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Published on Friday, February 18, 2000 by Working Assets
"This Week" With Noam and Cokie
by Dennis Hans

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 Tank.

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 the show.

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 community.

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 questions.

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 "free" marketplace.

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 official propaganda.

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 right-wing blondes.

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 interviews.

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. (R).

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 corporate-underwriting messages.

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

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