Feb 6 1989

Are You on the Nightline Guest List?

The media watch group FAIR is issuing the results of its exhaustive study: “ARE YOU ON THE NIGHTLINE GUEST LIST ? – An analysis of 40 months of Nightline programming.” The 45-page report concludes that one’s likelihood of appearing on Nightline‘s guest list is enhanced by being a white, male member of the government, military or corporate establishment.

The study found that certain public interest viewpoints (peace movement, consumer rights, labor, etc.) were hardly visible on Nightline. “The narrow range of guests,” the report asserts, “makes Nightline a fundamentally conservative political program.”

The study was conducted for FAIR by William Hoynes and David Croteau of the Boston College Sociology Department, and underwritten by grants from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the J. Rodderick MacArthur Foundation.

Research was based on an analysis of all Nightline transcripts for a forty month period (January 1, 1985 to April 30, 1988), totaling 865 programs and 2,498 invited guests. Among the findings were:

Most frequent guests

The top four were Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig (14 appearances each), Elliot Abrams and Jerry Falwell (12 appearances).

Of Nightline‘s top U.S. guests (more than 5 appearances), all 19 are men, all but two are white, and 13 of the 19 are conservatives, most of whom were associated with the Reagan administration.

Strong critics of U.S. foreign policy are usually foreigners (Soviets, Iranians, Nicaraguans, etc.), not U.S. critics.


80% of the US guests were professionals, government officials or corporate representatives. By contrast, only 5% were public interest representatives (peace, civil liberties, environmental, etc.) and less than 2% were labor or racial/ethic leaders.

Elites speak more often than other guests. Government officials got one fourth more of a chance to speak on average (59 transcript lines) than public interest (48 lines) and labor leaders (45 lines).

Elites are more likely to appear early in the program, when the terms of the discussion are often framed.

Race and Gender

89% of the total U.S. guests are men, 92% are white.

On programs about international issues, 94% of the guests were men. Women were more visible on programs about social issues, but even here only 19% of the guests were women.

Women speak less than men (43 vs. 50 transcript lines on average).

The low visibility of women and minorities was attributed to the fact that they are grossly underrepresented in the elites from which Nightline draws most of its guests. (While comprising less than 10% of Nightline‘s “elite” guests, women comprised 16% of labor guests and 18% of public interest guests.)

Programs on the Soviet Union

Nearly half of Nightline‘s guests (48.6%) discussing U.S.-Soviet relations were current or former U.S. government officials; the U.S. peace movement was virtually invisible (less than 1%).

Programs on Terrorism

The six most frequent U.S. guests on terrorism programs are conservative with similar views: Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig and “terrorism experts” Brian Jenkins (Rand Corporation), Michael Ledeen (Iran arms scandal), Noel Koch (Defense Department) and Robert Kupperman (Center for Strategic and International Studies).

Programs on South Africa

Nightline‘s South Africa coverage was praiseworthy for including people of color: 45% of the guests were black, mostly South Africans.

While debates within South Africa were well-presented, the debate among Americans about U.S. policy regarding South Africa was inadequate and generally excluded representatives of anti-apartheid groups.

Programs on Central America

Nightline‘s Central America coverage seemed to follow an agenda promoted by the Reagan Administration. Twenty-two Nightline programs dealt principally with Nicaragua; not one focused principally on El Salvador, Honduras, or Guatemala, U.S.-backed countries with deplorable human rights records.

Programs on the Economy

More than one out of three guests (37%) on shows discussing the economy were corporate representatives; only one in twenty represented labor.

Corporate representatives were also more likely to appear early in the show, being three times as likely as labor voices to be heard before the first commercial break.

The Illusion of Balance

While Nightline often presents two sides of an issue by balancing an official view with a “critical” view, more often than not, the critical view was that of establishment insiders while progressive and public interest voices were generally excluded.

Bill Moyers, quoting a Newsday columnist, commented on TV’s balance: “It’s usually two experts out of the establishment who are called on this talk show or that show. It’s usually a politician, a pollster, a pundit, or a quote expert. It’s a very tiny sample of thought, of ideas, of language that gets on television… There’s another kingdom of thought out there that never gets tapped.”

Final Note

The study concludes by encouraging Nightline to greatly diversify its guests list, thereby becoming “a truly informative and educational program.”

FAIR commissioned this study because of Nightline‘s major role in setting the agenda for the nation’s policy debates and in certifying who is and is not an expert.

In delivering the study to Nightline, FAIR’s cover note recommended: “We encourage you to include more women and minorities on your panel. We hope you will look beyond all the usual suspects’ from the U.S. government/military establishment when booking guests to discuss foreign policy issues. We are hoping that in Nightline‘s future, strong critics of U.S. foreign policy will no longer be primarily foreigners (Soviets, Iranians, Nicaraguans, etc.) but also U.S. critics and dissenters.

In addition, FAIR urged Nightline “to include more leaders and experts from the various citizen movements (consumer rights, labor, environment, peace, etc.) that help keep American democracy alive. Your viewers are ill-served if Nightline is primarily a one-way street where those in government or corporate power speak to the public, but active citizens and public interest representatives don’t get to speak back.”