Feb 1 2006

The Secret Origins of FAIR

How police spies and media moles helped launch a movement

In 1997, the Soviet Union detonated thermonuclear weapons in the sky over the United States, shutting down the Pentagon’s computer systems and leaving the nation vulnerable to invasion and occupation. The U.N., dominated by East Bloc Communists, became the U.S.’s de facto government, forcing schoolchildren to pledge allegiance to the U.N. flag.

The year 1997 never fit this profile in reality, but it did in Amerika, the 12-episode miniseries broadcast by ABC in 1987.

To this day, Jeff Cohen won’t reveal the identity of the person who sent him an advance script of Amerika. But that anonymous person made Cohen the only one outside ABC to have the script, so that nearly every media outlet that wrote about the controversial miniseries had to consult with him—thus putting a fledgling Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting on the map.

“Anyone who wanted to do something about it had to come through me—and that put me and FAIR in the news,” recalls Cohen.

That ABC mole provided a gust to the previously obscure group’s sails. But someone else sneaking around helped FAIR, too. “The formation of FAIR was subsidized by LAPD spies,” Cohen quips.

In 1975, a 23-year-old Cohen moved to Los Angeles to study at the People’s College of Law, a progressive law school. In L.A., Cohen became active in the Campaign for Democratic Freedoms, a non-violent anti-CIA, anti-FBI activist group. There he met Connie Millazo, who worked alongside Cohen as a fellow activist; they played tennis together socially.

Millazo espoused the group’s ideals and even designed a leaflet to advertise a one-day conference on police abuse. So it came as a surprise to Cohen when he read in a 1977 L.A. Times article (8/5/77) that a district attorney dropped charges on Millazo—who had been arrested during a protest—because she was an undercover cop for the LAPD. “I nearly lost my breakfast,” says Cohen.

Cohen and fellow activist Linda Valentino, who headed an anti-police repression group co-sponsored at the Southern California ACLU, subsequently sparked one of the biggest lawsuits the ACLU had ever handled. In 1978, Cohen and scores of other plaintiffs filed suit. For the next five years, first as a law student and then as a junior lawyer, Cohen worked on the lawsuit. (The LAPD monitored the lawful political activities of thousands, including Quakers, African-American preachers, anti-nuclear student groups, the Black Panthers, César Chávez and Stevie Wonder.)

As the year 1984 inched closer, the city of Los Angeles grew nervous about the international media that would descend on the city for the Olympic games. The plaintiffs jokingly called their case “the official lawsuit of the 1984 Olympics,” recalls Cohen. Unhappily in the spotlight, the LAPD settled for about $1.8 million, which the plaintiffs and their lawyers divided among themselves. As both a lawyer and a victim of spying, Cohen received roughly $14,000.

“I took my money and went to Europe,” says Cohen. He already had a critical eye for U.S. media from its coverage of the Vietnam War, but immersion in European media made the restricted spectrum of the news he had grown up with painfully clear. Not that Europe’s media were perfect: In Britain, Cohen came across the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, a progressive media watch group.

The closest thing in form to the CPBF in America stood far on the right side of the political spectrum: Accuracy In Media, a well-funded group that argued that media were too skeptical of official claims and too critical of their corporate sponsors. FAIR’s early fundraising literature—in which the group calls itself For Accuracy In Reporting—called for a media group to counterbalance AIM, and urged analysis and criticism of Amerika, 60 Minutes and the New York Times.

Of course, progressive media criticism had long existed—from Upton Sinclair and George Seldes to I.F. Stone and Noam Chomsky—but in the mid-1980s, there was little in the way of progressive media activism. Soon after returning to California from Europe, living off the remainder of his legal settlement, Cohen began fundraising with Valentino and others for their nascent project. They soon enlisted the aid of Cohen’s friend Martin A. Lee, an activist and journalist who ended up playing a central role in FAIR’s early years.

“We realized if we really wanted to launch this idea, we had to do it on the East Coast, much to Jeff’s chagrin,” says Lee. “We ended up doing it in New York, because I was there and we had a toehold.”

A toehold in Lee’s small, two-room apartment with only one telephone, that is. At 588 West End Avenue, Cohen, Lee and another activist, Andy Breslau, took turns using the phone to try to raise money and recruit endorsers. But the funding fish weren’t biting. “In the very beginning, everyone refused—that was the problem,” Lee recalls. “We weren’t part of the club—we were new kids on the block.”

Then, with the Amerika script in Cohen’s hands, FAIR started getting mentioned in the national media. “That really was the key thing that put FAIR on the map,” Lee says. “Things happened very quickly—not in terms of fund-raising, but in terms of establishing a presence” in activism and to journalists.

First came mentions in the New York Post’s “Page Six” (10/15/86), the L.A. Times (8/24/86), TV Guide (7/18/87) and others; the money followed. Amerika “established FAIR quickly—almost too quickly,” says Lee. “All it was was a couple guys with one telephone line that didn’t have call waiting. It took time to catch up to the media image.” In the early days, the fledgling group consumed their lives. “It was like 24/7 plus dreams,” Lee laughs.

Extra! debuted in June 1987, emerging as what Lee—Extra!’s editor for its first two years—describes as an “amateurish” newsletter. The premiere issue did, however, boast a cover story by Ben Bagdikian, one of the nation’s most highly regarded media critics. “We didn’t have a lot of money for layout or design, but the content was strong,” says Lee. Around that time, FAIR rented its first real offices at 666 Broadway, which also housed Harper’s and the Center for Constitutional Rights.

FAIR started in the technological Dark Ages, as evidenced by Cohen’s passionate enthusiasm for the introduction of the fax. “A big innovation for FAIR was the fax machine,” Cohen insists. Instead of writing snail mail to media outlets, FAIR faxed their criticism to journalists. “Sometimes we’d get irritated responses in five minutes,” Cohen said. It helped that moles on the inside secretly provided fax numbers—moles FAIR reached by giving journalists free copies, Lee says.

No Google existed back then, and Nexis was way beyond FAIR’s means. “This was a different era for research,” says Steve Rendall, now a senior analyst at FAIR, who joined the group in 1988. He remembers “countless trips back and forth” to research libraries, and “very careful archiving of newspaper clips.”

Rendall sought out FAIR after hearing Cohen speak at New York City’s New School. Visiting 666 Broadway, “I saw a couple little TVs and stacks of newspapers, and thought it looked like home,” Rendall says. Within a year, he became a full-time staffer, with a starting salary of something like $12,000. “A labor of love,” to be sure, Rendall says.

Rendall and other FAIR activists would bring bundles of Extra!s to the New York Times, where yet another mole would place them in the men’s restrooms. (There was no mole for the women’s room, Rendall concedes.) They also left Extra!s on the front desks at Newsweek and other publications around the city. “We were just fanning out to save money,” he said.

Around that time, FAIR’s thrifty band found a giant magazine rack on a New York City sidewalk—the same magazine rack that now sits in FAIR’s current office on West 27th Street. “It weighs about 900 pounds,” jokes Rendall. “It’s impossible to move.”

Lee and then Cohen eventually retired from active FAIR duty—both now work as freelance writers and lecturers—though FAIR continued to grow. Extra! expanded over the years from 12 pages an issue to 32, adding the supplementary newsletter Extra! Update in 1993. FAIR’s radio show CounterSpin debuted in 1988, first as part of Pacifica’s Undercurrents program. Initially broadcast live on WBAI, New York’s Pacifica affiliate, it was first distributed nationally via cassette tapes, gradually moving to CDs, satellite and the Internet to reach some 130 stations across North America.

FAIR’s website, fair.org, was launched in December 1994. The Action Alert network was in full swing by 1998, and now distributes targeted media criticism to more than 38,000 activists.

Though it has many more means of communication, FAIR still faces many of the same challenges that it did at its founding, says Rendall. “We were founded in significant part to counter Cold War propaganda,” he says, noting that the atmosphere and rhetoric of the current “War on Terror” is not all that different. The dwindling number of media owners—the subject of Bagdikian’s cover story in the first Extra!—continues to be an issue. “The media’s gotten even more concentrated,” Rendall says.

At the same time, Rendall says, FAIR scored a major success in “sparking the media democracy movement.” People now realize that “the media are part of the establishment,” he notes. “Part of the problem.”