May 13 2011

Lehrer Steps Down

Will NewsHour do more to fulfill PBS mission?

PBS NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer announced on Thursday that he would step down as anchor of the nightly newscast early next month. Will the change lead to improvements at the program?

As FAIR has documented in several major studies, the NewsHour falls well short of fulfilling the mission that should guide public broadcasting: the promotion of ideas and viewpoints that are too often excluded from discussions in the commercial media. The founding mandate of public television is to “be a forum for debate and controversy” and to “help us see America whole, in all its diversity.”

Unfortunately, the NewsHour‘s programming largely replicates the elite bias of network newscasts, featuring the views of powerful interests (military, government and corporate officials) while mostly sidelining citizen groups, public interest advocates, labor unions and the like.

FAIR’s 2010 study of the NewsHour (Extra!, 11/10) found:

  • Sources drawn from elite institutions and occupations predominated, providing 74 percent of total sources. These were mostly current and former government officials, including military officials, who accounted for 44 percent of total sources. Corporate voices provided 10 percent of the NewsHour‘s guests, while public interest advocates provided just 4 percent.
  • Women made up just 20 percent of the total sources–and were three times more likely to be “general public” sources rather than experts. Non-Hispanic whites accounted for 82 percent of U.S. sources.
  • In coverage of the BP oil spill, a prominent story during the study period, oil industry representatives appeared four times as often as environmental advocates.
  • On the Afghan War, 70 percent of sources were current or former government and military officials. The NewsHour featured no guest identified as an opponent of the war or expressing antiwar views.

FAIR’s 2010 study found that little had changed since its original landmark study of the NewsHour in 1990 (FAIR press release, 5/21/90), when the 19 most frequent guests included nine U.S. officials (six of whom were conservatives) and four “experts” from elite Beltway institutions. Ninety percent of guests were white and 87 percent male, while only 6 percent of its guests represented public interest, labor or racial/ethnic groups. Out of seven segments on the

Exxon Valdez oil spill, not a single one included an environmental representative.

FAIR’s 2006 study (Extra!, 9-10/06) showed similar results: Public interest groups accounted for just 4 percent of total sources, while current and former government and military officials totaled 50 percent of all sources. Male sources outnumbered women more than 4-to-1. At a time when a large proportion of the U.S. public favored withdrawal from Iraq, “stay the course” sources outnumbered withdrawal advocates more than 5-to-1, while not a single peace activist was heard on the subject of Iraq. Among partisan sources, Republicans outnumbered Democrats on the NewsHour by 2-to-1.

Lehrer will continue to moderate Friday “debate” segments that usually feature conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks and TV liberal Mark Shields–exactly the type of conventional, safe programming that public television should leave to the commercial networks and Sunday chat shows.

Of course, the elite bias at the NewsHour long documented by FAIR is not entirely attributable to the person sitting in the anchor chair. But for viewers who hope that public television could produce a newscast that fulfills the purpose of public broadcasting, Lehrer’s exit could be an opportunity to begin moving in that direction.