Shows like "Meet the Press" and "Face the Nation" once featured informative discussions with a combination of pundits and experts. Now they've swapped experts for both-sideist banter and political theater. And it's destroying the national conversation
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The hearings of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol have included detailed revelations of a criminal conspiracy to attack our country and overturn our Constitution. The Sunday morning “news” shows have been covering them, but none of the guests has been a historian or an expert in law, corruption, or authoritarianism, as one might expect. Almost all have been politicians, most of them members of the Committee. As a result, the hearings have been framed as political theater rather than as a threat to democracy. This focus on politics is not unusual. In a recent research study by the Media and Democracy Project of all the guests on the Sunday shows in 2021, and a review of guests during 2022, we found that not one has been a historian, legal scholar, or anyone else who could put the attack in context for viewers. Even worse, there were dozens of guests who spread the Big Lie.
The shows have also failed in their coverage of enormously consequential Supreme Court decisions handed down late last week, not least of which, the overturning of Roe and Casey. The Sunday shows invited several politicians, including some governors, to weigh in on the case, but there were no appearances by guests who provide reproductive services or who represent the marginalized communities most impacted by the decisions. None of the shows invited experts on Bruen, the ruling striking down New York’s hand-gun law, which will now allow anyone to carry a concealed weapon, invalidating long-standing local laws; or on the upcoming decision that could prevent the EPA from addressing climate change. Our study found that this was also true in 2021 when they had virtually no experts on legal matters and none who work on women’s health or reproductive justice.
This neglect of experts extends beyond insurrection and coup coverage, abortion and the judiciary. The Sunday shows had few, if any, experts on many other vital issues including climate change, education, immigration, drug policy, civil rights, labor, sexual harassment, over all of 2021. Relying on politicians is extremely damaging. Not only does it keep the public from being fully informed, but “horse-race” political coverage increases cynicism and polarization.
But there is a solution, and we’ve seen it with some pressing issues, like COVID, when the shows relied heavily on experts, proving they can do better when they choose.
In our recently published study of all the guests on the major Sunday shows in 2021 —ABC’s This Week, CBS’s Face the Nation, NBC’s Meet the Press, CNN’s State of the Union, and Fox’s Fox News Sunday. There were 816 guests appearing on 251 shows. We performed data analysis on characteristics of the guests and textual analysis of show transcripts. We found that more than half of the guests were politicians, predominantly congresspeople. Textual review of the show transcripts found that members of Congress rarely delved into the issues in any depth; they discussed politics and process far more often than substance. As a result, they make the issues appear partisan and not amenable to solutions. It would be far better if the shows hosted more experts on these issues who could speak knowledgeably about what is being done, or could be done, to address these problems.
The formulaic structure of the news shows contributes to horse-race coverage—one Democrat and one Republican. While they’re creating two sides, those “sides” fail to inform and give equal weight and legitimacy to both positions. The coverage of the coup attempt is a good example of the horse-race coverage we found for almost all issues. Americans experienced a serious and determined attack on our country between November 2020 and January 2021. Efforts are continuing to turn the country into an authoritarian state. The shows should be hosting historians and experts on authoritarianism like Heather Cox Richardson, Timothy Snyder, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, and Asha Rangappa among others to put these events in context and explain how the actions now being taken are similar to those in countries that turned away from democracy. They should also host experts in the law and corruption such as Dahlia Lithwick, Elie Mystal, Jennifer Taub, and Walter Shaub to discuss how those involved could be prosecuted and how our laws could be revised to shore up our system. Guests like these would inform the public and make it clear that these concerns are not normal political gamesmanship but real threats to our country. But no one of this ilk appeared during 2021 and a more cursory review of 2022 so far indicates that this continues to be true. Similarly, they should host experts on reproductive rights and justice, people like Planned Parenthood president Alexis McGill Johnson, Executive Director of the Yellowhammer Fund Laurie Bertram Roberts, and Tammi Kromenaker, who runs the last abortion clinic in North Dakota, The Red River Women’s Clinic; and authors like Linda Villarosa (author of Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and On the Health of Our Nation), Robin Marty (author of Handbook for a Post-Roe America), and Lauren Rankin (author of Our Bodies on the Line). These are the people who know the issues inside and out.
The reason we take issue with the fact that so many of the guests are members of the Jan. 6 House Select Committee and others who supported the investigation is that it makes the issue appear as a partisan political matter, not a legal one. What’s worse, some of the shows have hosted senators and representatives who have spread the Big Lie, and who conspired to keep the elected president from assuming office. The Republican Accountability Project graded all GOP congresspeople based on whether or not they supported democracy. Their criteria for an F was: actively working to undermine our elections by voting to overturn the election; spreading lies about the election; obstructing an investigation. There were 58 appearances by people who got D grades or worse. Not surprisingly, Fox was the worst offender. The other networks were better, but they still both-sided it: CNN hosted Fox favorite Rep. Michael McCaul twice—he had received a D-. But the big three networks hosted guests who received F grades on the democracy report card and voted not to certify the electoral college results—even after the attacks: ABC had on Sen. Rick Scott and Rep. Steve Scalise; CBS invited Sen. Ted Cruz and Scalise; and NBC hosted Sen. Scott, Rep. Dan Crenshaw, Sen. Roger Marshall, and Rep. Geoff Duncan.
The networks offer two excuses for providing a platform for these traitors to the rule of law and our Constitution. First, they claim to confront them on their actions. But our review, as well as studies by Media Matters and others, find that they are not able to force them to answer questions or acknowledge facts. Fox News Sunday doesn’t even try. Chuck Todd of NBC’s Meet the Press is the most inept as he appears cowed by right-wing critics. Margaret Brennan of CBS’s Face the Nation and George Stephanopoulos of ABC’s This Week make an effort but are not successful. Second, they argue that if they excluded all coup supporters, they would be excluding a large fraction of the Republicans in Congress—this much is true—and therefore would be partisan. But looking to achieve mathematical partisan balance is a mistake when most of one party is actively undermining the rule of law. There are not “good people on both sides” of a coup attempt. Even in more normal circumstances, partisan balance would be the wrong goal. They should have fewer politicians of all stripes and far more people who specialize in the topics they are discussing.
But unlike some media critics who say the Sunday shows are “hopelessly broken,” we believe they can be fixed. We know the shows are capable of providing truly informative, expert information to their viewers because we’ve seen it. The shows demonstrated that they are capable of covering issues well by hosting 141 medical experts to cover COVID. They recognized the pandemic as an issue of vital concern to the public and provided non-political expert-centric information. They also had a reasonable number of experts on the economy and foreign policy. But, based on who they invite on the shows, we conclude they consider all other issues, including climate change, to be political footballs, not serious problems that can be solved.
To improve the information Americans receive from these agenda-setting shows, we propose an initial solution: If the networks cut the number of congressional guests in half, there would be room to provide insights and solutions on several more topics. In total, out of the 816 guests, our study counted only 53 guests with deep knowledge of the issues of climate (and other environmental/energy policy), education, drug policy, the judiciary, labor, immigration, corruption, sexual harassment, civil rights, and voting rights. In contrast, there were over 400 elected officials, of whom 300 were congresspeople.
For all issues, the Sunday shows should consider inviting experts who are working on solutions. For example, instead of hosting congresspeople who are debating over money for renewable energy, we would all be better served if they hosted thought leaders who could explain what needs to be done to foster electric vehicles. This would make the public more aware of what is being done to address these problems.
Our study also found extremely pronounced demographic biases. We found the guests are overwhelmingly white men. Latinas and Latinos are 19% of the population, 9% of Congress but a meager 3% of Sunday show guests. And only 23% of the guests are women. The demographics of the guests more closely resemble the make-up of Congress than the U.S. population. Reaching out more broadly would better reflect the American people—and may have an added benefit of increasing the diversity of viewing audiences
Media and Democracy Project selected the Sunday shows as the basis of the study because they are watched by over 10 million people each week and their reach extends even further. They help set the agenda for news coverage and discussion across all media platforms. We also believe that the Sunday shows are a microcosm in which to examine how the TV networks, and the media more generally, cover matters of great consequence. We found they did a very poor job of covering the failed coup attempt and many other vital issues. Reviewing more recent coverage makes clear that this failure continues. Considering the ongoing threats to our nation, we urge the Sunday shows executives to cease treating subjects that are sabotaging our democracy (including the insurrection, the coup attempt, willful spreading of disinformation such as the Big Lie and legislating racist voter suppression) as political strategies and to cover them as the threats and criminal conspiracies that they are.
NOTE: This study is dedicated to the memory of media critic Eric Boehlert, a constant source of inspiration for us, and the strongest voice we knew confronting the uninformative journalism and media failures this study highlights. As Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch said after his death, “This country needs a small army of Eric Boehlerts.” We hope our report inspires others to join the fight for a better-informed American public.
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