Study: Taxpayer-Subsidized PBS Whacks GOP with 85% Negative News

May 16th, 2023 8:30 AM

Since the late 1960s, public broadcasting has been funded by individuals, foundations, corporate grants — and by enormous sums from U.S. taxpayers. Given this government funding, citizens should expect public broadcasting’s news coverage to be scrupulously neutral, since Republicans, Democrats and independents are all helping to foot the bill.

Yet an exhaustive Media Research Center study of PBS’s flagship newscast, NewsHour, found coverage of the first months of the new 118th Congress has been heavily slanted against Republicans:         

■ By a five-to-one margin, NewsHour promoted controversies involving congressional Republicans over those involving Democrats.

■ Discussion of the most-covered policy issues (the debt ceiling, gun rights and immigration) was skewed heavily against Republicans.

■ Republicans were often (20 times) branded as extremists (“far right,” “hard right,” etc.) by NewsHour correspondents or commentators; left-wing Democrats were never so labeled.

■ Overall, congressional Republicans faced 85% negative coverage, compared to 54% positive coverage of congressional Democrats. (Methodology is described below.)


For this report, MRC analysts examined each (weeknight) edition of PBS NewsHour from January 3 through May 2, the first four months of the 118th Congress. Total coverage of the Congress — both the institution itself as well as individual members — was 484 minutes, an average of 5 minutes, 37 seconds per broadcast.

By far, most coverage zeroed in on House Republicans, with 212 minutes of airtime compared with just under 54 minutes for House Democrats. Senate coverage was more balanced, with Senate Democrats slightly edging Senate Republicans for attention (58 minutes vs. 41 minutes). The remaining 119 minutes consisted of discussions of both parties, or the Congress generally without regard to party.


■ Controversies: The heavy airtime spent on the House GOP was not meant as a favor. NewsHour spent more than 97 minutes highlighting the (mostly negative) controversies involving the party and its members. In contrast, the NewsHour spent less than 17 minutes on controversies involving Democratic members (mostly the health and competency questions surrounding Senators John Fetterman and Dianne Feinstein).

The top controversy (54 minutes) was the four-day drama that ultimately led to the election of Kevin McCarthy as House Speaker at the start of the Congress. NewsHour anchor Geoff Bennett announced on January 3 that it raised “real questions about whether or not the House Republican conference is up to the task of governing.”

Two days later, on January 5, NewsHour brought on American University’s Cynthia Miller-Idriss so she could blame the “election deniers who are holding up the democratic process in a way that is making us laughable to the rest of the world.”

Long before his indictment, NewsHour also devoted significant airtime to the scandal involving freshman New York Congressman George Santos (17 minutes, more than was spent on all of the controversies involving Democrats combined). Two years after the January 6 riots, NewsHour spent nearly 16 minutes on the topic, along with the “election deniers” in the House GOP caucus. An additional nine minutes was spent on Speaker McCarthy’s decision to share the Capitol’s January 6 footage with Fox News.

The top Democratic controversies involved the health questions of Senators Dianne Feinstein (8 minutes) and John Fetterman (5 minutes). NewsHour’s take on Feinstein was respectful, but mostly negative; congressional reporter Lisa Desjardins disclosed April 14 that Feinstein “did not seem to know when her retirement was announced” two months earlier.

Fetterman, however, garnered positive reviews after he checked into the hospital for treatment of depression. On February 16, Geoff Bennett built a nearly four-minute long segment around a tweet from Missouri’s Jason Kander (never identified to viewers as a Democrat) praising Fetterman for his “awesome leadership.”

■ Policies: By far the most heavily covered policy issue was the issue of government spending and the impending deadline to raise the debt ceiling. NewsHour spent almost 57 minutes on this topic alone, or nearly one-eighth of all of their congressional coverage during these four months.

As early as January, NewsHour reporters and their chosen experts were blaming Republicans for using the deadlines to force a reckoning on government overspending. On January 19, for example, Geoff Bennett complained about “hard-line Republican members of the House willing to play roulette with a still-vulnerable economy.”

Two days earlier, NewsHour brought on the Hamilton Project’s Wendy Edelberg to decry how “there are actually people in Congress who want the chaos. It’s playing a game with the U.S. economy and people’s lives that I think is irresponsible.”

Another 22 minutes was spent discussing Congress’s potential role in new gun control legislation, blaming Republicans for the lack of action. On March 28, for example, NewsHour hosted anti-gun activist Kris Brown of the Brady Campaign to excoriate Republicans who argued no rules could reasonably prevent violent attacks. “We have to hold people like that lawmaker and others to account,” Brown exclaimed. “They have blood on their hands.”


Labels: We tallied 20 instances when NewsHour used language to portray congressional Republicans as extremists, as anchors, correspondents and commentators referred to the “far right,” “hard right,” “hard-liners,” and even the “nihilistic wing” of Republicans in Congress. We found 13 other instances when NewsHour applied more mainstream labels to the GOP (“conservatives,” “fiscal conservatives,” “mainstream conservative” and “moderate.”)

In contrast, there wasn’t a single instance of NewsHour tagging any congressional Democrat — including socialist Senator Bernie Sanders, the hyper-leftist Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or any member of her radical “squad” — as outside of the ideological mainstream. Instead, viewers heard a total of two “progressive” labels assigned to Democrats, as well as two “moderate” labels during these four months.


Spin: Add it all up, and NewsHour spent far more time criticizing Republicans than Democrats. To calculate the overall spin of coverage, we examined all explicitly evaluative statements from non-partisan sources (reporters, anchors, experts and other unaffiliated sources). We excluded evaluative statements from identified Republicans and Democrats because wanted to isolate the spin being imparted by NewsHour’s unique editorial judgments, not the partisan back-and-forth of the moment.

Using this method, we tallied 158 negative statements about Republican members or congressional Republicans in general, compared to just 28 positive statements about the GOP — an 85 percent negative spin score. And omitting all 27 negative references to the self-admitted liar George Santos barely changes the result — Republicans still wind up with 81 percent negative spin.

The negativity was evident in NewsHour’s coverage of all of the major controversies and policy issues. Evaluative comments about the Speaker’s contest in January were heavily (86%) negative; statements about the debt ceiling fight were even more lopsided — 94 percent anti-GOP.

To provide a flavor of the coverage Republicans faced on the NewsHour, video editor Bill D’Agostino assembled a compilation of just some of these comments:



Democratic members or congressional Democrats in general were rarely subjected to judgmental coverage, which meant we tallied relatively evaluative statements. Overall, we tallied 15 positive comments about Democrats, vs. 13 negative ones, for a positive spin score of 54 percent. If the (mostly negative) comments about the competency of Senator Dianne Feinstein are excluded, this rises to a remarkable 72 percent positive for Democrats — almost the mirror image of the hostile coverage Republicans faced.


Conclusion: Taxpayers provide a substantial portion of PBS NewsHour’s budget. NewsHour — along with the rest of PBS, National Public Radio, and their member stations — receives government funding via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). According to its website, NewsHour receives about 35 percent of its annual funding from the CPB.

Since Congress typically approves funding two years in advance, CPB has already been awarded funding through 2025. In March, the Biden administration requested a jump of $40 million (to $575 million per year) for 2026. CBP received $465 million in 2022, so the current request translates into a jump of nearly 24 percent over just the past four years.

Despite the fact that all taxpayers, regardless of party or ideology, are contributing to PBS’s news product, our study shows this coverage reflects a similar anti-conservative mindset to that found at ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC and NBC. These results beg the question: Why exactly are conservative and Republican taxpayers required to keep paying for this?

Previously: STUDY: Be My (Leftist) Guest: How PBS’s False Objectivity Poisons Political Debate