Jul 1 1998

Field Guide to TV’s Lukewarm Liberals

How to spot centrist pundits served up as the "left"

Pundit-watchers never tire of the sport of spotting establishment, status quo commentators posing in their none-too-convincing camouflage as representatives of the left. While right-winged pundits cackle in full-throated yelps and are frequently leaders of their flocks, the specimens that serve as their competition often have their left wing clipped, teeter precariously on the fence and sing out of both sides of their mouths. For those new to the joys of spotting TV’s tepid liberals, here’s a brief guide to some members of this plentiful species. (Spotting actual left-winged pundits in mainstream media is too difficult to be enjoyable for most hobbyists.)

Sam Donaldson

False Feathers: “Resident liberal” on ABC‘s This Week, according to the Washington Post (1/21/96).

True Colors: Donaldson is mostly seen as liberal because of his years of shouting inaudible questions at President Reagan. Hawkish on foreign policy, he used to refer to the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev as “a terrorist system” (This Week, 11/27/88) and to Nicaragua’s elected President Daniel Ortega as “the Nicaraguan dictator” (This Week, 12/4/88).

Donaldson’s no environmentalist, either: A big recipient of federal subsidies for his sheep ranch, he’s received federal help to exterminate wildlife, authorizing leghold traps, neck snares, cyanide, aerial gunning and the killing of young in their dens to rid the ranch of coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions and black bears (Extra!, 5-6/97). Referring to the reintroduction of endangered species, he told David Letterman (11/28/95), “If they introduce the Mexican wolf, you’ll never see a Mexican wolf on my ranch. You might see some newly spaded ground.”

Cokie Roberts

False Feathers: Curiously considered to represent a “liberal” viewpoint on This Week, perhaps because she’s a woman in a men’s club. She’s also associated with National Public Radio, which itself has an undeserved leftish reputation.

True Colors: Roberts (This Week, 10/16/92) objected vehemently to the claim that Dukakis lost because of Bush campaign tactics, saying: “Michael Dukakis was totally out of the mainstream of the American public.” On election night 1994 (ABC, 11/8/94), when Peter Jennings asked her to give advice to Bill Clinton in the wake of the Republican victory, her response was: “Move to the right, which is the advice that somebody should have given him a long time ago.” In 1997 (This Week, 11/17/97), Roberts derided the congressional Democrats for opposing “fast-track” trade legislation (overwhelmingly unpopular with the public): “The Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives is way to the left of where the party is and where the public is.”

In a column written during the 1997 UPS strike (Dallas Morning News, 8/8/97), Cokie Roberts and her pundit-husband Steve Roberts warned against stronger unions: “A $20-an-hour job doesn’t do any worker any good if the company loses business or closes down.” $20 per hour equals roughly $40,000 per year–less than Cokie and her husband were paid for a single lecture to a Chicago bank (Chicago Tribune, 1/15/95).

George Stephanopoulos

False Feathers: On This Week, he’s the “left” balance to conservative columnist George Will and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol.

True Colors: While working for the White House, Stephanopoulos vigorously defended Bill Clinton on Capital Gang (2/20/93) by saying “he’s got a pro-business slant” in his budget plan. Since becoming a full-time pundit, he’s distinguished himself with the “liberal” position of calling for the assassination of Saddam Hussein (Newsweek, 12/1/97). After the Lewinsky story broke, Stephanopoulos was as quick as right-wing pundits to start talking about impeachment (This Week, 2/8/98).

Bill Press

False Feathers: Host “from the left” on Crossfire.

True Colors: As California Democratic Party chair in 1994, Press reacted to the GOP congressional victory (L.A. Times, 11/21/94):

The message we were broadcasting for the most part is that we’re there for the have-nots but we’re not there for the haves…. So we’re portrayed, I’m afraid, as the party of African-Americans, the party of Latinos, the party of women, the party of gays….We have to reshape our agenda and stress the issues that appeal to the haves, like welfare reform and maybe some marginal kind of thing like health reform, but no big global thing.

On Crossfire, he has sided with Microsoft against the Justice Department, and with corporate media against charges of sensationalism. Though usually a defender of Bill Clinton, Press wrote (L.A. Times, 3/17/98) that he trusted the account of presidential groping told by Kathleen Willey because of her class, age and marital status: “I believe Kathleen Willey. She’s no lounge singer trying to become famous. She’s no disgruntled state employee, trying to get even. She’s no teenage groupie, trying to score, big time. Kathleen Willie is a mature woman. A woman wearing pearls. A mother. A widow.”

Michael Kinsley

False Feathers: For six years the host of Crossfire “from the left,” the editor of Microsoft’s online publication Slate has recently resumed playing the left role on the show as a substitute host.

True Colors: A self-described “wishy-washy moderate” (American Journalism Review, 1-2/96), Kinsley has acknowledged (Crossfire, 1/23/90) that “there is no way…that I’m as far left as Pat Buchanan is right.” He told Extra! (7-8/90), “Buchanan is clearly part of a movement—really, leader of a movement—in a way that I’m certainly not.”

When Jerry Brown wasn’t allowed on Crossfire because he insisted on giving out his 800 number for fundraising, Kinsley remarked (12/6/91): “Isn’t Jerry Brown making a complete joke of himself, carrying on like this?” Four years later, when co-host Pat Buchanan announced his bid for the presidency on Crossfire, Kinsley helped him hold up a sign giving Buchanan’s own 800 number (2/16/95).

His support for “free trade” has led him to make nonsensical arguments, like the idea that workers in U.S.-owned plants in Mexico would be paid in dollars: “Those dollars are only good for one thing, which is buying stuff in the United States,” he claimed (Crossfire, 9/14/93). When discussing the “various alternatives” for health care reform in the New Republic (12/13/93), he noted parenthetically that he would not address “the Canadian-style ‘single-payer’ option, which has few backers.” At the time, a single-payer bill in Congress had 92 co-sponsors–more than any other proposal–and the concept had majority support in public opinion polls.

Bob Beckel

False Feathers: Former host “from the left” on Crossfire Sunday, Beckel frequently appears as an analyst on CBS This Morning opposite Fred Barnes.

True Colors: Beckel is a corporate lobbyist whose firm represents phone companies, the insurance industry and other corporate clients. Beckel frequently urges the Democratic Party to move to the right; he supported Clinton’s push for government downsizing, noting that “the unions will grumble, the left will scream.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9/14/93) During the Gulf War, he denounced protesters as “punks.” (Fox‘s Off the Record, 1/26/91)

Beckel took part in a meeting organized by the American Petroleum Institute that was convened to craft a better strategy for weakening environmental laws. “The Republicans should say they are not cutting the EPA budget to harm the environment,” one identified participant says in the minutes of the meeting (Washington Post, 2/12/96). “They are cutting because EPA is wasting money.”

Margaret Carlson

False Feathers: As a panelist on CNN ‘s Capital Gang (and columnist for Time), Margaret Carlson seems to represent the left–or, at least, the not-right.

True Colors: Carlson is usually a Bill Clinton defender–but she doesn’t defend the interests of workers. Discussing Rudolph Giuliani shortly before he was elected mayor of New York (Capital Gang, 10/23/93), Carlson said: “He’s not very reform-minded at all, and I think that’s the problem. I mean, if you’re going to switch, you need a union-busting tough guy who’s going to come in and clean up New York, and Giuliani doesn’t come across as that sort.” The equation of “reform” with “union-busting” may help explain why Carlson was a popular speaker at corporate events, taking in $10,000 a pop before Time stopped letting its staffers do such gigs: “I just got on the gravy train, so I don’t want it to end,” Carlson complained at the time (Washington Post, 1/21/96).

During a tryout, to represent the left on Crossfire (11/14/98), Carlson couldn’t even bring herself to say the word–so Robert Novak “from the right” was balanced with Margaret Carlson “from Washington.”

Al Hunt

False Feathers: On most shows, the Wall Street Journal ‘s Al Hunt is the farthest left that CNN‘s Capital Gang goes.

True Colors: In a January 15, 1998 Wall Street Journal column, Hunt endorsed the renaming of Washington’s National Airport after Ronald Reagan. Hunt praised Reagan for busting the air traffic controllers’ union: “In the first month of the Reagan presidency, the controllers illegally went on strike…. The president alone hung tough, contending simply that an illegal action couldn’t be countenanced. This was a man very comfortable and secure with himself, which arguably is the single most relevant consideration in choosing a president.”

Mark Shields

False Feathers: The voice of the left on PBS‘s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.

True Colors: His publicity materials emphatically deny any identification with the left: “Mark Shields is free of any political tilt.” Along with Steve Roberts, Gloria Borger, Haynes Johnson and Hendrick Smith, Shields received regular paychecks from military-industrial giant Lockheed Martin to appear as a regular panelist on local radio talkshow in Washington, D.C. (Washington City Paper, 8/4/95). He has criticized prejudice in the press–complaining about the media’s “anti-military bias” (Rocky Mountain News, 3/1/94).

David Broder

False Feathers: Regular TV talking head, often paired with Robert Novak on NBC‘s Meet the Press. (Appears on the Washington Post and other op-ed pages as a “balance” to the likes of George Will and Charles Krauthammer.)

True Colors: The paragon of establishment centrism, Broder has no attachment to the causes of the left and devotes much of his energy to making sure the Democrats don’t stray from the middle of the road. He criticized the “environmental extremism of the Carter administration.” (Washington Post, 7/25/82), tarred Democrats who attacked the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork as “quick-lip liberals” who “pop off in opposition” (Washington Post, 8/14/87), dismissed a petition that noted the Panama invasion’s violations of international law “nonsense” and “static on the left” (Washington Post, 1/14/90), and called Jerry Brown a “loud-voiced protest candidate” offering “phony salvation” (Washington Post, 2/26/92).

Reducing the deficit has been a passion for Broder, leading him to crusade against “runaway entitlement spending” (Washington Post, 1/2/94). Cutting military spending doesn’t have the same priority for him, apparently: He praised Reagan/Bush Republicans because they “did not let America’s armed might wither away” (Washington Post, 1/17/93).

Juan Williams

False Feathers: Formerly a regular “left” substitute host on Crossfire, the former Washington Post writer now appears on Fox News as “balance” to the likes of Tony Snow, Brit Hume, Fred Barnes and Morton Kondracke.

True Colors: Williams proclaimed that “liberals have become monsters” (Washington Post, 10/10/91), because the “so-called champions of fairness: liberal politicians, unions, civil rights groups and women’s organizations,” were attacking his friend Clarence Thomas.

In his search for a black alternative to Jesse Jackson, Williams wrote a Washington Post Magazine piece (6/9/91) praising Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, a fiscally conservative Democrat, as “arguably the most important black American politician of the 20th Century.” Months later, Wilder entered the race for president, only to withdraw before the New Hampshire primary.

Susan Estrich

False Feathers: A frequent TV pundit, Estrich (along with former NBC News president Michael Gartner) “balances” Linda Chavez and Tony Snow on the USA Today op-ed page.

True Colors: Her philosophy can be summed up in the headline of one of her USA Today columns (6/22/95): “Let Clinton Be the Centrist Clinton.”

Research: Libby Casey