Critic calls media a "weapon of mass distraction"

Media critic Jeff Cohen asked SUNY New Paltz students what it means when the “two most influential news shows” in America – “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart and “The Colbert Report” – are on the nation’s Comedy Channel. His answer, in short, was that corporate news has increasingly become a “weapon of mass distraction” instead of a tool for democracy.

Cohen, a Woodstock resident and well-known television commentator, spoke to a packed lecture hall of students in mid-November about “What’s Wrong with Corporate TV News.”

In 2006 Cohen wrote a book called Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media about his time working at cable networks Fox, CNN, and MSNBC. Cohen began as a co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire” in 1996. From there he became a weekly panelist on the Fox News Channel’s “News Watch,” from 1997 to 2002. From 2002 to 2003, he was a daily contributor on MSNBC.

“One thing is always true about Jeff Cohen lecture,” commented Professor Robert Miraldi of the Journalism Program. “He is passionate, lively, informed and controversial.”

During his talk, Cohen told students that America has become a “nation of mindless consumers,” and that “today’s owners of TV news are happy with an uninformed public.” Consequentally. he says, the consumer has to work a lot harder to find out what’s really going on in the world.

Cohen said that “when big important stories that can effect millions of lives are off limits to muckraking, it’s a problem,” and, he said, “when big news is blocked, the trivial news will be sucked into the vacuum.” This is why Americans hear about celebrities Britney Spears and Paris Hilton more than what’s happening on the front lines overseas or in poor communities of America.

“Those who rise to the top [of the TV corporate news ladder] are better at playing the political game,” he said. At Fox, Cohen said that “those of us who acted skeptically about the invasion of Iraq) were fired, those who agreed had flourishing careers.”

“Journalists are supposed to have loyalty to the public, not to the people in power,” he said. “When Journalists are so busy waving flags they don’t have time to do their job, which is to ask tough questions before we go to war.”

Cohen suggested consumers look to BBC News or various Internet sources for a reliable news source. He said that the “Internet has been a key to growth of independent media,” which is “booming” right now. He also suggested a few web sites including The Huffington Post, Common Dreams, Alternet, and independent radio and TV news show “Democracy Now,” hosted by Amy Goodman.

“The Internet is a medium that will foster debate and democracy,” Cohen said. He wants more debates to happen so that people can work through what is right for America. He also said that “the only debate that is going on now is on the Internet.”

Cohen told students that the single biggest reform needed in America is what he called net neutrality. “If net neutrality gets put into law, corporate companies wouldn’t ever be able to mess up the Internet,” he said, and that is very important. If corporate companies find a way to control the Internet – as he contends they control the mainstream media — it will lose all of the qualities that make it such an important medium.

Cohen has also been published in USA Today, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Newsday, and Atlanta Constitution. In addition to his new book, Cohen has also co-authored 4 other books; Wizards of Media Oz, The Way Things Aren’t, Through the Media Looking Glass, and Adventures in Medialand.

He is also the founder of the first media watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. In addition, Cohen has been a talk radio host and a guest on programs including “Larry King Live,” “Today,” C-SPAN, and National Public Radio. He was also a senior producer and guest on MSNBC’s program called “Donahue.”