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PBS Ombudsman

'Occupying Wall Street,' but Not the NewsHour

I've mentioned this before: News that breaks on the weekend, which is fairly often, won't be on PBS until the following Monday evening. That's because the venerable, hour-long, flagship national news program—the PBS NewsHour—is a weekday-evening-only affair. That's not the fault of the NewsHour. PBS just doesn't do television news on the weekends.

But I do fault the NewsHour, as do many viewers whose letters are posted below, for basically not covering the protests that have been going on in the financial district of New York for the past two weeks by a movement that labels itself "Occupy Wall Street."

These protests began on Saturday, Sept. 17, with hundreds of people demonstrating and camping out around the Wall Street financial district and the New York Stock Exchange. They were a leaderless, mixed crowd, advocating a diffuse assortment of messages. But the central focus of their protest was directed at what was called the "greed and corruption" on Wall Street, the corporate domination of American politics, and the need for real change.

At the NewsHour's first opportunity, the following Monday evening, Sept. 19, their news summary reported what the stock market had done that day and tacked on two sentences: "Away from the trading floor, some 200 protesters marched for a third day, charging the financial system favors corporations. At least six people were arrested."

The protests continued, grew in size and numbers of arrests, attracted more press coverage, and began to spread. But for NewsHour consumers, that two-liner was it for the next two weeks.

Too Big to Ignore

Then on Saturday, Oct. 1, a protest march across the Brooklyn Bridge caused huge traffic jams and lead to the arrest of some 700 demonstrators. That made headlines almost everywhere, but alas it was Saturday. So you got your news elsewhere.

That big event did, of course, penetrate NewsHour decision-making too, and by Monday, the program led-off with an extensive, almost 10-minute segment on the movement. Senior correspondent Judy Woodruff reported that, "A growing protest movement in the U.S. vowed today to turn up the heat on Wall Street and against other political and corporate forces they say are fueling inequality. The demonstrations came to a boil over the weekend." She reported that the weekend before the bridge demonstration, about 100 had been arrested in a smaller stand-off, that the protests have grown, sometimes drawing in the thousands, and had started to spread to other cities such as Los Angeles, Durham, Seattle and Denver.

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

I should note that last Friday, Sept. 30, the Nightly Business Report, devoted a significant segment to report on the protests, sending one of their own reporters to the scene. But, unless I'm mistaken, this was also the first time this program took note of what was happening.

My Thoughts

Here's why I think the NewsHour, which is based at WETA just outside Washington, D.C., exercised poor news judgment in failing to report on this protest for two weeks until it became an obvious, too-big-to-ignore, story.

At the outset, Occupy Wall Street was a relatively small group of protestors without a central organizer and with disorganized grievances. Demonstrations are not uncommon in places like Washington and most are small and get little, if any, press coverage. The Occupy Wall Street demonstration in New York also received relatively little coverage during the first few days; a few brief stories and a photo in the New York Times, a mention on CNN and PBS, and nothing on the major commercial networks ABC, NBC and CBS. The media watch group
pointed this out on Sept.23 and observed that media outlets probably would have been much more interested if this were a Tea Party demonstration.

But then, action at the protest site picked up noticeably, as did the mainstream news coverage, except at the NewsHour, where there was nothing between the Sept. 19 mention and the Oct. 3 segment.

Viewers began to contact me soon after the protests began, and steadily as it continued. I didn't write about it earlier because the journalistic issue involved here, as I saw it, was the NewsHour's news judgment, and I wanted to see when they might consider these protests newsworthy without an ombudsman, or anyone else, prodding them.

My interest in the continuing demonstrations was based on two observations: It has been clear for a very long time now that the country faces extremely dangerous problems of high unemployment, growing poverty and gloomy financial and economic forecasts. Yet, the country remains rather amazingly calm. So this particular protest, though unfocused in many ways, struck me from the start as worth watching because it had the potential to grow in this fertile environment. Also, as it did begin to grow, I remembered how many earlier protests before the invasion of Iraq were largely ignored or under-reported in much of the press.

So, whatever one thinks of these demonstrators, it struck me as a mistake to ignore them for the first two weeks of their activism.

Here Are the Letters

Why don't you drop the news and just become an entertainment network? Let the corporations fully fund you because your news department is no better than the other corporate networks. These "small" demonstrations are the vanguard of major upheavals if our dysfunctional government fails to change directions. These are dangerous times. Your duty is to keep the public informed!

San Diego, CA

~ ~ ~

What's with the lack of coverage of the Wall Street Occupation? The so called "Free Speech" areas? The white shirted police officers pepper spraying peaceful protesters for no reason? You covered most of the Arab Spring, what about the American Autumn?

B.C., Ashland, OR

~ ~ ~

Where is your coverage from shut down Wall Street. We have seen plenty of the Tea Party, demonstrations in Egypt, Libya, Syria. How about covering police violence in our very own country. It's about time!!!

Stephen Park, Ukiah, CA

~ ~ ~

Why on earth is the Newshour not reporting on the demonstrations on Wall Street?????

Marianne Simon, Whately, MA

~ ~ ~

There is a 10 day demonstration going on on Wall Street. I wonder why the NewsHour has not covered this story in depth and would ask them to do so. It appears to me that it is participating with the general media silencing of an important political activity. I cannot help but wonder whether they would ignore this story the demonstrators were from the Tea Party?

Rachel K., Oakland, CA

Going to the Guardian

Why do I have to go to the UK Guardian for coverage of the Wall Street protests. Is the "news"hour so petrified of offending its corporate sponsors that it joins the corporate-owned media in ignoring this highly important story? PBS joined them in covering microscopic Tea-party demonstrations, too. When NYPD officers commit felonies against constitutionally-protected actions, is this not news? Even ABC news has recently had some coverage much better than anything I have seen on PBS, though I admit I no longer watch the "news"hour every night as I used to do, and I might have missed something. If so, please provide the link--a search of the NewsHour site came up empty.

San Francisco, CA

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Can you please tell me why no one is
reporting this
Unbelievable that it goes unnoticed by PBS News.

Tonya White, Austin, TX

~ ~ ~

Mr. Getler, I've been looking for PBS coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protest for over a week now, and have not yet found it. I'm mystified at why PBS has "edited-out" this important story. I count on you to be the place of our important stories! There are many ways to demonstrate journalistic integrity (or the lack of it); one is in choosing the stories you cover at all in the first place. This is a story that needs your coverage. The country needs you to tell this story in its subtleties and without flinching, including the part about the NYC police brutality against the peaceful protestors. Will I see your editorial integrity illustrated in your coverage of what may be the nascent flame of a new movement?

R. Patane, York Harbor, ME

~ ~ ~

Really? Hundreds of demonstrators protest on Wall Street for more than a week, 80 arrests, and that's not newsworthy? If not you, then who? Oh yeah, Democracy Now! Yet a small gathering of TPs sets the cameras rolling. What a shame. I keep hoping you are there to bring the unheard voices to air, but I guess that's only in documentary after the fact, not real time news that might actually spur action now.

Carol Mosley, Hampton, FL

~ ~ ~

The news, even our beloved PBS, continues to show blatant bias in coverage. The Tea Party receives continuous coverage while efforts from the left to expose and protest the increasing power and dominance of corporate power in our country (e.g, being the financial backers of the Tea Party) continues to go uncovered. The protests on Wall Street and the ongoing efforts across the country to limit corporate power and overturn Citizens United deserve widespread coverage. Our Democracy (remember how sacred we hold democracy to be, that we wage multiple wars to ensure other countries get it) requires fair and active investigative journalism. How can citizens join in the effort to re-democratize our country if you won't give adequate coverage to these efforts?

Athens, OH

~ ~ ~

I am astonished that PBS is not even mentioning, much less covering, what is happening in Wall Street. Right now there are thousands of people surrounded by police; peaceful protesters are getting hurt. Yet PBS is nowhere to be seen. This shakes my confidence in exactly how "public" PBS actually is. How many of the foundation and corporate donors to PBS are powerful enough to quiet your voice? What kind of pressures are keeping your news team out of a week-long 24/7 protest that is making the rounds of major news media around the world. It is very embarrassing for me to be a long-time supporter of PBS, just as my parents have been, watch the News Hour every single day for "unbiased", balanced, REAL news, and not have a clue that this protest was happening until friends from all over the globe began to text, tweet, and telephone for me to go to www.livestream.com to see for myself.

Why isn't PBS reporting this? That is what a lot of us want to know. We are educators and school administrators; I teach for a non-profit media group in drastically underserved public schools. How do I explain to these children and their parents that our own public media station is ignoring such an event, one that is being covered and even having sympathy protests in other countries--Spain, Holland, England? The answer is, I can't.

Dallas, TX

~ ~ ~

It is time to do some coverage on the Occupy Wall Street event and related events across the nation.

John Woodland, Superior, MT

~ ~ ~

Thousands of people are gathering over many days, and it is clear to me that these are newsworthy issues. I hope we can still rely on PBS for a broad perspective of issues in this nation, especially in light of the difficult economy. We see very little change in Washington at the moment. Your own newscasters talk about that, so let's have some reporting of kinds of change from the rest of our citizens.

Kit Long, Napa, CA

What Do They Want?

What does "Occupy Wall Street" want? A fair shake! A future! Where have you been for the past 10 years? Record poverty, record debt, record incarceration rates, record drop-out rates, record CEO pay, record campaign spending, record worker productivity, record medical bankruptcy, record costs for a degree!! 1000 protesters arrested and how many corrupt bankers arrested? ZERO. How many families have lost homes? No bailout for them. This HAS TO HAPPEN NOW, because if it doesn't there is going to be real trouble and then Orwell's vision will be complete. "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever".

Michael Kiepe, St. Louis, MO

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I just watched [Oct. 3] three news reporters struggle with understanding what the "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrations are about .They were unable to come up with any ideas about what the demonstrations might possibly be about. So far as I recall, none of the three even referred to Wall Street, except perhaps during the lead in. True, there are no leaders of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, so there is no central message. Obviously, the people who have flocked to New York for the demonstrations have no central purpose. The term "Occupy Wall Street" is clearly meaningless babble, words obviously chosen at random with no sort of meaning that a highly trained journalist might be able to tease some meaning from.

I sure hope you aren't paying those "reporters" anything, since they seemed incapable of even suspecting the demonstrations have anything to do with Wall Street or our financial industry and its impact on the lives of most Americans. Or, perhaps, the PBS news producers are simply following the Wall Street marching orders? Is this really the best PBS can do?

Bob Walker, Bowling Green, OH

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