The Ombudsman's Mailbag
By Michael Getler
November 12, 2008
Welcome to another Ombudsman's Mailbag. This one deals only with responses to the issue raised in last week's column about the timing of PBS's special election night coverage on Nov. 4. I'll be away later this week so I'm posting this earlier than usual.
Here Are the Letters
Just wanted to let you know that although I did not write you, I too noticed PBS's absence during the early returns. And the people I was watching with did not return — despite the fact that I usually prefer to watch PBS coverage, or at least switch back to it for a good portion of my returns-watching, because of the lack of commercials and the good commentary.
For people my age (I'm 24), disappearing for a prime-time hour of a historic election — and showing random shows about pearls — makes PBS seem weird, old-fashioned and out-of-touch, which is exactly the wrong message for the service to send in this era. I know they can't be everything to everyone, but come on — there's only one presidential election every four years. If they need some money, why don't they do a pledge to fund the extra hour?
Ted Nesi, Providence, RI
Just a small note on election coverage — I agree with you completely about the "gap." My husband and I couldn't believe it. We thought perhaps you had tech difficulties, but then consulted the schedule and saw it was planned. We are two who did switch back again after NOVA (that must have had the lowest viewership in its history!!), and we found the coverage excellent. But many, no doubt, did not switch back. A pity after the great coverage all throughout the campaign.
Lana Holmes, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I agree with Mr. Getler's views regarding the one hour drop in election coverage. Throughout the campaign season my local PBS station (WNET) was one of the three stations I turned to to fill my insatiable appetite for up to the minute news. I spent considerable time with Charlie Rose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gwen Ifill and looked forward to election night coverage. Unfortunately when I kept getting Nova at the critical 8-9 p.m. hour I switched permanently and did not go back. I think it was a very big mistake to resort to basic and routine coverage at the onset of the evening, especially having gone the extra mile up to this point.
J.K. Rosen, New City, NY
I agree with Mr. Getler's observation about the gap in PBS coverage on election night. We watched the NewsHour at 7, then switched to NBC and didn't come back until after the acceptance speech.
Jim Loomis, Van Etten, NY
Given the paucity of useful early information about election results, that PBS started its special coverage at 9PM EST (8PM here), was fine. WHA TV in Madison had a very interesting hour program about fractals between the NewsHour and election coverage.
Mark Jeffries, Madison, WI
Michael Getler's story was spot-on by identifying the low election-coverage rating's cause as the 9 p.m. start time. Personally, a relatively boring (some other time) coverage of state elections was showing when I tuned in before switching to network coverage and not coming back until much later.
Jude Smith, Carlisle, PA
I agree that it would have been great to have continuous election night coverage on PBS, but that's only because I'm such a fan of the NewsHour crew. But I'm not sure that the NewsHour is equipped to deliver the type of program you and I long for. Hasn't the program's position always been along the lines of "watch CNN for minute-by-minute updates; watch the NewsHour for next-day analysis"? Please don't ask them to change their approach to journalism for the sake of ratings.
Marc Smith, Marquette, MI
I, too, thought there would be a larger number of viewers tuned to PBS. I thought it was the best coverage and most unbiased of all the other sources. We watched PBS during the conventions and the election except for a few minutes now and then to check what some of the other networks were broadcasting.
Paul D. Burgess, Baxter, TN
I watched the returns on PBS and was well satisfied with the coverage! I wasn't looking for glitz and idiot boards and talking heads. All I wanted was numbers and intelligent commentaries. Just like I got on PBS. Keep up the good work and don't ever try to emulate shills!
Ted M., Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Head in the Sand, Again
Getler is burying his head in the sand again. Instead of focusing on the ultra-biased PBS Election coverage, Getler chooses to lament the side issue of a "late starting time" of election night coverage. This is a not so subtle cover-up of the real issue. The less PBS NewsHour propaganda we got, the better.
When is Getler going to address the real issue — why PBS NewsHour coverage was so biased towards Obama? Why Gwen Ifill never revealed to the audience that she is writing a pro-Obama book?
Martin Schrick, Dayton, OH
From my address, you've guessed it . . . by the time PBS started coverage, the election had been called. But I watched the debates on PBS, as it was more convenient. Next time better! (But this time the election WAS good!)
I just read your November 7 column and could not agree more. I am located in the Central time zone and I usually watch my local news at 5:00PM, ABC national news at 5:30PM, then local news again at 6:00PM on a different local station. NewsHour comes on here at 7:00PM local, a delayed copy of the 7:00PM Eastern feed. Commercial network coverage started at 6:00PM CDT or at 6:30PM if a station chose to have its regular 6:00PM local news. The advantage of commercial network coverage was more variety, cut-ins for local and state results and just a more interesting variety of issues covered. The NewsHour had its usual group of experts/commentators, but not much fluff to mix with serious interpretation. During the conventions and debates, the interest was national, but on Election Day, the interest is broader and more local. NewsHour can never compete there.
Dennis McDonald, San Antonio, TX
Too Excited to Stay with Such 'Quiet' Coverage
I totally agree with your comments of election night coverage from PBS. I am a devoted nightly viewer of the NewsHour and have enjoyed all the election coverage, e.g., the debates — to date. So I did have some great hopes in that regard from PBS. However, I was fortunate to be able to tune in at 4 p.m. (California time) to watch the election results! I switched to NBC because they had a running tally of states and electoral votes et al. along the bottom of the screen that was easier to read than CBS's weaker version.
Finally, with much anticipation, at 6 pm regular NewsHour time (although strange I thought that they waited until 6 pm, given the big roles NewsHour people have played in the debates, etc.), I switched to PBS. But within about 2 minutes, I was too excited to handle the strangely "quiet" and quietly analytical coverage of this historic, mind-boggling, and history-changing election! So I switched back to NBC pronto and pretty much stayed there until 8 pm (or, 11 pm eastern) when the election was called. I will say one thing for PBS however. Toward the end, as more states were being called, I switched back a few times to PBS, because I love David Brooks and Mark Shields, and, well, all of them so much! And I noticed that Jim Lehrer was actually calling states SOONER than the other channels. In fact, a full 15 minutes went by on NBC after PBS had called Texas and other states, and actually, by 8 pm, NBC still hadn't updated its electoral and state-win board — missing about 3-4 states that PBS HAD already called and informed viewers about. So, at the moment of the election being called, PBS had their "numbers" and states much more updated. I just wish there had been more visual or other kind of excitement to go with it . . . somehow. Things were just too darn quiet this time on PBS, and too slow, and too late coming, and there just wasn't enough excitement being generated. And Good Lord — during such a time! I was disappointed, to say the least, that I had to watch another station.
I will say that during the rest of this week, I have enjoyed the usual political programs (and subsequent NewsHours) that are always excellent — Gwen Ifill's Washington Week, NOW with David Brancaccio, and Bill Moyers (although Bill Moyers' selection of interviewees this election week was a little untypically "dour" and slightly (uncharacteristically) boring and negative as well.) Sorry Bill.
Adele Sonora, Davis, CA
I was disappointed that I felt somehow cheated from the best part of what had been part of this story of history being unfolded. Thanks for your thoughts. I too turned to CBS for more current coverage and then flipped flopped from one to another to be sure I was watching something great. We are in this together.
Ann F., The Villages, FL
* This column was updated Wednesday afternoon to include a late-arriving letter.