PBS is reportedly in final talks with Newsweek editor Jon Meacham to be co-host of its forthcoming Need to Know program (New York Times, 3/9/10). Meacham’s consideration for a show that would replace hard-hitting independent programs Now and the Bill Moyers Journal sends a clear and troubling message about PBS‘s priorities (Extra! Update, 6/05).
Meacham is a fixture on commercial pundit shows in addition to his Newsweek duties. In these venues, he is a consummate purveyor of middle-of-the-road conventional wisdom with a conservative slant. After the 2008 election, Meacham (10/27/08) authored an article on America as a “center-right nation”–a conclusion based on dubious historical analogies (Sarah Palin is a kind of Thomas Jefferson) and cherry-picking national election results, casting aside evidence that would undermine the conclusion (FAIR Blog, 10/19/08).
He recently (FAIR Blog, 11/30/09) cheered on a Dick Cheney presidential run as “good for the Republicans and good for the country.” Meacham had just months earlier (FAIR Blog, 1/12/09) argued that any critical investigations into the Bush/Cheney record on torture would be pointless (“the rough equivalent of pornography,” as he put it).
Meacham’s approach to journalism seems to be antithetical to the hard-hitting approach of Moyers and Now; he’s called on journalists to “cover other institutions as you would want to be covered,” with “charity and dignity and respect” (Meet the Press, 1/1/06). This Golden Rule approach to news was illustrated when he intervened in a Newsweek online story about Joe Scarborough, a personal friend who often invites Meacham on his cable show, to remove from the lead the fact that Scarborough had served as the defense attorney for the murderer of an abortion provider (FAIR Blog, 6/11/09).
Of course, some sources get more than their share “charity, dignity and respect,” as when Meacham remarked about interviewing Rev. Billy Graham (Imus in the Morning, 6/27/05): “It was amazing. I went in and I realized this is what God probably was going to look like. The white hair, the blue eyes, he’ll have a Southern accent, that’s the way it should be, I think.”
While Now and Bill Moyers Journal are notable for holding politicians feet to the fire, Meacham uses much more generous standards. After Cheney and right-wing Democratic Sen. Zell Miller gave speeches at the 2004 Republican National Convention that were filled with blatant distortions–accusing Democratic candidate John Kerry of being opposed to all U.S. weapons systems because he had voted against a Pentagon appropriations bill, for instance (FAIR Media Advisory, 9/3/04)–Meacham (MSNBC, 9/1/04) called it “a brilliant tactical night, one of the most brilliant in the age of television. These were two concise, rather devastating rhetorical hits at John Kerry…. They did not miss anything that they could hit.”
Following the November 2009 announcement about the retirement of Moyers and the cancellation of Now, FAIR launched a petition (12/16/09) signed by over 14,000 people, calling on PBS to develop new programming that would feature the independent, outside-the-Beltway perspectives that appeared on those programs. PBS‘s response (1/22/10) was a recycled press release that didn’t address any of the activists’ concerns, instead asserting vaguely that “PBS is committed to maintaining the highest level of news and public affairs programming.” This announcement suggests that that “highest level” is going downhill fast.
ACTION: Please write to PBS and tell them that choosing Jon Meacham to host Need to Know would mean that public television still needs to find suitable replacements for the hard-hitting, independent journalism of Now and Bill Moyers Journal.
Michael Getler, PBS Ombud