Sep 1 2001

What’s _Not_ Talked About on Sunday Morning?

Issues of corporate power are not on the agenda

On June 28, 1995, FBI agents swarmed the headquarters of Archer Daniels Midland, “Supermarket to the World,” in Decatur, Illinois. So began the sensational unraveling of the biggest price-fixing scandal ever, involving a secret FBI informant, a suicide attempt, top ADM officials being sentenced to prison and the largest criminal anti-trust fine in history.

Throughout 1995 and 1996, the ADM scandal was repeatedly front-page news for major papers across the country. “The drama at Archer Daniels Midland, already a high-stakes tale of money and power, informants and intrigue, betrayal and corruption, keeps getting more lurid,” wrote Ronald Henkoff in Fortune magazine (2/3/97). In September 2000, New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald published a book, The Informant: A True Story, about the ADM scandal that was widely compared by reviewers to a John Grisham thriller.

Despite the high drama of the corporate saga, the leading Sunday morning political talkshows—This Week, Meet the Press, The McLaughlin Group and Face the Nation—all failed to say a word about the scandal. Instead, the Sunday morning roundtables focused on the state of the Republican Party, Ross Perot, Robert Dole’s campaign, Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton.

These Sunday shows have been a staple of TV programming for decades. Targeted toward a very elite Beltway audience—only Washington, D.C. ratings are even measured—the programs are watched every week by White House staff and Congressional aides to determine the “hot” issues confronting the public.

Unfortunately, the talkshows’ failure to cover or even mention the ADM case is routine. Reviewing the issues discussed on four shows representing different networks—NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS’s Face the Nation, NBC/PBS’s McLaughlin Group and ABC’s This Week—we found that the exclusion of topics relating to corporate power is the norm. To conduct our study, we read every transcript of the four Sunday morning talkshows aired from June 1995 to May 1996 and during the last seven months of 1999. We then tallied the issues discussed and the guests invited. Any issue, whether it was women’s soccer or welfare reform, was recorded if substantial time or conversation was devoted to it; our study identified 1,170 instances when a topic was raised.*

Missing conversations

Aside from welfare reform, the most talked-about issues of the 1995-1996 period were horse-race politics. The shows gave cursory treatment to or never addressed basic issues related to corporate power, even when these issues were plainly central to the political economy. Neither military spending nor the arms industry was selected as a topic for discussion, for example, while the effect of military base closings on President Clinton’s reelection campaign was an issue for debate. The highest-ranked issue concerning corporate power was campaign finance reform, ranked 33; it was discussed less than Bob Packwood’s affair with his aide and far less than Steve Forbes’s flat tax.

In fact, in the 1995-1996 period, the only topics related to corporate power or its abuses that were discussed on at least two different shows were campaign finance reform, the tobacco industry and corporate downsizing. The topic of downsizing was raised only because of two aggressive guests, Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader, who appeared on Sunday shows as presidential candidates. These same two guests also forced meager discussion of GATT/NAFTA, and Nader spoke about the effects of corporate power on democracy. A single episode of Face the Nation (4/6/96) stands out for focusing on CEO salaries.

The numbers demonstrate how horse-race politics displace conversation about issues related to corporate power. During the 1995-1996 period, Colin Powell was the topic of 47 Sunday morning conversations, corporate crime 0. “Travelgate” was an issue 27 times, whereas corporate welfare was mentioned once in passing. The shows discussed O.J. Simpson 16 times, environmental matters never. They talked about the Christian right nine times, but never about consumer issues such as bank fees, phone charges or HMO abuses. They reviewed the difference between Congressional Budget Office numbers and Office of Management and Budget numbers seven times; they ignored deregulation, privatization, the commercialization of children and proposed federal restrictions on tort laws. Roundtable pundits argued about Oliver Stone’s Nixon on two occasions, but never discussed renewable energy, redlining or blockbusting.

The shows never even mentioned the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or foreign aid during the entire 19-month study period, but one show made the weather, complete with a guest from the National Weather Service, the center of discussion (This Week, 2/4/96). Only a single program, This Week (8/6/95), so much as discussed the pending telecommunications bill and media mergers, which relate closely to the owners of these Sunday programs. Instead of mentioning union-busting, multinational capital flight or the World Trade Organization, panelists and guests chattered about “Chickengate,” a new fat hormone, Cal Ripken, flag-burning, legalizing prostitution and daytime talkshows.

Numbers from the last seven months of 1999 reveal the same narrow parameters of discussion. Aside from the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill—thrust into the spotlight only because of McCain’s remarkable presidential run and his nine guest appearances—the most discussed issue concerning corporate power was HMOs and a Patients’ Bill of Rights, ranked 26, well after the controversial Brooklyn art exhibit, Egypt Air Flight 990 and Jesse Ventura. The only other issues concerning corporate power discussed in the 1999 period were trade with China and the Microsoft antitrust case. The McLaughlin Group also devoted a segment of one episode to urban sprawl.

Instead of addressing consumer issues, environmental matters, corporate crime, the IMF, the WTO, labor rights or the minimum wage, the 1999 shows devoted time to topics like the women’s World Cup soccer victory, a moon landing tribute, Jerry Springer’s possible senatorial campaign, Father’s Day, a heat wave and Tina Brown’s kickoff party for Talk Magazine.

In sum, over the entire study period, topics related to corporate power—the environment, corporate crime, labor, mergers, consumer rights, corporate welfare, national health care, etc—made up less than 4 percent of the shows’ discussion topics.

Remarkable homogeneity

An overwhelming majority of invited guests on the shows were lawmakers, government officials and politicians—a skew that tends to reinforce narrow parameters of discussion and exclude issues of corporate power. Except for presidential candidate Ralph Nader, not a single one of the 364 guests invited during the 19 months studied was an environmentalist or consumer advocate. John Sweeney and Thomas Donahue, candidates for the presidency of the AFL-CIO, were the only guests who were labor leaders. Instead of worker representatives, the shows invited the CEO of United Airlines, the CEO of Continental Airlines, a Goldman Sachs analyst, retired basketball stars and political satirists.

Of the 20 most popular guests on political talkshows aired between June 1995 and May 1996, seven were senators, four were representatives, four were Clinton administration members, four were presidential candidates, one was the head of the Republican Party and one was a campaign manager. Of the top 20 guests on shows aired during the last seven months of 1999, 10 were presidential candidates, six were senators, four were representatives, two worked in the Clinton administration and two were governors.

When such a staggering majority of guests on Sunday morning political talk shows are government officials, government is essentially listening to government. Issues raised outside the halls of Congress, from the detrimental impacts of globalization to the failed war on drugs, are disqualified. Rather than participating in substantive discourse with labor leaders, consumer advocates, political activists, professors and public interest lawyers, corporate-financed Democrats vigorously engage corporate-financed Republicans in horse-race disputes concerning “centrist” issues, like Chinese espionage and welfare reform, acceptable to their corporate patrons.

A remarkable degree of racial and gender homogeneity also characterizes the guest list. All top 20 guests on Sunday morning political talkshows aired between June 1995 and May 1996 were white men, as were 19 of the top 20 guests on the shows aired during the last seven months of 1999. (Charles Rangel, an African-American representative from New York, was the 15th most popular guest in the 1999 period.) Only 24 of the 220 guests on the shows aired between June 1995 and May 1996 were women—less than 11 percent. The last seven months of 1999 featured 28 female guests out of 144, still only 19 percent.

Moreover, the majority of frequent guests were Republicans and/or self-described conservatives. Between June 1995 and May 1996, 14 of the top 20 guests were Republicans or conservatives, including Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition. In the 1999 period, 12 of the top 20 guests were Republicans or conservatives, including Warren Rudman, president of the Concord Coalition.

Skewing democracy

Sunday morning political talkshows promise to clarify the weekly issues and provoke the engaged citizen—healthy ingredients for a functioning democracy. Yet, as our numbers demonstrate, the shows’ narrow parameters of discussion not only fail to fulfill their potential, but skew public and elite opinion-making conversation away from the impact of corporate behavior.

Of course the shows should not focus exclusively on corporate power issues. But these issues—from banking and telecommunications regulation to corporate subsidies, from international trade policy and governance to antitrust enforcement—are central both to Washington policymaking and to the condition of people’s lives. A BusinessWeek poll (9/11/00) found that 72 percent of Americans believe business has too much power over too many aspects of their lives, and 74 percent believe big companies have too much political influence. The policy debates over these issues can evoke public interest and even passion when put in understandable terms (HMO red tape, contaminated drinking water, factory closings, to take three examples). They should be attractive fodder for any talkshow that is not foreclosed to discussion of corporate power issues.

Is it too much to suspect that corporate influence over the networks, the shows and the guests in part explains the remarkable omission of issues related to corporate power? Multinational conglomerates own the networks, sponsor specific shows, pay lecture fees to celebrity journalists and fund the campaigns of the guest newsmakers. Archer Daniels Midland, notably, is a huge advertiser on NBC (The McLaughlin Group, Meet the Press) and sponsors Meet the Press and This Week. (Indeed, longtime This Week host David Brinkley is now a paid spokesperson for ADM.) Might this help account for the shows’ failure to mention the ADM scandal, despite its simultaneous newsworthiness and entertainment value?

The basic defense of these roundtable programs is that they are show business. Eleanor Clift, a regular panelist on The McLaughlin Group, called the show “the Superbowl of bullshit” (Alan Hirsch, Talking Heads), and there certainly is merit to that characterization. These combinations of interview and roundtable commentary too often reduce themselves to unadulterated sensationalism. Horse-race and tactical political analysis replaces civil, intelligent debate over substantive issues.

But full of bluster and bombast as they are, it does not follow that these shows are no more politically consequential than professional wrestling (Jesse Ventura notwithstanding). These shows are important in setting the agenda for debate in Washington, and core issues of concern to Americans—job security, a decent wage, clean air, pensions, privacy, good healthcare at a fair price—are excluded.

*The study periods were chosen to avoid periods when the news was dominated by a single issue. They do not include the periods of media infatuation with the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal and Elián González, and only slightly overlap with the O.J. Simpson trial. They include some of the last two presidential election seasons, but not the height of election coverage.

This study was originally conducted for Essential Information, a D.C.-based activist group, founded by Ralph Nader.