Nov 1 2010

This Week in Beltway Think

Public TV’s font of conventional wisdom

If any PBS show perfectly captures the problem with public TV’s public affairs programming, it might be the oldest one: Washington Week. Billed as the “longest-running news and public affairs program on public television,” Washington Week is a half-hour chat show where familiar faces from commercial media outlets give viewers an inside-the-Beltway, who’s up-who’s-down take on Washington politics. Like some other PBS fare, the show is a public/commercial hybrid; since 2005, Washington Week has been a co-production with the for-profit Washington insider magazine National Journal.

Press materials for the show declare that the panelists “are reporters—not pundits—shedding light, not heat.” But what the reporters offer on the show is mostly a forgettable mush of conventional wisdom, a view of national and international affairs viewed through the prism of Beltway power struggles. Whether the topic is the Deepwater/BP spill or Mideast peace, the focus is narrow and laser-like: How do these stories impact Beltway debates?

Over four months of the program studied by FAIR (5-8/10), 29 reporter/panelists made a total of 64 appearances; only one guest (Elizabeth Shogren from NPR, who appeared twice) did not represent a corporate media outlet. The Washington Post was the most frequent outlet represented, with 11 appearances. Reporters from the New York Times and ABC made eight appearances each. National Journal reporters appeared twice.

PBS Washington Week ethnicity graphABC’s Martha Raddatz made six appearances, making her the most frequent guest over the 17 broadcasts FAIR examined. Several reporters appeared four times: the Post’s Dan Balz and Karen Tumulty, AP’s Charles Babington, NBC’s Pete Williams, CNBC’s Eamon Javers and Time’s Michael Duffy.

Of the 64 guest appearances, only four were by non-whites (6 percent): ABC correspondent Pierre Thomas appeared twice, New York Times reporter Helene Cooper and Nancy Yousseff of McClatchy. The guest list was 61 percent male.

In a Washington Post feature (5/9/10), New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen declared the show’s format “exhausted”: “Five insiders (journalists) display their understanding of what other insiders (politicians) did this week for an audience of wannabe insiders (the show’s assumption about viewers).”

He added: “Because the boundaries of political debate in Washington are also the horizons of the discussion on Washington Week, the show has no grace, mystery, edge or dissonant voice.” On the Washington Week blog (5/13/10), host Gwen Ifill derided “self-appointed media critic” Rosen’s take as a call for “more noise, not less; more cacophony and less understanding.”

PBS Washington Week Gwen IfillOf course, that wasn’t his point at all. Nor was Rosen alone in arguing that public TV discussions about Washington political developments ought to go beyond corporate media reporters. As Forbes MediaCritic pointed out in its Summer 1995 issue, guests from ideologically oriented magazines like the Nation or the National Review “almost never appear” on Washington Week. The only question to be asked of the current version of the show is whether the “almost” is even necessary.

As Ifill put it in an interview with Mother Jones (3/29/09), “My goal is to try to stay away as much from opinion journalism as possible. And if one of our panelists comes on and says, ‘Well, this is what I think,’ they generally don’t get invited back.” Ifill acknowledged that this rule “narrows pretty dramatically” the potential guestlist for the show, though she indicated that this is someone else’s fault:

I have a constant pet peeve about diversity. But the truth of the matter is, in Washington, covering big beats, the big newspapers and networks haven’t spent a whole lot of time putting people on those beats from diverse points of view.

In the same interview, Ifill agreed that “groupthink and conventional wisdom” are a problem in the D.C. press corps, but suggested that new media could help change that: “I think we are actually in a better position right now to explode groupthink than we have ever been in Washington journalism. So I’m not really troubled by it.”

The upshot would seem to be that other, newer outlets can challenge conventional wisdom, while public television, every Friday night, will help to cement it. It’s not exactly how one would imagine PBS could live up to its professed mission of bringing diverse and underrepresented views to the airwaves, but it’s a great way to attract corporate sponsors—Washington Week is currently funded by Boeing and Exxon/ Mobil, and previous funders include Chevron and the National Mining Association (“the voice of the American mining industry in Washington, D.C.”). Washington Week provides exactly the type of apolitical discussion such deep-pocketed corporate interests want to see on public television.

Research by Krystle Manintveld.