Going to the Circus?
By Michael Getler
December 22, 2008
Last month, Jim Lehrer, the editor, part-owner, father and anchor of PBS's flagship news offering, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, was honored by Oklahoma University's College of Journalism and Mass Communications for another one of his accomplishments: a role model for young journalists. Among the things Lehrer told the gathered students was to stick to the basics of news. "If you want to be entertained, go to the circus," he said. "Don't watch the NewsHour."
For the country's news junkies, that's good advice. Lehrer, personally, and his program are about as straight-ahead — no frills, just the news, folks — as you can get. The guests have opposing views (usually) and the analysis is clearly labeled. That doesn't mean it's perfect, just that there is nothing better for an hour of straight news on television. I watch it almost every weekday night, have done so for many years before I took this job, and, as I've said before, almost always learn something even though I'm a devoted newspaper reader as well.
The program also has a small but talented on-air staff, all of whom — Gwen Ifill, Ray Suarez, Judy Woodruff, Margaret Warner, Jeffrey Brown — stay on top of a wide array of subjects and step in for Lehrer when called upon. Those are not easy things to do five nights a week.
And there's an extra commitment to the public frequently on display, evidenced this year by the NewsHour devoting all of its prime time hours, the only broadcast network program to do so, to full coverage of both political conventions last August and September, for which large numbers of viewers said they were grateful.
The Inevitable 'But'
Ombudsman's columns almost always have a "but" after the nice words, with criticism generally following. That is not the intent of this column. Rather, it is meant as a year-end look back at a few of the broad themes expressed by viewers who wrote to me about PBS public affairs programs generally, not just the NewsHour, that struck me as worth pulling together and recalling.
There are lots of other PBS public affairs programs — weekly broadcasts of NOW, Gwen Ifill's Washington Week, Bill Moyers Journal, late night interviews with Charlie Rose, and the frequent investigative specials of Frontline. But, especially in an election year — and especially one like we have just been through — it is the NewsHour, the closest thing PBS has to a daily newspaper, that got the steadiest attention from viewers in my mailbox.
A lot of this is expected, and frequently useful, comments from viewers who don't like what they saw or heard on any particular program or segment and who sometimes claim bias or unfairness. Over the course of the year, in fact the past three years, I've written critically about many segments of the NewsHour for one reason or another. But I've also always tried to put criticisms, by viewers or by me, within the context of a routinely excellent and informative program.
On the other hand, a fair number of the complaints this year, especially, dealt with a couple of broader issues. By a "fair number," I mean probably several dozen individual messages — a tiny fraction of the audience but enough letter-writers to leave an impression. These viewers said, in different ways, that the NewsHour was "too boring" and "too predictable" for them, sometimes painfully so. So, if you agree with that assessment and wanted to fix it, how would you do that without tampering too much with Lehrer's beloved formula for presenting that program, and without causing people to leave the news and go to the circus?
Declining readership and viewership is, of course, a problem being faced these days by virtually all major newspapers, magazines and television news organizations, and there are a variety of causes. An authoritative assessment, however, of the specific challenge to PBS viewership and ratings, both of which are declining broadly, is laid out in the most recent issue of Current, the trade newspaper about public television and radio. The article deals with all PBS programming and is written in the language of TV professionals. But its message is clear, including a warning that "some station leaders say PBS isn't doing enough to create programming that grips viewers."
With that in mind, here, first, are a few suggestions, based upon what I've heard on this subject from viewers, that may be useful for the NewsHour and also, in part, for Washington Week.
Too Much . . . Did So, Did Not, Did So
Reduce the number of panels in which Democratic and Republican strategists simply contradict each other, often leaving the viewing audience numb and angry. There are simply too many of these in which the viewer is sacrificed on the altar of "balanced" news coverage that actually does not inform. This extends beyond politics to many other subjects. Sometimes, of course, this is necessary. But the key to making these segments useful is the interviewer, who must be prepared to challenge guests, not just with the other person's opinion, but with facts and alternative analysis that helps viewers judge what is being said. Challenge and confrontation often does not seem to be in the NewsHour playbook.
One good and recent example of how this can be done for the benefit of viewers, and still politely, is NewsHour staffer Jeffrey Brown's handling of discussions of the economic crisis in the last several months. This has been appreciated by viewers who wrote to tell me so, and by me, as a viewer.
Within that same broad complaint category is also the question of new faces and voices, something also raised by dozens of other viewers over the course of the year. In any news organization you get the best and most well-informed reporters and guests as you can, and I'm sure that drives the NewsHour as well, which has to do this on short notice. Indeed, the NewsHour does a good job calling on reporters from newspapers, other PBS stations, and British television (the American networks seem to have abdicated overseas coverage long ago and left the world and its disasters to be covered by British foreign correspondents).
'Tell Me Something I Don't Know'
Nevertheless, it seems to me and those who wrote, that both the NewsHour and Washington Week would benefit from bringing at least some new faces, voices and settings into the mix. That's not a reflection on the current staffs at all, and it doesn't mean I don't enjoy the commentary of Mark Shields and David Brooks (I do but they each have their critics within the viewership) or the always well-informed and trustworthy journalistic guests on Ifill's Washington Week program. To be sure, there is a slightly varying cast of characters now. But there is an indisputable sense of sameness on these programs; the same formulas, the same approach to news and the way it's presented, mostly the same people. Rarely does the off-beat or non-mainstream news item or analysis that may actually have broader resonance make it through the gate. To borrow a line that MSNBC's Chris Matthews uses on his show: "Tell me something that I don't know" or let me meet some people that I don't know.
Despite some tinkering in the past year or so, the NewsHour format remains formulaic and pretty staid. I'm one who believes, as I'm sure Lehrer does, that people want news and not bells and whistles, and that the people who watch the NewsHour and those who read "serious" newspapers are those who understand the value of being informed and the value of a well-edited newspaper or NewsHour program that helps them sort through the torrent of clutter that assails our senses every day.
But even the best newspapers, for example, are struggling to save their dwindling readership by experimenting with and changing not just their Web outlets but their still bread-and-butter printed pages and approaches to stories to make them more engaging, more attractive, more readable. You don't have to sacrifice content to do this and it just seems to me that the NewsHour needs to take another shot at this or more people will go to the circus.
Some Other Stuff
Here are some other things that took place during the past year that, I thought, bear on this whole question of how PBS can do better.
A couple of things have to do with scheduling. These past two years of intensive election campaigning highlighted the long-standing point that PBS is nowhere to be found, in terms of news and public affairs, on the weekend. I think that always has been, and remains, a deep hole in the concept of public service television. There is lots of news that takes place on Saturdays and Sundays. Similarly, I, and lots of viewers, found it amazing and frustrating that PBS's special coverage on election night did not start until 9 p.m. EST, well after polls had closed in more than 16 states and essentially forcing you to change channels after the NewsHour ended. The gap, to me at least, seemed like a gap in thinking about people who depend on PBS for news.
A small, non-political coda this year to the point about scheduling was the failure of PBS to arrange for anybody but a New York City audience to watch the historic concert in North Korea by the New York Philharmonic as it was performed last February. Again, not many people wrote to me about this because not many people knew that one slice of PBS had access to it.
That Book Contract
Here's another subject that was unusual and beyond the normal run of day-in, day-out criticism of how the press performs. The choice, once again, of Lehrer and Ifill to moderate one of the presidential debates and the vice-presidential debate, respectively, testified to the sense of trust in two of PBS's highest profile journalists. But the Ifill role as moderator of the intensely watched meeting between Sen. Joe Biden and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in October was tarnished by a controversy that erupted just days before the broadcast about a book that Ifill was under contract to produce titled "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama."
The book had not been finished at the time but it was raised as an issue and as an alleged "conflict of interest" and sign of Ifill's "bias," primarily by conservative commentators but among some others as well. Some of this may have been legitimate concern, some of it an attempt to discredit or intimidate Ifill before this crucial encounter. It is hard to know if the stir had any impact on her performance. My point at the time was, and remains, that both the bi-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates and Ifill should have raised and discussed this work-in-progress among themselves and with the candidates during the initial selection period two months earlier. My sense is that it would not have been a barrier. But the credibility of the debates is what is important and if it was an issue then a different moderator should have been chosen.
The NewsHour can also take its elevated sense of what is news too far, even for me, by, for example, not even mentioning that former presidential contender John Edwards had acknowledged on national television that same day that he had had an extra-marital affair with a woman who was being paid by his political action committee to make campaign films. Or, on a smaller scale, that Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a recent guest on the program who strongly opposes aid to the Big Three U.S. automakers, is a big booster of foreign auto companies that have opened factories in his state.
And That Poll
Also on the political front, a one-line poll question posted on the NOW on PBS Web Site on Sept. 5 at the conclusion of the Republican National Convention caused thousands of inquiries and angry responses that continued for a couple of months. The question was: "Do you think Sarah Palin is qualified to serve as Vice President of the United States?" The NOW program poses a question after each broadcast and, at the time, this seemed to be a fair one since the Alaska governor was a virtual unknown until a day or so before her nomination.
But aside from probably upping the traffic on NOW's Web site, this "poll" got hijacked by partisans on both sides and ultimately proved useless and annoying for many viewers — and damaging to PBS — who were angry at the question in the first place and who then discovered you could manipulate the numbers by voting as many times as you wanted until your finger got tired. NOW eventually introduced some protections against this sort of thing but I would vote for limiting this whole technique — which is equally useless as practiced elsewhere — to cases where the subject, question and the likely credibility of the results are very carefully thought through.
And That 'Group'
One of the more frustrating aspects of this job is that, aside from the NewsHour and a few other programs and specials, the program that I get the most original mail about — probably several hundred e-mails a year — is The McLaughlin Group, which is not a PBS program. I've written three columns about this program this year alone, plus countless letters to viewers.
This is an iconic TV program of the past quarter-century, a loud, free-swinging, no-punches-pulled opinion program that is produced by Oliver Productions of Washington, D.C., with host John McLaughlin listed as executive producer, and is affiliated with CBS. But because of a long-standing agreement with PBS-affiliate WTTW in Chicago, it uses the PBS satellite, is distributed to PBS affiliates and more than 300 of those stations around the country air The Group. It doesn't have that little PBS logo in the corner of the screen and PBS says it has nothing to do with it or its content. That's easy to say, but you can't blame people who truly object at times to what is said on this program, who watch it on their local PBS station and complain to PBS (and me) about it. I think PBS should not walk away from this. Either find a way to make clear, on screen, that this is NOT a PBS program (the preferred solution in my opinion) or take responsibility for the content and controversies it spurs.
Actually, PBS probably benefits in one sense from people thinking it's a PBS program because The McLaughlin Group regularly produces a fair amount of what one could describe as conservative opinion. There is another political roundtable-style public affairs program called Inside Washington, hosted by veteran newsman Gordon Peterson, that is produced by the ABC Television affiliate in Washington. PBS also has nothing to do with that program, but that also is distributed and appears on PBS-affiliated stations nationwide and provides a home for the often perceptive observations of conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer.
Although I don't like political labels, some of The Group participants, plus Krauthammer, plus occasional guests on Charlie Rose and the NewsHour, provide a balance to a lot of the mostly conservative criticism I hear about the Bill Moyers Journal; that he engages in what his critics call "left-wing cheerleading with no opposing view." I have also written about Moyers and his program several times and have found fault with some programs and segments.
On the other hand, Moyers makes clear that his program is indeed a "journal" of issues and analysis. But, as I have also said many times, he brings important issues to the public television audience and in-depth interviews with people whose views and information deserve to be heard but would surely never see daylight elsewhere on commercial television. On balance, he is a big plus for thought-provoking public television, in my view. His is one of those programs, like Charlie Rose, that, despite the fixed set and interview format, is rarely boring.
So I mention these other programs also to provide some sense of the balance that appears elsewhere on PBS stations rather than within an individual program. The issue with Bill Moyers Journal, as I see it, is not Moyers — although he certainly attracts criticism from viewers who don't agree with his approach and assessments. Rather, the issue is whether PBS can find other competitive, intelligent, Moyers-like programs that would provide still more diverse views and analysis.
Are Viewers Being Stirred?
One of the interesting things about this year for me was that there were fewer comments, good and bad, from viewers who were stirred up by documentaries.
Indeed, production of the kind of thought-provoking documentaries that engage audiences seemed to have dropped off a bit this year, and that is probably worth thinking about as well.
When it came to presenting perhaps the most provocative independently-made film, "Torturing Democracy," PBS punted, literally kicking any national distribution of this film about coercive and abusive treatment of prisoners down the road until after the inauguration of a new president. Eventually, the filmmaker pulled away and PBS decided not to distribute it at all but several PBS-affiliated stations decided to show the film anyway on their own. One of those was the leading station in the nation's capital, WETA, but they aired it at 10 p.m. with no publicity or even notice and, as a result, virtually no viewers.
Another challenge to the independent documentary programming habits within the important Washington, D.C., area came just recently, on Dec. 11, in a column by David Zurawik, the television critic of the Baltimore Sun. Responding to a viewer who wrote to say she was a big fan of P.O.V. and Independent Lens but was irritated because she was unable to watch them, Zurawik wrote: "One of the great pleasures of living in the this region of the country involves having access to three public TV stations — Maryland Public Television (MPT), Washington's powerhouse WETA, and Howard University WHUT. But it has sadly also become one of the great frustrations for fans of independent films, as all three have taken to keeping the best and brightest independent films off the air altogether or shown only on digital channels or at times of day and night when fewest are watching."
"This week was a case in point," he continued, "with the acclaimed Independent Lens series offering Doc, a revelatory biography of post-World-War-II literary figure . . . Harold 'Doc' Humes" and the "landmark P.O.V. series offered Inheritance, the searing account of Monika Hertwig" and "her journey to come to terms with the legacy of having a father who was a Nazi camp commandant . . . Baltimore and Washington area viewers saw neither unless they could access MPT digital. Good luck with that."
Both P.O.V. and Independent Lens are frequently edgy programs dealing with sensitive subjects and a few other viewers in the area in and around the nation's capital have made the point to me in recent years that they have a hard time finding them. One reason only a few people mentioned this to me — even though it is a very real problem and not just in this area — is probably because one of the unique things about PBS is that you never know what you are missing since not all PBS programs are broadcast by all PBS-affiliated stations, and programs such as P.O.V. and Independent Lens are frequently broadcast at odd times. For example, in the case of the "Inheritance" broadcast referred to above, it actually was shown on WETA this month but only on the HD channel and at times such as 2 a.m., 7 a.m., 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. So you can't blame viewers for missing it.
Asked to respond to the Zurawik column, WETA's Vice President Mary Stewart said: "WETA regularly broadcasts independent documentary programs, providing on average more than eight hours of new independent documentary programming per month, plus repeats of many more. For the past several years, the station has offered a weekly collection of independent documentaries under the banner of WETA Independent Cuts. This ongoing series of independent, non-fiction films features different selections each week, including titles from the critically acclaimed P.O.V. and Independent Lens series, as well as other independent film acquisitions."
Other WETA officials added that between February 2008 and January 2009, 37 individual Independent Lens programs and 18 separate P.O.V. episodes have been or will be broadcast on the main television channel. "In addition to this weekly slate of independent offerings," Stewart said, "the station frequently airs documentaries throughout the schedule, including recently the award-winning The Rape of Europa, and the upcoming broadcast of Black Coffee, the history of coffee and its global economic, political and social impact. We have additional offerings on our digital channels, and a few weeks from now at the digital transition date any viewers who do not yet have access to our digital offering certainly will."
Finally, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to all. See you in January.