Media Watch: Sunday Morning Blues?
A watchdog group claims that the political talk shows' choice of guests tilts right
One of the ironies of the modern world is the vast chasm between conservative and liberal perceptions of the media. On one hand, conservatives see the mainstream media, the dreaded "MSM," as the bastion of tree-hugging, dope-smoking, terrorist-loving, liberal pansies. At the same time, liberals are equally certain the media is a tool of conservative America, dancing dolls controlled by their gun-totin', war-baitin', baby-seal-beatin', Ann Coulter-humpin' corporate puppet masters.
Given these dual realities, it's not surprising the release last week of a study suggesting the Sunday morning TV talk shows are demonstrably biased toward conservatives didn't exactly set off Anna Nicole-level press fireworks. The report, issued by what is euphemistically known to conservatives as a "left-leaning" research group, Media Matters for America, cataloged two years' worth of guests on Meet the Press, Face the Nation, and their brethren. Beyond cruelly forcing researchers to watch the weekly babble, the study produced numbers showing that every show uses more conservatives than liberals, with Fox News Sunday the worst offender.
"Well, duh," some may say, especially members of the bleary-eyed Sunday audience who mistake Condi Rice for Oprah, she's on so often. Progressives, tired of seeing the usual array of pasty old white dudes (excepting Rice, although she plays one on TV), will enthusiastically agree with the study. Meanwhile, conservatives who believe CNN anchor Anderson Cooper is an al Qaeda mole will see the study as yet another example of pinhead academics getting it wrong. They will laugh at the study's assertion that a reporter like National Public Radio's Mara Liasson is "neutral." In the days ahead, some conservative media "watchdog" group will certainly come up with their own study, proving to their satisfaction that the morning shows are actually programmed by Satan's little sister, an undocumented union organizer from Poughkeepsie.
But Media Matters for America insists this is important, even though it's hard to find anyone outside the Beltway who actually watches the Sunday morning shows. "It's not the size of the audience; it is who is in the audience," said Paul Waldman, senior fellow for Media Matters. "The entire Washington establishment watches."
Executives with the morning shows deny any political bias, though they don't necessarily deny Media Matters' statistics. "It doesn't matter whether Rice is a conservative or a liberal. She's the secretary of state," a Face the Nation producer told the group. In other words, the party in power naturally gets more guest spots. But Media Matters' research found there was no liberal bias on the shows when Bill Clinton was president, and there has been little improvement in the balance since the Democrats took over Congress last year.
That's supposed to be the a-ha! moment of the study, the gotcha. See the report screams they are the toadies of the Republicans, no matter who is in power. But the truth is far scarier than any accusation of simple political bias.
The recent trial of the unfortunately nicknamed "Scooter" Libby revealed far more about the inner workings of the Sunday shows, in a way more damaging than any think-tank study. Courtroom testimony portrayed the show producers as easily manipulated sycophants, providing the perfect forum to get out the administration's message of the day. Need to counter the latest charges of incompetence? Just give Tim Russert a call. None of the shows will ask rude questions out of fear of getting blacklisted; the zeal for beating the competing shows for "big name" guests from the administration trumps any consideration of balance.
The Libby trial showed just how adept the Republicans are at playing the game. Meanwhile, Democrats are notoriously a pain in the ass. "The one constant I've observed, in 27 years as an on-again, off-again political reporter, is that Republicans return reporters' calls and Democrats don't," Michael Wolff wrote in the April issue of Vanity Fair. But Waldman dismisses any idea that liberals aren't easily available.
"Washington is crawling with people who would give their right arm to go on one of the Sunday shows," he said.
Media Matters' numbers are indisputable, but the main thing they show is the shallowness and laziness of the Sunday shows. Providing balance would take work. "You do get a sense of the 'usual suspects effect,'" Waldman acknowledged. Sen. Joe Biden, a Democrat, appeared on the shows a whopping 38 times in the last two years the most of any guest followed by Sen. John McCain and Rice at 30 times each. When asked why Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham had been on nine times in two years, the Face the Nation producer replied, "We love Graham. He's a great guy."
While some may interpret that as a conservative bias, it was more likely a direct and honest response. The producer was simply saying Graham makes good TV, in her estimation, which is far more important to the shows than any attempt at balance. If that's really true that TV producers still see Republicans as "good TV" the Democrats have far more to worry about than any perception that Russert is a conservative bootlicker.