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Tuesday, October 21, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

Columnist and Strategist: Not a Good Pairing

The PBS NewsHour's Judy Woodruff introduced a segment on the program last night dealing with an important and timely issue by saying, "We turn to U.S. politics, as both parties have been working to win over female voters amid a flurry of recent activity related to women's issues." That's certainly a worthy subject.

But the guests selected to discuss this with Senior Correspondent Woodruff seemed to me to be an unworthy pairing, a mismatch that was wrong journalistically, unfair to viewers and did not seem to me to be in keeping with normal NewsHour practice.

The NewsHour's political editor, Christina Bellantoni, disagrees with that assessment and with an email from a viewer, and her response is posted below.

The guests were Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, a frequent presence on the program, and "Republican strategist Cheri Jacobus, founder of Capitol Strategies and a columnist for The Hill newspaper," as Woodruff introduced her.

It is wrong, in my opinion, to use a columnist as a supposed counter to a strategist and advocate for a political party in a one-on-one discussion. I'm not taking issue with what either guest had to say, but Marcus is a well-known columnist, and before that a reporter for many years, who frequently takes what can be described as liberal positions but also is frequently critical of Democratic or liberal positions and actions. In short, she is independent and not predictable.

My sense is that this pairing set up a false equivalence and a confusion of roles, using a journalist/columnist who has demonstrated a range of views to articulate the other side of a position taken by a clearly committed political strategist. Using one or two reporters who cover this issue would have been better and more informative, in my opinion

Soon after the program ended, a viewer in St. Paul, Minn., e-mailed me and, I thought, captured the question.

"Why do you put a Republican strategist on the air whose big job is to campaign for the Republicans, and couple her with Ruth Marcus? Marcus is liberal but as a journalist she also tries to provide accurate information, and she is not very liberal — she comes across ALWAYS as more or less neutral. Much less partisan than your two main political commentators. I have seen this before from you, and it is the conservative right-wing that you allow to espouse her partisan campaign comments."

Here's the NewsHour's Political Editor's Response:

In preparing for this discussion about women voters, the politics team cast a wide net for potential guests. We looked for academics, journalists and pollsters who could make a nice pairing for a balanced discussion. We chose Cheri because in addition to representing a Republican point of view, she writes a regular column for The Hill newspaper and had recently written her views on this topic, as had Ruth. We spoke ahead of time with Ruth and we knew her position, so we paired her with someone who would present the other side of the argument. Their titles might not be equivalent but we found the content of the discussion presented both sides with passion and balance.



Watch How Republicans, Democrats Are Vying to Win Women's Votes on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.


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