Since 1979, C-SPAN has provided an invaluable service to viewers
with its no-frills coverage of congressional hearings, press briefings, demonstrations,
book readings and other political events. By presenting public affairs with
a minimal intrusion by hosts or reporters, C-SPAN has gained
a reputation as a frictionless conveyer of raw political information to the
In 2005, C-SPAN celebrated the 25th anniversary of the first-ever
nationally televised viewer call-in shows, a format that it introduced in October
1980. By January 1995, it launched Washington Journal, a political
talkshow that C-SPAN now describes as its “flagship viewer
Airing seven mornings a week, usually three hours per day, Washington
Journal generally features a host, guests and viewer calls. Guests
usually appear one at a time, though they are occasionally paired. C-SPAN’s
“open phone” segments also allow callers a chance to voice a broad
spectrum of opinions with no guests present.
Washington Journal’s reputation for maintaining a low-key
atmosphere for serious discussion is matched by its image of fairness. The
New York Times (12/15/96) once described C-SPAN as
“the politically neutral public-affairs cable channel,” and
NPR’s Mike Pesca (On the Media, 4/6/02) declared
that balance was the key to the network’s success: “This bare-bones,
aggressively evenhanded format is why C-SPAN was founded and probably
why 8 million people a week watch Washington Journal.”
C-SPAN doesn’t disagree. “Balance is our No. 1
goal,” Peter Slen, Washington Journal’s executive producer and part-time
host, told On the Media, adding: “We keep official stats
on the Washington Journal, OK? Republicans, Democrats, conservative,
liberal, moderates—we try to stay within the week nearly perfect as far
as the balance goes.”
To test C-SPAN’s claims of fairness, Extra!
studied Washington Journal’s guestlist, tabulating all
663 guests that appeared on the show in the six-month period from November 1,
2004 to April 30, 2005. Guests were classified by gender, ethnicity, party affiliation
(if any) and occupation. The study also looked at the think tanks most prominently
represented on the show.
Despite C-SPAN’s stated goals, Extra!’s
study found Washington Journal skewing rightward, favoring
Republican and right-of-center interview subjects by considerable margins over
Democratic and left-of-center guests. The study also found that women, people
of color and public interest viewpoints were substantially underrepresented.
Overall, people of European ancestry made up 85 percent of Washington
Journal’s guestlist—563 out of 663. (Extra!
was able to identify the ethnic background of more than 99 percent of guests.)
People of African (26) and Asian (24) heritage accounted for 4 percent each,
while those of Middle Eastern (22) and Latin American (18) descent represented
3 percent each. No Native Americans were identifiable on the guestlist from
November 1, 2004 to April 30, 2005.
Looking just at U.S. guests with identifiable ethnicities (617 in all), European-Americans
were even better represented, at 88 percent. African-Americans and Latinos held
steady at 4 percent and 3 percent, respectively. Americans of Middle Eastern
descent and Asian-Americans were each about 1 percent of guests. According to
the U.S. Census, about 70 percent of Americans are white and non-Latino; about
12 percent each are Latinos of all races, and non-Latino African-Americans;
about 4 percent are Asian-American and 1 percent are Native American. (Middle
Eastern descent is not a census category.)
On gender, Washington Journal was even more imbalanced when
compared to the general population, with a guestlist that was 80 percent male
(533 guests) and 20 percent female (130), a four-to-one imbalance. Furthermore,
69 percent of guests were white males (457), while just 3 percent were women
The study did not include a regular feature of Washington Journal
called “Capitol Hill Stories,” which featured news updates and analysis
with a political journalist. These guests were not included in the study because
their appearances were much shorter than those of other guests—usually
no more than a few minutes, compared to at least a half hour for a regular guest.
In total, however, these segments added up to a substantial amount of content,
and they usually involved one of three reporters—Vaughn Ververs and Chuck
Todd, both of The Hotline, and Timothy Curran of Roll Call.
If these segments had been included in the study, the findings would have skewed
even more white and male.
Party affiliation was only noted for guests who had served as government officials,
candidates, party functionaries or political advisors—what we called “partisan
guests.” Subjects who had affiliations with more than one party (e.g.,
Dennis Ross, a political appointee of both Democratic and Republican administrations)
were labeled as non-partisan.
Out of the 205 partisan guests, Republicans outnumbered Democrats nearly two
to one (134 to 70): Republicans accounted for 65 percent of Washington
Journal’s partisan guests, while Democrats made up 34 percent.
No representative of a third party appeared during the study period.
Elected officials who appeared on Washington Journal were
slightly more balanced than overall partisan guests. Of the 97 elected officials
appearing on the show (senators and House members), 58 were Republican and 39
were Democrat—a 60 to 40 percent imbalance in favor of the GOP.
One might reasonably expect Republicans to moderately outnumber Democrats at
a time when the GOP controls the White House and both houses of Congress, but
a nearly two to one advantage is hard to justify—particularly in the wake
of the national election that concluded in the first week of the study period
with the Republican candidate receiving 51 percent of the popular vote. That
election gave the Republicans control of 53 percent of the House and 55 percent
of the Senate.
Journalists accounted for nearly a third of all guests (215, or 32 percent),
the largest single occupational group on Washington Journal’s
guestlist. The establishment-oriented Washington Post, with
20 journalists appearing as guests, was the most visible outlet, followed by
the Capitol Hill–focused Congressional Quarterly with
12 and the right-leaning Washington Times with 10. USA
Today and Time each provided eight guests, while five
represented the Christian Science Monitor.
Despite its declaration of balance, the Washington Journal hosted
journalists from right-leaning opinion magazines more often than it did those
from the left. For instance, the conservative Weekly Standard furnished
three guests, as did the like-minded National Review (including
National Review Online). Only two guests from the liberal American
Prospect were invited on the Journal, and only one guest from the left-leaning
When opinion journalists from all outlets were included, the right-leaning
bias was nearly as strong: 32 right-of-center journalists appeared, vs. 19 left-of-center
reporters (even counting editor Peter Beinart, the New Republic’s
pro-war editor, as being on the left). Perhaps this tilt to the right could
be rationalized if right-wing magazines were distinctly more popular than their
counterparts on the left, but the reverse seems to be true; Mother Jones
and The Nation both best National Review’s
circulation numbers by a wide margin, and The Progressive outsells
the Weekly Standard and American Spectator.
Given this pattern, it’s not surprising that right-of-center and centrist
think-tanks dominated Washington Journal’s 75 think-tank
guest slots during the study period. The conservative American Enterprise
Institute and the centrist Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
were the best-represented think tanks, providing 10 guests each. The centrist
Brookings Institution had seven guests, followed by the Heritage Foundation
and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, two conservative groups
whose experts each appeared five times. Among left-leaning think tanks, only
the Center for International Policy provided as many as two guests.
Although they could serve as a valuable corrective to the show’s elite-skewed
guestlist, citizen-based organizations and public interest groups accounted
for just 9 percent of total guests on Washington Journal, with
57 appearances. Despite its relatively small size, this category did much to
increase the ideological diversity of the program, with guests spanning the
political spectrum from Club for Growth, the Family Research Council and the
Independent Women’s Forum on the right, to Public Citizen, the Alliance
for Justice and the National Women’s Law Center on the left.
While corporate representatives made up a small group of Washington
Journal guests (24, or 4 percent), the number of guests who might have
provided a balance to corporate views were even less. Union representatives,
environmentalists and consumer rights groups accounted for just six guest appearances,
or 1 percent of the total.
C-SPAN has taken conscientious steps to address bias in the
past. According to the Baltimore Sun (3/5/01), when
C-SPAN consultant and University of Maryland professor John Splaine
noticed that the network fielded a disproportionate number of calls from conservatives,
it set up separate call-in lines for Democrats, Republicans and independents.
There’s no reason that the network can’t address the imbalances
in its guestlist in the same spirit—if balance really is the No. 1 goal.
Research assistance provided by Kieran Krug-Meadows, Iman Kahn and Kari