A FAIR study of PBS’s flagship news show
A new FAIR study of the PBS NewsHour finds that public television’s flagship news program continues to feature sources drawn largely from a narrow range of elite white male experts. The study, the third FAIR has conducted of the NewsHour since 1990, documents a pattern of failure by the PBS news show to fulfill the mission of public television to provide a broader, more inclusive alternative to commercial news programs.
The 1967 Carnegie Commission Report on public television, which spawned 1967’s Public Broadcasting Act and gave birth to PBS, suggested that public television “should be a forum for debate and controversy” and called on the medium to “provide a voice for groups in the community that may be otherwise unheard” and to “help us see America whole, in all its diversity.”
In 1990, when FAIR first studied the NewsHour (then called the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour), we cited public TV’s mission, the program’s longer format and its aversion to sensationalism as reasons we thought it might offer a broader spectrum of views than commercial television news shows.
However, the study (Extra!, Winter/90), published alongside a study of ABC’s Nightline for purposes of comparison, found the opposite:
When FAIR revisited the NewsHour in a 2006 study (Extra!, 9-10/06), we found little change in its elite-leaning guestlist. PBS ombud Michael Getler (PBS.org, 10/6/06) concluded from FAIR’s 2006 study that the NewsHour staff “probably need to do better” at diversifying their guest list. Unfortunately, the NewsHour seems to have made little effort in that direction.
FAIR’s new study of the NewsHour examined the program’s guestlist over a two-month period spanning May and June 2010. We recorded every on-air source appearing on the show, including live and taped guests, for a total of 1,006 sources appearing in 245 segments. The 813 taped sources were 81 percent of the total.
Each source was classified by occupation, nationality, gender and ethnicity. Party affiliation for politicians and association with political think tanks were noted where applicable.
As in our 2006 NewsHour study, five elite occupations dominated in number of appearances. Current and former government officials, including military officials, continued to have the greatest representation, accounting for 44 percent of total sources. This was down from 50 percent in 2006.
Corporate voices, ranging from multinational CEOs to small business owners, doubled from 2006 to 10 percent; journalists and think tank experts held steady at 10 percent and 3 percent, respectively. Academic sources dropped to 7 percent from 8 percent in 2006. These five occupations totaled 742 sources, or 74 percent of the program’s 2010 total.
The NewsHour’s five most frequent individual sources all came from these elite categories: Government officials President Barack Obama (34 appearances), Admiral Allen (17) of the U.S. Coast Guard and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (10), corporate officer Doug Suttles (11) of BP and journalist Marcia Coyle (10) of the National Law Journal. With the exception of Coyle, these sources appeared primarily in taped segments.
Among guests in live segments, journalists dominated the ranks. The top guests in live segments were Coyle (with 10 appearances, she was the only source to appear in the top five live segments in both the 2006 and current studies), Mark Shields of NewsHour (8), David Brooks of the New York Times (8) and Amy Walters of NPR (4). Dan Balz of the Washington Post tied for fifth place with the most frequently appearing non-journalist, Admiral Allen; Balz and Allen each had three live appearances.
Public interest advocates—sources representing civil rights, labor, consumer, environmental and other citizen-based advocacy groups—provided just 4 percent of the NewsHour’s guests (43 appearances). Despite their comparatively few numbers, these sources represented a range of perspectives, from environmental groups like the National Wildlife Federation, international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and conservative advocacy organizations including Freedom Works and the National Rifle Association. With 13 sources, human rights/humanitarian groups were the largest subset of public interest groups. Representatives of environmental organizations were the next largest subset, with 10 appearances.
The public interest representatives who might best serve as a counterweight to the 10 percent of NewsHour sources who were corporate voices—sources representing labor, environmental groups and consumer rights organizations—combined for only 2 percent of the NewsHour’s guestlist with 16 appearances. Three sources were labor representatives, one of whom was a member of a union in Greece.
The general public—such as workers, students and persons on the street—accounted for 16 percent (164 sources) of appearances, up from 14 percent in 2006. The remaining 6 percent (those not counted among the general public, public interest advocates or the elite groupings) consisted of a variety of sources, including artists, actors and healthcare professionals.
As 201 sources, or 20 percent of the total, women continue to be dramatically underrepresented on the NewsHour. This number has been slowly rising, from just 13 percent in 1990 and 18 percent in 2006.
Not only did women appear one-fourth as often as men, they were three times more likely to be “general public” sources instead of experts: 30 percent of women represented the general public, versus only 12 percent of men. Women were slightly more likely to appear live, representing 26 percent of in-studio guests.
The proportion of female sources varied significantly across subjects. In discussions of economics, military affairs, terrorism and foreign policy, the proportion of women declined to 18 percent of sources. On the subject of education, women accounted for only four of 12 sources. This marks a decrease from our 2006 study, when women accounted for just over 50 percent of sources in education stories. Women outnumbered men 55 percent to 45 percent in discussions of health-related topics, including healthcare reform, obesity and malnutrition.
White sources continued to dominate at the NewsHour, though as with women’s appearances, the percentage of people of color has risen over the years. Non-Hispanic whites accounted for 82 percent of U.S. sources, down from 85 percent in 2006 and 90 percent in 1990. White males, who make up 32 percent of the U.S. population, provided 67 percent of U.S. sources, down from 72 percent in 2006. But while percentages of women and people of color both increased slightly, appearances by women of color actually decreased by a third, accounting for only 4 percent of U.S. sources. (Women of color make up 18 percent of the U.S. population.)
Latinos represented only 1 percent of U.S. sources, down from 2 percent in 2006, even as their percentage of the population increased from 12 to 15 percent. Asian-Americans represented 3 percent and people of Mideastern descent represented 1 percent. Eleven percent of U.S. sources were African-American, up from 9 percent in 2006 and nearly matching their proportion of the U.S. population (12 percent). Forty-two percent of those appearances, however, were by a single person, Barack Obama. Without the president, African-Americans would have represented only 6 percent of U.S. sources.
People of color were more likely than whites to appear as general public sources and less likely to appear as authorities on the NewsHour. Of U.S. sources, people of color constituted 28 percent of general public sources but only 15 percent of authoritative sources. People of color appeared even less frequently among NewsHour’s more extensive live interviews, representing just 10 percent of live U.S. sources, with women of color at 3 percent. In segments about organized crime and gangs, people of color accounted for 36 percent of U.S. sources.
In FAIR’s 2006 study, when Republicans controlled the White House and Congress, their politicians outnumbered Democrats on the show by 2 to 1 (66 percent vs. 33 percent of all partisan sources). While this was partly attributable to the NewsHour’s heavy reliance on taped soundbites from administration officials, Republicans outnumbered Democrats among live guests as well by a 3 to 2 ratio.
This year, with Democrats controlling the White House and Congress, the overall numbers have reversed: Democratic sources outnumbered Republicans on the NewsHour by nearly 2 to 1 (61 percent vs. 36 percent of all partisan sources). However, the reversal was not complete: Among live segments, Republicans still dominated, accounting for 55 percent, while Democrats provided only 35 percent. (Ten percent worked for both parties.)
Eight sources worked for both Democrats and Republicans, making up 3 percent of all partisan sources. There were no third-party partisan sources, but there was a single appearance by an independent, Sen. Joseph Lieberman.
Think tanks provided only 3 percent of the NewsHour’s total sources; however, they contributed 14 percent of live sources. Fully half of think tank sources were from right-leaning groups. With just four sources (13 percent), left-leaning think tanks were outnumbered by right-leaning ones 4 to 1. This disparity doubled from the 2006 study, when right outnumbered left 2 to 1. Centrist think tanks constituted 37 percent of sources, down from 44 percent in 2006.
The most frequently featured think tank on the NewsHour was the centrist Brookings Institution, which provided five sources. Second place was a 3-way tie between the conservative Center for Strategic & International Studies, the conservative Peterson Institute for International Economics and the centrist New America Foundation, with three appearances each.
Issues in the News
BP Oil Spill
More segments (54) were dedicated to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico than to any other story in the study period—roughly one out of every five segments. Corporate sources (ranging from multinationals to small businesses) accounted for 18 percent of the total, while sources representing environmental organizations made up just 3 percent of appearances. Testimony from BP and other oil companies accounted for 13 percent, meaning viewers were over four times more likely to hear from an oil industry representative than someone representing environmental organizations. Though dramatically unbalanced, these numbers are an improvement compared with NewsHour’s coverage of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, in which not a single environmentalist was featured in the seven spill segments reviewed in FAIR’s 1990 study (Extra!, Winter/90).
Among total partisan sources in oil spill segments, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 57 to 38, though most of these were brief taped clips. Among live, longer format appearances, Republicans outnumbered Democrats 6 to 3. Though these sample sizes are small, they mirror the pattern of the NewsHour overall, featuring more Republicans than Democrats as in-studio sources.
The study’s time frame probably understates the NewsHour’s reliance on corporate sources to cover the spill. Greenpeace’s Kert Davies, appearing on the NewsHour on the first day of the study (5/3/10), was the first environmental advocate brought on to discuss the spill, which began two weeks earlier (4/20/10).
Ten percent of NewsHour segments (24) concerned the war in Afghanistan. Of the 60 guests appearing in these segments, 70 percent were current or former government and military officials. Although public opinion has consistently opposed the Afghan War for over a year (PollingReport.com), public television’s primetime news show featured no guest identified as an opponent of the war or expressing antiwar views. (One guest, historian and retired Col. Andrew Bacevich—6/15/10—though known as an opponent of the war, appeared only to analyze the Obama administration’s military strategy.) Also missing from NewsHour’s guestlist were sources representing human rights or humanitarian groups, or the U.S. general public.
Only three sources on Afghanistan (5 percent) were women. Of U.S. sources, Barack Obama, think tank analyst Zalmay Khalilzad, and Washington Post editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran were the only people of color.
The NewsHour’s discussions of the firing of U.S. Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his replacement by Gen. David Petraeus demonstrated the hazards of excluding representatives of the U.S. antiwar majority. McChrystal’s firing followed a Rolling Stone exposé (6/22/10) that disclosed criticism and insults McChrystal and his staff had aimed at various administration figures. More importantly, however, the exposé revealed that the military was far more pessimistic about the war than officials publicly admit.
The NewsHour devoted 10 segments with 35 sources to the story—exploring the wisdom of the personnel decisions, what they would mean politically, for morale and for the continuity of the war. But not a single antiwar guest was featured, and there was virtually no discussion of the exposé’s more fundamentally damning revelations or the wisdom of continuing to fight the war.
The live, long-format interview segments featured 14 guests, including pro-war neo-cons (such as Eliot Cohen and Kimberly Kagan), military officials (like generals Merrill McPeak and Dan McNeill) and Washington, D.C., media insiders (Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, Time Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson). Jessica Mathews (6/23/10) of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace voiced a typically pro-status quo opinion, praising the firing and hiring decisions, in part because they wouldn’t affect the direction of the war at all:
The NewsHour featured seven segments on the Mideast conflict, with 32 guests. All of the segments dealt with either the blockade of Gaza or the Israeli raid on a Turkish flotilla attempting to break the blockade to bring aid to Palestinians. Eleven Israeli sources were featured, all current or former government or military officials, while just two Palestinian sources appeared (one current and and one former official). There were seven Turkish sources, including five official sources, one flotilla passenger and one human rights advocate. In addition, U.S. Free Gaza activist Adam Shapiro (5/31/10) was interviewed, paired with Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren.
The truncated nature of the NewsHour’s Mideast discussions was illustrated by the program’s June 2 examination of the legality of Israel’s flotilla raid, featuring legal experts Ruth Wedgwood of Johns Hopkins University and Northwestern’s Anthony D’Amato. Wedgwood defended the raid at sea, while D’Amato said Israel should have boarded and searched the flotilla when it reached port in Gaza: “Israelis had a right to wait on the beaches, as they first tried to do, actually, and wait for those ships to come in…. Then they could say, we now want to search you because you might be carrying contraband.”
The views of those who oppose the Gaza blockade itself were missing from this “debate”—as with so many NewsHour discussions where the panel conforms with a narrow Washington-insider consensus, but fails to represent the broad range of American public opinion.
Research by Alex Kane, Krystle Manintveld and Zachary Tomanelli.
Updated version: October 19, 2010.