Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


August 13, 2009

The Watchdog of Cable News

Steve Rendall of the media monitoring organization FAIR talks about the corporate bias inherent in cable news and elsewhere.

Michael Gluckstadt

Any liberal worth his arugula can—and will—tell you that much of Fox News's "Fair and Balanced" coverage is actually fraudulent and biased. But it takes a true believer to sift through pages of transcripts and hours of footage of Glenn Beck just to show you how biased he is. Steve Rendall, senior analyst for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), took on the challenge, duly noting outrageous statement after outrageous statement from what he calls Beck's "bizarre barking rant" of a show.

Rendall has been working at FAIR for more than 21 years, and is the co-host of their national radio show, CounterSpin. FAIR is a media watchdog organization whose aim is to sniff out corporate bias. While admittedly left-leaning, FAIR and Rendall scan the full spectrum of the media for instances of questionable journalism—and they usually find something to get upset about.

Media watchdog Steve Rendall.
"FAIR came together because people were tired of yelling at their TVs and New York Times in isolation."

Media watchdog Steve Rendall.

In the following interview, which was conducted over the phone and has been edited for clarity, Rendall tells Gelf how corporations shape the news agenda, why newspapers might not be worth saving, and the reason Viacom's Sumner Redstone votes Republican.

Gelf Magazine: How did you get your start as a media watchdog?

Steve Rendall: Shortly after I moved to New York, I went to hear a talk given by Jeff Cohen. I had some experience as a mainstream journalist, mainly writing for the Herald Tribune about North Africa. The talk was about the press coverage of Reagan's policies in Central America, and I joined FAIR that year, in 1988. I've been an activist and a journalist my whole life, though—at least since I started distributing a little mimeographed sheet in junior high, which was mainly about the Vietnam War.

Gelf Magazine: Is noticing bias something that just comes naturally to you?

Steve Rendall: As you can tell, I have strong views. I was always careful to outline the geography of debates in the stories that I did. I was surprised to see US media—especially "prestige media"—slanting and rigging the debate so vigorously. That's something that brought the people in FAIR together. That and we were tired of yelling at our televisions and copies of the New York Times in isolation.

Gelf Magazine: What sort of bias do you look out for?

Steve Rendall: When you look at the academic studies of media criticism that are out there, most of it is not very scientific. It's mostly "content analysis." I find that to be terrible subjective. Over the years at FAIR, we developed a method of looking at who gets to speak, of who the sources are in a story. We look at those sources, and code their affiliations. Then we look at bias as a matter of who is excluded, or slighted from participating in the discussion. We find time and again that corporate-friendly voices—often centrist and right wing think tanks—are given full-throated participation in the debates, whereas people on the left, who have questions about the merits of unbridled capitalism, are viewed as corporate-unfriendly, and not invited to participate. We publish a Think Tank Monitor every year, which shows how these left-leaning organizations are slighted. A 2005 study showed that even NPR gets 60 percent of its speakers from the right. Part of it the reason is because news organizations are afraid to be accused of liberal bias.

Gelf Magazine: FAIR doesn't deny its leftward leanings. How would you respond to critics that say such a view might skew your analysis?

Steve Rendall: That's fair to say. In our mission statement, we do say that we're a progressive organization. That doesn't mean that we can't be accurate and measure accuracy in others. We're nothing like the right wing media watch groups. They'll tell you that the media is left-wing, liberal, or communist. That's nonsense, and hasn't been shown in any legitimate study. What we say is not the opposite of what they say. We say that the media's primary bias is a corporate bias, either in favor of its owners or its advertisers. You won't get anywhere at ABC by writing about Disney sweatshops in China, or reporting a story on GE polluting the Hudson for NBC.

Gelf Magazine: How often do you think those corporate considerations play into editorial decisions?

Steve Rendall: There have been studies that show that over 50 percent of reporters have been approached to change material in order to accommodate corporate interests. This isn't being done in secret. In the late '90s, an LA Times editor said he was going to take a bazooka to the wall separating editorial and advertising. When Time magazine ran a special issue on the environment, sponsored solely by Ford, they consciously and conspicuously left out any mention of auto pollution. This sort of behavior is rampant.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think of the recent controversy over the alleged truce GE called for between Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly?

Steve Rendall: We don't like to pick on individuals, since we usually think the organization is the problem. But without casting too much doubt on Olbermann, his protestations seem a little unlikely. Robert McChesney did a study for us looking at the rate which Olbermann mentioned O'Reilly before and after June 1. He went two months after June 1 without mentioning O'Reilly, though he had mentioned him 20-30 times in the two months prior. It looks like something was happening. GE and NBC have a long record of doing things like this, so it wouldn't be too surprising if this were true. It's like when they fired Phil Donahue just before the start of the Iraq war because they didn't want to be the head of the anti-war movement while everyone else was waving the flag.

Gelf Magazine: Why is the corporate bias aligned with the Republican bias?

Steve Rendall: There are a few reasons, but mostly it's because these big organizations do better under Republicans, since they tend to cut taxes. Sumner Redstone said as much in 2004, when he admitted to a reporter that while he thought John Kerry was an honorable man, he votes for Viacom, which does better with Republicans. You can bet that when the CEO says something like that, the sentiment shoots right down the line.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think that newspapers are equally culpable in promoting corporate bias, or is it endemic to cable news?

Steve Rendall: There's no doubt that the irrational thought, racism, and bigotry that appear in the media are much more rampant in cable news and talk radio than they are in the pages of a daily newspaper. But at the same time, the subtle nature and higher level of credibility newspapers enjoy make their misrepresentations of fact carry more weight. Though the New York Times is much more credible than Fox News, it did a lot more of the heavy lifting in getting the American people to accept the Iraq war than Fox did. Fox News doesn't change many people's minds; the shoddy reporting at the New York Times did.

Gelf Magazine: What do people misunderstand about cable news?

Steve Rendall: For one thing, ratings. Comparing Fox News's ratings to any of the other cable news channels is comparing apples and oranges. Studies show that people use Fox like talk radio—they turn it on and they leave it on—which means the same people are counted over and over again. CNN's cumulative ratings, the unique viewers, are actually higher.
The other thing about cable news is that you have to question why they call it that. There is news on CNN, but what is news on Fox or MSNBC? I can't name a news show on MSNBC, and Fox only has two of them. Most of the programming is discussion shows, and frankly, fluff.

Gelf Magazine: I recently read your piece on Glen Beck. At what point do you just throw up your hands and give up detecting someone's bias?

Steve Rendall: What's funny about Beck is that he's not that effective. I read many of his transcripts and watched many of his shows for that piece, and I really find him tiresome. That's not always the case for me. I think Limbaugh has a kind of genius about him. I'm fascinated by the creature. I feel the same way about Sean Hannity, who I think is something of an idiot savant. Beck is just incoherent. He asks on his show, "What ever happened to the little guy?" Well, he's not on your fucking show, that's for sure. Beck's show is a parade of neocons and others in favor of lower taxes for corporations and the wealthy. It's not populist; it's a bizarre barking rant in favor of economic elites.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think the recent shifts towards new media and online journalism bode well for transparency?

Steve Rendall: One of the discussions taking place in J-schools, media outlets and conferences right now is about how we need to save newspapers. At FAIR, we ask, "Why?" The argument for saving newspapers is that we'd be lost without their daily coverage of all the elemental pieces of news and journalism that impact our daily lives. Of course, I agree that sort of reporting is worth saving, but why does that mean we have to save newspapers? In many cases these are the same newspapers that missed these sorts of stories so horribly. They missed the tech bubble, the housing bubble, the credit collapse. Other people got this right, but not our daily papers. They picked up on the stories when it was already too late. And they completely missed the run-up to the war in Iraq, even though Charlie Hanley, a Pulitzer-winning AP reporter, was in Iraq at the time debunking them.
In the end, newspapers are part of corporations. Their duties are to their shareholders. Officers of the corporations can be called into court if they make decisions that don't serve the shareholders. Serving the public with good journalism is just a moral responsibility.

Gelf Magazine: Where do you get your funding from?

Steve Rendall: I have nothing to do with it, but roughly half of our money comes from our magazine Extra! We're lucky to be a not-for-profit organization that at least has a cushion to support ourselves with. The rest comes from foundations and donors.

Gelf Magazine: Is there anyone who monitors you? Who watches the watchdogs?

Steve Rendall: We publish every letter we get—many of them scathingly critical. I don't think there are organizations that monitor us, but there are academics who frequently review our work. I'd be in favor of any group that started up to monitor us. Our work should be scrutinized and held to a high standard. Especially since accuracy is our middle name.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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