Oct
07
2005

CBS Explains All-GOP Panel

Wanted to avoid "partisan fight"

CBS's new Public Eye editor Vaughn Ververs has posted two responses to activists who questioned CBS's imbalanced October 2 Face the Nation segment on Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay's indictment. As a FAIR Action Alert pointed out (10/4/05), the segment featured a panel of three Republicans and no Democrats. Portions of Ververs' responses are below. (Click on the cbsnews.com links below to read the full responses.) FAIR's comments follow the excerpts.

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http://www.cbsnews.com/blogs/2005/10/04/publiceye/printable913720.shtml

PE spoke with "Face the Nation" Executive Producer Carin Pratt, who explained the thinking behind the segment. Pratt said that, given the events of the past weeks, she "didn’t want it to get into a partisan fight" over the character, vices or virtues of DeLay or Democratic prosecutor Ronnie Earle. "The fact of the matter," Pratt said is that DeLay "had already been indicted."...

I have no problem with the premise of the segment. Had all three been on for the entire show, critics may have had a more legitimate beef, but one ten-minute segment? Relax. It is not uncommon for a high-ranking administration official to appear on multiple shows for large blocks of time to get their message out, so three congressmen for ten minutes seems in-bounds....

As for Schieffer's "failure" to "provide critical questioning," that's a call for anyone who saw the show or read the transcript to make. I would just add a couple thoughts. First, the opening segment of the show focused on Iraq with General John Abizaid, not really a topic working in favor of the Republican Party these days. Second, Schieffer closed with a rather scathing take on the Bush administration vis a vis the Judy Miller saga, concluding with this line: "If these past weeks have taught us anything, it is we need to know a lot more than the government seems willing to tell us about any number of things."

And critics see Republican advantage in all this?

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In a follow-up post, Verver continued:

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http://www.cbsnews.com/blogs/2005/10/06/publiceye/entry918254.shtml

The bulk of the criticism we've gotten is aimed at the idea, voiced by host Bob Schieffer during the show, that the DeLay indictment was a "Republican problem." I thought Carin Pratt, the program's executive producer, explained the thinking behind the show pretty well, but allow me to elaborate.

Pratt told me she did not want to get into a "partisan fight" over the actual DeLay indictment but instead was interested in pursuing a discussion about how it adds to the myriad of problems impacting the GOP at this time - falling poll numbers for President Bush, lagging support for the war in Iraq, strong criticism for the government’s handling of the Katrina response and concerns about growing spending to name a few. In that sense, it is a "Republican problem," and it is that sense Schieffer was speaking of.

From the perspective of someone who spends a lot of time flipping around various news programs and seeing the same "Republican talking points" v. "Democrat talking points" arguments, I appreciate any effort to break out of that formula. One of the complaints about the media is its monolithic tendency for it all to cover the same story in the same way. Another frequent criticism is television's reliance on the "Crossfire" approach of getting proponents from each side to yell at one another.

There is no mathematical formula that demands equal numbers of proponents on both sides of every story or issue. The very idea that there are only two points of view to anything seriously shortchanges people's ability of individual thought. So why not use ten minutes trying to discuss the story's impact on the Republican Party? At last glance, that party pretty much controls the federal government and conditions appearing to possibly threaten that hold seem interesting and newsworthy.

Of course the DeLay story is much, much more than just a "Republican story." If the bulk of the coverage has not reflected that or if Democrats have not found a way to speak to it, there would be a real problem. But in fact, the bulk of the coverage has been full of partisan talking points. To take ten minutes out of a week's worth of massive media coverage and claim some sort of bias is stretching reality.

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We appreciate Ververs taking the time to respond.

He acknowledged that all three of Face the Nation's Republican guests "were pretty much on party message," but he held up the few moments of slight dissent among the three to argue that critics from the left might want to see more stacked segments like this, in order to watch "your opponent suffer self-inflicted wounds." It is doubtful that the right would have preferred watching solely Democratic politicians frame the responses to Clinton-era scandals to the more balanced coverage Face the Nation actually provided of those controversies.

More importantly, exploring the minor disagreements between moderate and conservative Republicans hardly makes for hard-hitting journalism, nor does it provide a broad spectrum of opinion on problems that affect the entire country, not just Republican politicians. If CBS wanted to avoid a partisan fight, nonpartisan experts on campaign finance could have been brought on to discuss the impact of DeLay's fundraising structures on the U.S. political system--examining the controversy in terms of its real impact on the country rather than treating it as a political football.

Of course, as Ververs writes, there are surely more than just two points of view on a given subject. But is that any kind of defense of presenting only one point of view? Ververs--who was a deputy press secretary for Pat Buchanan's 1992 presidential campaign--laments the "Crossfire" format of pairing Republican talking points against Democrat talking points, writing: "I appreciate any effort to break out of that formula." Is offering just one set of talking points really the best way to break out?

His citing an interview with Abizaid on the same show as further evidence that Face the Nation did not tilt toward a "Republican advantage" is puzzling; Abizaid, as the head of U.S. Central Command, spent the entire interview defending U.S. policy and touting progress in Iraq. Drawing attention to the fact that no guests were critical of Republicans or the administration on the entire show does not make a good case for CBS's evenhandedness. The fact that things are going poorly for Republicans and the administration does not make it somehow balanced to invite them on to air their positions while excluding their critics.