Is the NewsHour Worth Saving?


PBS NewsHour senior correspondents Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff anchored 50 hours of live coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions in 2012.

TV critic David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun used recent news of layoffs at the PBS NewsHour as an opportunity to review the current state of the longstanding nightly news broadcast. In a column Tuesday headlined “Is it time to quit being nice about what ‘NewsHour’ has become?” Zurawik questions the value of the program and asks if the show is “worth trying to save” amid the cutbacks.

He goes on to critique the show’s format:

I’m sorry, Jeffrey Brown interviewing a New York Times reporter about a story she or he broke is not a nightly newscast — not in any sense of what they do on CBS with Scott Pelley or ABC with Diane Sawyer every night. It’s more like a cable talk show — or a radio talk show with a camera showing the interviewer and interviewee siting across from each other.

In a response to the column, NewsHour senior correspondent Gwen Ifill wrote Zurawik:

Is it what NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX and CNN produce on a nightly basis? No. And it never has been. That’s pretty much why I work here. We skip the stories on the pole-dancing girlfriends and the Arias-type trials. We know there are other places to go for that. But we still stick by our core mission — to provide news and information for people who choose to know more than what their home browser page can show them.

NewsHour deputy executive producer Kathleen McCleery and CEO Bo Jones also defended the organization’s commitment to telling the stories that matter. They point out recent broadcast segments as well as the online operation. You can read their response below:

Dear Mr. Zurawik,

We take issue with your characterization of the PBS NewsHour as “some analysis and lots of high-sounding talk — blue smoke and mirrors instead of original reporting.” Our program features original reporting on a broad range of topics, on-air and online.

Over the last 10 days on the PBS NewsHour: Margaret Warner wrapped up a week’s worth of substantive, on-the-ground reporting from Lebanon and Syria; Google’s Chief Legal Officer, David Drummond, sat with Jeffrey Brown for the first U.S. broadcast interview since news of the PRISM surveillance program broke; economics correspondent Paul Solman spoke with Paul Krugman as a part of his continuing coverage of the government’s role in the economy; Judy Woodruff moderated a vital debate on proposed cuts to food assistance programs in the U.S. farm bill; Gwen Ifill asked two military legal experts about ways to end sexual assault in the military; and Ray Suarez explored the ethics of organ transplant policies with a medical ethicist. Tonight, we will air the last of Paul Solman’s stories in a series about older workers‘ contributions to the economy.

On-air, we give stories time and depth that other news organizations don’t, if they choose to cover them at all. Those include science journalismhigh school dropout ratesarts stories (even poetry)civil political discussion and analysis … and much more. Online, we hear viewers’ stories, offer new data and analysis, provide exclusive online reports, discuss solutions to problems and, when necessary, link to insightful stories by other trusted journalists.

The PBS NewsHour gets high marks for trust. In February of this year, Public Policy Polling found “that there’s only one [TV News] source more Americans trust than distrust: PBS.” That means a lot to us and to our viewers. Our reporting has earned acclaim, too. Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has called our international coverage, “The PBS Difference,” noting in 2012 that we provided “one-third more coverage of international events over the last year than the media overall.” Media Matters took note of our climate change coverage, which included Hari Sreenivasan’s “Coping with Climate Change” reporting from around the country, observing that “PBS NewsHour devoted almost twice as many segments to climate change as the other networks combined.”

We believe our efforts to reorganize and streamline our operations will allow us to continue doing what we’ve done well for more than three decades: supply a steady, objective voice in reporting the news on a daily basis. The changes you detailed will not affect our commitment to original reporting. Our mission is to provide intelligent, balanced and in-depth reporting and analysis of the most important issues and news events of the day. That mission continues. We believe the answer to your question, “As a culture, do we want a nightly news program on public television?” is a resounding “yes.”


Kathleen McCleery
Deputy Executive Producer
PBS NewsHour

Bo Jones
MacNeil/Lehrer Productions

On Wednesday Zurawik added the letter to his column on the Sun’s website.

NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni said that in addition to all the work highlighted in the letter, the politics team has devoted more coverage to the immigration debate than most news outlets. She drew attention to the online reporting collected on the website’s immigration page and the numerous conversations that correspondents Ray Suarez and Hari Sreenivasan have conducted with experts and players that have served to contextualize the debate.

“We’ve done numerous newsroom conversations with players in the immigration community on both sides of the debate, and we’ve spotlighted evangelicals’ efforts to influence the measure,” Bellantoni said. “We’ve told personal stories in compelling ways and track the legislation in a more thorough fashion than anyone else in the business.”

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on June 12. It was updated on June 13 to reflect that David Zurawik had posted the NewsHour’s response and to add comment from Christina Bellantoni.