Feb 7 2006

Fighting Back

FAIR's media activism successes

If FAIR’s work consisted entirely of quantitative studies and the well-documented criticism that appears in every issue of Extra!, the group would be akin to a conventional think tank. But throughout FAIR’s history, it has had a significant emphasis on media activism—treating media giants just as one would any other powerful political or government institution, by directly confronting news outlets when they misinform readers and viewers, keep the lid on stories that should be on the front page, or bombard communities with hateful stereotypes.

FAIR didn’t invent media activism, but we have helped to develop and refine the techniques that citizen groups have increasingly used in recent years to talk back to the press. FAIR’s activist philosophy is rooted in part in the recognition that a media outlet’s reputation for trustworthiness and credibility are one of its most important assets. If activism can successfully challenge that credibility—suggesting that an outlet is misrepresenting the facts, or excluding important information or viewpoints—then the outlet’s owners have a direct interest in changing its behavior.

Another method for influencing media—the advertiser boycott—is one that FAIR has consistently rejected. Not because such boycotts aren’t effective—to the contrary, most news outlets are very dependent on advertising revenue, and controversy-shy advertisers would often rather take their ad money elsewhere than face a determined grassroots campaign. Right-wing media activists, in particular, have had considerable success with threats to target advertisers; Ford’s pulling of ads from gay publications to avert the wrath of the American Family Association (New York Times, 12/6/05) is only the latest example.

The problem is that FAIR’s goal is the creation of a freer, more democratic form of journalism—and one of the major factors that limits and distorts U.S. media is the dependence on corporate advertising dollars. It simply isn’t possible to develop more independent news outlets by encouraging big corporations to interfere more in the content of the news—so this is a tactic that FAIR has consistently passed up.

That doesn’t mean that FAIR can’t use the media’s profit motive—far and away the most powerful driving force for commercial media—to affect the behavior of media companies. The basic economic transaction that most outlets rely on is the sale of people—readers, viewers or listeners—to advertisers. While putting pressure on the media by threatening advertisers would be counterproductive, one can achieve the same effect by focusing on the audiences that media so profitably sell.

Taking it to the streets

In an age of podcasting, Web streaming and email campaigns, it’s easy to forget that activists did not have such tools at their disposal when FAIR got started. Early campaigns took what by today’s standards would be considered a decidedly low-tech form, like a FAIR leafletting outside the New York Times in 1991 to draw attention to the paper’s decision to print the name—and peer through the windows—of the woman who filed rape charges against a Kennedy cousin (New York Times, 4/17/91). From the start, FAIR was taking its case directly to the powerful media outlets it sought to hold accountable. The group gained its first national exposure thanks to an activist campaign around ABC‘s 1986 Amerika series (Extra! 1-2/06).

In some cases, protests against the media took (and still take) the form of traditional marches and rallies. FAIR helped organize a media march to protest the heavily censored and militaristic coverage of the 1991 Gulf War. The only major media figure who came down to listen to what protesters had to say was ABC‘s Peter Jennings. (If you ran any kind of business—let alone a news business—wouldn’t you be curious as to why thousands of people were marching in the street to show how upset they were with your product?)

In February 1997, FAIR’s “Melt the Media Snow Job” campaign brought hundreds to picket lines in four cities to protest efforts of establishment newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post and L.A. Times to discredit reporter Gary Webb’s exposé of CIA links to the crack boom of the 1980s (Extra!, 1-2/97). Protesters targeted the headquarters of the three papers and the New York Times‘ San Francisco bureau; the L.A. protest even included an impromptu “snow storm,” thanks to some creative activists and some artificial snow.

FAIR also helped organize a “media mogul” march in New York in October 1997, leading hundreds of activists on a tour that stopped in front of major New York media landmarks. The march may have been the first of its kind, highlighting the dangers of a corporatized, conglomerated media system.

Such tactics were not abandoned in the Internet era; FAIR helped organize a media march in New York during the 2004 Republican National Convention, for example. FAIR also participated in two rallies at the convention of the National Association of Broadcasters conventions in 2000 and 2002, events that raised the profile of the broadcasters’ lobby among progressive activists.

A light on hate speech

FAIR’s belief is that the best answer to bad speech is more speech. We don’t insist that people whose opinions we disagree with should be silenced; we call for a full range of debate, where viewpoints from all parts of the political spectrum are treated by the same standard. This approach is tested by the hateful rhetoric that often spews forth from major commercial talk radio stations, sometimes crossing over into calls for violence.

In these cases, our approach has been to ask the parent companies what, if any, standards they have—does the company have any rules regarding what they are willing to broadcast? Is the company willing to stand behind bigotry and violence as defensible free speech? Simply posing such questions can provoke a media outlet to rethink what they have chosen to air.

One of FAIR’s most successful campaigns was directed at New York radio host Bob Grant, whose racist invective was documented and brought to national attention thanks to FAIR’s work with several anti-racism activists. Grant had made a habit of maligning African-Americans (Extra!, 1-2/95), like praying for Magic Johnson to “go into full-blown AIDS” (10/1/92), and routinely referred to African-Americans as “savages.” Grant also promoted white supremacist groups like American Renaissance on his show (Extra! Update, 6/95) and once (6/29/94) offered this advice as the best way to deal with a gay pride march: “Ideally, it would have been nice to have a few phalanxes of policemen with machine guns and mow them down.”

In the early ’90s, Grant’s toxic bigotry was airing on the nation’s No. 1 talk radio station—New York’s WABC. After FAIR’s documenting of Grant’s hate talk made news, the sale of the station to the Disney corporation offered a new opportunity: As a FAIR advertisement in the New York Times (3/31/96) asked, “Is Bigotry a Disney Family Value?” A special phone hotline was set up for those who wished to hear Grant in his own words—which were seldom quoted even in critical press coverage—and activists were encouraged to write to Disney to ask if the company’s policy allowed hosts to broadcast bigotry and violent threats. In the end, Disney fired Grant—something FAIR had never called for, though we weren’t sorry that his dehumanizing rants were no longer poisoning the New York airwaves.

Grant would not be out of a job for long—another New York station, WOR, hired him soon after his release from WABC. But rather than defending the racist and homophobic slurs that had gotten him fired, Grant claimed that he hadn’t made those statements to begin with (Extra! Update, 6/96). For FAIR, this was the true victory—changing the standard of what was considered acceptable in mainstream media.

In a sign that corporate media hadn’t lost its taste for racist hosts, though, MSNBC announced in 2003 that it was adding syndicated bigot Michael Savage as a weekend host. FAIR presented a detailed history of Savage’s most notable slurs (Action Alert, 2/12/03), and called on activists to let MSNBC know that about its new employee’s record. Savage did not last long—an on-air tirade where he slurred a caller as a “sodomite” who should “get AIDS and die” (7/5/03) earned him his walking papers. It seemed clear that the public demand for MSNBC to declare its standards—if it had any—helped the network make its decision.

New tools

It’s likely that many more people participated in the Savage campaign compared to Bob Grant, thanks to the advent of the Internet, which has changed FAIR’s activism considerably. But unlike many online organizers, FAIR does not generally offer Web-based petitions or form letters. Instead, FAIR encourages its activists to send their own individual messages to the media. While that undoubtedly results in fewer letters, we believe the ones that are generated have far more impact—and do much more to encourage a critical, independent media audience. An early version of FAIR’s Internet activism was a call to protest the dismissal of Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy, a writer the January 8, 1997 FAIR alert called the paper’s “one consistent voice for peace and justice.”

Email campaigns can exert a significant influence on corporate outlets, though media insiders are not always happy that the flow of communication now goes both ways. When the New York Times (9/30/01) reported that a “few hundred” showed up in Washington, D.C. to protest attacks on Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks, a FAIR alert (10/02/01) noted that local police had reported the crowd at 7,000. The Times illustrated (10/1/01) a second day of protests with a photograph of a lone counterdemonstrator holding a sign that read, “Osama Thanks Fellow Cowards for Your Support.”

Activists writing to the paper in response to FAIR’s alert received emails from Times senior editor Bill Borders that accused FAIR of deliberately spreading misinformation: “I don’t know why they did this; you might want to ask them.” Borders eventually placed an angry phone call to FAIR charging that our work “over the years” had been based on lies, though he declined to elaborate on the charge. Borders added that the FAIR staffer he spoke with—me—should “get a job at Macy’s.”

The Times isn’t always that hostile to criticism. One of the most remarkable activist campaigns of recent years came in October 2002, when the New York Times reported dismissively on an anti-war protest in Washington, D.C. The Times‘ October 27 account suggested that “thousands of protesters marched through Washington’s streets. . . . Fewer people attended than organizers had said they hoped for.” The 500-word report appeared on page 8 of the paper.

Reality, however, told a different story; as a Washington Post headline accurately put it, “100,000 Rally, March Against War in Iraq.” The Post also quoted an organizer as saying the march was “just extremely, extremely successful.”

Media activists went to work (Action Alert, 10/28/02), flooding the New York Times with hundreds of letters. Three days later (10/30/02), the Times re-reported the D.C. march, only this time the event couldn’t have been more different: The paper now said the protests “drew 100,000 by police estimates and 200,000 by organizers’, forming a two-mile wall of marchers around the White House. The turnout startled even organizers, who had taken out permits for 20,000 marchers.”

The Times never explained the discrepancy between the two accounts. But it was obvious that activism made the difference (Action Alert, 10/30/02).

Sustained campaigns

Some activism stories are proof that a sustained effort is a necessity. During the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was hit by a U.S. missile. The official explanation—that this was a mere targeting error attributable to the use of a faulty map—did not satisfy some reporters, and an investigation by the London Observer (10/17/99) indicated that the bombing was deliberate. This scoop, along with follow-ups in other European papers, went nowhere in the U.S. media, until FAIR activists started to ask why (Action Alert, 10/22/99).

The New York Times, for its part, responded (Activism Update, 11/3/99) that it was aware of the reports, which foreign editor Andrew Rosenthal said were “not terribly well-sourced”—an inaccurate characterization of the Observer‘s report—but he did promise activists, “We have assigned reporters to follow up and when we have the facts, we will publish an article.”

Several months after FAIR responded to the Times‘ brushing off the embassy bombing story, Rosenthal was telling interested readers that the Times had come up with nothing to support the idea that the hit was intentional, and thus would not publish a report. The Times seemed to be wishing the story would just go away—but FAIR activists demanded to see what the Times had found (Action Alert, 2/9/00).

And sure enough, on April 17, the Times published a lengthy investigation into the murky incident, concluding that the official explanation—which the Times had long accepted unquestioningly—relied on a “bizarre chain of missteps” and was defended by the CIA in a manner that Rosenthal himself called “bizarre.” Were it not for the efforts of FAIR activists, these findings might never have seen the light of day (Activism Update, 4/28/00).

FAIR has also directed email campaigns at the Federal Communications Commission, the government agency with the greatest power to shape the future of corporate media. When the FCC declared its intention to “review” many of the remaining limits on media concentration, FAIR (10/26/01) created an online form, making it easy to file formal FCC comments rejecting the idea. The public response swamped the FCC’s public comment system, suggesting that the agency wasn’t all that interested in receiving such comments in the first place. Nonetheless, this type of activism continued to grow, and by 2003 the FCC was receiving hundreds of thousands of such comments.

Getting a response

One always hopes to get a positive response from the target of an action alert—as when both the New York Times (2/25/04) and ABC World News Tonight (2/24/04) returned to the question of the meaning of an anti-gay marriage amendment after a FAIR Action Alert (2/16/04) urged them to do so (Activism Update, 2/27/04). But even when there’s no direct response, it’s often worthwhile just to make outlets aware that they’re being monitored.

Sometimes there’s even a sort of satisfaction in getting a negative response—when the response only serves to underscore the original critique. Take John Stossel’s Is America No. 1?, a one-hour special that aired on ABC in 1999 (9/19/99). After FAIR showed that the program was a stew of half-truths and misinformation in service to Stossel’s pro-corporate agenda (9/28/99), we received a lengthy document with the intriguing title, “A Response by Stossel and Some of His Staff to the Group ‘FAIR'” (11/6/99). Instead of rebutting FAIR’s criticisms, however, the reply only served to highlight what might be called the Stossel Method: the exclusion of inconvenient facts, the garbling of basic statistical data, and the failure to respond to the actual content of an opposing argument (Action Alert, 11/11/99). It was the last time FAIR received a detailed reply from Stossel about our criticism of his work—for reasons that are not hard to imagine.

Fox‘s Bill O’Reilly likewise made one attempt (10/13/03) to respond to a FAIR alert (10/10/03), advising viewers: “You need to stay off the left-wing websites. . . . You’re never going to get the truth.” The fact that O’Reilly’s response to charges of inaccuracy was itself deceptive (Action Alert, 10/14/03) only made FAIR’s point even clearer.

Corporate media clearly understand that the best PR strategy is to ignore your critics—if possible. It’s much harder, however, to ignore hundreds and sometimes thousands of activists than it is to disregard one lone media watch group. This realization sometimes seems to put media spokespeople on edge: Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell, in a piece headlined “The Limits of E-Mails En Masse” (11/13/05), recently complained that FAIR activists were bothering her with their multiple letters—never mind that Howell’s job at the Post is to field such complaints. As she put it, “I can see how e-mail campaigns dilute the influence of those who write. As for me, I must say that e-mail campaigns give me a pain in my right index finger—the one that hits the delete button.”

Howell’s argument is an old one—her Post predecessor Michael Getler offered up the same laments about being badgered by the masses (4/24/05) and their “write-in campaigns” when he’d much prefer “one letter directly from FAIR laying out its critique.” The individual letters Getler claimed to prefer never received any response, however, which sent us the message that the while the Post does not care a great deal about what FAIR thinks, it appears to care a great deal more about what hundreds of members of the public think—an attitude that seems to make good business sense.

Corporate media tend to dismiss public activism in general, so it’s no surprise that they do so when it’s directed at them. Their disdain for grassroots letter-writing campaigns is a reflection of the same elite gatekeeping priorities that are often at the core of FAIR’s substantive critique. In the worldview of the media establishment, mere members of the public are unqualified to comment on journalism, whose critique should properly be confined to a polite conversation among insiders.

While media elites might want us to believe that mass action is somehow less effective, FAIR’s 20 years of experience suggest precisely the opposite: Collective activism is the only thing that works.