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The Ombudsman Column

When a Guest Puts You on the Spot

The PBS NewsHour actually made some news in its Friday, Oct. 31, broadcast when, during an interview with correspondent Judy Woodruff, Republican presidential contender Herman Cain committed a foreign policy blunder.

"Do you view China as a potential military threat to the United States?" Woodruff asked.

Cain's answer, in part, was: "They've indicated that they're trying to develop nuclear capability and they want to develop more aircraft carriers like we have. So yes, we have to consider them a military threat."

The Chinese have had nuclear weapons for some 50 years. This is a rather widely known fact, which was subsequently pointed out in numerous newspaper and online editorial commentaries, on "Meet the Press" and elsewhere on television.

Where it was not pointed out, unfortunately, was during this NewsHour interview.

There has been so much media attention focused on the allegations of sexual harassment surrounding Cain that the China gaffe by a front-runner in the polls actually did not get as much attention in the press as one would normally expect. And the journalistic failure to challenge Cain immediately during the interview got much less attention than the China blunder.

But that's the kind of thing that interests me, and some viewers like this one in Sacramento, CA, who writes: "When a candidate for president implies in an interview that he doesn't know China has nuclear weapons and a reporter fails to follow-up on that line of questioning, the reporter is committing journalistic malpractice. I'm sorry, [but] what was Judy Woodruff thinking…or not thinking?"

What She Says She Was Thinking

Woodruff is a highly-experienced and alert interviewer and what she was thinking, she says, was that she had about two minutes left in the interview in which to get to policy questions and, as Cain was starting to answer her China questions, "I was mentally dropping several other policy questions in order to leave time to ask him one final question about the broad challenge he faced to win the nomination. When he said at the end of that answer that China was trying to develop nuclear capability, and they want to develop more aircraft carriers, I made the quick assumption he meant they wanted to ENHANCE their existing capability, but hadn't said so. In that split second, I decided against asking him to clarify, because I was worried about how much time it would take. In retrospect, I should have. It was too important a point to leave it ambiguous."

I've always had sympathy for television or radio reporters who, during live interviews, know or suspect that they just let something slip by them that should have been challenged. It's tough to be on full alert all the time about almost everything. On the other hand, it also strikes me that too often, and especially in the last several years, the lack of factual or contextual challenge on the spot—particularly on the main, strictly down-the-middle network evening news broadcasts, and I include PBS in that—is contributing to public confusion and irritation over many issues.

That's a big indictment, for which I have only one example—and sort of a second one in the section just below—to point to in this column, since I stick to PBS. But years of watching mainstream network television have convinced me that it's true.

Nightly Business Report Gets Poked

The second example unfolded during the Nov. 4 broadcast of PBS's Nightly Business Report, a program that is now in its 32nd year, with new ownership, a devoted audience and normally not a generator of much mail to the ombudsman.

But several viewers e-mailed and called about an interview during the "Market Monitor" segment of the program with guest Mark Skousen, editor of the financial market letter, "Forecasts and Strategies." They complained about what they saw as a right-wing assault on the Obama administration couched within his views on the market.

Here's some of what Skousen had to say to interviewer Susie Gharib:

GHARIB: Let`s talk first about your outlook for the markets. You are upbeat even though today was not a good day. Tell us why.

SKOUSEN: Well, it wasn`t good and the unemployment rate demonstrates once again the headwinds that this country is facing in the Obama administration. I want to mention just in particular the material you had on teenage unemployment. I was surprised that nothing was mentioned about the dramatic 40 percent increase in the Federal minimum wage law. And economists have warned over and over again that when you have to charge these huge prices, $7 or so forth for teenagers who are relatively untrained, you`re going to have a real problem with unemployment. And among male black teenagers, the unemployment rate is over 50 percent. And I think it`s directly related to the Federal minimum wage law. This is a problem that our country faces, is these very serious headwinds with Obamacare, Federal minimum wage law, Dodd-Frank, all of these burdens are placed on business.

Here's a Sampling of the Letters:

Tonight (11/4), PBS Nightly Business Report interviewed a stock broker introduced as a stock market analyzer. Instead, he gave a right-wing editorial about the "evils" of Obama polices and how the minimum wage is responsible for our high unemployment. If the show is going to present the right-wing political views, it should be introduced as such and not as analysis of stock market trends. This was deceptive and unprofessional.

William Fitzgerald, Sacramento, CA

~ ~ ~

Mark Skousen's political spin in Friday's "Market Monitor" segment was out of line. Guests who wish to comment on the political campaign for president should appear on an appropriate program - not NBRI.

Bill Harned, Shepherdsville, KY

~ ~ ~

Tonight on the Nightly Business Report, one of the guests, Mark Skousen, repeatedly and pointedly bashed the Obama administration. I felt his behavior was insulting and showed a lack of regard for the Business Report and the host. Not sure what the policy is for content on the show, but you might want to establish or strengthen them.

Houston, TX

~ ~ ~

As a long time listener to and supporter of PBS, I was upset at the remarks of the "guest" on the Friday Nov. 4 edition of Nightly Business Report. His comments re: minimum wage, Obamacare etc. were so stupid and so far below the quality of your program that it was difficult to understand his appearance.

Norman Narin, Eugene, OR

NBR's Co-Anchor and Managing Editor, Tom Hudson, Responds:

Mr. Skousen's political beliefs expressed on Nightly Business Report on Friday, Nov. 4, were his own. Mr. Skousen is not a stock broker. He is an editor of a well-established and respected investment newsletter in addition to being an economist. His investment ideas have been featured on NBR for many years. NBR and its audience are less interested in an investment professional's political persuasion and more interested in their investment strategy. Sometimes that strategy is influenced by politics. However, our focus remains on the financial strategy and insightful outlook provided by our guests. We will continue working hard to that end, holding ourselves and our guests to that high standard.

My Thoughts

This interview with Skousen was by NBR's co-anchor Susie Gharib, an experienced financial journalist who has been with the program for more than a dozen years. Throughout the interview, Gharib's questioning stayed focused exclusively on the market and the outlook. But Skousen's answers at times also set-off my political spin alarm, and no on-air challenges were forthcoming.

One thing that struck me here—something that I was aware of and might have been pointed out—is that the multi-year increases in the Federal minimum wage were mandated in 2007 during the Bush administration. At another point later in the program, when talking about the pipeline industry, Skousen said this could be a strong growth area "if the Republicans take over the three branches of government, which is a very real possibility with this unemployment." My assumption here is that he meant the White House and both houses of Congress, rather than the Federal judiciary.

Nor was any more detailed description of Skousen's background offered to viewers. Perhaps that was not necessary because he is a well-known figure in the financial field and had been on the program before. But informing viewers about a show's guests, beyond a job title, is helpful when producers know there is more background than a title may convey.

Skousen's website describes him as a known "maverick of economics for his contrarian and optimistic views, his sometimes outrageous statements and predictions." He is a proponent of the "Austrian" model of economic thought championed by the late Friedrich Hayek and others, is a frequent speaker and writer for the Cato Institute, the Libertarian Party and the conservative weekly, Human Events.

I'm not taking issue with Skousen's views. Clearly there are many critics of the president's economic policies, and I agree with NBR's Managing Editor that financial strategy is sometimes influenced by politics. But the thrust of Skousen's remarks did, to my layman's ears, seem to have a partisan political tone, and that surprised me—admittedly not a regular viewer—in the context of what is essentially a business news program.