STUDY: Be My (Leftist) Guest: How PBS’s False Objectivity Poisons Political Debate

March 27th, 2023 11:02 AM

The taxpayer-subsidized Public Broadcasting Service, or PBS, established in 1969, has an outdated reputation for delivering a polite, objective take on the news of the day, exemplified by its flagship evening news program, now called the PBS NewsHour.

But a new Media Research Center study deflates that outdated assumption, tracking and labeling every guest that appeared on the NewsHour over a four-month period, November 2022 through February 2023, and found that liberal-Democratic guests outnumbered conservative-Republican guests 126-34, a ratio of 3.7 to 1.

When elected officials and political appointees were removed from the guest count, the disparity was even more striking, with liberal-Democratic guests outnumbering conservative-Republican guests 91-16, a ratio of 5.7-to-1. Identifiably liberal journalists (including Caitlin Dickerson of The Atlantic and Kate Sosin of The 19th News) appeared a total of ten times as guests, while no conservative journalist made the cut (see methodology below).

The findings reveal the profound skew of PBS’s flagship news program toward the left side. Besides the standard academic apologists for Democrats and Democratic policy, some guests were truly radical choices, more suited to hard-left MSNBC than a taxpayer-funded, ostensibly “straight” newscast. The numbers break against the old, misleading image of public broadcasting as a safe haven from the loud, partisan voices of cable news, of old-school hosts Robert McNeil and Jim Lehrer solemnly intoning the facts of the day. Instead, liberal topics discussed by liberal guests dominate the NewsHour, with virtually no ideological back-and-forth debate.


As she departed the anchor desk on December 30, 2022, long-time show host Judy Woodruff said: “Thank you for trusting us to tell it straight.”

Even as Woodruff ushered in new show hosts Geoff Bennett and Amna Nawaz, however, the show was carrying its same left-leaning world view into the new year, on “woke” matters like “transgender rights” and “structural racism” as well as more traditional liberal topics like gun control and abortion.

The PBS NewsHour’s unapologetic liberal tilt was all the more striking for being a partially taxpayer-funded entity. 

Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, invited on the NewsHour to “break down the network of anti-democracy, far-right figures that traffic in extremism” (and who also appears on MSNBC), ranted about the alleged parallels between Brazil’s ex-strongman Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, and went further: “Well, it is important to see the Republican Party today as not only a party that is dedicated to destroying democracy at home.”

Ben-Ghiat regularly showcases her radicalism on Twitter, attacking Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for suggesting not allowing students cellphones in class, saying "He is so dangerous in every way. Truly an authoritarian personality.” That tweet was apparently deleted, but this one remains up: "Ron DeSantis will destroy our democracy with deadly precision. I cannot emphasize enough how dangerous he is."  

The NewsHour also hosted Moya Bailey, author of the book Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women's Digital Resistance, and not one but two sympathetically portrayed “drag queens” in separate stories. Host Nawaz asked Sarah Kate Ellis, president of the radical Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, “When you talk about the attacks and the threats specifically on these drag story time events, is it fair to link those to the ramped-up rhetoric that we have seen from far right Republicans?” Ellis agreed: “Absolutely.”

Turning to the green movement, the NewsHour ran a feature on a folksinger who sung of the upcoming environmental apocalypse. Jamie Henn of Fossil Free Media, who pressures advertising companies to stop working for the fossil fuel industry, bragged that “we have had the House Oversight Committee actually looking into this issue of false advertising and climate deception.” Again, no opposing voices were heard.

Dr. Peter Hotez, whose Covid hysteria helped keep schools shuttered in many blue states, came on ostensibly to talk about strep throat in children, but blamed “anti-vaccine, anti-science aggression coming from activists” for Covid deaths. 

Another segment featured two liberal professors, Kim Lane Scheppele of Princeton and Cynthia Miller-Idriss of American University's Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab, or PERIL, expressing identical fear-mongering about right-wing extremism (it’s never the left-wing kind at PBS). Miller-Idriss suggested the Republican fight over House Speaker was how “democracy gets eroded here, and some of it is happening from right from within,” as if repeated examples of actual democratic voting somehow erodes democracy. 

Again, no conservative voices were invited on to dissent.

While host interactions with liberal guests were invariably friendly and non-confrontational, some conservative guests got the Darth Vader treatment. The introduction Rep. Lisa McClain received from host Geoff Bennett could have been written on yellow caution tape: “First elected to Congress in 2020, McClain voted against certifying Arizona and Pennsylvania electors for President Biden's victory and has denied the valid results of the election that year.” Yet the actual interview with McClain had nothing to do with election denial, but involved the House Speaker vote. 

Republican politicians who did appear were often used to push liberal points, such as supporting Medicaid expansion, or to criticize the conduct of Republican Rep. George Santos. Neither Democratic congressmen Rep. Jamie Raskin or Rep. James Clyburn were politically challenged in their softball interviews, while retiring Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy was fawned over. Sample question: “When you think of the, all the work that you’ve done, the presidents you have worked with, the legislation, the colleagues, is there one thing you're most proud of, or is it just too many things just to think about?” 

Republican Rep. James Comer, however, was repeatedly questioned by host Geoff Bennett about the credibility of the congressional oversight committee Comer was forming to investigate the Biden family’s alleged influence peddling: “You're connecting a lot of dots there. What evidence do you have to back up those assertions?” 

In the words of PBS NewsHour Executive Producer Sara Just: “Support for non-profit journalism is critical to making certain that our brand of objective and carefully researched news and in-depth analysis reaches more citizens. Americans depend on the outlets they trust to provide accurate, civil, objective, and thoughtful reporting…." 

While Just used the word “objective” twice, the NewsHour guest figures reveal a tax-subsidized news program that provides liberal comfort food to an elite audience that’s not representative of America at large.

Below is the methodology for this study. Click “expand” for details.

The study covered a four-month period, November 1, 2022—February 28, 2023, encompassing every edition of the PBS NewsHour, Monday through Friday, for a total of approximately 86 hours of news coverage. (Not included: The half-hour PBS News Weekend show, a separate entity with different hosts that airs on Saturday and Sunday.) 

Guests were defined as interview subjects if they appeared in studio or talked to a host or in-studio reporter remotely. Also included as guests were subjects of field profiles that focused  on a single person, as well as the show’s occasional “Brief But Spectacular” segments in the field, in which a guest talked without interaction from an interviewee. Guests were defined as either liberal or conservative based on the subject matter and content of the interview, or classified as non-applicable if neither designation applied. 

Elected officials and political appointees were included in the tally -- defined as current or recently retired officeholders at the federal, state, and local level, as well as those who currently serve in the Biden White House or served previously in the Trump White House, or were appointed to their position by either the Biden or Trump administration.

Regular PBS pundits were excluded from the tally, as were National Public Radio reporters and public television reporters from local stations. Guests included in the tally: All other journalists, both reporters and columnists, as well as academics, activists, think tank staffers, etc., save those who discussed non-political subjects or didn’t advance partisan or ideological positions (these “non-applicable” guests, 181 in total, comprised the majority of NewsHour guests).