Is PBS too conservative? Is it "too balanced"? The radical leftists at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting have produced another stilted study of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer accusing the show of presenting "virtually the same voices as corporate media, voices that overwhelmingly represent those in power rather than the public PBS is obliged to serve."
This study can be picked apart in many ways, but let’s start close to home, where they’ve made at least one obvious factual error. Authors Steve Rendall and Julie Hollar complain about the exclusion of "public interest groups" from the debate: "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." MRC did not appear on the NewsHour in FAIR’s study period. We checked Nexis to double-check, even adding the Parents Television Council and CNSNews.com into the mix to see if our related groups were interviewed. No.
Now, let’s start with the big-picture problems with the study. The title of the study is "Are You on the NewsHour’s Guestlist?" But this isn’t really just a study of live studio guests, but also a study of taped soundbites: "Taped sources accounted for over three-quarters of the total." FAIR is now placing ads on the Internet (for example, at Mediabistro’s TV Newser) highlighting its finding that it’s skew of partisan guests was 66 percent Republican, 33 percent Democrat. But that includes every soundbite of President Bush (they said 102 appearances) and White House spokesman Scott McClellan (25), among others. They admit the partisan skew can be attributed in part to "heavy reliance on taped soundbites from administration officials."
This gave NewsHour defenders a very easy defense: how are they supposed to cover the news by ignoring the newsmakers? By simply counting talking heads in a government with a Republican White House and a Republican Congress, wouldn’t a talking-head skew actually be representative of the voters’ choices?
I would add that there is a stark difference in time between six-second McClellan soundbites and six-minute interview segments when evaluating the balance of a program. Twenty-five McClellan soundbites might add up to six minutes.
But FAIR’s overarching methodology has several major problems. The first is by merely counting heads rather than reading through content. One could watch network coverage of the Foley scandal right now and say it’s dominated by Republican talking heads, but it would be quite difficult to argue that the subject matter favors Republicans. More accurately, it’s grilling Republicans and driving up their negatives. As NewsHour’s Linda Winslow says, "Ultimately, as FAIR itself discovered, counting heads on a news program is meaningless unless you also analyze what they are saying."
But FAIR’s study also typically ignores or downplays serious liberal guests on the NewsHour. Each study that it does complains that news shows are poisoned by "elite sources" – current or former government officials – and are too shy on "public interest advocates" like Greenpeace. That works like this. If Sen. Joseph Biden comes on to trash Bush foreign policy, he doesn’t count in the FAIR study as a liberal. He’s merely a current government official, not a "public interest advocate."
For their part, the pubcasting community seems to welcome the FAIR study in a see-we're-not-liberal way. The insider newsletter Current leads with FAIR at the top of its home page. Reporter Steve Behrens wrote it up. They linked to the full report, and to PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler, who also analyzed the study in a fairly positive light, notably in passages like this:
As a viewer and journalist, I find the program occasionally frustrating; sometimes too polite, too balanced when issues are not really balanced, and too many political and emotion-laden statements pass without factual challenges from the interviewer.
Although the NewsHour, in my view, has done a solid and steady job of keeping the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in front of viewers, better than that done by the commercial networks, I thought the most important element of the FAIR critique was its point about the imbalance in views expressed about Iraq. This is the most controversial war since Vietnam, and its effects may be much longer lasting. I share the sense that strong voices in opposition have not been heard nearly as often as those who support a "stay the course" position or a slightly more moderate view.
The point about the relative lack of women guests also seems worthy of addressing. A similar gender gap on the NewsHour was pointed out in a survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism last year. Ironically, the NewsHour and its staff, although relatively small, is probably one of the most visibly diverse — in terms of women and minorities — of any major news organization. I have always given it high marks, personally, for both being diverse and seeming to understand its importance.
But the FAIR numbers certainly are worth studying. On one hand, the FAIR report appears like some affirmative action report card, and that is not the way news organizations operate in most situations. They look for the policy makers and the policy critics and experts. But this is an enormously diverse country and there is a definite advantage to broadening your Rolodex to include people other than those that are always easy to go back to. My impression was that the NewsHour did a pretty good job of this, but the numbers seem to present a different picture and so they probably need to do better.
How radical is FAIR? They are major fans of America-hating pundit Noam Chomsky (I remember one of their newsletters has an article titled, one word, in capital letters, with punctuation: "CHOMSKY!") Brent Bozell had a Chomsky take-down here.