May 31 2000

Nightline Responds on One-Sided China Panel

On the eve of the congressional vote on permanent normal trading relations (PNTR) with China, ABC‘s Nightline (5/23/00) featured a show on the subject with three guests–former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Senator Alan Simpson and former ambassador to China Winston Lord–all of whom were Republicans who favored passage of the trade bill.

FAIR urged activists to ask Nightline for an explanation of why the show was so one-sided. (See Commendably, Nightline senior producer Richard Harris responded promptly to letter-writers with the email below. Yet his message raises more questions than it answers, claiming, among other things, that the show “never intended to have a debate” about PNTR:

A number of viewers questioned our coverage of the China Trade bill. They asked why we did not establish a debate between representatives of the two sides of the issue. It was our feeling by the time that we went on the air, the vote was really not in doubt.

Rather than repeat a series pro/con debates which had played out on television broadcasts and on op-ed pages across the country, we decided to take a different tack. Why has China galvanized the Congress and White House over many years to consistently approve most favored nation trade status, while politicians across the spectrum–including presidents–have railed against human rights abuses in China?

To discuss that question, we invited a former speaker of the House, a former Senator who had to vote over many years on the question and a former ambassador to China who helped Nixon open relations in 1972. Yes, all three favor PNTR. But we never intended to have a debate on the pending legislation. Perhaps we should have made clear at the outset of the broadcast that this would not be a conventional pro/con program.

Over the years, Nightline has done many programs on human rights abuses in China and interviewed dissidents. Judge us over time, not simply on whether an individual program is balanced.

We appreciate all your comments and take them in the spirit you wrote them.

The most obvious question raised by Harris’ note is why Nightline declined to cover what was arguably the year’s most hotly contested congressional vote until after the outcome “was really not in doubt.” Does Nightline really believe that issues should not be debated because one side looks likely to win? That would make sense only if one assumes that the winning side is always right.

Harris urges viewers to “judge us over time, not simply on whether an individual program is balanced,” but Nightline very seldom deals with trade issues. The May 23 broadcast was the first discussion that focused on trade with China (or anywhere else) since May 1997, according to a search of the Nexis database.

Nightline seems to have had no debate on China’s trading status since 1991 (5/29/91), when the question was whether to extend most-favored nation status. In this context, it’s difficult to see the remarkably partisan May 23 broadcast as part of a larger balance.

It’s also unclear why Nightline‘s feeling that PNTR would pass should have foreclosed any balanced discussion of the bill’s implications. Why is it appropriate to discuss the question of “why has China galvanized the Congress and White House over many years to consistently approve most favored nation trade status” without including anyone who disagrees with that policy? Surely opponents would have a different perspective on the question.

Furthermore, if Nightline “never intended to have a debate on the pending legislation,” where were ABC News viewers supposed to go for such a debate? The other ABC News program that occasionally presents such discussions, This Week With Sam and Cokie, addressed the issue by interviewing PNTR proponents Madeline Albright (5/21/00) and Senator Tom Daschle (5/7/00). (It’s worth noting that Disney, ABC‘s parent company, is highly invested in trade with China and lobbied strongly for PNTR.)

Nightline‘s response to the increasingly contentious debate over globalization has been, by and large, to ignore it. Even when Seattle and Washington, D.C. were largely shut down by anti-globalization protests, Nightline passed up the opportunity to explore the concerns of those who question the benefits of “free trade.” (See In a response to FAIR’s action alert on the WTO, Nightline executive producer Tom Bettag suggested that further discussion of trade issues would be forthcoming: “As for the serious issues underlying the protests, Nightline has done many broadcasts exploring them. It will do many more.”

In fact, Nightline has done no shows that addressed globalization issues since the Seattle protests–until the May 23 broadcast with three PNTR proponents. The program did, however, find time for 15 shows on Elian Gonzalez.