne Somers’ house burning down.

and this isn’t just a property of a few news programmes; it’s happening to some extent with every channel that gets corporate funding, even PBS. The US is the only first world country without an independent news network that isn’t forced to depend on corporate funds or congressional spending bills; most other countries have a network that can report anything it wants to without fear of its funding being cut.

So why doesn’t the free market open a niche for more independent news shows? The cable providers won’t allow it. Time Warner Cable, for instance, owns CNN and doesn’t want extra competition to shake things up. Jeff Cohen claims that the cable companies and news channels are working in an oligopolistic manner to control what shows we can see and what ones we can’t. The internet is starting to change this, since we can get news from any website or blog from anywhere in the world, but it doesn’t look like things will change on television any time soon. Cohen suggests that if you’re looking for news on TV, the best places to look are the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, because they aren’t afraid to criticize and poke fun at the government or big business. Cohen even claims that CNN and the BBC have different programming for the US and the rest of the world, and the quality difference is amazing.

and like any powerful oligopolistic system, they play hardball. If you are a reporter who refuses to spin the truth the way they want, you’re out of a job (Cohen was fired for “political reasons” a week before the Iraq invasion, most likely due to his anti-war stance). If you have the potential to shake things up, you don’t even get hired in the first place.

His words have rung true for me: the evening after I saw this talk, I watched a news story discussing how the regulations for calculating the average mileage of cars had recently changed to be more realistic. Their angle, however, was that hybrid cars don’t get the mileage they claim. It was only in the last 15 seconds of the spot that the reporter mentioned that hybrids still have much better mileage than regular cars and that regular cars also have worse mileage than previously claimed. I was puzzled by this spin, until the show cut to commercial: Chevy and Ford were both sponsors of the programme, and both have been hurt by sales of hybrid vehicles.

As Cohen pointed out, I haven’t been able to watch Larry King Live or Anderson Cooper since Anna Nicole Smith died. Her death isn’t particularly big news, but it keeps people distracted and controllable.

I’ve noticed that most of the news stories I post here aren’t even mentioned on the US news. and personally, I think the stories I link to are some of the more interesting/important ones happening right now. However, they can be seen as anticorporatist and anti-government, and that’s not good for business.

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3 Comments

  1. psifer says:

    DEF CON 15

    You still up for making news? :-P

    It’s Aug 3-5. Riviera rates are ($95/night)… You in? You planning to bring an entourage?

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