‘It’s Because of Their Independence That They Can Get These Stories’

Janine Jackson interviewed Jeff Cohen about the documentary All Governments Lie  for the December 15, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.


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MP3 Link

Frank Morgan in The Wizard of Oz

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

Janine Jackson: There’s a moment early on in the new documentary All Governments Lie where we see a clip from The Wizard of Oz: the revelation that the thunderous and awe-inspiring Great Oz is just a regular man with some powerful technology—the man behind the curtain. Unearthing and exposing the actions of the powerful was the driving impulse of the work of journalist I.F. Stone, whose fearless newsletter, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, was published from the early ’50s to the early ’70s. The film explores how Stone’s work and spirit continue to influence and guide radical, independent reporters today.

All Governments Lie is directed by Fred Peabody. We’re joined now by one of its executive producers. He’s Jeff Cohen, founder of FAIR and director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, as well as author of  Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media. He joins us now by phone from Ithaca, New York. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Jeff Cohen.

Jeff Cohen: Great to be with you.

I.F. Stone (cc photo: Kzitelman/Wikimedia)

I.F. Stone (cc photo: Kzitelman/Wikimedia)

JJ: The title All Governments Lie,  of course, comes from I.F. Stone. He made that point more than once, a point that, depressingly, sounds still as radical today as it ever did. You know, a journalist at a party might say, “Oh, of course, governments lie,” but coverage itself has the acceptance of the legitimacy of US government power at its core.

JC: Yeah.

JJ: Using reporting to challenge the powerful in government and elsewhere, is that the thread that connects I.F. Stone to the working journalists that we see in the film?

JC: Yeah. I mean, I.F. Stone was exposing official deceptions as they were being put out. Within a week or two of the Gulf of Tonkin hoax in 1964, that led to the massive US military intervention in Vietnam, Izzy Stone was exposing it in his newsletter for what it was, that it just couldn’t possibly be truthful.

So the theme of the movie is that, today, we have some Izzys that are doing the same thing. They do not accept government pronouncements, especially on US foreign policy, and they work using documents, using whistleblowers, using sources to expose those lies.

We got into the newsroom of Democracy Now!, where we interview Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh. We were in the newsroom of The Intercept, where we interviewed Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill. We got into the newsroom of a really important web TV project called The Young Turks, where we talk to Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian.

It was important for some of our original partners, like some of the TV networks that have partnered with us in Canada, to make this movie All Governments Lie—they said, we don’t want to just see talking heads, we want to get into the newsrooms, and that’s what this movie does.

John Carlos Frey (All Governments Lie)

John Carlos Frey (image: All Governments Lie)

And we actually followed Matt Taibbi as he goes and covers the New Hampshire primary. We follow the independent journalist supported by the Nation Institute, John Carlos Frey, on the US/Mexico border as he’s exposing these mass graves in the state of Texas, that got almost no coverage in mainstream media. So it was sort of exciting to be able to profile the I.F. Stones of today. And that’s why I feel audiences have found this movie somewhat uplifting.

JJ: Right, absolutely. And it’s not just about the reporters, it’s about their stories, and that connects you to the importance of it. Well, you just sort of touched on something. I always liked the statement from Stone where he said: “I made no claims to ‘inside stuff.’ I tried to give information which could be documented so that the reader could check it for himself.” And that’s certainly a key tenet for FAIR’s work, as we go about critiquing the corporate media.

And then at the Park Center, you’ve established the Izzy Award to acknowledge those independent journalists who do the work. And I think we want to emphasize, it’s not just that it’s good work or it’s smart work; it’s the work that corporate establishment media don’t want to do, because of their restrictions as corporate establishment media. It has to do with punching up, as I think Jeremy Hill says in the film. But the themes of the film then kind of match the various sorts of work that you’ve done over your career.

JC: Yeah. I think you touched on it correctly, that I spent all those years with you at FAIR, and we’re largely criticizing what’s wrong with mainstream media—why do they engage in censorship, why do certain stories not get covered?—and it can be a negative pursuit.

Now, luckily, I’ve been over here at Park Center for Independent Media for ten years at Ithaca College, where, as you say, we give out the Izzy Award every year for outstanding achievement in independent media, and many of the Izzy Award winners are in this movie. And I think the beauty of this movie is that it has both things.

It’s a movie that really is sharp in criticizing what’s wrong with the mainstream media: Why do they miss these stories? When the US government lies about foreign policy, why are mainstream media so gullible in conveying those lies uncritically?

But it’s also got the positive. As you say, it’s got these journalists who are unfettered. They go to work every day, and they don’t have these restrictions, and they can take on, as we show in this movie, the biggest stories, go after the most powerful people, and as you said, Janine, punch up.

I’ve studied independent media over here at Ithaca College. One could argue that independent media is more powerful today, progressive independent media, than it was during the height of the New Left in the late ’60s and ’70s, during the big socialist movement with all the socialist newspapers before World War I—that because of the internet, these journalists that we profile in this movie are able to reach, combined, millions of people, not only on a daily basis, but on an hourly basis.

JJ: Right. And it is true that one of the things that comes through in the film is that there are these righteous independent journalists out there, and, of course, there’s no pretense that the ones profiled are the only ones.

JC: Yeah.

Jeff Cohen (cc photo: Jim Naureckas)

Jeff Cohen: “One could argue that independent media is more powerful today, progressive independent media, than it was during the height of the New Left in the late ’60s and ’70s.” (cc photo: Jim Naureckas)

JJ: There’s many more, and that’s what it’s kind of pointing towards. The thing is that they have to be independent, and that’s where the structural analysis comes in.

There’s a reason that they have to be unfettered. And then, therefore, that they need support, and  that we have to find ways to sustain this kind of work precisely because powerful actors in government and in corporations would be more than happy if this kind of journalism disappears.

And so I was just in DC, where there was palpable activity around net neutrality. But we remember, we’ve been on this issue for a while, we remember, we see the change. You know, media was not problematized, as we might say, just a couple of decades ago, but now I think many, many people completely understand the relationship between structural issues of ownership and funding and the media content that’s hypercommercial, that’s unquestioning of power, that’s racist and sexist and ableist. You know, people completely understand that relationship now. It’s a little bit different than when you started FAIR.

JC: Yeah. Well, I give you guys credit, who are still carrying the torch at FAIR, the well-documented criticism of mainstream media. And I would say a turning point, and we show it in the movie All Governments Lie, was the invasion of Iraq. In the run-up to that invasion, the mainstream media got it wrong, as FAIR was exposing, and FAIR was counting who got on the air and who didn’t get on the air at these times. And in the independent media, the progressive blogosphere, those independent journalists got the story right, and it wasn’t just that the independent progressive journalists had better politics, or they had better opinions; they got the facts right.

And that’s because, as you said, Janine, these independent media outlets and these independent journalists that we profile in our documentary, that they are separated from power. Like I.F. Stone; he was not cozy with power. He was not invited to the news conference, he didn’t hang out and schmooze with the powers that be, and that’s why he was able to get stories. And it’s why today’s I.F. Stones—Sharif Abdel Kouddous, and the work he’s done around the Middle East—it’s because of their independence that they can get these stories.

And, Janine, can I make one comment about public broadcasting?

JJ: Please.

JC: Yeah. Whenever I show this movie, I exhibit it and I go around the country and I show this movie, people are often impressed, and then they say, well, where has this movie been seen? And it’s almost a sort of a reinforcement that the movie is correct when I explain to people, yeah, this movie has been shown in big viewership, big audience, on public television in Japan, in France, in Germany, in Finland, in Canada, but it’s too controversial for our very corporatized and very timid public television system in this country. So I think it’s telling that this movie has been seen in festivals all over the world, and on public television channels across the globe, but it is, I guess, too oppositional, too independent, to be shown on our compromised public TV system.

JJ: It’s really a marker of where we are, and yet we’re kind of moving in at least two directions at once. Because at the same time as the openings are closing for even a movie like this, which is not—I mean, the idea that, it’s like I say, about the idea that all governments lie, no journalist really, if you’re talking one to one, would argue against that, would say, oh no, the White House always tells the truth. And yet they don’t represent that, they don’t have the courage of that conviction, in terms of the stories that they actually put out there.

CNN's Eason Jordan

“I went to the Pentagon myself several times before the war started and met with important people there and said, for instance, at CNN, here are the generals we’re thinking of retaining to advise us on the air and off about the war, and we got a big thumbs-up on all of them. That was important.”
CNN executive Eason Jordan (Reliable Sources, 4/20/03)

And yet at the same time, there’s a bit in the movie where we see Eason Jordan from CNN, very proudly saying, yes, I checked with the Defense Department to see if the sources we would bring on in the runup to the Iraq War would pass muster, would be OK with the Defense Department. And I just sort of feel if you show that clip to a group of 16-year-olds today that they would howl, in a way that just 10, 15 years ago we wouldn’t have seen, you know.

JC: Right. The strength of the movie, it shows here’s what’s wrong with the mainstream media, here’s why. And here are these independent journalists that we should celebrate. And as you said, Janine, these independent outlets need support. They need people to go on social media and spread the word. And they also need financial support from the base, from the masses. And independent media has boomed, it’s never been more powerful, and that’s where the fight to save net neutrality. It’s because of the internet that independent media is stronger, stronger today than it’s ever been in US history.

JJ: All right, then. We’ve been speaking with FAIR founder Jeff Cohen, director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, and one of the executive producers of the new documentary All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception and the Spirit of I.F. Stone. The DVD, by the way, is the thank-you gift right now for donations to FAIR. Thank you, Jeff Cohen, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

JC: Thanks, Janine.

This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.