Go Rightward, Liberal Media?  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2005

Go Rightward, Liberal Media?   

The airwaves are filled with conservative TV talk shows.

By Kim Hart
Hart is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


For years the American news media have been typecast as liberal, to the point that the phrase "liberal media" long ago entered cliché territory. Now a spate of right-leaning shows hitting the airwaves has some critics warning direly of a creeping conservative bias.

The latest such addition was the September debut of PBS' "Journal Editorial Report," a roundtable discussion of the week's stories led by Paul Gigot, editor of the Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page. During the 30-minute show, Gigot is joined by other members of the paper's editorial-page staff to analyze news and share opinions.

PBS first came under fire for lurching right after it gave conservative CNN commentator Tucker Carlson his own slot in the public-affairs programming lineup in June. Some viewers perceive an additional insult because PBS' best-known liberal show, "NOW with Bill Moyers," will slim down to a 30-minute format when Moyers, who plans to retire in December, hands it over to his ideologically neutral cohost David Brancaccio. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides much of the funding for PBS' programs, also is considering a new cultural issues show that would pair conservative radio host Michael Medved with a liberal cohost, according to published reports.

While the new programs triggered an avalanche of disapproval from left-leaning media critics, PBS executives insist they are not "stacking the decks" to favor conservatives. "Public television is designed to be a forum for all viewers and a diversity of opinion," says spokeswoman Lea Sloan. "It's our mission--our obligation--to serve every part of our audience, and that's what we think these shows accomplish."

PBS is not alone in the trend to add more conservative voices to the airwaves. CNN and MSNBC have provided megaphones to right-wing pundits who give news a more conservative slant and, some say, ignore liberal arguments on important issues.

MSNBC's "Scarborough Country" is hosted by Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman. Last March, the network also launched a show with conservative host Michael Savage but pulled it abruptly in July when he was fired for belittling a gay caller. CNN's "Crossfire" balances conservatives Carlson and Robert Novak with liberals Paul Begala and James Carville, and the network is bringing more right-wing guests to its prime-time lineup.

Why the sudden ideological shift? The mounting popularity of Fox News Channel may well be a catalyst. "The advent of the Fox network with its very clear tilt has made conservative points of view more noticeable than before," says Av Westin, executive director of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation. "Because they've gotten such good ratings success, CNN and MSNBC have made sure they have more right-wing voices."

Marvin Kalb, senior fellow at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, sees the addition of conservative voices as an effort to attract right-leaning viewers, who make up about 43 percent of the cable news audience, according to a June study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. By comparison, about 14 percent of the cable audience describes itself as liberal and 37 percent as moderate.

"The conservative movement has done a much better job in recent years of getting a wider part of its spectrum on the air," says Tom Rosenstiel, founding director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "It is a movement more suited to the polarized dialogue of modern TV--the 'Crossfire' culture."

Bucking conventional wisdom, Rosenstiel argues this development "has nothing to do with Fox." He says the move toward adding more conservatives "goes back decades before Fox was ever even an idea," and the left has long complained the media cater to conservatives.

Conservatives counter vehemently, contending the media promote liberal political ideas disguised as news. Could showcasing more right-wing hosts and guests on news shows be the broadcasters' answer to their complaints?

"Absolutely not," says Mark Effron, MSNBC's vice president of daytime programming. "We go out of our way to be extraordinarily balanced when we put our [daytime] shows together." Prime-time programming, where guests and hosts alike promulgate opinions, may tell a different story. "We've had our share of spinmeisters from both sides," Effron says.

While Effron defends the network's balance, Jeff Cohen, a former senior producer for the station's short-lived Phil Donahue show, sees things differently. "MSNBC was right-tilting at management's orders," says Cohen, who founded the left-leaning media watch group FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting) and is now a lecturer and a writer. "In the last months of Donahue," he writes in an e-mail, "we were ordered to book more right-wing guests than left-wing, more pro-war than antiwar...to balance the liberalism of host Phil Donahue. But Joe Scarborough is a current MSNBC right-wing host and there are no orders from management demanding that his guest list favor the left wing."

MSNBC forcefully disputes his allegation. In a statement provided by the network's press office, Vice President, Primetime Programming Phil Griffin called Cohen's claims "inaccurate" in suggesting MSNBC "ever was or is 'right-tilting.'" Griffin added: "While we definitely have some hosts with known opinions..we make every effort to present a balance of opinions on all issues we cover. This is true for the network as a whole and each particular prime-time program."

Although some conservatives contend CNN is as liberal as Fox News is conservative, CNN spokesman Matthew Furman says his network gives equal time to liberal and conservative views, and guests either are nonpartisan or are "almost always balanced with a guest opposite them or immediately before or after they speak." He notes "Crossfire" is "designed to be a debate with many perspectives."

Perceptions of bias have weakened the public's confidence in news. A 2004 study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found 59 percent of Americans believe news organizations are politically biased — 14 percent more than the previous year. Rosenstiel says the public "increasingly distrusts the press as ideological when it is not and then sees wildly ideological acts by media as somehow merely balancing" news coverage.

Meanwhile, CPB continues to defend its new shows. "PBS and CPB worked together to commission both 'Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered' and the 'Journal Editorial Report' because we wanted to add new perspectives and points of view to public television," says Senior Vice President of Television Programming Michael Pack. "Whether stations choose to air the programs--and whether people choose to watch them--is obviously out of our hands."

Pack acknowledges that federal law requires CPB's board to "balance programming of a controversial nature." He said in an e-mail that management shields producers from political interference, allowing CPB to strike the right balance. When looking at the entire public affairs lineup-- including shows such as "Tavis Smiley" and "NOW with Bill Moyers"--Pack says viewers see a "very impressive and wide balance of voices."

Balance may not be the cure if truth itself is not equal on both sides. Emphasis on evening the scales has created a false sense of balance by highlighting only two opposing viewpoints in more nuanced stories or by providing equal weight to arguments when the evidence supports one side, Rosenstiel says.

So how can broadcasters resolve the on-air partisan battle? "Better reporting, more thorough and authoritative, and above all dedicated to verification and transparency," Rosenstiel says. "That is where we need to head."

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