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Thursday, November 20, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

The Urge to Talk and Tweet

The mail piled up fast this week in the ombudsman's email queue. Each day of the Republican National Convention brought scores of mostly angry emails from people who claimed the PBS NewsHour coverage was staffed by Republican-hating liberal correspondents whose true colors showed through, and aging liberal commentators who talked too much while Republicans were at the podium. "The only thing missing was the 'I Love Barak Obama buttons,'" as one emailer put it.

Many said they turned off the coverage, would never again donate to PBS, and hoped that a new Republican administration would shut off any use of taxpayer funds to support public broadcasting. I believe the last point but I've always wondered about some of the other stuff.

There were some other viewers, many fewer in number, who felt the NewsHour anchors and analysts were too soft on Republican guests and spokespeople, not challenging their statements and facts nearly enough. But the overwhelming thrust of hundreds of emails to the ombudsman was a sustained hammering of PBS and the NewsHour for their perceived liberalism, and allegations of journalistic and, in some cases, racial bias.

I didn't watch the coverage in its entirety but I did watch most of it and I didn't come away at all with the strong, negative feelings of the many critics. In fact, I thought the NewsHour team did a generally good job under a lot of tension. So I was worried about being forced into what might be seen as a defensive crouch in support, with some reservations, of the NewsHour's effort. And I was also dismayed, although not surprised, at the vehemence of some of the criticism. It reminded me, as if anyone who watches television regularly needed any more reminders, of the intense polarization that we now face.

The Ryan Speech

On Wednesday night my dismay had deepened after a rousing, powerful and well-delivered speech by vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan that contained what I understood, as I watched, to be many questionable and misleading statements coming from a person who is now very important to us all. The statements were, indeed, the subject of numerous fact-checking articles and commentaries the next day by The Associated Press, FactCheck.org, The Washington Post, The New York Times and others.

If anything, the brief NewsHour analysis at the late-ending Ryan speech was gentle and focused even-handedly on its strong and weaker points, with Mark Shields, who is the focus of much of the viewer criticism that has come to me, saying he thought Ryan did his job of indicting Obama rather well.

Presidential campaigns are of the utmost importance, and my guess is that the mail about how the forthcoming Democratic National Convention is covered will be just as heated.

But aside from the convention coverage, which I will come back to, another event that unfolded on Wednesday also bothered me greatly and added to this broader personal sense of dismay. This time it was journalists who were in the middle of it.

Keep Quiet and Don't Tweet

Once again, this was brought to public attention by the conservative online site NewsBusters, whose motto is "exposing & combatting liberal media bias" and who often targets PBS.

As is now well known, David Chalian, the Washington Bureau Chief for Yahoo News, who was covering the convention, was fired immediately after he was heard making a private, off-hand remark, apparently unaware that his microphone was still "hot" during a webcast. He was heard to joke or say, according to the reports, that "They are not concerned at all," meaning the Romneys. "They are happy to have a party with black people drowning." This was an apparent illusion to the start of the convention while Hurricane Isaac was closing in on New Orleans. This was an egregiously inflammatory remark both in racial and political terms, aside from being incredibly stupid for an experienced journalist. Chalian apologized immediately.

Then something else happened, also reported first by NewBusters. Gwen Ifill, the co-anchor, along with Judy Woodruff, of the PBS NewsHour convention coverage, sent out a tweet that said: "One mistake does not change this. @DavidChalian is God's gift to political journalism. #IStandwithDavid."

A bit of background here. First, Chalian was previously political director at ABC News and, for a year or so, political editor at the PBS NewsHour until last year. He is experienced and respected and my sense of watching him on the air while at the NewsHour was that he was informative, even-handed and non-partisan. It is tragic to see a career possibly go up in smoke instantly because of a foolish private remark that is over-heard. Yet it is nothing short of amazing that he said what he said with a microphone still strapped to him.

Ifill called what Chalian said "a mistake," paid homage to his journalistic skills, and said she stood by him. She was not alone. Ryan Lizza, a well-known writer for The New Yorker, also tweeted immediately: "Terrible, cowardly decision by Yahoo! To fire david chalian. 1 of the best and fairest political journalists in the business."

My View: a Big Mistake

But Lizza was not sitting on a television stage for 18 hours over three days co-anchoring a PBS broadcast seen by millions of people, at least some of them already convinced in their own heads of PBS's and Ifill's bias. I can understand Ifill's wanting to go to bat for a friend and colleague but my personal view is that this was a big mistake on her part, feeding, unnecessarily, a conviction among many critics and reflecting poorly on PBS. By Thursday, lots of critical emails began pouring in about this episode.

Journalism has been described in many essays as a "sacred trust" between a public that needs to be informed in a democracy and news organizations with a license to print or broadcast. Part of that deal is that journalists leave some of their baggage and freedoms at the door. In today's terms, to me that means don't tweet unless you are watching news unfold, and always turn off your microphone. Better yet, don't make jokes like that.

The craft of journalism has suffered some egregious self-inflicted wounds in the past dozen or so years and that needs to stop. The news, the news organizations and their credibility with readers and viewers is more important than the individual reporter.

When I asked the NewsHour about its editorial guideline for use of social media, they said that policy "is essentially that staff will practice the same nonpartisan, impartial journalism that this organization is noted for, regardless of the platform, and that political opinion should not be expressed. Gwen's tweet about David Chalian was a comment of support for her former colleague and friend who made a mistake. It was not a political opinion, and was not made on behalf of the PBS NewsHour."

Now, a Couple More Points

Before the convention started, Mitt Romney said he was "disappointed" that the commercial networks were not going to broadcast more of the convention, giving it about an hour a night. I agree with that criticism. But Romney didn't mention that PBS was giving it 18 hours over three nights, far more than anyone else.

Some critics mentioned that PBS deliberately chose to hold talk sessions among themselves or guests when speakers who were members of a minority were on the podium. But the conservative site examiner.com reported that "PBS was the only major national broadcaster to show his [Ted Cruz, the Republican senatorial candidate from Texas who is Hispanic] entire speech." Others complained that Utah congressional candidate Mia Love was also excluded from coverage. I did not see that portion but PBS says that "her full speech was aired and followed by commentary and analysis."

Similar complaints were made about the speech by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, which was not shown. PBS explains: "The day [she spoke] turned out to be the 1st day of the convention. Due to the threat of Hurricane Isaac, the convention schedule changed. Based on the earlier schedule, we had agreed to run a PBS break before 10 pm. When Gov. Haley began speaking, we realized we would be interrupting her if we chose to go to the break during the scheduled time. So, we chose not to rudely interrupt her and instead directed viewers interested in hearing her to our livestream. After the break, we tried to go back to her at the podium, but by that time, her speech was over. Her speech was streamed in full on our website and is available on our YouTube page."

There was also an interruption in the coverage of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that some suspected was intentional. PBS explains: "At approximately 10:13 pm EDT last night [Wednesday] during Rice's address, there was a 24-second interruption of coverage due to an error at the PBS network operations center. In preparation for the Convention coverage to run beyond the scheduled end time of 11:00 pm EDT, operators were making adjustments to the order in which broadcast elements would air, which resulted in the unfortunate interruption. We sincerely regret this accidental break in our broadcast. The error was corrected for the Pacific time zone transmission three hours later."

This is being written late Thursday afternoon, before the final night of the convention, for posting early Friday. I will come back to the RNC coverage early next week and will also be posting an extensive sample of the comments from viewers, critical and otherwise.

Finally

As for that NewsHour team of co-anchors Judy Woodruff, Gwen Ifill, floor reporter Jeffrey Brown and longtime analysts David Brooks and Mark Shields, I thought they provided a good public service over 18 hours of on-air coverage, not an easy task. Woodruff and Ifill are reporters and they are supposed to ask challenging questions of their guests. Viewers expect that. The Republican guests seemed quite pleased to be on the program and they were given plenty of time to make their case. There certainly were occasions where the reporters did not ask the hard questions but by and large I thought they did a good job under a tough and unforgiving spotlight, and I'm sure the Democratic Party convention will face similar challenges, tensions and viewer criticism.

Most importantly, there is no doubt in my mind that the Republican Party received a huge amount of national air time on PBS to make its voices known, most of it without interruption, and that didn't happen elsewhere except on C-SPAN.


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