Who Gets To Meet The Press?

NBC's Meet the Press hit a homerun last weekend when a buzz-worthy sound bite from its interview with Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich became newsworthy. That meant every time other news outlets made reference to Gingrich deriding a Republican proposed Medicare plan as “right-wing engineering,” Meet the Press was referenced and credited. That kind of news pick-up represents one way to judge success in the competitive world of Sunday morning talk shows.

Perhaps hoping to keep the story going. Meet the Press this week announced Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the subject of Gingrich's “social engineering” swipe, would be a featured guest on Sunday's show.

Of course, that's a very Republican-centric view of the news cycle and seemed to be the latest indication of how the Sunday morning talk shows traditionally skew to the right and tend to view Republicans as being inherently more newsworthy than Democrats, regardless of which party is in power.

Media Matters has published two studies that show empirically that that was the case from 1997-2006.

Anecdotally, simply return to the first weekend after the 2006 midterm elections, in which Democrats scored sweeping wins and retook both houses of Congress. Viewers who tuned in to Meet the Press that Sunday quickly discovered the show failed to invite any Democrats to appear. Instead, the guests that day were Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who had left the Democratic Party after losing a primary (and who would go on to endorse McCain for president less than two years later).

More recently, some Democrats and progressives complained about the makeup of the guests for the first round of Sunday morning shows after we learned Osama bin Laden had been killed. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, for one, expressed frustration with the TV booking choices.

Sunday morning producers heard the recent carping. Responding via Twitter, Meet the Press' executive producer Betsy Fischer pushed back:

When somebody inquired about a further breakdown of the guests, Fischer responded that of Meet the Press' newsmaker guests this year (i.e. not including round table panelists), 20 have been Republican, 23 Democrat.

So, NBC has been fair and balanced in terms of booking its Meet the Press guests in 2011. And despite complaints from the left, the show's not giving more airtime to Republicans. In fact, it's splitting the airtime evenly between the two, and what could be fairer than that?

The problem with that explanation is this year Democrats control the White House and appear as often as Republicans do on Meet the Press. Yet the last time there was a Republican in the White House, Meet the Press pretty much flooded the airwaves with Republican guests. During President Bush's first term, Republicans held a 24 point percentage advantage over Democrats in terms of the number of elected and administration officials booked as guests on the program.

Back when Bush was in office, Meet the Press did not go out of its way to divide it's guest list down the middle, making sure to give Democrats and Republican equal time in front of the NBC cameras. Instead, when Bush was president, Meet the Pressroutinely invited a cavalcade of Republican official and elected politicians onto the show and gave short shrift to their Democrats counterparts.

How come? In response to Media Matters' 2006 study of Sunday morning guests, NBC's Fischer stressed that, “One needs to consider that the party holding the presidency also has a cabinet full of major newsmaker guests that speak to U.S. policy matters.” And that makes sense. What makes less sense today is why, when the party holding the presidency is Democratic, has the idea evaporated that that party should get more Sunday airtime?

During most of the previous decade, Meet the Press' bookings, like those of its competitors, leaned very clearly in favor of Republicans. But today, Meet the Press is splitting its guest list right down the middle and making sure Republicans and Democrats get equal time, even though Democrats control the White House and one of the two houses of Congress? Somehow that does not seem fair.

But the pattern is persistent. As the Media Matters report highlighted, when Bush's Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, was in the White House, Meet The Press once again operated under the general premise that Democrats and Republicans should be given roughly similar airtime on the program.

So the established formula seems simple, albeit clearly imbalanced: When there's a Democratic administration, Meet The Press invites both Republicans and Democrats on at an equal rate. But when there's a Republican administration, Meet the Press invites far more Republicans on as guests. And that's why the media grumbling on the left persists.

Here's a table from Media Matters' 2006 study detailing Meet the Press' guest list of elected and administration officials.































A follow-up review in 2007, found that the established pattern did not change in terms of Meet the Press guests for 2006, even after Democrats won back control of Congress that year.

Fast-forwarding to 2011 and with a Democratic president, Meet the Press' partisan breakdown for guests stands at roughly 50-50, according to Fischer's tally.

This Sunday, Meet the Press will pick up where last weekend's Gingrich story left off by hosting Republican Ryan for an “exclusive” interview. And some viewers will no doubt wonder why, for Sunday morning talk shows, Republicans are deemed to be more newsworthy than Democrats.