Back in the mid-1980s, when Jeff Cohen founded FAIR, large-scale progressive media activism was still more than a decade away, and the media justice movement lay in the even more distant future. But FAIR set out to focus attention on race/ethnicity, class and gender bias in the media from the beginning, and to draw connections between corporate control of media outlets and the persistent underrepresentation of socially disadvantaged groups.
One of FAIR’s most effective approaches was to study the demographic and institutional profiles of the sources used in mainstream news reports—who gets to speak. FAIR research revealed not only the overwhelming predominance of white male elites as news sources, but also demonstrated the near absence of public interest voices—civil rights, feminist, labor, environmentalist—from the media debate. These studies put real numbers to phenomena observed for years, and provided critical undergirding for activist calls for change.
FAIR’s first study of Nightline (Extra!, 1-2/89) helped put the small nonprofit on the map. Twenty years of subsequent studies have examined specific, influential news programs, like PBS’s NewsHour (5/21/90) and Fox News’ Special Report (7-8/04, 7-8/02, 7-8/01), as well as entire networks (NPR, 5-6/04, 11-12/01; PBS, 5/99, 9-10/06). FAIR also scrutinizes coverage across a variety of media, tackling issues like Islamophobia in both right-wing and mainstream outlets (11-12/08), gender imbalance on op-ed pages and TV panels (5-6/05), and poverty coverage on the nightly news (9-10/07).
As time has passed, our tools have evolved. But if the email blast has replaced the fax machine, the power of a carefully crafted study to uncover and illustrate media bias remains considerable.
FAIR’s activism encourages readers and listeners to engage media outlets directly. One mid-’90s campaign took on racist hatemonger Bob Grant, then the highest-rated radio talkshow host on New York’s Disney-owned WABC. FAIR alerts generated letters and calls, and a public awareness effort coordinated with religious and civil rights leaders demanded that Disney disclose the company’s policy regarding on-air bigotry. Unwilling to stand behind Grant’s racism, Disney fired the host in 1996 (Extra! Update, 6/96). More recently, FAIR has taken on bigoted TV and radio hosts Michael Savage and Don Imus (FAIR Action Alerts, 2/12/03, 4/9/07).
In 1999, FAIR led an ad hoc coalition of feminist, gay and lesbian and educational groups to challenge the PBS public affairs program National Desk over a particularly problematic series on the so-called “gender wars,” which argued that advances for women and girls lead to “gender Armageddon” for boys and men (Extra!, 9-10/99). The coalition highlighted factual inaccuracies, one-sided advocacy and undisclosed relationships between the series’ sources and its (right-wing) funders, resulting in a meeting in which PBS officials agreed to a formal investigation of the series and a rare open acknowledgment that funder/source relationships should be disclosed to viewers.
Over the years, FAIR has taken part in a variety of coalitions, including pushing for a public TV program devoted to human rights (Extra! Update, 10/94); calling on the major dailies to retract their slander of groundbreaking Contra/cocaine reporter Gary Webb (FAIR Action Alert, 10/16/98); and protesting Bush-era media malfeasance and warmongering at the 2004 Republican National Convention. In each case, FAIR saw more inclusive, more democratic media not merely as an end in itself but as part of the bigger, longer fight for real social and economic justice, with the alliances formed as important as the concrete goals achieved.
But media justice work is not only direct action; its goals are also advanced when we identify the racist premises behind scant Africa coverage, unearth the stereotypes hidden in reporting on immigration, or call out corporate media’s lack of skepticism when it comes to tales of “crack babies,” “superpredators” or “welfare queens.”
Sometimes it means pointing to absences, as when journalists fail to include polling places inaccessible to the disabled among vital “voting rights” concerns, or when they overlook the poor and working class when considering the impact of tax policy. And sometimes it means shining a light on media practices and policies most of us never see, such as the infamous but pervasive practice of “discounting,” whereby advertisers pay less to place ads on shows reaching predominantly black or brown audiences (, 1-2/00).
As progressive critics, FAIR seeks to show how seemingly “neutral” media practices can leave grievous social and economic inequities unchallenged or, worse, help reproduce them. As activists, we name these problems as a step toward redressing them.