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Cohen: We Must Hold the Media Accountable

The press is often referred to as the fourth branch of government because of the role it serves in monitoring and reporting on what takes place in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

Journalists serve a crucial role in our society and, for the most part, take their responsibilities seriously, providing truthful, frank, insightful reports on a wide range of topics. They know full well that their coverage can and will influence policymakers in Washington, D.C., and across the country.

But when the media purposely distort the facts to create confusion and mislead people, they must be held accountable. Unless we actively debunk false and misleading reports, we risk leaving the public with a dangerously skewed vision of this country. From the existence of health care “death panels” to the horribly inflated costs of presidential travel, the media is proliferating myths that only serve to deepen the mistrust of government that many people feel. As a fervent defender of the First Amendment, I believe that the best way to fight bad reporting is with good reporting.

As an example, I was recently the victim of bad reporting myself. A network owned by Turner Broadcasting System and Time Warner — truTV — aired a story on Nov. 12 called “The Police State Conspiracy” that contained grossly inaccurate information, insulted victims of the Holocaust and accused me and other elected officials of breaking the law.

The show, “Conspiracy Theory,” is hosted by former wrestler and Gov. Jesse Ventura and focused on legislation I co-sponsored with my colleagues, H.R. 645, which has never even passed out of a subcommittee. The bill would establish emergency operations centers to share information and provide assistance in case of emergencies and natural disasters. But in Ventura’s “report” he claimed that it created concentration camps across the country run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

This, of course, is an outrageous distortion and outright lie, but to tell viewers that there is a government conspiracy to drag innocent Americans to FEMA-run concentration camps is dangerous and irresponsible.

In the piece, Ventura continually insisted facilities he has uncovered are command centers for a network of concentration camps ready to be activated under martial law and that Americans should fear an inevitable government takeover. These are outright lies that were crafted to stimulate ratings for advertising revenue and to keep chatter going among conspiracy theorists.

Among Ventura’s irresponsible claims is that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement center in Texas and a low-security federal prison in California are actually concentration/prison camps. He then insinuated that coffin liners are being produced en masse for FEMA concentration camps across the country and that the federal government is preparing to start a pandemic as an impetus for martial law. Each of his claims can be easily refuted, but the program distorted my attempts to rebut them.

“Conspiracy Theory” is the very thing it purports to expose — dangerous lies and deception. I am shocked and appalled that TBS and Time Warner would produce a program so full of inaccuracies and irresponsible distortions and let an on-air personality like Jesse Ventura make outrageous and unsubstantiated comparisons between the Holocaust and an imagined FEMA concentration camp scenario. It is disrespectful to victims of the Holocaust and dangerously stirs fear among its viewers.

At the end of the piece, Ventura says, “We’ve already allowed our elected officials to break all kinds of laws designed to protect you and me,” implying that I and my colleagues in Congress are purposefully and illegally working against the people we represent. I find this statement, along with much of Ventura’s piece, a reckless and damaging insult. This show makes professional wrestling, where Ventura earned his fortune, look like an Olympic sport.

While the First Amendment serves a vital purpose in our society, the use of airwaves to incite citizens to distrust their government, based on deliberately told falsehoods, is appalling and could lead to people getting hurt. Remember that Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City because of a consuming hatred and distrust of the government. Reputable media outlets must take it upon themselves to help expose media charlatans like truTV to protect the American public.

TBS and Time Warner have a moral and civic responsibility not to disseminate information they know to be false, particularly when it is dressed up to appear as investigative reporting. Should someone get hurt as a result of this unsubstantiated programming, the media will be undeniably held responsible for it. And I would hate to see someone get hurt as a result of callously airing lazy, irresponsible and fear-mongering programming. The media must take personal responsibility when airing what they purport to be fact, and we must take the responsibility to hold them accountable when they fall dangerously short.

Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat, represents Tennessee’s 9th district.

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