PBS Responds to FAIR Studies

Ombud echoes concerns, but producers question need to broaden sources

SOURCE: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
Published orginally on the F.A.I.R. website on Monday, 25 October 2010
Corporate sponsors—and fear of losing them—have PBS producers "in the bag."

The PBS ombud and representatives of the public television programs studied in FAIR's new report, "Taking the Public Out of Public TV," have responded (10/21/10) to the research that shows an elite, inside-the-Beltway slant to the programs' guestlists.

As he has in the past (10/6/06), PBS ombud Michael Getler largely agreed with FAIR's analysis. "If you keep calling the same known and comfortable suspects, you pretty much know what you will get," Getler wrote in his October 21 column.

After noting that some of the programs feature women and people of color as reporters and hosts, he wrote:

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 healthcare 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.

Getler's take shares many of the concerns FAIR raised in its report. Unsurprisingly, those responsible for the programs being studied largely challenged FAIR's report.

NewsHour executive producer Linda Winslow wrote: "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."

That definition of newsworthiness--what powerful people say and do--guarantees the marginalization of important views that would contribute to national discussions about those "decisions that affect people's lives." A program that sought to convey a more expansive view of news and politics, whether on public broadcasting or anywhere else, would work to bring different perspectives to the air. That does not seem to be a priority at the NewsHour. As FAIR's study found:

Winslow continued:

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.

It is difficult to reconcile this description of the NewsHour's editorial approach with FAIR's new study, or with FAIR's previous research on the program.

Washington Week host and managing editor Gwen Ifill had a brief response to FAIR's report:

As you know, Washington Week's guestlist 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 D.C.-based reporters of color.

As FAIR noted, Ifill's program relies solely on Beltway journalists primarily from commercial media outlets. Ifill has made clear that she does not welcome journalists who would voice an "opinion" on the show--though one could argue that much of the Beltway analysis on the show amounts to an echoing of establishment opinions, which are not recognized as such only because they are universally shared by all present. While it is encouraging that Ifill agrees that the shows roundtables are not very diverse, it would be more helpful to rethink Washington Week's restrictions and invite reporters from other, non-corporate outlets who might offer a different perspective.

Charlie Rose executive producer Yvette Vega wrote that since the show "has been shown on public television for 19 years," researching the show's guest list for two months "may not be a current reflection." She countered by referring to a six-week stretch that she suggests was more diverse. Vega closed by writing: "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."

Writing on behalf of Need to Know--the program produced by New York station WNET that is the successor to the Bill Moyers Journal and Now--WNET vice-president of content Stephen Segaller responded:

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 study sought to give readers and viewers a sense of the program's early broadcasts, to judge how the program could be considered an adequate replacement for the Moyers Journal and Now. Looking at the racial and gender diversity of the program--or any other program, for that matter--should not be dismissed as mere "nose-counting." It is a quantitative expression of who these programs consider worth quoting or interviewing, and it conveys one obvious and dramatic bias in their presentation.

This plays out in relation to specific content as well, as we demonstrated. For example, none of the program's economic segments in its first three months featured a single person of color, and men outnumbered women eight to five--this during an economic crisis in which black unemployment is dramatically higher than white unemployment, and which single black women entered with a median wealth of only $100.

But lack of racial and gender diversity was not FAIR's only criticism of Need to Know. As our report documented, the program featured more corporate sources than public interest advocates (20 appearances to 12). On the BP oil disaster, corporate sources (12) were more numerous than environmental experts (7). On discussions of the Afghan War, as FAIR noted: "The war segments featured 43 sources, nearly half of whom were associated with the military: 14 were current or former military and seven were family of military. Another nine were government sources, including those with military backgrounds like John McCain."

In short, studying racial and gender diversity alongside the occupational diversity of sources demonstrates that all of these public TV programs present guests drawn primarily from elite institutions, which tend to be more white and male than the public at large.

The key question is whether these programs, or public TV programmers in general, think they should be broadening their horizons. Some of the responses suggest that this responsibility is taken seriously. Other responses are more discouraging, as when NewsHour's executive producer wrote: "Again, as in past years, FAIR seem to have confused the PBS NewsHour with all of PBS, when they quote the 43-year-old Carnegie Commission Report about public broadcasting. The PBS NewsHour covers the news as fairly and impartially as we can. Period."

Arguing that there is some meaningful distinction between the goals of PBS and a show called "The PBS NewsHour" seems a waste of energy. More to the point, the reason FAIR cites the "43-year-old Carnegie Commission Report" is because this is the foundational document for public broadcasting in the United States. It lays out the rationale behind the creation of a public media, and the role that a public broadcasting system is supposed to play in the larger media landscape.

As FAIR--and many others--have consistently pointed out, the Carnegie vision for public broadcasting is one where those "who would otherwise go unheard" have a voice, and that such programming would enable viewers to "see America whole, in all its diversity." Whether the programs under examination like it or not, that is the standard by which public television should be judged. To hear a top official from the preeminent newscast on public television say that this is out of date or old-fashioned is distressing, to say the least.

Read all of the responses in Getler's online column:

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This story was published on October 26, 2010.