What the United States needs is a real discussion about the systematic structural bias against politicians and political movements that question corporate control over the news, say RootsAction.org founders Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.
Almost two weeks ago, there was a slight blip in the news cycle in which Bernie Sanders confronted corporate media with a claim that their coverage might be biased. Of course, corporate media outlets have been facing this charge ever since Trump became president, but this time it came from Senator Sanders, who said the following.
BERNIE SANDERS: Anybody here know how much Amazon paid in taxes last year?
CROWD: Nothing! [crosstalk]
Bernie Sanders: I talk about that all of the time and then I wonder why The Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos who owns Amazon, doesn’t write particularly good articles about me. I don’t know why.
GREG WILPERT: The reaction to Sanders’ claim that The Washington Post coverage of him is biased against him generated a wave of pushback. The Washington Post Chief Editor, Martin Baron, said that Sanders is pushing a conspiracy theory when he suggested that Jeff Bezos interferes with the work of the newspaper. Many other corporate news outlets followed suit, saying that Sanders failed to provide evidence, and that he was copying a page from Trump’s playbook.
Joining me now to discuss the corporate media’s role in the 2020 campaign are Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon. They’re Co-Founders of RootsAction.org. Also, Jeff is founder of the media watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, FAIR, of which Norman is a longtime associate. Thanks for joining us today, Jeff and Norman.
NORMAN SOLOMON: Sure.
JEFF COHEN: Great to be with you.
GREG WILPERT: So let’s get the main issue out of the way. Was Sanders correct in pointing out The Washington Post’s bias against him? And if so, how does Amazon, or any media owner for that matter, achieve this kind of control when what their defenders say is true, that there are no instructions coming from Bezos to the editors or journalists? What do you say, Jeff? Let’s start with you.
JEFF COHEN: Well, there doesn’t have to be a memo from management or ownership, or orders from management or ownership. When I worked at MSNBC in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, there actually were memos and there were orders that we should bias our coverage in support of the invasion. That’s why we were all terminated. That’s the exception. The mere presence of one of the richest people on Earth, Jeff Bezos, as the owner of The Washington Post, his mere presence is enough. What I love about Bernie Sanders is, in 2015-2016, he took democratic socialism out of the closet. And from then, especially these last few weeks, Greg, that you’re referring to, he’s taken this idea of corporate media bias out of the closet, so even the mainstream media has to be discussing it.
Anyone can look at the studies that FAIR.org has done over the decades to show the homogenous nature of the coverage. And there isn’t always a memo. There doesn’t need to be a memo from management. I mean, FAIR showed, in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, they did a study of two weeks, ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, 393 people quoted about the invasion. Only three represented the anti-war movement. That’s less than 1%. There probably wasn’t a memo at PBS, or ABC, or CBS, or NBC, but they got that homogenous coverage. FAIR has done studies of how The New York Times and Washington Post covered NAFTA when it was being debated, and they virtually put the critics into the margins. FAIR recently did a study of Venezuela and how you basically can’t get into the mainstream media if you think overthrowing a government in Latin America might be a bad idea.
So there doesn’t need to be a memo. Everyone understands what is off limits and what isn’t. I learned that when I was in the mainstream TV news. I mean, think about it: the famous Adam Johnson article in March of 2016 where The Washington Post ran 16 negative stories about Bernie Sanders in 16 hours. Now, if anyone wanted to investigate at The Washington Post the very newsworthy controversies of Amazon and Jeff Bezos— the exploitation of labor, the tax avoidance, the CIA contracts— if they wrote even three negative articles in three days, their heads would roll and everyone at Washington Post knows it.
GREG WILPERT: Now, but a common line of defense, on their part that is, is that the editorial practices—I mean, in defense of their editorial practice is to point out that Trump also complains about the mainstream media or the corporate media outlets all the time as well. And the implication, in other words, is that they’re equally critical of everyone, whether left or right. What do you say to that, Norman?
NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, I think it’s silly and also dangerous. It’s like saying that right-wing racist populism is the same as progressive populism. It’s like saying that taking to task and challenging Wall Street and advocating for low-income people and racial minorities is the same as somehow denouncing immigrants. People who are critical of the establishment may do so from different vantage points, but the point is that corporate media are owned and advertised by institutions that have huge stakes in the corporate status quo, the profit system, the huge drive for profits. Increasingly, and this has been going on for a very long time, there’s a consolidation of ownership and control over mass media through ownership and advertising by corporate America.
So when you look at a quote that is rarely seen or mentioned by George Orwell, it’s quite appropriate for the newsrooms. Orwell wrote, “Circus dogs do somersaults at the crack of a whip, but the really well-trained circus dogs do somersaults when there is no whip.” When you go to the news department of The New York Times or The Washington Post or National Public Radio News, and you walk among the desks and the computers and so forth, you’re not going to see any whips. You’re going to see people who got there and stay there for the most part by adhering to dotted lines that are not seen, but are well understood. For instance, at The Washington Post, if you attack Bernie Sanders and you denounce his policies and his advocacy in direct terms, that’s not going to harm your career. But what if you attempted to launch a multi-part investigative series about Amazon and the way in which it paid no federal taxes last year, and the way in which it attempts to influence and manipulate and dominate federal policies? That, to put it mildly, would not be a career enhancer.
So I think we’re looking at a corporate media which represent the interests of their owners, not entirely, but overwhelmingly. That puts a burden, an increasingly crucial burden, on independent media outlets—might I say, such as The Real News. Utilizing the internet, it’s essential that we are able to create and disseminate media discourse information analysis that run counter to the dominant media narrative. And I would just sum up this way in terms of the way we started, talking about the Bernie Sanders campaign, and that is that the steepest hill for the Sanders 2020 campaign to climb is corporate media. It is media bias against progressive populism. It is elitism. It is allegiance to Wall Street and the corporate system.
GREG WILPERT: Now, the main issue that both of you here are addressing clearly, which is also the issue that Sanders actually raised, is the structural connection between the material interests of corporate media outlets to maintain basically their profits, and how this shapes their news coverage, from deciding who to hire to what issues to cover. Now, this structural connection is never actually mentioned, obviously, in corporate media. But it seems like this ought to be something that should be for a public debate.
Now, I’m wondering if either one of you— let’s start with you, Jeff— have any ideas as to how do we make this an issue of public debate? I mean, Sanders now, I think he started it, but it was quickly quashed it seems. And I’m just wondering, how can we keep this structural issue in the headlines as a topic of discussion? Which is clearly, of course, not the issue that Trump raises when he criticizes the media.
JEFF COHEN: Right. I think that Bernie Sanders knows this issue of structure inside out. When he first was elected to Congress, he approached me at FAIR and said, “What can we do about corporate media, and the concentration of corporate media, and the increasing concentration?” No member of Congress had ever approached me at FAIR. So Bernie has been at all of the media reform conferences that Norman and I, and The Real News, that we’ve all been at. Bernie knows the issue inside and out. His criticism of the media is very informed and the structure of the media is very informed.
We know what we need in this country. It’s not rocket science how you get a small “d” democratic media system. You have to have fully funded public broadcasting. You have to have taxpayer funding going to news outlets, non-profit news outlets, whether left, right or center. You need to break up the monopolies. You need to make sure that the broadcast networks, the broadcast channels are not concentrated further and further into corporate hands.
I mean, just think about it. You can talk about the structure, what’s wrong with the corporate structure, and Bernie Sanders is one of the few politicians that knows this well, in two words. And I know it’s been covered on The Real News. One word is Gatehouse, and the other word is Sinclair. GateHouse Media, owned by a fracker, a natural gas investor, has just purchased Gannett. A guy named Wes Edens is the biggest owner of newspapers in the country, swallowed up USA Today and all the big newspapers in Gannett. And where is the Democratic National Convention going to take place next year? In Milwaukee, in the Milwaukee Bucks arena that Wes Edens is the owner of. That’s Gatehouse. That’s the newspaper concentration.
Structurally, that needs to be broken up. No company should be allowed to own that many newspapers. And then on the other side is Sinclair. Sinclair Broadcast Group owns hundreds of TV stations. They’re a pro-Trump outfit. It’s Trump propaganda day after day after day, ordered by management to each of the stations they own, and they own hundreds, and that should not be allowed. So everyone knows the problem with the corporate structure, and Bernie Sanders is one of the few politicians that talks about how we can move toward a small “d” democratic media system.
GREG WILPERT: Norman, do you want to address that as well?
NORMAN SOLOMON: Yeah, I’d add that this is fundamentally a political issue. It’s about political power, and the solutions involve political power. 20, 30, 40 years ago in the media and political discourse, there was this term called antitrust. We rarely hear it anymore, not coincidentally because the corporate owners that have consolidated so much power have done so while rolling back, and their political allies in Congress and the White House, rolling back the very concept of antitrust. Ben Bagdikian, former managing editor at The Washington Post, wrote six editions of his book, The Media Monopoly. And back, gee, what was it, 30-plus years ago, his first edition documented that 50 corporations controlled through ownership most of the news and information flow in the country. That was shocking, and by the sixth edition early in this century, it was down to six.
So we have been acculturated to accept this, and we’ve got to not only reject it, but fight it. And that means that—And that’s why, again, Bernie Sanders is such a threat, because the movement that he is part of and that he is the cutting edge for gaining political control for, is fundamentally about breaking up. He’s like a trust buster. He’s about breaking up these cartels that control through hiring and policies what most Americans see and hear and are able to gain access to every day. And by the way, that includes primarily as well through the internet. The same corporations that are dominating the airwaves and cable are, for the most part, dominating the internet. So I would say that, ultimately, these are political solutions that have to be achieved by building movements. And election campaigns are subsets of those movements, but absolutely essential.
And the other aspect I’d mention is that what at first seems fringe, according to the mass media, can be made central to political discourse. And so 10-15 years ago, single payer— now more known as Medicare For All— it was dismissed as not worth debating by the mass media, by Democrats running for president. Green New Deal, again, forced onto the agenda. Gay rights, in the last decades, forced onto the agenda. That has to be done about breaking up the media conglomerates, and meanwhile, strengthening independent media through genuine public funding that is insulated from corporate political pressure, not the bogus, phony so-called public broadcasting that we get from programs like All Things Considered and Morning Edition on NPR or the PBS News Hour, and so forth.
GREG WILPERT: Actually that brings me to the next issue I wanted to raise, which is precisely the political aspect of this. That is, the corporate media bias is certainly a problem for progressives who run for public office, but it’s especially a problem for them when they run for office that the corporate media covers, such as statewide or national office. But local races are rarely covered actually, so it’s presumably easier for them to challenge the status quo there because they can fly under the radar, I would think. But in terms of running for larger office, I mean, how can they break through this corporate media bias? What are your ideas on that issue, Jeff?
JEFF COHEN: Well, I think that the movement to challenge corporate media bias has never been bigger. And if people want to get involved in that movement in an organized way, it’s great to write letters to the editor, it’s great to make phone calls, “Well, why was no advocate for Medicare For All in your last discussion?” It’s good to do that as an individual. It’s even better to do that collectively. And I encourage people to go and sign up and become an activist at FAIR.org. They do this corporate media bias challenge day after day. And Roots Action, people should go to RootsAction.org and sign up, especially the Roots Action Education Fund. We’ve been working with FAIR, and we’re challenging media bias in an organized way.
I mean, Norman brought up the internet. I mean, think about. You have so many liberals and even progressives that watch MSNBC and CNN religiously, and they don’t know MSNBC is owned by Comcast. CNN is owned by AT&T. AT&T and Comcast are the two corporations working hand in glove with the Trump administration to end net neutrality. And it would make The Real News, Democracy Now, The Young Turks, it would push them into the slow lane. And you don’t hear about it on MSNBC or CNN. They’re supposed to be the anti-Trump channels, but when their bosses are in league with Trump’s Federal Communications Commission to end an open internet, you can hear about Russian oligarchs week after week, but you don’t hear about US oligarchs, like the people that own MSNBC at Comcast, or the people that own CNN at AT&T. Those are the US oligarchs that are undermining US democracy that you hear so little about unless you watch The Real News and read Common Dreams, and Truthdig, and Truthout, etc.
GREG WILPERT: Norman, what about you? I mean, I also just want to mention quickly though that The Washington Post actually did run one single editorial or op-ed article I think by Katrina vanden Heuvel defending Sanders’ position on this media bias. One of the points she makes at the end was precisely that with the help of the internet, we can maybe break through, and you’re questioning that a bit. I mean, one of the things she mentions of course is the role of social media, so I just want to get your take on that.
NORMAN SOLOMON: Yeah. Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote a great piece last week for The Washington Post about that, and it certainly went against the grain, swimming upstream of the dominant messaging that’s come through The Post and other corporate media. The internet is an opportunity. The barriers to entry are lower, but Robert McChesney and other scholars have pointed out that there has been really an unprecedented pace of the consolidation of big money corporate power over the internet. There’s really no precedent for how fast the huge corporations have dominated this technology that we’re utilizing right now. Oh sure, that lower barrier to entry of setting up a website and so forth is very important. And progressives as well as the right-wing have used the internet to good advantage. That doesn’t change the fact though that if you take a big picture look, it’s dominated by corporate America.
You know what it reminds me of is, if you went from your home to work every day, and you went past some organic gardens every day, and you said, “Oh wow, that’s agriculture these days,” because that’s my usual route, “I see all these organic gardens.” Well, if you only go to certain websites and they’re progressive websites, you might think that that is the essence, or the main, or a huge chunk, a significant chunk of the internet. It’s really not, proportionally, very much of the internet. So the same propaganda systems that are dominating print and broadcast and cable, when you look at it from a macro standpoint, they are dominating the internet. And that’s not to be defeatist. On the contrary, it’s to say that we need to do a stronger job, a better job of organizing through the internet and on the ground.
And that brings me to a point that you raised a couple of minutes ago, Greg. Certainly on-the-ground work in local races gives you more potential with less money. If you’re running for city council, if you’re running for a county commission, you can go door to door, you can make up for a financial deficit or a lack of corporate media allies on the ground with shoe leather, with reaching out to people. But still, in all, I would say that the local daily papers, the local radio and TV stations, and particularly the endorsements that come from daily papers which really matter, and independent weekly progressive newspapers have for the most part shriveled up with a few exceptions. Still, local candidates are up against a corporate structure and entrenched set of business interests that do include the dominant media outlets.
And in a way, I think that Bernie Sanders is, again, setting the pace and aiming our standards very high by being willing to directly call out the propaganda systems that are skewing coverage of election campaigns from dogcatcher to President of the United States. And that means that we have an opportunity to shift the debate by informing people with cogent analysis to say that information flow is not the province of corporate America. In democracy, we’ve got to do it. We’ve got to make the discourse work.
GREG WILPERT: Okay. On that note, we’re going to have to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, Co-Founders of RootsAction.org. Thanks again, Jeff and Norman, for having joined us today.
NORMAN SOLOMON: Thanks.
JEFF COHEN: Thanks, Greg.
GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.