Jeff Cohen is the founder of the tax-exempt “media watchdog” organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).
Raised in Detroit, Michigan, Cohen repeatedly borrowed his father’s car as a teenager to attend local civil rights and antiwar gatherings, including one that was co-organized by John Kerry. Because of this, Cohen wrote in 2004, “the Michigan State Police launched a political dossier on … my dad. It was a total mistake. Sol Cohen [his father] was no card-carrying activist; the only cards he carried were Visa and American Express.”
But others in that time and place were involved in social disruption as card-carrying members of radical organizations. In 2002 Alexander Cockburn recounted Cohen saying: “In Detroit, SWP [the Socialist Workers Party] was at the center of all mass antiwar rallies.” These were the same antiwar gatherings Cohen wrote about having attended.
Cohen’s FAIR biography reports that he “did undergraduate work at the University of Michigan,” but says nothing about his having graduated with any degree. Soon thereafter he moved to Los Angeles where, according to FAIR, he “did his legal studies at the People’s College of Law” (PCL) — a school that does not require applicants for admittance to have earned an undergraduate college degree, but does require them to “demonstrate a commitment to progressive social change” with evidence of political activism. PCL has never been accredited, but because it has a license from a branch of the California Department of Consumer Affairs, its graduates are permitted to sit for the California State Bar Examination. By this path Jeff Cohen became a member of the California Bar in 1981.
Cohen was soon writing “investigative articles” for the socialist magazine Mother Jones. He became a board member of “several public interest groups,” among them the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where Cohen also worked as a lawyer.
“I…helped win a settlement of an ACLU lawsuit against the L.A. police for spying on nonviolent activists,” Cohen told one interviewer. “That gave me some money to travel around Western Europe for a year, where I saw that TV dominated by strong public broadcasting systems delivered smarter news programming and more diverse discussion than our commercial-driven TV. Also, the lawsuit left me a bit of money with which I could launch FAIR.”
Cohen created FAIR in 1986 to be a leftwing counterweight to Accuracy in Media, which had extensively documented liberal bias in the dominant establishment newspapers, magazines, and television networks.
Cohen and FAIR claimed that the establishment media was not liberal but conservative, citing as evidence the relatively scant coverage and interviews the media granted to far-left radicals. The typical political television programs pitted moderates-labeled-as-liberals against conservatives, argued Cohen, while “dissidents like Noam Chomsky and [unilateral nuclear disarmament advocate] Helen Caldicott never appeared once.”
Cohen and FAIR were embraced by the left and buoyed by its money. FAIR’s advisory board soon included actors Edward Asner, John Cusack, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon; journalists Ben Bagdikian, Barbara Ehrenreich, Susan Faludi, Katha Pollitt [of The Nation], and Studs Terkel; the Marxist Sandinista-supporting musician Jackson Browne; poet Allen Ginsberg; and feminists Eleanor Smeal and Gloria Steinem.
Cash flooded into FAIR’s and Cohen’s coffers from the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Veatch Foundation, the Samuel Rubin Foundation, the Tides Foundation, Working Assets, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, the Streisand Foundation, and others.
From 1992 to 1997, Cohen co-wrote a syndicated column, “Media Beat,” with FAIR executive Norman Solomon. Cohen and Solomon co-authored three books published by Common Courage Press. One was Adventures in Medialand: Behind the News, Beyond the Pundits (1993). Another was Through the Media Looking Glass: Decoding Bias and Blather in the News (1995). The third was Wizards of Media Oz: Behind the Curtain of Mainstream News (1997). Cohen and Solomon in 1994 also began a continuing tradition of giving annual FAIR awards called “The P.U.-litzer Prizes” for examples of what they deemed right-wing or capitalist bias in media.
Cohen also co-authored, with Steve Rendall and others, The Way Things Aren’t: Rush Limbaugh’s Reign of Error (1995).
During the Nineties, Cohen rose from being an occasional guest to a regular pundit on television. In 1996 he was employed as a co-host of CNN’s Crossfire. From 1997 until 2002 he was a panelist on Fox News Channel’s News Watch.
In 2003 Cohen was hired as an on-air commentator and senior producer of the short-lived Phil Donahue show Donahue on MSNBC.
Following his departure from MSNBC, Cohen worked in 2003 as Communications Director for the unsuccessful presidential primary campaign of Congressman Dennis Kucinich.
Cohen in a May 2004 CommonDreams column wrote: “I am ideologically aligned with Ralph Nader, not John Kerry. I agree with Nader on virtually every issue, while agreeing with only about half of Kerry’s positions (or what can be deciphered as Kerry’s positions).” But Cohen acknowledged that Nader had absolutely no chance of defeating George W. Bush in that year’s November presidential election, whereas Kerry stood a good chance of winning. For that reason, Cohen gave his endorsement to Kerry. “There can be no greater imperative for progressives this year than to Vote Bush Out,” wrote Cohen.
One of the biggest government changes sought over the years by Jeff Cohen and FAIR is restoration of the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” that used to require broadcasters to provide “equal time” for those with opposing viewpoints. Enacted in 1949 by the Federal Communications Commission, the legislation required radio and television programs to obtain licenses before broadcasting controversial views, and mandated that those views be presented in a “fair and balanced” manner — thereby setting bounds on free speech and limiting the diversity of viewpoints that could be freely aired. The repeal of the major provisions of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 ushered in a boom of new media formats, including political talk radio.
In 2008 Cohen became the founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College’s Roy H. Park School of Communications. He was also hired as an associate professor in the school’s Journalism Department.