The Ombudsman's Mailbag
By Michael Getler
August 29, 2008
Warning to Readers: This is a very long Mailbag.
PBS's The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer this week was the only broadcast network program to devote all its prime time hours to coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, and it will do the same next week when the Republicans meet in Minneapolis-St. Paul. That coverage generated a heavy flow of mail. What follows is not all of it, but a still sizeable, representative sampling of viewer reaction to how Lehrer and his crew handled things.
First comes mail from viewers who appreciated the coverage throughout the convention. There are lots of them.
If you are a person who takes politics and citizenship seriously and believes that these once-every-four-year gatherings, despite the fluff and theatrics, are of central importance to an informed electorate — and if you don't have or can't afford cable television — then PBS is the only place you can go for coverage of each evening's events in their entirety.
The major commercial broadcast networks — CBS, ABC and NBC — provided only one hour each night of prime time coverage. In contrast, earlier this month NBC provided a zillion hours of Olympics coverage. But the conventions are obviously more boring to commercial broadcasters and the public service obligation to millions of viewers seems to extend for only an hour. Coverage on cable by MSNBC, CNN and Fox has also been much more extensive than the big three networks, and they all continue to grow while the broadcast network audience declines.
If you wanted to see or hear live the speeches of former Vice President Al Gore, or Susan Eisenhower, or Sen. Ted Kennedy, or Sen. John Kerry, or former President Bill Clinton, or some of the many others who had interesting tales to tell or points to make, you were out of luck unless you watched PBS, C-SPAN or the cable nets. This is nothing new. I remember in 2004 when it was also one hour a night for the big three and a keynote speech by an up-and-coming Illinois state legislator, Barack Obama, didn't fit into the major commercial networks' window.
So, I too, applaud PBS's decision to give its viewers a nightly full dose of the event that marks the start of the final leg of the most important thing we do, as a nation, every four years.
After the pats on the back come groups of critical letters: too many white guys, in general, discussing blacks, no women included in the analysis, and too much yakking by analysts generally. There were several letters that took issue with the nightly commentary. From my perspective, this is to be expected. Mark Shields and David Brooks are the regulars on the NewsHour and certainly are to be expected to be part of convention coverage. Brooks, of course, usually provides a more center-right perspective and therefore it is not surprising that at a Democratic convention he will be a target of viewers. I assume Shields will get a similar welcome at the Republican convention. But both of these men are on the program regularly to provide analysis and opinion, and that's what they are supposed to do.
Finally, there are letters that criticize the NewsHour for seeming to be behind the curve, especially Wednesday evening during the state roll call nominating process. This seemed to me to be the program's fault in not clearly explaining the difference between its regular nightly broadcast and its special convention coverage. For example, in some regions, such as the Washington, D.C., area, you can see the NewsHour first at 6 p.m. on Maryland Public Television, and then the same program airs on a different local PBS channel, WETA in nearby Virginia, at 7 p.m. Without any explanation for viewers, it looks as though that second airing is one hour behind the news that has already been unfolding at the convention and live on cable channels. Here are the letters.
The Few, the Proud . . .
Wonderful Democratic convention coverage, so far, including most of the major speeches. Kerry's was . . . kick-ass! And, only PBS had it. Thanks.
Lex Wadelski, Austin, TX
I want to say thank you for the coverage you provided of the Democratic Convention. Without your coverage, the professional journalists, I don't know what our country would do without Public Broadcasting. Thank you.
Mary Hattemer, Blue Ash, OH
First let me express my deep appreciation and gratitude for PBS's airing of NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He is the living and breathing manifestation of Journalistic Integrity. I write not, however, to pour sincere accolades onto Mr. Lehrer, but to thank PBS for its thorough and unbiased coverage of the DNC 2008 though, tonight (Wednesday), I believe even Jim Lehrer couldn't help but take in the immense enthusiasm radiating from the convention folks). Thank you PBS!!!!!!
Portia Cue, Marietta, GA
Just wanted to thank PBS for actually showing the DNC convention, instead of endless discussions by pundits while important leaders are speaking at the podium. Shame on all the others (CBS, FOX, ABC, NBC, CNN)!
Bob Eckert, Florence, MA
I am so happy with the PBS coverage of the Democratic Convention. As with the NewsHour, Jim Lehrer, Mark Shields, David Brooks, Judy Woodruff, Margaret and Gwen's reporting are a pleasure to listen to. Their non-hysterical reporting as well as the sane format (no commercial interruption) make me wonder how anyone can stand other TV news programming. Thank you for intelligent and excellent coverage.
Rosemary Fischer, Mt. Vernon, NY
I just wanted to say thank you to the powers that be at PBS for the excellent coverage of and commentary related to the DNC. The commentary is insightful and informative, and never cuts into, nor drowns out the actual speeches, allowing me to make up my own mind about their content and delivery. As a teacher in an inner-city, urban high school, PBS was my first choice of channels when assigning my students projects related to the convention, and I have not been disappointed. I will ask them to tune into our local PBS station for my RNC assignments as well. It's good to know where to turn in today's media saturated airwaves. Thank you.
Adina Richman, Dallas, TX
The coverage of the NewsHour tonight (Tuesday) was superior. After many years of flicking the channel, I have should learn to stay on PBS. The best part of the coverage this evening was the economic piece by Paul Solman. Those were real core Americans telling it like it is!
Bob van Kleeck, Binghamton, NY
I watched PBS's coverage of the Democratic Convention because I thought it would have less fluff than the networks. I have to say, though, that I was highly disappointed when PBS cut all but the last few seconds of Montana's Governor Brian Schweitzer's speech (Tuesday). A news professional should have known how great this speech would be if they were following this guy at all. It seems all the networks cut out most or all off the speech because they thought their talking heads were more entertaining. Still Like PBS the best though . . .
R Magnuson, Austin, TX
I want to tell you how much I appreciate your convention coverage. I appreciate the respect you show the speakers by not using their time to show off how erudite the commentators are; how the tone of comments is not usually a put down of the person on the dais, but an opinion which is to be shared and not labeled as truth in capital letters. Also, that when you do cut into a presentation, you make an effort to tape and make available that speaker's remarks. Much different than many of the other stations — a heartfelt THANK YOU!
Coral Gables, FL
And the Beat Goes on . . .
I started last evening (Monday) watching the MSNBC coverage of the DNC. That lasted about 1/2 hour. I quickly switched to my local PBS channel (44 — WGBX Boston). On such an historic evening, PBS allowed Jesse Jackson Jr., Barack Obama's sister and Jimmy Carter's video to come into my home. I was given the opportunity to view the ENTIRE evening. I was given the opportunity to make my own judgment. I cannot thank you all enough.
Jane Wolf, Gloucester, MA
I sincerely appreciate your coverage of the DNC. I appreciate that you provide fair and detailed analysis after each and every speech. After the election, I will be supporting PBS with a monetary contribution. Thank you for being true journalist and Not a special interest media outlet like CNN.
Jonathan Jones, Farmington, MI
I just want to thank Jim Lehrer for the excellent coverage of the Democratic convention this evening (Monday). He and his co workers and guests did an extremely impressive job covering this event. It was very professional and quite informative.
John Eccles, Palm Bay, FL
Just a hurrah to PBS for your coverage of the Democrat National Convention. My husband and I remarked how much better it was to watch it on our PBS station — KET — than to watch on the all news all the time cable stations. You are much more civilized and professional! Thanks!
Polly & Dave Johnson, Louisville, KY
I am, as ever, impressed with the time and thought you dedicate to convention coverage — but I am truly disappointed with your 'cutaway' photos of convention delegates. Why on earth do you choose to portray the group as 80/20% black/other???? This is not an accurate portrayal of the ethnic, racial and social mix, and is unfair and almost biased in its overemphasis. We are ALL represented at the convention — show it!!!
Greenwood Village, CO
My thanks and appreciation to PBS & OPB for actually showing the Democratic convention in local prime time. I would not have been able to have seen the speeches this evening (Tuesday) on the network stations because I had a meeting to go to at 6PM local time. The commentary has been spot on, some of the speeches have been quite ordinary and unremarkable, but at least they have been aired on the people's network and we can use them to help us make our choice in November. Thank you for this. I expect the same at the Republican convention.
Tom Johnson, Junction City, OR
I just wanted to let you know that I am very grateful for the excellent coverage of the Democratic Convention. You are the only network that I have access to (had to cut back on my cable, too expensive now!) who broadcast ALL the speeches in full. The other regular networks barely allowed viewers to hear the basics of the speeches, and left out an awful lot. I don't know how we can have a fair election when most of our media has no ethics and only broadcast their own viewpoint or what their advertisers want to see and hear.
Eden Prairie, MN
White Guys Discussing Blacks and Women
I value the quality of reporting provided by The NewsHour, and have for as many years as it has been on the air. I particularly value the number of women correspondents, serious journalists whose intelligence and integrity are noteworthy. I have difficulty understanding, then, the absence of female analysts. Right now at the Democratic Convention, three historians and two political analysts speak regularly. All are men. The relationship between truth and diversity is clear: the unexamined assumptions of each of us require that we hear the voices of Others, a mechanism for leaving the echo chambers of race, class, and gender. Sexism and misogyny have been normalized in our culture. The experience of women is half of our history, yet none of us know that history because the conventional version of history taught in our public institutions treats women's history as a specialty, a minority interest.
I just watched Jim Lehrer, David Brooks and Mark Shields respond to Lilly Ledbetter's remarks (Tuesday) at the Democratic Convention. I have been struck all evening by their clueless reactions. All three of these men seem unaware that right now, as Lilly Ledbetter speaks, women make 74 cents on the male dollar. The problem is not as Jim suggested, a wedge issue. For half of the American population a reduced income by one fourth is an economic reality, the reality of sexism, and a reality that continues because of lunk-headed, self satisfied, stare-at-our-own-male-navel news coverage, and the real outrage is that this is the ONLY channel I can watch!!!
Barbara Taylor, North Aurora, IL
I really appreciate that you covered the Democratic convention so completely. It seemed to me, however, that some of your people, especially Judy Woodruff, were too often asking attendees about disagreements and disunity within the party. It will be interesting to see whether they do the same at the Republican convention, where I believe there will be much greater policy differences among attendees.
Helen Hanna, Sacramento, CA
Democratic Convention Coverage: Where were the people of color? I couldn't believe I was listening to three white guys talking about race as an issue in the race, although one of them, thank God, was President Jimmy Carter, who had important things to say. Where were the two people of color who work for you? Gwen Ifill and Ray Suarez became invisible. Where were the interviews with black Americans on this one of the most historic events in the history of African Americans? Is it only riots that gets the networks to inquire about black views?
Thulani Davis, Bloomfield, NJ
There it was, again. A herd of bulls and Gwen giving feedback relevant to the speech of Senator Hillary Clinton. Feedback??? Nope. As usual, when men take center stage subsequent to a brilliant speech by a woman, what the viewing audience observes is stark criticism. There they were, utilizing the infamous one-sided brain response of all males. There they were, trying to hold more than one thought (sometimes referred to as multi-tasking) and failing miserably. WHY??? Why must my television screen be inundated by a herd of bulls when there are so many intelligent women able to give a much more in depth report on what I observed as Senator Hillary Clinton giving her all, fighting for her country and proud to be an American? Please, at least BALANCE the feedback subsequent to so fine a speech.
Karen Jandebeur, Arcata, CA
The comments last night (Tuesday) by the 3 historical pundits following Sen. Clinton's speech left me less than amused. Sen. Clinton's job was to get her followers on board with a general reason for the support of Sen. Obama. He needs to answer for himself with specifics, not just good speech-making. I felt that the 3 commentators would have been strengthened by having someone who dealt with the history of the women's movement, perhaps even a woman — a radical thought — to have a woman comment on what was a major night for women (if not what we had hoped.) Thank goodness for Gwen Ifill! Otherwise, it was a segment totally by men with, I must say, little reference to women.
Sharon Siirola, Kingsport, TN
It seems that sexism is alive and kicking for Hillary Clinton, even in her last speech of the campaign and even on PBS. I was delighted by the excellence of both her content and her delivery, but I found myself disgusted by the REPEATED shots of Bill Clinton that interspersed your coverage. I understand that an occasional shot of a relevant person in the audience is an accepted television tradition, but would anyone like to do an analysis of HOW MANY times the camera cut away to him during her speech, compared to any other speaker in this convention? I was disappointed by the continuing double-standard that Hillary Clinton has had to deal with throughout this campaign. And I expected better of PBS.
Christine Brown, Salem, NH
Inane, Inane, Inane!!! Why in the world would you rely on all white males (with the exception of one Black historian) to be your commentators/interpreters on the DNC??? They have absolutely no insight or understanding of women's views and struggles to be involved in the political process let alone the views of African-Americans, Hispanics or others who do not look like them and have the privileged experiences they have. David Brooks and Mark Shields nightly — give me a break from this insanity, the meaningless so-called analyses. Let Gwen, Judy and Margaret do more of the analyses (that's plural) instead of the usual female reporter stuff. Come on guys — and I mean guys — my family watches you because we don't want to see the inane networks or cable guys. But you've become one and the same — almost as bad as Jim's nightly NewsHour which increasingly includes only WHITE GUYS.
I tuned in to PBS for coverage of the Dem. convention because I wanted higher quality coverage than cable networks. Tonight (Tuesday) the theme of the convention was all about the historic gains of women. Why were there virtually no women offering expert commentary tonight of all nights? There was a whole group of men, but apparently having more than one woman offering an opinion at one time was too much for PBS. It's disappointing.
M. Weiner, New York, NY
I'm watching the Democratic convention on PBS and I must say I'm offended by the sight of three old, white men pontificating on what African Americans and, especially, women are thinking! How about PBS including the occasional woman and/or African American among their "experts" from time to time, especially when they are discussing such issues? I can't judge how accurately they are reading the minds of African Americans, but I assure you that when it comes to women, they don't have a clue!
Cherie, Culver City, CA
I admire much of what PBS does as far as programming. Watching the Democratic National Convention this evening (Monday) on PBS, however, it was disappointing to note that PBS did not have at least one woman as one of the round table commentators with Jim Lehrer. As a result, I switched to other major networks which did a much better job on including women in their round table analysis. I switched back to PBS a while after Michelle Obama gave her speech, and again listened to four men comment upon it. Finally a question was directed to Judy Woodruff on the floor of the convention, not to ask her for her own view about the speech but rather for her to report about how delegates reacted to the speech. PBS' lack of including women's perspectives on the round table diminishes PBS coverage of this convention. PBS doesn't get it. It is, after all, about change.
Joanne Schwebach, Altamonte Springs, FL
First, I would like to say that The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is the only television news hour that I watch, and I watch it regularly. I find this program to be as unbiased as a news program that I can find in broadcast and cable news.
For the past three nights, I have been watching the coverage on both PBS and on C-Span. I have found the coverage on PBS to be less than the usually stellar performance that I have come to expect from The NewsHour staff. First, there are been entirely too much talking on the part of the PBS staff. Fortunately, I was watching C-Span when Jim Leach from Iowa was speaking; if I had been watching PBS, I would have missed his excellent speech. Unfortunately, I was watching PBS when Governor Schweitzer gave what I understand was an excellent address; PBS only showed the last sentence or two. Fortunately, by Wednesday evening, I was able to listen to John Kerry's speech on C-Span, which was one of the best speeches I've ever heard him give. Although I treasure hearing from Mark Shields (and sometimes) David Brooks, I would much rather have heard some of the more important speeches. The comments of Shields and Brooks were both too long and too frequent. Although I look forward to Friday evenings to view Shields and Brooks, they managed, in the last three nights, to talk a lot without saying much . . .
Marion McNairy, Largo, FL
I am dismayed at the continued reporting that Barack Obama is not doing well with white working class women. It's no wonder. The media are certainly partly responsible for this. They interview predominantly African Americans about Mr. Obama. You just don't see anyone interviewing a lot of white Obama supporters — and there are many of us. NewsHour does a bit better because Shields and Brooks are regulars this week. Let's get some balance here.
Renate Coleshill, Pittsboro, NC
I would feel a whole lot better about PBS' coverage of the Democratic National Convention if you paid a little more attention to the Democratic "representatives of the common man" who are partying in Denver on the cuff of the special interests like oil companies and big business.
Lucian Laurie, King George, VA
It was a wonderful coverage of the Democratic Convention. A little less analysis would have been appreciated so we would not have missed some speakers. But lots better than major networks who carried too much normal, worthless programming and too little Convention coverage. We were happy to miss NBC's battle between Matthews and Olbermann and, as we were told, their overdone analyzing and cutting off certain Democratic Politicians who they disagree with.
Our one sore spot with the PBS coverage of the Democratic Convention and NewsHour is David Brooks. He acts decent for a while, then his Republican horns stick out when asked to comment on some Democratic guest, or in this case, Obama's speech on Thursday night. I describe him as pouty when he doesn't want to admit strong points of Democratic guests.
If Barack Obama had gotten really emotional (Brooks said he was too low key and the outdoor arena ruined the effects), Brooks would have accused him of acting like a Celebrity.
We could happily do without Brooks and his pouty Republican bias that sticks out like a VERY sore thumb. I've complained to PBS officials about Brooks, but to no avail. We prefer less bias and show of preference, and that is why we avoid Major Media News most of the time. We do NOT plan to tune in to ANY of the Republican baloney, since most middleclass and poor have been hurt far too much by their policies. We think of that administration, including Bush & McCain as sleazy, maggot infested cess pools. We'll find other sources of news and past time those four days.
Rosalyn Z., Unity, WI
I just finished watching Obama's acceptance speech on PBS. The comments of your pundits, as always, were interesting. I did get the impression that David Brooks prepared his comments before he ever heard the speech. He looked very uncomfortable and very insincere. He usually appears unflappable. I think he disappointed those of us who look toward him for an honest assessment.
Harold Levinson, San Diego, CA
I've been an avid viewer of yours and MSNBC and I've watched you for over a year ask the question reputably if Barack had the gravitas to be Commander in Chief. To our great dismay last night at the convention you had testimony by former general officers and by Iraq and Afghans veterans why Barack should be the Commander in Chief and our next President. You have yet to mention nor did you and your network cover the most important question of our time. Barack's foreign policy judgment and experience. You did America a disservice as you made your coverage about you and your colleagues by not covering the Vets input to the dialog at the convention. I say shame on you.
And This Beat Goes on, too
I am very disgusted about your DNC Convention coverage. Can't you find better commentary besides Brooks and Shields? Both men have been on PBS too long. Also, there appears to be a lot of negative questioning. It truly shows the way PBS is biased since the Bush appointments. Bush not only has succeeded in destroying our gov't and our nation, but also Public Broadcasting. A once admired station has definitely lost its integrity. I give you a D-.
K Jadud, Columbia Station, OH
I tuned in last night (Tuesday) to watch the Democratic Convention on PBS because I trust PBS to have unbiased coverage without the arrogant talking heads of the other networks. Tonight I won't. David Brooks is not worthy of PBS's outstanding reputation. He belittled speakers calling them "banal", he scoffed and I'm sure almost rolled his eyes. When he no longer sits on the panel, I may watch again, but when I see him share the stage, I'll turn the channel.
Laura D, San Antonio, TX
How many talking heads does it take at the DNC to explain to me what I just heard from a speaker? I have watched the NewsHour for years and felt it was the best of the best. But in surfing the for-profit channels broadcasting the DNC, PBS has managed to dumb themselves down to the lowest common denominator.
Dennis Heagney, Houston, TX
I am disappointed in the convention coverage. Much as I appreciate the NewsHour, there is entirely too much commentary by Shields, Ifill, Suarez and too little actual coverage of speeches by those at the convention. The analysis by Shields and Brooks is repetitive and not informative by repetition! I would have loved to hear Kucinich, Napolitano and other minor speakers who actually represent the rank and file more closely than PBS analysts do.
Charles E. Thomas, Cascabel, AZ
When PBS Goes to the Videotape
I usually watch at least two newscasts every evening. This evening (Wednesday), I viewed the ABC World News, which opted to focus on what was happening at the Denver Convention for the entire broadcast; I saw the nomination of Barack Obama, who was ultimately acclaimed the nominee by a special motion offered by Hillary Clinton as a member of the New York delegation. When that newscast ended, I switched to PBS, as I usually do. I know that PBS likes to proclaim they are the most "trusted" people in the business. Well, I was shocked, to say the least, to see Jim Lehrer sitting at the Denver Convention and telling the audience that a roll call was now being taken to nominate Barack Obama!! This was obviously not "real time" and was on tape. The question is why? I cannot be the only audience member who was appalled to see that the PBS news was "pretending" to be live at the convention and was not in real time. It is deception. It is one thing to tell the audience that they will re-run the tape on certain portions of the roll call, but to actually be caught in this time web was ludicrous, and not worthy of any newscast.
BL Magalnick, New York, NY
I have always associated the NewsHour with the highest in integrity and the most well balanced news cast. Imagine my surprise this evening (Wednesday) when I watched the roll call at the Democratic Convention on CSPAN between 6 and 6:45, only to have the NewsHour act as though it had not yet happened throughout their news cast. I guess they did this so they could have the big announcement of the Obama's nomination at the end of the NewsHour. I could hardly believe my eyes and ears. I watched most of the Roll Call all over again. It is this kind of misleading method of reporting that leads us all to be cynical about the media.
I watched the NewsHour tonight (Wednesday), only minutes after seeing on NBC news Hillary Clinton not only cast the votes for New York (surrounded by Charles Schumer, Senior Senator and David Paterson, Governor) but also making the motion to suspend the rules and declare Barack Obama by acclamation. This news is now all over the Internet. Yet, Jim Lehrer and crew went on about events that happened earlier, suggesting that they just occurred. I thought the NewsHour happened in real time. It apparently does not and they did not have a clue that this took place. Shame on PBS for suggesting that the program originated live when it did not.
And Furthermore . . .
On the Lehrer NewsHour tonight (Tuesday) Gwen Ifill used the adjective FULSOME to describe the forthcoming speech by Hillary Clinton. I suggest that you clue Gwen about the real meaning of that term. Check any dictionary, but my American Heritage College Edition defines fulsome as "offensively excessive or insincere, offensive to the senses, loathsome, disgusting." Did Gwen really mean to say that about Hillary's expected support of Obama?
J. Tyler Resch, North Bennington, VT
Mississippi Public Broadcasting aired less of the Democratic National Convention than other stations. They ran canned fundraising stuff instead. I'll consult my notes if you need more details but this is more of the same of what I suspect to be intent on the part of Marie Antoon and the Governor of Mississippi to run Miss. Public Broadcasting into the ground. One weekend she left it off the air a few months back. Blamed technical difficulties but didn't put any message up about it. They are unreachable and they don't care.
I am so disappointed in the PBS coverage of the Democratic convention. You cut speeches of people I wanted to hear, like Tammy Duckworth, Dennis Kucinich, Tom Daschle and too many more. No wonder our citizens are out of touch with our government and its leaders. The media edits what we see in order to tell us what we should think. Normally, I'm an avid fan of the NewsHour and its excellent commentators. But I would much have preferred to see all the speeches and listen to commentary and interviews in the hour following.
S Carroll, Fresno, CA
Why say 'from the Pepsi Center'? Why not 'from the Democratic Convention?' Consumerism for the sake of consuming is bad enough in our country. Big business is ruining our country because our Congress does not stand up to it. Shame on you for contributing a commercial during your coverage.
Carolee Bier, Eastport, ME
I have loved the coverage and programming presented so far on WTVI of the DNC. CNN boasts of broadcasting from the convention floor, but I switched to WTVI because I was given the opportunity to hear the speakers at the convention rather than the commentators. However, I do pray that this feedback gets filtered to the commentators by tomorrow evening, and this need to refer to Mr. Obama's sister constantly as his half-sister. You all would do well to recognize and support that nearly 60% of American families are blended, rather than broken; and until the media refrains from judging the public for its choices, and choices many in media have made, this country would be freer to build blended families that work, as it obviously has for Mr. Obama's family.
Why do reporters only speak of Jimmy Carter as a 'peanut farmer'? They never speak of his time at the Naval Academy, or being the Captain of a submarine. Hell, he was the first to bring Sadat and Begin to the table. It's important to see his role in serving our country; not 'just some guy that builds houses.' My point is he serves our country. What an admirable quality.
Anthony Kwiatkowski, Columbus, OH