The conservative records of talking-head lawmakers
Lawmakers talking about U.S. policy issues are the bread and butter of the Sunday morning news shows—NBC’s Meet the Press, ABC’s This Week, CBS’s Face the Nation and Fox News Sunday. An Extra! study of the lawmakers who appear on these shows finds they have voting records that tilt to the right.
Extra! studied the guests on these four programs from January 25, 2009—the first show after Obama’s inauguration—until April 25, 2010, more than a year into his administration. Guests who were current members of the Senate or House of Representatives, or former members since 2001, were tallied by voting record (in the 111th Congress or, for former lawmakers, the most recent available) according to the VoteView system.
VoteView is a well-respected mathematical model, developed by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal (voteview.com), that sorts lawmakers by their votes according to how often they vote with the opposing bloc. The lawmakers who least often vote with their ideological opposites are at either end of the scale, ranked from lowest (most progressive) to highest (most conservative), with those most likely to vote with either side in the middle. Since there are more House members than Senators, we converted both sets of rankings to a 100-point scale—100 being most conservative—yielding a number for each lawmaker we refer to as a VoteView score.
Overall Voteview Scores
The average VoteView score of lawmaker guests was 56—five-and-a-half points to the right of a random selection of lawmaker guests. All the shows except Face the Nation, whose lawmakers averaged a score of 49, had a conservative lean. Both Meet the Press and This Week’s lawmakers had an average score of 55. Fox News Sunday’s lawmakers had an average score of 63.
The one show whose lawmaker guests matched the ideological balance of Congress, Face the Nation, featured considerably more Democratic than Republican lawmakers: 57 percent, including independents who caucused with the Democrats. (This is similar to the proportion of Democrats in the 111th Congress, who accounted for 59 percent of both House members and senators, counting allied independents, during the period studied.) Roughly half of This Week and Meet the Press’s lawmaker guests were Democrats—51 percent on each show. Fox News Sunday’s lawmakers, by contrast, were 59 percent Republican and 41 percent Democratic.
On all four shows, Democrats were typically closer to the congressional center than Republicans. On Face the Nation, Democrats averaged a VoteView score of 25, compared to 82 for Republicans, putting the Repub-licans seven points closer to one end of the spectrum; on This Week, Democrats were at 27 versus 84 for Republicans, while Meet the Press’s Democrats averaged 24 and its Republicans 87, meaning the Republican lawmakers on those shows were 11 points further from the center.
This can in part be explained by the larger size of the Democratic caucuses; the average Republican is further from Congress’s ideological center of gravity than the typical Democrat. But it’s harder to explain Fox News Sunday’s ideological bias: Its Republican lawmakers had an average VoteView score of 84, compared to 34 for its Democrats; the Fox Republicans were 18 points further from the center than the show’s Democrats.
Lawmaker guests were considerably more likely to be strongly conservative than strongly progressive. Lawmakers in the most right-wing 10 percent appeared 51 times, while those in the leftmost 10th appeared 35 times. The difference was even more stark further to the extremes: Guests with scores of 96 to 100 appeared more than twice as often as their progressive counterparts, 41 times to 20.
Fox News Sunday brought on more than four times as many strong conservatives by either measure. Face the Nation had the same number of guests from the 5 percent at each end of the spectrum, and had somewhat more guests from the most progressive 10 percent than from the most conservative tenth: 11 vs. 7.
Though Meet the Press, This Week and Face the Nation all brought on Tom Coburn, the most conservative member of the Senate, only This Week interviewed Bernie Sanders, the most progressive senator. This Week was also alone in having on Rep. Maxine Waters, a strong House progressive with a VoteView score of 1.