Cohen & Solomon on: Macneil/Lehrer & Self-Censorship
Date: Wed, 1 Nov 95 18:00:41 -0800
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Subject: Cohen & Solomon on: Macneil/Lehrer & Self-Censorship
From: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting <firstname.lastname@example.org>
This coming Thursday (Nov 2) FAIR's executive director, Jeff Cohen, will be
on the Donahue show. Also on the program are populist radio host Jim
Hightower, TV Nation's Michael Moore, and Donna Edwards, a political reform
advocate. This is a rare nationally syndicated TV program on corporate
censorship. Check your local listings for program time.
* * *
Jeff Cohen was also interviewed on media mergers by David Barsamian of
Alternative Radio. This program will be available on the Public Radio
satellite on Tues., Nov. 7, 1400-1459ET on Channel 6. Individuals may want
to ask their local stations to pickup the program.
* * *
For more info on FAIR, send a blank e-mail message to: email@example.com
* * *
Here are some recent "Media Beat" columns by Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon.
Please let your local paper know if you'd like them to pick up the weekly
column, distributed by Creators Syndicate.
September 27, 1995
"MACNEIL/LEHRER NEWSHOUR" AT 20: HOLD THE CHEERS
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
As the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" prepares to mark its 20th anniversary,
press releases are hailing the PBS program as "one of the most influential
news sources in the world." But from where we sit -- in front of the TV
screen -- that's no cause for celebration.
Aired on more than 300 TV stations in the United States,
"MacNeil/Lehrer" has a nightly audience of 5 million people. Meanwhile,
the program reaches viewers around the globe via satellite networks --
including the official U.S. Information Agency's "WorldNet" system.
With the "NewsHour" poised to enter a third decade, some changes are
underway. In late October, longtime co-anchor Robert MacNeil will leave the
program, which is being re-named "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." And
MacNeil/Lehrer Productions is planning to start a second nightly news
broadcast, for an 11 p.m. slot, on the nation's public TV stations.
"We will bring the very same standards to the new program that we've
been using on the `MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,'" the president of
MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, Al Vecchione, told us in a recent interview.
His words were meant to be reassuring. But they sounded ominous to us.
PBS viewers hardly need another national news program with "the very
The media watch group we're associated with, FAIR, conducted a detailed
study of every "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" program during a six-month period
in 1989. Among the findings:
* The program's guest list was chock full of think-tank "experts" from
conservative, corporate-funded outfits -- in particular, the Center for
Strategic and International Studies and the American Enterprise Institute,
which had 14 appearances between them. In contrast, analysts from various
progressive think tanks never appeared.
* Nine-tenths of the U.S. guests on "MacNeil/Lehrer" were white, and
87 percent were male.
* Almost half -- 46 percent -- of the U.S. guests were current or
former government officials. However, only 6 percent of the guests were from
public-interest groups (such as consumer- rights, civil-rights and labor
organizations) critical of government policies.
* The program exhibited a knack for having discussions about the
environment while excluding environmentalists. Only one of 17 guests on
environment-related segments was a representative of an environmental group.
* In seven "MacNeil/Lehrer" discussion segments on Central America,
all 22 guests were either U.S. officials or representatives of U.S.-allied
governments in the region. No one was invited from the U.S. mass movement
against military intervention.
Overall, the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" has excelled at serving as a
nightly transmission belt for official opinion. Most of the time,
disagreements are well within the range to be found among powerful
politicians and lobbyists in Washington.
No wonder the show has been repeatedly praised as "balanced" by
rightist groups -- like Accuracy in Media and the National Conservative
Political Action Conference -- which normally bash network TV news for being
The man soon to become chief anchor of the "NewsHour," Jim Lehrer, has
little patience with calls for genuine diversity. Former "NewsHour"
staffers have told us that Lehrer dismisses progressive policy critics as
"moaners" and "whiners" unfit to appear on the show.
The response was similar when we asked the president of MacNeil/Lehrer
Productions to comment on charges that the "NewsHour" lacks diversity. "I
think that's an outrageous criticism of our program," Al Vecchione replied.
"It's in a class by itself in terms of being fair and even-handed."
Introspection is not a strong suit at the "NewsHour."
But then again, those who pay the media piper tend to call the tune --
not every note, but the prevailing melody.
From the outset, the program has depended on corporate "underwriters"
for major chunks of its financing. In the past, these underwriters have
included AT&T and Pepsico. This year, two politically active firms -- the
agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland and the New York Life Insurance
Co. -- account for about $11 million, nearly half of the program's budget.
The show's producers, of course, are quick to proclaim total
independence from funders. But the companies funneling money to the most
important show on PBS have reason to be pleased with their investments. Few
of the program's 15,000 minutes of news coverage each year are likely to
cause anything approaching distress in corporate suites.
Last December, a subsidiary of the private media- conglomerate TCI
purchased two-thirds of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. The PBS network
president, Ervin Duggan, promptly called it "a welcome infusion of capital
into the `NewsHour.'"
These days, it seems odd to hear PBS referred to as "public television"
when the funding -- and content -- of its public affairs programming are so
dominated by private, for-profit, big- money institutions.
So we won't be cheering as the "NewsHour" begins its 21st year. And we
won't be hoping that MacNeil/Lehrer Productions is successful in its plans
to team up with the Wall Street Journal to create another national news
The new program is slated to draw 90 percent of its funding from
outside corporate underwriters. And the show will be owned by a pair of
private media powers -- Dow Jones & Co. and TCI. All in all, it's a
remarkable concept for a "public" TV program.
Instead of trying to clone the "NewsHour," the people running
MacNeil/Lehrer Productions should be trying to figure out how to involve a
cross-section of the public in "public television."
September 13, 1995
ROUTINE SOMERSAULTS OF SELF-CENSORSHIP
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
"Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip," George Orwell
wrote, "but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault
when there is no whip." A half-century after Orwell's caustic gibe at
compliant editors, self-censorship is one of the least discussed -- and most
routine -- media constraints in the United States.
When a dictatorial government decides what can reach print or get on
the airwaves, the heavy hand of the censor is apt to be obvious. But in a
society where the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, the most
significant limits may be obscured.
In contrast to dramatic storms of overt censorship, the usual climate
of U.S. journalism is as unobtrusive as morning dew. The dominant seems
normal, like a ubiquitous odor. "We scent the air of the office," the great
American journalist George Seldes noted in 1931. "We realize that certain
things are wanted, certain things unwanted."
Much has changed for reporters and editors since the 1930s. But
today's media milieu hardly breeds intrepid journalism. At a time of merger
mania in the news industry, journalists are aware that it's risky to
directly challenge the corporate elephant fattening in the middle of the
It is illustrative that the "Today Show" on NBC -- a network owned by
General Electric -- surgically removed references to GE from a news report
on a defective-bolts scandal a few years ago. And that the program's
producers told a guest expert on consumer boycotts not to mention a major
boycott targeting GE.
It's unlikely that anyone from GE's front office specifically ordered
"Today Show" producers to protect the company's image. No one had to. That's
how self-censorship works.
And no one needs to instruct the editor of a magazine dependent on
cigarette-ad revenue not to launch a crusade against the tobacco industry.
Blatant instances of owner (or advertiser) pressure on journalists,
while significant, are mere tips of icebergs that must be taken into account
when navigating a journalistic career. Flagrant intrusion by media owners
or sponsors is frowned upon these days; far more common, below the surface,
are preemptive decisions often made in silence.
Self-censorship gains power as it becomes automatic. Former FCC
commissioner Nicholas Johnson summarizes the process when he tells of "a
reporter who first comes up with an investigative story idea, writes it up
and submits it to the editor and is told the story is not going to run. He
wonders why, but the next time, he is cautious enough to check with the
editor first. He is told by the editor that it would be better not to write
Johnson continues: "The third time he thinks of an investigative story
idea but doesn't bother the editor with it because he knows it's silly. The
fourth time he doesn't even think of the idea anymore."
In the mid-1990s, few other professionals rival journalists in claiming
to be unfettered seekers of the truth. And in few jobs are the gaps between
pretenses and realities more likely to be injurious to the entire society.
To be fair, journalists are no less courageous than people in other
professions. But it's daunting, especially in tough economic times, to
consider biting the hand that signs the paycheck.
Options are particularly sparse these days. The news business keeps
contracting. Broadcast news departments have shrunk. While some newspapers
fold, many others are paring staff.
Journalists who insist that they are hardly akin to Orwell's circus
dogs -- that they function without severe constraints -- should try harder
to prove such assertions in daily work. They might start by confronting
media managers who treat news products like boxes of cereal.
Weeks after transferring from a top post at General Mills this summer,
the new chief executive at Times Mirror Co., Mark Willes, lowered the
corporate boom -- closing New York Newsday and ordering big layoffs at the
Los Angeles Times. Willes does not seem to be embarrassed when he compares
managing newspapers to marketing Cheerios.
Many journalists are appalled at the merging of already-huge media
conglomerates. But most journalists are inclined to mute their criticisms.
People who work in glass suites can't throw many stones.
"The most sacred cow of the press," George Seldes observed long ago,
"is the press itself." Now, perhaps, more than ever.
Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon are syndicated columnists and authors of the
new book "Through the Media Looking Glass: Decoding Bias and Blather in
the News" (Common Courage Press).
© 1995 Peter Langston