Jun 1 1990

Study Aftermath: FAIR Debates MacNeil/Lehrer

The April 1990 release of FAIR’s study, “All The Usual Suspects: MacNeil/Lehrer and Nightline,” rekindled the debate over TV news bias. The study was reported by major U.S. dailies, was endorsed by numerous columnists and TV critics, and led to a TV debate involving FAIR’s Jeff Cohen and NewsHour co-anchor Robert MacNeil.

The six-month study, conducted by sociologists Bill Hoynes and David Croteau, found that while Nightline had slightly broadened its guest list since FAIR’s original 1985-88 study, PBS‘s NewsHour was narrower, whiter, more male-dominated, more government-oriented and more conservative than Nightline. Ninety percent of MacNeil/Lehrer‘s U.S. guests were white, while 87 percent were male. Forty-six percent of U.S. guests were current or former U.S. government officials, while only 6 percent represented public interest, labor or racial/ethnic groups. Of 17 in-studio experts invited to discuss environmental issues, only one represented an environmental group.

In a statement quoted by many newspapers, FAIR said that “MacNeil/Lehrer‘s narrow, pro-establishment guest list mocks the original mandate of public television to ‘be a forum for debate and controversy’ and to ‘help us see America whole, in all its diversity.'”

Though acknowledging a need to work harder to include diverse viewpoints, MacNeil/Lehrer complained that the study “did not credit the lengthy tape reports which are a significant part of our program and have included much of the diversity FAIR refers to.” While the study focused on the guest panelists who populate the lengthy discussions that make up most of the NewsHour, it also scrutinized many of the taped reports that either precede panels or stand alone. These taped segments were hardly more diverse.

In seven MacNeil/Lehrer segments on the Exxon Valdez spill — two on tape and five panels — not one environmental representative appeared. Of the seven segments on Central America — five of which included taped reports– not one of the 21 talking heads represented a group critical of U.S.policy. But even if there were greater diversity in the taped pieces, FAIR would still ask why women, people of color and progressives should be satisfied with 12-second sound-bites, while establishment supporters are allowed to lay out their positions in 12-minute discussions.

Many of these issues were debated on Robert Lipsyte’s 11th Hour (5/21/90,5/28/90) on WNET-TV, New York’s PBS station: FAIR’s Cohen and Carolyn Craven of South Africa Now vs. MacNeil and PBS‘s Barry Chase. A heated exchange erupted when Cohen referred to an “absurd” NewsHour discussion on Exxon Valdez (3/30/89) which included only Exxon’s chair and Alaska’s governor, who said: “The chairman of the board of Exxon, I think, has been too heavy on his own company.” MacNeil and Chase wrongly claimed that the discussion had been “very pointed” and “unfriendly.” While MacNeil was defensive and conceded nothing, Chase expressed seemingly sincere hopes that PBS programming would become more multicultural, and less dependent on corporate funding.

Nightline, which was also criticized in the new study, avoided the spotlight by refusing comment, except to repeat Ted Koppel’s response to FAIR’s original study (Washington Post, 5/21/90): “Policy critics aren’t needed on Nightline since we invite the policy makers and ask them the’tough questions.'” “Tough questions” were hardly in evidence on that day’s Nightline (5/21/90), when Koppel allowed Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli right-winger and Nightline regular, to make extended speeches in defense of Israeli intransigence. By contrast, on a Nightline show about torture the next day (5/22/90), Koppel sharply questioned author Lawrence Weschler when he referred to U.S. complicity in the torture regimes of Brazil and Chile.