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Taking the Public Out of Public TV: 
PBS fare differs little from commercial TV

October 20, 2010

(This article is re-posted from Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.)

A multi-part FAIR exposé of PBS‘s most prominent news and public affairs programs demonstrates that public television is failing to live up to its mission to provide an alternative to commercial television, to give voice to those “who would otherwise go unheard” and help viewers to “see America whole, in all its diversity,” in the words of public TV’s founding document.

In a special November issue of studies and analyses of PBS‘s major public affairs shows, FAIR’s magazine Extra! shows that “public television” features guestlists strongly dominated by white, male and elite sources, who are far more likely to represent corporations and war makers than environmentalists or peace advocates. And both funding and ownership of these shows is increasingly corporate, further eroding the distinction between “public” and corporate television. There is precious little “public” left in “public television.”

FAIR undertook the examination following news last fall that PBS was canceling Now and that Bill Moyers was retiring from Bill Moyers Journal. PBS announced that it was replacing the two shows, which exemplified the public broadcasting mission, with Need to Know, a news magazine launched in May and anchored by two journalists from the corporate media world.

FAIR’s findings reveal: 

* Need to Know. FAIR’s study of the first three months of Need to Know‘s guestlist and segments finds that its “record so far provides little encouragement that it will ever serve as an adequate replacement for Now and the Bill Moyers Journal.”

The program’s heavily white (78 percent) and male (70 percent) guestlist failed to “break out of the narrow corporate media box.” Corporate representatives outnumbered activists 20 to 12. And black people appeared overwhelmingly on stories on drugs and prisons.

* PBS NewsHour. If PBS‘s signature news show is any indication, the system is doing little to help us “see America whole, in all its diversity.”

— The NewsHour‘s guestlist was 80 percent male and 82 percent white, with a pronounced tilt toward elites who rarely “go unheard,” like current and former government and military officials, corporate representatives and journalists (74 percent). Since 2006, appearances by women of color actually decreased by a third, to only 4 percent of U.S. sources.

– Women and people of color were far more likely to appear as “people on the street” providing brief, often reactive soundbites, than in more authoritative roles in live interviews.

– Viewers were five times as likely to see guests representing corporations (10 percent vs. 2 percent) than representatives of public interest groups who might counterweigh such moneyed interests–labor, consumer and environmental organizations.

– While Democratic guests outnumbered Republican guests nearly 2-to-1 in overall sources, Republicans dominated by more than 3-to-2 in the program’s longer format, live segments. (FAIR’s 2006 NewsHour study, which examined a period when Republicans controlled the White House and Congress, showed Republican guests outnumbering Democrats in both categories: 2-to-1 among all sources, 3-to-2 in the longer live interviews.)

– On segments about the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the most frequent story of the study period, viewers were four times as likely to see representatives hailing from the oil industry (13 percent of guests) as representatives of environmental concerns (3 percent).

– On segments focusing on the Afghan War, though polls show consistent majorities of Americans have opposed the war for more than a year, not a single NewsHour guest represented an antiwar group or expressed antiwar views. Similarly, no representative of a human rights or humanitarian organization appeared on the NewsHour during the study period.

** The NewsHour, “public TV’s nightly newscast,” is actually privately owned. For-profit conglomerate Liberty Media has held a controlling stake in the NewsHour since 1994. The company is run by industry bigfoot John Malone, who has declared that “nobody wants to go out and invent something and invest hundreds of millions of dollars of risk capital for the public interest.” Public dollars still support the NewsHour, and former PBS president Ervin Duggan declared the show “ours and ours alone,” but Liberty CEO Greg Maffei refers to the program as “not our largest holding,” but “one we’re very proud of.”

And it’s not just the NewsHour. The Nightly Business Report was sold earlier this year by public station WPBT to a private company. The details of the deal–which shifts the most-watched daily business show on television into private hands–are mostly unknown.

** The Charlie Rose Show–a show produced outside the PBS system but widely carried on public television stations–boasts a remarkably narrow guestlist. FAIR found the most common guests (37 percent) were reporters from major media outlets, and corporate guests, well-known academics and government officials also made frequent appearances. Of the 132 guest appearances, just two represented the public interest voices that public television is supposed to highlight (equaling the number of celebrity chefs who appeared). Eighty-five percent of guests were male, and U.S. guests were 92 percent white.

** Washington Week, the longest-running public affairs show on public television, suffers from similar problems–which would seem to be by design, given the show’s inside-the-Beltway focus. In four months of programs (5-8/10), Washington Week presented 29 reporter guests; only one did not represent a corporate-owned outlet. Only four of 64 appearances by guests were by non-white panelists (6 percent), and the guestlist was 61 percent male.

For the full NewsHour and Need to Know reports, click on the links above. For all other content, please subscribe to Extra! today and receive the special PBS issue instantly.


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