Lack of balance at C-SPAN’s Washington Journal
Since 1979, C-SPAN has provided an invaluable service to viewers with its no-frills coverage of congressional hearings, press briefings, demonstrations, book readings and other political events. By presenting public affairs with a minimal intrusion by hosts or reporters, C-SPAN has gained a reputation as a frictionless conveyer of raw political information to the public.
In 2005, C-SPAN celebrated the 25th anniversary of the first-ever nationally televised viewer call-in shows, a format that it introduced in October 1980. By January 1995, it launched Washington Journal, a political talkshow that C-SPAN now describes as its “flagship viewer call-in program.”
Airing seven mornings a week, usually three hours per day, Washington Journal generally features a host, guests and viewer calls. Guests usually appear one at a time, though they are occasionally paired. C-SPAN’s “open phone” segments also allow callers a chance to voice a broad spectrum of opinions with no guests present.
Washington Journal’s reputation for maintaining a low-key atmosphere for serious discussion is matched by its image of fairness. The New York Times (12/15/96) once described C-SPAN as “the politically neutral public-affairs cable channel,” and NPR’s Mike Pesca (On the Media, 4/6/02) declared that balance was the key to the network’s success: “This bare-bones, aggressively evenhanded format is why C-SPAN was founded and probably why 8 million people a week watch Washington Journal.”
C-SPAN doesn’t disagree. “Balance is our No. 1 goal,” Peter Slen, Washington Journal’s executive producer and part-time host, told On the Media, adding: “We keep official stats on the Washington Journal, OK? Republicans, Democrats, conservative, liberal, moderates—we try to stay within the week nearly perfect as far as the balance goes.”
To test C-SPAN’s claims of fairness, Extra! studied Washington Journal’s guestlist, tabulating all 663 guests that appeared on the show in the six-month period from November 1, 2004 to April 30, 2005. Guests were classified by gender, ethnicity, party affiliation (if any) and occupation. The study also looked at the think tanks most prominently represented on the show.
Despite C-SPAN’s stated goals, Extra!’s study found Washington Journal skewing rightward, favoring Republican and right-of-center interview subjects by considerable margins over Democratic and left-of-center guests. The study also found that women, people of color and public interest viewpoints were substantially underrepresented.
Overall, people of European ancestry made up 85 percent of Washington Journal’s guestlist—563 out of 663. (Extra! was able to identify the ethnic background of more than 99 percent of guests.) People of African (26) and Asian (24) heritage accounted for 4 percent each, while those of Middle Eastern (22) and Latin American (18) descent represented 3 percent each. No Native Americans were identifiable on the guestlist from November 1, 2004 to April 30, 2005.
Looking just at U.S. guests with identifiable ethnicities (617 in all), European-Americans were even better represented, at 88 percent. African-Americans and Latinos held steady at 4 percent and 3 percent, respectively. Americans of Middle Eastern descent and Asian-Americans were each about 1 percent of guests. According to the U.S. Census, about 70 percent of Americans are white and non-Latino; about 12 percent each are Latinos of all races, and non-Latino African-Americans; about 4 percent are Asian-American and 1 percent are Native American. (Middle Eastern descent is not a census category.)
On gender, Washington Journal was even more imbalanced when compared to the general population, with a guestlist that was 80 percent male (533 guests) and 20 percent female (130), a four-to-one imbalance. Furthermore, 69 percent of guests were white males (457), while just 3 percent were women of color.
The study did not include a regular feature of Washington Journal called “Capitol Hill Stories,” which featured news updates and analysis with a political journalist. These guests were not included in the study because their appearances were much shorter than those of other guests—usually no more than a few minutes, compared to at least a half hour for a regular guest. In total, however, these segments added up to a substantial amount of content, and they usually involved one of three reporters—Vaughn Ververs and Chuck Todd, both of The Hotline, and Timothy Curran of Roll Call. If these segments had been included in the study, the findings would have skewed even more white and male.
Party affiliation was only noted for guests who had served as government officials, candidates, party functionaries or political advisors—what we called “partisan guests.” Subjects who had affiliations with more than one party (e.g., Dennis Ross, a political appointee of both Democratic and Republican administrations) were labeled as non-partisan.
Out of the 205 partisan guests, Republicans outnumbered Democrats nearly two to one (134 to 70): Republicans accounted for 65 percent of Washington Journal’s partisan guests, while Democrats made up 34 percent. No representative of a third party appeared during the study period.
Elected officials who appeared on Washington Journal were slightly more balanced than overall partisan guests. Of the 97 elected officials appearing on the show (senators and House members), 58 were Republican and 39 were Democrat—a 60 to 40 percent imbalance in favor of the GOP.
One might reasonably expect Republicans to moderately outnumber Democrats at a time when the GOP controls the White House and both houses of Congress, but a nearly two to one advantage is hard to justify—particularly in the wake of the national election that concluded in the first week of the study period with the Republican candidate receiving 51 percent of the popular vote. That election gave the Republicans control of 53 percent of the House and 55 percent of the Senate.
Journalists accounted for nearly a third of all guests (215, or 32 percent), the largest single occupational group on Washington Journal’s guestlist. The establishment-oriented Washington Post, with 20 journalists appearing as guests, was the most visible outlet, followed by the Capitol Hill-focused Congressional Quarterly with 12 and the right-leaning Washington Times with 10. USA Today and Time each provided eight guests, while five represented the Christian Science Monitor.
Despite its declaration of balance, the Washington Journal hosted journalists from right-leaning opinion magazines more often than it did those from the left. For instance, the conservative Weekly Standard furnished three guests, as did the like-minded National Review (including National Review Online). Only two guests from the liberal American Prospect were invited on the Journal, and only one guest from the left-leaning Nation.
When opinion journalists from all outlets were included, the right-leaning bias was nearly as strong: 32 right-of-center journalists appeared, vs. 19 left-of-center reporters (even counting editor Peter Beinart, the New Republic’s pro-war editor, as being on the left). Perhaps this tilt to the right could be rationalized if right-wing magazines were distinctly more popular than their counterparts on the left, but the reverse seems to be true; Mother Jones and The Nation both best National Review’s circulation numbers by a wide margin, and The Progressive outsells the Weekly Standard and American Spectator.
Given this pattern, it’s not surprising that right-of-center and centrist think-tanks dominated Washington Journal’s 75 think-tank guest slots during the study period. The conservative American Enterprise Institute and the centrist Carnegie Endowment for International Peace were the best-represented think tanks, providing 10 guests each. The centrist Brookings Institution had seven guests, followed by the Heritage Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, two conservative groups whose experts each appeared five times. Among left-leaning think tanks, only the Center for International Policy provided as many as two guests.
Although they could serve as a valuable corrective to the show’s elite-skewed guestlist, citizen-based organizations and public interest groups accounted for just 9 percent of total guests on Washington Journal, with 57 appearances. Despite its relatively small size, this category did much to increase the ideological diversity of the program, with guests spanning the political spectrum from Club for Growth, the Family Research Council and the Independent Women’s Forum on the right, to Public Citizen, the Alliance for Justice and the National Women’s Law Center on the left.
While corporate representatives made up a small group of Washington Journal guests (24, or 4 percent), the number of guests who might have provided a balance to corporate views were even less. Union representatives, environmentalists and consumer rights groups accounted for just six guest appearances, or 1 percent of the total.
C-SPAN has taken conscientious steps to address bias in the past. According to the Baltimore Sun (3/5/01), when C-SPAN consultant and University of Maryland professor John Splaine noticed that the network fielded a disproportionate number of calls from conservatives, it set up separate call-in lines for Democrats, Republicans and independents.
There’s no reason that the network can’t address the imbalances in its guestlist in the same spirit—if balance really is the No. 1 goal.
Research assistance provided by Kieran Krug-Meadows, Iman Kahn and Kari Hensley.
Please also see the sidebar to this article: Face-Off