Jan
01
2007

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Highlights from FAIR’s 20th anniversary event

I did a public forum in New Haven last week, and someone noted that FAIR was formed before even the Internet was big, and I corrected her and I said, actually, we were formed before the fax machine was big. And I remember when we got our first fax machine, how it made it so much easier to get under the skin of the Tom Brokaws and the Ted Koppels and the New York Times editors.

So imagine how well FAIR is doing on that score now that we have 45,000 people on the activist e-mail list, and if you’re not on it, sign up at fair.org. FAIR’s come a long way, 20 years. . . .

Over the years, FAIR has brought about countless retractions and corrections. We’ve exposed bigotry and racism in the media, gotten many progressive advocates and issues into the mainstream media that otherwise would’ve been locked out. A few months ago, the New York Times ran an op-ed column [6/16/06] accusing anti-war protesters of noisily disrupting the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq. FAIR activists had a big hand in getting that outrageous smear retracted. It’s equivalent to the hoax during the Vietnam era that peace activists were spitting on returning veterans; that never happened either.

You’ve probably heard that FAIR just published another study [Extra!, 9-10/06], on who gets to speak and who doesn’t get to speak on the NewsHour on PBS, so-called public TV. During the six-month study, not a single anti-war activist was interviewed. Although a large percentage of Americans favor withdrawal of troops from Iraq, NewsHour voices who were pro-withdrawal were outnumbered by more than 5-to-1 by advocates of staying the course.

Every time FAIR is in the news with a new study or a new exposé, I get all this undeserved thanks, congratulations for my great work. The truth is I left the FAIR staff collective six years ago, left the board four years ago.

The successes of FAIR are the results of the hardworking, under-paid, overworked staff, and they’re the ones who

deserve all of our praise. . . .

Over the years, no one’s done more than FAIR to reveal systematic bias, exclusion, censorship. You know, in other countries, most censorship is the work of the government or a religious authority. In our country, it’s mostly the work of big corporations. Has FAIR stopped the tide of media conglomeration? Absolutely not. Has FAIR brought balance to corporate media discussions? No; balanced corporate media is an oxymoron.

But FAIR has been a voice in the wilderness talking about the dangers of conglomerated media; the importance of resisting pro-corporate, pro-war media propaganda; the importance of building independent non-profit media. And we’ve certainly helped spark a strong national movement, online and off, that can powerfully and instantly rebut the media. FAIR’s part of this historic boom in independent media. —Jeff Cohen

The Subversive Truth

Since this is a FAIR event, I figured I’d get to vent about some things in the media that have been bothering me; I just figured I can indulge myself here tonight. I could tell you what’s making me mad.

So let’s start with last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine [10/8/06]. The one with the elephants going crazy on the cover? You see that? My first thought was, “Oh god, I can’t read another story about Hastert and Foley.” Actually, it was about elephants.

But I never got that far, because I was stopped by the column at the beginning of the magazine by James Traub. . . . It starts by saying that welfare reform was “so successful” that there’s no longer any debate about it. There’s no longer any debate about it because they won’t let those of us who are critical of it speak in the media!

Another thing that’s been bothering me—New York Times columnists John Tierney and David Brooks’ constant drumbeat about the innate differences between the sexes. I acknowledge that there are some innate differences between the sexes. For evolutionary reasons that we don’t yet understand, if you’re a male you’re 10 times more likely to be a columnist for the New York Times.

So this bothers me all the time. And then here’s a real stab: We get Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda coming along and starting a radio station for women which won’t have arguments on it, won’t have debates on it. Because, they are saying as they start this station, women don’t like to argue and debate. We’re too sweet, we’re too nice. Gloria and Jane, have you ever heard of Katha Pollitt?

Now, thank you for letting me get these things off my chest; I couldn’t think of any other venue where I could say these things. And thanks to FAIR, really, for all that they do. Someone has to watch Fox News. Someone has to listen to Rush Limbaugh. And you know, the people at FAIR are actually paid to do that; that’s the audience for these guys. Not paid really well, of course, but at least I think they get some applause. . . .

And I just want to end on one brief philosophical point about FAIR’s work. As Todd Gitlin argued a few years ago in a book of his, the media is not just an industry; it’s not just an incidental part of our lives as individuals either. It is ubiquitous. It is inescapable. It’s like the air that we breathe. And to invite people to think critically about the media, as FAIR does every single day, is to ask them to question the very contours of reality as it is given to us.

And to do that is to raise the notion of a truth independent of what we believe or are told to believe. I think, and this is my biggest plaudit for FAIR, that in today’s environment, there can be no more subversive idea than the notion of truth. —Barbara Ehrenreich

Bias for the Facts

In June 1986, FAIR set up its editorial operations in the same building at Broadway and Bond Street that houses Harper’s Magazine. And by the end of that summer I’d become an attentive reader of Extra!, first as a newsletter and then as a bimonthly journal. The studies and reports never failed to remind me of what I was meant to be doing, both as an editor and writer. And I learned from its teaching by example as well as from its questionings of the great truths displayed in the show windows of ABC News and the New York Times.

The magazine sets a high standard of good sense. More than once over the course of the last 20 years, I’ve torn up drafts of what I thought were finished manuscripts because of a further clarification that I came across in Extra!, fortunately in time to revise the premise of the essay and redirect the point of the argument.

The magazine’s bias in favor of sticking to the facts puts it at odds with the big money news and entertainment media that manufacture the content equivalents of processed cheese. And among all the publications that I read at regular intervals, Extra! comes closest to approaching the work of journalism as it was understood by practitioners on the order of Upton Sinclair, A.J. Liebling, Walter Karp and I.F. Stone. —Lewis Lapham

David on the Little Engine That Could

I’m delighted to have been asked to participate in this wonderful celebration of what I consider to be one of the most important and productive organizations out to save the media from themselves and us from them, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting.

Of course, one can’t say too much about FAIR’s accomplishments over these 20 years. Their contributions are all the more impressive when one considers the breathtaking scope of what this organization is up against: the frightening concentration of media ownership, the concomitant shift from information to infotainment. Both came precisely at the time that the new 24-hour availability of the news gave the false impression that we had truly entered the information age. Yet as FAIR has made a point to show with its meticulous research, its courageous revelations, and its irreverent style, it’s instead the era of misinformation.

The task of stripping the aura of authority and truth from the ever-growing behemoth called the media would seem daunting for even the most generously funded and well-staffed organization. Yet the shock and awe inspired by visiting FAIR’s modest digs, and recognizing that the entire staff pretty much fit into an SUV, compels one to think about all the relevant metaphors for accomplishments against the odds, all at the same time. So FAIR is David going to meet Goliath on the little engine that could speak truth to power by telling the emperor that he was, well, butt-naked. —Kimberle Williams Crenshaw

A Different Kind of Media

What FAIR has been doing for 20 years is demanding that the media tell the truth. It’s absolutely critical. The embedding process has brought the media to an all-time low.

And not just talking about reporters embedded in the front lines of troops—when they should, if they are going to be embedded, be in Iraqi hospitals and families and communities and the peace movement around the world—but embedded in the power elite in this country, embedded in Washington, embedded in the government corporate access, enjoying that “access” of evil. That’s trading truth for access.

We need a media of a different kind, and I think that that is what FAIR has been pushing for, just week after week, month after month, year after year. Giving us the facts, making the comparisons, pointing out that on every network there’s the same small circle of pundits who know so little about so much, explaining the world to us and getting it so wrong. . . . It’s such an important study that I’ve cited hundreds of times, the one they did in the lead-up to the invasion [3/18/03], around the two weeks that Colin Powell gave his push for war at the United Nations, that he now says is a stain on his career. But there was FAIR, looking at that two weeks around February 5, 2003. Looking at the four major nightly newscasts, NBC, ABC, CBS and the PBS NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. There were 393 interviews done around war, they pointed out, and only three were with antiwar leaders.

Three of almost 400, when half the population was opposed to this war—that is no longer even a mainstream media. That’s an extreme media, beating the drums for war. We are talking about the icing out, not of a fringe minority, or even a silent majority, but the silenced majority, silenced by the corporate media. And we have to take it back. —Amy Goodman

An Incredible Part of a Media Justice Movement

I think FAIR’s latest study on the NewsHour proved that there was one good thing about Hurricane Katrina. And that was that it increased the number of black folks on the Jim Lehrer NewsHour. And that’s just pointing to the really sorry state of the media, if that’s the most liberal, the most fair and balanced media that we might have in the mainstream. And it really takes Hurricane Katrina to bring the color to the NewsHour. They were only there talking about what actually happened. But when it came to talking about the solutions, oh, we reverted back to our good old white boy club.

I know that FAIR has been instrumental in a movement that I am now so proud to be a part of, the media justice movement that uses the very model of media activism that FAIR started all those years ago. But it’s been an incredible part of a media justice movement that says, “There never was a media in this country that has worked in the interest of people of color, of working people, of poor people.”

There never was. It was founded the same way the country was founded: It was owned back then, and still is now, by a few rich white men.

And FAIR’s studies help us. They put the tools into our hands to be able to actually break that down and prove it.

Because many people out there still don’t want to believe that that is the way the media works. And my work consistently continues to be inspired by the studies that

FAIR puts out, the action alerts they put out. Their impact really has been to bring to many, many people who never would think to question the media, who never would think to question MSNBC, to really make them realize: “Okay, there really is something that’s going wrong here. I’m not represented. My ideological position is not represented.

And that’s not okay." -I did a public forum in New Haven last week, and someone noted that FAIR was formed before even the Internet was big, and I corrected her and I said, actually, we were formed before the fax machine was big.

And I remember when we got our first fax machine, how it made it so much easier to get under the skin of the Tom Brokaws and the Ted Koppels and the New York Times editors.

So imagine how well FAIR is doing on that score now that we have 45,000 people on the activist e-mail list, and if you’re not on it, sign up at fair.org. FAIR’s come a long way, 20 years. . . .

Over the years, FAIR has brought about countless retractions and corrections. We’ve exposed bigotry and racism in the media, gotten many progressive advocates and issues into the mainstream media that otherwise would’ve been locked out. A few months ago, the New York Times ran an op-ed column [6/16/06] accusing anti-war protesters of noisily disrupting the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq. FAIR activists had a big hand in getting that outrageous smear retracted. It’s equivalent to the hoax during the Vietnam era that peace activists were spitting on returning veterans; that never happened either.

You’ve probably heard that FAIR just published another study [Extra!, 9-10/06], on who gets to speak and who doesn’t get to speak on the NewsHour on PBS, so-called public TV. During the six-month study, not a single anti-war activist was interviewed. Although a large percentage of Americans favor withdrawal of troops from Iraq, NewsHour voices who were pro-withdrawal were outnumbered by more than 5-to-1 by advocates of staying the course.

Every time FAIR is in the news with a new study or a new exposé, I get all this undeserved thanks, congratulations for my great work. The truth is I left the FAIR staff collective six years ago, left the board four years ago.

The successes of FAIR are the results of the hardworking, under-paid, overworked staff, and they’re the ones who deserve all of our praise. . . .

Over the years, no one’s done more than FAIR to reveal systematic bias, exclusion, censorship. You know, in other countries, most censorship is the work of the government or a religious authority. In our country, it’s mostly the work of big corporations. Has FAIR stopped the tide of media conglomeration? Absolutely not. Has FAIR brought balance to corporate media discussions? No; balanced corporate media is an oxymoron.

But FAIR has been a voice in the wilderness talking about the dangers of conglomerated media; the importance of resisting pro-corporate, pro-war media propaganda; the importance of building independent non-profit media. And we’ve certainly helped spark a strong national movement, online and off, that can powerfully and instantly rebut the media. FAIR’s part of this historic boom in independent media. —Jeff Cohen

The Subversive Truth

Since this is a FAIR event, I figured I’d get to vent about some things in the media that have been bothering me; I just figured I can indulge myself here tonight. I could tell you what’s making me mad.

So let’s start with last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine [10/8/06]. The one with the elephants going crazy on the cover? You see that? My first thought was, “Oh god, I can’t read another story about Hastert and Foley.” Actually, it was about elephants.

But I never got that far, because I was stopped by the column at the beginning of the magazine by James Traub. . . . It starts by saying that welfare reform was “so successful” that there’s no longer any debate about it. There’s no longer any debate about it because they won’t let those of us who are critical of it speak in the media!

Another thing that’s been bothering me—New York Times columnists John Tierney and David Brooks’ constant drumbeat about the innate differences between the sexes. I acknowledge that there are some innate differences between the sexes. For evolutionary reasons that we don’t yet understand, if you’re a male you’re 10 times more likely to be a columnist for the New York Times.

So this bothers me all the time. And then here’s a real stab: We get Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda coming along and starting a radio station for women which won’t have arguments on it, won’t have debates on it. Because, they are saying as they start this station, women don’t like to argue and debate. We’re too sweet, we’re too nice. Gloria and Jane, have you ever heard of Katha Pollitt?

Now, thank you for letting me get these things off my chest; I couldn’t think of any other venue where I could say these things. And thanks to FAIR, really, for all that they do. Someone has to watch Fox News. Someone has to listen to Rush Limbaugh. And you know, the people at FAIR are actually paid to do that; that’s the audience for these guys. Not paid really well, of course, but at least I think they get some applause. . . .

And I just want to end on one brief philosophical point about FAIR’s work. As Todd Gitlin argued a few years ago in a book of his, the media is not just an industry; it’s not just an incidental part of our lives as individuals either.

It is ubiquitous. It is inescapable. It’s like the air that we breathe. And to invite people to think critically about the media, as FAIR does every single day, is to ask them to question the very contours of reality as it is given to us.

And to do that is to raise the notion of a truth independent of what we believe or are told to believe. I think, and this is my biggest plaudit for FAIR, that in today’s environment, there can be no more subversive idea than the notion of truth. —Barbara Ehrenreich

Bias for the Facts

In June 1986, FAIR set up its editorial operations in the same building at Broadway and Bond Street that houses Harper’s Magazine. And by the end of that summer I’d become an attentive reader of Extra!, first as a newsletter and then as a bimonthly journal. The studies and reports never failed to remind me of what I was meant to be doing, both as an editor and writer. And I learned from its teaching by example as well as from its questionings of the great truths displayed in the show windows of ABC News and the New York Times.

The magazine sets a high standard of good sense. More than once over the course of the last 20 years, I’ve torn up drafts of what I thought were finished manuscripts because of a further clarification that I came across in Extra!, fortunately in time to revise the premise of the essay and redirect the point of the argument.

The magazine’s bias in favor of sticking to the facts puts it at odds with the big money news and entertainment media that manufacture the content equivalents of processed cheese. And among all the publications that I read at regular intervals, Extra! comes closest to approaching the work of journalism as it was understood by practitioners on the order of Upton Sinclair, A.J. Liebling, Walter Karp and I.F. Stone. —Lewis Lapham

David on the Little Engine That Could

I’m delighted to have been asked to participate in this wonderful celebration of what I consider to be one of the most important and productive organizations out to save the media from themselves and us from them, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting.

Of course, one can’t say too much about FAIR’s accomplishments over these 20 years. Their contributions are all the more impressive when one considers the breathtaking scope of what this organization is up against: the frightening concentration of media ownership, the concomitant shift from information to infotainment. Both came precisely at the time that the new 24-hour availability of the news gave the false impression that we had truly entered the information age. Yet as FAIR has made a point to show with its meticulous research, its courageous revelations, and its irreverent style, it’s instead the era of misinformation.

The task of stripping the aura of authority and truth from the ever-growing behemoth called the media would seem daunting for even the most generously funded and well-staffed organization. Yet the shock and awe inspired by visiting FAIR’s modest digs, and recognizing that the entire staff pretty much fit into an SUV, compels one to think about all the relevant metaphors for accomplishments against the odds, all at the same time. So FAIR is David going to meet Goliath on the little engine that could speak truth to power by telling the emperor that he was, well, butt-naked. —Kimberle Williams Crenshaw

A Different Kind of Media

What FAIR has been doing for 20 years is demanding that the media tell the truth. It’s absolutely critical. The embedding process has brought the media to an all-time low.

And not just talking about reporters embedded in the front lines of troops—when they should, if they are going to be embedded, be in Iraqi hospitals and families and communities and the peace movement around the world—but embedded in the power elite in this country, embedded in Washington, embedded in the government corporate access, enjoying that “access” of evil. That’s trading truth for access.

We need a media of a different kind, and I think that that is what FAIR has been pushing for, just week after week, month after month, year after year. Giving us the facts, making the comparisons, pointing out that on every network there’s the same small circle of pundits who know so little about so much, explaining the world to us and getting it so wrong. . . . It’s such an important study that I’ve cited hundreds of times, the one they did in the lead-up to the invasion [3/18/03], around the two weeks that Colin Powell gave his push for war at the United Nations, that he now says is a stain on his career. But there was FAIR, looking at that two weeks around February 5, 2003. Looking at the four major nightly newscasts, NBC, ABC, CBS and the PBS NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. There were 393 interviews done around war, they pointed out, and only three were with antiwar leaders.

Three of almost 400, when half the population was opposed to this war—that is no longer even a mainstream media. That’s an extreme media, beating the drums for war. We are talking about the icing out, not of a fringe minority, or even a silent majority, but the silenced majority, silenced by the corporate media. And we have to take it back. —Amy Goodman

An Incredible Part of a Media Justice Movement

I think FAIR’s latest study on the NewsHour proved that there was one good thing about Hurricane Katrina. And that was that it increased the number of black folks on the Jim Lehrer NewsHour. And that’s just pointing to the really sorry state of the media, if that’s the most liberal, the most fair and balanced media that we might have in the mainstream. And it really takes Hurricane Katrina to bring the color to the NewsHour. They were only there talking about what actually happened. But when it came to talking about the solutions, oh, we reverted back to our good old white boy club.

I know that FAIR has been instrumental in a movement that I am now so proud to be a part of, the media justice movement that uses the very model of media activism that FAIR started all those years ago. But it’s been an incredible part of a media justice movement that says, “There never was a media in this country that has worked in the interest of people of color, of working people, of poor people.” There never was. It was founded the same way the country was founded: It was owned back then, and still is now, by a few rich white men.

And FAIR’s studies help us. They put the tools into our hands to be able to actually break that down and prove it. Because many people out there still don’t want to believe that that is the way the media works. And my work consistently continues to be inspired by the studies that FAIR puts out, the action alerts they put out. Their impact really has been to bring to many, many people who never would think to question the media, who never would think to question MSNBC, to really make them realize: “Okay, there really is something that’s going wrong here. I’m not represented. My ideological position is not represented. And that’s not okay.”—Deepa Fernandes

FAIR’s 20th anniversary event was held on October 12, 2006 in the Great Hall at New York City’s Cooper Union.

FAIR’s 20th anniversary event was held on October 12, 2006 in the Great Hall at New York City’s Cooper Union.