Public television host Charlie Rose enjoys a reputation for highbrow talk. “A Larry King for Mensa members,” he “conducts a conversation, not an interview,” according to the New York Times (4/25/07). The paper added that Rose is “a facilitator, creating a comfortable ambiance where important people and opinion-makers can speak at length and make more than one point…. For viewers interested in thoughtful talk, Mr. Rose’s stark studio is the best place in town.”
The Charlie Rose show is where “the intelligentsia come to share ideas,” wrote David Kaplan in “Why Business Loves Charlie Rose” (Fortune, 9/28/09). Kaplan quoted New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman—the show’s most frequent guest —praising Rose’s interviewing style, which gives his high-powered guests “the best chance to make your case for your point of view.” The Fortune article pointed out that the show’s audience “is probably well under a million,” but that “few would dispute” the program’s impact in elite circles: “Nobody watches Charlie Rose except everybody you know.”
That, of course, would depend on your definition of “you.”
When mega-investor Warren Buffett needed an outlet to send a calming message about the Wall Street meltdown, he went to Charlie Rose—and announced that he would be investing in Goldman Sachs. Buffett explained that the moment “really was Pearl Harbor,” and that Rose’s show was a vehicle “to say something to the American public.” Again, “the public” would seem to be rather narrowly defined.
Charlie Rose used to make the kind of promises one would hope to hear from a public television program host. In a promotional pitch for the show, Rose explained that he came to public television to do a program featuring “people who don’t ordinarily appear on television.” As Extra! noted (5-6/96), though, at that point the show’s opening credits highlighted appearances by all three nightly network news anchors, as well as PBS’s MacNeil and Lehrer. The slogan that currently appears on the Rose website—“Stay on the Inside with Charlie Rose”—gives a markedly different indication of the show’s intended audience and purpose.
Who gets a seat at the table?
So who actually does appear on the Charlie Rose show? The guestlist in May and June of 2010 confirms how far Rose has strayed from his onetime pitch. Out of 132 guests, 28 percent (37) were journalists from major media outlets. The outlet providing the most guests was the New York Times, whose reporters made 11 appearances, far more than any other news outlet. (The Washington Post was next with three.) Repeat journalist guests included Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter—a regular on MSNBC—and Al Hunt of Bloomberg, the company that donates studio space to Rose. (See sidebar.)
There were seven mostly well-known academics (e.g., historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Sean Wilentz). Seven corporate guests appeared, most of whom were affiliated with Wall Street/financial firms. There were also four appearances by corporate philanthropists (Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett and his sister Doris Buffett).
One corporate guest, Kevin Sheekey, was identified as a “political strategist,” a nod to his former role assisting Michael Bloomberg’s political campaigns. But Sheekey shifted over to Bloomberg’s private company in early 2010. He appeared to discuss the government response to the BP oil spill, but viewers were unaware that he works for the company that provides Rose with his TV studio.
Rose interviewed relatively few U.S. government officials during the two months: two appearances by U.S. Sen. John Kerry and one each by Vice President Joe Biden, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and “pay czar” Kenneth Feinberg. One New York City official—police chief Ray Kelly—and three former military officials also appeared.
There were two anomalies in the period that FAIR surveyed. Foreign leaders, particularly from Mideastern countries, accounted for seven appearances, part of a Rose special titled “Middle East Journal.” And there were 13 medical/science guests, who appeared as part of the show’s ongoing series on the human brain and mental illness.
Out of the 132 guests who appeared over the course of two months, just two guests—environmental activist/writer Bill McKibben and James Tripp of the Enviromental Defense Fund—might reasonably be considered representative of the types of public interest voices (representatives of civil rights, labor, consumer, environmental and other citizen-based advocacy groups) one should expect to see on public television. Those two appearances equal the number of celebrity chefs who appeared over the two months. The only other guest who came close to this public interest category was John Hofme-ister, the former president of Shell Oil who now runs a non-profit called Citizens for Affordable Energy, which stresses the abundance of available coal and oil resources.
The Rose show often features non-political cultural discussions. Out of the 132 guests on the program, 31 could be included in this category, including 15 performers (actors and musicians), four novelists and two chefs. Ten guests appeared on the show to discuss sports.
The list was heavily male, with just 20 appearances by women (15 percent of total guests). Of the 102 U.S. guests, 92 percent were white. Of the six African-American guests, five discussed arts or sports. Only two women of color appeared during the study period, Nnenna Freelon and Viola Davis, both African-American artists.
Not Corporation for Public Broadcasting—just corporations
The Charlie Rose show does not take money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; instead, it gets it entirely from corporations. Exactly how much is not entirely clear, nor are the amounts that come from the likes of Coca-Cola (the show’s largest sponsor), Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and a handful of investment firms and financial institutions.
In his 2009 Fortune piece, David Kaplan reported what is known about the fundraising for the show, a task Rose handles personally. Kaplan found that many of Rose’s backers will not speak about their donations, but there is “a web of peculiar interconnections between Rose and the people he covers.”
Media mogul Barry Diller and fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg are both backers of the program—as well as guests. The same is true of Rupert Murdoch. But the level of disclosure falls far short of what one might expect from a show that is so closely associated with “public” broadcasting.
Kaplan also reported that Rose is a limited partner in a venture capital firm (Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers); another partner in the firm, John Doerr, has been a guest on Charlie Rose at least three times (1/6/06, 12/29/06, 10/20/08), but Rose only disclosed that he had a “business relationship” with his guest in the second of these appearances.
Rose drew critical attention after he was the master of ceremonies at a 2002 Coca-Cola shareholders’ meeting. Rose sang Coke’s praises, gushing that “few companies are able to connect as completely with consumers” and declaring it a privilege to be associated with “the Coca-Cola family” (Extra! Update, 6/02). Shortly after the news about the shareholders’ meeting surfaced, some viewers noticed that the mugs on the show’s interview table featured the distinctive red-and-white Coke logo on one side and the Charlie Rose logo on the other (Orange County Weekly, 1/24/03).
Another controversy surfaced after an August 1, 2006, interview Rose conducted with Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott inside one of the executive’s New Jersey outlets. A few months later, Rose was among the New York media industry hosts at a party celebrating Scott’s environmental work—something Rose had asked Scott to discuss on the show, as the New York Times (10/23/06) noted. PBS ombud Michael Getler cautioned that Rose had “an obligation not to do anything that could be seen by viewers as even a possible conflict of interest, or as diminishing the integrity or credibility of public broadcasting.” Getler (10/23/06) later pointed out in his ombud column that the Times report on the controversy misrepresented the matter in its headline, “Interview and Then Dinner Crowd PBS’s Comfort Zone.” Actually, Getler noted, Rose’s corporate cheerleading didn’t seem to bother anyone else at PBS—though, as he put it, “I think it should have.”
Research by Krystle Manintveld.
‘I Don’t Know What Independent Means’
Amy Goodman: We need public media now. In a time of war we need independent reporting.
Charlie Rose: I don’t know what independent means—independent in contrast to what?
Goodman: It means not being sponsored by the corporations, the networks like CBS, ABC, NBC owned by General Electric—or CBS owned by Viacom or Disney is ABC.
Rose: Just a moment…. My point would be in response to that is we do need you, because you bring a quality of reporting and a quality of broadcasting, and more people ought to have access to the media in order for more voices reporting. Having said that, I promise you, CBS News and ABC News and NBC News are not influenced by the corporations that may own those companies. Since I know one of them very well and worked for one of them.
A Gift From Michael Bloomberg
After his show was launched by New York public station WNET and distributed by PBS, Charlie Rose received an offer in 1994 to move the show into a production facility owned by media mogul (and now New York City mayor) Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg’s commercial media company gives Rose a free studio and office space to produce a show bankrolled by large corporate interests and investment firms—which nevertheless remains a fixture on the nation’s “public” television system. The advantages of free facilities are clear for Rose, but there are some less obvious benefits for Bloomberg.
As noted in Fortune, at the time the deal was arranged, Bloomberg “understood that famous folk coming into his offices gave the growing company more visibility.” The New York Times reported (7/1/01) that Bloomberg has been known to be “star-struck”; a former public relations executive recalled that Bloomberg kept tabs on the show’s guestlist, and that he “would hang around if he wanted to meet the guest.”
It is difficult to imagine a billionaire media executive showing much interest “hanging around” a program that regularly featured guests who were not A-list celebrities, CEOs and high-profile establishment figures. Starting in 2009, Charlie Rose began re-airing on the Bloomberg Channel, which makes perfect sense. Why the show is still on public television is harder to fathom. —P.H.