Drilled S3Ep9: Jay Rosen and Nick Johnson on What the Media Can Do About Disinformation

Hosted and reported by climate journalist Amy Westervelt, DrilledNews.

Featuring: Nicholas Johnson, an FCC commissioner from 1966 to 1973; Brian McInerney, National Weather Service hydrologist; Jay Rosen, NYU journalism professor; and clips from Studs’ Terkel’s radio show.

Studs Terkel radio show: We live in a very strange moment in history, all of us, why not just in the United States, but they go to all the world possibilities. Dreams, fears, everything. Man worried about a sudden annihilation of a species at the same time, untold possibilities because of new energy in the world.

Amy Westervelt: Kind of sounds like a newscast from 20/20, right? This is the intro to Studs Terkel’s radio show in 1971. His guest was the youngest commissioner ever for the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, and he’d been raising hell about the corporatization of media,

Nicholas Johnson: The entire system as it is now constructed as a sort of owned lock, stock and barrel by big business.

Amy Westervelt: Here’s that same guy, Nicholas Johnson, in 2020.

Nicholas Johnson: The media was very much top down. There were a handful of major media corporations. Then we had growing merger of various kinds of media that occurred and so forth. But that that was basically the model. So I was fighting for what little cracks there were and where we could get a little public participation. Well, now that there is no similarity to do what we had back then, because now the real problem, this kind of the overwhelming amount of public opportunity,

Amy Westervelt: That’s the focus of today’s episode. We’ve spent the past several weeks looking at all the ways that industry has tried to control and influence media, always being one step ahead of what journalists expect. Today, we’re going to look at what can be done about it, especially in this era where expanded access has had the opposite effect from what Johnson was fighting for in the 70s. Instead of giving the public more say, it’s made it that much easier for industry to control and spin information. We’re going to look at some key obstacles in the media. Examine what happens when journalists want something different from their bosses. And look at the twisted relationship between the media and politics, too. We’ll hear more from Johnson and we’ll hear from NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen.

Jay Rosen: So now we’re into something that’s way beyond spin, way beyond spin, where the real Red Alert break glass problem for real journalism is disinformation is is itself like a political movement. It’s like a rights movement except power.

Amy Westervelt: It’s like a rights movement except for power. That really sums it up. All right. Let’s get into it. I’m Amy WESTERVELT and this is Drilled, Season 3, The Mad Men of Climate Denial. Throughout this season, we’ve looked at the evolution of propaganda and how deeply intertwined it is with the fossil fuel industry.

You had Ivy Lee inventing the press release and fake news and then the American Petroleum Institute more than 100 years ago,

Ivy Lee: Mr. Rockefeller listened to me patiently, pleasantly and calmly until I’d finished my eloquent presentation of why he should do what we recommended.

Amy Westervelt: Then came Edward Burnie’s teaching tobacco companies and the American Petroleum Institute how to co-opt social movements and Daniel Edelman with the press tour and the lobbying. Herb Schmertz inventing the advertorial and sponsoring all kinds of content. John Hill Paying off journalists and creating fake research groups. Howard Chase Spinning corporations as the real activists. And finally, E. Bruce and Patricia Harrison creating cross industry coalitions and infiltrating both environmental groups and the media.

All but one of these madmen worked with big oil and big tobacco, often at the same time. So when people talk about big oil as the quote unquote, new tobacco, that’s not quite right. It’s the old tobacco. And more than that, it’s the original disinformation.

The reason I bothered to walk through each generation building on the tools and strategies of the one before is that it’s all brought us to this moment. This critical point that Rosen hit on in the intro, disinformation has become a movement unto itself. Today, we’re going to look at the role of the media in all of this. The media has been a key tool for the disinformation industry, but it’s also been an adversary of it and a victim. And remember, this whole machine was built initially as a response to journalism. Investigative journalists were shining a light on the dark underbelly of American business at the turn of the 20th century. And business needed to do something about it. They fought back. They fought hard. They never stopped. And they’ve mostly won. Now, here we are in the last battles of the final war. What will we do?

Back in season one, we spent a bit of time on the Fairness Doctrine and how much it annoyed the fossil fuel industry in particular. Here’s a little snippet of that.

Steve Milloy: Climate science pretty quickly—climate “science,” quotes around science—pretty quickly revealed itself to be also not a science. . And you know,the agendas were clear from the beginning.

Amy Westervelt: A great highlight. Oil companies and pushing this message were the dozens of conservative talk shows that sprang up in the 1990s. And that happened because conservatives and industry trade groups pushed the FCC to get rid of the Fairness Doctrine. I wanted to talk to Nicholas Johnson about this because he was at the FCC when industry first started to really turn on the Fairness Doctrine. And because people still debate whether the Fairness Doctrine was good or bad, whether it had any real effect, whether it actually curbed free speech in some ways.

Nicholas Johnson: Fairness Doctrine did not forbid radio and television from doing anything I wanted to do, but did say that once you’ve done that, you have an obligation to give a range of views on whatever that issue was.

Amy Westervelt: It did lead a lot of stations to say no to certain types of content, though. Johnson says it basically gave them cover an excuse to say no to stuff they didn’t want to do.

Nicholas Johnson: Some of the people in the journalism side of the business pleaded with me to fight to retain the Fairness Doctrine because it was the only way they could stand up to the advertising folks who would come in and say, look, we we don’t think it’s a good idea that you’re running these bits about the fraud on the part of these car dealers, because we’re losing a lot of advertising revenue. They say, well, awful sorry about that, but we’re required to deal with these controversial issues and to present a range of views just so they kind of liked it.

Amy Westervelt: One of this season’s Mad Men, Herb Schmertz, complained about the Fairness Doctrine a lot because it was often the excuse. TV channels gave him for not running mobile advertorials on there, channels for not running mobile advertorials, but of course, Schmertz being Schmertz. He came up with an idea.

Nicholas Johnson: There was a fellow in mobile oil and I can’t remember him now, but I’m sure he has.

Amy Westervelt: Herb Schmertz.

Nicholas Johnson: Oh, God bless Herb Schmertz. Well, what Herb Schmertz said was, were we so want to get our message out there, we will pay for twice the time we use and we’ll give the other half of the time to the environmental folks to attack us.

Amy Westervelt: It’s true. Schmertz did do that. He offered to buy environmental opponents like the Sierra Club. AD time. And when the channels still didn’t go for it, of course, he penned an advertorial in the New York Times about how they were censoring him. Still, Schmertz ultimately thought the Fairness Doctrine was good for media and for industry. Maybe he thought it gave him a better shot at getting his message out than nothing. We can’t be sure. But he did write to Congress in the 80s, urging them to keep the Fairness Doctrine in place. The Republican Party and some media companies themselves did not.

Nicholas Johnson: But the advertising department and the management, they they fought it.

Amy Westervelt: That fight kicked off in the 1980s under Reagan. By 1987, a decade after Johnson had left the FCC, the commission revoked the Fairness Doctrine. And almost immediately you saw an explosion in conservative talk radio. It literally couldn’t have existed before the Fairness Doctrine was revoked. We’re talking about it, of course, because conservative radio was a critical tool in the climate denial toolbox. It was a hotbed of climate denial in the late eighties and throughout the 90s. And that’s because industry strategists like Steven Milloy, who you heard from in that clip from season one, specifically targeted the audiences of conservative talk radio with the message that climate science was a hoax. Here’s one of many, many examples from Rush Limbaugh’s show.

Rush Limbaugh: This is not the first kind of a story we’ve had. We’ve had numerous stories in recent years about expeditions that Arctic to study climate change and global warming. Getting stuck in ice so thick that ice breakers couldn’t even reach them. And they were shocked and they were stunned. They believe their own nonsense that the ice at the north and south poles is melting when it’s not. It’s getting bigger.

Amy Westervelt: Then you had Fox News explode on the scene in the 1990s and 2000s. And now we’ve got a president who echoes their talking points.

President Donald Trump: So Don is talking about. This was a global warming that a lot of it’s a hoax, it’s a hoax. I mean, it’s a moneymaking industry, OK?

Amy Westervelt: It seems like now would be a real good time to bring back the Fairness Doctrine. But Johnson says it’s unlikely to happen because politicians on both sides benefit from its absence. It was also one of the last times the U.S. tried to tackle media policy head on. That’s something NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen really got me thinking about. We’ll dig into that right after this quick break.

Jay Rosen: Every nation has a media policy. A cultural policy that lives in government because government is the state is like that. So that’s where public policy comes from.

Amy Westervelt:  Right.

Jay Rosen: We have fiction in our country that are that our tradition of cover media policy is that we don’t have any policy. We have a free press.

Amy Westervelt: This is Jay Rosen. He spends a lot really all of his time thinking about the state of journalism right now. And one thing he thinks could help would be to actually tackle media policy.

Jay Rosen: We have, in fact, had a media policy from the very beginning. Up until now, you could only have a republic over a small territory because it required the kind of intimacy. But with improvements in communication and transportation, the United States, which is much bigger than republics that we know of from past, could in fact still be a democracy. If we add to classic notions of democracy two things political representation, voting systems and communications systems. Right? So you could have people who lived out in western Pennsylvania, governed in Washington, D.C., because we would have roads, post offices. That’s all part of media policy and a free press with postal subsidies. Another part of American press. Postal subsidies. What is it? Is a fucking media policy.

Amy Westervelt: These policies set at the federal level help get information out to the public. They are indeed a media policy. When Nicholas Johnson was at the FCC, he made it a point to pass policy. In fact, he was behind the next two examples Rosen gave me.

Jay Rosen: So the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was an example of that, right? It was added to the thinking of what American media was, but unlike in other countries, is made like incredibly weak with with like no continuous funding source. So that so that tells you something that is definitely media policy. It’s like, let’s keep this thing weak or I remember you. I’m not sure how old you are. But you may remember this. When I was in my teens and early 20s, there was something on our television called Cable Access Television, which was basically channels where anybody could put on a television.

Amy Westervelt: I am, in fact, old enough to remember this. Like many of my peers in college, I took a stab at making a weird public access TV show. What I didn’t know was that Nicholas Johnson is the guy who made that happen. Here he is explaining why.

Nicholas Johnson: The cable television policy only works. They desperately want it to be unanimous. And I spent four, seven years writing dissenting opinions so they were afraid of what I was going to do with it. The only time I sold my boat. I said, I’ll vote for it only if you will require every cable television system in the country to make a channel available for the public.

Amy Westervelt: And so we had public access TV for a while because Nick Johnson refused to sign off on policy for cable TV without it. Unfortunately, the industry basically used it as an excuse to get the public out of TV. Here’s Rosen again.

Jay Rosen: But the cable companies didn’t care because they weren’t required to put anything into producing them. Right. And so that there’s policy. Right. That the public part is totally unfunded. And then you could say, you know what, we’ve had public, we’ve had cable access. Nobody is interested in watching it. It’s just stupid television shows.

Amy Westervelt: the collective refusal of politicians and the media industry to acknowledge that we even have media policy makes it difficult to argue for new or different policies, which is a real shame because good media policy could fix a lot of things right now.

Jay Rosen: We could solve lots of really difficult problems in our media policy right now just by taking a percentage of revenues from license sales. We could have a fund to create low, you know, journalism and we could finance because the amount of money, even though it seems like a lot for our paltry newspapers, the amount of money we’re talking about to, like produce good information for the nation is not a lot of money. So and so with that, what we have to do now is we have to rethink that entire thing, the whole system by which we fund journalism from the ground up. And yeah, we have to keep our institutions that we have going. But we have to come up with complete new ones and it is happening to some degree.

Amy Westervelt: The problem there, of course, is that trust in journalism is at an all time low and that is by design. Certainly in recent years by the Trump administration. Yes, but the PR firms that created disinformation a hundred years ago bear a lot of the blame to. Think about it. Our Mad Men started out trying to wrest power away from muckraking journalists and give a bit of it to the industry.

They wanted industry to have a hand in shaping the public’s understanding of the world, which would in turn shape what sorts of policies they would go for and ultimately what sort of society industry had to operate in. And they did it bit by bit, the press releases the advertorials. The front groups they ultimately made sifting through PR part of every journalist’s job. They positioned themselves as gatekeepers to the powerful. Then accused any journalist who didn’t quote powerful CEOs and spokespeople of bias, who was a brilliant way to get their people into the news. The idea was first to grab some of that power of the media for themselves and their clients, and then ultimately to eliminate that power altogether. We’re in the second phase, that eliminating power part, right now. Here’s Jay Rosen again.

Jay Rosen: Actually, serious news reporting is just one tributary of a much larger stream. It doesn’t even have the power to correct the rest of the stream.

Amy Westervelt: That was a deliberate move to create disinformation and chaos. And the PR firms that created this strategy had been testing it out on campaigns for big oil and big tobacco for decades before it made its way into the political realm.

Jay Rosen: I sometimes put the dividing line in political reporting in 2004, if you’ll recall, where the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Remember that? Yeah.

Swift Boat Veterans for Truth clip: Do you have any question about what John Kerry’s made up? Just spend three minutes with the man who served with him.

Swift Boat Veterans for Truth clip: I served with John Kerry. I served with John Kerry. John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam. He is lying about his record. I know John Kerry is lying about it.

Jay Rosen: So the previous cycles, that would be the kind of thing where early reporters to the campaign would check it out because they want to know if it was going to be an issue. Is there anything here? Right. And then when they discovered that it wasn’t much to it, they would just say, well, that’s not a factor. And it wouldn’t be a factor because the campaign discourse was limited enough at that time where if the reporter said it’s not an issue, it’s not an issue. Right. But 2004, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Swift Boat Veterans for Truth clip: Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is responsible for the content of this advertisement

Jay Rosen: Accent on the word truth, to just inflame the situation proved that they could smuggle their charge into the campaign. And it could start to wound him. Right. And it would spread on its own, even if the repressive, I’ll say there’s nothing there. And there was like another power. Now we know a lot more about that other power.

Amy Westervelt: You could argue that by 2004, environmental reporters already knew a lot more about that other power. Climate scientists certainly did. Here’s National Weather Service hydrologist Brian McInerney talking about experiencing this shift in climate science and how people understood. This moment where it went from just reporters who kind of knew the subject matter. Talking to scientists whose research was vetted to a world where Rush Limbaugh spouting industry propaganda was somehow considered an equal and valid counterbalance.

Brian McInerney: When I first started doing this and I would talk about climate change, it was like another subject, like geology, hydrology, meteorology. And it was well received. And then at some point it got politicized and then it got more difficult to convey the science. I was on a radio show two hours. They called, said, can you come in and talk about climate change? Sure. It was K talk radio, 6:30 a.m. and I still remember it so well. And it was two hours of live TV and they broke the call record and everybody that called in was antagonistic toward me. Nasty. This would have been early 2000 somewhere in that ring. And I was really surprised that it wasn’t a mix of calls or questions. And you elaborate on the science. It was all let me talk to that tree hugging, do gooder kind of guy. And that’s how the whole interview went. And I got done. I was like, why are why are they so angry?

Amy Westervelt: now reporters on every beat are dealing with this nonsense. And it’s a real problem for society and democracy. Not just journalists. Here’s Rosen again.

Jay Rosen: That changes the calculus for journalists. It’s not a matter now of just being a gatekeeper for your part of dialog. That’s part of your job. But then you have this other job of wait a minute, misinformation is taking over. Propaganda is taking over. Are you just covering or are you opposing that?

Amy Westervelt: And how do you correct it?

Jay Rosen: And how do you correct it and how should you stand towards it now? Those are really hard questions.

Amy Westervelt: Rosen says when he’s thinking about these questions, he always comes back to something Marty Baron, a legendary Washington Post editor, said about the appropriate role of media in the age of Trump.

Jay Rosen: But I keep writing about Marty Baron’s sort of epigram: “We’re not at war. We’re at work.” We’re not at war with the Trump machine, even though we know they’re trying to discredit us. Very intelligent remark. It also represents, I think, how most journalists think of it. Yeah, that’s right. We’re not at war with you. Exactly. We used to keep doing our job and keep our heads down. All this right was a pistol. Melodically modest things I like. Just keep doing your job. And Marty Baron and those who agree are right that it would be really foolish and counterproductive to get caught up in a war where you literally had a political opposition to Donald Trump. Then you’ve almost lost already, because even if you win that fight, you politicise the press. But at the same time, it’s a war. And there are and there are people who want to destroy you. And there are people who are down with the undermine the press agenda. I don’t have an answer, a magic answer. Here’s what they should do. I’m saying that’s like a really different problem. And then on top of that, we have the propaganda of noise and confusion and oversupply. Right. And torrential disinformation and chaos and deliberate creation of chaos to both make the political situation uncertain, but also to undermine trust in the press. Right? Because if real people are talking about really crazy stuff, the news becomes crazier even though it’s accurate. And then the crazier it gets, the more it repels regular people who have other things to do in their lives, which is a win for a certain kind of politics.

Amy Westervelt: Ultimately, Rosen says this issue is likely to lead us back to the whole problem that a free press was supposed to kind of solve in the first place.

Jay Rosen: For many, many people, whether it happened and that is completely irrelevant. My own view is that journalism is going to survive as a high trust product. And the breadth or narrowness of the market for that product will depend hugely on politics and culture, not just the performance of the press. So it will always be there for a minority, especially if we include like a rich minority, people can pay a lot. They will definitely have news. It will be. And the people give it to them. Will will. Definitely. And that is really happen. Or was it a right wing fantasy? Right. And that’ll be foundational to how do they do the journalism? But it will be. Not only will it be a minority product, in a sense, this small market pays for it, but the high price of the of the good will reflect how valuable it is for an elite only to have that. Now you see it, I mean.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. That it’s almost going back to that.

Jay Rosen: Yes. In the end the fewer on the fewer people who are informed, the better.

Amy Westervelt: For centuries Americans have tried it out. That quote about how democracy depends on a well-informed citizenry. But what Rosen is talking about here brings us right back to the days of Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays. This idea that the public, the unwashed masses can’t really be trusted to make decisions on their own, they need to be manipulated, controlled or chaos will ensue.

In fact, the opposite is true. Those attempts to control the minds of the public. They’ve delivered the ultimate chaos. It’s a world undone, a world in which no one knows what or who they can trust, especially as we face pandemics and catastrophic climate change. Human societies depend on trust on at least a few shared ideas about how things work. In service of profits, industry has unraveled even that most basic concepts of society. And now we need to figure out how to take it back.

That’s it for this time and for this season. Thank you for joining us again. I really appreciate it. If you find this kind of reporting valuable, please consider supporting our Patreon. It’s at Patry on dot com slash Drilled and we’ll link to that in the show notes too. I hate doing this kind of stuff. I really hate asking people for money. I’m the world’s worst sales person. But here’s the thing. I’ve been testing out grant funding and advertising the past couple of years. And honestly, it all makes me a little uncomfortable. I have a lot of mixed feelings about advertising. I mean, witness this season. But it’s also been my experience that foundations will try to exert influence, too. Ideally, I’d like to be accountable to listeners and readers, to the public, to you guys. One of the reasons that I started Drilled on my own is that I was struggling with some mainstream media outlets, not wanting to look critically at media’s role in all of this. So it was important to me to do accountability reporting that looked at every single thing. And the only way that I think I can really do that. The way that I want to do it is to be responsible only to the people consuming the information. I don’t, unfortunately, have a trust fund. On top of having, you know, rent to pay, I’d like to pay for some additional reporting. There are many, many more investigations that we’d like to bring you in this show on our Web site and in our newsletter. Any support you can give will go directly towards that.

As a member, you will get ad free episodes. You will also get early release episodes and some behind the scenes content for members only. So check that out and support us if you can. I realize these are very uncertain and scary times, so trust me when I say that I do genuinely appreciate any bit of support we get. OK, sales pitch over. We’ll be back in a few weeks with a mini series highlighting a project that we’ve been co reporting with HuffPost about the influence the fossil fuel industry has had in schools and not just in science class.

You won’t want to miss that series to make sure you’re subscribed. It’s totally free to subscribe on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, all of those apps. You can also listen on our Web site anytime at Drilled news.com. Slash podcasts. Thanks again. And we’ll see you soon.

Drilled is produced and distributed by Critical Frequency. The show is reported, written and produced by me, Amy WESTERVELT. Our editor is Julia Ritchey. Our editorial advisor is Rekha Murthy Sound Design and Score by B Beamon Katie Ross created the amazing artwork for this season. The tape of Nicholas Johnson being interviewed by Studs Terkel in 1971 comes from the Studs Terkel Radio Archive from W LMT Radio. I highly recommend checking out that archive online. There are some real gems in there. It’s at Studs Terkel dot wfm t com. Special thanks to our First Amendment attorney, James Wheaten and the First Amendment project Drilled is made possible in part by a generous grant from the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. We appreciate their support. You can find Drilled wherever you get your podcasts. Remember to leave us a reading or review. It really helps people find the show. You can follow us on Twitter at. We are Drilled and visit our Web site Drilled News.com. For more reporting on this subject and behind the scenes stories from this season. Thanks for listening. And we’ll see you next time.