On the sixth anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC, PBS remains the gold standard for coverage of campaign finance reform while other broadcast networks show room for improvement, according to a Media Matters review of their evening and Sunday news shows over the past 16 months. While coverage of the subject has increased across the board, with CBS in particular showing a substantial increase, a sizable fraction of the increase is due to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-VT) raising the issue in interviews on Sunday programs, rather than proactive efforts by journalists to cover campaign finance reform.
Broadcast evening news programs were once again virtually silent on congressional Republicans' attempt to restrict women's access to reproductive health care by pushing an extreme 20-week ban through the Senate. The same outlets ignored a GOP-controlled House vote on a similar bill in May.
Broadcast nightly news programs have remained silent on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) over the past three months of weekday programming, even as Congress is scheduled to vote this week on whether to grant President Obama authority to finalize the terms of the massive trade deal. The coverage blackout continues a trend extending back to 2013.
On May 12, the Senate plans to vote on legislation that would grant "fast-track" trade promotion authority to Obama as he attempts to complete negotiations among the 12 member nations that comprise the TPP. "Once Congress grants a president trade promotion authority, lawmakers have the ability to vote up or down on a final trade agreement, but they forfeit the right to amend the deal or filibuster it," The New York Times explained.
Debates over the merits of the deal itself and of granting the president trade promotion authority have erupted among Democratic and Republican members of Congress, but coverage of the negotiations has been largely absent from evening news programming on the major broadcast networks.
A Media Matters analysis of ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC's Nightly News from August 1, 2013, through May 10, 2015, found that the programs completely ignored the trade negotiations and related policy debates. Only PBS NewsHour devoted substantive coverage to the TPP, with 14 total segments:
Coverage of the TPP among major cable outlets has been similarly one-sided. Since August 1, 2013, MSNBC has mentioned the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 124 evening and primetime segments, the overwhelming majority of which (103) came during The Ed Show. Fox News trails far behind with just 12 mentions of the TPP over that time period, 10 of which have come since February 1, 2015. CNN has been almost completely absent from the discussion, registering only 2 mentions of the trade negotiations:
A segment on PBS' Newshour provided an example of how media should cover racial disparities in school discipline and educational achievement -- as well as a stark contrast with how right-wing media outlets have covered the same issues.
On the April 1 edition of PBS' Newshour, April Brown reported on the beginning of a new initiative in Washington, DC called the Empowering Males of Color initiative, and noted that some are concerned that the focus on boys of color leaves girls of color behind. The segment featured Kimberlé Crenshaw, a UCLA law professor, who pointed to the greater racial disparity in school discipline for girls than boys. The report went on to cover broader racial disparities in education, including the lower college graduation rate, and after-school programs such as Higher Achievement that are designed to help both boys and girls of color.
The Newshour segment was detailed and thoughtful -- providing a striking contrast with the way these issues have been discussed in right-wing outlets. Bill O'Reilly recently covered programs designed to reduce racial disparities in school discipline by declaring that "liberal mayors all over the country are making it easier for violent students to remain in public schools." National Review Online has published several articles that painted an image of black children as inherently more likely to need discipline: a post by Heather Mac Donald said it was "common sense that black students are more likely to be disruptive"; another post cited the "lack of impulse control" of black students (as evidenced, she argued, by higher crime rates among black people). An NRO editorial described optional guidelines from the Department of Justice and the Department of Education to address these disparities as being the administration's "most foolhardy idea yet"; Fox News host Megyn Kelly bashed that same DOJ policy as "handcuffing our educators" and needlessly "bringing race into it."
Newshour's nuanced discussion on racial and gender disparities in education seems far out of reach for outlets like Fox and NRO, which fall at the first hurdle in attributing racial disparities to the characteristics of children of color, and not systemic injustice.
In 2014, PBS NewsHour provided far more climate change-related segments and interviewed far more climate scientists than the nightly news programs at ABC and NBC, while also outperforming CBS. Additionally, like CBS Evening News, PBS NewsHour managed to avoid airing any segments that provided a platform for climate science deniers, whereas NBC Nightly News and ABC's World News Tonight both featured a segment in which a guest either denied that climate change is occurring or questioned the scientific findings of the National Climate Assessment.
Although it airs for twice as long as its broadcast network counterparts, PBS NewsHour's number of climate segments and scientists more than made up for this difference, particularly in comparison to ABC's World News Tonight. PBS NewsHour, which runs for 60 minutes, aired 45 reports last year that covered climate change. By comparison, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and ABC's World News Tonight, which are each 30 minute programs, aired 22, 14, and 11 climate-related reports in 2014, respectively. PBS NewsHour's 45 climate-related reports were a substantial increase over 2013, when the program aired 35 such reports.
PBS NewsHour also provided scientific perspectives in climate change stories more often than any of the other major networks, interviewing or quoting 27 scientists over the course of the year. In comparison, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News interviewed or quoted 11 and 7 scientists, respectively, while ABC's World News Tonight interviewed or quoted just two scientists.
Scientists lent their insight on a range of topics on PBS NewsHour, providing perspective on landmark reports on climate change, describing the impact of climate change on wildlife habitats, and illustrating how climate change is already having an impact on communities in places as disparate as Alaska and Florida. For example, in a two-part special on climate change's impacts in Alaska, PBS NewsHour interviewed paleoclimatologists, geophysicists, oceanographers, and ecologists to detail how climate change is threatening local wildlife and a centuries-old way of life for many Alaskans.
The recent announcement by NOAA and NASA that 2014 was the warmest year on record should serve as the starkest reminder yet that climate change is an issue deserving of mainstream media coverage. The networks' nightly news programs -- and ABC's World News Tonight in particular -- would do well to follow PBS NewsHour's lead by improving the quality and quantity of their climate change coverage.
This January marks the fifth anniversary of Citizens United v. FEC, the 2010 Supreme Court case that expanded the idea of "corporate personhood" by ruling that the First Amendment protects a corporation's right to make unlimited expenditures in support of political candidates as a form of speech. Network news coverage of its legal impact, however, has largely ignored how the Supreme Court continues to aggressively expand the decision.
This expansion of corporate rights has wide-ranging consequences, even outside of the context of campaign finance deregulation. The court's decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, for example, seemed to embrace the idea that corporations are capable of morally objecting to contraception coverage, co-opting yet another constitutional right -- that of religion -- that had previously been reserved for people, not businesses.
In terms of election law, the conservative justices further dismantled campaign finance restrictions in 2014's McCutcheon v. FEC, which struck down aggregate campaign donation limits and allowed wealthy donors to contribute money to a virtually unlimited number of candidates and political parties. The court will hear yet another campaign finance case on January 20 called Williams-Yulee v. the Florida Bar, which could strike down a Florida rule that prohibits judicial candidates from directly soliciting money from donors -- a rule that was put in place in response to a serious corruption scandal that resulted in the resignations of four Florida Supreme Court justices.
Yet despite the cascade of decisions from conservative justices intent on dismantling campaign finance regulations and rewriting corporate rights -- and the majority of Americans who support a constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United -- the media have largely underreported this story.
Here are four graphics that illustrate this failure.
Evening television news outlets have largely not reported on two important cases issued by the Supreme Court that rolled back workplace anti-discrimination law, despite the urgent call for congressional action issued by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dual dissents.
Ginsburg, in addition to being one of the most accomplished justices in history due to her trailblazing civil rights work, has also been a crucial participant in the dialogue between the Court and Congress over the scope of anti-discrimination law. Most famously, it was Ginsburg who successfully called upon Congress to act after the notorious Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007) decision, when the conservative majority twisted the intent of Title VII's protections against employment discrimination to make it easier to illegally pay women less than their colleagues.
When the five conservative justices once again attacked Title VII at the end of the Court's latest term and similarly dismissed long-standing law to make it harder for workers to protect themselves from sex and race discrimination, Ginsburg reprised her liberal dissent and asked Congress to undo the conservative damage to this vital component of the Civil Rights Act.
But a Media Matters search of Nexis transcripts since these two opinions were issued reveals that not only have most network and cable evening news programs completely ignored Ginsburg's plea to Congress to take corrective action and "restore the robust protections against workplace harassment the Court weakens" - similar to what legislators did in passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 - they are not reporting on the two new Title VII decisions at all. PBS' The NewsHour was the sole exception, with a solitary mention.
While this most recent term will rightly be remembered in part for the important step forward the Court took in according the LGBT community with equal civil rights under law, it will also go down in history as a term where protections for other groups were rolled back, most significantly in the gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Indeed, the Court's rightward jerk under Chief Justice John Roberts was even more apparent in the continuation of closely divided pro-business decisions that undermine regulations and law that guard against corporate abuse. As reported by NBCNews.com, "[i]n one measure of the strong term for corporations, the Chamber of Commerce was on the winning side for 14 of the 17 cases in which it filed briefs, and a perfect 8-0 in closely divided cases."
A day after yet another comprehensive fact-check poked holes into a study from the conservative Heritage Foundation on the costs of immigration reform, PBS' NewsHour aired a segment with the study's co-author in which it treated the report's conclusions as legitimate. But as experts and conservatives have noted, there is nothing remotely sound about the study's methodology, which renders its conclusion that reform would cost $6.3 trillion invalid.
On June 4, FactCheck.org published a definitive fact-check of the Heritage study that outlined several problems with the report's underlying assumptions, including the fact that the report is not an analysis of the bill currently being debated in the Senate.
FactCheck noted that one of the report's authors, Robert Rector, has admitted that "some aspects of the bill, such as increasing green cards or legal permanent residence visas for high-skill workers, would likely lower the cost projection." Other problems it identified included:
But on the June 5 edition of PBS' NewsHour, Rector's wild conclusions were treated with credibility. Host Ray Suarez introduced the discussion -- which also featured Center for American Progress visiting fellow Robert Lynch -- as a debate on the "contrasting views on what immigration reform would cost, and whether it would help or hurt the U.S. economy."
Media coverage of the debt ceiling frequently claims that raising the limit without simultaneous spending cuts would give President Obama a "blank check," repeating a pattern of promoting this false narrative -- or failing to correct it -- that occurred during the unprecedented brinkmanship of 2011. The phrase implies that the debt ceiling governs additional spending desired by the White House, when in fact it is a restriction on the executive branch's ability to borrow money to pay for spending measures already enacted by Congress.
Despite hundreds of thousands of petitions asking for a question on climate change, former PBS NewsHour host Jim Lehrer did not ask the candidates what they would do to address manmade global warming as moderator of the first presidential debate. Even more stunning, Lehrer did not ask a single question about the environment or energy issues.
Lehrer, who currently serves as NewsHour's executive editor, said at the outset of the debate that he wanted to focus on "specifics." Yet while both President Obama and Mitt Romney brought up energy issues frequently, the moderator never pressed them on distortions made on these issues. And neither Lehrer nor the candidates raised climate change, which was discussed in each of the last three sets of presidential debates. In both 2000 and in 2008, the debates featured specific questions on climate change, and Republican and Democratic candidates each acknowledged the issue.
Last week, groups including the League of Conservation Voters, Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation delivered more than 160,000 petitions to Lehrer urging him to ask Obama and Romney "how they will confront the greatest challenge of our generation -- climate change."
Their calls came amid increasing criticism of Obama and Romney for remaining largely silent on climate change, even as polling shows that a majority of undecided voters will weigh candidates' climate positions when they cast their ballots.
Just last month, NewsHour drew fire for turning to climate change contrarian Anthony Watts, a meteorologist, as a counterpoint to the scientific consensus on climate change. NewsHour did not disclose Watts' connection to the Heartland Institute, which is partly funded by corporations with an interest in obscuring climate science. Soon after, PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler acknowledged that the segment "was not the PBS NewsHour's finest 10 minutes" and said he found it "stunning" that Watts had been picked instead of "a university-accredited scientist to provide 'balance.'" But it remained to be seen whether PBS would re-commit itself to informing its audience and holding politicians accountable for the problems of the day. Tonight's debate indicated that PBS has not taken the criticism it has received seriously. Indeed, shortly after closing remarks, Watts gloated on his blog that climate was not mentioned.
Last night, PBS NewsHour turned to meteorologist and climate change contrarian Anthony Watts to "counterbalance" the mainstream scientific opinions presented by the program. This false balance is a disservice to PBS' viewers, made worse by the program's failure to explain Watts' connection to the Heartland Institute, an organization that receives funding from some corporations with a financial interest in confusing the public on climate science.
While PBS mentioned that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that manmade global warming is occurring, it did not reflect this consensus by giving significant airtime to Watts' contrarian views. The segment presented Watts as the counterbalance to scientists that believe in manmade global warming -- every time a statement that reflects the scientific consensus was aired, in came Watts to cast doubt in viewers' minds. As 66 percent of Americans incorrectly think that "there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening," news organizations need to be careful not to contribute to this confusion.
The segment focused on the findings of physicist Richard Muller, who was previously skeptical of climate science, and decided to embark on a study to re-examine the data. Muller's work was partially funded by the Koch Brothers, who fund climate contrarian groups like the Heartland Institute, and he collaborated with Watts to address his concerns about the reliability of the temperature record. Watts stated at the time, "I'm prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong." But after Muller reconfirmed the surface temperature record that has been constructed by several scientific groups and is consistent with satellite temperature records, Watts continued to dispute it. Yet in the full interview with Watts that PBS posted online, reporter Spencer Michels did not challenge Watts once, instead asking questions like, "What's the thing that bothers you the most about people who say there's lots of global warming?"
In the online report, Michels revealed that he got in contact with Watts through the Heartland Institute -- which he failed to mention on-air. Segments like this one on PBS are the very goal of groups like the Heartland Institute, as the New York Times' Andrew Revkin explained:
The norm of journalistic balance has been exploited by opponents of emissions curbs. Starting in the late 1990s, big companies whose profits were tied to fossil fuels recognized they could use this journalistic practice to amplify the inherent uncertainties in climate projections and thus potentially delay cuts in emissions from burning those fuels. Perhaps the most glaring evidence of this strategy was a long memo written by Joe Walker, who worked in public relations at the American Petroleum Industry, that surfaced in 1998. According to this ''Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan,'' first revealed by my colleague John Cushman at the New York Times, ''Victory will be achieved when uncertainties in climate science become part of the conventional wisdom'' for ''average citizens'' and ''the media'' (Cushman 1998). The action plan called for scientists to be recruited, be given media training, highlight the questions about climate, and downplay evidence pointing to dangers. Since then, industry-funded groups have used the media's tradition of quoting people with competing views to convey a state of confusion even as consensus on warming has built.
In addition to being promoted by Heartland, Watts was paid by the Heartland Institute for his work on temperature stations. Yet PBS left out that fact, even as it aired Watts suggesting that 97 percent of climate scientists are lying in order to be paid by the allegedly lucrative global warming "business":
From the February 11 edition of PBS' NewsHour:
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From the November 4 edition of PBS' The Newshour:
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In reports on the confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayor, numerous media outlets quoted Sen. Jeff Sessions' assertion that he would not vote for a justice who would rely on personal experience to decide cases. But Sessions voted to confirm Samuel Alito, who highlighted the importance of his personal experience during his hearing.
New York Times columnist David Brooks asserted of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin: "She's evangelical, but she's pretty progressive on gay and lesbian issues. She's for drilling in ANWR [Arctic National Wildlife Refuge], but she talks about global warming quite a lot." But Palin has reportedly said of global warming, "I'm not one though who would attribute it to being man-made," a position at odds with findings by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; she has also reportedly opposed giving spousal benefits to same-sex partners of public employees.