Feb 1 2007

Staying Inside the Beltway

Sunday shows ignore anti-war voices

One day after a mass anti-war rally in Washington, D.C., the networks’ Sunday morning talkshows (1/28/07) remained mostly unaffected by the expression of broad opposition to the war, keeping their discussions confined to the narrow spectrum of Beltway elites.

Despite overwhelming public sentiment opposing the Iraq War—expressed in opinion polls and in the streets—the Sunday shows booked guests more representative of the center-right spectrum in official Washington. NBC’s Meet the Press featured pro-war Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, and had a roundtable discussion with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.); pro-escalation guests Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and former White House speechwriter Michael Gerson; and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, a prominent supporter of the Iraq invasion.

Over on CBS’s Face the Nation, the Iraq discussion included Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and two Republicans: war supporter Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and undecided Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who has stated that it “is premature to talk about cutting off funding.”

ABC’s This Week paired pro-escalation Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) with Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), a supporter of the Warner resolution that takes issue with the surge plan while condemning the idea of withholding funds. The show’s roundtable skewed right (conservatives Torie Clarke and George Will were balanced by liberal columnist E.J. Dionne and ABC reporter Martha Raddatz), but did not spend significant time discussing the war.

Fox News Sunday featured interviews with what host Chris Wallace called “two of the most intriguing figures in American politics”: Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who also supports the Warner resolution, and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a staunch advocate of the troop escalation. The Fox roundtable skewed, as usual, to the right: conservatives Bill Kristol and Brit Hume were paired with NPR reporters Juan Williams and Mara Liasson.

The limited debate in the network studios presented a remarkable contrast to public opinion. While these shows take apparent pains to present “balanced” discussions of the escalation of the war, the White House’s “surge” is solidly opposed by the American public—63 percent are against the move, according to a CNN poll (1/19-21/07).

The guests who appeared on the Sunday talkshows as critics of the White House certainly take issue with the way the Bush administration has handled Iraq, but they are mild in their approach compared to anti-war leaders or public opinion. Schumer, for example, does not support a funding cut for the troop “surge,” and still supports the notion of preemptive war (NBC, 1/25/07).

Webb, one of the more forceful Senate critics, rejected a proposal from Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) to cap troop levels, saying it was “not the place or the time” to discuss such matters (Chicago Tribune, 1/24/07). In his appearance on Face the Nation, Webb did not directly answer a question about cutting off funding for the war.

Biden, on record as opposing funding restrictions, suggested on a recent appearance on Meet the Press (1/7/07) that it is “constitutionally questionable” for Congress to set limits on troop numbers in Iraq or to cut off funds for the war. “As a practical matter,” he said, “there is no way to say, ‘Mr. President, stop.’”

But if guests who support cutting off funding for sending additional troops to Iraq are hard to come by in the mainstream media, the public is more open to such a tactic. The CNN poll found 61 percent support for Congress voting “to block the government from spending money to send more troops to Iraq.” A recent Newsweek poll (1/17-18/07) showed the public evenly split on the question of cutting off funding.

In light of Saturday’s protests—and given the Sunday shows’ preference for interviewing elected officials—it would have made journalistic sense to hear from one of the nine co-sponsors of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s S.233, a bill that would block funding for an escalation of the war—a group that includes prominent senators like Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Pat Leahy (D-Vt.).

Even more representative of public sentiment are the House members who are backing H.R. 508, which calls for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops on a six-month timeline—a group that includes 28 representatives, including Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.). Sixty-five percent of Americans want U.S. troops withdrawn either within a year or immediately, according to an L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll (1/13-16/07).

The Washington protests were mentioned in passing on the Sunday shows. CBS host Bob Schieffer compared the march to “a day from yesteryear,” while ABC’s George Stephanopoulos posed a blunt question to guest Richard Lugar: “We saw tens of thousands of protesters here this week. Polls show that two-thirds of Americans, almost, oppose this plan. Doesn’t Congress at some point, at some level, have a responsibility to give voice to that opposition?”

It’s a good point—but when will the television networks give voice to that opposition?