No, liberals, it’s not your imagination. “Meet the Press” and the other Sunday political talk shows really have leaned more to the right in recent years. At Media Matters for America, we looked at every one of the 7,000 guests who appeared on the three major Sunday shows from 1997 through 2005–Bill Clinton’s second term, George W. Bush’s first term, and the last year. We found that the left has of late found itself outnumbered, in some ways substantially, on the television shows that define the Washington conventional wisdom. Liberals are already a disturbingly rare species among what Calvin Trillin refers to as the “Sabbath Gasbags.” And in some debates–the war in Iraq, for example–they are in danger of becoming extinct.
This is no small thing. The combined audience of the Sunday shows is around 10 million households. While that may not be quite as large as that of “American Idol,” it includes the entire Washington establishment, which looks to the Sunday shows to clarify who the important players are, which stories matter most, and what arguments can be considered seriously. The Sunday shows confer status–both on people and on ideas–with greater effect than any other news presentation. They are the place where Washington’s power elite goes to make its case, where the boundaries of debate are determined and the talking points presented and probed. When Vice President Dick Cheney wanted to make the case for war in Iraq, he took to these pulpits, famously linking the 9/11 attacks and Saddam Hussein’s regime. When a senator or member of Congress gets invited to appear, he or she has officially been designated a national figure. And when you open up a national newspaper on Monday morning, chances are you’ll see an article describing the most important or novel thing that was said the morning before on the Sunday shows.
Since the Sunday shows focus so heavily on the words and actions of the powerful, it’s perhaps not surprising that the party controlling the executive branch is represented more than the opposition. That’s certainly the explanation producers give for their often lopsided line-ups. “If you take everybody from the Bush administration and label them Republicans or partisans,” says Carin Pratt, the executive producer of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” “we’re a country at war, and when we can get someone from the administration [to be a guest on the show], like the secretary of state, then we get them. Republicans are in power. I bet you’d find the same thing during Clinton’s administration.” Betsy Fischer, the executive producer of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” responds much the same way. “The party holding the presidency also has a Cabinet full of major newsmaker guests that speak to U.S. policy matters,” she says. “The same would be true for the eight years of the Clinton administration when the Cabinet was, by and large, filled with Democrats.”
This sounds reasonable enough–except Pratt and Fischer are wrong about the Clinton years. In fact, during Clinton’s second term, only 48 percent of the ideologically identifiable guests on the Sunday shows were Democrats or progressives while 52 percent were Republicans or conservatives. (Available transcripts from Clinton’s first term are not complete enough to allow analysis.) And when Bush swept into town, the gap widened further. In Bush’s first term, Republicans and conservatives held a solid advantage, out-talking the left by 58 to 42 percent. (Things were virtually the same in 2005, with the margin 57 to 43 percent in favor of the right). There were small differences between the shows, but all showed the same overall pattern: rough parity during the Clinton years, Republican domination during the Bush years.
Perhaps this shift is explained by the fact that we had a divided government when Clinton was president and have had one-party rule under Bush. But if that’s true, how do we explain the years 2001 and 2002? For a 16-month period in which the Democrats held control of the Senate, the number of Democrats booked on the shows not only did not increase, but actually dropped further. Political power, it seems, does not always equal access to the airwaves.
You might think this balance would shift somewhat during an election year, when both parties have major candidates who make headlines and attract attention. Again, Fischer of “Meet the Press” told us directly that this should happen. “When one party has 10 contenders for the presidential nomination [as the Democrats did in 2004],” she wrote in an email, “one could expect those candidates to occupy a majority of interview time on the program.” One could indeed expect that result, but one would be wrong. Despite all the appearances by Democratic presidential hopefuls–and they had a whole slew, compared to the uncontested Republican primaries–Republicans still outnumbered Democrats on “Meet the Press” in 2004, just as they did on “Face the Nation” and ABC’s “This Week.”
This ideological imbalance isn’t only evident in the “official” sources that are interviewed: the elected officials, candidates, and administration officials who make up most of the shows’ guests. It is even clearer in the roundtable discussions with featured journalists. (Although “Face the Nation” seldom uses a journalist roundtable to mull over the week’s news, it is a staple on both “Meet the Press” and “This Week.”) Though there has been some marginal improvement in the past year, it has been a frequent practice for a roundtable to consist of a right-wing columnist or two supposedly “balanced” by journalists from major newspapers. While these newspaper journalists may also be columnists, they don’t operate with the same expectation of–or license for–partisanship that their conservative counterparts do. If David Broder or Ronald Brownstein express an openly partisan opinion, they know that their editors are likely to call them to task for it. By the same token, if Fred Barnes doesn’t use his time to spout talking points, he knows his editors will be disappointed.
When liberals do appear, the balance is often stacked against them. For nearly three years in the late 1990s, the regular roundtable on “This Week” featured George Will and William Kristol double-teaming George Stephanopoulos. On five occasions, Stephanopoulos was absent, and Will’s establishment conservatism had to provide “balance” to Kristol’s triumphalist conservatism. But even when the former Clinton aide was in the studio, he was in the process of trying to shed his political reputation and become a “Journalist,” he who expresses no personal views, making the debate even more lopsided than it otherwise would have been.
The consequence of all this is that in every year since 1997, conservative journalists have dramatically outnumbered liberal journalists, in some years by two-to-one or more. Why would the producers of the shows believe that a William Safire (56 appearances since 1997) or Bob Novak (37 appearances) is somehow “balanced” by a Gwen Ifill (27) or Dan Balz (22)? It suggests that some may have internalized the conservative critique of the media, which assumes that daily journalists are “liberal” almost by definition, and thus can provide a counterpoint to highly partisan conservative pundits.
What gets left behind, of course, is the real liberal. Not only do openly liberal columnists like Paul Krugman appear far less frequently than their conservative colleagues, writers, and editors from magazines like The Nation, The American Prospect, and The New Republic are seldom seen (forget about the Progressive, Mother Jones or In These Times), while the Weekly Standard and the National Review are regularly represented. Last year saw eleven appearances by writers from the two conservative magazines, but only two from liberal magazines. (There was one bright spot in the data: A December 1998 episode of “Meet the Press” featured none other than Charles Peters, this magazine’s founder. Unfortunately, that was the last time anyone from The Washington Monthly graced the Sunday shows.)
The relative absence of one group or another–liberal journalists, say–is troubling if it means that an entire position in a debate is left unrepresented. (To say nothing of an entire gender–a 2001 study by the White House Project, a non-partisan women’s advocacy group, found that in an 18-month period, nine out of 10 guests on the Sunday shows were men.) Over the past few years, a decidedly relevant view has been noticeably absent from the Sunday shows: consistent opposition to the Iraq war. On the most important debate of this period in our nation’s history, one side–the side on which the majority of the American people now find themselves–has been represented by only a tiny number of guests. In the pre-war period, beginning in September 2002, only 18 percent of the members of Congress who appeared as guests ended up voting against the congressional resolution authorizing the war. During the war itself (the period of “major combat operations” ending with Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” carrier landing), the figure was a paltry 13 percent. And in the period since then, the anti-war position has been held by 17 percent of congressional guests. By comparison, 30 percent of representatives and senators voted against the resolution for war.
Consequently, debates on the war on Sunday mornings have been mostly between people who supported the war all along, and people who supported the war but have some criticisms of how it has been carried out. Over time, the shows have begun to take on a Groundhog Day quality, with each Sunday bringing yet another tribute by an administration official or friendly Republican to the terrific “progress” being made in Iraq, and yet another sort-of-refutation from Joe Biden reciting the umpteenth version of “As I told the president, we have to do what we’re doing, just better.”
Obviously, if nearly everyone involved agrees that the war was a good idea, the discussion will range over a fairly narrow field. Few will want to suggest they were dumb enough to be duped by the case the administration made–better to say the threat was real, and that all the problems have come in the execution. A politician who opposed the war from the beginning and didn’t have to worry about her reputation would be more willing to point out the evident problems in the operation. If anything, those voices ought to be given more weight, rather than less. But other than exceptional cases like Jack Murtha (who voted for the war), those calling for withdrawal–a position favored in one form or another by around half of all Americans, according to recent polling–will be nowhere to be found, making it relatively easy to dismiss their proposals out of hand.
The good news is that, unlike complicated political issues such as lobbying reform and redistricting, this problem is easy to fix. There are, at most, a few dozen individuals at the three networks who make decisions about the Sunday lineups. It is possible, though unlikely, that they simply haven’t known how lopsided their guest lineups are. If they have the will to address this imbalance, there’s nothing–other than pressure from the right wing–stopping them. Adding more balance to the Sunday shows doesn’t require statutory changes or legal remedies or even an election.
It might, however, require a little change in perspective. The producers would have to accept that voices on the left have as much legitimacy as voices on the right, that journalists from newspapers don’t provide a balance to conservative opinion-mongers, and that there are, in fact, plenty of progressive writers and analysts who have interesting things to say and are worthy of being admitted to the exalted arena of the Sunday shows. Not exactly a radical idea.
Paul Waldman is a Senior Fellow with Media Matters for America. His next book, Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Can Learn From Conservative Success, will be released by John Wiley & Sons this spring.