Gwen’s Take: a Little Q&A From the Road

BY Gwen Ifill  November 18, 2011 at 9:00 AM EST

Not many people can boast of having traveled to Providence, R.I., Cleveland, Newark, Madison, Wis., St. Louis and Venice, Italy, within little more than a month.

In every instance — including the Italian trip, where I got to hang out with PBS supporters at sea — I’ve had the chance to answer lots and lots of questions about politics, Washington and even the future of public broadcasting itself.

As always when I break out of my Washington bubble, I never fail to be impressed by the degree to which people are engaged in the world around them, frustrated about what they see happening in the nation’s capital, and open to hearing more than one answer to a question.

This week, I thought I’d share some of the common questions I’ve been getting lately, if only to reassure myself that people are listening to the stories we tell on Washington Week and the NewsHour, and want to know more, not less.

As always, I don’t deal in opinion. How could I listen to the answers to my questions if I knew it all already? But here are the answers — compressed for time — to the ones I’ve been getting in front of various audiences along the way. Who knows? I may be heading to a city near you. Paris, anyone?

Q: Will the Tea Party continue to exist? Will Occupy Wall Street become stronger?

A: Neither the Tea Party nor OWS is particularly interested in being linked to the other. But I see a lot of similarities. When the Tea Party launched, it was a disparate collection of protesters who were united in their desire to change business as usual – especially in Washington. OWS was not much different at its start, although its tactics were. The Tea Party folks were more likely to wear tricorn hats and carry ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ flags; the OWS folks preferred tents. The Tea Party folks met in hotel conference rooms and went home at the end of the day. The OWS folks…did not. But in the end, both are interested in shaking up the status quo.

The Tea Party is now a full-fledged movement complete with elected officials and a working caucus in the House of Representatives. What’s still unclear is whether left-leaning Democrats will be as eager to embrace OWS as right-leaning Republicans were to absorb the Tea Party.

Q: “Both” sides of a story? When will listeners and reporters get off the “fair and balanced” message?

A: I agree that there are usually far more than two sides to a story. It is also true that shades of gray are hard to find in television journalism. Allow me to toot our horn a bit: public broadcasting may not have the financial resources of the commercial networks, but we do have access to one valuable and not easily replenished resource – time. That means we can showcase three, four or sometimes five slices of the pie. And it means that we have more time to explain the whys and the hows of any story we tell – not just the whats. I’ve said it many times: The most egregious journalistic bias exists in the stories we choose not to tell; not the stories we do tell.

Q: Are people uninformed, or misinformed? When inaccurate “information” is as plentiful as the truth, what responsibility does a journalist have to point out facts, instead of just presenting various views?

A: We have a great responsibility. Some days we live up to that responsibility quite well; other days we bobble the ball. From my perspective, there are many, many more places to go now to unearth facts than there were when I first got into journalism. There are entire sites devoted to fact checking candidates, for instance. And I am reminded when I judge journalism contests that there is amazing work being done at news outlets big and small, unearthing stories we would not otherwise hear. The big difference is that the responsibility to get to the bottom of things has shifted toward the news consumer. It now often takes just a few clicks of the mouse to get your questions answered, but that’s just as often your finger on the mouse, not mine.

Q: Compare and contrast Jon Stewart and Rush Limbaugh as journalists/providers of information?

A: Neither is a journalist. Both are entertainers. Whether you are entertained depends to a large degree on your political orientation. But I’ll give them this: you can’t get the joke unless you come equipped with basic information. That’s where journalism comes in.

Q: There must be temptations to move to commercial media. Why do you stay at PBS?

A: Been there. Done that.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.