The pundits and the guests on the major Sunday talk shows still to tend to come in three basic flavors: right, male and pale, according to a new study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Despite a few diversity tweaks here and there, the “Sabbath gasbag” shows (as Calvin Trillin has dubbed them) have been that way for decades. Major corporations—like GE, BP or Conoco Phillips—sponsor them in order to reach their most coveted audience—corporate-friendly, inside-the-Beltway players, who tend to tilt right-of-center. What’s different this time, however, is that two truly “liberal media” alternatives—Up with Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry—have hit the Sunday circuit.
First, though, the devilish details from FAIR. The liberal media watchdog group monitored the four main Sunday shows—ABC’s This Week, NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS’s Face the Nation and Fox News Sunday—for eight months, from June 2011 through February 2012, and found:
Of one-on-one interviews, 70 percent of partisan-affiliated guests were Republican. Those guests were overwhelmingly male (86 percent) and white (92 percent).
The broader roundtable segments weren't much more diverse: 62 percent of partisan-affiliated guests were Republican. More broadly, guests classified as either Republican or conservative far outnumbered Democrats or progressives, 282 to 164. The roundtables were 71 percent male and 85 percent white.
U.S. government sources—current officials, former lawmakers, political candidates, party-affiliated political operatives and campaign advisers—dominated the Sunday shows overall (47 percent of appearances). Following closely behind were journalists (43 percent), most of whom were middle-of-the-road Beltway political reporters.
“Middle-of-the-road Beltway journalists made 201 appearances in roundtables,” FAIR adds, “which serves to buttress the argument that corporate media’s idea of a debate is conservative ideologues matched by centrist-oriented journalists.”
OK, but the period measured was all about the Republican primaries, so, one might figure, the shows’ deep-red hue is understandable. But, FAIR points out, in 2003 and 2004, when it was all about the Democratic primaries, the Sunday talk shows still leaned right. Citing a Media Matters study of Sunday shows, FAIR writes that in 2003 a “tally of ideologically identifiable guests, both one-and-one and roundtable, favored Republicans/conservatives (57 percent) over Democrats/progressives (43 percent). The following year the breakdown was again Republican-heavy, 56 percent to 44 percent.”
Anyway, the GOP primaries don’t explain the dearth of women and nonwhite guests. “Women were just 29 percent of roundtable guests,” FAIR says. “The ethnic diversity was similarly woeful: 85 percent white and 11 percent African-American, with 3 percent Latino. Other ethnicities made up an additional 2 percent of roundtable guests.”
FAIR’s Peter Hart (not the democratic pollster Peter Hart) writes: “Even when the shows attempted more balance, the Democrats and left-leaning guests tend to be of a more moderate variety than the Republicans (Extra!, 9/10). Juan Williams—who, by the criteria of this study, counts as a left-leaning voice (but see Extra!, 3/12)—was on twenty-four Fox News Sunday broadcasts. As FAIR has argued (Extra!, 9–10/01), it’s likely that the politically connected corporations who sponsor these shows prefer a center/right spectrum of debate that mostly leaves out strong progressive voices who might raise a critique of corporate power.” (Voices like Paul Krugman or The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel, both of whom have appeared on the network Sunday shows more frequently in recent years.)
Any whisper of change, and Republicans and corporate America push back. “During much of the study period,” FAIR writes, “ABC’s This Week was hosted by Christiane Amanpour. Perhaps due to her long career as a foreign correspondent, the show she hosted took a different approach than its network counterparts, often featuring reported pieces (not included in the study) from around the world. The show also featured guests that rarely make it onto the Sunday shows—feminist icon Gloria Steinem, Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi and Occupy Wall Street activist Jesse LaGreca.”
In December, ABC brought back This Week's previous host, George Stephanopoulos, to replace Amanpour.
That’s why the Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry two-hour Sunday (and Saturday) shows on MSNBC are so extraordinary, and I say this not just because they’re from The Nation. Theirs are the most diverse political weekend shows in terms of gender, race, ethnicity and the parts of the brain utilized. They draw guests from academia (Harris-Perry, of course, teaches at Tulane), activism and the arts. They avoid the lazy and masturbatory political horserace chat, and instead are willing to sound dangerously smart.
Hayes’s show, which debuted first, in September, is different still in that it’s almost all panel discussion (usually including at least one intellectually respectable conservative) all the time, which he moderates with an almost meta touch. Last Saturday, for instance, during a heated argument about the Trayvon Martin case, Hayes tried to pinpoint exactly why the case had become polarized in the first place. Why did it move, he asked, from a “general consensus that we have, yeah, a kid of 17-years-old buying Skittles and iced tea shouldn’t be shot and left dead” to “all of a sudden, on conservative blogs it’s all about the New Black Panthers are doing this or that. And my question is why is that the important thing? Why is there this—just because Reverend Al Sharpton is doing something, why do conservatives feel the need to take the other side of the bet, why does it have to be the case that you sort of mobilize in favor of George Zimmerman, or point out double standards? Why not just leave well enough alone, and say, yeah, the guy should probably be arrested and let the trial work?”
It’s discussions like this that make the regular Sunday shows seem all the more clueless.