Are You on the NewsHour's Guestlist?
PBS flagship news show fails public
by Steve Rendall & Julie Hollar
Extra / FAIR, October 2006
In 2005, Kenneth Tomlinson, chair of the
Corporation for Public Broadcasting and thus the person in charge
of disbursing federal public broadcasting funds sparked controversy
with his aggressive push to move PBS and NPR to the right. In
a series of public statements, Tomlinson, armed with a dubious
study of PBS shows he commissioned from a right-wing ideologue,
charged public broadcasting programming with harboring a liberal
bias (Extra!, 9-10/05). The study-which, among other things, classified
conservative Republicans Sen. Chuck Hagel and former Rep. Bob
Barr as "liberals" (Washington Post, 7/1/05)-was primarily
an attack on the program Now, formerly hosted by Bill Moyers,
and led Tomlinson to fund two new (and short-lived) conservative
shows for PBS: the Journal Editorial Report, a TV version of the
Wall Street Journal's rightwing editorial page, and Unfiltered,
hosted by conservative pundit Tucker Carl son.
At the same time, though, Tomlinson singled
out PBS's flagship news program, the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,
as a beacon of balance, telling a July 11, 2005 Senate hearing:
"Well, certainly in terms of the Jim Lehrer NewsHour, there
is no balance problem. That is great journalism" (Democracy
Now!, 7/12/05). Tomlinson's tribute echoed earlier praise of the
show by the National Conservative Political Action Conference,
which in 1987 declared what was then the MacNeil Lehrer/NewsHour
"the most balanced network news show" (Extra!, 10-11/89).
The CPB's omsbud, Ken Bode, a former PBS host and current fellow
at the conservative Hudson Institute, similarly lauded the NewsHour's
balance (CPB.org, 9/1/05): "On PBS, the NewsHour With Jim
Lehrer is the mothership of balance. It has been criticized most
often for going too far out of its way to provide both (or many)
points of view."
FAIR has consistently debunked the idea
that PBS as a whole leans to the left; corporate and investment-oriented
shows have long made up a large chunk of PBS's news and public
affairs programming, while more progressive content has frequently
met resistance and censorship at the network (Extra!, 9-10/05).
But what about the NewsHour?
In 1990, FAIR studied the NewsHour's guestlist
in comparison to ABC's Nightline (Extra!, Winter/90) and found
that the NewsHour, remarkably, presented "an even narrower
segment of the political spectrum." In light of continuing
questions of evenhandedness at PBS, FAIR has conducted a new study
of the NewsHour, 16 years later.
FAIR's latest study examined the program's
guestlist over a six-month period spanning October 2005 through
March 2006. The study recorded every on-air source appearing on
the show, including live and taped guests.
Each source was classified by occupation,
nationality, gender and ethnicity. Party affiliation and association
with political think tanks were noted where applicable.
Additionally, whenever possible, FAIR
categorized news segments by the subject covered and whether that
subject was domestic or international.
Altogether, the study counted 2,433 sources
featured in 606 segments. Taped sources accounted for over three-quarters
of the total, at 1872.
Groups that generally enjoy exceptional
access to public communications were particularly privileged on
the NewsHour, with five elite occupations dominating the list
in number of appearances. Current and former government officials,
including military officials, led all categories, accounting for
50 percent of total guests. Journalists amounted to 10 percent,
with academics at 8 percent, corporate guests at 5 percent and
think tank experts accounting for 3 percent. These five occupations
totaled 1,845 sources, or 76 percent of the program's total.
The NewsHour's five most frequent individual
sources were all current government officials, and four out of
five were Republicans: George W. Bush (102 appearances), White
House spokesperson Scott McClellan (25), Sen. Arlen Specter (R.Penn.)
(24), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (23) and Sen. Charles
Schumer (D.N.Y.) (19). Those sources appeared primarily in taped
segments; among guests in live segments, journalists dominated.
The top five guests in live segments were Edward Wong of the New
York Times (8 appearances), Marcia Coyle of the National Law journal
(7), and, with five appearances each, Jan Crawford Greenberg of
the Chicago Tribune, John Burns of the New York Times and Norman
Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
Comparing these figures to FAIR's 1990
study, official voices (current and former government officials)
held virtually steady, with 50 percent of current voices and 49
percent in 1990, as did corporate voices, 5 percent in both studies.
Journalists did not constitute their own category in the 1990
study, but were included among a larger grouping of professionals,
making direct comparison impossible.
With those elite sources accounting for
three in four NewsHour guests, other constituencies, organizations
and interests were bound to be slighted. The general public workers,
students and persons on the street- accounted for just 14 percent
of the sources on public broadcasting's premier news show. The
remaining 10 percent (not counted among the general public or
the elite groupings) consisted of a variety of sources, including
artists, actors, healthcare professionals and public interest
Public interest advocates
One might expect public interest advocates
sources representing civil rights, labor, consumer, environmental
and other citizen-based advocacy groups-to be well-represented
on public broadcasting. But such groups, which ranged from progressive
groups like the NAACP and Greenpeace to the conservative Federation
for American Immigration Reform and Media Research Center-provided
just 4 percent of NewsHour's guests (93 guests). With 28 sources,
or 1 percent of the total, the human rights/humanitarian classification
was the largest among public interests groups. Civil rights was
the next largest category, with 15 guests.
Public interest voices were even scarcer
in the current study than they were in 1990, when they made up
6 percent of NewsHour's sources. The NewsHour featured only slightly
more public interest sources than the network news shows, which,
according to a 2002 FAIR study (Extra!, 5-6/02), averaged 3 percent
public interest voices. Fellow public media outlet NPR, on the
other hand, was found to have 7 percent public interest sources
in a 2004 FAIR study (Extra!, 5-6/04).
Public interest representatives who might
serve as a counterweight to the 5 percent of NewsHour sources
who were corporate voices-sources representing labor, environmental
groups and consumer rights organizations-combined for less than
1 percent of the NewsHour's guestlist.
Women were substantially underrepresented
on the NewsHour, accounting for just 18 percent of overall sources.
This does mark an increase in representation for women since the
1990 study, when women made up an even more dismal 13 percent
of NewsHour sources, and it is a slightly greater percentage than
on the network news, where FAIR's 2002 study found women accounted
for only 15 percent of all sources. NPR provided slightly better
gender representation than the NewsHour, with 21 percent women
in FAIR's 2004 study.
Not only were they four times less likely
to appear on the NewsHour than men, women were nearly three times
as likely to be "general public" sources rather than
experts: 29 percent of women represented the general public, while
only 10 percent of men did. Women were also less likely to be
quoted in political stories, accounting for 17 percent of sources
in domestic political stories and 14 percent in international
political stories. On some stories, women's voices were even scarcer:
They made up only four of 43 sources in segments on domestic spying,
and on Supreme Court nominations-a subject closely connected to
the issue of reproductive rights-women were only 14 percent of
The NewsHour came close to gender balance
on one subject: education, where women were 17 of 32 sources.
The NewsHour focused not on education policy, but on profiles
of individual schools, where women make up 71 percent of the teaching
workforce (Census.gov, 4/22/04).
Education stories also had a high degree
of racial diversity, with people of color providing 50 percent
of all sources. Eleven of the 17 female sources in these segments
were women of color.
Despite the large proportion of women
of color, white men were still largely portrayed in the segments
as the experts. Seven of the women of color were teachers and
students who appeared in two special NewsHour segments called
"Turnaround Specialist," which followed a white principal
who left a high-performing suburban high school to attempt to
improve a low-performing and predominantly black school in Virginia.
The principal told NewsHour that all it takes to turn a school
around is "leadership, establishing a basic understanding
of respect among all parties, and that includes students. And
somebody had to do it."
White people dominated the NewsHour,
constituting 85 percent of U.S. sources
(76 percent of all sources). In 1990, that number stood at 90
percent. White males were 72 percent of US sources, while women
of color were only 6 percent.
Among U.S. sources, Latinos, who are 12
percent of the U.S. public, represented a strikingly small 2 percent.
Asian-Americans made up just 1 percent, and people of Mideastern
descent represented 1 percent of U.S. sources. Only one source
on the NewsHour was a Native American: Fenton Rexford (11/2/05),
the president of an Inupiat village in the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge, who supports oil drilling in the refuge.
African-Americans, though by far the most-represented
minority group at 9 percent, still failed to match their percentage
of the U.S. public, which stands at 12 percent. The higher percentage
of AfricanAmericans on the NewsHour relative to other racial minorities
can be attributed in large part to the program's coverage of Hurricane
Katrina during the period studied. Despite the fact that Katrina
was the subject of only 6 percent of all NewsHour segments and
accounted for less than 10 percent of all sources, nearly half
(46 percent) of all African-American sources appearing on the
NewsHour were featured in segments on Katrina; more than half
of those were general public sources. (See also the case study
on Katrina, pp. 24-25.) Excluding Katrina-related segments, African-Americans
accounted for only 6 percent of all U.S. sources, and whites accounted
for 88 percent.
The NewsHour's reliance on government
officials also translated into increased representation for people
of color because of two prominent Bush administration appointments:
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, appearing 21 times, accounted
for nearly 13 percent of African-American sources, while Attorney
General Alberto Gonzales' 11 appearances accounted for more than
30 percent of Latino sources.
People of color were more likely than
whites to appear as general public sources and less likely to
appear as authorities on any given subject on the NewsHour. While
people of color were only a quarter of all sources, they constituted
44 percent of general public sources; among authoritative sources,
they were only 20 percent.
Aside from segments on the funerals of
Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, two NewsHour segments during
the period studied focused directly on race in the United States:
reports on racial segregation in prisons (3/15/06) and racial
inequality in the U.S. (3/29/06). Those two segments featured
15 sources, six of whom were nonwhite. However, of those six,
four were current or former prisoners, while only two were expert
sources; of the nine white sources, two were prisoners and seven
were experts. All of the sources in those two segments were male.
Despite its failure to represent a true
cross-section of the racial diversity in this country, the NewsHour
still provides slightly more diversity than its network news counterparts,
where, according to FAIR's 2002 study, whites made up 92 percent
of U.S. sources.
Republican sources outnumbered Democrats
on the NewsHour by 2-to-I (66 percent vs. 33 percent of all partisan
NewsHour sources). Only one source represented a third party:
Letitia James, a New York City councilmember from the Working
Families Party, who appeared in two segments on a controversial
Brooklyn real-estate development.
Eight sources worked for both Democrats
and Republicans, making up less than 1 percent of all partisan
Some of the partisan skewing can be attributed
to the NewsHour's heavy reliance on taped soundbites from administration
officials, but even among live guests on the program, Republicans
outnumbered Democrats by a 3-to-2 ratio (77 vs. 52).
The NewsHour's 2-1 imbalance is greater
than NPR's skew towards Republicans, which stood at just over
3-to-2 (61 percent vs. 38 percent), (Extra!, 5-6/04), and less
than the 3-1 imbalance FAIR found on the networks (75 percent
vs. 24 percent), (Extra!, 5-6/02).
Think tanks provided only 3 percent of
the NewsHour's total sources; however, they contributed 14 percent
of live sources. The show's tendency to favor right over left
carried over into think tank sources, with sources from right-leaning
think tanks outnumbering those from left-leaning ones by 2-to-1,
37 percent to 19 percent. But centrist think tanks accounted for
a full 44 percent of sources, constituting the largest ideological
The NewsHour's favorite think tank was
the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which provided
10 sources for the show; the centrist Brookings Institute came
in a close second, with nine appearances. The centrist Council
on Foreign Relations appeared six times, followed by the conservative
Hoover Institution and the center-left International Crisis Group,
with four sources apiece. Of the remaining think tanks represented
on the program, none made more than two appearances during the
Overall, the NewsHour emphasized domestic
stories over international by roughly three to two (374 to 232).
The subject that garnered by far the most segments was Iraq, with
81, followed by Hurricane Katrina with 42. Supreme Court nominees
came in third with 41, then Israel/Palestine with 25. A closer
look at some of the major issues covered on the NewsHour reveals
some striking results.
The Iraq War was the most frequently featured
subject on the NewsHour, with 81 segments and 276 sources. Despite
the wide-ranging and international implications of the war, the
discussion on the NewsHour was quite circumscribed. White men
from the United States dominated the debate with 66 percent of
all sources; Iraqi sources accounted for only 15 percent, and
voices from other countries barely registered, at 3 percent. Among
U.S. sources, 88 percent were white and 90 percent were men.
Current and former U.S. government and
military officials constituted 57 percent of all sources, and
journalists made up 15 percent. In the entire six months studied,
not a single peace activist was heard on the NewsHour on the subject
of Iraq. The sole public interest voice was from the Washington
Kurdish Institute (10/14/05); Rend al-Rahim Francke also appeared
on the NewsHour (1/20/06) as head of the Iraq Foundation, but
her service as Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. under Iraq's first
interim government classified her as a former foreign official.
Of the government officials, Republicans
dramatically outnumbered Democrats, 72 per- cent to 28 percent.
The imbalance was virtually the same when only live segment guests
were considered (70 percent to 30 percent).
At the beginning of the Iraq War, a FAIR
study (Extra!, 6/03) of six national news shows including the
NewsHour found that they featured war supporters almost 24 times
as often as war critics: 71 percent of sources took an explicit
pro-war stance, vs. 3 percent expressing opposition. Despite PBS's
mandate to offer an alternative to commercial media, the NewsHour
in that study fell closely in line with its commercial competition,
with 66 percent pro-war sources vs. 3 percent antiwar.
The current study found the NewsHour to
have a continued aversion to antiwar voices. During the period
studied, polis found a large proportion of the U.S. public to
be in favor of withdrawing U.S. troops; according to the CBS News
poll (10/3-5/05, 1/5-8/06, 1/20-25/06), those in favor of having
"U.S. troops leave Iraq as soon as possible" ranged
from 59 percent to 44 percent, while those who supported keeping
troops there "as long as it takes" fluctuated between
50 percent and 36 percent.
But watching the NewsHour, viewers might
think there was almost no debate on the issue, let alone a sizable
constituency favoring withdrawal. Of the 276 NewsHour sources
who discussed Iraq, only 53 expressed an opinion on the subject
of U.S. troop withdrawal, and only eight of those sources argued
in favor of a timetable for withdrawal. (None argued for immediate
withdrawal.) Rep. John Murtha (D.-Penn.) accounted for five of
those pro-withdrawal sources, meaning only three different voices
were heard on the NewsHour advocating withdrawal. Those arguing
against withdrawal (41 sources) outnumbered the pro-withdrawal
sources by more than 5-to-I, while four sources took a middle
position critical of the Bush "stay the course" strategy
without advocating a timetable. Among live guests, the imbalance
grew to more than 10-to-1, with 22 sources arguing against withdrawal,
two in favor, and two taking a middle position.
Eighty-five percent of the sources who
discussed withdrawal were current or former U.S. government or
military officials; 92 percent were white and 92 percent were
male. The sole Iraqi voice on withdrawal was Ahmed Chalabi, the
prominent Iraqi whose fantastical WMD stories made him a darling
of the Bush administration and the media and garnered him the
presidency of the Iraqi interim governing council after the U.S.
invasion. In his NewsHour appearance, Chalabi expressed his support
(11/15/05) for a watered-down Republican Senate resolution that
thwarted a Democrat-sponsored timetable resolution by calling
for gradual troop reductions with no timetable-this at a time
when 70 percent of Iraqis favored withdrawal of U.S. troops (PIPA,
Republicans outnumbered Democrats on the
subject of withdrawal nearly 2-to-I (27 to 14). Because of the
Democrats' own split on the issue, however, even those figures
understate the imbalance of opinion on the NewsHour. Murtha, a
Vietnam vet, publicly announced his support for withdrawal during
the period studied (11/17/05), and four of his five appearances
occurred November 17-21. The only other Democrat to argue for
withdrawal was Sen. Jack Reed (D.-R.I.). The other two pro-withdrawal
sources were Retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, a fellow at the
conservative Hudson Institute and Ronald Reagan's National Security
Agency director, and Morris White, a World War II veteran interviewed
in a segment looking at attitudes toward the war in the town of
NewsHour regulars David Brooks, Mark Shields
and Tom Oliphant also discussed withdrawal on a few occasions.
Conservative Brooks explicitly opposed withdrawal in four discussions
(11/18/05, 11/26/05, 12/2/05, 12/30/05); his "from the left"
partner in one discussion (11/18/05), Oliphant, backed Murtha's
timetable suggestion, while the "left" representative
on another occasion (11/26/05), Shields, noted that a majority
of the public wanted out of Iraq, but did not directly argue for
Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf coast
of Louisiana and Mississippi on August 29, 2005, just over a month
before the beginning of the period studied, and the storm and
its effects continued to gamer coverage on the NewsHour throughout
those six months. After producing eight segments in October, the
first month of the study, NewsHour coverage dropped by about half
until February, which brought congressional hearings on the government
emergency response to Katrina and 14 related segments. In total,
FAIR recorded 42 NewsHour segments and 240 sources related to
The NewsHour's Katrina coverage marked
a noteworthy, if isolated, increase in the diversity of voices
heard on the program. This is largely because of a dramatic shift
in the balance between government and general public sources:
Katrina segments featured 35 percent general public sources and
only 34 percent current and former government and military sources-in
stark contrast to the average NewsHour segment, with 50 percent
government and military and 14 percent general public. Public
interest voices were still a remarkably low 5 percent of the total.
New Orleans, the focus of much of the
media's Katrina coverage, had a majority African-American population,
and AfricanAmerican sources were much more extensively represented
in Katrina segments than in other NewsHour segments, as one of
every three sources.
But while more African-American faces
were seen on the NewsHour during its Katrina coverage, those African-Americans
were largely presented as hapless victims rather than leaders
or experts. In segments on the human impact of the storm, AfricanAmericans
made up 51 percent of sources a logical increase, since the majority
of those most affected by Katrina were AfricanAmerican. But when
the NewsHour covered the reconstruction effort, whites dominated
the segments with 72 percent of sources, squeezing out African-Americans
whose lives were no less affected by the reconstruction than they
were by the storm itself. Fifty-nine percent of all AfricanAmerican
sources across Katrina segments were general public sources.
The gender imbalance was also slightly
lessened in Katrina segments, with 29 percent women to 71 percent
men. As with race, this increase in representation can largely
be attributed to the NewsHour's greatly increased use of general
public sources on Katrina segments. Sixty-four percent of women
in these segments were members of the general public rather than
elites or experts.
That increase in general public sources
does bring greater diversity and new voices to the NewsHour, but
the show still largely failed to bring a representative range
of authoritative voices to its roster of experts. This was starkly
evident in the live segments on Katrina, where in-studio guests
got to expound at some length, and where the NewsHour's diversity
plummeted. Of 20 live sources, 19 were male and 16 white; current
and former government officials dominated, with 14, and no public
interest voices were heard.
In the six months studied, the NewsHour
featured 10 segments on immigration, with
a total of 58 sources. Nearly half (28) were government officials,
while only six were public interest voices; Republicans outnumbered
Democrats by more than 2-to-l (16 to 7). On an issue inextricably
tied up with race, only 16 of the 58 sources (28 percent) were
people of color-and half of those were general public sources
rather than leaders or advocates.
The immigration debate does not fall neatly
along partisan lines, so party numbers alone do not tell the whole
story. In the House, Republican leadership pushed through an enforcement-only
bill that proposed criminalization of undocumented workers and
those who assist them and construction of a wall on the Mexican
border. In the Senate, the Republicans split, and a bipartisan
majority passed a bill that called for increased border enforcement
and a guest worker program, with a path to citizenship for undocumented
immigrants - a plan that George W. Bush also backed. Of partisan
NewsHour sources, seven took criminalization or border enforcement
positions, while seven argued for the Senate bill or a guest worker
program. Three argued for an approach between the two, and Bush,
touting his border enforcement plus guest worker plan, accounted
for five sources.
But if the NewsHour roughly balanced the
debate as it stands in Congress and the White House, it failed
almost completely to include voices outside that narrow Beltway
framework. Many immigrants, immigrant rights groups and other
progressive groups criticize both the House and Senate bills,
pushing instead for a reform that does not further militarize
the border or create a guest worker program that would formalize
the unequal status of some immigrants (Extra!, 5-6/06). The proposed
Senate bill, while offering a path to citizenship, also throws
many obstacles in that path, not the least of which are fines
and fees totaling thousands of dollars, prohibitive for many low-wage
But despite the NewsHour's public interest
mandate, only one source of the 58 on the NewsHour, Xiomara Corpeno,
director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles,
expressed any of this criticism (3/27/06), emphasizing that those
who participated in the massive March protests were marching for
"legalization with a path to citizenship, not a temporary
work program." Corpeno also mentioned the "exorbitant
amount of fines that people have to pay" to become citizens
under the proposed legislation.
Among live segment guests, the NewsHour
did shift away from its heavy reliance on both whites and government
officials: Six of the 14 live segment guests were people of color,
and only two were government sources. Think tank representatives
dominated with five appearances, which were tilted towards the
right, with three conservative think tanks, one progressive, and
one centrist. Four public interest guests appeared, three representing
immigrant rights groups and one from the anti-immigrant Federation
for American Immigration Reform.
Jim Lehrer recently explained to CJR Daily
(6/2/06) how he views his job at the NewsHour: "My part of
journalism is to present what various people say the best we
can find out [by] reporting m not in the judgment part of journalism.
I'm in the reporting part of journalism."
But the decision about exactly which "various
people" will be given the opportunity to say what they wish
about events is a crucial "judgment part" of journalism.
As the anchor and executive editor, Lehrer bears much responsibility
for those decisions, and as FAIR's study shows, the judgments
that Lehrer and the NewsHour have made present viewers with virtually
the same voices heard in corporate media, voices that overwhelmingly
represent those in power rather than the public that PBS is obliged
Research assistance: Chris Famighetti,
Igor Voisky' and Rachael Liberman.
Broadcast Media watch