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The Ombudsman Column

FAIR vs PBS, Again

Four years ago this month, the media watch organization group known as FAIR, for Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, and self-described as "progressive," released a lengthy and critical study of what was then called the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." Now called the PBS NewsHour, the weekday night program remains the flagship of PBS's public affair broadcasting, along with Friday evening's Washington Week and the new Need to Know program. Charlie Rose's weekday late-night interview program is also part of that mix.

I wrote about the October 2006 FAIR study and included a response from the NewsHour and my own comments. As I look back over it, it seems quite similar in large part to the new study--only the new FAIR assessment now includes these other programs--and my comments then still seem relevant now.

Nevertheless, after four years I devote another column (quite long) to FAIR's critique. FAIR has been described by the Associated Press as "a liberal advocacy organization," and I think that is fair. But they do serious work in their stated role of "offering constructive criticism in an effort to correct" what it sees as "media imbalance." FAIR and the NewsHour actually go way back. FAIR's first study of the then MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour was in 1990.

What follows now is, first, the main findings by FAIR as laid out in its press release. The organization actually devoted a 16-page "special edition" (PDF) to "PBS's Top News Shows" and you can read all of the articles here.

Then come responses from top officials of the NewsHour, Washington Week, Need to Know and the Charlie Rose show, followed by my take on this.


Here's FAIR's Press Release

A multi-part FAIR exposé of PBS's most prominent news and public affairs programs demonstrates that public television is failing to live up to its mission to provide an alternative to commercial television, to give voice to those "who would otherwise go unheard" and help viewers to "see America whole, in all its diversity," in the words of public TV's founding document.


In a special November issue of studies and analyses of PBS's major public affairs shows, FAIR's magazine Extra! shows that "public television" features guestlists strongly dominated by white, male and elite sources, who are far more likely to represent corporations and war makers than environmentalists or peace advocates. And both funding and ownership of these shows is increasingly corporate, further eroding the distinction between "public" and corporate television. There is precious little "public" left in "public television."

FAIR undertook the examination following news last fall that PBS was canceling Now and that Bill Moyers was retiring from Bill Moyers Journal. PBS announced that it was replacing the two shows, which exemplified the public broadcasting mission, with Need to Know, a news magazine launched in May and anchored by two journalists from the corporate media world.

FAIR's findings reveal:

Need to Know. FAIR's study of the first three months of Need to Know's guestlist and segments finds that its "record so far provides little encouragement that it will ever serve as an adequate replacement for Now and the Bill Moyers Journal." The program's heavily white (78 percent) and male (70 percent) guestlist failed to "break out of the narrow corporate media box." Corporate representatives outnumbered activists 20 to 12. And black people appeared overwhelmingly on stories on drugs and prisons.

PBS NewsHour. If PBS's signature news show is any indication, the system is doing little to help us "see America whole, in all its diversity."

The NewsHour's guestlist was 80 percent male and 82 percent white, with a pronounced tilt toward elites who rarely "go unheard," like current and former government and military officials, corporate representatives and journalists (74 percent). Since 2006, appearances by women of color actually decreased by a third, to only 4 percent of U.S. sources.

Women and people of color were far more likely to appear as "people on the street" providing brief, often reactive soundbites, than in more authoritative roles in live interviews.

Viewers were five times as likely to see guests representing corporations (10 percent v. 2 percent) than representatives of public interest groups who might counterweigh such moneyed interests--labor, consumer and environmental organizations.

While Democratic guests outnumbered Republican guests nearly 2-to-1 in overall sources, Republicans dominated by more than 3-to-2 in the program's longer format, live segments. (FAIR's 2006 NewsHour study, which examined a period when Republicans controlled the White House and Congress, showed Republican guests outnumbering Democrats in both categories: 2-to-1 among all sources, 3-to-2 in the longer live interviews.)

On segments about the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the most frequent story of the study period, viewers were four times as likely to see representatives hailing from the oil industry (13 percent of guests) as representatives of environmental concerns (3 percent).

On segments focusing on the Afghan War, though polls show consistent majorities of Americans have opposed the war for more than a year, not a single NewsHour guest represented an antiwar group or expressed antiwar views. Similarly, no representative of a human rights or humanitarian organization appeared on the NewsHour during the study period.

The NewsHour, "public TV's nightly newscast," is actually privately owned. For-profit conglomerate Liberty Media has held a controlling stake in the NewsHour since 1994. The company is run by industry bigfoot John Malone, who has declared that "nobody wants to go out and invent something and invest hundreds of millions of dollars of risk capital for the public interest." Public dollars still support the NewsHour, and former PBS president Ervin Duggan declared the show "ours and ours alone," but Liberty CEO Greg Maffei refers to the program as "not our largest holding," but "one we're very proud of."

And it's not just the NewsHour. The Nightly Business Report was sold earlier this year by public station WPBT to a private company. The details of the deal--which shifts the most-watched daily business show on television into private hands--are mostly unknown.

The Charlie Rose Show--a show produced outside the PBS system but widely carried on public television stations--boasts a remarkably narrow guestlist. FAIR found the most common guests (37 percent) were reporters from major media outlets, and corporate guests, well-known academics and government officials also made frequent appearances. Of the 132 guest appearances, just two represented the public interest voices that public television is supposed to highlight (equaling the number of celebrity chefs who appeared). Eighty-five percent of guests were male, and U.S. guests were 92 percent white.

Washington Week, the longest-running public affairs show on public television, suffers from similar problems--which would seem to be by design, given the show's inside-the-Beltway focus. In four months of programs (5-8/10), Washington Week presented 29 reporter guests; only one did not represent a corporate-owned outlet. Only four of 64 appearances by guests were by non-white panelists (6 percent), and the guestlist was 61 percent male.

Response from the PBS NewsHour

Given that the content study FAIR conducted of the PBS NewsHour in 2010 does not appear to have evolved at all from one conducted in 2006 — even while the media landscape and the PBS NewsHour experienced transformational change — I will follow FAIR's lead and my response to the 2010 study will sounds strikingly similar to my 2006 response. That said, no one should overlook the fact that the PBS NewsHour has changed its format in the past year; added new correspondents; produces increasing amounts of domestic and international field reporting; has broken new ground with its original digital reporting; has one of the most diverse group of correspondents of any U.S. television news broadcast; and continually seeks to add diverse voice to our journalism.

As in its previous studies of the PBS NewsHour (1990 and 2006), FAIR seems to be accusing us of covering the people who make decisions that affect people's lives, many of whom work in government, the military, or corporate America. That's what we do: we're a news program, and that's who makes news. Again, as in past years, FAIR seem to have confused the PBS NewsHour with all of PBS, when they quote the forty-three-year-old Carnegie Commission Report about public broadcasting. The PBS NewsHour covers the news as fairly and impartially as we can. Period.

Our mission is to provide information about developments and policy decisions that affect large numbers of Americans. We make it a point to question the decision makers, and when we do we also make it a point to include other views that provide balance and/or a different perspective either in the same program, or one produced soon after. We try to book the most qualified guests we can for every segment; when they are people who work for the government, the military or corporate America, their sex, age, ethnicity and political affiliation reflect decisions made by the people who hired (or voted for) THEM.

I do not know how FAIR arrived at the numbers the report contains, but it appears as if they have included every sound bite we used in the broadcast's news summary. If not, I have no idea how they determined that we had President Obama as a "source" on the program 34 times in the two month period they studied or U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Retired Thad Allen on 17 times. Obviously the Gulf Oil Spill was a major story during the time of the FAIR study. So to have two of the leading point persons from the administration handling the spill — President Obama and Ret. Admiral Allen — appear frequently as sound bites on a national news program should come as no surprise.

I'm glad to see the percentage of women guests is improving versus the 2006 FAIR study. We have made a concerted effort to improve in this area, and that effort continues. Again, as women move into more decision-making positions in government and business, we expect to see even more of them on the program. The same goes for non-white guests, and I'm glad to see that we've also improved there as well. In fact, versus both the 1990 and 2006 FAIR studies, the NewsHour has improved in many of the categories considered important by FAIR.

As FAIR itself discovered, counting heads on a news program is meaningless unless one also analyzes what they are saying. In that sense, this report simply proved that FAIR is quite capable of rendering selective judgments about who, and what, is important and worth listening to.

And finally, if FAIR is going to conduct a complete survey of all NewsHour content, they should include all of the original content that we produce for our field reports, our online site and digital platforms. The breadth and depth of individuals, voices and viewpoints represented in our original reporting is substantial and growing.

Linda Winslow, Executive Producer of the PBS NewsHour

Response from Washington Week

As you know, Washington Week's guest list is drawn from a pool of Washington-based correspondents who cover high-profile beats. For that reason, our roundtables are less diverse than I would like. But we have dramatically expanded the number of women on our bench, commensurate with their numbers in the Washington press corps. I, for one, look forward to the day when the same can be said for DC-based reporters of color.

Gwen Ifill, Managing Editor

Response from Need to Know

At WNET, we welcome the scrutiny of our content by FAIR and other advocates of fairness in media as it drives us to continue to excel. Public television must be held to a higher standard than commercial television, and we appreciate FAIR's efforts to highlight our mission.

By providing only a cursory overview of Need to Know's extremely varied and balanced content, but a detailed assessment of the racial profile of our on-air guests, FAIR seems to equate racial and gender representation in the stories with balance or diversity in reporting. This nose-counting exercise is at its core an inaccurate representation of our commitment to balanced and enterprising journalism, but at the very least it should be complete.

The FAIR analysis of Need to Know covers only the first 13 of 25 episodes to date and does not reflect the full range of our staff both in front of and behind the camera. In addition to Mr. Meacham and Ms. Stewart, the Need to Know on-air team includes a Middle-Eastern-American and two African-American reporters, and a very diverse production team of multiple ethnicities and experiences.

We strive to include a diverse range of voices in our reporting, and must do better. But this does not reflect on the quality of our work or our journalistic integrity. Each week, we tackle pressing social and political issues, including ongoing coverage of two wars and their effect on soldiers and families; we devoted an entire hour to the employment crisis; we produce weekly investigative reports on the impact of deregulation and lax agency oversight on a range of issues — including eldercare, BP's safety record, homeland security as it relates to the justice system, the environmental impact of natural gas "fracking" and the unsolved problem of nuclear waste disposal, to name just a few...

Need to Know is the successor to the irreplaceable Bill Moyers Journal, and to Now on PBS, offering a new and dynamic journalistic approach. Need to Know covers many more stories in a given week, while raising to a new level the investigative journalism, culture coverage, climate and energy reporting, and an entire online journalism operation that FAIR — unfairly — minimizes.

We stand by our reporting and maintain our commitment to advancing the dialogue about important issues.

Stephen Segaller, vice-president of content, WNET

Response from Charlie Rose

Our vision for the program is this: To inform our viewers of the stories and people of our time. That means interviews with artists and athletes, presidents and prime ministers including journalists, scientists and musicians, entertainers and entrepreneurs, as well writers and poets.

The report on FAIR's findings may require a bit more research. Given the broadcast has been shown on Public Television for 19 years, and given the range and breadth of our guests, numbers amount in the upwards of fourteen thousand guests. FAIR's sample of the 132 guest appearances may not be a current reflection. Just this fall in a period of six weeks of the 64 guests that appeared, 35 consisted of figures from Asia, the Middle East, Russia, Europe, and China.

We deeply appreciate the work and dedication of FAIR. It's organizations such as those that keep all of us reaching further and farther in presenting guests and programs that are both varied and diverse. I hope they will continue to do the good work they are doing. We will continue to expand and look for as many views as possible on a topic and subject.

Yvette Vega, Executive Producer

My Take

I have some experience with diversity issues within news organizations and my sense is that while numbers are important, and a useful measure, they do not always add up to providing real diversity that is useful both to the news organization and its readers or viewers.

You can have the right numbers but not have a diverse management or news decision-making circle that gives an organization the advantage of diverse perspectives and experience. You can have the right numbers internally but not the right sources externally if you don't emphasize the need for reporters, editors and producers to expand their rolodexes or source lists.

If you keep calling the same known and comfortable suspects, you pretty much know what you will get. But there are African Americans and Hispanics and Asian Americans who run hospitals and homeless shelters, big businesses and battalions, and if you find them and call them you get interesting and important, and sometimes different, answers to questions.

As someone who gets paid to pay attention to viewers and to PBS, the new FAIR report conjures up different images for me. The report is focused on public broadcasting's major public affairs programs, and primarily on the diversity, or lack of it, in the guests who appear on those programs, mostly white males.

But one of the things that has always interested me, personally, about PBS, and one of the things that I like about it, is that it presents perhaps the most diverse public face of any major network, and so it makes me think that they should be, and probably are, most sensitive to diversity issues that could potentially harm their relevance.

The NewsHour looks pretty much the way we do as a country: Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff, Margaret Warner, Jeffrey Brown, Ray Suarez, Kwame Holman, Hari Sreenivasan; male, female, white, African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and all pretty resourceful news people who can do each other's job. Washington Week is run by and dominated by Ifill, a powerful personality who is hard to imagine not being aware of a diversity problem if there is one. Need to Know has a white male and black female as co-hosts. Curiously, FAIR focuses heavily on host Jon Meacham and barely mentions co-host Alison Stewart, who is African American.

So at the operating level, the public affairs cluster not only is and looks diverse, it doesn't seem to me to be the kind of operation that is going to be insensitive to this as an issue. I get many thousand of e-mails a year from viewers and very, very few of those raise questions about the race or ethnicity or gender of the guests on these programs. Now that may be because minorities don't watch. To the extent that it is raised, it is most likely to be complaints about too few female guests.

As a viewer, these programs do not register with me as being seriously out of whack in terms of appearances. But that may be because I'm an old, white male and I'm not as observant as perhaps I should be. On the other hand, the FAIR figures tell a different story and that's why they are important.

I do, however, think that the PBS programming focused on by FAIR does have a diversity issue--one that is also covered in the FAIR report and which I have also referred to in earlier columns. It is the rather narrow band of commentary and analysis that is presented on these programs. I have made the point in previous columns that public affairs programming seems to operate within a rather safe comfort zone that straddles the center. Certainly that has its place, but there are huge disparities of opinion in this country about everything from the war in Afghanistan to the public option in health care and the strongest voices are not heard very often.

That's where the loss of Bill Moyers Journal and NOW with David Brancaccio come in, especially Moyers. Moyers had devoted fans and critics but whatever one thinks of him, he allowed the airing of important, intelligent and provocative views that rarely found a voice elsewhere on television.

So, here's my quick review of the programs and the issue. I think PBS can still do better on the diversity front and that everybody will be better off, especially the viewers, if this is done properly. As a viewer, I would not have ranked the race/ethnicity/gender part of that as an obvious problem, but the FAIR analysis is a good reminder and renewable challenge, especially about the need for more public interest guests.

I have said many times that I have a very high regard for the NewsHour and, even as a news junkie, I feel as though I learn something almost every evening watching it. On a personal level, I'd like to see a widening of the views expressed about the crucial issues confronting our country, and a more challenging brand of questioning. I don't believe Washington Week under Gwen Ifill is not mindful of diversity. I think she goes out of her way to work it in as best she can. On the other hand, for anyone who follows news closely, this program does have a predictable set of characters and a heavy dose of conventional wisdom if you follow this stuff during the week.

I thought Need To Know got off to a terrible start but has steadily improved and rather consistently now offers informative segments approaching what viewers previously expected from NOW. The program was never meant to actually replace Moyers but my sense is that it will be impossible for the new hosts to ever escape that burden.