Sep 1 2004

I’m Not a Leftist, But I Play One on TV

Progressives excluded as right battles center

In a July appearance on CNN ‘s Paula Zahn Now , conservative pundit John Fund inadvertently captured the absurd state of American television debate as he faced off with centrist columnist Matthew Miller:

Matt and I both agree that gay marriage is a mistake for slightly different reasons.

Such debates, spanning the spectrum from A to B, are a television staple. But the narrowness of these pundit mismatches isn’t random. Though such debate segments purport to pit right against left, centrist pundits are routinely substituted for the left on panels, while progressives are often excluded altogether.

Debates matching conservatives with centrists are a cable television tic so pervasive that a small army of centrist pundits has formed whose motto might as well be, “I’m not a leftist but I play one on TV.”

By many measures, progressive opinion holds its own and by some measures even surpasses conservative opinion in popularity (see sidebar), so there is no reasonable rationale for excluding progressives while showcasing conservatives and centrists. Yet it happens regularly.

“A good debate”

A “Hot Topics” segment about Iraq War issues on News From CNN (4/20/04) found anchor Wolf Blitzer pitting pro-war conservative Armstrong Williams against… pro-war centrist Peter Beinart, the editor of the New Republic magazine. The two differed on subordinate issues, such as whether the White House was too close to the Saudis (Beinart said yes, Williams said no), but there was no disagreement on the legitimacy of the war or occupation.

At one point in the discussion, perhaps concerned that his appearing opposite the hawkish Williams might mislead people about his own support for the war, Beinart seemed compelled to enunciate his position: “Look, we supported—my magazine supported the war in Iraq. We still support the war in Iraq.” The segment ended with Blitzer declaring it “a good debate.”

Not that there aren’t valid points to be debated between the center and the right, just as there are valid disagreements between the left and the center. However, right-vs.-center discussions are the norm on TV news shows, while left-vs.-center debates-indeed, left-vs.-anyone debates—are rare.

A perusal of TV discussion programs reveals a common pattern: Conservative guests espousing views from the right wing of the Republican Party square off with centrists advocating positions from the right wing of the Democratic Party. Since conservative Republicans and centrist Democrats both tend to be corporate-friendly, such face-offs may be pleasing to television’s owners and sponsors, but leaving the left out of the debate is bad news for democratic discourse.

Bambi vs. Godzilla

The Fox cable network takes the concept of the lopsided debate to an extreme, with ravenous right-wingers devouring timid moderates and calling them liberals. The debate show Hannity & Colmes is the model: Conservative host Hannity plays God-zilla to liberal host Colmes’ Bambi (Extra! , 11-12/03). And the conservative and (more or less) liberal guests appearing on the show generally follow suit.

After Al Gore’s speech in June faulting the Bush administration for the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, a fuming Hannity framed a segment on Gore thusly: “Has the vanquished vice president lost all control?” In a discussion more about Gore’s speaking style than his substance, right-wing guest Ann Coulter took up Hannity’s theme, calling Gore “crazy” and “nuts.”

Happily for his conservative opponents, Colmes’ tepid defense of Gore kept the focus on the question of the former vice president’s sanity: “I still don’t think he’s nuts. I think he’s fired up. I think he’s angry.” While the left guest, Democratic strategist Marianne Marsh, began by mildly defending Gore’s speech, she quickly joined in the criticism of his performance: “I wouldn’t give him big style points. . . . I don’t agree with his style.” When Coulter sarcastically suggested Hannity & Colme s should play Gore’s speech repeatedly and “let Marianne come on and say how reasonable he is,” Marsh snapped, “I did not use the word reasonable.” Such was the “left” defense of a liberal speech by Al Gore on Fox ‘s Hannity & Colmes .

A CNN specialty

Though lopsided debates can be found all over the television dial, CNN , the original cable news channel, pioneered cable pundit mismatches. In his new book, The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy, David Brock suggests the die was cast early. Shortly after its launch in 1980, according to Brock, CNN hired 10 commentators; five were forceful conservatives and two were strong liberals. The remaining three were less political: a “mildly liberal but nonpartisan” historian, a pop psychologist and an astrologer.

The center-right cable format was born in 1982 with the premiere of CNN ‘s Crossfire. Explicitly marketed as a primetime face-off between one host “from the right” and another “from the left,” with corresponding guests from each side, Crossfire set the standard for debates pitting proxy progressives against committed conservatives (see Extra!, 7-8/90). The show’s original hosts: from the right, arch-conservative presidential aide Pat Buchanan, and from the left, Tom Braden—whose CIA career included supervising covert operations against Western Europe’s left. Crossfire guest Timothy Leary once described the show’s spectrum as “the left wing of the CIA debating the right wing of the CIA” (Rolling Stone , 12/14/89). New Republic editor and self-described “wishy-washy moderate” Michael Kinsley (American Journalism Review, 1-2/96) followed Braden into Crossfire ‘s left seat.

Crossfire‘s “from the left” job is currently shared by Democratic political consultants Paul Begala and James Carville. Though more combative than previous Crossfire hosts, the two are best known for directing Bill Clinton’s centrist presidential campaign. Begala cheers his former boss for turning the party right, away from its traditional liberal base (Meet the Press, 4/11/99): “You know, Bill Clinton saved the Democratic Party with Al Gore by pulling us back to the center, by disagreeing with the liberals on welfare reform and on crime and on trade.”

Carville has similar praise for Clinton’s centrism (CNBC, 2/23/00): “What he did was a political feat that is unmatched in American political history. He moved the Democratic Party to the center… and kept the core Democratic voters.”

Carville’s client list raises even more questions about his qualifications as a progressive pundit. He served as a political gun-for-hire for conservative Greek Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis in a losing 1993 campaign against socialist Andreas Papandreou (London Times, 10/30/93.) And Carville worked for the Venezuelan opposition in its recent failed attempt to oust President Hugo Chavez, a left-wing populist, in a recall referendum (New York Times, 4/18/04.)

A glimpse of real dissent

Simply citing one right-vs.-center segment after another doesn’t capture the full effect of these pundit mismatches. Debates in which the left is left out are by definition exclusionary; the problem is largely in what isn’t said, the viewpoints that aren’t aired. Seeing the rare authentic full-spectrum debate, an actual right-vs.-left face off, is a reminder of just how stunted most TV debates are.

A rare CNN debate over Iraq (CNN Sunday Night, 6/27/04) pitted progressive foreign policy expert Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies against former Republican National Committee communications director Cliff May. A forceful opponent of the Iraq War, Bennis called the occupation “illegal” and questioned whether the impending transfer of sovereignty had any meaning as long as the U.S. maintained a military presence and controlled the money needed for the Iraq’s reconstruction:

The U.S. occupation authority is not going away. And the fact that we’re calling it a transition of new sovereignty doesn’t mean that sovereignty is going to be real with all the amount of power that the U.S. is going to be maintaining.

But rare appearances by actual progressives such as Bennis are the exception, not the rule. At CNN, the practice of using centrists as stand-ins for the left has become so institutionalized that the cable channel has developed its own stable of non-progressives to fill the demand.

Progressive imposters

New Republic magazine editor Peter Beinart regularly criticizes Democrats for leaning left; he led his magazine to endorse Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the most conservative Democratic candidate in the primaries. Beinart has been a forceful cheerleader for the Iraq war and occupation, and freely plays the patriotism card against those he considers too far to the left. Shortly after September 11, 2001, Beinart (New Republic, 9/24/01) said of progressive globalization activists planning protests in Washington, D.C.: “This nation is now at war. And in such an environment, domestic political dissent is immoral without a prior statement of national solidarity, a choosing of sides.”

Beinart’s well-argued views qualify him as an able debater—from the center, or perhaps even from the center-right on foreign policy issues. However, Beinart has virtually nothing to recommend him for the left chair in left-vs.-right debates, except perhaps for his editorship of a magazine that was decades ago a bastion of liberal opinion, but now sits near the center of American politics. (See Not Even the New Republic, (Extra! , 9-10/04.)

Beinart is frequently matched with Wall Street Journal editorialist John Fund on CNN ‘s Paula Zahn Now , and he’s played the left role on other CNN shows opposite other reliably right-wing commentators, including Jonah Goldberg (News from CNN, 5/14/04), Brent Bozell III (Paula Zahn Now, 5/5/04) and Armstrong Williams (News from CNN, 4/20/04).

Centrism = sanity

Like Beinart, Time magazine columnist Joe Klein is an opinionated and high-profile debater. But his avowedly centrist views poorly qualify him as a counterbalance to movement conservatives on TV. Closely allied with Beinart’s brand of centrism, Klein (Time, 1/7/04) praised the New Republic‘s primary endorsement of Lieberman, describing the magazine as representing “the moderate center, sane, part of the Democratic party. A wing of the party that is totally in eclipse this year, unfortunately.”

In a Time column (5/31/04) headlined “Fighting for the Soul of the Democrats,” Klein lamented the fact that Al From and his corporate sponsored centrist group, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), had become marginalized within the party for attacking anti-war Democrats like Howard Dean. Noting that a younger and less abrasive centrist group, the New Democrat Network, was gaining prominence in the party, Klein wistfully recalled the DLC in better times, when it provided the “intellectual muscle” for the Clinton White House and helped push the party rightward by “gleefully assault[ing] the reactionary left-the trade unions and bureaucrats who had a stake in the old system.” He wrote approvingly of DLC calls for “fiscal responsibility (and free trade)” and “tough-minded welfare reform.” Klein noted From’s fall from favor with “a certain sadness” before concluding, “The Democratic Party needs him. But perhaps not this year.”

Klein appears again and again opposite rock-ribbed conservatives; Bush campaigner and former Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clarke is a favorite Klein opponent. Both were hired as CNN contributors at the same time last fall, and over one six-month period, between September 2003 and February 2004, they squared off 11 times on Paula Zahn Now . Klein’s other conservative partners are familiar and unapologetic conservatives: John Fund (Paula Zahn Now, 4/9/04), Republican strategist Ed Rollins (Paula Zahn Now , 2/26/04) and Jonah Goldberg (Paula Zahn Now, 2/13/04).

On the March 29 Paula Zahn Now , Klein was the sole balance for not one but two right-wingers, discussing National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s September 11 Commission testimony with both conservative Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions and conservative Wall Street Journal editor John Fund.

In April, Klein ventured beyond even DLC territory, writing in Time (4/12/04) that “the ideal step” for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry “would be to make [Republican Sen.] John McCain his choice for vice president and announce a government of national reconciliation composed of moderate Democrats and Republicans.”

While it’s a perfectly legitimate centrist opinion, one would think calling for Democrats to place a Republican on their national ticket would disqualify a pundit from the “left” chair in television debates. (McCain may be a quirky conservative, deviating from the right’s line on issues such as campaign finance and telecommunications policy, but he’s no moderate. The Voteview system, which sorts legislators mathematically based on how often they vote with other conservatives or liberals, finds that McCain is the fourth-most conservative senator.)

While centrists like Klein frequently represent the left on television debates, the reverse situation is almost unthinkable. One could only imagine the outcry from conservatives if their most prominent pundits routinely called for Republicans to run away from the GOP base, or encouraged George W. Bush to choose a quirky Democrat like former Sen. Bob Kerrey as his running mate.

“Tony Blair Democrat”

Columnist Matthew Miller is another prominent stand-in for the left. His appearances onNews from CNN include spots opposite conservative National Review columnist Robert George (2/20/04), Republican pollster Kelly-anne Conway (12/23/03) and right-wing ranter Ann Coulter (12/12/03). Despite what these pairings imply, Miller is no left-wing equivalent to the likes of Conway and Coulter. A former senior editor of the centrist New Republic who describes himself as a “Tony Blair Democrat” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/25/03), Miller espouses a political agenda he calls “radical centrism.”

“What American politics urgently needs,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year (9/4/03), “is not a new left, but a new center.” Miller co-hosts a syndicated radio show called Left, Right & Center, where he occupies the “center” position. Actual liberal Robert Kuttner (American Prospect , 12/03) described Miller’s brand of centrism as “a recipe for continued shifts to the right. It’s no surprise that Miller is emerging as the conservatives’ favorite liberal.”

Indeed, appearing on News From CNN (12/23/03) debating Conway, Miller demonstrated this appeal. When anchor Wolf Blitzer read a viewer email questioning the White House claim that Saddam Hussein’s capture made Americans safer, Conway dismissed the viewer as a probable Howard Dean voter and cited more conservative Democrats who agreed with the White House, adding: “I imagine honest Democrats, like Matt Miller, would admit that capturing Saddam has made Americans safer.”

Blitzer then put it to Miller: “Well, hold on. Let’s ask that honest Democrat.”

Miller responded: “I think capturing Saddam Hussein was a great thing. It’s made America safer, and it’s rid the world of this brutal tyrant.” After briefly noting the continued threat of terrorism, Miller ended his answer with a token feint toward criticism of the White House: “I think there are ways that you can criticize the Bush administration for not having done everything it needs to.”

Fox’s proxies

CNN isn’t alone in its use of proxy progressives. One of Fox‘s leading tepid liberals is attorney Susan Estrich. A Democrat, Estrich penned a USA Today column during the Clinton era (6/22/95) headlined “Let Clinton Be the Centrist Clinton.” More recently, she cheered the campaign of California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger, accepting a job working on his transition team when he won. Estrich has faced conservatives including Republican strategist Chris Horner (Hannity & Colmes, 5/14/04), former Sen. Al D’Amato (Hannity & Colmes , 4/13/04) and Bush advisor Charlie Black (Big Story , 1/24/04)

She frequently appears on Fox ‘s Hannity & Colmes. Hannity, whose typical treatment of progressives is famously nasty, more than once has called her his “favorite liberal,” as in this show-closing lovefest (5/23/04):

Hannity: Susan, it’s always a pleasure.

Estrich: Always a pleasure, Sean.

Hannity: My favorite liberal, Susan.

Estrich: My favorite conservative, Sean.

Unsurprisingly, Estrich fills in for “left” host Alan Colmes when he takes time off.

Broadcast bias

Broadcast news shows can stack the deck just like the cable channels. Conservative columnist George Will is a weekly presence on This Week with George Stephanopoulos on ABC , but he faces no regular counterpart from the left. The show does feature the occasional liberal guest, but the consistency of Will’s presence gives him and his ideas an air of normalcy unmatched by any progressive presence.

The Chris Matthews Show on NBC regularly features a four member panel made up mostly of reporters such as Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, Howard Fineman of Newsweek and Katty Kay of the BBC . The weekly Sunday morning show usually features at least one well-known conservative pundit as well—including such forceful conservatives as Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot and Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. (Some weeks the show features two conservatives; e.g., its April 4 broadcast included Andrew Sullivan and Laura Ingraham as panelists.)

But the show’s right-leaning guests rarely face forceful progressive opponents. In one recent two-month period (4/1/04-6/1/04), Matthews featured eight appearances by movement conservatives and only three by guests who even leaned left—moderately liberal Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page (twice) and Cynthia Tucker, columnist and Atlanta Journal & Constitution editorial page editor.

Conservatives vs. journalists

As Chris Matthews’ broadcast program shows, there are many ways to shuffle the format in order to exclude or downplay authentic progressive voices. Another variant of the mismatched pundit format pits conservatives—either activists or opinion journalists—against straight news reporters. These pairings are inevitably unfair, since the conservatives are free to be as opinionated as they like, while news reporters are restrained by the need to appear impartial. (Of course, asserting a centrist opinion isn’t likely to get you in trouble with your boss, while taking a strong progressive stand might.)

Debates pitting mainstream journalists against progressives, meanwhile, are virtually nonexistent. Assuming that a news reporter can only be balanced by a conservative reinforces the myth that journalists—and journalism—inherently lean left.

A full-page advertisement by MSNBC in the New York Times in January (1/19/04) plugged the cable network’s upcoming Iowa Caucuses coverage with a picture of the on-air crew that would be providing “LIVE TEAM COVERAGE from the pros who know politics from the inside out.”

Who were the pros? The accompanying picture showed Chris Matthews (who anchors MSNBC‘s Hardball) flanked by six other MSNBC teammates: conservative pundits Peggy Noonan, Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan, along with journalists Norah O’Donnell, Keith Olbermann and Howard Fineman. Apparently, coverage of the selection of a Democratic presidential candidate didn’t need input from anyone who was at liberty to publicly self-identify as left of center.

The conservative-vs.-reporter formula is common. On Fox on the Record (6/18/04), Christian Science Monitor reporter Liz Marlantes discussed the Bush/McCain relationship with conservative National Review editor Rich Lowry. On MSNBC ‘s Hardball (5/24/04), Newsweek ‘s Howard Fine-man discussed the Iraqi insurgency with former Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough. FAIR’s 2003 study of CNN‘s Reliable Sources (Extra!, 3-4/03) found the program, which is supposed to monitor dubious media practices, regularly presenting mismatched panels where right-leaning pundits faced off with mainstream reporters in discussions about the media.

The costs of exclusion

Editor Lewis Lapham wrote in Harper’s (9/04) that neoconservative guru Irving Kristol once told him that he had advised automobile companies to withhold advertising from media outlets that didn’t reflect the companies’ social and political views. Kristol explained his logic: “Why empower your enemies? Why throw pearls to swine?”

Many sponsors have undoubtedly come to that same conclusion without Kristol’s help, but the story points to one reason why TV news shows consistently skew political debate by substituting centrists and journalists for progressives: the TV industry’s utter dependence on corporate advertisers for its revenues.

Phil Donahue’s experience at MSNBC provides another example of TV industry decision-makers’ skittishness about airing progressive opinion. When Donahue was canceled in early 2003, after just seven months on the air, the show had the best ratings on MSNBC—surpassing its closest MSNBC rival, Hardball with Chris Matthews. The decision was explained in an internal NBC report that described Donahue as a political liability, despite his popularity (All Your TV, 2/25/03).

The report worried that Donahue would present a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war,” since the host seemed to “delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.” And it warned the show could become “a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”

Eighteen months on, the U.S. is enmeshed in a messy war in Iraq made possible in part by the lack of debate before the war. Having now been exposed to some of the facts and arguments that were squelched in the run-up to the war, a majority of the American public, polls show, now view the Iraq War as a mistake (New York Times /CBS News poll, 7/11-15/04). With a national election looming in November, Americans face serious choices about scores of international and domestic issues. Unfortunately, the corporate media gatekeepers show no signs that they will broaden television panels to reflect the broad range of opinion held by the American people.


Are Progressive Views Unpopular?

Why does television so often feature centrists instead of leftists in debates with the right? Are progressive opinions so much less popular than views from the center or the right?

Certainly not on the issue that has dominated television for the past two years—Iraq. At the time of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 2003 U.N. address, 61 percent of respondents told a CBS poll that the U.S. should “wait and give the United Nations and weapons inspectors more time”—a viewpoint rarely heard in TV debates. Early in the Iraq invasion, when the war was at its most popular, still more than one in four Americans opposed it (Extra!, 5-6/03). And support for the war has steadily declined since. A July New York Times/CBS News poll found that 62 percent of respondents did not think it was worth going to war in Iraq; where are the pundits who speak for this majority, and why is the 34 percent minority who say the war was worth it so overrepresented in television debates?

It’s true that there are issues where the progressive position is unpopular—for instance, polls by Gallup (5/04) and Harris (12/03) have found support for capital punishment hovering around 70 percent. But on a range of other issues, including corporate power, environmental protection, gun control and healthcare, a majority of Americans take a progressive stance.

Eighty-three percent of respondents told a February 2004 Harris poll that “big companies” have too much “power in influencing government policy, politicians and policymakers in Washington.”

Fifty-five percent of respondents told Gallup (3/04) that the U.S. was doing “too little” to protect the environment; and 53 percent told another Gallup poll (1/04) that gun control laws should be “more strict.”

That Americans support tax cuts is a conservative article of faith and a common centerpiece for Republican campaigns. But when ABC /Washington Post poll asked (10/03), “Which of these do you think is more important: providing healthcare coverage for all Americans, even if it means raising taxes, OR holding down taxes, even if it means some Americans do not have healthcare coverage?” The progressive “coverage for all” view received 79 percent support, overwhelming the conservative “lower taxes” position.

If the left is so out of favor as to deserve next to no representation, why does the left-leaning Nation magazine lead all American opinion magazines in circulation? With 165,000 subscribers, The Nation not only edges out National Review, the leading right-wing opinion journal (155,000), it trounces the centristNew Republic (61,000). Writers from the New Republic and National Review (and several smaller circulation conservative magazines) appear on national television on a daily basis, while pundits from The Nation and other left-of-center magazines—like Mother Jones, an investigative monthly with a paid circulation of 236,000—appear far less frequently.

To put it simply, the range of viewpoints offered in TV debates does not reflect the full range of American opinion. Consider the spectrum of congressional views, spanning from staunchly conservative legislators who are not afraid to criticize the Bush administration from the right, to unabashed liberals who, earlier, criticized the Clinton administration from the left. For some reason, pundits who share the views of leading congressional progressives, like Rep. Bernie Sanders (Ind.-Vt.), Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D.-Ill.), Rep. Peter DeFazio (D.-Ore.) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D.-Calif.), are hard to find in cable news debates. What is the justification for cable TV producers selecting a narrower range of pundits than the range of representatives elected by the American people?

And why limit the scope of acceptable commentary to a congressional spectrum dominated by the two major political parties? Increasing numbers of voters do not identify with either of the two dominant parties; according to a 2002 ABC /Washington Post poll, more than a third of the electorate (35 percent) think of themselves as independents, a larger proportion than identified as Democrats (32 percent) or Republicans (28 percent).

And that leaves aside non-voters. As Micah Sifry points out in the American Prospect (12/31/00), many non-voters decline to vote not out of apathy but because they are disaffected by a system that they see as offering unsatisfactory choices. According to two polls cited by Sifry, these non-voters tend to be more liberal than their voting counterparts. Perhaps part of the reason for their alienation is that the media spectrum is even narrower than the electoral choices. Whatever the case, journalists have a responsibility to represent citizens who do not identify with the two major parties.

—S.R. and A.K.