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Friday, October 31, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: The NewsHour Responds

Last week's ombudsman's column and a mailbag the week before contained a representative dose of commentary from viewers who were complaining about what they saw as an overdose of coverage recently about the Republican presidential campaigns. And I stuck my two cents in about the NewsHour and television network coverage generally.

I also reported in that last column that I had asked Linda Winslow, the long-time executive producer of the NewsHour, for a general response to the comments and to lay out the program's approach during special periods when one party dominates the news. Here's what she wrote:

That's What We Do

"We believe, obviously, that the race for President of the United States is an important news story, that the race begins with the contest to determine who will be President Obama's GOP opponent, and that it is our job to cover significant developments in that race.

"We weigh many different things before we commit to mounting an on-air discussion or producing a video story about the political campaign, including the other news available to cover on that day. When the Republicans were campaigning in Iowa, the President was on vacation. Most of the candidates spent their time in Iowa talking about how much better than Mr. Obama they would be at doing his job. The NewsHour, in Iowa for five days before the voting, asked undecided voters to explain their concerns about the issues, and how that influenced their views on individual candidates, including the President. Those five days on the ground produced two video reports in advance of the Iowa caucuses. I don't think that constitutes 'excessive' coverage of the first voting event of the political season. We repeated this drill in New Hampshire. We think it is very important to hear from voters, as opposed to candidates, since they are ultimately the deciders in any election.

"When the President returned to work in early January, he did not choose to respond to the GOP's attacks on his leadership. Instead, he or someone in his administration, unveiled a number of new programs and policy decisions. We covered each of them as significant news stories as they occurred, and we will continue to do that. We put each story in context, explaining and /or analyzing everything we think is not self-evident.

First, but Almost Forgotten

"We have also been conducting one-on-one, in-depth interviews with each GOP candidate. Our first was with Congressman Ron Paul. It's true that many of our guests — political reporters and pollsters alike — had to be specifically prodded to mention Congressman Paul initially. Like many of our viewers, I found it hard to understand why they wouldn't even mention the man who was running second in most polls at the time. I understand that many pundits think his campaign is quixotic, but I asked our correspondents to at least make sure his name was included in our discussions. As it happened, the more votes he attracted, the more his name was mentioned. By the time the New Hampshire primary was over, I did not detect an imbalance in Ron Paul mentions in our NewsHour discussions. In addition to our other reporters and analysts, Mark Shields and David Brooks have devoted some time to him each Friday for the last three or four weeks. Since their segment constitutes our 'most watched' every week, I don't think Ron Paul has been invisible on the NewsHour.

"We have also covered the President's political fund-raising trips, and comments he has made that were obviously political. We intend to keep including the President's comments about Republican candidates in our political reports whenever warranted. We will include, as well, the comments of the President's surrogates, who have begun speaking up more often on his behalf. For example, on the night of the Iowa caucuses, Judy Woodruff interviewed DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to get her reaction to all the Obama-bashing. However, I dispute the idea that we are obligated to include a Democratic response in every single segment we produce about the GOP campaign.

Not Your Grandfather's Newscast

"PBS NewsHour is much more than a one-hour broadcast five nights a week. We are a multi-platform journalistic operation that, while not 24/7, begins publishing stories online at 9 a.m., interviews people and posts many of those interviews throughout the day, produces a one-hour broadcast at 6 p.m. ET, and uploads that broadcast, plus relevant podcasts, online supplements, and other material until roughly 11 p.m. That material includes coverage of many different subjects and issues, all of which is available for review now on our website. In addition, we have made an extra effort to cover the early voting in the 2012 elections. On the night of the Iowa caucuses, the NewsHour team worked until 2 a.m., updating the results online. After both Iowa and New Hampshire, we produced a half-hour election special for PBS at 11 p.m.

"To distinguish its coverage from that of so many other news organizations, the NewsHour has created a Digital Map Center that showcases the many layers of our unique kind of political journalism. It lives on our website. There you will find the Patchwork Nation Project, which explores how citizens and opinion leaders in communities across the country see the most important issues in this campaign, as well as what they think of the GOP candidates, and of President Obama. You'll also find complete transcripts and video downloads of our in-depth interviews with each of the major Republican candidates, plus the stories Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill have produced in Iowa, New Hampshire and, coming soon, South Carolina. Viewers will also find transcripts of program segments that dealt with GOP ads, which I think you'll find were put in an analytic context, not simply regurgitated as free publicity.

"In short, I don't think it is accurate to say the NewsHour is not covering issues or stories other than the GOP campaign. On any given day, different stories take precedence in our coverage of the news, but I believe we have a good overall record as a multi-platform news organization dedicated to helping our audience understand what's happening in this country and around the world."


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