BROOKE GLADSTONE: For some 10 million Americans, it's a Sunday morning ritual, not exactly church, but it does involve some very influential people holding forth. I mean, of course, the Sunday morning talk shows - NBC's "Meet the Press," CBS's "Face the Nation" and ABC's "This Week." Many more people tune into the networks' nightly newscasts, but, according to Paul Waldman of the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America, the Sunday shows play a unique role among our most powerful news outlets.
PAUL WALDMAN: For instance, the New York Times really sets the news agenda for almost the rest of the journalistic universe. The network newscasts in the evening have the largest audience. What the Sunday talk shows do is, more than any other news presentation, they set the parameters of debate - what kinds of views are inside that reasonable debate and outside that reasonable debate. If certain kinds of people are always outside of the debate, their views are not considered important enough, and then that spreads to other media. If everyone is debating, you know, how should we go about invading Iran? - just taking one hypothetical example that might occur in the future - as opposed to whether or not it's a good idea to invade Iran, then that debate ends up contributing greatly to the debate that's actually taking place in the country and in the halls of Congress, and the choices get constricted. And that, in the end, has consequences for policy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We tune into these shows to hear from the powerful, and so it's no surprise that these days the guest list tends to skew right. But this week, Waldman and Media Matters for America released a study claiming that the shows tilted a little right, even during the last four years of the Clinton administration. NBC wouldn't talk to us on tape, but did respond with a statement charging Waldman with faulty methodology. If he had looked at the guest list for "Meet the Press" during the first Clinton term, NBC says, he would have seen that at least that show actually featured more Democrats. Waldman shot back by accusing NBC of comparing apples to oranges, the apples being government officials on "Meet the Press" and the oranges being all guests, government officials and journalists, on all three of the Sunday shows. But even if you stick with apples, says Waldman, you'd see that there were more Republicans on "Meet the Press" under Bush than there were Democrats in the Clinton years.
PAUL WALDMAN: Well, the numbers of NBC for Clinton's first term taken in its entirety show that there was a 12 percentage point advantage for Democrats over Republicans. But if you look at "Meet the Press" for Bush's first term, which would be the relevant comparison, there's actually a 24-point advantage for Republicans over Democrats, twice as large. Now, that's one element is the administration and elected officials who get on the shows. But let's look at another element. One of the things that "Meet the Press" and "This Week" in particular feature is journalist roundtables. And what you find again and again and again on these roundtables is that you'll have neutral reporters matched up with conservative opinion-writers. Let's just take one illustration. This past October, there was an episode of "Meet the Press" that featured a roundtable, discussing Iraq, of David Broder, a centrist columnist for the Washington Post, Judy Woodruff, an anchor for CNN, William Safire, a conservative opinion-writer for the New York Times and David Brooks, another conservative opinion-writer for the New York Times. Now, what's missing from this picture? Well, of course, it's a progressive. And you see this again and again and again, that we have conservative opinion-writers, who are supposed to be balanced by neutral journalists, with no progressives anywhere. That's something that actually didn't change from the Clinton years to the Bush years, and, if anything, only got worse during the Bush years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let me lay out an idea for you to respond to. This comes from Todd Gitlin, an avowedly liberal media critic. Since conservatives tend to be more zealous about their politics, conservatives play better on the air, and so for commercial reasons, television and radio talk will be disproportionately right-wing. Do you think that the media performance of liberals is to blame for this imbalance?
PAUL WALDMAN: You know, I've heard that argument from a lot of liberals, actually, that liberals' views are just too complex. They don't reduce as well to sound bites. That may be an argument that someone on a show like, say, "Hardball" or "Scarborough Country" might make. But that's not what the Sunday morning shows are about. They're not looking for the people with the snappiest sound bites or the loudest voices. They're supposed to be looking for people who are articulate and can speak to important pressing issues of the day and have some influence on how they're going to end up. And that actually brings us to another point, which is that you do see that some particular individuals tend to be on again and again and again. And that means that the debate is narrowed in any number of ways to the perspectives of those individuals. During this nine-year period, John McCain was on the Sunday shows 124 times. The person who comes in second is Joe Biden, at 80. So McCain is really the go-to guest. But there's something else that's interesting about McCain, which is that when he gets interviewed, he's almost always interviewed alone. Ordinarily when a senator comes on a show, he or she is usually balanced by a senator from the other party. Now, that suggests to me that they believe he's different than regular politicians, that he's a unique character, a maverick who doesn't need to be refuted from somebody else of another other party because he kind of stands aside from all that. But you can make a case that, you know, he's as conservative as most other Republicans and perhaps he should be refuted from someone from the other party.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Let's take it as read that John McCain inspires a certain veneration in the press that we won't go into here. But laying McCain aside for a moment, isn't the nature of these programs to be somewhat adversarial? I mean, if Tim Russert is, say, sitting with Dick Cheney, isn't he the one who's supposed to be asking the tough questions and not just give Cheney an opportunity to make a stump speech?
PAUL WALDMAN: Well that is, I think, how the shows would like to think of themselves. But I think if that's really what they're about, the Administration coming on to be interviewed and to air its views and to be questioned, then let's call it that and then let's not have anybody from the other party at all, because what's the point if the purpose of the shows is just to have the Administration state its case and then have a host ask questions about that case? But if they're going to claim to be having a debate in which both sides are represented, then they have an obligation to have something that, at least over time, looks like balance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If we take your point, that there are more conservatives and Republicans on these shows than perhaps there ought to be for a good balance and a fair airing of the debates, why?
PAUL WALDMAN: Why has it happened?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
PAUL WALDMAN: You know, that would require some speculation. And we don't make any allegation that the people who produce the show have some sort of sinister conspiracy at work, that are trying to advance a Republican agenda, but that habit of having neutral journalists providing balance for conservative writers suggests the possibility, at least, that the people who put together these shows have internalized this idea that reporters must be liberals. And so therefore, if you have a couple of people from the National Review on, you can balance them by having a couple of reporters. I can tell you that that has been the Republican strategy for around 40 years, to keep the media under constant pressure, accuse them of liberal bias at every turn. And, as a consequence, a lot of reporters, the way they deal with that is that they bend over backwards to show that they're not being liberal, and so they're tougher on Democrats. Now, I don't know if that's true with regard to the Sunday shows, but it's certainly true to one extent or another with a lot of reporters in Washington.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Paul, thank you very much.
PAUL WALDMAN: It's been my pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Paul Waldman is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]