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PBS Ombudsman

Is It Republicans 24/7, or Does It Just Feel That Way?

It is not surprising that a heavy flow of mail these past few weeks is from viewers who, for the most part, are fed up with the extent that coverage of the Republican presidential campaign is dominating television news.

They probably are annoyed at all the networks but what comes to me is the frustration some feel mostly with the PBS NewsHour, which is the only weeknight, hour-long broadcast and so has even more time for politics, but lots of other things as well.

Last week's ombudsman's mailbag contained a sampling of the letters sparked mostly by the coverage of the Iowa caucuses. This week the pace picked up as New Hampshire took center stage and the seemingly endless amount of politics on the airwaves just builds and builds with the only end in sight still 10 months away.

Another Surprise: I See Both Sides

I have a lot of sympathy for the complaining viewers. I feel their pain, at least some of it. And that would be true as well if this were a bitterly fought battle for the Democratic nomination. Anybody remember the Obama-Clinton/first-black, first-woman coverage four years ago?

But I also, not surprisingly, have some sympathy for NewsHour producers. This is a messy, at times excessive, and naturally unbalanced story to cover in the sense that it is overwhelmingly about Republicans. But it is indeed important news and what often unfolds unexpectedly in these often irritating campaigns becomes revealing and relevant.

I've asked Linda Winslow, the executive producer of the NewsHour, for her thoughts about the coverage and the complaints, and about what goes through her head as she deals with an extended story that is certain to appear annoying and one-sided to some viewers. She has promised to reply soon, but in the meanwhile I'll mention a couple of things that strike me as issues that should be on the mind of editors and producers.

Things That Occur

One is the impact on journalism and on voters of free, stereophonic, political advertising. Not only do the candidates and their political action committees now spend mega-millions buying big chunks of air time locally and nationally, but the television news programs then re-play segments of those ads over and over for free and for a vastly greater audience. They give a huge bounce to that initial advertising investment.

Another is how coverage is handled when only candidates for one party are competing, and the Republican National Convention doesn't start until Aug. 27.

Despite the letters posted below, my sense is that most viewers take the campaign in stride, understand what is happening and that coverage is necessary even if excessive and, at times, less than illuminating, and that eventually it goes away. But the reinforcement on tuned-in citizens of candidate talking points in coverage and advertisements for such a prolonged and one-sided campaign could become very significant.

Which brings me to two special candidates — Pres. Obama and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).

The Democratic National Convention begins Sept. 3, so the president and the Democrats will get lots of air time as that approaches. But what strikes me about these past several weeks, and may be the case for months to come, is that the domination of coverage by Republicans is, in part, because Obama is keeping a relatively low profile, which may be smart while the Republicans hammer each other.

But it also reinforces one-sided, horse-race rather than issue coverage, and it also may be because the president does not appear to have powerful political spokesmen or personalities of stature around him that serve as wise explainers on television. There is no James Baker or James Carville or Karl Rove. There is basically just the president, and that can't be overdone. So how does that affect coverage?

As for Rep. Paul, coverage of his campaign has been underplayed by many news organizations from the start. I wrote about this earlier. More importantly, perhaps, is that the impact of his campaign is being under-reported or under-analyzed.

Newsrooms will focus scarce resources on those likely to win a nomination, and Paul, by all accounts, is not going to get the nomination. But he is attracting a significant group of young people, especially, as ardent supporters and he is doing so, in part, by taking a strong position against future U.S. combat abroad. That is not a typical Republican argument and it his campaign, alone, that is illuminating this important issue, one that is worthy of more coverage and analysis than it is getting.

Here Are the Letters

Please ask PBS to spare us the endless overkill on the Republican primaries. I am so tired of tuning into PBS's (and NPR's) so-called news programs and getting the same old GOP primary stuff over and over and over again. There is so much more going on in the world — including the many accomplishments and challenges of the current administration — that just isn't being covered. This is a travesty of a network that takes pride in its reporting standards. Gordon Peterson, on this week's [Friday, Jan. 6] Inside Washington (which, by the way, is the best news summary on the air, in my opinion), said (paraphrased), in the last 4 or 5 minutes of the broadcast that "here we are almost finished (after beating to death the GOP primary story) and we haven't even mentioned the changes in the Pentagon, the jobs-increase story, (and other matters)." By the time I got to "Washington Week," I was utterly disgusted to see the whole gang in New Hampshire — ENOUGH ALREADY! — and I snapped off the TV. I'm looking to the BBC online news to get any REAL news, domestic and foreign.

Roberta Gutman, Washington, DC

~ ~ ~

I very much wish that with so much time being devoted, by all PBS's news and analysis programs, to the Republican-nomination candidates, there would be some significant coverage of Jon Huntsman. Though I will not be voting Republican in November, I continue to be keenly interested in all aspects of the Republican nomination process. I think responsible news reporting and analysis should investigate/assess all candidates, regardless of whether they "made news" today. Huntsman is, in my judgment the most interesting candidate — far more broadly experienced, mature, thoughtful, and well-spoken than any of the other candidates. He has a lot to say, but does not get the stage. Unbiased public-interest reporting should be providing some of this exposure — we expect you to see and meet this need. We are a bit tired of the repetitive reporting on the other candidates by PBS and NPR. I am a long-time PBS devotee, and could not live comfortable without you or NPR.

Butte, MT

~ ~ ~

I have watched with great dismay the Republican primary campaign coverage of PBS NewsHour and Washington Week in Review. Almost all coverage has centered on the race, campaign tactics, the polls. Where is coverage regarding the crucial issues facing this country and the candidates' policy positions on these issues? If PBS does not report about these essentials of the campaign, who besides the NY Times will?

Michael W. Richter, Ridgefield, CT

~ ~ ~

I was so delighted to see that I am not alone in deploring the amount of time the NewsHour has spent with the pre-campaigning details and all these people who are so excited about getting their views and faces on TV for their moment of fame. Now I am considering only watching the BBC News which is mostly really NEWS.

I find listening to details about candidates and who is rising and who is falling in polls embarrassing and wonder about those pundits who give their time and thought to discussing these matters. Real things that matter are happening in our world and in our country, and should actually be happening in government. It seems as though all politicians want to do is run, and speak against Washington and the government. When did actual governing fall out of fashion and when did the NewsHour succumb to treating this situation as though it made news?

Nancy M. Jensen, Menlo Park, CA

~ ~ ~

I get the feeling that the PBS NewsHour is working for the Republican Party. Last week, after a long period of candidates in Iowa blasting the Obama Administration, the following segment emphasized the poverty of a family in financial trouble. PBS must develop an even handed treatment of the political parties. Some of your segments are too long, beating its subject to death. A broader coverage of world news is needed.

George Helmke, Liberty Corner, NJ

'Liberal Idiots'

I just read your [Jan. 5] column which included comments from obvious liberal idiots! They don't like the coverage of the Republican campaigns for President! Duh! This is news! If these idiots want equal coverage, I would suggest that they have some Presidential campaigns of their own! When it comes down to a Republican vs an Democrat for president, they will get more than their share of coverage from you and the rest of the extremely liberal mainstream (laimstream, leftstream) media! History proves this!

Ed Kertz, Ballwin, MO

~ ~ ~

The presidential election is in November this year, about 10 months away. Must we be inundated with the minute details of every move made? When everything is sharpened up and there are only the final November candidates I may start paying attention, but I have a short attention span and don't want this all drummed into my head until October 2012 and I'd bet there are many others who'd feel as I do.

Tillie Krieger, Eugene, OR

~ ~ ~

Why was there no response from the producers and/or hosts of the NewsHour about the incessant coverage of the Republican Horserace? I agree with [the email in the Jan. 5 column from] Tim Ryan of California that it seems that all of the MSM and sadly PBS (NPR, too) are doing their darndest to insure that the Republicans are competitive, or more than competitive with Obama and Democrats. They are certainly the beneficiaries of far more face time and ample opportunities to distribute their message at NO cost to themselves.

I actually have decided that part of it is because PBS (and NPR) are tilting way right, so as to insure that sources of funding won't continue to be reduced. Even so, I have never recalled so much focus on the process and so little attention to the real issues that the President and Congress should be addressing. Way too much attention is being given to the GOP. We all know that the broadcast and cable companies are owned and operated by the most privileged among us, who largely tend to vote Republican. However, those of us way below that level of income and power have hoped for more fairness and equitability from our public media. We're NOT getting it.

Donna Williams, Macon, GA

Keep It Short

Occasionally the NewsHour takes leave of its normally good journalistic sense to concentrate excessively on a single story. Now excessive coverage of the Iowa caucuses has driven me back to the reruns. Why the NewsHour would devote so much attention to a small, unrepresentative segment of the US electorate is beyond me. This coverage is not only dull and repetitive, it helps to distort the democratic process by encouraging the egregious spending needed to command press attention. Please renew my trust in the NewsHour by treating future primary campaigns as a small part of the broad range of world news that you usually cover so competently.

Carol S., Marietta, OH

~ ~ ~

When will PBS start challenging the Republican horse-race coverage with insistence on substantive issues. As it stands, PBS's coverage looks and smells just like mainstream media pabulum. Is PBS afraid of treating its audience as intelligent voters, rather than an advertising target market?

E. Rivers, Cumberland, ME

~ ~ ~

Can't watch PBS NewsHour after seeing piece by Judy Woodruff on Bain Capital (all lies). Cut jobs and costs to make $$. Big investigative piece in NYT three weeks ago. Why didn't she have that reporter on? Then Paul Solman's piece on raising taxes on rich. Another big joke with Reagan's tax cut man telling us why we shouldn't raise taxes on rich. 57% support goals of Occupy and you never even talk to them. Make NewsHour public--truly public, not owned by McNeil/Lehrer, but by public board. What a joke.

Mary Lewin, Pittsburgh, PA

And Then There Is This . . .

On the NewsHour tonight [Jan. 12], you have the story of Haley Barbour and you have the map of Louisiana! I realize you east coast people have little knowledge of the southern states, but Barbour is from Mississippi.

Cornell Littell, Aptos, CA

~ ~ ~

Last night you ran a story about former Gov. Haley Barbour and the pardons. You showed the state of Louisiana instead of Mississippi. Of all the controversy, you couldn't get the state right??

Carol Breedlove, Hattiesburg, MS

And This . . .

"Yep. We screwed up," says the NewsHour's executive producer. "And there's no good explanation. My apologies to Mississippi and Louisiana."

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