Revelations last fall that Public Broadcasting System member stations
swapped donor lists with the Democratic National Committee have revived
the accusation of a "liberal bias" in PBS programming. The charge has
been leveled at the commercial networks as well. If the bias exists,
presumably it would manifest itself in talking-heads TV, the Sunday and
weeknight shows devoted to debate and discussion on the issues of the
day. But a rundown of regular boob-tube talkers reveals a decided tilt
to the right.
Consider PBS's weekly political shows. National Review editor and
conservative standard-bearer William F. Buckley has just retired from
Firing Line after 33 years. John McLaughlin, former National Review
columnist and adviser to President Richard Nixon, hosts the popular
gabfest McLaughlin Group. Neoconservative Ben Wattenberg hosts Think
Washington Week in Review, a roundtable of cautious establishment
journalists rehashing the week's news, is hosted by cautious moderate
Gwen Ifill. The newest political show, To the Contrary, featuring
female talking heads, is hosted by Bonnie Erbe. I haven't detected any
ideological leanings from her on the few occasions I've surfed across
Another weekly show with political overtones, Wall Street Week, is
hosted by conservative Louis Rukeyser. Five mornings and five evenings
a week Morning Business Report and Nightly Business Report look at the
economy from the viewpoint of the generally conservative business
The weeknight show Charlie Rose often resembles the business shows, with
Rose fawning over a steady stream of stockmarket gurus and savvy CEOs,
as well as the occasional wine-tasting expert. Rose responded to a 1999
letter from consumer advocate Ralph Nader, complaining about the
guest-list tilt, by booking Nader, Texas populist Jim Hightower, and
Rolling Stone political editor William Greider to share a single
30-minute segment. Which progressives will feast on this year's
30-minute crumb? Write Rose with your suggestions.
The other weeknight show, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, reflects the
moderate conservatism of the host. The left-leaning media watchdog
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has conducted studies of The
NewsHour and has consistently found a pro-corporate, anti-grassroots
guest list dominated by white male current and former government
officials of conservative or centrist bent, who rarely are asked tough
Several years ago The NewsHour responded to pressure from FAIR by adding
Progressive magazine editor Erwin Knoll to its roundup of regional
editors, a periodic feature where six editors debate hot issues). Knoll
provided a unique perspective until his untimely death. His
replacement, Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle (who has since been
canned), fit smack dab in the middle. Appropriately so, because
Barnicle isn't a liberal but an "operative liberal," which may be
defined as "anyone who is not a staunch conservative."
"Operative liberals" provide the appearance of balance on PBS as well as
the commercial networks' chat shows. To borrow a line from FAIR, the
"I'm-not-a-leftist-but-I-play-one-on-TV" crowd includes Juan Williams,
Mara Liason, Morton Kondracke, David Broder, George Stephanopoulos, Mark
Shields, Sam Donaldson and Eleanor Clift. These bright, articulate
middle-of-the-roaders merit their regular seats, but they're not the
ideological opposite numbers of such Sunday fixtures as Tony Snow, Brit
Hume, George Will, William Kristol, Fred Barnes, Pat Buchanan (currently
on gasbag sabbatical to run for president), Tony Blankley, Michael
Barone, Buckley, McLaughlin and Wattenberg.
Some viewers think Donaldson is liberal because he's loud. Loud doesn't
equal liberal. Some consider Clift liberal because she supports
Clinton. Clinton doesn't equal liberal. Some consider Stephanopolous
liberal because he wore his hair long at the White House. Long hair
hasn't equaled liberal since 1968.
On ABC, Stephanopolous does not balance pompous conservative Will;
ex-Clinton officials Robert Reich or Peter Edelman would. These
principled liberals objected to Clinton's catering to the rich and
gutting the safety net; Stephanopolous did not. Neither he nor
Donaldson raises a ruckus over bloated defense budgets, crumbling
infrastructure, draconian drug laws and their unequal enforcement, trade
agreements devoid of labor and environmental protections, a duplicitous
foreign policy that underwrites repression when it suits our interests
(Turkey, Colombia, Indonesia), and opposes it when it doesn't (Kosovo),
or Iraqi sanctions that have killed perhaps a million civilians who
never made a single "weapon of mass destruction."
A mixture of genuine liberals and lefties would place such issues front
and center. They would ask the unasked questions and invite the
uninvited guests. They would enrich and enliven talking-head TV while
providing genuine balance. Qualified, charasmatic candidates abound,
though most are unknown to the general public for the obvious reason
they're rarely seen.
Critics on the left maintain that media moguls don't believe in a "free
marketplace of ideas." The critics say moguls prefer the current rigged
system, where they alone determine which ideas get to compete in the
On the off-chance the critics have unfairly
maligned the moguls, or if this essay has persuaded boob-tube barons to
broaden the debate, I propose this seismic chat-show shift:
ABC: This Week with Noam and Cokie. America's most admired and reviled
dissident, Noam Chomsky (L), joins Roberts (C-R) in selection and
questioning of guests. George Will (R) and Clarence Page (C-L) round
out roundtable discussion.
Nightline. Host Ted Koppel (C-R), a virtual State Department spokesman
whenever the U.S. bombs or threatens to, barred from national security
issues; such shows to be handled by Koppel's new co-host, FAIR executive
director Jeff Cohen (L), a gifted communicator and master at dissecting
NBC: Meet the Press. Hawkish ultra-establishmentarian Tim Russert
(C-R) balanced by new co-host, Pacifica Radio's gutsy
anti-establishmentarian Amy Goodman (L). Bow-tied right-winger Tucker
Carlson provides commentary.
Fox: Fox News Sunday. Rupert Murdoch duplicates Ally McBeal's
successful "sassy-black-roommate" formula, pairing holdover host Tony
Snow (R) with wise-cracking economist and pundit Julianne Malveaux (L).
Panelist Mara Liason (C) now flanked by Mother Jones money-trail
specialist Ken Silverstein (L) and Fred Barnes (R).
CBS: Face the Nation. Bob Schieffer (C) shares interviewing with
Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel (L) and one of a dozen rotating
PBS: Morning Business Report (R) continues, but Nightly Business Report
(R) gives way to Nightly Labor Report, with Charles Kernaghan (L),
perpetual thorn in Kathie Lee Gifford's side, and Robert Kuttner,
economist and editor of the liberal American Prospect.
Consumer Week, with Ralph Nader and Joan Claybrook (L), precedes Wall
Street Week (R) each Friday.
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (C-R) and Doris Kearns Goodwin (L), the
latter elevated from semi-regular talking-head historian to cohost with
mandate to diversify guest list. Roving correspondent Charles Krause
(C) splits duties with Allan Nairn (L), foremost authority on the
relationships of U.S. military and intelligence with repressive
client-state armies and death squads. (First assignment: Colombia.)
Media correspondent Terence Smith (C-R) alternates segments with
preeminent media critic Edward S. Herman (L). Ruth Conniff (L),
Washington editor of the Progressive, joins Mark Shields (C) and Paul
Gigot (R) for Friday debate. David Gergen (R) continues with special
McLaughlin Group. Blowhard McLaughlin (R) remains as host. Two
newcomers, acerbic essayist Barbara Ehrenreich (L) and author-activist
Randall Robinson (L), join holdovers Clift (C) and Barone (R); latter
dropped when Buchanan ends presidential bid.
Firing Line. Christopher Buckley (R) succeeds his father, William F.
Think Tank. Wattenberg (R) replaced as host by Robert Borosage (L) of
liberal group Campaign for America's Future.
To the Contrary. No changes.
Charlie Rose. Host no longer required, as entire hour eaten up by
Washington Week in Review replaced by Quilting with Broder.
Dennis Hans is a writer and pundit whose work has
appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the
San Francisco Chronicle, the National Post (Canada), In These Times and
online at Mother Jones, Working Assets and Z Magazine, among other
outlets. He lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he's an occasional
adjunct professor of mass communications and American foreign policy at
the University of South Florida. He can be reached at
©2000 Working Assets