Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's death yesterday brought waves of mostly flattering coverage of the divisive right-wing leader. It was striking to see the parallels between the way Thatcher was covered on the PBS NewsHour and Fox News Channel's most popular show, the O'Reilly Factor. Though some people like to think that PBS and Fox couldn't be further apart, they were basically singing the same tune.
The main Thatcher segment on the PBS newscast was a discussion with two former Republican secretaries of State, George Shultz and James Baker. Of course, both were big fans of Thatcher's foreign policy (which was closely aligned with their own priorities during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush years). It was more than that, too; as Baker put it, Thatcher "emphasized the private sector and got rid of the oppressive influence of the trade unions." And Shultz explained that Thatcher "was a very attractive woman. So you were certainly aware of that."
PBS had one other guest: former Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell, who cheered both Thatcher's defeat of unions but also her humanity: "It's kind of touching to be reminded of what a lovely woman she was."
On the O'Reilly show, the host paid tribute to Thatcher's leadership, contrasting it with Barack Obama's tenure. As O'Reilly declared:
Her accomplishments are many, but she was always a very controversial figure in her own country and here in America, because the British press and the American media are liberal and always have been.
Later in the show, he was joined by conservatives Brit Hume and Bernard Goldberg; ironically, the latter segment focused on the alleged hostility to Thatcher in the mainstream media. So the guest line-ups were more alike than different. But so was some of the reporting. On Fox, Thatcher rescued Britain from the clutches of an oppressive union movement, and the record speaks for itself. As O'Reilly put it:
In Britain, 13 percent unemployment…. That's a catastrophe, 13 percent, all right. When she leaves office eight years later, 5.8 percent unemployment. But if the unemployment rate drops 7 percent, which means all those millions of people are working under this woman, give her some credit.
And he put it a different way:
In 1982, about two and a half years into her term, unemployment in Great Britain was 13 percent. It's chaos, absolute chaos there. When she left office in 1990, she was the longest serving prime minister in British history. It was at 5.8 percent.
On PBS, meanwhile, reporter Margaret Warner declared that Thatcher "brought a free market revolution to Britain, lowering taxes and privatizing state industries…. Britain's economy rebounded from her tough medicine."
Neither report gives viewers a good sense of Thatcher's economic policy. (The wording in the PBS segment about rebounding from medicine is difficult to comprehend.) The Guardian compiled a list of economic indicators during Thatcher's tenure; the short story is that inequality increased, and so did poverty–from 13.4 percent in 1979 to 22.2 percent in 1990.
O'Reilly is correct that unemployment dropped during part of Thatcher's time in office; it also skyrocketed the first two years. When she left office in 1990, it was, according to the Guardian's figures, higher than when she took office. If that's the record, then one would imagine it would be reflected somewhere–perhaps not at Fox News, for ideological reasons. But PBS is supposed to be about giving us the views that we're not getting from the commercial media.