The Multinational Monitor

July/August 2001 - VOLUME 22 - NUMBER 7& 8

Unfair Access

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. EPA’s proposal to clean up the Hudson River?
Jeff Cohen:
In my view, the significance of the head of GE’s television network personally lobbying politicians is that it sends a signal to journalists throughout NBC, CNBC and MSNBC — the television networks that NBC owns. When your boss is lobbying personally on one side of a controversy, the message is that these hundreds of journalists should avoid independent or balanced coverage of that issue. Such a meeting has a chilling effect on journalists, producers, correspondents and researchers.

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 doesn’t hurt, if you’re 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 he’s 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 GE’s 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 GE’s interests. There’s 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 didn’t 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 to GE?
: An egregious one at the Today Show involved a segment on consumer boycotts in the early 1990s. In preparation for the segment, they interviewed for a period of months the expert on the subject — Todd Putnam, the editor of National Boycott News.
Two different producers of the segment both communicated to Putnam that when they had him on the air they did not want him to mention General Electric. Putnam had explained to the producers that the biggest boycott in the country at the time was a boycott against General Electric over its profiteering from nuclear weapons production. He was told that it might be safer to avoid the whole story.
After months of discussion, Putnam was flown to New York. They did the segment. There were visual aids on the Today Show set, all sorts of products from companies that were being boycotted, including Hormel Spam — boycotted because of a labor dispute; a sneaker — boycotted over a black community issue; and tuna fish — boycotted over the dolphin issue. They couldn’t find any room on the table for a GE light bulb, and they never brought up GE.

After the segment, Todd was walking out to the elevator when a janitor came up to him and said, “Hey, how’s 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, “I’ll be looking for a new job on Tuesday.” So out of fear, they self-censor. It’s very likely that if GE had been mentioned in that segment, heads would not have rolled.
But the fact that NBC journalists are afraid to tell the whole story and will surgically remove GE from a story in which it is a major player gives you an idea of how much of a problem it is for the consumer when TV stations and networks are owned by giant conglomerates that have such sprawling political and economic interests.

It doesn’t just happen to the news. It extends to other programming content. There was an incident in 1998 at NBC’s 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?
: I think it’s very negative for democracy and freedom of the press and speech that these TV networks are owned by giant corporations that have so many interests, with the result that working journalists are afraid to tell the whole story.

For instance, NBC ran a segment about nuclear power recently on NBC nightly news where the correspondent was Soledad O’Brien.
It was a piece that said nuclear power can save us from the energy crisis. There was little attempt at balance in the story.

There’s no coverage of corporate welfare either. You can’t count on NBC or CNBC to cover it fairly. These companies get their broadcasting license free. They don’t 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 don’t see a lot of coverage of corporate welfare. GE receives a lot of corporate welfare, including to its NBC division.
Sweatshops are another issue that’s not likely to boost your career as a producer at NBC. When you think about it, there are few corporate issues that Tom Brokaw can report on during the Nightly News that his corporate parent doesn’t have a direct interest in — taxes, trade, military spending, corporate welfare, sweatshops, the environment, etc.

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 didn’t mention even once that it’s 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 didn’t 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 GE’s agenda without bothering to disclaim to the viewer that there is a connection to the industry that they’re reporting on.

MM: What are the consequences of GE’s sponsorship of political talk shows?
Sponsorship extends General Electric’s media influence. Over the years, General Electric has sponsored most of the Sunday pundit shows, like “Meet the Press.” General Electric started “The McLaughlin Group” with a big grant after President Ronald Reagan was used to help arrange a meeting between John McLaughlin and Jack Welch. General Electric also funds so-called public radio shows like “Marketplace.”

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. It’s 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 they’re sponsoring these shows because they also want to narrow the range of policy debates on television and the radio.

I think it’s telling that there is no major pundit on television day after day who agrees with the American people that there’s too much power in American society vested in too few corporations. That would be considered a mainstream view in working America, but you just don’t 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 won’t be discussed on these pundit shows. For example, a General Electric lobbyist helped write a tax reform bill for President Reagan in 1981, reducing GE’s 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. That’s 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 media corporations?
If we actually had a functioning Federal Communications Commission (FCC), they would challenge whether a corporate felon like GE should be allowed to own TV stations and get federal broadcast licenses. There have been times when individuals who were felons were denied the right to have broadcast licenses. Sam Husseini wrote an article for FAIR’s magazine EXTRA, “Should Corporate Felons Own TV Stations: Does GE’s Ownership of NBC Violate the Law.” If we had a functioning FCC, a threshold issue would be do you let felons have broadcast licenses? And if they deny broadcast licenses to individuals who had committed felonies in the past, why wouldn’t that apply to corporate felons?

More generally, I think there’s 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 forward.

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 shouldn’t use the term “Black Monday,” because it was depressing blue-chip stocks like GE’s 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.

We’ve had this experiment where GE has owned NBC for 15 years now, and seen the potential abuses that are a result. We also don’t know how many issues could have been investigated but weren’t as a result of GE’s 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 it’s got the villain — General Electric. But General Electric is your boss.

So you can’t 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, they’ve been able to stall the cleanup for years and years. That’s a dramatic story that could be told and get a big audience, but you can’t tell that story, not because it won’t be sensational, but because it’s too sensational and might get too big of an audience.
It explains why in 1998 MSNBC came to be called “More Sex, Not By Chance,” because rather than do actual reporting, they did the Monica Lewinsky story and the stained dress week after week after week. So if the path to ratings that would include big news that would affect middle- class people is blocked because of self-censorship or corporate structure, then that other path — celebrity fluff like the JFK crash, Jon Benet, O.J., Princess Di, or Monica Lewinsky — becomes the only acceptable path to ratings in corporate news. That’s why we get so much of it and as a result people can identify where Monica Lewinsky got her dress but not their own member of Congress. And I would argue that General Electric likes that situation a lot.

Ideally, in a democratic society, you’d 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. That’s how a modern democracy should operate. It shouldn’t 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 kid gloves?
Welch has always been a media hero. At times, it reaches absurd proportions.
At one point McLaughlin was interviewing Welch. McLaughlin was moved from being an obscure Washington editor of the right-wing National Review to being one of the first TV pundits on national TV seven days a week because of Jack Welch. Welch gave $1 million a year to the McLaughlin Group, which is a right-wing-tilted show that replaced a more balanced show. Then General Electric started CNBC and they put McLaughlin on every night of the week. So you had Welch, who’s responsible for McLaughlin being a pundit seven days a week, being interviewed by McLaughlin, who is talking about what a great guy he is.

Jack Welch has said he won’t appear for his memoirs on CNN’s “Money Line,” because he doesn’t 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 don’t make predictions, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that Welch’s book is not going to sell like the Harry Potter series.

Welch has been a media hero in outlets far beyond those that GE has a stake in. He’s a hero because he’s 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. I’m sure it will only be more of a joke when the memoirs arrive.

MM: Will Jeffrey Immelt, Welch’s successor, be treated the same way?
I haven’t noticed any puff pieces for Immelt yet. Welch is going to be a tough act to follow. When you see how he’s treated as almost a national hero by the mainstream press, and how he’s graced the cover of so many magazines, you clearly see how the “liberal media” is a myth. But the energy that establishment pundits have for singing the praises of corporate executives knows no bounds, so maybe Immelt will do okay too.

If we actually
had a functioning
Communications Commission,
they would
challenge whether
a corporate felon
like GE should
be allowed to
own TV stations
and get federal broadcast
NBC staffers
have been
almost since
the day
General Electric
took over.
Welch also
called up
the president
of NBC News
during that
1987 stock crunch and told him
he shouldn’t
use the term
“Black Monday,” because it was depressing
blue-chip stocks
like GE’s stock.