July/August 2001 - VOLUME 22 - NUMBER 7& 8
An Interview with Jeff Cohen
Jeff Cohen is the founder of Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), a national media watch group based in New York. He is the author of a number of books, including Wizards of Media Oz: Behind the Curtain of Mainstream News, co-authored with Norman Solomon. He is also a weekly panelist on NewsWatch, which airs on the Fox News Channel.
Multinational Monitor: What is the significance of GE Vice Chair
and NBC President Robert Wright lobbying the New York City Council against
a pending resolution in support of the U.S. EPAs proposal to clean
up the Hudson River?
A key point to remember historically is that NBC staffers have been self-censoring
almost since the day General Electric took over. There was the famous
incident in 1989 when a reporter at NBC in Chicago had done a solid story
on defective bolts that were used by General Electric. They were supposed
to be certified and were not. It was believed that these bolts had been
used in airplanes, bridges and nuclear power plants. The NBC reporter
sent the story off to the Today Show. Before it aired, they surgically
removed all references to General Electric from the story.
Neither Robert Wright, the head of NBC, nor Jack Welch, the head of GE,
had to call the producers of the Today Show. They engaged in self-censorship
on their own. But it doesnt hurt, if youre an executive and
you want to have this chilling effect, to give instructions to the NBC
news president, as Jack Welch did. Or, in this recent incident where Wright
is meeting politicians to lobby for General Electric while hes the
head of their TV network.
The other thing that is important about such a meeting is that NBC is
a division of General Electric that had nothing to do with GEs contamination
of the Hudson River. But with NBC being in charge of a local TV station
in New York, it has everything to do with the possible intimidation of
politicians who might consider voting against GEs interests. Theres
no doubt that politicians in the New York City Council were intimidated
by being visited by the president of a television network that owns a
local TV station. They didnt even want to go to the press about
the meeting, even though it was an inappropriate meeting.
MM: Are there other examples of self-censorship at NBC related
After the segment, Todd was walking out to the elevator when a janitor
came up to him and said, Hey, hows that boycott against GE
going? So the first employee of NBC that wanted him to tell the
whole story about boycotts was the janitor. The journalists were too afraid.
One of them explicitly told Todd Putnam that if Todd mentioned the GE
boycott on Monday, Ill be looking for a new job on Tuesday.
So out of fear, they self-censor. Its very likely that if GE had
been mentioned in that segment, heads would not have rolled.
It doesnt just happen to the news. It extends to other programming
content. There was an incident in 1998 at NBCs Saturday Night Live
where a cartoonist poked fun at General Electric in an animated cartoon.
It was pretty funny. It was called Conspiracy Theory Rock.
Later in the summer when it reran, they cut out that segment.
MM: What are the consequences of allowing large industrial conglomerates
like GE to own major media networks?
For instance, NBC ran a segment about nuclear power recently on NBC nightly
news where the correspondent was Soledad OBrien.
Theres no coverage of corporate welfare either. You cant
count on NBC or CNBC to cover it fairly. These companies get their broadcasting
license free. They dont have to pay any kind of a tax or fee based
on their profits. A broadcast license is a permit to print money. So you
dont see a lot of coverage of corporate welfare. GE receives a lot
of corporate welfare, including to its NBC division.
The other side of the coin from stories that are suppressed or told with
the heart removed from them is NBC promoting the interests of its corporate
parent. They once did three segments in a row on a new machine that detects
breast cancer. They didnt mention even once that its General
Electric that manufactures the machine.
Another example is Tom Brokaw cheering for GE weapon systems, as he did
during the Gulf War, when he called the Patriot missile the missile
that put the Iraqi scud in its place. That was a complete hoax.
The Patriot missile was a near-total failure. When Brokaw was cheerleading
for the Patriot and not giving accurate information about the Patriot,
he didnt even feel the need to acknowledge to the viewer that General
Electric made profits by providing parts for the Patriot missile, as it
did by making parts for dozens of weapons that were used in the Gulf War.
So they also promote GEs agenda without bothering to disclaim to
the viewer that there is a connection to the industry that theyre
When you think about all of the pundit shows that GE is sponsoring, you
have to realize that they are not primarily a philanthropic organization.
Its a profit-making concern.
Like other corporations that give big donations to both political parties
in Washington because they want to narrow the range of policy debate,
when you see GE giving so much money and sponsorship to pundit shows that
have very small viewership, you have to think theyre sponsoring
these shows because they also want to narrow the range of policy debates
on television and the radio.
I think its telling that there is no major pundit on television
day after day who agrees with the American people that theres too
much power in American society vested in too few corporations. That would
be considered a mainstream view in working America, but you just dont
have pundits who have that view. I think the sponsorship of punditry by
two corporations in particular General Electric and the agribusiness
giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is part of the reason the debate
is so narrow. You have a spectrum of debate that extends from GE to GM.
Obviously, you have whole sets of issues that wont be discussed
on these pundit shows. For example, a General Electric lobbyist helped
write a tax reform bill for President Reagan in 1981, reducing GEs
tax burden to below zero. If we had a balanced spectrum of pundits, there
would be at least a third of the pundits yelling about such an abuse.
Thats one of the reasons I think General Electric is a sponsor of
the pundit shows to narrow the debate and ensure anti-corporate
or anti-GE perspectives are rarely uttered.
MM: Should there be barriers to non-media corporate ownership of
More generally, I think theres a threat when a giant conglomerate
owns the news, period. Professor Robert McChesney has proposed that the
news divisions be autonomous and not answer to any editorial hierarchy
that includes corporate interests the way NBC answers to General Electric.
The news would then be put on as a public service. That would be a way
I talked about the self-censorship by journalists who might have been
able to tell a fuller story without suffering any ill consequences, but
were too gutless or intimidated. There are other stories that illustrate
the problem of having GE as the head of a media hierarchy. Lawrence Grossman,
the former president of NBC News, told about an incident where Jack Welch
poked him in the chest and shouted, You work for GE. Welch
also called him up during that stock crunch in 1987 and told him he shouldnt
use the term Black Monday, because it was depressing blue-chip
stocks like GEs stock. Welch also told Larry Grossman that it was
perfectly fine that the weathercaster on the Today Show was making jokes
about how great GE light bulbs are.
Weve had this experiment where GE has owned NBC for 15 years now,
and seen the potential abuses that are a result. We also dont know
how many issues could have been investigated but werent as a result
of GEs ownership of NBC.
What producer from NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, or even the History Channel (which
GE owns a chunk of) would in their right mind produce a report on the
Hudson River? Your management might say they want dramatic stories with
visuals, with villains and victims. The contamination of the Hudson River
is a story that has everything. It has the visuals of people having to
throw back the fish. It has the victims, these middle-class mom-and-pop
fishing operations that have been totally wiped out that used to operate
all along the river. And its got the villain General Electric.
But General Electric is your boss.
So you cant tell the big story about how GE contaminated the river,
or how through their clout in Washington and in Albany, the capital of
New York, theyve been able to stall the cleanup for years and years.
Thats a dramatic story that could be told and get a big audience,
but you cant tell that story, not because it wont be sensational,
but because its too sensational and might get too big of an audience.
Ideally, in a democratic society, youd have a mix of media ownership
where private companies could own about half the broadcasting licenses
and the other half could be completely public and truly non-commercial.
Thats how a modern democracy should operate. It shouldnt be
where the big corporations not only own 99 percent of it, but also have
inroads into public broadcasting through sponsorship of the programming.
General Electric is a sponsor of public broadcasting as well.
MM: Why do you think the media has always treated Jack Welch with
Jack Welch has said he wont appear for his memoirs on CNNs
Money Line, because he doesnt want to help them in their
battle against CNBC. The Today Show is going to do a two-day stint with
Welch to promote the memoirs. To justify that, they said, We also
did two days with J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series.
I usually dont make predictions, but Ill go out on a limb
and say that Welchs book is not going to sell like the Harry Potter
Welch has been a media hero in outlets far beyond those that GE has a
stake in. Hes a hero because hes a tough manager who does
what needs to be done by laying off mass quantities of employees. So the
cheerleading for him has been a media joke. Im sure it will only
be more of a joke when the memoirs arrive.
MM: Will Jeffrey Immelt, Welchs successor, be treated the
|If we actually
had a functioning
a corporate felon
like GE should
be allowed to
own TV stations
and get federal broadcast
of NBC News
1987 stock crunch and told him
use the term
Black Monday, because it was depressing
like GEs stock.