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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: Health Care She Said/He Said/She Said

The PBS NewsHour, to its credit, continues to devote considerable time to reporting on, and discussions of, President Obama's health care reform law as it moves toward implementation and as it faces continuing challenges. Because opinion about this particular legislation is so bitterly divided and politically polarized, these segments are virtually guaranteed to cause controversy among viewers.

A 19-minute segment on Monday, Feb. 28, in which senior correspondent Judy Woodruff first interviewed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and then Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, was no exception.

As I watched that evening, I knew that it was going to generate mail because Hatch clearly had the better of this, blasting away at the Obama program with colorful language — "bull corn . . . idiotic bill" and "she [Sebelius] just doesn't know what she's talking about" among other things — and calling on all his considerable experience at public displays of righteous opposition.

This followed Sebelius' much more low-key attempt to answer Woodruff's questions about a new proposal for a complicated and hard to explain change in the law, which is already complicated and hard to explain. The news of that day was the president's announcement that he supports a change that would allow states to apply for waivers from certain requirements of the law beginning in 2014 rather than 2017.

So Hatch had the easier job and he rose to it. And several viewers charged that Woodruff, essentially, let him get away with it.


Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.


The Need to Challenge

I've written in several earlier columns about the need for interviewers to challenge or correct guests immediately on the program when seemingly false or questionable claims are made. I understand that sometimes it is not so easy to do on a fast-moving live telecast. Nevertheless, in today's often divisive and misleading information environment, such interventions are vitally important.

In this case, I thought Woodruff actually did challenge Hatch at several points in the interview — on the attempt to let states write their own plans, on allowing them flexibility to move in different directions, and that some governors, including the Republican governor of Kansas, also see the new administration-backed proposal as offering some flexibility.

There were some other points that might have been challenged, but this was not a rout caused by the interviewer, in my opinion. It wasn't Secretary Sebelius' fault or that of the NewsHour, either. Rather, it was a combination of a rather low-key cabinet officer trying to deal with questions about the news of the day and a very skilled senator, who serves on the Finance Committee, and the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee in Congress, using a colorful rejection of the new proposal to make the larger case for opponents of the new law.

Here Are the Letters

Re: the interview with Sebelius and Hatch: Problem: 1. Unequal presentation, i.e., deadpan policy wonk vs energetic politician. 2. Interviewer does not ask follow-up questions on statements made by Hatch. Answers do not seem to be processed before going on to another question. The viewer has lots of questions! I would like to see more non-partisan vigorous questions by interviewers.

Virginia Berrien, Exeter, NH

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Just a note to comment on Judy Woodruff and her piece with Orrin Hatch tonight. To allow an ideological and highly partisan rant like tonight's is not very good journalism. To let that go on without calling him out as an ideologue and a politician who was using this "interview" as a chance to bolster his tea party bona fides is a disservice to your audience.

Richard Dubuque, Charleston, SC

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I watch the PBS News Hour on WETA every evening. Last night Judy Woodruff did an interview with Sen. Hatch regarding the health reform law. She was fantastic, as always. I am so thrilled that she called him out on a number of points. He is so typical of the ignorant arrogance displayed by the Republicans on this and many other issues. I know that reporters are not supposed to show emotion, but any sanity demonstrated in the face of the Senator's diatribe is welcomed.

I was wondering — as a news reporting organization — could you please ask your interview subjects to not engage in mindless rhetoric. Senator Hatch repeated, over and over again, the same crap that's been said since Obama took office. One example: "in a bipartisan way" as a phrase that has been repeated so many times that I get sick just hearing it. He says the healthcare bill was not debated, that it was rammed down the "American people's" throats. That's not true, and you as a news organization are required to point that out. I watched day after day of C-SPAN — in the Senate, no less — where hundreds of amendments were debated and either accepted or rejected. Why is no news organization putting the stop to this lie?

The other one that drives me nuts is the Republicans hammering away at what the "American People said" in November. Only some American People said they wanted these clowns in the Congress — not all of us. I think it would be helpful to all of us, if you as a news agency, could introduce your interview subjects with the disclaimer that they are from a tiny little district in some tiny little state and do not represent the opinions of all Americans. Like Boehner — The American People did not vote him into power. Only a handful of some obscure district in Ohio believes he's the man for the job. Please, please remind these people of just how they fit into this puzzle.

We might as well have a Congress full of Charlie Sheen's. And by the way, thank you so much for not reporting on Charlie Sheen. He is not news. And thank you for a fabulous news service. I think I'm done now.

P. Clements, Baltimore, MD

(Ombudsman's Note: Speaking of the invocation of "the American people" in political rhetoric these days, I heard what struck me as a possible record the following night, March 1, on the NewsHour in another sequence of interviews conducted by Judy Woodruff. This time it was on a budget compromise averting a possible government shutdown, at least for a while. First, she interviewed Senate Democratic Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois. Then she had on Rep. Allen West, a Tea Party-backed Republican freshman congressman from Florida. That interview, including Woodruff's questioning, lasted just over five minutes. In that time, Allen, within about three minutes, invoked "the American people" seven times; explaining how to put money back in their pockets, what budget cuts they support, what they are going through, what they have willed (twice) and their views on the deficit and our economy.)


Challenging Hatch

Regarding the Monday night NewsHour and Judy Woodruff's presentation: Orrin Hatch's response to Secretary Sebelius' measured presentation of President Obama's proposal to speed up the implementation of the health care bill and allow a little more latitude to the states was an over-long tirade filled with spurious claims. Although Senator Hatch's claim that it "wasn't much" was within shouting distance of the truth, the rest of his rant was riddled with spin and out right lies. I noticed Judy questioning Sebelius about the proposals but failed to see any attempt by her to question Hatch and his onslaught of half truths and lies.

It was obviously an attempt by Senator Hatch to unfairly lay blame for everything at the feet of Obama and you let him, with barely a whimper. Anyone who has been politically awake over the last thirty years knows that Republicans bear the largest share of the responsibility for the mess we are in. But their bullying appears to be working and no one will stand up for the truth. The lie that galled me the most was that Republicans had the health care bill "jammed down their throat." For about a year I watched the Republicans kill one proposal after another in the healthcare debate. The bill was designed by their refusals to accept any Democratic proposals and it ended up being a copy of Mitt Romney's health care legislation.

Judy could you tell me why you gave Senator Hatch a pass on the spurious claims he made in his overly long tirade? Could you explain to me how Democrats are also guilty of increasing partisan behavior in this particular instance . . . You folks at public broadcasting need to start doing some serious work and stop being bullied by angry tirades and tyrants. Your job is to call a spade a spade and in this interview you didn't do your job. You knuckled under to a bully. You don't have any meaningful conservatives support and you're going to lose ours if you keep up with this. Please stop cowing to these bullies.

Erwin Levings, South Range, WI

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The News Hour's Judy Woodruff's handling of the Health Care Subject with the Health Secretary and Orrin Hatch was terrible. Judy was over her head and let Hatch basically run off at the mouth with lies, innuendo, and misstatements. Hatch called the bill terrible, and said that we should junk it. He said that "WE" can come up with a bill that works etc. etc. and Judy never asked him what would be in the bill, what parts would you keep, what parts would you throw out? She was steamrolled by an overbearing blowhard.

Her questions to Kathleen Sebelius hinted that a majority of Americans did not like the bill and that it may be unconstitutional. It is true that Republicans like to say these things, but why push the rhetoric. This was the worst interview I have seen on PBS and am disappointed in Judy's handling of Hatch.

Bob Lynne, Prescott, AZ

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I am concerned that PBS seems to have lost their objectivity. Like some of the other cable news networks, commentator's political views seem to be showing. I am particularly concerned about Judy Woodruff. She seems to be argumentative with interviewees, pressing them repeatedly to answer Conservative charges, even after they have done so quite eloquently. She frequently "buts" guests, responding to their statements, over and over, with "but what about." Some "but's" are necessary, but Ms. Woodruff often leaves us with the impression that she disagrees with the speaker. This kind of tenacity from her and PBS would have been better used during the last administration when administration speakers were obviously lying to us.

Mary Quinta, Bon Secour, AL