May 21 1990

All the Usual Suspects: MacNeil/Lehrer and Nightline

FAIR Issues New Study on PBS's MacNeil/Lehrer and ABC's Nightline

As part of its ongoing examination of television news, FAIR is releasing the results of its new study, “All the Usual Suspects: The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and Nightline.”

After FAIR’s February 1989 study of Nightline, members of the public joined journalists in urging the media watch group to compare Nightline with other news programs and to monitor Nightline for any changes in the wake of the original study. This new study accomplishes both missions. FAIR’S Jeff Cohen summarized the new findings: “Nightline has slightly broadened its panel of experts, while public TV’s Newshour is narrower, whiter, more male-dominated, more government-oriented and more conservative than Nightline. MacNeil/Lehrer‘s virtual exclusion of public interest leaders is a sad commentary on public TV.”

FAIR’s study was delivered to MacNeil/Lehrer and PBS President Bruce Christensen with a cover note, which asserted: “MacNeil/Lehrer‘s narrow, pro-establishment guest list mocks the original mandate of public television. The Carnegie Commission report that gave birth to PBS urged that public television ‘be a forum for debate and controversy’ and ‘provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard’ and ‘help us see America whole, in all its diversity.’ On these points, public TV’s NewsHour has utterly failed. Much of MacNeil/Lehrer‘s coverage– its selection of news makers and experts– is even narrower than commercial TV.”

The new study examined and compared the guest lists of the two shows for a 6-month period: February 6-August 4,1989. It was written by Boston College sociologist William Hoynes and David Croteau, the authors of the first Nightline study. Among the findings:

Most frequent guests

MacNeil/Lehrer‘s 19 frequent guests (three or more appearances) included nine U.S. officials (six of whom are conservatives) and four “experts”–including Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and William Hyland of the conservative journal Foreign Affairs.

MacNeil/Lehrer‘s guest list was dominated by two conservative Washington think tanks. The Center for Strategic and International Studies provided the show’s resident experts on foreign policy (eight appearances during the study), while the American Enterprise Institute provided its resident experts for domestic political issues (six appearances). Experts from progressive think tanks such as the Institute for Policy Studies and the World Policy Institute never appeared.

Nightline‘s 13 repeated guests included five U.S. officials (four of whom are conservatives) and four “experts”– including right-wing activists Robert Bork and Patrick Buchanan.

While Nightline clearly identified public interest leaders as partisans, right-wing activists (e.g. Bork and Buchanan) were often presented as neutral “experts.” Despite dubious credentials on the subject, Buchanan appeared on two Nightline programs about terrorism.

Race and Gender

90 percent of MacNeil/Lehrer‘s U.S. guests were white and 87 percent were male. On programs about international issues, 94 percent of its U.S. guests were white and 94 percent were male. On domestic politics, 21 percent of its guests were women.

89% of Nightline‘s U.S. guests were white and 82 percent were male. On programs about international issues, 96 percent of its U.S. guests were white and 90 percent were male. On domestic politics, 26 percent of its guests were women.


On MacNeil/Lehrer, 46 percent of its U.S. guests were current or former government officials, 38 percent were professional and 5 percent were corporate representatives. Compared to this 89 percent “elite opinion,” only 6 percent of its guests represented public interest, labor or racial/ethnic groups.

On Nightline, 34 percent of its U.S. guests were current or former government officials, 39 percent were professional and 5 percent were corporate representatives. Compared to this 78 percent “elite opinion,” 10% of ite guests represented public interest, labor, or racial/ethnic groups.

Case study: The Environment

On MacNeil/Lehrer, the environment was generally discussed without the benefit of environmentalists. Only one of 17 guests on environment segments was a representative of an environment group.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill was the major environmental story of the period. MacNeil/Lehrer had seven segments on the spill; not one included an environmental representative. Several discussions were limited to Exxon officials and friendly officials: The 3/30/89 program, for example, featured Exxon’s chairman and Alaska’s governor (“The chairman of the board of Exxon, I think, has been to heavy on his own company.”)

Nightline‘s Exxon Valdez coverage had a more skeptical tone. On two occasions, Exxon representatives appeared on MacNeil/Lehrer but turned down invitations to appear on Nightline .

Case study: Central America

On MacNeil/Lehrer‘s seven Central America segments, all 22 of the guests were either U.S. officials or officials of allied-governments in the region. All were male. The mass U.S. anti-intervention movement was locked out.

Nightline‘s Central America coverage broadened slightly after spokesperson admitted defects in this area in February 1989. Its inclusion of U.S. and foreign critics of US policy deepened coverage.

Nightline Follow-up: Then vs. Now

Nightline‘s guest list broadened slightly since the first study. There was less reliance on “regulars” such as Kissinger and Haig; the percentage of public interest activists increased from six to ten; the percentage of U.S. women guests rose from 11 to 18; U.S. guests who were not white increased from 8 to 11%.

Female guests still tended to speak less than men; public interest representatives still tended to speak less than government officials; women, people of color and public interest activists still appeared later in the program.

Comparison with Kwitny Report

A comparison of MacNeil/Lehrer and Nightline with The Kwitny report, a weekly PBS show that covers similar issues, demonstrated that such programs could be more inclusive. Kwitny’s more diverse guest list led to more substantive discussions.


Ted Koppel responded to FAIR’s original Nightline study by suggesting that policy critics are not needed on his show since he invites the policy makers and asks them the “tough questions.” FAIR’s extensive monitoring of Nightline program does not support this claim; Koppel rarely asks tough questions of foreign policy makers, except those that challenge hawkish White House officials as to whether they are sufficiently hawkish.

The new report concludes: “During the years in which popular movements challenged U.S. foreign policies regarding nuclear weapons and Central America, Koppel consistently failed to ask the questions posed by these movements… The inclusion of critical voices is the surest way of guaranteeing robust debate. The public has a right to hear these voices for themselves.”

FAIR has long challenged TV news’s reliance on “all the usual suspects”—- a narrow range of “experts” and ex-officials from the Washington/Wall Street corridor. FAIR believes that the failure to regularly include public interest leaders and policy critics in national TV discussions boarders on censorship.