Aug 1 2000

Nightline ‘Never Intended to Have a Debate’ on China Trade

On the eve of the congressional vote on permanent normal trading relations (PNTR) with China, ABC‘s Nightline (5/23/00) brought on three guests—former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Alan Simpson and former ambassador to China Winston Lord—all of whom were Republican supporters of the trade bill.

PNTR, arguably the year’s most hotly contested congressional vote, drew fire from critics ranging from conservative anti-Communists to labor organizers to human rights activists. Yet the May 23 broadcast was not only Nightline’s first discussion of PNTR, it was the show’s only segment to focus on trade with China (or anywhere else) since May 1997, according to a Nexis database search.

FAIR urged activists to ask Nightline for an explanation of why the show was so one-sided. Commendably, Nightline senior producer Richard Harris responded promptly to letter-writers with an email explanation. Yet his message raised more questions than it answered, claiming, among other things, that the show “never intended to have a debate” about PNTR, since “by the time that we went on the air, the vote was really not in doubt”:

Rather than repeat a series of pro/con debates which had played out on television broadcasts and on op-ed pages across the country, we decided to take a different tack. Why has China galvanized the Congress and White House over many years to consistently approve most favored nation trade status, while politicians across the spectrum—including presidents—have railed against human rights abuses in China?

To discuss that question, we invited a former speaker of the House, a former senator who had to vote over many years on the question and a former ambassador to China who helped Nixon open relations in 1972. Yes, all three favor PNTR. But we never intended to have a debate on the pending legislation. Perhaps we should have made clear at the outset of the broadcast that this would not be a conventional pro/con program.

The most obvious question raised by Harris’ note is why Nightline declined to cover the PNTR vote until after the outcome “was really not in doubt.” Does Nightline really believe it’s appropriate to cover political controversies by keeping silent until one side looks likely to win?

In any case, it’s unclear why Nightline‘s hunch that PNTR would pass should have foreclosed any debate over the bill’s implications. Why is it appropriate to discuss how China has “galvanized the Congress and White House over many years to consistently approve most favored nation trade status” without including anyone who disagrees with that policy? Surely opponents would have a different perspective on the question.

Harris urged viewers to “judge us over time, not simply on whether an individual program is balanced,” but Nightline very seldom deals with trade issues. Nightline hasn’t featured a debate on China’s trading status since 1991 (5/29/91), when the question was whether to extend most-favored nation status. In this context, it’s difficult to see the remarkably partisan May 23 broadcast as part of a larger balance.

Taking a broader look at ABC’s other PNTR coverage doesn’t improve the picture. This Week With Sam and Cokie, the other ABC News program that might have presented a debate, addressed the issue by interviewing PNTR proponents Madeline Albright (5/21/00) and Sen. Tom Daschle (5/7/00). In the end, viewers relying on ABC–whose parent company, Disney, is highly invested in trade with China and lobbied strongly for PNTR–got no extended discussion from opponents of the bill.

Nightline‘s basic response to the increasingly contentious debate over globalization has been to ignore it. Even when Seattle and Washington, D.C. were largely shut down by anti-globalization protests, Nightline passed up the opportunity to explore the concerns of those who question the benefits of “free trade.” In a response to a FAIR Action Alert on the show’s failure to cover last November’s demonstrations, Nightline executive producer Tom Bettag suggested that further discussion of trade issues would be forthcoming: “As for the serious issues underlying the protests, Nightline has done many broadcasts exploring them. It will do many more.”

At press time, Nightline has done no shows addressing globalization issues since the Seattle protests—except for the May 23 broadcast with three PNTR proponents. The program has, however, found time for 16 segments on Elián González.