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PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

The Race is On

It probably was inevitable that, with Sen. Barack Obama as a leading contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, race was somehow going to surface during the hard-fought primaries. That's what happened earlier this month and PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer covered it, as did every other major news organization in the country.

Race is frequently an uncomfortable topic for viewers and journalists and this one seemed especially so. It unfolded within the Democratic Party, which traditionally has a strong base among African American voters, and between two candidates — Sen. Hillary Clinton, whose husband, the former president, is held in especially high regard by many blacks, and Obama, a young African American political phenomenon who, whatever one's politics, has brought a large dose of excitement and attention to the campaigns thus far.

Furthermore, the origins of this intrusion of race into the Democratic contest are murky and debatable. And, as the claims and counter-claims seemed to escalate, it was easy to feel both sad — that this was unfolding at all — and confused; wondering if there was indeed some political hand or strategy behind this or whether it was just hyper-sensitivity and misunderstandings. And of course it was easy to see it as all being fanned by a 24/7 media hungry to exploit every angle of a presidential campaign.

I think it is fair to say that within the vast, rough and tumble landscape that makes up "the media" in this country, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer doesn't fan anything. The program is relentlessly neutral, a position that upholds what is supposed to be the holy grail of American journalism but that frequently riles or bores viewers who feel more juice and challenge is needed when it comes to the big issues they feel strongly about. I feel that way, too, occasionally, and have said so in some columns. On the other hand, in my view there is no better or steadier hour on television than Lehrer's for news and in-depth discussion of the news, which I've also said before.

In the aftermath of last Monday's program, Jan. 14, however, there were a couple of dozen e-mails about the segment on the racial issues that had erupted and were stirring tensions among the Obama-Clinton campaigns. All of the letters were critical about both the segment and correspondent Judy Woodruff's handling of it. Here's a transcript of the segment and printed below is a representative sampling of the letters. There is also a response to viewer criticisms from the executive producer of the NewsHour, Linda Winslow.

Woodruff introduced the segment by reporting that Sen. Clinton "now stands accused of injecting race into the campaign, highlighted by her comment last Monday (Jan. 7) to Fox News." At that time, Clinton was making the point that the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Her point was that aside from King, you needed "a president who said we're going to do it and actually got it accomplished." Woodruff then pointed out that "some prominent African Americans seized on those words, saying she had minimized the role of King in effecting change during the civil rights era." Woodruff also pointed out that Clinton, on NBC on Jan. 13, pushed back, saying it was unfair and a mischaracterization of her remarks and accused the Obama campaign of spinning her words and playing politics. Woodruff also pointed out that later that same day Clinton campaigned in South Carolina with Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, who also took a swipe at Obama, which also drew heavy media attention.

Then, in order "to take a closer look at the role of race in this presidential campaign," Woodruff introduced the two guests, both veterans of the civil rights movement — Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Rev. Joseph Lowery, co-founder, along with King, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

My Two Cents

Before we get to the viewer letters and Winslow's response, allow me to add a few thoughts. For one thing, this clearly was news and was in and on the news everyplace you turned. Clinton's initial remarks about King and Pres. Johnson make historical sense and many commentators, including African Americans, do not dispute that. On the other hand, there were indeed many others, including Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who said they were troubled and puzzled over Clinton's formulation. So the NewsHour, in my view, was correct in devoting a segment to this issue and Woodruff did a credible job in dealing with it.

The mistake, I thought, was in choosing the guests. Lewis and Lowery are both well-known and well-respected figures whose stature extends well beyond African Americans and beyond civil rights issues. But each is an identified supporter of the opposing candidates — Lewis backs Clinton, Lowery has endorsed Obama — and that led to a lengthy argument, rather than an examination of what, if anything, is really going on. Two more independent observers probably would have been more illuminating.

Lowery said Clinton's remarks were divisive but that if Clinton says that's not what she meant, he was willing to take her word for it. But Lewis saw this flap as "a deliberate, systematic attempt on the part of some people in the Obama camp to really fan the flame of race and really try to distort what Sen. Clinton said." Lowery said that was "absolutely false." And on and on it went. Some viewers said Woodruff should have cut it off, but you can't do that on programs like the NewsHour. There is a time slot and you take your chances with the guests. But this did, indeed, seem to go on for too long.

First, the Mail from Viewers

As a former newspaper reporter and editor, I am probably biased toward journalism and past and current practices. But in the case of the "race issue" between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, I believe the political reporters and others are energetically widening a very slight rhetorical gap between the candidates. One result of this has been to force various civil rights leaders, who have previously announced support of either candidate (or neither), to be on one side of the artificial divide. This was only too apparent in the PBS NewsHour segment today (1/14) on "Politics and Race" featuring two very honorable black leaders, Rep. John Lewis and Rev. Joseph Lowery, forced by a story with inflammatory elements into a very silly argument. Which is to say, PBS helped generate more smoke from no real fire.

Al Magary, San Francisco, CA

I was dismayed and angry at a recent interview on the Jim Lehrer Show. Judy Woodruff interviewed two black gentlemen about the charges of racism in the Democratic Presidential Primary. I thought it went on MUCH too long.
I thought the same questions were asked over and over until the interviewees really couldn't help but become impatient. My husband and I watch the Lehrer Show regularly and do feel that it is the best source of news. We have also been pleased that Judy Woodruff has joined the 'team'. However — we thought this interview was at the level of Fox TV.

Joann Onacki, Hanover, NH

I was bothered by Judy Woodruff's interview with Clinton and Obama supporters on Clinton's alleged attempt to inject race into the election. It appeared to me that they were happy to leave it alone — that if anything untoward was said it was not intended so. But she seemed to keep poking in hopes somebody would get fired up.
That kind of thing is over-done by commercial TV already. The NewsHour does not need to pander to that side of our nature to get viewers (or do they?). What we need is information that will help us to be better informed voters.

Gerald James, San Mateo, CA

Judy Woodruff is one of my favorite news people so I was disappointed with her interview on 1/14/08 with the black minister and congressman. As the minister kept saying, the "race card" has been largely pushed by the media — if they (the media) would concentrate on asking questions that are relevant to the issues — and ESPECIALLY what the candidates solutions to issues are we would be better served. Stop picking apart little things that the candidates say that do not pertain to issues and how they would govern. You should know your job!!

Kerrville, TX

The NewsHour has been an extreme disappointment during this interminable primary season. There have been multiple opportunities to do some serious journalism to educate viewers on each of the candidates, but instead you have opted for the "horserace" approach and the usual pack journalism. None of your "reporters" did a serious job. You were poll-driven from the start, and that resulted in your concentration on the top 3 and their campaign strategies. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the remainder of candidates get no attention, and therefore no exposure. Giving interviews to the top 3 is of little use. They are robots; push the button and they repeat their memorized patter. How about doing some work for a change and do some serious digging? Who are the people advising each of the candidates? Who are they associating with? Who are their big campaign money raisers and contributors? Who is likely to be in their cabinet, if elected? How about having some non-partisans analyze their positions and comment on the political and practical reality? How about scrutinizing their past performance — in some detail? Instead you run these overly long, boring, and irrelevant pieces, such as the "debate" between Rev. Joseph Lowery and John Lewis about the phony issue of whether Clinton injected race into the campaign.

Moreland Hills, OH

This is addressed to Judy Woodruff, a reporter I have always respected highly. I was very disappointed in the interview she did on Monday, Jan. 14, 2008. The subject was the so-called race issue between the Clinton and Obama campaigns. The two distinguished guests, men with a long history of leadership in the black community, at first would not argue. They agreed basically that what Sen. Clinton said was understandable, that the controversy arose in the press/media, not really in the campaigns. Ms. Woodruff prodded and repeated and went over again and again what little grains of disagreement she could find until, obviously trying to fill a pre-determined segment of time, she forced the two men at last into a minor disagreement. Ms. Woodruff, it was SO beneath you and them. You should have simply ended the interview and gone on to some more worthwhile subject instead of continuing to needle the Congressman and civil rights leader. Please spend more time investigating the honesty of the election process, the disenfranchisement of voting blocs and how we can verify the results. This is a topic that deserves close scrutiny.

Vicky Hinshaw, Milwaukee, WI

I am a regular viewer of THE NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER and appreciate the thorough coverage of important issues of the day. However, when an inordinate amount of time is spent covering the "race" story, as Judy did on tonight's newscast, I wonder who made the decision to prolong such a phony story. I would hope that PBS had better judgment than that. That is a media-hyped story which I hoped would not be given credence by PBS.

Margaret Townsend, Phoenix, AZ

I'm very disappointed that The NewsHour wasted so much time taking part in the media echo chamber of the Clinton/Obama/King conflict. This is so obviously a distraction from real issues by the interests that want a Jerry Springer style presidential race. Couldn't you have spent that time much better hashing out the candidates' positions on nuclear power, farm subsidies or almost any other issue? I am forced to ask, "What would King have said?" I have no doubt in my mind that he would have sternly called us back to the issues of social justice and civil rights, and powerfully called us to right the wrongs that remain today, not to waste attention on who got credit for what in the past. That the right to vote remains tarnished anywhere in this land, today, as it does, is what he would call us to make right.

Katie Bretsch, Portland, OR

It seems that Judy Woodruff has earned the title of media spinner. She successfully played the game of "Let's you and him fight" with her interview of Lewis and Lowery on the invented question concerning Hillary's remarks on ML King and LBJ. Unfortunately for all of us, Lewis and Lowery couldn't resist.

Wib Smith, Bell Buckle, TN

I think the media in general has ceased to report news of the campaign with any credibility when many of the top mainstream news show pundits (Russert, Stephanopoulos, McLaughlin, etc), use their forum to influence their listeners toward one candidate or another by telling outright lies or distorting what the candidate says.

When PBS, particularly The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, joins them, to wit, the blatant, sensationalistic attempt by Judy Woodruff to get Rep. Lewis and another Black Elder to battle over her own distortions of what Sen. Clinton said about MLK and Pres. Johnson. It is deplorable that she has joined and tarnished the NewsHour with her distortions and constant pressure to these fine gentlemen to fight between themselves for the sake of this story. The American public does not need a go-between to interpret for us what we ourselves can hear the candidates say.

Bette Chavez-Holcomb, Tacoma, WA

As a regular viewer of the NewsHour, I protest the interview this evening concerning the "racist" issue in the Democratic primary contest between Obama and Clinton. I felt Judy Woodruff was trying to promote a "fight." This is a tactic used too often by the media, and I am sorry to see it on PBS.

Ross Ludeman, Chester, VT

Judy Woodruff continues her bulldog approach to creating dissention where there is little — her interview tonight with two black leaders (congressman and minister) about Mrs. Clinton's alleged racism started out with both guests in agreement about the need to turn back to the real issues, and ended with major disagreements after being stirred up by Woodruff.

David Naliboff, Davis, CA

If ever I heard an interview designed to foment racial discord it was tonight's interview of Dr. Lowery and Rep. Lewis by Judy Woodruff. The interview should have ended after each participant responded to the first question. Thereafter each question seemed designed to exacerbate a non issue and inject race into a campaign where it has not previously existed and does not belong.

Harris Cohen, Upper Montclair, NJ

Normally I very much enjoy and appreciate the Jim Lehrer NewsHour. But this evening, Jan. 14, I could barely stomach the segment where Judy "no clue" Woodruff kept pressing and pressing with her loaded questions to try and bait two old, black, warhorses into creating some sort of racial tension between Clinton and Obama.

Ron Platt, Overland Park, KS

On tonight's broadcast Judy Woodruff interviewed Joe Lowery and John Lewis regarding the race issue. There has been repeated mention of memos issued by the Obama campaign to stir this pot. Why not share these memos with the public or prove they do not exist. It sounds to me like their exposure could be useful in clearing the air. This is what I expect from PBS. Sen. Obama has not been vetted like almost all the other candidates of both parties. Why not?

Jean Tello, Orland Park, IL

The NewsHour Responds

Here's a response to the letters from Linda Winslow, executive producer of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer:

"I decided the charges and counter-charges being exchanged by the Clinton and Obama camps represented a significant news development that warranted a discussion on the NewsHour. Our two political correspondents, Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill, gave us the benefit of their reporting. That reporting included many conversations with people in both the Clinton and Obama campaigns, as well as unaffiliated political analysts. All confirmed there was a great deal of discussion taking place in both camps regarding the appropriate way to handle the topic. The reasons why were as we stated: both campaigns are concerned about winning the South Carolina primary, where over 50 per cent of the potential Democratic voters are black. Beyond that looms Super Tuesday, where many other voters — black, white, Hispanic, etc. — will be counted.

"Many of our sources are now on the record. If viewers read what they're saying, I do not think they'd be able to substantiate the charge that the media created this controversy. The NewsHour did not misrepresent what Senator Clinton or anyone else involved in this debate said. Woodruff's introductory piece took the time to quote her extensively, in copy as well as on camera. Ditto for Senator Obama's comments.

"In any event, we decided to try to deal directly with the heart of the dispute: Who was more responsible for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Dr. King or President Johnson? We deliberately sought out two veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, both of whom worked with Dr. King, to act as surrogates for their respective candidates. All of this was done to AVOID focusing on a media-generated firestorm that misrepresented what was going on. I think the segment gave our viewers an inside look at the complexity of a bona fide debate taking place in both Democratic camps. I think Woodruff's questions were simple and non-judgmental, and each guest had ample time to say what was really on his mind (not just repeat whatever talking points the campaigns had supplied.) That kind of interview takes time to develop; it cannot be aborted in two or three minutes, as often happens elsewhere on television."

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