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Wednesday, November 26, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

Have We Learned Anything?

"Clearly two very different perspectives, but we have learned something from listening to both of you. And we appreciate it." That was the way Senior Correspondent Judy Woodruff signed off a segment of the PBS NewsHour on Aug. 9 dealing with charges and counter-charges by the Romney and Obama campaigns about welfare reform. The guests were Robert Rector, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, and Peter Edelman, a former Clinton administration official who is now a professor of law at Georgetown University.

Many viewers did not agree with Woodruff's assessment about learning something. Several of them sent highly critical letters to me about the segment. Many others also posted comments on the NewsHour website disagreeing with her summation. But there were also other postings on the website in which viewers voiced their support for what they felt was an informative exchange.

In passing along these critical emails to the NewsHour to get its response, I described them as going "to the heart of the issue which, in their view, is a reluctance to challenge that leads to not learning anything." I have written many times in this column over the years about what I see and what I also hear from viewers about a perceived reluctance of reporters generally, and especially on television, to challenge statements, on the spot, made by advocates of various positions. It's not an easy thing to do, and I'm not talking about combative or partisan-sounding questioning, but rather seeking explanations and establishing facts that can help viewers sort things out.

Another Quote: Closer to the Truth?

Interestingly, on another PBS program — Washington Week with Gwen Ifill — that aired the next evening, Aug. 10, the same subjects were discussed. Ifill said, "let's assume for the sake of argument that neither campaign is being completely truthful. But they are rolling in the mud for a reason," and she asked panelist and New York Times political reporter Jeff Zeleny, to "explain." Discussing, in this case, the Romney campaign charge and advertisement that President Obama is gutting welfare reform and removing the work requirements, Zeleny said: "So never mind the fact that it's not accurate. All the independent fact checkers out there have said it's not accurate...But it seems like truth is not a criteria now on any side of the debate."

I second that observation. Political advertising and campaign rhetoric have always been filled with distortions, deceptive editing and half-truths. But we are in an era in which news and news analysis doesn't just come from a handful of leading newspapers and television networks. We are in an ever-expanding information and technological blizzard in which news and commentary is non-stop from thousands of non-traditional sources as well and where truth, indeed, seems to many on all sides these days as not much of a criteria anymore. So the need for at least some factual clarity is more valuable than ever yet harder to find than ever. A fundamental principle of journalism is an obligation to seek the truth, or to get as close to it as possible. But you've got to go for it to get there.

Despite the proliferation of information platforms these days, it seems to me that television remains the most powerful and influential conveyor, especially during times of national focus and presidential election campaigns, and therefore has a special role and obligation.

A Special Place

And the NewsHour, although not nearly as widely viewed as the nightly commercial network news broadcasts, is uniquely important within that spectrum. It is a commercial-free hour of news on public television. It is widely recognized and respected as fair and impartial. It has been on for almost four decades and attracts an engaged audience. It devotes an hour to the news five nights a week and in-depth segments on subjects that are far longer than the sound bites included in 22 minutes of network news. It has a highly professional staff and is clearly serious about its mission. So the NewsHour is important to American journalism, needs to stay on top of its game and should be at the center of arguments about journalistic values and approaches as our country's values and approaches evolve.

To be sure, the program has its flaws and critics. Viewers, media-watch groups and I have written critically many times about one thing or another that goes wrong on the air. That's not surprising for a news program that sticks its head up every weeknight to report on the issues of the day. But, as I have said before, as a viewer interested in news and public affairs, it is a rare night when I don't learn something from the program.

In the issue at hand, however — that segment on welfare reform — I'm among those who didn't learn much and was left frustrated, although I do not share in the criticism of Woodruff reflected in the letters. Watching the segment and reading a transcript will show that Woodruff did indeed make informative introductory points and tried to get at some of the things that left people irritated.

I think the problem lies more fundamentally in the NewsHour's approach to these segments — using opposing political figures — and the frequency with which they are used. Sometimes it works and when it does, it is very useful. Too often, however, it doesn't work, or doesn't work well. At least that's the way it seems to me and, from what my experience suggests, a fair number of viewers.

The NewsHour is also steeped in a culture of extracting information through even-handed questioning for an audience that is smart enough to then figure things out for themselves. That's why it has such a devoted following. But there are also a significant number of viewers, including the ombudsman, who, at times, find it unsuited for the political and technological evolutions in the country over the last several years and who feel the interviewer needs to play a larger, more challenging yet still even-handed role.

The segments on such subjects that I usually find most helpful are those in which reporters who cover these issues are interviewed.

Posted below are emails from viewers followed by a response from Woodruff, and some concluding thoughts of mine.

Here Are Some Letters

Just saw an appalling "interview" with Judy Woodruff and someone from Heritage Foundation and Peter Edelman. Here's a novel idea...how about your host, who apparently, has a list of questions they intend to ask, actually research the FACTUAL answers to them and then engage their guests in providing accurate information when they answer...I actually heard Judy say we'd received two positions and learned much...LEARNED MUCH...Ye gods, who learned anything? Without now going to fact-check what was said we know NOTHING...isn't that YOUR JOB???

Carole Wood, Hornell, NY

~~~

Re: Last night's [Aug. 9] NewsHour segment in which Judy Woodruff interviewed Prof. Robert Edelman and Heritage Foundation Senior Fellow Robert Rector about a controversial Republican campaign ad that claims that Pres. Obama is abandoning the concept of welfare to work. Within a storm of distortion and hyperbole, Mr. Rector stated that the Pres.'s granting of selective waivers to the welfare rules was "illegal," and never mentioned that the waivers were granted in response to requests from Republican governors.

My complaints are: 1) that Ms. Woodruff said not one word of follow-up to either of these assertions. If the Pres.'s act was in fact "illegal", shouldn't an honest reporter at least have asked the person making the assertion (Mr. Rector) what actions are being taken or contemplated to put a stop to these crimes? And 2) since Mr. Rector was clearly opposed to the Pres.'s actions, would it not have been good journalistic practice for Ms. Woodruff to at least ask why two states' Republican governors specifically asked the Pres. to make these waivers and whether they did so knowing that to grant their request would be "illegal"?

I see more cases of this type of omission or failure to follow-up on PBS than I can count. I donate to PBS NewsHour to hear truth — not distortion. I will not continue to pay to hear obvious acts of disinformation going unchallenged. I have Fox News and CNN for that.

Marc Anders, NY, NY

~~~

Regarding an item tonight on welfare with two external contributors, from the Heritage Foundation and Georgetown University: To be blunt, I am saddened at your cowardice as a professional journalist. You did not challenge the statements of the Heritage Foundation representative on two very easily tested assertions namely:

1) $900 billion are spent on the poorest 100 million Americans. Which programs were included in this? A simple question — not asked. Why not? Why was it assumed that they were all "welfare"? Also not asked. 2) The current administration has removed the requirement for work from the welfare requirements. Surely it was an easy question to ask where this was stated? Which (Republican) state government was asking for that specific change? What clause in the administration letters approved it?

I have lived in 5 countries on 4 continents including 9 years in the USA during which I became enormously appreciative of the PBS. It is desperately sad to see the land of the free become the home of the scaredy-cats unwilling to stand up for the truth as opposed to the "fair and balanced" faux test.

Neil Fairhead, Toronto, Canada

~~~

Dear Mr. Getler, I see you write critically about the PBS NewsHour, checking their sources for veracity, missing compelling stories and bias in the news. My criticism of this news program is perhaps mild by comparison, but just as significant: the almost routine failure of PBS studio interviewers to know much of anything about the subject of their interviews. I just watched, for example, Judy Woodruff, a prime practitioner of interviewing in the dark, question a proponent and opponent of Obama's proposal to allow two Republican governors to change welfare rules in Nevada and Utah.

She may have ended the interview by claiming that we learned something from this segment, but there was absolutely nothing I learned about poverty in the United States, a grandiose subject that Woodruff is apparently in no way capable of addressing. Instead, she interviewed like a mesmerized tennis fan, turning to each interviewee at regular intervals, asking them to respond to the other's charges or countercharges. By the end of the interview, the viewer is no wiser about public policy, which should at least be considered in such reporting, rather than the horse race that Woodruff encourages with her superficial inquiries. In addition, the set-up piece in no way provided adequate information about welfare policy or practices in the US, and Woodard was cowed in the face of a Heritage Foundation advocate who threw billion dollar figures about in arguing that such costly government intervention should end poverty and its failure to do so only signaled the futility of such efforts. She was fortunate the professor from Georgetown University was informed enough to carry the interview for her. She did the same a few nights ago when interviewing two analysts about the division of the tax burden. I find this so-called news reporting laziness of the worst sort because it poses so earnestly as even handed. In fact it is a disservice to the public because it really offers no information beyond two counter opinions. For some reason, I always expected more of PBS, but this lack of information is one of the reasons I no longer regularly watch the PBS NewsHour.

Janet Coffman, Sacramento, CA

Here's the Response from Judy Woodruff:

To NewsHour viewers who wrote in about our discussion of welfare reform on August 9th:

I appreciate your writing the PBS Ombudsman, who passed along your comments to me. Our goal in the interview with Peter Edelman and Robert Rector was to tackle the charge by the Romney campaign last week that President Obama has walked away from the work requirements in the welfare reform law of 1996, an allegation we reported the White House has emphatically rejected. We invited these two men because they are considered among the most knowledgeable people in the country on the welfare system, even as they hold diametrically different views. Just as important, their positions mirror those of the two candidates, so we felt we could conduct a joint interview, reflecting the arguments on both sides.

The segment was planned as a debate, letting them answer my questions, and then respond to each other. In 9 minutes, I wanted them mainly to address in detail the Romney charge, which they did, and in the little time remaining, to give their respective view of the state of poverty in America, as this informs welfare policy decision-making. I did not think it was my role to challenge each guest, but to make sure the other guest responded on the main points. For example, when Mr. Rector said 100 million people are receiving welfare, Mr. Edelman responded that counts people receiving every possible form of government assistance, including Head Start, Medicaid and housing subsidies — not all of whom are getting TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] payments. Mr. Edelman also pointed out the number of people who have fallen through the government "safety net," who are not receiving the aid they need.

I agree the viewer/reader was left with two different impressions, but it would take far longer than 9 minutes to provide the level of detail that clarifies each disputed allegation. The alternative for us at the NewsHour is not to tackle such a controversial topic at all, or to have the correspondent conduct a succession of solo interviews, challenging each guest separately on any point that is up for debate. We decided it was more useful to have two experts with different perspectives debate one another, a format the NewsHour has used since it was founded in 1983. I understand the frustration when two guests disagree so starkly, but I felt there was value in giving each side a chance to express its point of view. We at the NewsHour are discussing how to use the Online NewsHour more fully to follow up on a segment like this one, to give viewers/readers a chance to ask questions, and to provide answers from other sources, as well as from our guests. Ultimately, we believe strongly that our job is to provide as much information as possible, so that viewers/readers can make up their own minds.

(Ombudsman's Note: Head Start was the only specific Federal program Edelman mentioned in his response to Rector's point about the money spent annually on the total means-tested welfare system in which "100 million individuals receive aid.")

Final Thoughts

Many news organizations, of course, have some form of internal fact-checking. But one of the good things that has developed in print and online journalism over the last several years has been the growth of after-the-fact fact-checkers whose work is published or posted for all to see. The Washington Post, for example and in my opinion, has had an excellent succession of experienced reporters filling this role for many years. PolitiFact.com is a Pulitzer Prize-winning service provided by Florida's St. Petersburg Times. FactCheck.org, winner of several web awards, is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

It is easier to do this in print or online than on television, which doesn't have much in the way of on-screen fact-checkers or newspaper-style correction boxes as regular features. So it seems to me that getting on-air reporters to at least point out countervailing facts, questions and explanations whenever possible, especially on subjects that are clearly front and center for the public, is a timely and necessary journalistic skill and defensible approach.

As for this segment, Woodruff did, indeed, point out that the Obama administration had acted on calls from two Republican governors to hear requests for waivers from and changes to federally-funded welfare-to-work programs. She quoted former President Clinton calling the Romney advertisement not true, and she pointed out that since the start of the recession in 2007, requests for welfare have actually lagged behind requests for food stamps and unemployment benefits. She also asked Edelman to explain why he thought what Rector was saying about the administration's action was incorrect.

My sense of why the segment proved ultimately frustrating to some is that Edelman, as I heard it, did not do a very good job countering one of the most fascinating, effective — and I believe surprising to many — talking points used by Rector and several other conservative commentators and publications; that there are "over 100 million individuals" who receive some form of government welfare in this country, not including Social Security and Medicare.

It seems like an astounding figure. Food stamps and Medicaid make up a big chunk. But it leaves one wondering where that number came from and what is the context for its use.

In a sign of these times, however, the most interesting assessment of this claim, and how it is being used in the election campaign, that I found in a Google search came from a blog on the liberal press-watch group mediamatters.org that says it devotes itself to monitoring "conservative misinformation."

The number has a real basis in U.S. Census data. But it gained prominence on August 8, the same day as the NewsHour segment, when it was used in a chart produced and released by the Republican staff of the Senate Budget Committee. That bar chart starts in the first quarter of the Obama presidency in 2009. It also starts at a baseline of 94-million people and shows about 96-million recipients at that time receiving some form of federal welfare. The next bars take one through a steady climb to what looks like about 107 or 108-million by the second quarter of 2011.

It looks dramatic on such a chart. But Media Matters points out that if the chart had a baseline of zero, as is conventional, the approximate growth from 96 to 108 represents "an increase of less than 12 percent" and looks much less steep and stark, especially considering that "millions of people lost their jobs or saw their incomes sink" because of the recession. That struck me as a fair and important point.


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