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PBS Ombudsman

The Edwards Confession: Unfit for NewsHour Viewers?

There is a legitimate debate underway within journalistic circles, and in that part of the online blogging world that keeps tabs on journalism, about whether the major news organizations in this country did the right thing, or the wrong thing, in not pursuing stories that had appeared over the past several months in the National Enquirer reporting an extra-marital affair, and resulting "love child," involving former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.

Edwards had said the stories were lies after they first appeared last October. Last month, he still called them "tabloid trash." The New York Times had not touched the story, nor did The Washington Post or many other papers. Nor did the major commercial broadcast television networks, or the nightly NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, PBS's flagship news program.

But on Friday, Aug. 8, Edwards issued a statement and went before ABC News television cameras and told correspondent Bob Woodruff that he indeed had an affair with a woman who had been hired by his political action committee to make films that would appear on Edwards' Web site as he campaigned for the Democratic nomination. He acknowledged that he had repeatedly lied to reporters about it, but denied fathering the child.

That story was immediate, front-page news on the Web sites and then the printed editions of the Times and the Post and many other major newspapers around the country, and on all the television news networks that Friday evening. But not on the NewsHour. They continued to ignore the story even after the affair had been publicy confirmed by Edwards and his wife.

Then on Monday evening, the NewsHour did a lengthy segment, anchored by correspondent Jeffrey Brown, examining why the mainstream media had remained silent on this story, until last Friday, amid the flurry of tabloid reports. Brown noted briefly at the outset, "The NewsHour decided not to report the Edwards revelation on its Friday program." But Brown never explained why the NewsHour made that decision.

When I asked Linda Winslow, executive producer of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, for the reasoning behind the decision not to report this, she said: "It was decided not to report the story in our news summary on the grounds that Edwards is not a candidate for public office, and not on any short list for Vice President or any other public office, so it struck us as a problem for him and his family, not the American public."

Although there have been several ombudsman columns in which viewers, and I, have taken issue with one thing or another on the program in recent years, I have a good deal of respect for the NewsHour and for Lehrer, and for their approach to news — which is straight-forward, dignified and routinely more informative than what one can find elsewhere on the tube.

From Where I Sit, a Bad Decision

But the decision not to report the Edwards confirmation story struck me as both patronizing to people who depend on PBS for news, and journalistically mind-boggling.

It is one thing to argue about whether the so-called mainstream or national press — with its dedication to high standards of verification and its reluctance to pursue tabloid-style scandal — should have pressed harder to investigate the string of stories by a supermarket tabloid, albeit one that has broken numerous political scandal stories over the years that have proved to be right. (Yes, they should have. Edwards' behavior and evasion of reporters became increasingly suspect, and the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina showed that the story could be advanced, for example, by probing verifiable public documents, uncovering the child's birth certificate with no father's name listed. It also published a story on Aug. 7 in which prominent Democrats said Edwards needed to address these allegations if he hoped to have a role at the convention.)

But how in the world can you fail to report, or even take note of, a startling, nationally televised confession by a very high-profile public and political figure; a former senator who has twice campaigned for the presidency and who was campaigning at the time of the affair, who was the vice-presidential candidate in 2004, who withdrew from the 2008 campaign only early this year, who used campaign funds to hire the filmmaker, who's wife is suffering from cancer, who used his family and the importance of character and values in his campaigns, who was a possible speaker at the forthcoming Democratic nominating convention and official in any forthcoming Democratic administration, and who campaigned surely knowing that this affair could blow up the party if he became successful and if it became known, which it almost always does? Aside from being newsworthy, this is a tremendously dramatic story, with lots of still-unanswered questions, especially about money. How this is not news is beyond me.

On the other hand, I only got a handful of letters on this issue after the Monday evening segment by Jeffrey Brown. But if the three-to-one majority is representative of a much larger NewsHour audience, the NewsHour's news judgment would be preferable to mine.

Here Are the Letters

Enough about Edwards, leave this sort of tittle-tattle in the Enquirer where it belongs.

San Rafael, CA

The NewsHour, which I have often praised publicly, looked pitiful by not devoting one word to the John Edwards story on Friday, August 8, not even on Shields and Brooks, and then having Jeffrey Brown critique the mainstream media's treatment on Monday, August 11.

Martin Duggan, St. Louis, MO
KETC St. Louis

Your John Edwards "story" on the evening news tonight (Aug. 11) is the very type of irrelevant drivel that I watch PBS news to AVOID. Who cares? Why should it matter to the citizens of the United States? Is there no escape from such gossip, true or not?

David Center, Ball Ground, GA

I can not believe you had news of the John Edwards scandal on the evening news (Aug. 11). Leave that type of news to the bloggers & National Enquirer. He is not running for an office. I do not pay my membership each year to hear about such news, if I want that type of news I can watch the network news. I was pleased that you were about the only network that didn't give the news of Anna Nicole Smith life & death days & days of air play. So don't change your policy now.

Sue Largue, Oklahoma City, OK

Russia and Georgia

This week's mail also produced some heated messages from a handful of viewers who did not like the NewsHour's coverage of the outbreak of hostilities between Russia and Georgia that escalated into serious warfare last week. The letters printed below all assert that Georgia had a bigger role in instigating this conflict than has been reported and that Russia is less to blame. They all, except the last one, seem to have been responses by viewers to a Monday night, Aug. 11, segment in which the only interview was a lengthy discussion by Margaret Warner with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad. So, while this was certainly a useful interview, viewers who felt the Russian side of this complicated and long-standing conflict was missing had a point.

On the other hand, NewsHour anchor Gwen Ifill made clear at the conclusion of the interview with Khalizad, that the Russian ambassador had also been invited to appear but was forced to cancel his interview because of a Security Council meeting. The ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, did return for a lengthy interview the following evening. And my sense is that, taken as a string of reports over the past several days, the NewsHour coverage has been quite good, comprehensive and fair, along with a lot of background material on the program's Web site. However, this is, indeed, a very complicated conflict with deep roots and it is sometimes difficult to know exactly what happened and when. So, while the language of the letters below is harsh, they are a reminder that a little history, and an acknowledgment of what is known and not known, is very valuable in all reports.

Did Georgia Act First?

PBS has AGAIN utterly evaded news reporting: How about a simple reporting of the FACTS first, THEN the hand wringing/guessing/worrying/blathering. What ACTUALLY happened in Georgia-Russia conflict? Did Georgia take the first military action? What ACTION? State the chronological FACTS or AT LEAST EACH SIDES VERSION OF THESE FACTS!!!

Anthony Newman, Woburn, MA

The news broadcasted on PBS and other news stations on Aug.11, 2008 regarding Russia and Georgia conflict was nothing, but lie. Nobody, not even PBS, the news station I used to trust the most told what really happened in South Ossetia, and the truth is that it was GEORGIA which started the attack on South Ossetia just few hours after President Saakashvili announced "peaceful resolution". It were GEORGIAN aircrafts which literally flattened the city of Tskhinvali, It were GEORGIAN bombs that bombed basement were citizens were hiding, it were GEORGIAN soldiers who bombed ER and vehicles with refugees. And now Russia is a bad guy? Saakashvili is a bold faced liar, he unleashed this attack and genocide against his own people. Shame on the USA for not recognizing it and making Russia look like an evil country.

Y R, St. Louis, MO

I see that what I feared would happen, has. PBS now has joined the Republican ownership of the Press. Their "News" is a carbon copy of the other phonies. The Georgia blowup is a prime example. None of the stations; ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, reported that Russia had gone to the UN Security Council before they used military means and proposed both sides end hostilities and negotiate. Bush and his neocon friends said no. Report that!!!

Kenneth Kilmer, Chase, MI

Tonight's interview (Wednesday, Aug. 13) with Albright and Eagleburger was very good, but as I watched Albright and Eagleburger pontificating about what the administration should do about Georgia, I was struck by the lack of background on key questions, summed up by a couple of (mixed) metaphors: Is the U.S. once again playing with matches? Did the U.S. encourage Georgia to stick its hand into the lion's cage? The questions are: What was the nature of the Georgian incursion into Ossetia? What was the nature of the events (provocations by Russian sympathizers or proxies?) that led up to the Georgian incursion in Ossetia? To what extent did the U.S. encourage Georgia and Saakashvili to act tough in Ossetia? Without this background it is very hard to evaluate the merits of the positions taken by your guests.

Gary Palmer, Nevada City, CA

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