Jan 1 1989

Are You on the Nightline Guestlist?

ABC News Nightline is widely considered to be the preeminent public affairs program in the United States. It undoubtedly has the biggest audience of such shows; five to seven million households are tuned to Nightline on an average week night. With its combination of near-universal acclaim from critics and a large number of loyal viewers, Nightline plays an important role in defining the national political terrain. Yet, surprisingly, there has been little analysis of Nightline.

Last year FAIR commissioned William Hoynes and David Croteau, two sociology graduate students at Boston College, to conduct a study of Nightline‘s guestlist. They examined all Nightline transcripts for a 40-month period from January 1, 1985 to April 30, 1988, covering 865 programs with a total of 2,498 guests. The results of their study are contained in a detailed 45-page report, also titled “Are You on the Nightline‘s Guestlist?”

Given the significance of the report’s findings, we have decided to devote an entire issue of Extra! to Nightline. Most of what follows is based on the authors’ analysis of Nightline‘s guests–the core of the show’s interview/discussion format. To a lesser degree, the authors also examined the broad issue areas that Nightline emphasizes.

Since FAIR’S inception in mid-1986, we have engaged in a regular dialogue with Nightline producers—-advocating for the inclusion of progressive and public interest spokespersons in Nightline programs. We are including some of our correspondence with Nightline in this issue of Extra!; We have also added a number of sidebars on specific Nightline segments that highlight the patterns of bias documented in the report by Hoynes and Croteau.

The Electronic Soapbox

More than just reporting the news, Nightline provides an electronic soapbox from which people interpret events for us. The format of Nightline gives newsmakers, policymakers and analysts an extended opportunity to express their views. Since Nightline is live, it allows for more spontaneity among guests, who often have the opportunity to stray from the main topic to present different issues and alternative interpretations of events. The choice of guests is therefore crucial to the program’s content and character.

Stacked heavily in favor of government spokespersons, assorted “experts” and journalists, Nightline‘s guest list reflects a profoundly elitist perspective of both domestic and foreign affairs. Overwhelmingly, it is white, male representatives of powerful institutions who interpret the world for Nightline‘s viewers. Essentially absent from the guestlist are representatives of civic organizations, popular social movements, minority communities and others who might challenge the status quo.

Because of its limited range of guests, Nightline conveys a distorted picture of the domestic political scene, portraying it as free of major conflict and devoid of challenging views. Of the 865 programs covered by this study, Nightline featured only one program about class conflict and only two programs about gender-based oppression. Issues of racial tension were covered a bit more often; however, there were still only eleven shows on this subject in the 40 months studied. While Nightline promotes a reassuring image of domestic consensus, the rest of the world is depicted as frighteningly unstable and embroiled in conflict.

In foreign coverage, Nightline does a better job of presenting dissenting views. Once again, however, it is usually the leaders-the elites—of foreign countries who are invited to speak, not the representatives of popular movements. Also, these dissenting views are foreign by definition (and often “anti-American” by implication). This clearly diminishes their applicability to political discourse in the U.S., where the audience tends to be more receptive to the views of American officials when pitted in debates against leaders of “enemy” states.

Framing the World

Nightline is able to influence political debate in the U.S. through its role as an intermediary between policy makers and the public. Ted Koppel indirectly acknowledged this in a recent interview (Life, 10/88) in which he said he felt he was qualified, in some respects, to be secretary of State “because part of the job is to sell American foreign policy, not only to Congress but to the American public.”

Nightline producers help to “sell” certain political positions by deciding what events to cover and, more importantly, which guests will be interviewed. For each program, decisions are made about what to emphasize, what to play down, what and whom to exclude. In short, a “framing” process—selecting a perspective from which to view the world—is constantly occurring.

As a result of the exclusion or some political perspectives and the promotion of others, Nightline helps to legitimize particular positions. Nightline certifies spokespersons and “experts” by giving certain individuals regular opportunities to interpret events. As ABC News anchor Peter Jennings has noted (Boston Globe Magazine, 11/6/88): “Television seems to give people an instant set of credentials. Just appearing on the box, whether you’re a guest or being quoted, has its own set of electronic credentials, and sometimes they don’t match reality.”

The other side of the framing process is that Nightline helps to set limits on public discourse. Voices that are systematically excluded from Nightline seem to have no role in legitimate public discussion.

Taken together, the processes of legitimation, limitation, and certification are a powerful political and cultural force. The patterns of bias created by these processes are not readily noticeable to the occasional viewer of Nightline, or even to the regular viewer. The daily shift from one topic to another and from one set of guests to another obscures these processes. What is most apparent to viewers is a show that has many different guests and examines a range of topics. It is presided over by host Ted Koppel, who provides continuity and encourages a lively discussion that is often fraught with disagreements. Yet, as our study reveals, Nightline‘s choice of subjects and guests defines a narrow political terrain that reflects the interests of the show’s elite participants.

Criteria for Analyzing Nightline

Our analysis of Nightline‘s programming adopts some of the views put forth by Herbert Gans in his book Deciding What’s News. His recommendations for “multi-perspectical” news coverage include the notion that it should be truly “national,” which means “moving beyond the current equating of the federal government with the nation.” News coverage should “seek to report comprehensively about more national and nationwide agencies and institutions, including national corporations, unions and voluntary associations, as well as organized and unorganized interest groups.” Nightline‘s focus on guests from government and corporate elites contrasts markedly with this perspective.

We also adopt Gans’ idea that coverage should include a “bottom-up” view in addition to the usual “top-down” approach. Reactions to policy decisions, for example, might be solicited from citizens in various walks of life, including those who organize to change government policies. We agree with Gans that coverage should aim to be more “representative,” so as to reflect all population sectors (taking into account ethnicity, gender, religion, occupation, etc.). These precepts conflict with Nightline‘s emphasis on elites and supposed experts.

Summary Results

While the main focus of our study was the guest list of Nightline, we also analyzed the programs for broad issue content. During the 40-month period we analyzed, the issue breakdown of Nightline‘s coverage was:

International issues: 39 percent

Social issues: 22 percent

Domestic political issues: 19 percent

Economic issues: 8 percent

Cultural issues: 8 percent

Other issues: 4 percent

With respect to international issues, 17 percent of the guests appeared on programs about terrorism, which rivaled the Soviet Union as the most frequent international issue addressed by Nightline. Nine years after Nightline‘s birth during the Iran hostage crisis, its preoccupation with terrorism is still evident.

As for domestic politics, 17 percent of the guests appear on programs about the role of the media in society. This, along with shows about legal subjects (also 17 percent), are the leading domestic issues covered by Nightline. Among social issues, health (42 percent) is far and away the leading topic featured. Many of these programs dealt with AIDS.

The Guest List

Not counting ABC staff members, five guests appeared more than 10 times on Nightline in the period studied:

Henry Kissinger-14

Alexander Haig-14

Elliott Abrams-12

Jerry Falwell-12

Alejandro Bendana-11

The top four guests are either staunch cold warriors, right-wing ideologues, or both. (We do not list George Will, with 12 appearances, because he is an ABC News employee. One could argue, however, that Will is a special case among ABC staffers, given his close relationship to the Reagan White House and his unique role as an opinion commentator, not just a correspondent or analyst.)

As has been widely reported, Henry Kissinger is Ted Koppel’s foreign policy mentor, notwithstanding the former Secretary of State’s pivotal role in the secret bombing of Cambodia and in events leading to the 1973 coup in Chile. Questions about Kissinger’s character raised by Seymour Hersh’s book The Price of Power and by other critics have not interfered with his position as Nightline‘s chief foreign policy expert. Other foreign policy analysts certified by Nightline include hawkish General Alexander Haig and Elliott Abrams, the Assistant Secretary of State who admitted lying to Congress.

The one guest on this list with alternative views is a foreigner, Alejandro Bendana, a spokesperson for the Nicaraguan government. Bendana’s appearances are in the Nightline tradition of having (often controversial) foreign leaders as guests.

When one looks only at U.S. guests who appeared more than five times, one counts 19 people, all men. (The most frequent female guest was Jeane Kirkpatrick.) All are white, except for Jesse Jackson and Harry Edwards. At least 13 of the 19 are conservatives, most of whom were associated in some capacity with the Reagan administration.

After Kissinger, Haig, Abrams and Falwell, the most frequent U.S. guests were:

Lawrence Eagleburger 10

Jesse Jackson-10

Arthur Miller-9

William Hyland-8

Patrick Buchanan-7

William Cohen-7

Arthur Laffer-7

William Safire-7

Christopher Dodd-6

Harry Edwards-6

Bobby Inman-6

Noel Koch-6

Michael Ledeen-6

Alan Simpson-6

Marvin Zonis 6

Tied for fifth place among U.S. guests (10 appearances each) are Lawrence Eagleburger, recently president of Kissinger Associates, and Jesse Jackson. Jackson’s appearances might be attributed to the fact that his presidential campaigns have certified him as a spokesperson of alternative ideas. Consistent with its focus on elites, Nightline seems to see Jackson as the “elite” of alternative viewpoints.

The leading guests on programs covering social issues were Jerry Falwell (8), Cal Thomas (5) and Arthur Miller of Harvard Law School (5). The fact that Falwell and Thomas, both closely associated with the right-wing Moral Majority, are two of the three main interpreters of social issues—-speaking on crime and AIDS along with religion–is another indication of Nightline‘s slant.


Nightline‘s top-down approach results in disproportionate representation of elites, as this breakdown of the guestlist shows:


Professionals 39% (43%)

Current or former government/

military officials 34% (30%)

Corporate representatives 6% (7%)

Public interest representatives 4% (5%)

Labor leaders 1% (1%)

Racial/Ethnic leaders 1% (<1%)

Public interest, labor and racial/ ethnic leaders comprised only 6.2 percent of the total guests, and the figure is slightly smaller (5.7 percent) when looking only at U.S. guests. In terms of certifying spokespersons, Nightline clearly does not cultivate the same types of relationships with these people as it does with people such as Kissinger, Haig and Falwell. No labor leader appeared more than twice. Of the racial/ethnic leaders, 80 percent are foreign (mostly black South Africans). Not counting Jesse Jackson, no U.S. racial or ethnic leader appeared more than three times.

(Jesse Jackson, as presidential candidate and leader of the Rainbow Coalition, is more than a spokesperson for African- Americans; he is a spokesperson for many public interest constituencies. As such, we have classified Jackson as a public interest leader rather than a racial/ethnic leader.)

On shows dealing with international issues, 54 percent of the guests are government officials and 6 percent are public interest, labor and racial/ethnic leaders. On programs about the economy, Nightline is heavily weighted towards private enterprise ideology: 37 percent of the guests were corporate representatives; only five percent were labor representatives, while public interest leaders were practically nonexistent.

Elites were not only featured on the program more often, they also spoke more often than other guests. Government officials averaged one fourth more lines spoken (59), as measured in the transcripts, than public interest (48) and labor leaders (45). In addition, elites were much more likely to appear early in the program, enabling them to help frame the ensuing discussion. Government officials, professionals and corporate representatives were almost twice as likely to appear before the first commercial break as public interest or labor leaders.

Who Appears Alone?

Seventy-four Nightline programs featured only one guest. Forty-nine of these (66 percent) were programs about international affairs, of which eight focused on U.S./Soviet relations, the largest of any single topic. Not surprisingly, given Nightline‘s reliance on elites, 90.5 percent of these solo guests are men and 66 percent are current or former government or military officials. Other than Jesse Jackson, none of the guests who appeared alone are labor or public interest leaders.

Twelve individuals appeared on Nightline alone more than one time: Jimmy Carter (3), Corazon Aquino (3), Ferdinand Marcos (2), Gary Hart (2), Henry Kissinger (2), Jesse Jackson (2), Oliver Tambo (2), Robert McFarlane (2), Richard Secord (2), Shimon Peres (2), Yitzak Rabin (2) and Zbigniew Brzezinski (2). The pattern is familiar: present and former U.S. government elites, high-ranking foreign officials and Jesse Jackson.

The entire list of those who appeared alone includes such names as Alexander Haig, Caspar Weinberger, George Shultz, Jeane Kirkpatrick and William Westmoreland, and reads like a virtual who’s who of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. On the other hand, the only outspoken progressive U.S. voice heard solo, besides Jesse Jackson, was author Studs Terkel. Nightline had a broad range of foreign guests, including Daniel Ortega, Pik Botha, Robert Mugabe and Rajiv Gandhi, who appeared alone. But U.S. guests who were given an opportunity to appear alone on Nightline represent a narrow spectrum of opinion. Articulate leaders of popular movements or the public interest community–such as Ralph Nader, Eleanor Smeal, Cesar Chavez, Faye Wattleton, Randall Forsberg, Barry Commoner, William Sloane Coffin, Randall Robinson, Michael Harrington, Frances Moore Lappe, to name only a few–were not deemed important enough to merit the undivided attention of Nightline‘s viewers.

Race and Gender

Nightline serves as an electronic soapbox from which white, male, elite representatives of the status quo can present their case. Of U.S. guests, 89 percent are men and 92 percent for whom race was identifiable are white. When one includes foreigners, 90 percent of the guests are men and 83 percent are white.

On international issues, 94 percent of the guests are men. The only category which has a somewhat better representation of women is social issues (19 percent). By participating more often on programs about social issues than political and economic issues, women who managed to get on Nightline were ghettoized into “traditionally” female areas. Moreover, men average 50 lines spoken per guest, while women average 14 percent less–only 43 lines. Not only do men appear much more often, they also have more of an opportunity to express themselves.

In keeping with Nightline‘s interest in elites, the two leading women guests were Jeane Kirkpatrick (5) and Corazon Aquino (4)—-a right-wing former government official and a U.S.-allied foreign leader. None of the many women who have assumed leadership roles in public interest groups and peace organizations have appeared regularly on Nightline. On shows about Central America, there were no women guests. This is largely a reflection of Nightline‘s lack of attention to the U.S. peace movement, which has many women in leadership roles.

The fact that there are so few women on Nightline is related to the elite positions of most guests. Less than 10 percent of the government officials, professionals and corporate representatives who appear are women. On the other hand, 16 percent of the labor leaders and 18 percent of the public interest representatives are women. This suggests that Nightline doesn’t systematically exclude women and minorities solely because of their race and gender, but rather because women and minorities are disproportionately underrepresented in the class from which Nightline draws most of its guests.


The Soviet Union and U.S./Soviet Relations

Nightline‘s coverage of the Soviet Union and U.S./Soviet relations displays a recurring tendency to limit the debate to “official” and “expert” spokespeople, while excluding viewpoints that dissent from those of government officials.

Nearly half the guests (48.6 percent) on programs dealing with U.S./Soviet relations were current or former U.S. officials. Topping the list with three appearances each were Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s secretary of State; Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser and later of the Bush campaign; Robert McNamara, Defense secretary under Kennedy and Johnson; Kenneth Adelman, director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; and William Hyland, former National Security Council member and editor of the conservative Foreign Affairs.

Foreign officials, including Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov, made up 18.7 percent of the guests, while journalists (18.7 percent) and academics (6.5 percent) comprised the bulk of the remainder. Peace and public interest representatives accounted for less than 1 percent of the total.

Programs on the Soviet Union, rather than U.S./Soviet relations, were also dominated by white, male, mainly conservative elites. Professionals such as Dimitri Simes from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who appeared three times, constituted 45.5 percent of the guests. (Simes’ expertise is such that at a 1985 seminar soon after Gorbachev assumed power, he predicted little would change in the USSR.) U.S. and foreign officials made up 33.3 percent, while peace and public interest spokespersons totaled only 4.5 percent of the guests on these shows.

More than one-third of Nightline programs on U.S./Soviet relations were devoted to the sports-like rituals of “superpower summits.” Again the debate was framed primarily by two elite groups: the U.S. government and the Soviet government. Strong critics of government policy and representatives of the U.S. peace movement, as well as “unofficial” peace groups in Eastern Europe, were completely excluded. Instead, U.S./Soviet relations are reported as an intricate game of diplomacy complete with a “Summit Scorecard,” as an April 1985 program was titled.

Nightline aired nine summit programs in 1985. The participants in these discussions reflected a narrow portion of the political spectrum. For example, on January 8, 1985, Koppel introduced his three guests this way:

Tonight, live from Geneva, the two Richards, Perle and Burt—Perle, the Pentagon hardliner, Burt, the State Department moderate. They will tell us how and why the U.S. and the Soviets have agreed to resume arms talks. And another view of the arms control talks and the latest White House staff realignment from a man who knows the ins and outs of both, former White House chief of staff and former Secretary of State Alexander Haig.

Such is Nightline‘s concept of a range of opinion: a Pentagon hardliner, a so-called State Department moderate, followed by Al Haig. (Richard Burt, a hardline Cruise missile proponent, is to Nightline a moderate.) This kind of “debate” leaves intact virtually every Reagan administration assumption about foreign policy. Any notion of a left or even liberal critique is missing.

Ironically, Nightline often aired programs on the Soviet government’s use of media to communicate its views. Shows such as “Mikhail Gorbachev’s PR” (10/1/85), “Gorbachev and the Media” (10/3/85), “Chernobyl: Openness or Propaganda?” (5/14/86), “The New Soviet Media Campaign” (8/27/86) and “Soviet Spokesmen” (3/5/87) called into question Soviet government officials’ attempts to influence media coverage. Yet similar PR campaigns by U.S. officials were rarely if ever scrutinized on Nightline. In Nightline‘s view, the Soviet Foreign Ministry provides “propagandists,” while the U.S. State Department serves up foreign policy “experts” like Elliott Abrams and Otto Reich.


Nightline‘s frequent focus on terrorism often gives the impression that the United States is under siege. Through its choice of guests and geographical orientation, Nightline turns into an “us” versus “them” scenario. In Nightline’s worldview, “they” are the terrorists and “we” (the U.S. and its allies) are the targets.

The kind of terrorism Nightline pays attention to are acts committed by small groups on planes, ships, or at airports–what Edward Herman, in The Real Terror Network, has described as “retail terror.” Nightline has never focused on state terror–or “wholesale terror,” as Herman would call it–that occurs daily with U.S. financial and military backing in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala. This kind of terrorism, which has taken tens of thousands of lives, hardly exists in Nightline‘s coverage.

Missing from Nightline‘s guest list were those who might reframe the terrorism discussion by including death squad activity and disappearances in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Instead Nightline focused on the Middle East, which accounted for 48 of 52 programs on terrorism. The implication of such selective coverage is that Arabs are far and away the primary cause of the world’s terrorism. Nightline is seemingly uninterested in terrorism when it happens elsewhere.

Terrorism programs are dominated by official sources and “experts,” who comprise a total of 91 percent of the guests (45 percent government officials and 46 percent professionals). Jesse Jackson was the only public interest spokesperson; only 1 percent of the guests are labor representatives (e.g., airline pilots discussing security); and 3 percent are racial/ethnic leaders. Even more than other topics, Nightline‘s stories on terrorism are male-dominated: 95 percent of the guests are men.

Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israel’s ambassador to the UN and author of the book Terrorism: How the West Can Win, was the most frequent analyst, appearing five times. In line with the kind of terrorist crisis which Nightline depicts, Netanyahu advocates a tough response to terrorism. His views are similar to those of Henry Kissinger, who appeared on Nightline four times to discuss terrorism.

Other U.S. “experts” who appeared three or more times on shows about terrorism are Alexander Haig; Brian Jenkins of the RAND corporation; State Department consultant Michael Ledeen, who was involved in secret arms shipments to Iran, a government that supports terrorists; Noel Koch, former assistant secretary of Defense in charge of counter-terrorism; and Robert Kupperman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. These men are cut from the same cloth; all are hard-nosed cold warriors who emphasize “counter-terrorism.”

Said Rajaie-Khorassani, the Iranian ambassador to the UN, is the leading non-U.S. guest on shows about terrorism, with four Nightline appearances. Although Rajaie-Khorassani provides a different, non-Western perspective, the results hardly detract from the Kissinger/Netanyahu worldview. In fact, selecting Rajaie-Khorassani as the main “alternative” spokesperson on terrorism helps to strengthen this worldview, while reinforcing the notion that alternative views on terrorism are literally foreign.

Terrorism provokes some of the more extremist–and, in light of Iran/Contra revelations, some of the more hypocritical–foreign policy rhetoric, often at the expense of an examination of the complexities of the issue. After the Achille Lauro hijacking, Henry Kissinger and Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin appeared on Nightline to tell us how we should deal with terrorists. During the April 1988 hijacking of a Kuwaiti airplane, Noel Koch and Brian Jenkins provided instant analysis. In both cases, the spectrum of opinion was so narrow it may be misleading to call it a spectrum.

As far as Nightline is concerned, the U.S. speaks with one voice when it comes to terrorism; there is no serious disagreement (except for the couple of times that Jesse Jackson appeared). Excluded from Nightline‘s guestlist are victims of wholesale state terror and those who are actively resisting U.S.-backed state terror in the Third World, as well as domestic critics of the U.S. government’s (and Nightline‘s) selective definition of terrorism. A more balanced approach would find these voices as significant as those of the U.S. power elite.

Southern Africa

Southern Africa is the only part of Africa which Nightline keeps abreast of regularly. A major shortcoming of the coverage is that Nightline approaches South Africa as if it can be understood outside of a regional context. There has been little or no discussion of other countries in the region–Namibia, Angola, Mozambique or Zimbabwe–even though South Africa has been sponsoring wars against its neighbors for years.

Despite the isolated nature of its coverage, Nightline does a relatively good job of including the views of black South Africans. In contrast to programs on other foreign policy issues, 45 percent of the guests are black–by far the largest representation of people of color on any international issue. The most frequent guest on shows about South Africa was Nobel Peace Prize-winner Bishop Desmond Tutu, with five appearances. This is consistent with Nightline‘s tendency to rely on well known personalities to provide analysis. Less than 7 percent of the guests on South Africa programs were women.

Nightline‘s coverage primarily features the voices of South Africans, both black and white. Although 26 percent of the guests were racial/ethnic leaders, government officials still made up a 35 percent plurality. Appearing four times each were Pik Botha, Louis Nel, Herbert Beukes and Nthato Motlana. All are high-ranking members of the South African government except for Motlana, a prominent black civic leader in Soweto. The appearances of apartheid proponents in combination with Tutu or Motlana makes for some of the most informative and provocative programming. Were this type of balance applied to all issues, Nightline would be presenting a somewhat more complete picture of the world.

Twenty-four percent of the guests on Nightline programs about South Africa were from the U.S. The list of U.S. guests, however, generally does not include leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in the U.S. or other spokespersons critical of U.S. government and corporate policy toward South Africa.

Approximately one-third of Nightline‘s 35 programs on South Africa dealt in some substantive way with U.S. policy. There were only two repeat U.S. guests on these programs: Chester Crocker, the assistant secretary of State for African affairs and chief architect of the Reagan administration’s policy of “constructive engagement,” and Frank Wisner, the deputy assistant secretary of State for African affairs and a top aide of Crocker’s. While voices from the U.S. anti-apartheid movement were heard on rare occasions, they did not become a regular part of the debate; nor did any opposition figures from within the Democratic Party. Nightline‘s expert analysts of U.S. policy were essentially Crocker and Wisner, the ones making U.S. policy.

While aspects of Nightline‘s South

Africa Coverage warrant praise, its limited perspective must also be questioned. Why have representatives of the anti-apartheid movement, one of the largest social movements in the U.S. during the 1980s, not participated more often in the political debate over apartheid and U.S. policy coward South Africa? The fact that the Reagan administration–whose representatives figured prominently on Nightline–has promoted an understanding of South Africa that ignores the regional context and disparages the anti-apartheid movement in the U.S. may help to explain some of the show’s deficiencies.

Central America

In our study period, Nightline presented 27 shows on Central America. Nearly all of these dealt primarily with Nicaragua. In a manner similar to the way South Africa is discussed in isolation, Nicaragua is typically covered as if the rest of Central America did not exist.

In selecting which Central America stories to cover, Nightline seemed to follow the agenda set by the Reagan administration. The focus was on the government the U.S. opposes, its human rights record and alleged dictatorial abuses. The same standard of newsworthiness was not applied to the governments of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala–the so-called “fledgling democracies” of Central America–which are closely allied with the U.S. and receive substantial U.S. aid. These three governments have been condemned by independent human rights organizations for committing far worse abuses than Nicaragua, but this fundamental point was obscured by Nightline‘s fragmented coverage of the region. While 22 programs dealt principally with Nicaragua, not one focused principally on Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala.

Debate about Nicaragua was almost always framed in terms of how the U.S. should deal with the Sandinistas. Should we try to overthrow the government overtly or covertly? Should we put pressure on them militarily, politically or economically? Nightline‘s coverage of the recent peace process assumed that Nicaragua is the primary obstacle to peace, that it doesn’t plan to abide by any regional agreement and therefore needs to be pressured.

Such assumptions greatly limit the terms of the discussion. That Nicaragua is an impoverished country of 3 million people defending itself against military intervention by the most powerful country in the world is seemingly irrelevant. Condemnation of U.S. Contra policy by the World Court and by the foreign ministers of other Latin American countries also seems to be irrelevant.

Nightline‘s coverage of Central America is decidedly ahistorical. Little attention is paid to the U.S. role in the region, except for obligatory comments about “our commitment to democracy.” Nor is the war against Nicaragua discussed in the context of Nicaragua’s history or prior CIA destabilization campaigns against other Third World countries such as Guatemala, Chile and Cuba.

The most frequent guests on Central America programs are Alejandro Bendana (11) from the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry; Elliott Abrams (7) of the State Department; and Sen. Christopher Dodd (6). At first glance this may suggest a good balance. After all, Bendana articulately puts forth the Nicaraguan position, Abrams defends U.S. policy and Dodd is critical of U.S. policy.

Yet this is only a good balance if we accept the assumptions that Nightline begins with; once we broaden the picture to include more than just a discussion of how to overthrow or pressure Nicaragua, the semblance of balance vanishes.

More specifically, leaders of the movement opposing U.S. intervention in Central America–one of the most prominent U.S. opposition movements of the 1980s–were virtually ignored. In 40 months, only two guests (out of 68) were anti-intervention spokespersons (less than 3 percent). On the other hand, most of the guests (55 percent) were U.S. officials. All the guests were men.

Whereas the lack of representation of the U.S. anti-apartheid movement is partially explained by the program’s focus on foreign as opposed to U.S. guests, no such explanation can be found with respect to Central America–since 70 percent of the guests were from the U.S. What occurred was a procession of conservative ideologues fulminating about the “communist threat”: congressmen like Gordon Humphreys, Henry Hyde, Richard Cheney; members of the administration like Elliott Abrams and Otto Reich; and right-wing activists like John Singlaub or Richard Secord.

The most frequent guests on the 13 Nightline programs which substantively discussed US policy in the region were Elliott Abrams (4), John Singlaub (3), Christopher Dodd (3) and Alejandro Bendana (3). Again, Abrams and Singlaub put forward the usual anti-communist rhetoric; Dodd accepts much of the rhetoric and plays the role of insider opponent, disagreeing on specific administration tactics without challenging the underlying assumptions of the policy (e.g., that the U.S. seeks to bring “democracy” to Nicaragua); and Bendana represents the “enemy” we are waging war against.

The participation of Bendana, a forthright critic of U.S. policy, is in line with Nightline‘s practice of presenting the views of controversial foreign leaders. But prominent U.S. citizens who seek a fundamental change in U.S. policy (not just a change in strategies for containment) are not on Nightline‘s guestlist. U.S. policy, after all, should be subjected to a U.S. debate; a robust, full-spectrum debate has not occurred on Nightline.

Several examples illustrate how Nightline has tilted the discussion rightward by excluding forthright opponents of U.S. policy in Central America. On three programs about Contra aid, Nightline had the following guests: Patrick Buchanan, a committed right-wing ideologue who actively promoted the Contras, debated Tom Wicker, a liberal journalist who is in no way connected to the movement opposing U.S. policy in Central America (3/17/86); Gen. John Singlaub, a right-wing paramilitary activist who provided “private” assistance to the Contras, debated Sen. David Boren, a Democrat who had voted in favor of military aid to the Contras (5/21/87); and contra leader Alfredo Cesar joined Contra arms suppliers Robert Owen and John Singlaub in a debate with Rep. David Bonior, a Democrat who opposed military aid to the Contras (2/2/88).

In the final case, it was three against, at best, one–not to mention host Koppel’s pro-Contra sympathies, as cited in Newsweek (6/15/87). On the program, Koppel failed to ask Owen about his memos to Oliver North describing Contra leaders as corrupt drug-runners and U.S. pawns.

Media and Politics

Between January 1985 and April 1988, 3.2 percent of Nightline guests appeared on programs that examined the media’s role in society. These programs were of two types. Most were shows in the usual Nightline format dealing with such issues as the protection of journalists’ sources; the Gary Hart debacle and the problems in covering the private lives of public officials; and libel suits filed by Ariel Sharon and William Westmoreland. The Nightline staff also produced a second type of media program, hosted by Ted Koppel in front of live audiences. These special expanded “Viewpoint” shows purport to offer self-critical examinations of media performance.

In both types of programs, what we usually see is journalists evaluating their peers. Journalists dominate the guest list (55.7 percent), while current and former government and military officials make up nearly another fifth (19 percent) of the guests. Corporate representatives have the third highest representation (6.3 percent). Academics (1.3 percent) and public interest representatives (2.6 percent) comprise only a tiny fraction of the guests. It would seem that a better way of assessing the media would be to feature critical perspectives from academics and public interest leaders.

The vast majority of guests on programs dealing with media and politics were white (95.5 percent) American (97.5 percent) males (90 percent). Often there were no comments from women, minorities, public interest group representatives or foreign observers.

Ted Koppel introduced a Viewpoint program by saying that “Viewpoint is our periodic examination of the media and how we are perceived by you, our audience, our critics.” But to which critics does Koppel pay attention? An analysis of Nightline and Viewpoint transcripts reveals that they are overwhelmingly conservative. Questions from Viewpoint‘s invited audiences which, Koppel once claimed, “represent a wide spectrum of political opinion,” also were usually from a conservative standpoint.

The only advocates on a Viewpoint program examining patriotism and the media (4/17/85) were conservative ones: former Secretary of the Interior James Watt; William Rusher, publisher of the right-wing National Review; and Republican Rep. Philip Crane. Jeff Greenfield’s introductory piece for this program featured quotes from the likes of Arnaud de Borchgrave, right-wing editor of the Moonie-owned Washington Times; Norman Podhoretz, right-wing editor of Commentary magazine; Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger; and ultra-conservative Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media. The only critic quoted who was not a strong conservative was Michael Massing of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Other programs also presented “debates” between conservative critics and journalists, leaving out the progressive segment of the political spectrum. Responding primarily to undocumented “left-wing bias” charges lodged by conservatives, these programs avoided progressive media critics such as Ben Bagdikian, Noam Chomsky, Pat Aufderheide or Michael Parenti. Only on rare occasions was an outspoken progressive invited (Alexander Cockburn of the Nation appeared twice), but progressives were scrupulously matched against right-wingers. They never dominated a panel.

Viewpoint programs have thus become a self-affirming ritual that allows journalists to ignore criticisms, unless they come from those in power. In the Nightline tradition of top-down journalism, those not wielding power–women, labor, minorities, public interest groups, the left–were hardly given an opportunity to express their views.


Nightline‘s economic coverage follows the pattern of elites discussing an issue–on which there is apparent domestic consensus–from a perspective closely aligned with the U.S. government.

The elites in Nightline‘s economic coverage are members of the business community. Much of Nightline‘s economic coverage is essentially coverage of U.S. business. While the show’s economic coverage spanned a range of topics, nearly one-fifth (19.7 percent) of economic programs focused on the stock market. Only 7.2 percent of the programs focused on labor, even though labor, not business, represents the bulk of active participants in our economy.

The most frequent guests for programs on the economy were of a conservative bent. More than one out of three guests (37 percent) represented the business community, but only one in twenty (5.3 percent) spoke for labor. Other guests included government officials (15.4 percent), academics (13.9 percent) and journalists (12 percent). Moreover, corporate representatives were nearly three times as likely as labor representatives to appear before the first commercial break, thus enabling corporate spokespersons to set the agenda for the program’s discussion.

Just as Nightline‘s international coverage tends to have government officials talking to government officials about government policies, its economic programs business executives and analysts talk to other business executives and analysts about the latest business trends. Absent is any continuing discussion of the effect of corporate action on communities and constituencies other than the business community. Programs on workers, instead of flashy merger moguls, were rarely seen on Nightline. Given the dominance of corporate representatives and the underrepresencation of labor, it is not surprising that the range of debate on economic issues is exceedingly narrow. Economic dissidents, even those suggesting only moderate reform, are virtually shut out.

For a program that prides itself on its international coverage, Nightline‘s economic reporting is heavily U.S.-centered: 89.4 percent of programs on the economy focused on the U.S., and 94.2 percent of the guests were from the U.S. Absent is any analysis of U.S. corporate influence abroad–influence which is often a catalyst for political events (revolutions, military coups, etc.). Just as U.S. officials discuss politics as if it were divorced from economics, so too does Nightline convey this impression.


Nightline‘s coverage of religion was obsessed with a particular phenomenon: televangelism. Nightline for the most part ignored religion in 1985 and 1986, airing only five shows on this multifaceted area. (Two shows were devoted to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.)

In 1987, however, the PTL scandal broke, and Nightline suddenly became interested in religion. In all, 16 religion programs were broadcast in 1987, with 11 devoted to PTL and televangelism. In the first four months of 1988, another four programs focused on religious topics and all dealt with televangelism.

With 64 percent of Nightline‘s religious shows devoted to televangelists, more established religions received comparatively little coverage. Catholics were featured in four programs, two of which covered the Pope’s 1987 visit to the U.S. Jews, Baptists and Fundamentalists got one show apiece.

Rather than exploring the complex influence of religion on our society or the role of religion abroad, Nightline dwelt upon flashy personalities and their “sexy” scandals. The most frequent guests on religion programs were right-wing political activist and Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell (seven

times) and former Moral Majority vice-president now turned syndicated columnist Cal Thomas (four times). In addition to Rajneesh and Newsweek‘s Kenneth Woodward, six other guests appeared twice on Nightline‘s religion programs: Jim Bakker (PTL president), Rev. Everett Stenhouse (Assemblies of God—of which PTL was a part), Roy Grutman (PTL attorney), Mike Evans (Assemblies of God), Frances Kissling (Catholics for Free Choice) and Catholic Archbishop John Forbes.

Unlike the other case studies, Nightline‘s religion coverage doesn’t fit neatly into our analysis of elites and conformity with U.S. government agendas. Most notable is what Nightline didn’t cover. It failed to probe the serious debates within religious denominations that are having a profound effect on many people. For example, the U.S. Catholic Church is publicly confronting a number of major issues, including economic justice, the nuclear arms race, hunger in America, sanctuary for Central American refugees and so on. And there is vigorous debate within the Church over liberation theology, the role of women, gay and lesbian issues, divorce, birth control and more.

Protestants, Jews, Muslims and other religious believers are grappling with similar issues, but Nightline has opted for gossip-sheet type of coverage of PTL.


Nightline is a program that reaches and influences millions of Americans. Its ability to attract high-ranking U.S. and foreign officials as guests shows that political leaders recognize the program’s influence.

The general tone of the program, as well as the way it introduces and advertises itself, suggests that Nightline takes itself very seriously. A commercial highlighted a reviewer’s rave that Nightline “may be simply the best program in the history of broadcast journalism.” It purports to be not just another news or entertainment show, but the TV news program that deals with serious issues and features controversial guests.

Nightline is organized in a way that sets Ted Koppel up as a “diplomat” to moderate discussions between two or more apparently antagonistic viewpoints. The implication is that conflicts could be resolved just by having people talk to each other on Nightline, via satellite, with Ted Koppel as the intermediary.

While Nightline is often successful at bringing together political opponents on the same program, its attempt to find a “solution” unmasks the show’s political agenda. With respect to foreign policy, the “solutions” Koppel seeks are essentially outcomes that the U.S. government desires. When Koppel assumes the role more of statesman than journalist, it becomes evident that the worldview informing Nightline‘s international coverage is little different from that of the U.S. government.

For example, on a program about South Africa pitting a State Department spokesman against U.S. anti-apartheid leader and divestment proponent Randall Robinson (8/26/86), Koppel disparaged U.S. corporate disengagement, suggesting that U.S. corporations “are a force for positive social change.” His statement echoed Reagan’s constructive engagement policy.

In programs featuring Nicaragua’s Alejandro Bendana (5/14/87, 10/7/87), Koppel questioned Bendana–in conformity with U.S. premises–about Nicaragua’s “wonderful propaganda campaign,” its plans “to turn back all the democratic advances” and its propensity for offering “rhetoric” instead of “serious proposals.”

The Illusion of Balance

Despite the occasionally cantankerous debates on Nightline, the semblance of “balance” among guests with diverse perspectives is often more illusory than real. Usually, the official viewpoint is presented along with one “critical” view; more often than not, however, the “critical” views are those of establishment insiders. The range of spokespersons certified by Nightline is wide enough to enable “debates” to occur, yet limited enough to exclude those who might question fundamental tenets of the status quo. By legitimizing differing views within a narrow political spectrum, the appearance of balance is maintained and a process of limitation is obscured.

Noted journalist Bill Moyers, quoting Newsday‘s Tom Collins, has commented on this process (Boston Globe, 10/31/88):

“It’s usually two experts out of the establishment who are called on this talkshow or that talkshow. It’s usually a politician, a pollster, a pundit or a, quote, expert.” It’s a very tiny sample of thought, of ideas, of language that gets on television…. “There’s another kingdom of thought out there that never gets tapped, that throws light, backlight, on the stage of politics.”

When Nightline acts as a gatekeeper, whether consciously or not, it defines the world in a manner that coincides with those who pull the levers of corporate and government power. Certain views –particularly those of white, male “establishment” representatives–seem more acceptable to Nightline than others.

True, Nightline features foreign guests who at times severely criticize the U.S. And occasionally journalists and academics provide analysis that differs from those in power. But those who go beyond the bounds of establishment dissent and actively oppose the status quo are locked out. In particular, our study shows there is a systematic bias against the progressive public interest community.

Nightline and the U.S. Government: Parallel Agendas

By relying primarily on official experts and elites, Nightline presents a picture of the world that is closely aligned with the views of the U.S. government. Nightline‘s worldview is one in which terrorism is rampant, with U.S. citizens as targets for no apparent reason; where the Third World only exists when there is a crisis or when the U.S. government deems it worthy of attention.

It is a world in which the U.S. is under siege from without; where important events happen primarily to white people, and important analysis comes almost always from white people; where men are both the actors and the interpreters and women for the most part are capable of commenting only on social issues.

It is a world where we ask questions about “strategic interests” and international competition; where Vietnam is remembered by Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig, the people who prosecuted the war that ravaged Indochina, not by the victims of the war, nor by those who protested the killing.

In short, Nightline evokes a worldview which sees America as “No. 1″—especially white, male America. It describes a world in which we have to be tough to remain “No. 1,” especially when dealing with the onslaught of terrorism. This worldview–as reflected and promulgated by a narrow range of guests–makes Nightline a fundamentally conservative political program, which serves the interests of those who already wield power.

A New Nightline?

Despite its shortcomings, Nightline offers the basis for a truly democratic forum. In considering ways to establish such a program, we echo some of Herbert Gans’ suggestions for news media.

First, Nightline would have to diversify its guestlist to move beyond the restrictive formula that equates national interest with the interest of the U.S. government. The program should include more representatives of citizen groups, especially those that represent constituencies different from the white, male establishment. Peace and public interest groups, unions, civil rights and church-based organizations, women’s and gay rights groups, to name a few, should be granted regular access to the arena of debate now so closely guarded by Nightline.

Second, this democratic broadening of the guestlist should be accompanied by a broadening of the range of topics covered. Programs should not only focus on the issues deemed important by the U.S. government. Instead, deeper, more profound issues and changes in society should be examined, even if this means the loss of flashy or well-known personalities as guests. (Passionate advocates from the public interest community may well prove more provocative and telegenic than the predictable players like Kissinger and Brzezinski.)

Third, international news should be set in both a regional and historical context, rather than the geographical and historical isolation which usually has been the case.

Above all, the program should focus less on the “selling” of U.S. foreign policy and more on providing various interpretations of important events and trends in everyday life. The fact that Koppel can make a statement about having the qualifications to sell U.S. foreign policy to the American public and not see a fundamental conflict of interest with his role as a journalist says more about the U.S. media than all the Viewpoint shows he has hosted.

The answer one gets to a question often depends on who one is asking. Nightline asks its questions primarily of Washington/Wall Street elites. It is not surprising, then, that the answers it broadcasts to America favor those elites.