An interview with CounterSpin radio host, Janine Jackson
CounterSpin is a weekly radio show through progressive media watchdog, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) hosted by Janine Jackson. The purpose of the show is to critically examine the presentation of major news stories and bring to light what major news outlets may have missed or misconstrued in their reporting. It is now heard on more than 150 different noncommercial stations throughout the U.S. and Canada. Jackson, who was first introduced to FAIR when interning as a graduate student, answered some questions about CounterSpin and the greatest issues facing accuracy in the media industry today.
Annika Kushner: How did you first become part of CounterSpin?
Janine Jackson: Well, I was an intern at FAIR for the media watch crew when I was a graduate student, and then right after I finished school, I came to work for FAIR. And first I was just doing research, but then one of the hosts of CounterSpin left, and so they said, “Why don’t you do it? Why don’t you work on the show?” I didn’t have any experience in radio, but I thought, you know, it was interesting to me. So I became a co-host and a co-producer, and then years after that, my other co-host left and went another direction and left me with just me! And really I was first just working on FAIR, and had no thoughts about working on radio at all. It just sort of fell in my lap.
Kushner: Would you have any idea how CounterSpin got started in the first place?
Jackson: Here in New York, there is the radio station WBAI, which of course is the Pacifica [Radio] network. It’s non-commercial, listener-supported radio. And FAIR had a live show that just aired on Fridays, in which people from FAIR would kind of go through the newspaper and give their thoughts on what they saw. And then listeners liked it, so then a few years later it went from being in a live show at one station in New York to being a syndicated radio show. And then we promoted it to various stations, and it got to where it is, which is over 150 stations.
Kushner: Why do you think that people are recognizing media criticism more?
Jackson: Well, that’s a good question. I think that what happened is there are always a few kind of watershed events. The Gulf War was one. When the country is at war, there are many people who are naturally opposed to violence and killing. And when they turn on their television and see newscasters waving american flags, and I mean that literally in the case of the Gulf War, I think it occurs to most people, if they are even just a little bit open-minded, that, “Wait a minute. How can I possibly be hearing all of the information about this situation if the news that I’m getting is so obviously invested in just saying, ‘U.S.A., U.S.A.!’” So it just takes one big event like that for people to see a disconnect between what they’re getting from the news and the information that they really need.
Kushner: So what do you think are the greatest issues in unfair media coverage in the world today? Obviously political non-neutrality is definitely part of that. Is there anything else?
Jackson: The big thing I would say is corporate ownership. I think that recognizing that the newspapers and the television networks are actually just part of big process-making corporations has a tremendous influence. It just means that corporations, which are some of the most powerful social actors that we have, have their own interests. You recognize that the news is going to reflect those interests rather than be critical of them. But also the fact that our news is reliant on advertising, I think, is very important. Because it means that even though we like to think of journalists as being freely independent, they are interested in producing content that is going to reach the audience that their advertisers want to reach, and that’s always going to be a factor.
Corporate ownership and sponsorship are very, very important. And then, as we said, the closeness of big media to the government, and their desire to stay on good terms with the government, also has a big effect on how critical and how independent they’re going to be. So I think that closeness to government and corporate ownership and sponsorship are the biggest influences, or pressures, on news media.
Kushner: Are there any news outlets that you feel are exemplary in not giving in to that pressure?
Jackson: First of all, I would say that there are excellent journalists and good journalism from every outlet. There are always exceptions. And sometimes even a big corporate-owned outlet can present news that’s valuable. I would not want to pick a single outlet and say, “When you read this, you don’t have to be critical because you know they’re independent.” We should be critical of whatever we’re reading. But in general I would say look to publications that are not sponsored by big companies.
I like to read The Nation for example. I like to read The Progressive. I also like to read specialized websites and publications — some that are on economics news, and some that are on environmental news. I find that when people are focused on one issue, their coverage can be more in-depth and more thoughtful. And my general advice is to read widely. Read lots of things.
Kushner: Do you feel that there is a big difference between print media and broadcast media in that respect?
Jackson: Well, the big difference, I think, is that broadcast media seems to have — it’s not necessary — but they seem to have decided that if stories don’t have visual images to go with them, then they can’t really tell them. In other words, I think the difference is print media tends to be more in-depth and more thoughtful. But that’s not necessary, that just seems to be the way they see it. I think it’s possible to do thoughtful broadcast media, it’s just that we don’t usually see it done — certainly not in a half hour news cast where each story only lasts two minutes.
Kushner: What would you say is the biggest difficulty in being the host on CounterSpin?
Jackson: I think it’s finding guests who can shed light on stories and who are not too busy to do it. A lot of what we want to do is get voices into the media that we don’t usually hear from. For example, just last week, I wanted to have a teacher from Seattle. Well, the teacher that we had did take the time, but I could tell talking to him that he was exhausted. He had just come off of five days straight, and he was about to go into the classroom and teach. It was very nice of him to spend 10 minutes talking to me, but there are lots of people whose voices I would like to hear but they’re too busy doing their work. That is so important, to come and talk about the media angle on the story. So it really is just getting a wide range of guests.
Kushner: Do you have any plans for expanding the show further?
Jackson: For a while, we had been doing a five-minute video. It was just a five-minute YouTube channel. And we had to stop doing that just beause we lost staff, and we didn’t really have the person-power to do it any more. But I liked doing that very much, and that kind of was similar to CounterSpin, but with some visual elements, and obviously a little shorter. We got a good response to that, and I think it was a way of reaching people who don’t listen to the radio, that don’t even listen to podcasts. But they will watch something on YouTube. So that would be something that I would like to see us do if it’s possible.
Kushner: Personally, what is your favorite part about being on the show? What do you enjoy the most?
Jackson: I guess one of the things that I enjoy the most is convincing a person who knows a lot about Mexico, or who knows a lot about education — convincing someone that they are actually a media critic. People like to think, “Well I don’t know anything about media!” And I say, “Yes, you do.” You know how people cover your issue, or miscover your issue, and you know what people are looking for that’s missing from the mainstream. So I love it when someone says, “Wow, I didn’t think that I would have anything worthwhile to add on the way media talks about this, but I do.” So I like waking them up to a new kind of expertise that they didn’t know that they had.
Annika Kushner is a freshman journalism major with a concentration in media skepticism.
Email her at email@example.com.