PBS flagship news show fails public mission
In 2005, Kenneth Tomlinson, chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—and thus the person in charge of disbursing federal public broadcasting funds—sparked controversy with his aggressive push to move PBS and NPR to the right. In a series of public statements, Tomlinson, armed with a dubious study of PBS shows he commissioned from a right-wing ideologue, charged public broadcasting programming with harboring a liberal bias (Extra!, 9-10/05). The study—which, among other things, classified conservative Republicans Sen. Chuck Hagel and former Rep. Bob Barr as “liberals” (Washington Post, 7/1/05)—was primarily an attack on the program Now, formerly hosted by Bill Moyers, and led Tomlinson to fund two new (and short-lived) conservative shows for PBS: the Journal Editorial Report, a TV version of the Wall Street Journal’s right-wing editorial page, and Unfiltered, hosted by conservative pundit Tucker Carlson.
At the same time, though, Tomlinson singled out PBS’s flagship news program, the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, as a beacon of balance, telling a July 11, 2005 Senate hearing: “Well, certainly in terms of the Jim Lehrer NewsHour, there is no balance problem. That is great journalism” (Democracy Now!, 7/12/05). Tomlinson’s tribute echoed earlier praise of the show by the National Conservative Political Action Conference, which in 1987 declared what was then the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour “the most balanced network news show” (Extra!, 10-11/89). The CPB’s ombud, Ken Bode, a former PBS host and current fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, similarly lauded the NewsHour’s balance (CPB.org, 9/1/05): “On PBS, the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer is the mothership of balance. It has been criticized most often for going too far out of its way to provide both (or many) points of view.”
FAIR has consistently debunked the idea that PBS as a whole leans to the left; corporate and investment-oriented shows have long made up a large chunk of PBS’s news and public affairs programming, while more progressive content has frequently met resistance and censorship at the network (Extra!, 9-10/05). But what about the NewsHour?
In 1990, FAIR studied the NewsHour’s guestlist in comparison to ABC’s Nightline (Extra!, Winter/90) and found that the NewsHour, remarkably, presented “an even narrower segment of the political spectrum.” In light of continuing questions of evenhandedness at PBS, FAIR has conducted a new study of the NewsHour, 16 years later.
FAIR’s latest study examined the program’s guestlist over a six-month period spanning October 2005 through March 2006. The study recorded every on-air source appearing on the show, including live and taped guests.
Each source was classified by occupation, nationality, gender and ethnicity. Party affiliation and association with political think tanks were noted where applicable. Additionally, whenever possible, FAIR categorized news segments by the subject covered and whether that subject was domestic or international.
Altogether, the study counted 2,433 sources featured in 606 segments. Taped sources accounted for over three-quarters of the total, at 1872.
Groups that generally enjoy exceptional access to public communications were particularly privileged on the NewsHour, with five elite occupations dominating the list in number of appearances. Current and former government officials, including military officials, led all categories, accounting for 50 percent of total guests. Journalists amounted to 10 percent, with academics at 8 percent, corporate guests at 5 percent and think tank experts accounting for 3 percent. These five occupations totaled 1,845 sources, or 76 percent of the program’s total.
The NewsHour’s five most frequent individual sources were all current government officials, and four out of five were Republicans: George W. Bush (102 appearances), White House spokesperson Scott McClellan (25), Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Penn.) (24), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (23) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D.-N.Y.) (19). Those sources appeared primarily in taped segments; among guests in live segments, journalists dominated. The top five guests in live segments were Edward Wong of the New York Times (8 appearances), Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal (7), and, with five appearances each, Jan Crawford Greenberg of the Chicago Tribune, John Burns of the New York Times and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
Comparing these figures to FAIR’s 1990 study, official voices (current and former government officials) held virtually steady, with 50 percent of current voices and 49 percent in 1990, as did corporate voices, 5 percent in both studies. Journalists did not constitute their own category in the 1990 study, but were included among a larger grouping of professionals, making direct comparison impossible.
With those elite sources accounting for three in four NewsHour guests, other constituencies, organizations and interests were bound to be slighted. The general public—workers, students and persons on the street—accounted for just 14 percent of the sources on public broadcasting’s premier news show. The remaining 10 percent (not counted among the general public or the elite groupings) consisted of a variety of sources, including artists, actors, healthcare professionals and public interest advocates.
Public interest advocates
One might expect public interest advocates—sources representing civil rights, labor, consumer, environmental and other citizen-based advocacy groups—to be well-represented on public broadcasting. But such groups, which ranged from progressive groups like the NAACP and Greenpeace to the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform and Concerned Women for America*—provided just 4 percent of NewsHour’s guests (93 guests). With 28 sources, or 1 percent of the total, the human rights/humanitarian classification was the largest among public interests groups. Civil rights was the next largest category, with 15 guests.
Public interest voices were even scarcer in the current study than they were in 1990, when they made up 6 percent of NewsHour’s sources. The NewsHour featured only slightly more public interest sources than the network news shows, which, according to a 2002 FAIR study (Extra!, 5-6/02), averaged 3 percent public interest voices. Fellow public media outlet NPR, on the other hand, was found to have 7 percent public interest sources in a 2004 FAIR study (Extra!, 5-6/04).
Public interest representatives who might serve as a counterweight to the 5 percent of NewsHour sources who were corporate voices—sources representing labor, environmental groups and consumer rights organizations—combined for less than 1 percent of the NewsHour’s guestlist.
Women were substantially underrepresented on the NewsHour, accounting for just 18 percent of overall sources. This does mark an increase in representation for women since the 1990 study, when women made up an even more dismal 13 percent of NewsHour sources, and it is a slightly greater percentage than on the network news, where FAIR’s 2002 study found women accounted for only 15 percent of all sources. NPR provided slightly better gender representation than the NewsHour, with 21 percent women in FAIR’s 2004 study.
Not only were they four times less likely to appear on the NewsHour than men, women were nearly three times as likely to be “general public” sources rather than experts: 29 percent of women represented the general public, while only 10 percent of men did. Women were also less likely to be quoted in political stories, accounting for 17 percent of sources in domestic political stories and 14 percent in international political stories. On some stories, women’s voices were even scarcer: They made up only four of 43 sources in segments on domestic spying, and on Supreme Court nominations—a subject closely connected to the issue of reproductive rights—women were only 14 percent of sources.
The NewsHour came close to gender balance on one subject: education, where women were 17 of 32 sources. The NewsHour focused not on education policy, but on profiles of individual schools, where women make up 71 percent of the teaching workforce (Census.gov, 4/22/04).
Education stories also had a high degree of racial diversity, with people of color providing 50 percent of all sources. Eleven of the 17 female sources in these segments were women of color.
Despite the large proportion of women of color, white men were still largely portrayed in the segments as the experts. Seven of the women of color were teachers and students who appeared in two special NewsHour segments called “Turnaround Specialist,” which followed a white principal who left a high-performing suburban high school to attempt to improve a low-performing and predominantly black school in Virginia. The principal told NewsHour that all it takes to turn a school around is “leadership, establishing a basic understanding of respect among all parties, and that includes students. And somebody had to do it.”
White people dominated the NewsHour, constituting 85 percent of U.S. sources (76 percent of all sources). In 1990, that number stood at 90 percent. White males were 72 percent of US sources, while women of color were only 6 percent.
Among U.S. sources, Latinos, who are 12 percent of the U.S. public, represented a strikingly small 2 percent. Asian-Americans made up just 1 percent, and people of Mideastern descent represented 1 percent of U.S. sources. Only one source on the NewsHour was a Native American: Fenton Rexford (11/2/05), the president of an Inupiat village in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, who supports oil drilling in the refuge.
African-Americans, though by far the most-represented minority group at 9 percent, still failed to match their percentage of the U.S. public, which stands at 12 percent. The higher percentage of African-Americans on the NewsHour relative to other racial minorities can be attributed in large part to the program’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina during the period studied. Despite the fact that Katrina was the subject of only 6 percent of all NewsHour segments and accounted for less than 10 percent of all sources, nearly half (46 percent) of all African-American sources appearing on the NewsHour were featured in segments on Katrina; more than half of those were general public sources. (See also the case study on Katrina below.) Excluding Katrina-related segments, African-Americans accounted for only 6 percent of all U.S. sources, and whites accounted for 88 percent.
The NewsHour’s reliance on government officials also translated into increased representation for people of color because of two prominent Bush administration appointments: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, appearing 21 times, accounted for nearly 13 percent of African-American sources, while Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ 11 appearances accounted for more than 30 percent of Latino sources.
People of color were more likely than whites to appear as general public sources and less likely to appear as authorities on any given subject on the NewsHour. While people of color were only a quarter of all sources, they constituted 44 percent of general public sources; among authoritative sources, they were only 20 percent.
Aside from segments on the funerals of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, two NewsHour segments during the period studied focused directly on race in the United States: reports on racial segregation in prisons (3/15/06) and racial inequality in the U.S. (3/29/06). Those two segments featured 15 sources, six of whom were non-white. However, of those six, four were current or former prisoners, while only two were expert sources; of the nine white sources, two were prisoners and seven were experts. All of the sources in those two segments were male.
Despite its failure to represent a true cross-section of the racial diversity in this country, the NewsHour still provides slightly more diversity than its network news counterparts, where, according to FAIR’s 2002 study, whites made up 92 percent of U.S. sources.
Republican sources outnumbered Democrats on the NewsHour by 2-to-1 (66 percent vs. 33 percent of all partisan NewsHour sources). Only one source represented a third party: Letitia James, a New York City councilmember from the Working Families Party, who appeared in two segments on a controversial Brooklyn real estate development. Eight sources worked for both Democrats and Republicans, making up less than 1 percent of all partisan NewsHour sources.
Some of the partisan skewing can be attributed to the NewsHour’s heavy reliance on taped soundbites from administration officials, but even among live guests on the program, Republicans outnumbered Democrats by a 3-to-2 ratio (77 vs. 52).
The NewsHour’s 2-1 imbalance is greater than NPR’s skew towards Republicans, which stood at just over 3-to-2 (61 percent vs. 38 percent), (Extra!, 5-6/04), and less than the 3-1 imbalance FAIR found on the networks (75 percent vs. 24 percent), (Extra!, 5-6/02).
Think tanks provided only 3 percent of the NewsHour’s total sources; however, they contributed 14 percent of live sources. The show’s tendency to favor right over left carried over into think tank sources, with sources from right-leaning think tanks outnumbering those from left-leaning ones by 2-to-1, 37 percent to 19 percent. But centrist think tanks accounted for a full 44 percent of sources, constituting the largest ideological grouping.
The NewsHour’s favorite think tank was the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which provided 10 sources for the show; the centrist Brookings Institute came in a close second, with nine appearances. The centrist Council on Foreign Relations appeared six times, followed by the conservative Hoover Institution and the center-left International Crisis Group, with four sources apiece. Of the remaining think tanks represented on the program, none made more than two appearances during the period.
Overall, the NewsHour emphasized domestic stories over international by roughly three to two (374 to 232). The subject that garnered by far the most segments was Iraq, with 81, followed by Hurricane Katrina with 42. Supreme Court nominees came in third with 41, then Israel/Palestine with 25. A closer look at some of the major issues covered on the NewsHour reveals some striking results.
The Iraq War was the most frequently featured subject on the NewsHour, with 81 segments and 276 sources. Despite the wide-ranging and international implications of the war, the discussion on the NewsHour was quite circumscribed. White men from the United States dominated the debate with 66 percent of all sources; Iraqi sources accounted for only 15 percent, and voices from other countries barely registered, at 3 percent. Among U.S. sources, 88 percent were white and 90 percent were men.
Current and former U.S. government and military officials constituted 57 percent of all sources, and journalists made up 15 percent. In the entire six months studied, not a single peace activist was heard on the NewsHour on the subject of Iraq. The sole public interest voice was from the Washington Kurdish Institute (10/14/05); Rend al-Rahim Francke also appeared on the NewsHour (1/20/06) as head of the Iraq Foundation, but her service as Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. under Iraq’s first interim government classified her as a former foreign official.
Of the government officials, Republicans dramatically outnumbered Democrats, 72 percent to 28 percent. The imbalance was virtually the same when only live segment guests were considered (70 percent to 30 percent).
At the beginning of the Iraq War, a FAIR study (Extra!, 5-6/03) of six national news shows including the NewsHour found that they featured war supporters almost 24 times as often as war critics: 71 percent of sources took an explicit pro-war stance, vs. 3 percent expressing opposition. Despite PBS’s mandate to offer an alternative to commercial media, the NewsHour in that study fell closely in line with its commercial competition, with 66 percent pro-war sources vs. 3 percent antiwar.
The current study found the NewsHour to have a continued aversion to antiwar voices. During the period studied, polls found a large proportion of the U.S. public to be in favor of withdrawing U.S. troops; according to the CBS News poll (10/3-5/05, 1/5-8/06, 1/20-25/06), those in favor of having “U.S. troops leave Iraq as soon as possible” ranged from 59 percent to 44 percent, while those who supported keeping troops there “as long as it takes” fluctuated between 50 percent and 36 percent.
But watching the NewsHour, viewers might think there was almost no debate on the issue, let alone a sizable constituency favoring withdrawal. Of the 276 NewsHour sources who discussed Iraq, only 53 expressed an opinion on the subject of U.S. troop withdrawal, and only eight of those sources argued in favor of a timetable for withdrawal. (None argued for immediate withdrawal.) Rep. John Murtha (D.-Penn.) accounted for five of those pro-withdrawal sources, meaning only three different voices were heard on the NewsHour advocating withdrawal. Those arguing against withdrawal (41 sources) outnumbered the pro-withdrawal sources by more than 5-to-1, while four sources took a middle position critical of the Bush “stay the course” strategy without advocating a timetable. Among live guests, the imbalance grew to more than 10-to-1, with 22 sources arguing against withdrawal, two in favor, and two taking a middle position.
Eighty-five percent of the sources who discussed withdrawal were current or former U.S. government or military officials; 92 percent were white and 92 percent were male. The sole Iraqi voice on withdrawal was Ahmed Chalabi, the prominent Iraqi whose fantastical WMD stories made him a darling of the Bush administration and the media and garnered him the presidency of the Iraqi interim governing council after the U.S. invasion. In his NewsHour appearance, Chalabi expressed his support (11/15/05) for a watered-down Republican Senate resolution that thwarted a Democrat-sponsored timetable resolution by calling for gradual troop reductions with no timetable—this at a time when 70 percent of Iraqis favored withdrawal of U.S. troops (PIPA, 1/06).
Republicans outnumbered Democrats on the subject of withdrawal nearly 2-to-1 (27 to 14). Because of the Democrats’ own split on the issue, however, even those figures understate the imbalance of opinion on the NewsHour. Murtha, a Vietnam vet, publicly announced his support for withdrawal during the period studied (11/17/05), and four of his five appearances occurred November 17-21. The only other Democrat to argue for withdrawal was Sen. Jack Reed (D.-R.I.). The other two pro-withdrawal sources were Retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, a fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute and Ronald Reagan’s National Security Agency director, and Morris White, a World War II veteran interviewed in a segment looking at attitudes toward the war in the town of Dwight, Nebraska.
NewsHour regulars David Brooks, Mark Shields and Tom Oliphant also discussed withdrawal on a few occasions. Conservative Brooks explicitly opposed withdrawal in four discussions (11/18/05, 11/26/05, 12/2/05, 12/30/05); his “from the left” partner in one discussion (11/18/05), Oliphant, backed Murtha’s timetable suggestion, while the “left” representative on another occasion (11/26/05), Shields, noted that a majority of the public wanted out of Iraq, but did not directly argue for withdrawal himself.
Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf coast of Louisiana and Mississippi on August 29, 2005, just over a month before the beginning of the period studied, and the storm and its effects continued to garner coverage on the NewsHour throughout those six months. After producing eight segments in October, the first month of the study, NewsHour coverage dropped by about half until February, which brought congressional hearings on the government emergency response to Katrina and 14 related segments. In total, FAIR recorded 42 NewsHour segments and 240 sources related to Hurricane Katrina.
The NewsHour’s Katrina coverage marked a noteworthy, if isolated, increase in the diversity of voices heard on the program. This is largely because of a dramatic shift in the balance between government and general public sources: Katrina segments featured 35 percent general public sources and only 34 percent current and former government and military sources—in stark contrast to the average NewsHour segment, with 50 percent government and military and 14 percent general public. Public interest voices were still a remarkably low 5 percent of the total.
New Orleans, the focus of much of the media’s Katrina coverage, had a majority African-American population, and African-American sources were much more extensively represented in Katrina segments than in other NewsHour segments, as one of every three sources.
But while more African-American faces were seen on the NewsHour during its Katrina coverage, those African-Americans were largely presented as hapless victims rather than leaders or experts. In segments on the human impact of the storm, African-Americans made up 51 percent of sources—a logical increase, since the majority of those most affected by Katrina were African-American. But when the NewsHour covered the reconstruction effort, whites dominated the segments with 72 percent of sources, squeezing out African-Americans whose lives were no less affected by the reconstruction than they were by the storm itself. Fifty-nine percent of all African-American sources across Katrina segments were general public sources.
The gender imbalance was also slightly lessened in Katrina segments, with 29 percent women to 71 percent men. As with race, this increase in representation can largely be attributed to the NewsHour’s greatly increased use of general public sources on Katrina segments. Sixty-four percent of women in these segments were members of the general public rather than elites or experts.
That increase in general public sources does bring greater diversity and new voices to the NewsHour, but the show still largely failed to bring a representative range of authoritative voices to its roster of experts. This was starkly evident in the live segments on Katrina, where in-studio guests got to expound at some length, and where the NewsHour’s diversity plummeted. Of 20 live sources, 19 were male and 16 white; current and former government officials dominated, with 14, and no public interest voices were heard.
In the six months studied, the NewsHour featured 10 segments on immigration, with a total of 58 sources. Nearly half (28) were government officials, while only six were public interest voices; Republicans outnumbered Democrats by more than 2-to-1 (16 to 7). On an issue inextricably tied up with race, only 16 of the 58 sources (28 percent) were people of color—and half of those were general public sources rather than leaders or advocates.
The immigration debate does not fall neatly along partisan lines, so party numbers alone do not tell the whole story. In the House, Republican leadership pushed through an enforcement-only bill that proposed criminalization of undocumented workers and those who assist them and construction of a wall on the Mexican border. In the Senate, the Republicans split, and a bipartisan majority passed a bill that called for increased border enforcement and a guest worker program, with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants—a plan that George W. Bush also backed. Of partisan NewsHour sources, seven took criminalization or border enforcement positions, while seven argued for the Senate bill or a guest worker program. Three argued for an approach between the two, and Bush, touting his border enforcement plus guest worker plan, accounted for five sources.
But if the NewsHour roughly balanced the debate as it stands in Congress and the White House, it failed almost completely to include voices outside that narrow Beltway framework. Many immigrants, immigrant rights groups and other progressive groups criticize both the House and Senate bills, pushing instead for a reform that does not further militarize the border or create a guest worker program that would formalize the unequal status of some immigrants (Extra!, 5-6/06). The proposed Senate bill, while offering a path to citizenship, also throws many obstacles in that path, not the least of which are fines and fees totaling thousands of dollars, prohibitive for many low-wage immigrant workers.
But despite the NewsHour’s public interest mandate, only one source of the 58 on the NewsHour, Xiomara Corpeno, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, expressed any of this criticism (3/27/06), emphasizing that those who participated in the massive March protests were marching for “legalization with a path to citizenship, not a temporary work program.” Corpeno also mentioned the “exorbitant amount of fines that people have to pay” to become citizens under the proposed legislation.
Among live segment guests, the NewsHour did shift away from its heavy reliance on both whites and government officials: Six of the 14 live segment guests were people of color, and only two were government sources. Think tank representatives dominated with five appearances, which were tilted towards the right, with three conservative think tanks, one progressive, and one centrist. Four public interest guests appeared, three representing immigrant rights groups and one from the anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Jim Lehrer recently explained to CJR Daily (6/2/06) how he views his job at the NewsHour: “My part of journalism is to present what various people say . . . the best we can find out [by] reporting. . . . I’m not in the judgment part of journalism. I’m in the reporting part of journalism.”
But the decision about exactly which “various people” will be given the opportunity to say what they wish about events is a crucial “judgment part” of journalism. As the anchor and executive editor, Lehrer bears much responsibility for those decisions, and as FAIR’s study shows, the judgments that Lehrer and the NewsHour have made present viewers with virtually the same voices heard in corporate media, voices that overwhelmingly represent those in power rather than the public that PBS is obliged to serve.
Research assistance: Chris Famighetti, Igor Volsky and Rachael Liberman.
* In a passage describing the range of public interest groups represented on the NewsHour, the Media Research Center was mistakenly included. The Media Research Center did not appear on the NewsHourduring the study period.