May 1 1990

TV’s Imposters

Television's Political Spectrum

TV Spectrum no left cartoon

Right: Pat Buchanan, Fred Barnes, John McLaughlin, David Gergen, Robert Novak, William F. Buckley, George Will.

Center: Sam Donaldson, Mark Shields, Michael Kinsley, Morton Kondracke, Al Hunt, Jack Germond, Hodding Carter.

The power to define the political spectrum is an awesome one — determining who gets to speak and who gets censored, which positions gain currency and which go unheard. On television, this power is largely in conservative hands. Accordingly, those who hold daily or weekly positions as political analysts on television run from right to center; the most prominent talking heads are all white males. The public is not even hearing policy recommendations from a significant segment of the body politic.

The American left is virtually unspoken for by America’s talking headmen. While leading right-wing and centrist pundits could be picked out of a lineup by any politically inclined citizen who owns a TV set, the same cannot be said about leading progressive advocates — many of whom are women and people of color.

It is often argued that positioning political commentators on a political spectrum is a hopeless task. For simplicity’s sake, we can define the right as the right wing of the Republican Party, the left as the left wing of the Democratic Party, and the center as the moderate wings of both parties. When it comes to political journals, the National Review has long been associated with the Republican right, while publications like The Nation and Mother Jones have long been associated with left Democrats. The New Republic fits the bill as a journal of the center since it tends to support a Republican foreign policy and a moderate Democratic domestic policy. Long-time New Republic editor Michael Kinsley says the magazine is basically “centrist.”

With these political journals as guideposts, TV’s spectrum is clearly slanted in favor of the right. Four national TV programs are hosted by pundits associated with the right-wing National Review: Bill Buckley’s Firing Line (PBS) and John McLaughlin’s One on One (PBS), McLaughlin Group (NBC/PBS) and McLaughlin (CNBC cable network). Editors of the centrist New Republic are hosts or regulars on many politics shows: Morton Kondracke (PBS‘s American Interests, McLaughlin Group); Fred Barnes (McLaughlin Group); Michael Kinsley (CNN‘s Crossfire); Charles Krauthammer (PBS‘s Inside Washington).

TV’s Imposters

Since TV has not allowed bona fide left advocates to appear as hosts or regular panelists on political talkshows (the taboo may be a legacy of McCarthyism), moderates are consistently asked to impersonate leftists. It’s a practice akin to journalistic blackface. On CNN‘s Capital Gang, for example, “leftists” Mark Shields and Al Hunt — the Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal — take on rightists Robert Novak and Patrick Buchanan.

Those who hold down television’s left wing don’t deny that TV’s spectrum has a conservative slant. On a Crossfire episode (1/23/90), “left” host Michael Kinsley conceded:

I may be a liberal but there is no way…that I’m as far left as Pat Buchanan is right. There’s no way Mark Shields is as left as you [Buchanan] are right. There’s no way Al Hunt is as far left as Bob Novak is right. These shows are biased from the conservative way.

Conservative activists would feel voiceless if the right was represented on TV talk shows by moderate Republicans sympathetic to the likes of Lowell Weicker or Robert Packwood. Which is why progressive activists — whether from peace, ecology, women’s rights, labor, civil rights, gay rights or other movements — feel unrepresented on TV by folks like Kinsley, Shields and Hunt.

It highlights another difference between TV’s right and TV’s left: The Patrick Buchanans and Robert Novaks are on the air trying to win viewers to the conservative movement. Does anyone believe that Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal is trying to win recruits for the left? Or that Mark Shields is? Biographical material provided by Shields’ office emphatically denies any identification with the left: “Mark Shields is free of any political tilt.”

TV’s stunted spectrum means that progressive movements and leaders have virtually no solid allies on TV. By contrast, every far-right policy of the 1980s was bolstered by a bevy of TV pundits. The spectrum has drifted so far right that it is common today to see panel discussions in which TV’s right attacks the Republican president, George Bush, for being too moderate, while TV’s “left” praises him. Given that Hunt, Shields, Kinsley and the others are presented as bona fide leftists, it’s no wonder that much of the public sees the left — referred to as “liberals” — as weak and lacking in firm principles.

Indeed, from watching television, one would think that being on the left is something to be accused of, not something one would readily admit to. During a Crossfire episode on Iran-Contra, Patrick Buchanan ferociously defended Reagan as a victim of a plot cooked up by liberals and left-wingers. Tom Braden, then Crossfire co-host, responded: “What are you talking about, ‘left-wingers’?” Buchanan shot back: “You announce you’re ‘from the left’ every night.” Braden, who had represented the left on television for seven years, had apparently forgotten.

Needless to say, there are commentators in this country who proudly identify with the left. Just as the National Review is proud to identify itself as right (its book review column is called “The Right Books”; Buckley’s column is called “From the Right”), magazines like The Nation openly strategize on behalf of the left. Both wings of the spectrum should be competing for the American mind on national television.

The Right Decides Who’s Left

One reason for TV’s center-right slant is that conservative commentators have often been allowed to select their debating foes. Given the choice, right-wing ideologues have consistently preferred to debate moderates rather than those who are equally partisan and passionate from the other end of the spectrum.

The power to choose a panel generally falls to the host of a TV talk show. William Buckley selects debaters for Firing Line based on a view of the U.S. political spectrum which he expressed once in a column (9/17/86): “When we think of extremism in America, we think of Bella Abzug and John Kenneth Galbraith.”

To conservatives who’ve helped choose TV panels, you either support the right-wing agenda or you are a dreaded “liberal.” Hence, middle-of-the-road reporters, since they are not right-wing spear carriers, are suitable representatives for the other side. This mindset has led to a TV spectrum which, instead of offering right vs. left, offers right vs. not right.

TV talkshows commonly pit conservative commentators against centrist reporters who, even if they privately harbored progressive opinions, could not utter them on TV without compromising their positions as objective journalists. Commentators like George Will, Patrick Buchanan and Robert Novak are free to serve up their conservative opinions; not as free to serve up ideological views are reporter panelists like Al Hunt or Sam Donaldson (who “balanced” Will on ABC‘s This Week with David Brinkley while he was a White House correspondent).

When right-winger Robert Novak left the McLaughlin Group to launch Capital Gang, he told the Washington Post (10/7/88): “I would like to try my hand at having a little more control over the content of the program.” With Novak as the show’s co-executive producer, it’s not surprising that the panel ended up being Novak and Buchanan vs. Hunt and Shields.

Buchanan played a role in the selection of Michael Kinsley as his debating partner on Crossfire, after CNN decided to replace Tom Braden as the co-host “from the left.” Kinsley’s main competition for the job was Democratic activist Mark Green. The Washington Times (8/25/89) indicated that Green was passed over because of Buchanan’s antagonism toward him. Critics believe that Mark Green — more combative and partisan than Kinsley — was feared by Buchanan because of his tough and uncompromising debating style. “Tough” and “uncompromising” seem to be acceptable characteristics for TV’s right, but not its left.