In his new book, Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media (PoliPointPress), Jeff Cohen writes about his years with the cable news channels as a pilgrim who’s returned from a strange and hostile land.
The founder of the left-liberal media-watchdog group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), Cohen was invariably miscast. Oddly enough, he calls his stint at Fox his happiest: it was easier to work with out-and-out conservatives than with executives at CNN and MSNBC, who lived in constant fear that they would be accused of liberal bias.
Cohen left Fox for what he thought would be a dream job: working as senior producer for his friend and fellow progressive Phil Donahue, who bucked the conservative trend by landing a show on MSNBC in 2002. With the war in Iraq drawing closer, Cohen writes about terrified “Suits” pushing the program to the right, alienating its liberal audience while failing to attract new viewers. Donahue’s minuscule ratings were, nevertheless, higher than those of any other MSNBC show when it was canceled in early 2003.
Cohen describes cable news’ flaws as “a drunken exuberance for sex, crime and celebrity stories, matched by a grim timidity and fear of offending the powers-that-be — especially if the powers-that-be are conservatives.” (Better yet, he calls Ann Coulter “something of a cross between Joan Rivers and Eva Braun.”) He discussed the state of cable news in a recent interview. An edited transcript follows.
You make a strong case for how dysfunctional the three cable news channels are. But how will your book reach anyone who doesn’t already agree with you? Once it gets around — especially at MSNBC, and somewhat at Fox and CNN — I suspect that people will be passing it to each other. Reporters and producers are very thin-skinned and self-absorbed.
By the time I left Fox, it had a lot of esprit de corps. There was a lot of, “Wow, we’re on the march, we’re happening.” And spirits were higher.
Of course I didn’t know that O’Reilly was making lewd phone calls.
He didn’t make any to you?
No, he sure did not. But then I got over to MSNBC, and it was complete backbiting and gossiping and it was just not a healthy environment. And I assume that this book will get passed around there, and a little bit at CNN. I’ve got some good stuff in there on Fox, too.
I don’t think people have to agree with my political outlook, especially the insiders, to want to thumb through this. I assume the index is going to be worked over.
The three channels have nine hours of prime-time programming each night, 8 to 11 pm. Yet only Anderson Cooper’s show, on CNN, is an actual newscast. What should we make of that?
It’s cost. I think it’s real cheap to have hosts and pundits pontificate. It’s more expensive to have reporters out in the field. These three channels that you’re referring to are profit-making concerns first, and actual news is expensive. I think it’s Fox that really transformed the environment. Hot air is cheap.
As you yourself point out, the cable nets’ audiences are tiny compared to the network evening news. NPR’s audience is huge, too. So why should we worry about cable?
I see cable as an agenda-setter. You’re right, it’s got a relatively tiny audience, but a lot of journalists watch it. A lot of media professionals watch it. A lot of political operatives watch it. So it sets an agenda for the political class of who’s important, who’s got a strong voice and who doesn’t. And what are the important issues. It’s on all day, so it’s easy even for busy members of the political class to tune in. So I think it has an impact on that political class, and it makes it far more important than the few million people watching it.
GE still owns MSNBC, but its new golden boy seems to be Keith Olbermann, a liberal. Doesn’t this suggest that TV executives will go with whatever works?
I wish. Do I wish. I’d still be there. I’d be rich and powerful. And famous.
I like Keith. I liked him years and years ago. I’ve never met the guy. I like his persona. Obviously others do, too. I like his smarts, I like his whimsy, and lately, obviously, he’s pandering to my political sensibilities as well as the next guy’s.
Phil was a passionate, progressive voice when Bush was high in the ratings and the war was coming. Olbermann is now on where Bush is low in the ratings and the war is sinking. I know it’s only been four years, but it feels like twenty. The times have changed a lot.
We could have had a show with aggressive, articulate, passionate people saying things on national TV seen nowhere else. And it would have happened night after night. This was the time that independent, smart, active news consumers were turning away from the mainstream and looking for alternatives. MoveOn was doubling its size during this time, and we were being muzzled. We could have been an alternative in the mainstream. The best of both worlds. And our ratings would have climbed.