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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: Serving Viewers of the Tea Party

The mail was pretty light this week, but complaints from just a few people about how interviews were carried out on the PBS NewsHour dealing with the Tea Party struck me as making a valuable and broader point about news coverage during this fascinating political period.

Whatever one thinks of the Tea Party, it is clear by now that we are seeing a wave movement in American politics, one that seems to have considerable momentum. Whether that wave swamps or crashes after the Republican primaries, when a broader array of the public votes in November, remains to be seen. So the Tea Party demands coverage but that coverage should be tough and probing, just as it should be for any new political force or figure that emerges on any side.

The letters below deal, primarily, with a NewsHour interview on Sept. 9 with former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who is the chairman of the conservative group FreedomWorks and the co-author of a new book billed as a Tea Party manifesto.

A related letter comments on a Sept. 15 segment that also dealt with the Tea Party after the victory of Christine O'Donnell in the Delaware Republican senatorial primary. All the letters were critical, as was an assessment of the Armey interview that was sent to me and appeared on the website of FAIR, the media watch group.

Taking a Shot at 'Balance'

In the segment with Armey, NewsHour correspondent Judy Woodruff told viewers that this was the first of a two-part series of book conversations with thinkers on both sides of the political spectrum and that "a very different perspective . . . a conversation with liberal Democrat Arianna Huffington" about her new book would be coming soon. The Huffington interview with correspondent Gwen Ifill aired Sept. 16.

One of the benefits of the NewsHour is that it has the time for this kind of series, allowing more in-depth exploration of supposedly opposing views, and I've always advocated that viewers judge a news program or publication on the continuity of its coverage of a subject rather than on an individual segment.

But this time it didn't work, in my view. Woodruff is a good interviewer and managed to get in some brief but telling questions, although there was no discussion of Tea Party funding that was the focus of most of the e-mail to me. The "series" turned out, it seemed to me, to be a big public relations win for Armey as mostly a platform for his views, while Huffington's main point was that "the solutions are beyond left and right" and spent as much or more time bashing the Obama administration, aside from noting that the problems grew from "obviously a failure of the Bush years."

My Points

One is that Huffington may be labeled as "a liberal Democrat," but she and her widely viewed website strike me, as a reader, as an equal-opportunity critic. Armey is not. There are plenty of sharp, critical assessments of the Democratic Party and administration on her site. For me, this fits into a purely anecdotal sense that I have that much of mainstream television coverage for some time now is more from a center-right starting point than left-center-right, where far more talking heads and pundits that are described as liberal or left-of-center, actually are closer to the center and just as likely to criticize the left as the right. That is usually not the case, at least as it seems to me, with conservative or right-of-center guests and pundits.

Another point goes to something I posted back in May in the aftermath of the shutting down of two major PBS public affairs programs — Bill Moyers Journal and NOW on PBS. I said: "Both provided an outlet for people and subjects that are not in the safe, comfortable center of what passes for most public affairs programming on television. Rather, they often presented guests and topics that rarely get an airing, although what they have to say is of interest to many people who live and think outside that safe comfort-zone."

Both Armey and Huffington, even though controversial, are in what I'd consider that comfortable, or familiar face, zone. Both have many friendly TV and web platforms where their views and books can be, and are, promoted.

Coincidentally, between the Sept. 9 and 16 programs, The New York Times featured a review of a probing new book about the Tea Party by Will Bunch, a senior writer at The Philadelphia Daily News and a senior fellow at the left-leaning research group Media Matters for America. Why not have him, or someone else who has spent time looking into this movement, as a guest who clearly seems apt to present a different view? The Tea Party is important and detailed arguments that challenge it need to be heard and answered.

Here Are the Letters

I was very surprised during Judy Woodruff's interview of Dick Armey on his new book about the Tea Party, to see a fawning Judy, with subtle anti-Obama digs, never once bring up the funding of the Tea Party, which has been exposed as being backed by the multi-billionaire Koch brothers, the sons of the founder of The John Birch Society, with their own big business, big oil, ultra conservative agenda. This is almost routinely left out of all interview shows or pieces on the Tea Party, so that to those who don't know, it's treated like something that spring de novo out of the head of Venus, not something heavily funded by Ultra Right Wingers for their own political and economic interests. And using Saul Alinsky's organizing tactics to boot. Not a word out of JW's mouth about any of this. Very disappointing. If PBS won't mention it, who will?

Merle Kaufman, New York, NY

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NewsHour viewers last night (9/9/10) were surprised at the one-on-one conversation with far-right activist/lobbyist Dick Armey, promoting his new book, Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto. The interview gave Armey ample room to explain the Tea Party movement's beliefs, with host Judy Woodruff offering no real challenge to any of Armey's rhetoric. Someone should have asked questions that show how far off track Dick Armey's far-right stands are.

Sharon Miller, Pacific Grove

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I was very disappointed in the Judy Woodruff interview of Dick Armey. She allowed him to use it as a platform for his position, i.e. social security=tyranny, etc.etc. She did not bring up the subject of funding by the Koch brother billionaires of Armey's "grass roots" movements. I expect better from PBS.

Denver, CO

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NewsHour used to be one of the main reasons for membership of my local station, for the best news coverage and the most informed and even-handed commentary on TV. Now I'm not so sure, and Wednesday's [Sept. 15] post-primary commentaries were an example of why. [NewsHour political editor] David Chalian's segment was inadequate, merely rehashing conventional wisdom without going into any depth. No thought was given to whether the primaries, because of very low turnout, may have made the tea party movement look artificially strong — a strength then perhaps amplified by disproportionate media coverage. Really egregious, however, was the composition of the three-person panel. What kind of balance was it to have a Democrat, a Republican and a leader of FreedomWorks — in other words, one Democrat and two Republicans? Matt Kibbe, the FreedomWorks panelist, was unchallenged when he referred to the Tea Party as "an organic network community" when it is nothing of the kind. The organism is in fact very well nourished by funding from FreedomWorks, an organization led by Dick Armey — a Republican — which itself receives funding from foundations of the billionaire Koch family, and it has no problem finding the money to back its favored candidates. Gwen Ifill should surely have known all this and called Kibbe out on his claim. The political right has developed into a fine art the use of anonymously funded front groups and think tanks to propagate conservative messages, all to the ultimate benefit of the Republican Party. By including Kibbe on its panel, especially without disclosing the financial FreedomWorks/Tea Party connection, NewsHour was a party to promoting such.

Rochester, NY

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Why isn't the funding of the "TEA PARTY" ever discussed? Don't you feel that it is of fundamental importance to their story? The Koch family is very involved in their finances. Don't you feel that Jane Mayer of the New Yorker would be a great interview for this subject? How much does the Koch Foundation contribute to PBS? How much influence does it have?

Saul Moskowitz, Woodbury, New York

Other Points

PBS News Hour 14 Sep 2010 Gwen Ifill moderated a discussion of the Health Care Reform Bill. She is a pro. Her sequencing of questions led those watching from a pessimistic review of the current polls through an uplifting journey of speculation about the inability of opponents to repeal or meaningfully change the substance of the bill. It was a masterfully orchestrated discussion that must have raised the morale of supporters and discouraged the opponents.

Jock Patterson, Niceville, FL

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I am curious why your journalists don't bring up how much the deficit was brought on by the war that Bush started, and by his poor regulation of the banks and stock exchange. Has everyone lost their mind!! They can't think back just a few years and realize that Obama inherited this mess. Why no support? Why just BS politics. You are NOT doing your job if you keep on this course. Your duty is to get the truth out there, not play to hot issues. Get it together . . .

Susan Cravens, Elk River, MN

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