Major FAIR Exposé of PBS: Taking the 'Public' Out of Public TV
PBS fare differs little from commercial TV
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
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
-- 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
-- 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 v. 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
-- 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
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 (May-August 2010), 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.