If the Sunday morning TV chat shows seem like a sea of Republican politicians and conservative spinners lately, it’s not your imagination.
While you might expect to see a lot of Republican candidates and their surrogates in the thick of a Republican primary contest, the four Sunday morning talk shows—ABC’s This Week, NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS’s Face the Nation and Fox News Sunday—have been extraordinarily friendly terrain for the right, as a new FAIR study documents.
Evaluating the guest lists for the eight months from June 2011 through February 2012, FAIR found a distinct conservative skew in both one-on-one interview segments and roundtable discussions.
On November 6, Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer introduced his show as featuring a “cross-section of Republicans”—turning the discussion over to surrogates for Republican presidential candidates and various party operatives.
That kind of lineup was hardly unusual. The same day, in fact, ABC This Week’s panel featured three conservatives—George Will, Niall Ferguson and Matthew Dowd—and left-liberal Arianna Huffington. Mean-while, on NBC that Sunday, viewers were treated to a different kind of imbalance: A panel featuring two right-wing guests—Republican political operative Alex Castellanos and Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly Strassel—paired with two centrist journalists.
These imbalances were indicative of the larger patterns seen over the course of the study period. As one might expect, U.S. government sources—current officials, former lawmakers, political candidates, party-affiliated political operatives and campaign advisers—dominated the Sunday shows overall, accounting for 47 percent of appearances (445 out of 943). Following closely behind were journalists, who, with 406 appearances, were 43 percent of sources. Most were middle-of-the-road Beltway political reporters.
Single-source interviews are the showcase segments on the Sunday shows, which tend to compete for access to guests they consider the top newsmakers—which, in the world of Beltway media, usually means politicians. In the eight-month study period, partisan-affiliated one-on-one interviews were 70 percent Republican—166 guests to Democrats’ 70.
A small number of interviewees (28) were not affiliated with U.S. parties—from corporate representatives to representatives of foreign governments. Some guests, like right-wing anti-tax activist Grover Norquist or feminist Gloria Steinem, would be considered to have a clear ideology. But those guests do not change the overall right-wing dominance in the one-on-one guests.
Men overwhelmingly dominated one-on-one interviews, at 86 percent: 228 male guests compared to 36 women. Meet the Press featured the fewest women, with just six female interviewees—three of whom were Rep. Michele Bachmann (R.-Minn.), the presidential candidate.
Guests were also also ethnically homogeneous, with 242 white interview guests (92 percent of the total), 15 African-Americans (seven of whom were Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain), four Arabs or Arab-Americans, and three Latinos.
If you buy the assumption that the Sunday shows simply must feature lawmakers in one-on-one interviews, the roundtable debate format could at least give these programs a chance to bring in more diverse voices. But these segments are hard to distinguish from the lopsided interview segments.
Unlike the one-on-one interviews, these roundtable segments include some voices from outside the two parties; partisan sources—who leaned Republican, 180 to 109—accounted for less than half of the guests. But the nonpartisan guests didn’t alter the right’s advantage, with Republicans and/or conservatives making 282 appearances to 164 by Democrats and progressives (categories that are less interchangeable). Middle-of-the-road Beltway journalists made 201 appearances in roundtables, which serves to buttress the argument that corporate media’s idea of a debate is conservative ideologues matched by centrist-oriented journalists.
Women were just 29 percent of roundtable guests. The ethnic diversity was similarly woeful: 85 percent white and 11 percent African-American, with 3 percent Latino. Other ethnicities made up an additional 2 percent of roundtable guests.
And those numbers come with significant qualifications; Fox News Sunday, for instance, featured the greatest number of African-American roundtable guests—but 24 of those 27 were Fox pundit Juan Williams. ABC’s This Week featured 19 African-American debate guests, 13 of whom were Democratic strategist Donna Brazile.
Reality check: 2004
The explanation for these wildly imbalanced guestlists might seem simple: There is a highly competitive Republican primary, and that means the Sunday shows will skew Republican/conservative. Given the programs’ obsessive focus on Beltway politics in general and electoral campaigns in particular, it’s unsurprising that they would devote considerable attention to the highly competitive Republican primaries.
And Republican presidential contenders were a constant presence. Michele Bachmann made the most appearances (18), followed by Rick Santorum (16) and Newt Gingrich (13).
But does political coverage that focuses heavily on one party have to have such tilted guestlists? Obviously not. In fact, these same networks proved it in a recent, roughly approximate period—in 2003-04—that saw Democratic candidates vying to unseat incumbent Republican George W. Bush. The primary was competitive, and the party base was determined to remove Bush from office. But did Sunday shows from that period look like a mirror image of 2011, heavily tilted to the left?
Not at all, according to a broad survey of the Sunday shows by the left-leaning Media Matters for America (2/14/06). That study—which looked at guestlists from 1997-2005—also isolated interview segments, making partisan and ideological classifications of those guests. In 2003, the Media Matters tally of ideologically identifiable guests, both one-and-one and roundtable, favored Republicans/conservatives (57 percent) over Democrats/progressives (43 percent). The following year the breakdown was again Republican-heavy, 56 percent to 44 percent. Looking at one-on-one interviews, the study likewise found an advantage for Republicans/conservatives over Democrats/progressives in 2003 (44 vs. 35 percent) and 2004 (39 vs. 37 percent).
Bias by design?
That is bound to happen in a media environment that is so heavily invested in certain right-wing guests.The most frequent overall guest during the eight months was ABC conservative George Will, who appeared 34 times. Neocon Bill Kristol appeared on the Fox roundtable 24 times, while right-wing pundit Liz Cheney made nine appearances on Fox and ABC debates. The most frequent interview guest was Rep. Michele Bachmann, who made 17 one-on-one appearances. Republican Sen. John McCain, a Sunday show fixture, was interviewed eight times.
Even when the shows attempted more balance, the Democrats and left-leaning guests tend to be of a more moderate variety than the Republicans (Extra!, 9/10). Juan Williams—who, by the criteria of this study, counts as a left-leaning voice (but see Extra!, 3/12)—was on 24 Fox News Sunday broadcasts. As FAIR has argued (Extra!, 9-10/01), it’s likely that the politically connected corporations who sponsor these shows prefer a center/right spectrum of debate that mostly leaves out strong progressive voices who might raise a critique of corporate power.
A piece marking Bob Schieffer’s 20 years hosting Face the Nation (CBSNews.com, 9/21/11) quoted the host’s self-described goal: “Our aim is to going to be very simple here: to find interesting people from all segments of American life who have something to say and give them a chance to say it.” By that standard, he’s been a total failure (FAIR Blog, 9/26/11).
It’s likely that the other networks would never say that they aim to provide a very narrow, very white and male, overwhelmingly conservative view of the world to their viewers every Sunday morning. But that’s precisely what they do.
Research assistance: Josmar Trujillo
About This Study
FAIR collected guest lists for the four network Sunday shows: ABC’s This Week, NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS’s Face the Nation and Fox News Sunday. The study tallied interview guests only; brief soundbites in taped, reported segments, which were for a time a regular feature of the ABC show, were not included.
Guests were coded as either appearing in a one-on-one interview or as part of a roundtable—defined here as any segment with more than one guest. Guests with a partisan affiliation—as a congressional representative, an administration official or a party operative—were designated by the party they represented. Guests who did not have a partisan identification but who did have a clear left-of-center or conservative viewpoint were also categorized by ideology (conservative pundit George Will, progressive economist Paul Krugman).
Guests were also categorized by profession. Those in the government category consisted of current and former government officials, politicians, political candidates and party operatives (including campaign consultants). Journalists include centrist reporters as well as talkshow hosts or opinion writers. There was a small number of other guests: Corporate officials and representatives from nonprofit organizations.
Sidebar: Push the Boundaries—and the Boundaries Push Back
During much of the study period, ABC’s This Week was hosted by Christiane Amanpour. Perhaps due to her long career as a foreign correspondent, the show she hosted took a different approach than its network counterparts, often featuring reported pieces (not included in the study) from around the world. The show also featured guests that rarely make it onto the Sunday shows—feminist icon Gloria Steinem, Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi and Occupy Wall Street activist Jesse LaGreca.
But, as the totals indicate, those exceptions to the rule are only that. And Amanpour’s different approach no doubt contributed to her being replaced after less than a year, with more orthodox host George Stephanopoulos returning to the job.