FAIR faces proposition of critiquing mainstream media, while also seeking coverage in such outlets.
The media universe - or at least the meta-verse in which all things media are interpreted, evaluated, and rearranged - is occupied by a set of oppositional forces. Critics and analysts on both the right and the left seek to pull the public and the media itself over to their own analytical views. This balance of criticism is important, lest the conversation be thrown off in one direction, skewing the media to the public's detriment.
The left side of this equation has been represented most forcefully for the last two decades by the New York-based group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). Since its founding in LA in 1986, the group has worked tirelessly to publicly target examples of what it believes to be bias, censorship, or unfairness in the media. With a small staff and grassroots style that belies its influence, FAIR brings a reactive strategy to breaking media issues that pays off in attention and has established it as the most prominent liberal voice for media reform.
"It was born out of the different kinds of citizen and social activism, and the frustration with breaking into the mainstream media that a lot of activists felt," says Peter Hart, activism director. Founder Jeff Cohen believed that right-wing critiques had cowed the media into timidity, and he set out to promote his vision of balanced reporting.
"I think the general media literacy of the progressive movement was improved by FAIR," Hart says, "and I think the major media hears a critique they weren't hearing."
FAIR takes a two-pronged approach to communications: It not only builds relationships with mainstream media in order to serve as an often-quoted source on its area of expertise, but also produces its own media.
FAIR publishes Extra!, a magazine with a circulation of around 20,000, and hosts a weekly radio show called CounterSpin that runs on more than 125 stations across the US. It can also mobilize volunteers quickly, with an e-mail list of more than 55,000.
Instead of running ongoing campaigns on overarching issues, Hart notes that FAIR's day-to-day work is "almost all reactive" to the news cycle. When a major story breaks, FAIR springs into action, fielding calls from reporters, planning pieces for the magazine and radio show, and deciding what strategy to pursue to ensure that its analysis of the situation reaches the ears of media followers.
"An irony of being a media criticism group is that you try to make a series of arguments about mainstream media, and at the same time, you hope that people from the mainstream media will want to write about that or have you on their TV programs," Hart says. "[It's] an unusual proposition."
Still that doesn't stop FAIR from being a frequent provider of quotes to print outlets and guests to TV shows (including a contentious appearance by Hart on Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor).
The group's budget of slightly less than $1 million per year comes largely from individual contributions and subscription revenues, with the balance (about 20%) from grants, merchandise, and other fees, notes Hilary Goldstein, FAIR's development director. Interestingly, the group is, like the outlets it critiques, currently dealing with the growing schism between print and online media.
"Our biggest moneymaking program has been Extra!," says Goldstein. "[But] in the past three or four years of doing a lot more Web work, we've nearly doubled the amount of subscribers online." Subscribers to the free online listserv now more than double print ones, although the print magazine continues to be the main revenue source.
Though FAIR is often derided as biased by those it attacks - Jim Lehrer called it "unprofessional and unfair," while Tucker Carlson dismissed it as "a left-wing pressure group" - it wins plaudits from the journalists and academics who have worked closely with it.
"FAIR serves as a check on the power of the so-called 'mainstream media,'" says Jacqueline Bacon, a media scholar who has written for the group. "[It's] a function that is important in times of media consolidation in which readers are exposed to a narrow range of views in most media and many alternative publications struggle to survive."
Norman Solomon, a media critic who has served on FAIR's board and written for Extra!, feels the group's power comes from its research-driven approach to criticism.
"FAIR has been willing and able to scrutinize the content of institutional media icons... and the results have often been appropriately damaging to their reputations," he notes. "Whether the incumbent in the White House has been a Democrat or a Republican, as a matter of principle FAIR has condemned news outlets for being too close to presidential power. FAIR's allegiances are to journalistic integrity, not to any partisan agenda."
At a glance
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
Key trade outlets:
Romenesko, Editor & Publisher, Columbia Journalism Review
Peter Hart, activism director
A new comms director will start in June