Did Too, Did Not, Did Too, Did Not
By Michael Getler
September 12, 2008
As the 2008 election draws closer and closer, the ombudsman's mailbag, not surprisingly, is filled more and more with messages from viewers who are upset over one thing or another about political coverage on PBS. And because the five-nights-a-week NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is the primary outlet for national political news on PBS, it is that program that is in the crosshairs of those viewers who are taking aim at the broadcasting service. There is, as always, also much praise for the NewsHour but, as I've also said before, most people write to an ombudsman to complain.
All the lashing out over politics makes an ombudsman yearn for the good old days of controversial documentaries like "The Armenian Genocide" or "The Mormons" just to change the subject once in a while. But that doesn't seem likely, at least for a while. So what follows, once again, is a representative sampling of what viewers have been saying during the past week about how the most exciting election campaign in a long time is being covered and presented.
But first, some thoughts from where I sit that tie some of the subjects below at least loosely together.
The Segments We Love to Hate
The first two groups of letters are about a common theme that comes up frequently and seems to drive a fair number of people on both sides of the political aisle nuts; me, included, at times. That is the classic NewsHour segment in which one of the correspondents conducts a discussion about the campaign or an issue with representatives or partisans of each side. This is, perhaps, the purest form of "balanced" news coverage but it can leave the audience, or at least some of them, bewildered, angry and frustrated at what is perceived as useless charges and counter-charges that leave one no closer to the truth. It is during this type of encounter that the interviewer is crucial, either through questioning or use of background and context, to give the viewer at least some sense of where the facts point.
The first group of letters focus on a segment aired on the Sept. 10 NewsHour in which participants battled about the McCain and Obama positions on education reform. There were many more letters than those posted below. In one exchange, the two campaign advisers were asked by correspondent Gwen Ifill about a McCain television ad that talks about "Obama's one accomplishment? Legislation to teach comprehensive sex education to kindergartners." The dueling advisers traded sharp blows about this description and viewers, properly in my view, criticized the moderator for not presenting available, factual information about Obama's role that could have clarified this exchange. Fact-checking operations at The Washington Post and the McClatchy newspapers both concluded that the McCain charges misrepresented Obama's record on this and were "deliberately misleading," according to the McClatchy reporter.
On the other hand, this battle over the campaign ad was only a brief part of the segment, and on other matters, Ifill provided very useful summaries on where the candidates stand on aspects of the education reform issue.
And Then They Wrote . . .
The second group of letters deals with a segment aired on Sept. 5, moderated by NewsHour correspondent Judy Woodruff, about the role and concerns of women voters. One guest was a Republican strategist who is president of a public opinion research firm and who does polling for McCain. The other guest does polling for Democrats but is not an adviser to the Obama campaign. The complaint here, totally understandable, is that what viewers heard were numbers, focus group reactions and analysis from the Democratic pollster and very clear partisan campaign pitches from the Republican adviser, especially about how much adding Gov. Sarah Palin to the ticket "has really helped us with female voters."
It is not unusual for viewers to complain about sometimes mismatched guests. In fairness to the NewsHour, this is always something of a gamble because you never know for sure what someone is going to say. In this case, two pollsters with no campaign advisory role would have been better.
And a Zinger from Zurawik
Finally, there was an interesting blog posting on The Baltimore Sun site this week by TV critic David Zurawik that clearly must have been well-read within PBS. It took a hard shot at Bill Moyers and questioned a string of promotional messages that PBS has been broadcasting touting the strength of its electoral coverage and many of its marquee journalists.
Here is some of what Zurawik had to say:
"I have been troubled during the year by PBS promotional messages for its election coverage that groups Moyers with Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill and other PBS journalists. Lehrer is the dean of network anchors, and he personifies the best of a journalism built on presenting verified facts along with informed and balanced discussion to viewers in hopes that they will be able to make solid decisions about their lives. Ditto for Ifill.
"Like Olbermann and Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, Moyers is a political ideologue and propagandist. He is not a journalist. I spent a lot of time with him when I profiled him for Esquire magazine in 1989, and in 19 years, he has only become more political. That's okay, but PBS of all news organizations should not be presenting him as a journalist — especially at this time when the nation is coming to public television for information on the most important vote many of us will cast in our lifetimes."
I also happened to catch one or two of these promotions recently and they also caught my eye and made me wonder about a couple of things. On one hand, the ones I saw were snappy and smart efforts by PBS to showcase many of its star performers at a time when people are paying special attention. The ones I saw featured Lehrer, Ifill, Woodruff and Ray Suarez, also of the NewsHour, plus David Brancaccio of NOW, talk show host Tavis Smiley and Moyers. It seems that all TV networks — broadcast and cable — do such things from time to time.
But being a close observer of PBS, the promos also raised questions in my mind. One was whether Moyers and Smiley would have special roles in election coverage beyond their own regular programs, and whether some new special election coverage was planned in which all of them would be involved. And I, too, also wondered about lumping Lehrer and his crew, with Smiley and Moyers, in particular, because they have very different programs and approaches to the news.
I asked John Boland, Chief Content Officer at PBS, about this and he said that the promotions do not mean that Moyers and others will be part of election coverage beyond their own programs and there are no election specials in which Moyers joins forces with the NewsHour. He said the promos were produced by PBS, were discussed with program producers, and that the purpose "is to communicate the variety of PBS' election coverage. To that end, we produced 6 on-air promos for the campaign — one each for Bill Moyers Journal, The NewsHour, NOW on PBS, Tavis Smiley and Washington Week, plus one to represent the collective PBS election coverage."
When I asked, "Did it occur (to you) that you were mixing the NewsHour and its straight news image with other personalities, especially Moyers, who are much more controversial?" Boland said: "Among the spots produced for the campaign, one spot includes multiple programs and their on-air personnel. The purpose of this spot is to illustrate the variety of PBS' election coverage."
Lehrer is, as Zurawik suggests, not just the dean of network anchors but is also the personification of straightforward presentation of news and resists anything that even resembles taking a position. Moyers is hard to categorize. I have written several columns about his Journal, most of them critical of one segment or another. But Moyers, as I have also said, also presents a vast array of interviews and issues that are important, thought-provoking and deserving of being aired but would likely not have a prayer anywhere else on television. He also has guests such as political scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson who has been on frequently lately and who astutely analyzes all sides.
So while I think that Moyers' editorial approach is indeed open to criticism — and gets a lot of it — and that it often slides from reporting to advocacy, that his commentary is frequently fact-based and his interviews are often compelling and illuminating. I do not know Moyers personally and I don't share Zurawik's harsh judgment. But I do think it is a mistake to produce promotions that have Jim Lehrer start a sentence and Bill Moyers finish it. That would not happen except in a PBS commercial.
Here Are the Letters
Your program tonight (9/10/08) on the education positions of Obama and McCain was uninformative to say the least. Having two biased campaign operatives each saying the other is lying is an insult to the viewer. Why should I spend time listing to the NewsHour when I end up having to go elsewhere to research campaign issues? Like on the Broadcast News, the tit-for-tat format is a turn-off. Is it any wonder many potential voters stay home on Election Day?
Richard Lundgren, Jacksonville, FL
I just finished watching Jim Lehrer NewsHour, which is normally my favorite TV show (actually one of the few that I watch). But tonight it seemed to me that PBS fell short of its responsibility. Gwen Ifill interviewed surrogates of the Obama and McCain campaigns on the topic of education. The two women made diametrically opposed statements (Obama supported comprehensive sex education for five year olds vs. Obama supported legislation to enable five year olds to defend themselves against sexual predators). In that kind of conflict — not just differences of opinion but different statements of facts — it seems to me that good reporting would dictate that you (Gwen, in this case) tell viewers what the law actually says. A similar disagreement between the two surrogates on this show was whether John McCain voted to do away with the Department of Education or not. What good does it do to let campaign operatives talk past each other, if reporters don't supply some facts? Tonight's show was not the first time I've experienced this kind of dissatisfaction, but because it was particularly blatant tonight, I was moved to send this e-mail.
Lyn Houk, Houston, TX
I wish that PBS would come back to its viewers regularly and tell us which guests are lying to us or significantly stretching the truth. I turn to PBS for honest reporting and so often I end up listening to more rhetoric from the guests. The latest example is from tonight's news (9/10/08). The two guests discussing the presidential race claimed the other was lying about Obama's stance on sex education for children. PBS should know the truth and be ready to advise us as such during these interviews, or at least come back and tell us the truth the next night or perhaps weekly. I turn to the news so that I do not have to research every issue on my own. Overall, I think PBS does a fabulous job and I plan to keep watching, but please help combat the untrue rhetoric and help us know the truth so we can evaluate the candidates on their merit! Thanks for listening!
D Bilski, Atlanta, GA
Tonight on the NewsHour a McCain supporter and an Obama supporter argued about the candidates' perspectives on education in general and Obama's support of a sex education bill in Illinois specifically. The McCain supporter said she had read the bill, and it did in fact go far beyond what Obama says it did (teaching young children to avoid sexual predators). I can't find the bill on line, but I've seen lots of articles saying that McCain is wrong. The reporter (Ifill I think) should have read the bill before hand so she could say what was in the bill and not just rely on (apparently) misleading information. It would be a good thing to do now and clarify. If McCain's people are lying (or Obama's people), the NewsHour should say so.
Barbara McKinney, Bloomington, IN
I am delighted to find PBS using an ombudsman. I should have expected that from you. Thanks for this additional layer of integrity. Here is my problem. I have been watching PBS news with Jim Lehrer for about a year now. Something has been bothering me for most of that time, and not just about the campaign coverage, but about most controversial issues you discuss in depth. Tonight's broadcast (9-10-08) about the candidates' position on education policy just pushed me over the edge.
Why is it considered news to simply put on partisan representatives of both positions to parrot what the candidates (or other actors) are saying? We already heard that in your lead-off piece, and over and over again in fact, in the nasty little advertisements and sound bites they are doing. Wouldn't "news" be to cut through these partisan, dreary spins, stop giving them unpaid, but hugely influential prime time to reiterate their spins (which some of us aren't hesitant to call lies), and tell us instead how the candidates' positions compare based on your own independent analysis instead of their gleeful reiterations?
K.D. McCleave, Madison, WI
TV journalism is currently pathetic and PBS is the one last hope for a 4th estate that helps us understand things. Thinking here of the political candidates. However, the evening news falls far short when you have the candidates' aides and advisors on. It is no better than listening to dueling commercials because your reporters do not press for answers that give information.
Last night a case in point. Gwen Ifill had the education advisors for both Pres. candidates. The first question was whether Obama had advocated sex education for kindergartners. Obama's advisor said, "Absolutely not." McCain's advisor said, "He certainly did." It seemed that that might be the time for a follow-up. Like — be specific, what bill, etc. But, no; Gwen went on to other items.
Later, the question was about which candidate supported funding for education. McCain was accused of always voting against and defended as always supporting. Again, time for a follow-up — so that the viewing audience would have more information than the "she said, she said" bashing (polite, of course) that was being offered. What bills, offering what kind of support, did who support when, etc. Alas, none of that.
Dale Goldsmith, Amarillo, TX
Pollsters or Promoters?
Watching the NewsHour on Sept. 5, I was appalled by the segment Judy Woodruff hosted with Ms. Greenberg and Linda Divall. Divall had almost no actual research to report, but plenty of personal advocacy to do. Her presentation was completely unenlightening as she promoted the McCain ticket as baldly as any campaign operative, without bringing any actual data to the table. Ms. Greenberg, on the other hand, looked pained by the unprofessionalism of her supposed peer, as she herself stuck to commenting on what was actually supported by research and rightly avoided making unsupported predictions about what women are going to do in this election. Ms. Woodruff was no help in reigning in Divall's advocacy of her candidate. To Woodruff's promise that we'll be seeing more of this shameless researcher I say Please, No! Really, the discussion was embarrassing to watch.
Mary Long, San Francisco, CA
I just finished watching the segment on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer containing the interview with the two pollsters, one Democratic and one Republican. In response to the questions put to her, the Democratic pollster cited the results of the polls and focus groups her organization conducted. However, the Republican pollster responding almost every time with a straight quote from the Republican Party line, rather than citing the results of any polls or focus groups conducted. Furthermore, the interviewer did not follow up by asking the Republican pollster to cite any information to back up her claims. I feel that this is unprofessional journalism on public display.
Patrick Poulson, Nevada City, CA
I was just watching Judy Woodruff interview two pollsters on 'The NewsHour'. I give her credit for identifying one as working for the McCain campaign while the other was a 'Democratic' pollster not advising any campaign. Having made this fact known it was still quite disconcerting seeing the McCain woman answering Ms. Woodruff's questions on polling data with what were either her own personal opinions, or else GOP talking points.
This woman continually made statements like "I think Ms Palin has energized the . . . contest" (a paraphrase, I didn't take the dictation). Asked for polling data, she mostly stuck to these opinions. This was not professional on the pollster's part, unless her advisory relation to the McCain campaign dictates that her public pronouncements be opinions and not data. Worse, an experienced journalist like Ms. Woodruff continually allowed these statements. When the pollster says "I think this" and "I think that" the job of the journalist should be to politely as possible say "We're not asking you what you think, we're asking about the data you've found." But she repeatedly failed to do this.
More on the Goodman Arrest
The aggregated ratio of liberal to non-liberal reporters on PBS on Friday, September 5 — on The NewsHour, Bill Moyers, Washington Week, NOW, Tavis Smiley, and Charlie Rose — was an embarrassment, even for PBS. Also, why did David Brancaccio present Amy Goodman's allegations completely unchallenged?
N Reinhold, L.A. County, CA
NOW's host and senior editor, David Brancaccio, responds:
"I thought Goodman raised important issues crucial to the role of the media in a democratic society. Had this been one of our investigative pieces, not simply a one-on-one interview, tape of the police reaction would have been included. St. Paul's police chief had said he could not address Goodman's arrest because 'I think those cases are going to be eventually completely investigated.' In our interview, Goodman refers to something more substantive the police chief said, namely his suggestion that reporters should 'embed' with police teams if they want to cover protests. We also clearly stated the charges pressed against Goodman and her colleagues. Finally, in the interview I got Goodman to acknowledge the context in which her arrest occurred: police sweeps of protesters who became unruly and broke windows.
"The note you received is right to point out that there is much more to be said about this incident and my team at NOW will continue to keep a close eye on developments."
I was very impressed by your coverage of the two conventions, especially the follow up by the commentators afterwards. The great disappointment I had was that you did not report in depth of the arrest of protestors outside the Republican convention, especially of Amy Goodman and her pressmen — who were assaulted and injured illegally. This lack of coverage only convinces the police and FBI to further impinge on our rights. It is very serious and definitely must be exposed in major TV, not just on the Internet. I, who count on your coverage, was very disappointed in this omission and hope you will mention it this coming week in your news broadcasts.
We expect Amy Goodman to run through a line of riot police hoping to be filmed as a victim of police brutality. We expect the St. Paul riot squad to handcuff and charge anyone who tries to run through their line they are charged with defending, regardless of the tag on her neck or the story she shouts at the police. We do not expect PBS to be the willing dupe of Goodman's martyr theatrics, airing her cameraman's footage and fawning over her free speech rants. Please do not further morph into a forum for lunatic lefties.
Mark Techler, Belleair, FL
Having watched many hours of Gwen Ifill's reporting, the thing that made me maddest tonight was reading your column that included all the insulting letters about Gwen. She's fantastic day in and day out. I did think that one of the evenings late at night for a short interval she was not at her best, but the entire staff looked exhausted and sleepless. So I'm appalled at the various attacks on Ifill, a first rate reporter nearly all the time. Makes me think there's still racism not far under the surface!
Marjorie Shultz, Richmond, CA
Of all the stations who don't even try to hide their preference for president, I'm surprised at PBS and expected more from your station. I've read some of the comments from other viewers and your response that you feel differently and have decided to defend your analysts instead of being fair to half your audience with coverage of both conventions with balance. I really didn't see fair responses for the Republicans and even when your analysts were doing their best to say something nice about the Republicans, they still managed to sneak in negativity, as if we didn't notice. You can disagree all you want, but you're obviously looking at your coverage through rose colored glasses. I can't watch PBS anymore, because your station has lowered its standards to this kind of coverage which makes you equal with NBC, CBS and ABC. I have Charlie Rose on now whose choice of guest show how biased he is also. I wish the media could be more objective, but I know that those days are gone.
Marilyn T, Boardman, OH
There's not a week that goes by that I don't thank God for PBS. As a former Mathematics teacher and now a physician I place a very high value on the truth and the search for it. I was both surprised and disappointed to read some of the nasty comments expressed by some viewers. Again and again, I am struck by the great pains PBS goes through to bring the news to the public in a balanced way.
James M. Petko, Arlington, VA
I consider my self an Independent and have voted for both Republicans and Democrats, depending on the circumstances at the time. I really want and need to hear both sides of issues in order to decide which way my vote should go. Though PBS has been criticized for many years as being "liberal," I have found C-Span and PBS to be the only TV sources of information with any legitimate claim to fair, even-handed, comprehensive coverage of political issues. If there is any commercial TV program that does not present an unabashedly biased viewpoint, I cannot find it among the programs available to me. I am grateful to PBS for giving me access to information and letting me make up my own mind. Please keep up the good work.
Cobbs Creek, VA
I am concerned that when Andy Kohut is interviewed on the PBS NewsHour for political polling results the question of the reliability of his data is never raised. Why, given the increasing exclusive use of cell phones among young adults who are more likely to vote as Democrats? And how to account for the many cell phone users who turn their phones off when not in use?
Lee Lybarger, Delaware, OH
I am a big supporter of PBS and most of its programs. I greatly admire and respect Jim Lehrer and usually Gwen Ifill, however, I am very troubled by an attempt to group Bill Moyers with these PBS journalists. He is obviously very biased in his coverage and his addition to the discussion detracts from the journalist integrity. I have no problem with him appearing as a Democratic/Liberal commentator, but to pretend he is an unbiased journalist is frankly insulting to the American people.
Cody O, Marina, CA