Mar 1 2003

CNN’s Reliably Narrow Sources

Media show's exclusive guestlist reinforces biases

In a nation where news media are criticized from every imaginable direction, it’s reasonable to assume that a media criticism show would include guests offering a wide range of critical viewpoints. With that in mind, FAIR took a look at CNN‘s Reliable Sources, studying its guestlist to see how many critical voices were heard on the program that claims to “turn a critical lens on the media.”

Airing weekly for more than a decade, Reliable Sources is hosted by Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz. Built around guest interviews, with an average of three or four guests each week, the show also features a weekly commentary by its original anchor, journalist and former Reagan administration spokesperson Bernard Kalb.

Covering one year of weekly programs (12/1/01-11/30/02) with 203 guests, the FAIR study found Reliable Sources‘ guestlist strongly favored mainstream media insiders and right-leaning pundits. In addition, female critics were significantly underrepresented, ethnic minority voices were almost non-existent and progressive voices were far outnumbered by their conservative counterparts.

FAIR classified each guest by ethnicity and gender, and by their status as a media “insider” or “outsider”–with “insider” denoting employees of mainstream U.S. news outlets. Sources with identifiably right-of-center or left-of-center views were coded by ideology. Sources who espoused a centrist perspective, or whose political viewpoint could not be determined, were not coded by ideology.

Reliable insiders

The most striking thing about Reliable Sources‘ guestlist is how dominated by mainstream journalists it is: Three out of four (76 percent) of Reliable Sources’ guests were media insiders, journalists working for mainstream U.S. news organizations. The remaining 24 percent included guests from opinion journals, the academy, the international press and independent Internet publications.

While any broad-ranging discussion of media ought to include mainstream journalists, the independent perspectives of scholars, activists and citizens whose communities are reported on and affected by news media also deserve to be heard–and it’s doubtful that the diverse perspectives of such sources can be represented by only 24 percent of the guests. With a large majority of Reliable Sources‘ guests depending on media corporations for their livelihoods, the show’s guestlist makes it unlikely that many hard-hitting criticisms of the news industry itself will be heard.

More guests were drawn from the host’s two employers–the Washington Post (24 guests) and CNN (22 guests)–than from any other mainstream media outlets. Newsweek, another property owned by the Post, provided 11 guests, followed by Time (7), the New York Times (6) and New York Magazine (6). When opinion journals–whose employees were not counted as media insiders–are included, the outlet that provided the third-highest number of guests was the conservative National Review, with 12 appearances.

With 35 right-leaning guests and 16 from the left (69 percent vs. 31 percent), the right had a better than 2 to 1 advantage. Right-wing syndicated talk show host Laura Ingraham appeared seven times, more frequently than any other guest; the second-most prominent guest (6 appearances) was conservative National Review editor Rich Lowry. (The third most frequent guest was Time‘s Karen Tumulty, with five appearances.)

Reliable Sources‘ conservative guests not only appeared more often than their progressive counterparts, they tended to be more staunchly ideological; many are avowed activists and campaigners for the conservative movement, like talkshow host Rush Limbaugh or Jay Nordlinger and Byron York of the National Review.

New York Times columnist Frank Rich and internet blogger Joshua Micah Marshall of were the most frequent left-of-center guests, with three spots each. No other left-leaning guest appeared more than once in the year studied. Reliable Sources drew no guests from National Review‘s progressive counterparts–magazines like In These Times, the Progressive or the Nation.

New frontiers in homogeneity

White guests outnumbered all others on Reliable Sources, 194 to 9, making the show’s guest roster 96 percent white. To put it another way, 33 percent more guests were employees of National Review than were people of color. This guestlist was perhaps the most ethnically homogeneous of any FAIR has ever studied; by comparison, PBS‘s NewsHour had a U.S. guestlist that was 90 percent white (Extra!, Winter/90); the guests of Fox‘s Special Report were 93 percent white (Extra!, 7-8/01).

Of the show’s nine non-white guests, three were African-American and three were Latino. With each group representing about 13 percent of total U.S. population, they provided slightly more than 1 percent apiece of Reliable Sources guests. The show featured one appearance by an Asian-American; no Native American guest appeared during the year studied.

Two shows included an Arab viewpoint; in both cases the guest was Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of the Lebanese daily As-Safir. In a year in which Arab-Americans figured prominently in the news, when news media were criticized by some for contributing to an atmosphere of hostility to Arabs and Muslims, Reliable Sources featured no Arab-American guests.

Given that surveys of newsroom staffing and of mainstream coverage routinely show U.S. journalism to be dominated by white voices and stories, the near invisibility of ethnic minority viewpoints on a show that professes to address media fairness is conspicuous.

Women, like ethnic minorities, have been traditionally underrepresented in mainstream U.S. journalism. If Reliable Sources addressed the gender imbalance question, you couldn’t tell by its guest list. Reliable Sources preferred male guests (155) to females (48); a greater than three to one margin (76 percent to 24 percent.)

And what about public interest voices? Citizens’ groups, many of which have concerns about media coverage and its effects on their communities, received no representation at all on Reliable Sources during the year studied.

An example, not an examination

When a debate over media is limited to a narrow group largely consisting of media insiders, views held by large numbers of people will likely be left unvoiced. Concerns about how media underrepresents women and people of color, for example, are unlikely to get prominent attention in a forum that mirrors, and indeed exaggerates, that underrepresentation.

Criticisms of the way the U.S. media system is structured, with its emphasis on corporate profit and its reliance on advertising revenue, are particularly unlikely to be addressed by Reliable Sources–both because the critics from the left who are most likely to raise such issues are such a small minority, and because the bulk of the guests are media insiders who depend upon that system for their bread and butter.

On several critical questions of media fairness and inclusion, then, Reliable Sources serves less as a vehicle for examining the media order than as an example of how media fail to provide a forum for an open, wide-ranging debate.

Research assistance: Peter Brogan