From McNeil-Lehrer to Nightline:
Experts Enforce the Party Line

Jeff Cohen, 1990

excerpted from the book

Stenographers to Power

media and propaganda

David Barsamian interviews

Common Courage Press, 1992, paper


DB: In the October/November 1989 issue of Extra, | you had an article talking about the notion of objectivity and balance and propaganda of the center. It's particularly this latter issue that I'd like to talk to you about, because propaganda seems to be a property of the left and the right, because we have objectivity at the center.

JC: Right. When you've talked to journalists for years in the mainstream, they always tell you, "We have no biases. We're dead center. We're not left nor right." I think there is a commonly believed myth in the mainstream media that if you are a centrist you have no ideology. You issue no propaganda. You just issue straight news. The only people that are propagandists are propagandists for the right wing or the left wing. What Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has been trying to bring forward to journalists is that, if you're in the center, your ideology is" centrism, which is every bit as much an ideology as leftism or rightism. I've talked to journalists and they say, "We ward off propaganda from both left and right." And my question is always, "Well, who's warding off propaganda from the center? It tends to be most of the propaganda in at least the TV networks. " They don't have a response. The propaganda for the center has certain hallmarks. One a thing about centrist propaganda is that it talks in euphemisms all the time. Anything that might strike at the core of what's wrong with our corporate-dominated society is always spoken of euphemistically. The way that centrist propaganda looks at foreign policy is one where the United States is always overseas making peace, trying to bring opposing parties together, constantly trying to negotiate and expand human rights. You find this in the New York Times, which I think is the propaganda organ of the center, where you had headlines about George Schulz as the "lonely warrior for peace." This was during the period where U.S. foreign policy was arming the UNITA guerrillas in Angola, who had turned central Angola into the amputee capital of the world. You had the United States funding the contras and the bulwark for the Salvadoran government. And, of course, in the Middle East, where the United States contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to Israel. In all those places, when the New York Times refers to foreign policy, it's as George Schulz or Baker crusading for peace, trying to bring parties together. It's not acknowledged that in those parts of the world the United States is a major player in a violent conflict. That's hallmark of center propaganda. What I've found interesting and important is to distinguish what is left-wing propaganda, what is right-wing propaganda and what is middle-of-the-road propaganda. Left-wing propaganda sees U.S. foreign policy as going overseas mostly in the interests of corporations, propping up elites in foreign countries that are anti-communist, not really concerned whether those elites are at all democratic. The right-wing propaganda in foreign policy sees the United States going around generally being too soft on communism, caving in to communism and terrorism. The center has its own view of foreign policy, and that's the United States going around the world bringing human rights, trying to expand democracy and negotiate between warring parties. I would argue that one could deconstruct centrist propaganda and find that it has very little basis in fact. That's what we did in this article that you're referring to.

DB: In January 1989, FAIR issued a rather remarkable report about Nightline. You drew certain conclusions about the number of guests, who they were, the frequency of appearances, who they represented and that kind of thing. Has anything changed at Nightline since your report?

JC: Things have changed only slightly, and they've changed in some cosmetic ways, but let me describe what we found. We studied 40 months of Nightline because it is considered the best and most influential TV news program. What we analyzed was who got on the air and who didn't get on the air as experts to discuss foreign and domestic policy. What we found is that Nightline tilted toward the conservative white male establishment. The four guests who appeared most frequently on Nightline were Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, Jerry Falwell and Elliott Abrams, all supporters of Reaganite policies through that decade. What we found is that critics of U.S. policy rarely appeared on Nightline. Whites appeared 90 percent of the time; men appeared 90 percent of the time. So, in a society that the media always tells us is a great, pluralistic society, what you found when you watched Nightline's experts is that they reflected a very narrow, conservative elite. We did certain case studies. We studied all of the programs that Nightline did on Central America. We found that, of the 68 experts that were allowed onto Nightline in a 40-month period, only two of them represented groups critical of Central America policy. We studied all of the programs that Nightline did on U.S.-Soviet relations or the Soviet Union, and we found that 50 percent of the guests, half of the guest experts, were former or current U.S. government officials. Less than 1 percent of the guests were representatives of peace organizations. So you had a ratio of 50 to 1. We also studied the kinds of foci that Nightline had in framing the programs. Obviously, they chose guests after they decided that the frame would be a certain way and they were going to look at certain countries in a certain way. We took note of the fact that throughout its term in office, the Reagan administration had a media strategy. That was to try to focus mass media attention on every real or imagined peccadillo in Nicaragua while simultaneously shifting attention away from the far worse human rights offenders in Guatemala or El Salvador, or even Honduras. What we found was a little bit horrifying. Knowing what the Reagan administration's media strategy was, we then looked at Nightline's coverage and we found that they did about 25 to 27 programs that focused exclusively on problems or conflicts in Nicaragua. Then we looked at how many programs they did focusing exclusively on El Salvador or Guatemala or Honduras. They didn't do a single program on any of those countries. So the ability of the / White House to set Nightline's agenda in foreign policy was really awesome. One of the things that we've always criticized Nightline and most of the mainstream media for is for forgetting that in the United States we're supposed to have something called separation of press and state. What we found in looking at Nightline is that they were virtually a propaganda organ for the state.

DB: How about MacNeil-Lehrer on PBS? That's often viewed by many people as a classic example of this centrist type of objective reporting. Can you make any analogies between Nightline and MacNeil-Lehrer?

JC: We're currently doing a systematic study of MacNeil -Lehrer, and our initial findings are that in many ways, it's worse. This is the program that is on supposedly public television, which is a fallacy in this country, that we have something called "public TV." But what we've noticed at MacNeil-Lehrer is that, while they have a full hour to spend on the daily news, their list of experts is even more narrow than Nightline. They go to the government more frequently than Nightline, which is not easy to do. It's not easy to outdo Nightline on even more government spokespersons than they have. We've found historically that conservative groups have really liked MacNeil-Lehrer. In fact, a couple of years ago at the National Conservative Political Action convention, they took a poll of the conservative activists in attendance and they voted MacNeil-Lehrer to be "the most balanced network news show." We have a quote of Lehrer where staff members were proposing-this was years ago-that certain public interest leaders or progressive policy critics get on TV, and his reaction was, "Oh, come on, don't give me another one of these moaners or whiners." That was Jim Lehrer's attitude toward people who criticize policy. Recently, some people who are obviously reading Extra out in Berkeley attended an event where MacNeil was doing a book-signing party at Cody's Books and, as it's been reported to me, they really peppered MacNeil with questions: "How come you never have representatives of the American left discussing things on your program?" And MacNeil is alleged to have said something like, "There is no American left." So it's obvious when you look at MacNeil-Lehrer, they typically have had debates throughout the 1980s on such topics as the nuclear arms race, where the hawkish pole would be represented by someone like Richard Perle or Casper Weinberger, and debating for the dove side would often be Senator Sam Nunn from Georgia, who according to SANE had a 25 percent voting record as a "peace senator." So they set up this narrow debate, where it's someone from the far right debating someone from the near right on foreign policy. On issues of Iran/Contra and covert operations in Central America, typically the person representing the dove pole, the critics' pole, was Senator Boren from Oklahoma. Again, he's somewhat on the near right on those issues, and he'd be debating someone further to his right. So what you find when you look at Nightline and MacNeil-Lehreris that generally half of the political spectrum is excluded from debate, and that play a very important opinion-shaping role for the mainstream journalists. Many print journalists swear by Nightline. They watch Nightline and then go to sleep and the next day they write their stories. I really feel that Nightline and MacNeil-Lehrer play an important role in defining what is legitimate opposition and what isn't, and unfortunately, on foreign policy issues, legitimate opposition for Nightline and MacNeil-Lehrer seems to stop at Senators Nunn and Boren.

DB: To continue with PBS, WNYC, the public TV station in New York, was distributing a weekly investigative news program called the Kwitny Report. What happened to that program?

JC: The Kwitny Report probed issues like the Guatemalan death squads, and they scored a first in American television when they probed who was killing the workers trying to organize unions or the peasants organizing unions in Guatemala. What they found is that the people behind the killings were often U.S. companies like CocaCola and United Brand. What Jonathan Kwitny once reported in a two-part special on Guatemalan deathsquads is that, as they were giving incidences of murders of union activists, they put up the logos of the U.S. corporations, so you'd hear Jonathan Kwitny talking about the killings of unionists and then you'd see Coca-Cola's logo up on the screen on American television. The breakthrough there is that, historically, the only time you see a corporate logo on American TV is usually when it's been preceded by a smiling woman model telling you that Coca-Cola will make your life more sexy. Here was an investigative reporter with a hard-hitting, well-documented report telling you that behind these corporate logos there's a lot of murder and death in Central America. Obviously that kind of program made bureaucrats at PBS and at this particular station, WNYC, a little bit nervous, and Jonathan Kwitny reports that the new vice president for television at that particular station was often interfering with the copy, the actual product that he was trying to put on the air. He had been given some assurances that he'd have some journalistic freedom, but there was a lot of meddling going on, and then his show was terminated. The official reason was "lack of funding." There is a lot of truth to that factor as well. A program like the Kwitny Report has trouble getting funding from the typical people who fund public broadcasting. Those people are the major oil companies, the electrical companies. The underwriter of MacNeil-Lehrer, the main underwriter, is AT&T, a military contractor, which may explain why Sam Nunn is usually the most left-wing speaker on the arms race on MacNeil -Lehrer. So Jonathan Kwitny was really in a bind, and it's the typical bind that you have at public broadcasting. They really aren't a public network. The corporations have made many inroads into public television, perhaps more so, than they have on the commercial networks, and I'll tell you why. Let me give you an anecdote which I think symbolizes what's wrong with American television in general and public television in particular.

Ten or twelve years ago, there was a fringe rightwing columnist named John McLaughlin. In 1990, he's one of the main players in American political discourse. He's one of the biggest faces on American television. What happened was, about ten years ago some businesses got behind McLaughlin. The United States was just coming out of the oil crisis of the mid-1970s. Some big businesses said, "We aren't going to put our money just behind ballets and high-brow culture on public TV any more. We're going to put our money behind conservative propagandists who have a pro-corporate view." It was conscious at Mobil Oil. It was conscious at several other corporations that had been influenced by a right-wing group called Accuracy in Media, a misnamed group. McLaughlin was one of the beneficiaries of this new corporate strategy. A couple corporations got behind him, most particularly the Edison Institute, which is the electrical industry lobby. The Edison Institute put together a program hosted by McLaughlin, who had been with the conservative magazine National Review. This McLaughlin group was a center right group. It was given for free to any public TV channel which would take it, because the electrical industry was underwriting it. What happened was, a lot of public TV stations don't have a lot of money, and what this program did was to almost wipe off the map a more middle-of-the road show called Agronsky and Company. It began to take off. When it took off, General Electric became its underwriter. On the strength of McLaughlin's show appearing on PBS on hundreds of stations, they started a new program for McLaughlin called One on One where he interviews a newsmaker from his conservative frame of reference. This one was sponsored by Pepsi-Cola and Metropolitan Life. Then, while those two programs were taking off, General Electric, in the intervening years, purchased NBC, the biggest television network in the country. Then they set up a cable network called CNBC. Every night now in prime time, at 10:00, John McLaughlin has the John McLaughlin Show. So you have an individual who ten or twelve years ago was a fringe right-wing columnist and today is one of the biggest faces in American political television. That's purely because of the power that the corporations have: "You know, I like this McLaughlin. I'm going to give him yet a second show. And a third show." And, of course, the same corporations which ultimately are deciding who hosts a TV show and who doesn't are deciding by default that, "Well, I'm not going to give any money to Jonathan Kwitny. He just put my corporate logo up on his TV program saying that I'm killing nuns and priests and union organizers in Guatemala." So it's obvious, the problem that we have in terms of TV censorship. TV censorship in American society done, of course, by corporations. It isn't done by religious fanatics or by the government. Corporations are the main censors in U.S. society. Obviously, because of that, the media are so controlled by big corporations that they don't define such censorship as censorship.

DB: What are your views on National Public Radio?

JC: NPR, years ago, used to provide somewhat of an alternative in their longer-running features, their ability to go more in depth. But what's happened in the last few years is a very disturbing process where their product has become more and more mainstream. You see virtually the same experts on television, the same conservative, narrow experts, from center to right, appearing on NPR. You have them mainstreaming so badly that sometimes they just cover foreign countries by asking the New York Times reporter who's stationed in that country to talk about it. God forbid; the New York Times has enough power in the media in setting the agenda for American television networks and their nightly and morning news shows. If NPR really wanted to provide an alternative, the last thing they would do is just to serve up more New York Times correspondents. So it's a disturbing process, but I'm optimistic in one sense. In some cities NPR is, unfortunately, the only alternative. Many cities don't have Pacifica Radio, which is a true alternative. So what's happened lately, especially since FAIR was born in 1986, is that we're telling these NPR fanatics to quit complaining to FAIR and start taking their complaints directly to the NPR stations and directly to All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition. That's happening more and more. I think the NPR journalists are generally tougher, better than the typical mainstream reporter. If they hear from an aroused public, it's possible that NPR could get back on track and be more of an alternative, which is how it started out many years ago.

Stenographers to Power

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