Sunday Talk Shows: Conservative Bias?

The liberal media watchdog Media Matters has done a thorough analysis of the guests on the major Sunday morning talk shows from 1997-2005 and find that conservatives dominate.

From the executive summary:

  • The balance between Democrats/progressives and Republicans/ conservatives was roughly equal during Clinton’s second term, with a slight edge toward Republicans/conservatives: 52 percent of the ideologically identifiable guests were from the right, and 48 percent were from the left. But in Bush’s first term, Republicans/ conservatives held a dramatic advantage, outnumbering Democrats/progressives by 58 percent to 42 percent. In 2005, the figures were an identical 58 percent to 42 percent.

  • Counting only elected officials and administration representatives, Democrats had a small advantage during Clinton’s second term: 53 percent to 45 percent. In Bush’s first term, however, the Republican advantage was 61 percent to 39 percent — nearly three times as large.

  • In both the Clinton and Bush administrations, conservative journalists were far more likely to appear on the Sunday shows than were progressive journalists. In Clinton’s second term, 61 percent of the ideologically identifiable journalists were conservative; in Bush’s first term, that figure rose to 69 percent.

  • In 1997 and 1998, the shows conducted more solo interviews with Democrats/progressives than with Republicans/conservatives. But in every year since, there have been more solo interviews with Republicans/conservatives.

  • The most frequent Sunday show guest during this nine-year period is Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who has appeared 124 times. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) has been the most frequent guest since 2003.

  • In every year examined by the study — 1997 – 2005 — more panels tilted right (a greater number of Republicans/conservatives than Democrats/progressives) than tilted left. In some years, there were two, three, or even four times as many righttitled panels as left-tilted panels.

  • Congressional opponents of the Iraq war were largely absent from the Sunday shows, particularly during the period just before the war began.

How could it be that the ostensible “liberal media” is so biased toward the right?

Looking at the data graphically, Republicans/conservatives have dominated the guest list almost every year:

If It's Sunday, It's Conservative: An analysis of the Sunday talk show guests on ABC, CBS, and NBC, 1997 - 2005

And it is getting worse!

If It's Sunday, It's Conservative: An analysis of the Sunday talk show guests on ABC, CBS, and NBC, 1997 - 2005

Well, some obvious things come to mind. The coding could be off. Media Matters acknowledges that the charge exists:

We understand that because we are a progressive organization, some on the right will seek to undercut the credibility of our findings, perhaps charging that we have stacked the deck by classifying too many guests as conservative. Partly for that reason, when a guest’s ideology or partisan affiliation was ambiguous, we erred on the side of identifying a guest to the left. Consequently, one can assume that, if anything, our figures underestimate the conservative slant to the Sunday shows.

The report does not tell us how each individual guest was coded but, for the sake of argument, let us presume that they used academic detachment.

The report covers Clinton’s second term and Bush’s first term-plus. During the entire period, Republicans had elected majorities in both Houses of Congress, although the Democrats took control of the Senate for several months after Jim Jeffords’ defection. So, given the “standard” guest lists–cabinet officials, party chairmen, and key congressional leaders–the GOP is going to have an advantage.

Indeed, the chart below–the last of twenty-seven pages of charts distributed with the survey–bears this out:

If It's Sunday, It's Conservative: An analysis of the Sunday talk show guests on ABC, CBS, and NBC, 1997 - 2005

Goodness, simply removing John McCain from the survey would move the graphs. He simply dominated the bookings. Kevin Drum gets it right, I think, when he notes that,

The reason that anti-war senators didn’t get much air time was just simple laziness: the talk show bookers kept booking their favorites regardless of what was happening in the outside world and regardless of whether that meant they were shortchanging their viewers. They were on autopilot.

Yep. The Sunday shows–and news talk bookers in general–want guests with as many of the following characteristics as possible: 1) famous, 2) powerful, 3) interesting, 4) colorful, 5) available. The first of these is circular since, as the more appearances a guest makes the more familiar he is to audiences and the more likely he is to get called back.

Laziness, not ideology, is the explanation here. It’s the same reason, by the way, that Ana Marie Cox always gets invited to represent “bloggers” on televison and at conventions. And the same reason that familiar commentators keep getting called up to talk about things far outside the expertise that originally got them invited on television to begin with.

Full report here. Graphs here.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    The answer is the same we liberals always give when conservatives complain about ‘obscenity’ on tv – change the channel!

  2. Bithead says:

    Of COURSE conservatives dominate the guest list.
    Think about it; If you were a Lleft leaning ‘newsie”, which would you rather proverbially set on fire with your questions?

  3. circlethewagons says:

    ‘Course, Ana Marie Cox is better looking than John McCain.

  4. balconesfault says:

    Not just laziness … but friendliness to sponsors, I would argue. The guys who sell ad time for all these shows know that truly progressive panelists would have many of their target audience throwing their shoes at the screen, or jumping to PBS and Wall Street Week in Review, and so they’re always going to disproportionately feature the commentators who viewers who buy large insurance policies and invesment counseling services would rather see. It’s showtime, baby!

  5. Lindata says:

    The belief that the media is liberal sets up an interesting dynamic in conservative true-believers. If media reports are in their favor, the media is still believed to be shading the situation negatively. The true-believer’s Truth is even better than being reported. If the media reports are against the conservative beliefs the reports are dismissed out of hand.

    Hence, Iraq is much better than is being reported; Delay and company are martyrs (and besides everybody does it); and Bush haters are everywhere maligning his obvious competence and leadership.

    Imagine if the media is actually leaning conservative. Wow! Suddenly Iraq is a real mess, Delay and company are real crooks, and Bush is the idiot he actually appears to be. Maybe his secret successes in the WOT as illusory as FEMA’s help.

    How can we tell facts from fiction? How about looking at who is in favor of transparency and who isn’t.

    (PS thanks for the spell checker!)

  6. Christopher says:

    John McCain is a conservative???

    But seriously: liberals have such a lack of ideas and beliefs, how could you have them on the shows that much? (oh yea-and they are idiots too!) All they can talk about is their utter hatred of Bush & Co. Yes, yes…we hated Clinton too, but at least we moved him to the right by way of the middle. Other than the judges Bubba appointed, he did little liberal damage.

  7. ervington says:

    Joe Lieberman is a liberal???

    And John Kerry was on so much because of the presidential race trying to get name recognition up…something Bush and Gore didn’t have to do thanks to their associations with former presidencies and then being an incumbent. Seems like they did underestimate.

  8. jimbo says:

    What the talk shows really like are people who will say things that make news. Obviously, people in office, a majority of them Republicans, are in a better position to influence policy, so it is news to know what they are thinking. Second are contrarians. McCain is the number one contrarian. He may support the war, but he does not like anything else the administration is doing, including its conduct of the war. When a senior GOP senator criticises the administration it is news. On the other side there is Lieberman the Democratic contrarian.

  9. Railroad Stone says:

    “Laziness” is your best excuse?

    The bias of the liberal media is provably imaginary. Whatever your excuse might be, this myth is busted.

    I love that your first response was to accuse the messenger of bias, yet again, and found, yet again, that the bias was actually in your favour. Classic!

  10. Lindata says:

    Go for it Railroad Stone!

    Also notice who is doing most of the whining these days.

  11. Eneils Bailey says:

    I would not get too stirred up about these numbers. They do prove more Republicans than Democrats have appeared on these shows. It proves absolutely nothing about the bias’s of the networks and their personnel. Case in point, most of the hosts of these shows give some pretty tough questions to a lot of Republicans and let people like Hillary slide with some very soft questions. Case in in point , a Russert interview with HRC, good ole Tim has to go wipe the jizem juice out of his panties every commerical break when she is on. The big grim stays affixed to his face for hours just because she graced him with her presence. Numbers are for statisticans, not politicians. And Mccain just loves to shuck and jive about the Republicans just to get his face on Sunday morning TV.

  12. McGehee says:

    The bias of the liberal media is provably imaginary.

    No, I think the “imaginariness” of liberal media bias is what’s imaginary. Real studies have been proving it exists for so long that the media people themselves — the serious ones — are reduced to arguing that their bias really doesn’t matter.

    And given the last few election cycles, they might be right, but not in the way they mean.

  13. Railroad Stone says:

    Okay, McGehee. I’m convinced.

    “Nuh-Uh!”, is too compelling an argument for me to challenge.

    With counter-evidence like that, I don’t know why James thought it was even worth mentioning the voluminous research done by Media Matters.

  14. Craig says:

    The right wing, like any other cult, has the behavior that they can be rational about some topics – say, raising rational objections to any accusation of bias in their favor, picking apart any flaw in the argument – and utterly irrational about points that touch their ideology, e.g., left-wing bias.

    They’re just blind and deaf to any rational arguments against the myth they hold dear that the media has a left-wing bias, their brains are not functioning for that side. Books – well, lies on paper – like ‘Bias’ are much of the weak basis for their embrace of that view.

    A far better book, which debunks the myth for the rational, is Eric Alterman’s “What liberal media?”

  15. Rumpjungle says:

    The “Liberal Media” is accepted as fact in conservative circles, but is no more true, proved, and scientific as Intelligent Design.

    McGehee (in the comments) says “Real studies have been proving this for so long”, but can’t name any. I’d hypothesize that over 90% of conservatives believe this but wouldn’t know what “study” to refer to. Did he even read the summary above? Does he know the methodology? Of course not. Doesn’t fit his view of the world. Yet the study was generous with its liberal labeling and still came up with numbers favoring conservatives. I can accept part of the argument that the party in power should get more face time, but the most disturbing trend in this study are the panel guests on these shows. They skew incredibly towards conservatives and conservatives pundits that get “balanced” out by neutral journalists. Rarely do you see progressive and progressive pundits represented.

  16. Captain Video says:

    “liberals have such a lack of ideas and beliefs”

    In order to keep this message from getting too long, here are just a few things that Liberals believe: A complete list would be a lot longer.

    People have a right to privacy that the government may not invade.

    The government must not meddle in people’s religious lives. Therefore there must be strict separation of church and state.

    No person should be deprived of the protection of the legal system. If even one person is deprived of such protection, it is a threat to everyone’s freedom.

    Economic policy should be made for the benefit of all people, not for a rich, privileged elite of haves and have mores.

    Economic policy should promote equality of opportunity.

    Protection of the environment is essential to preserving the quality of life.

  17. Captain Video says:

    “Real studies have been proving it exists”

    What studies? Conservative claims of liberal bias are in terms of generalized accusations and hearsay. No conservative organization has ever made the careful content analysis that Media Matters is making, where what is actually said and who is saying it are carefully analyzed. Such careful content analysis by Media Matters has repeatedly exposed the widespread conservative bias in our media. If anyone doubts this, all they need to do is look at the content analysis on the Media Matters Web site.

  18. Captain Video says:

    “oh yea-and they are idiots too!”

    It is people who feel compelled to engage in name calling that suffer from a lack of ideas.