On Sunday Shows, NYT Mostly Misses the Point

nyt-sundayshowsI guess it’s a good thing that the New York Times (6/9/13) had a piece on Sunday that was about media criticism. But it could have–and should have–said more than it did.

In “On the Sunday Morning Talkshows, a Rather Familiar Cast of Characters,” Jennifer Steinhauer describes  the ubiquity of a few Republican lawmakers on the Sunday morning chat shows–especially Sen. John McCain. Indeed, it’s practically a surprise when McCain isn’t on one of the shows on a given Sunday.

To the shows he remains something of a catch:

When it comes to a dream guest, program hosts say, Mr. McCain checks almost every box: a senior Republican senator who can speak authoritatively and contemporaneously on many issues, flies secretly to Syria, compares members of his own party to deranged fowl and yet is a reliable opponent of most Obama administration policies.

Steinhauer is right on point with this observation: “The prominence of guests with strong points of view can give viewers a false sense of proportion to certain sides of policy debates.” That’s certainly the case–and more often than not, because of the hawkish, right-leaning guest lists, the voices that are excluded from the Sunday shows tend to be left-leaning and not so hawkish. The show hosts and producers offer up the usual excuses about needing to book the most important newsmakers.

That’s the first, and perhaps biggest, problem with this story. If you look at research on the Sunday show guestlists, you begin to realize that, from the interview segments to the roundtable “debates,” these shows are uniformly and dramatically tilted to the right. FAIR’s most recent survey (Extra!, 4/12), which looked at eight months of shows (6/11-2/12), found that 70 percent of one-on-one interview guests were Republicans. Men were 86 percent of those guests, and 92 percent of the guests were white. 

The roundtable debates weren’t much different.  Republicans and/or conservatives made up 282 appearances, compared with 164 appearances by Democrats and progressives. The liberal watchdog group Media Matters (2/14/06) found a similar right-wing tilt when it looked at eight years of Sunday shows.

Indeed, the remarkable thing about the Sunday shows is not that they have the same guests over and over–it’s that they have the same Republican and conservative guests over and over. That would be tough, and entirely valid, criticism; instead, the Times gives a quote to middle-of-the-road CNN pundit David Gergen, who argues that the problem with the show is that they “look more toward partisan polarization…. They seek out people who are further out on the spectrum.”

That’s a familiar cry among centrist pundits. But is it true? Not really. FAIR looked at this issue (Extra!, 9/10) by using the VoteView, a mathematical model for sorting elected officials from left to right according to their votes. FAIR assigned lawmakers a Vote View-derived score, and then looked at the lawmakers invited on the Sunday shows. All but one show (Face the Nation)  leaned to the right; and the Republicans who appeared on the shows were notably more conservative than the Democrats were liberal/progressive:

Lawmakers in the most right-wing 10 percent appeared 51 times, while those in the leftmost 10th appeared 35 times. The difference was even more stark further to the extremes: Guests with scores of 96 to 100 appeared more than twice as often as their progressive counterparts, 41 times to 20.

 So the shows lean Republican/conservative by nearly every measure–and the Republicans they feature tend to be more conservative than the other members of their party. That’s the real story of how the Sunday shows operate. A good question might be why they have this obvious tilt. It can’t just be that John McCain is especially telegenic.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.