SAY you turned on the 6 o'clock news and saw that the sponsor was the United Automobile Workers or the Environmental Defense Fund. ``Wouldn't you scratch your head and wonder whether the groups that sponsored those 30 minutes had something to do with what news got on the air and what news didn't?'' asks Jeff Cohen, who heads a New York-based group called Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).
Yet, Mr. Cohen says, when news is sponsored by a major corporation, with political interests throughout the globe, hardly anyone bats an eye. Not, he hastens to add, that a General Electric, which owns NBC, kibbitzes with its news staff on how to cover, say, nuclear power issues. Only that the people who pay the bills aren't likely to underwrite a world view fundamentally at odds with their own.
``At FAIR,'' Cohen says, ``we try to get people to watch the news more skeptically, and to consider who brings them the news.''
FAIR caused a stir recently with a study of ABC's influential ``Nightline'' show, moderated by Ted Koppel. After reviewing 865 ``Nightline'' transcripts, FAIR concluded that the show's guest list was weighted heavily toward ``white male representatives of powerful institutions,'' and primarily of conservative views. The most frequent guests were Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, Elliott Abrams (an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration), and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of Moral Majority.
In response, ``Nightline'' producer Rick Kaplan protested that the show is ``a news broadcast, not an op-ed page.''
``Then act like one,'' Cohen rejoins. ``Use balancing sources once in a while.''
Established by former publicists for environmental and peace groups, among others, FAIR has a tilt of its own, which Cohen freely acknowledges.
That such a group exists at all is significant in itself. The term ``liberal media'' has become a clich'e. Yet Cohen maintains that, under pressure from right-wing groups and corporate sponsors, the media have veered decidedly to the right.
He points to the Public Broadcasting System. Conservatives have long criticized PBS as a liberal bastion. Yet Cohen observes that all three PBS political talk shows - William F. Buckley's ``Firing Line'' and John McLaughlin's two shows, ``The McLaughlin Group'' and ``One on One'' - are hosted by editors of the same right-wing journal, the National Review. PBS has three business shows, Cohen adds, but none dealing with problems of the customers or employees of such businesses.
Of course, conservatives think PBS is merely coming to its senses. ``We are finally getting a little balance on the tube,'' says Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media (AIM).
Whether or not the pendulum has swung too far the other way, it remains that the choice of sources and authorities can bring a subtle bias to the news. Most news media claim to be ``objective.'' That is, their report ers quote sources instead of voicing their own views. But if these sources represent only a narrow range of thinking, then the result is slanted.
That is the real problem with the ``Nightline'' guest list, Cohen says. There is subtle confirmation of the status quo through airing mainly those views that essentially agree with it.
``Nightline'' representatives argued that the show focuses on ``decisionmakers,'' who at this moment happen to be conservatives. ``That's what a Soviet news executive could have said before glasnost,'' Cohen replies. If the Rev. Jesse Jackson were president, he adds, and the ``Nightline'' guest list were tilted toward members of the Jackson administration, ``we'd find that just as lamentable.''
Something similar happens when reporters continually quote ``expert observers,'' such as economists, without talking to business people or employees actually engaged in the matter at hand. Once, he says, he urged ``Nightline'' to interview a rank-and-file Teamsters member as part of a show on union corruption. Instead, the show included only the union's leadership.
Source bias can work the other way too, AIM's Mr. Irvine observes. After the nuclear mishap at Three Mile Island, he says, the media leaned heavily on anti-nu clear sources such as the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The answer, Cohen says, is journalism that seeks out unconventional views.
``Tabloid television and even Morton Downey Jr. have proven one thing,'' he says. ``The American public will watch programs about social and political issues.''
Instead of Zbigniew Brzezinski debating Henry Kissinger on East-West relations, for example, Cohen suggests an occasional debate between, say, the head of General Electric and Ralph Nader over nuclear energy. ``Moderated by a good moderator such as Ted Koppel,'' he says. ``That would be big ratings.''