Oct
01
2006

FAIR's Original 1990 NewsHour Study

[Note: This piece is a sidebar to "Are You on the NewsHour’s Guestlist?"]

Following FAIR’s landmark 1989 study of ABC’s Nightline, “Are You on the Nightline Guestlist?” (Extra!, 1-2/89), FAIR was urged to compare Nightline’s narrow, elite roster of guests with those of other news programs. In 1990, FAIR published a new study, “All the Usual Suspects: The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and Nightline,” which measured Nightline’s progress in diversifying its own guestlist and compared it to the guestlist of the NewsHour, then co-hosted by Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer.

To the surprise of some, FAIR found that the guestlist of the non-commercial NewsHour favored white, male conservative-leaning elites even more than did Nightline’s. Among FAIR’s 1990 findings:

  • On the NewsHour, 46 percent of its U.S. guests were current or former government officials, 38 percent were professional and 5 percent were corporate representatives, while just 6 percent of its guests represented public interest, labor or racial/ethnic groups.
  • On Nightline, 34 percent of its U.S. guests were current or former government officials, 39 percent were professional and 5 percent were corporate representatives, while only 10 percent of its guests represented public interest, labor, or racial/ethnic groups.

The racial/ethnic makeup of the two news programs’ guestlists was equally narrow:

  • Ninety percent of MacNeil/Lehrer’s U.S. guests were white and 87 percent were male. On programs about international issues, 94 percent of its U.S. guests were white and 94 percent were male. On domestic politics, 21 percent of its guests were women.
  • Eighty-nine percent of Nightline’s U.S. guests were white and 82 percent were male. On programs about international issues, 96 percent of its U.S. guests were white and 90 percent were male. On domestic politics, 26 percent of its guests were women.

Jeff Cohen, then FAIR’s executive director, summed up the study’s findings:

Public TV’s NewsHour is narrower, whiter, more male-dominated, more government-oriented and more conservative than Nightline. MacNeil/Lehrer’s virtual exclusion of public interest leaders is a sad commentary on public TV.

At the time, FAIR underlined the special responsibility the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour had as public broadcasting’s premier news show. We delivered a copy of the study to PBS’s president at the time, Bruce Christensen, with a cover note stating:

MacNeil/Lehrer’s narrow, pro-establishment guestlist mocks the original mandate of public television. The Carnegie Commission report that gave birth to PBS urged that public television “be a forum for debate and controversy” and “provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard” and “help us see America whole, in all its diversity.” On these points, public TV’s NewsHour has utterly failed. Much of MacNeil/Lehrer’s coverage—its selection of news makers and experts—is even narrower than commercial TV’s.

Please see the other sidebars to "Are You on the NewsHour’s Guestlist?": "Brooks and Shields" and "Live vs. Taped Sources."