What PBS Thinks You Need to Know: Replacement for Now & Moyers fails to fill their shoes

When Bill Moyers announced last November that he would be stepping down from Bill Moyers Journal, and PBS decided to cancel its other Friday night news show, Now, the network lost two hard-hitting independent programs from its lineup.

When Bill Moyers announced last November that he would be stepping down from Bill Moyers Journal, and PBS decided to cancel its other Friday night news show, Now, the network lost two hard-hitting independent programs from its lineup. To fill the hole, New York PBS station WNET--which had produced the two Friday shows--announced the launch of a new one-hour program, Need to Know, hosted by Newsweek editor Jon Meacham (who has since left the magazine) and former NPR, MSNBC and MTV host Alison Stewart. The show rolled out on more than 90 percent of PBS stations in May (Broadcasting & Cable, 3/22/10).

FAIR (3/9/10) issued a statement expressing concern that Meacham's hire "sends a clear and troubling message about PBS's priorities," given that the then-editor of Newsweek was a fixture on commercial TV pundit shows and a consummate purveyor of middle-of-the-road conventional wisdom with a conservative slant--not exactly a face or a perspective that needed yet another media platform, particularly not on public television.

Meacham's approach to journalism seemed to be antithetical to the hard-hitting approach of Moyers and Now; he had called on journalists to "cover other institutions as you would want to be covered," with "charity and dignity and respect" (Meet the Press, 1/1/06). This Golden Rule approach to news was illustrated when he intervened in a Newsweek online story about Joe Scarborough, a personal friend who often invites Meacham onto his cable show, to remove from the lead the fact that Scarborough had served as the defense attorney for the murderer of an abortion provider (FAIR Blog, 6/11/09).

WNET president and chief executive Neil Shapiro defended the choice of Meacham and Stewart. "They are both incredibly smart," he told Broadcasting & Cable (3/17/10). "And I think, given their intellect, neither are people you can pigeonhole left or right." By Shapiro's logic, of course, anyone who is actually on the left or right can't be very bright, an insult to PBS's progressive and conservative viewers.

Shapiro later told the New York Times (5/2/10) that while "there's no replacing Bill Moyers...the issues that Bill raises" would be among the show's topics. Stewart similarly told the L.A. Times blog Show Tracker (8/5/10): "Obviously, you can't replace Bill Moyers. That's just a ridiculous notion.... We're just doing what he set out to do: seek out the truth."

Of course, Moyers leaves big shoes to fill, but he actually was replaced once--by David Brancaccio and Maria Hinojosa, who took over Now when Moyers left to relaunch Bill Moyers Journal. Both shows featured subjects and voices often missing from corporate media. In recent years, for example, Moyers interviewed Jim Hightower and Howard Zinn on people's movements and struggles against powerful interests; single-payer advocates Dr. Marcia Angell and Wendell Potter; and Cornel West, Serene Jones and Gary Dorrien on faith and social justice.

Such subjects and sources admirably fulfilled PBS's purpose as set forth by the Carnegie Commission of 1967: to "provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard," to serve as "a forum for controversy and debate," and to broadcast programs that "help us see America whole, in all its diversity." Meacham actually expressed a similar understanding of PBS's role (Globe and Mail, 8/8/10), explaining that it's meant "to fill the spaces created by network and cable news." How well is Need to Know fulfilling that purpose?

To find out, Extra! studied Need to Know from the program's debut on May 7 through July 30, 2010, a total of 13 one-hour shows with 297 sources. Sources were coded by gender, nationality, ethnicity, occupation and, in the case of political professionals, partisan affiliation.

Need to Know's website describes the program as "not a television broadcast with a secondary online presence. Rather, the site and the TV program work together to complement each other." However, as of November 2009, the show's Web audience was only around 3 percent the size of its broadcast audience on New York's WNET(Current, 4/5/10)--which itself makes up only a fraction of the show's audience on PBS stations around the country. This more influential on-air content was the focus of Extra!'s research.

Need to Know's U.S. sources in the period studied were 78 percent white (196 of 250). With seven appearances, Latinos made up only 3 percent of all U.S. guests, though they account for 15 percent of the U.S. population. Only three Asian-Americans (1 percent) and no Native Americans or Americans of Mideastern descent were featured on Need to Know.

African-Americans made up 12 percent of U.S. sources (29 sources), on par with their representation in the population. Two segments during the study period focused on race, one interview with Root journalist Terence Samuel (7/23/10) and one with Harvard law professer Charles Ogletree (7/30/10). However, more than half of African-American sources appeared in segments on prisons and on drug abuse. Three of the seven Latino sources appeared on a segment about the U.S./Mexico drug war.

That one of the show's hosts is an African-American woman is certainly a step in the right direction, but women of color were particularly underrepresented as sources, at only nine total (4 percent). They were outnumbered by men of color more than 3 to 1.

Seventy percent of the show's sources were male. That male bias was more heavily skewed on stories about foreign affairs, at 80 percent, versus 65 percent male sources on domestic stories.

Need to Know featured several segments on hot-button subjects like birth control, gun control and medical marijuana, but it couldn't break out of the narrow commercial media box with its guest lists. The marijuana segment (on the "runaway beast" of medical marijuana clinics in California) featured exclusively white men, seven of the eight gun control segment guests were white men and seven of the eight birth control segment guests were white women.

Need to Know's source list drew frequently from U.S. government officials (15 percent) and journalists (9 percent), though it also featured a number of "person on the street" interviews (10 percent), which were typically very brief and often anonymous opinion or reaction soundbites. Every U.S. journalist source but one (Terence Samuel) was white; aside from Barack Obama's four appearances in file footage, only two of the 40 other U.S. government sources were people of color.

Corporate representatives outnumbered public interest activists 20 to 12. Activists represented perspectives ranging from gun rights advocates and the anti-immigration group Federation for American Immigration Reform to advocates for the environment and reproductive rights. Only two think tank representatives appeared during the period studied--Charles Stimson of the conservative Heritage Foundation and Brett McGurk of the centrist Council on Foreign Relations.

Need to Know featured relatively few professional politicians, but of those who appeared, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 18 to 12. However, all but three of the Democratic sources were shorter taped clips, while six of the Republicans were live guests. Five of the Democratic sources were brief historical clips featuring former presidents and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Most of the Democrats were federal elected officials or judges, while half of the Republicans were local officials. One independent--New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg--was featured, and one guest, McGurk, served under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Need to Know typically features one or two lengthier in-studio interviews, followed by produced segments with taped sources. The sources in these extended interviews were slightly more skewed toward white men than sources overall: Among the 31 people given the show's higher-profile platform, only eight (26 percent) were women, and of the 27 U.S. sources, only four (15 percent) were people of color-all African-American men. No women of color were featured. At 12 sources, journalists were the most represented group in these extended interviews, followed by government officials with four sources.

The most frequently discussed topics were Afghanistan and Iraq (12 segments, including four in-studio interviews) and the BP oil spill (seven segments, including seven in-studio interviews). The war segments featured 43 sources, nearly half of whom were associated with the military: 14 were current or former military and seven were family of military. Another nine were government sources, including those with military backgrounds like John McCain.

Unlike on most news programs, though, the majority of the military sources were not top brass but rather ordinary soldiers; one segment (6/25/10)--a followup to a segment originally reported by Now--looked at the relatively undercovered story of injured vets and the family members who care for them.

Thirty of the 43 war segment sources were white, five Afghan, four black and one Latino. (Three could not be identified by ethnicity.) Eight were women (22 percent), all of whom were white. No activists and only two academics (one of whom, Andrew Bacevich, was also military) were featured.

When Need to Know discussed the WikiLeaks document release (7/30/10), a trove of classified information showing, among other things, military doubts about the Afghanistan War, Stewart introduced the show: "Much ado about nothing or putting lives at risk? The effects of the WikiLeaks on the war in Afghanistan." The circumscribed choices--what about much ado about something?--made the choice of guests unsurprising: Joshua Foust, a blogger/writer who was a critic of WikiLeaks and was generally skeptical that there was much of value in the leaked reports.

The oil spill segments featured 50 sources. Five were people of color (10 percent), all but one of whom were male. Twelve of the oil spill sources were women (24 percent). Source occupations varied widely; the most-represented category was corporate sources (12), followed by environmental experts (7) and government officials, artists, journalists and people on the street (five each). Two were activists, one of whom was an unnamed community leader (7/2/10) saying only, "People are breaking down."

There were surprisingly few segments related to the economy, given the ongoing economic crisis during the period studied. Three segments looked at financial regulation (5/28/10, 7/16/10), one at drug money laundered through U.S. banks (5/28/10), and one at the "tiny house movement" among people looking to save money and help the environment (7/30/10). Every source in these segments was white. Men outnumbered women eight to five; of the three in-studio interviews on the economy, one (7/16/10) was with Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel.

"Journalism is the first rough draft of history," Meacham told the L.A. Times (8/6/10). "And some drafts are rougher than others."

There's time yet for Meacham, Stewart and Need to Know to smooth out their draft, but their record so far provides little encouragement that it will ever serve as an adequate replacement for Now and the Bill Moyers Journal.

Research by Michael Morel and Steve Rendall; research design by Steve Rendall.

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