The Mailbag: The Ombudsman and The NewsHour Take Some Hits
By Michael Getler
September 6, 2012
The email and telephone calls to the ombudsman continued to be heavy and hot during this political convention period. Much of it continued to be critical, some aimed at me but most aimed at the PBS NewsHour coverage. As I've noted many times before, people tend to write to an ombudsman to complain. There were also some complimentary messages but, as was the case last week, the major stream of commentary was critical.
In last week's column during the Republican National Convention, I wrote that despite the clear critical thrust of the mail I was receiving, "I didn't come away at all with the strong, negative feelings of many critics. In fact," I wrote, "I thought the NewsHour team did a generally good job under a lot of tension." This mailbag is being compiled about two-thirds of the way through the Democratic National Convention, and I still feel that way.
That same column also included my assessment that NewsHour senior correspondent and convention co-anchor Gwen Ifill had made "a big mistake" by involving herself, through a tweet and at a time when she was presiding over coverage being watched by millions of people, in a controversy involving the firing of a Yahoo correspondent but not involving the NewsHour or its coverage in any way.
In last week's column, I also promised to post an extensive sampling of the comments from viewers. That sampling is posted below, including lengthy emails from an unnamed PBS station employee taking issue with my assessment of the coverage and a viewer in Florida who thinks Ifill did the right thing and I said the wrong thing. The postings deal mostly with RNC coverage and I'll post more in a few days about DNC coverage.
Several of the letters below contain very strong, and sometimes personal, criticism, not just about co-anchors Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, but also a good many about longtime NewsHour analysts and commentators David Brooks and Mark Shields. Again, I don't share these views. Certainly things go wrong, some questions are left unasked or unanswered, and there are things to criticize journalistically in 24 hours or so of broadcasting over six days. But my sense of the NewsHour team having done a good, professional job and public service with some 3.8 million viewers watching (during the prime time 10 p.m. hour) according to Nielsen, is based on the continuity of coverage and the overall sense of being informed in a fair manner combined with often thought-provoking analysis.
And a word about Brooks and Shields. I said on a number of occasions that PBS and the NewsHour tend to operate in what I describe as the safe center of American politics and reporting. That is, the more outspoken elements don't get much attention. Brooks and Shields have been at this NewsHour commentator post for a long time and some of the letters below call for new blood and fresher, younger voices. That is something that all news organizations need to be alert about. But despite the criticism below, I found their observations throughout the convention to be smart and helpful, pointing out things that perhaps a viewer had not thought about. They are both, if one has to use labels, moderates and generally not very far to right or left of center. You could argue that Brooks, especially, is not as far to the right as the Republican Party has moved and therefore is not representative. Yet he clearly is informed about the party and its components and brings that into the discussion. What I like, especially, is that both, on many occasions, are critical of the actions of their own natural conservative or liberal associations, something that party spokespersons almost never do. Both are syndicated newspaper columnists, not political spokesmen, and their commentary also strikes me as easy to absorb or discard. It doesn't anger me as a viewer, yet it clearly does upset many of those who wrote.
Here are the letters.
Taking Issue with the Ombudsman
I am writing like so many others to make note of the NewsHour Team's obvious bias. However, I have a unique perspective as I happen to work for a PBS TV local television station and don't want to see PBS funding taken away for bias. Unfortunately the bias was seen during the convention coverage in everyone but the reporter on the floor of the convention hall. As the convention began the reporters stated Romney had 3 things he needed to do. 1) Present himself as more personable. 2) Make an appeal to disappointed voters especially women and 3) Layout a plan for the direction he will take the country. He came out and without question did those three things. It was almost as if he wrote his speech with their comments in mind — clear down to his 5 point plan for the economy. Was he given credit afterwards by the commentators? No he was not. Not even credit for doing it with some statement as to how it wasn't perfect. No wonder Americans see a bias. The claim that PBS should be given slack because they were the only ones to air most of the convention is absurd since they are government funded. It is their job to air this type of political event in entirety — that is what Americans pay taxes for.
It also must be stated that tonight's coverage of events on the NewsHour which contain a panel of left leaning so called undecideds and more slanted commentary with no rebuttal adds insult to injury. Add to this, programs this weekend like Washington Week in which a panel of all liberals discuss the convention even further drives home the obvious PBS bias. Only liberals think a panel with all liberals or 4 liberals to 1 moderately conservative is something balanced. I believe in public television and have dedicated many years to its service but I am ashamed even more than normal about its liberal bias today because of this. There is no amount of words on a website that make up for this kind of reporting especially in light of the NewsHour's nightly program-ending claim of being independent. They have shown themselves to be independently liberal and stations like mine will pay the price. It is a travesty and should be changed immediately. Saying "it may have been biased but we gave you more of it" does not cut it and it makes it hard to encourage viewers to contribute. Shame on them, shame on PBS Corporate, and shame on your impotence as an ombudsman.
(Ombudsman's Note: The video below covers the last 12 minutes of the Republican convention and the comments by the NewsHour team and their historians immediately after Mitt Romney spoke. I invite readers of this column to watch it and judge for themselves whether it is "no wonder Americans see a bias.")
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I thought perhaps when I clicked on the link from PBS.org to contact you that I would be able to give my opinion to someone who was fair and open minded. I believe that to now not be the case after reading your comments. Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff's commenting on the RNC convention was nothing short of disgusting, disrespectful, close minded, NOT FAIR MINDED or unbiased at all. They, and you, should be ashamed. As a manager of a medical practice, I have to be respectful of everyone's opinions, comments, beliefs, etc. In my opinion, neither you, Ms. Ifill or Ms. Woodruff are qualified to form an open minded, unbiased or fair opinion in any way shape or form. Please feel free to change my mind. I, along with many others will no longer support PBS. These 2 commentators and their hatred and disrespect is no longer welcome in my home. For the record, I am a 49 year old female who has voted both parties in the past and in fact support various policies of both parties because unlike some people, I am able to do that.
Sharon Ursone, Boca Raton, FL
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You did a good job in your article of digesting the criticisms from both sides. I am a conservative and I agree with you that the PBS coverage of the RNC was long, challenging and good, but it was still slanted left. Gwen came off much more professional than in her coverage of the 2008 RNC. I appreciate PBS NPR news and programming and I expect CNN & Fox to slant, but I see NPR as having more dignity and class. In a word, to "deliver" news. In Gwen's coverage of the 2008 DNC she was alive with delight but was in physical & noticeable agony covering the RNC. The pain on her face was incredibly noticeable. For the 2012 RNC, I was delighted that Gwen tempered most of her commentary and experienced minimal painful facial expression events, if any, which shows a growth in professionalism, especially knowing her left slant. A true journalist can digest manure-slinging political rhetoric from either party and "report," not "promote." At the end of event coverage, I shouldn't know what Gwen thinks, but I should walk away feeling more informed after experiencing the wealth of her journalistic expertise. Those unique experiences motivate me to watch PBS and listen to NPR and to not watch the other networks. They have a tough job, but please encourage Gwen and all reporters to take the high-road to deliver excellence and leave the opinions to the guests. Thank you.
Nicholas Bouyoucas, West Palm Beach, FL
Why Ifill Is Right and the Ombudsman Is 'Egregiously Incorrect'
The eight hundred pound gorilla in the room must be: was the statement uttered by David Chalian true? Not that it was inflammatory . . . that is patently ridiculous. We are all inflamed when we are challenged. As a lifetime resident (65 years) of Tampa I must say the decision to cancel a whole day's events for what could never have been more than a stormy day seemed ill-advised, almost cowardly when compared to the plight of the residents of New Orleans both during Katrina and subsequently Isaac.
The only egregious comment that I observed came from you, Michael Getler. In your rush towards political correctness you have thrown down to the ground all of those things that make those that cover the news great: the passion for an ideal and the willingness to ask cogent, valid questions of all sides. The truth does not care for race or station and does not need your help in being gussied up to be politically correct. Once you have sold out to the "Politically Correct" position your value as a true Ombudsman is severely diminished. You are wrong about David Chalian's personal comment and you are wrong about Judy Woodruff's [it was Gwen Ifill's tweet, not Judy Woodruff] Social Media comment. She has that right and I would feel obligation to point out a lynching when she sees one (oh shoot someone may be inflamed). Michael if this were a baseball game I would sit you down as having squandered you time at bat. Not even a tipped foul ball. Did you try to ascertain the intended recipient of that truthful but inflammatory statement made by David Chalian? It could have been someone just like me. A technician that has listened, for the last week to Republicans carp and whine about Hurricanes (as though they have seen one) all the while complaining about how much drinking they are missing because of that Isaac guy. Vapid, Egotistic, Narcissistic, Self-Absorbed, Self-Centered, Self-Concerned, Self Infatuated, Self-Interested but not Interesting, Self-Involved, Self-Seeking, Self- Serving were the traits that most of the locals observed. I do not know that is altogether bad. It seems to be a poor Party Legacy but it is what it is. Into this maelstrom of, Solipsistic behavior a single honest, accurate question emerges and you shouted it down because it is inflammatory not just garden variety inflammatory but egregiously inflammatory. Michael, you are egregiously incorrect!
Yahoo deserves to be losing money! This kind of bone-head knee-jerk response is exactly what they should not do. I will not tell you the words that I have heard come out of the mouths of great newsmen. It should be part of the learning and growing process not met with a I am going to take my ball and go home mentality by Owners/Managers.
What have we learned? We have learned that our private utterances can be held to a ridiculously high standard. My only hope is that I would be on the jury when David sues Yahoo over wrongful termination. Yahoo would then be renamed Dahoo and I am sure they would make fewer errors either Politically Correct or Factual!
Mike Knight, Tampa, FL
On the Coverage
While I somewhat agree with your comments that the PBS NewsHour did a good job covering the Republican National Convention, I also have to express some disagreement. My comments are directly entirely at Ms. Gwen Ifill. There can be no comparison between Jim Lehrer's balanced approach to reporting and Ms. Ifill's. She simply cannot help herself. She is a strong admirer of President Obama and his policies and politics. It is very evident not only in her questions and comments towards the various Republicans she interviewed, but also much more evident in her "body language." The sad part is she thinks the viewers don't notice this or she just doesn't care. I won't stoop to using any hateful words or expressions or threaten to boycott PBS. I will simply tell you that I held the NewsHour in high regard when Jim Lehrer was involved. Ms. Ifill has failed to live up to his legacy and standards.
Ray Fortney, Danville, CA
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We are viewers of the NewsHour of many years, and we have become increasingly unhappy with Judy Woodruff as an anchor. We would ask that first of all you and other staff members review her interview with the Democratic co-chair (on Sept. 3) and contrast it with the gushing coverage of the Republican convention, The hostile questioning of the Democrat was totally out of line. It had no counterpart of questioning Republican obstructionism. Hard questions could and should be asked, but of both parties.
If this were an isolated instance, we would tend to overlook it. For another recent failure of balance, look at the interviews following the Republican (including Romney personally) misrepresentation of Obama's handling of work requirements under the welfare program. The Pinocchios got no attention. Someone's idea of balance was to have a spokesperson from the Heritage Foundation on the conservative side. Heritage is an advocacy outfit that operates under no observable obligation to be factual and accurate or to be concerned about fact-checkers. The spokesperson clarified nothing and went totally unchallenged by Woodruff.
Where is the news in that kind of airing of an issue? Is the News Hour intimidated by the Republican threat to defund? Is Woodruff there in an effort to appease the political right?
Silver Spring, MD
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Re: Television Convention Coverage HELP! Please, stop talking during the "Star Spangled Banner" or cut the feed to the stage during its performance. I love Gwen, Judy, Mark and David. They are always professional and respectful to one another, their guests and their audience. However, in my opinion, having them continue their discussion during the playing of our national anthem shows disrespect. [I'm] an incensed and sad long-time PBS contributor.
Jahala Tomaselli, East Hartford, CT
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PBS let America down during Thursday coverage of the RNC. Our National Anthem was being played near the beginning of your coverage of the event, but the talking heads seemed to think what they had to say was more important. Nothing is more important! I am a redneck NASCAR fan and the invocation and National Anthem are aired as a part of all NASCAR broadcasts; PBS could learn a lot from these good ol' boys. You can't undo what has been done, but you can do better in the future.
Richard Schmidt, Franklin, NC
A Plea and a 'Thank You'
PLEASE focus on just what the Republican Party congressmen have been doing since the day of President Obama's election and even 24/7 with the results of the 2010 elections. The reasons why our economy is struggling as much as it is, the reason why SO many lies are coming out in ads, in speeches is ALL about just crushing President Obama, our first partially black President!!
Martin Dugan, Holland, MI
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I would like to take a minute of your time to convey a sincere "thank you" to the PBS NewsHour's coverage of the Republican National Convention. If I may make a small suggestion, though. It would be more "even-handed" if the NewsHour utilized fewer progressive pundits from such resources as the NY Times and Washington Post. Talented as they may be, there are other voices to be heard. Again, thank you!
Ed Davis, Huntington, WV
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I am a conservative who watched the entire convention on PBS and though I was well aware of the political leanings of your news people I found that for the most part the speeches were not talked over or "debated" for content. Much of the commentary was neutral and respectful. I want to complement them for that.
San Francisco, CA
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On your otherwise acceptable coverage of the RNC, why do you let politicians get away with not answering the direct questions that your commentators ask? I can understand why the other networks let answers slide due to their obvious bias, but PBS? In tonight's [Aug. 30] interview with Dick Durbin he was directly asked what factors were going to affect Obama's reelection. After the blah, blah, blah and no answer, the question was dropped. It's time to press these politicians for answers to the questions being asked of them. Something like "that's nice Senator but you didn't answer the question, shall I repeat it" would be nice. Time to start doing your job when it comes to proving the information that we mere mortals don't have access to.
Alan Boffice, Elk Grove Village, Illinois
Brooks and Shields Take a Beating
Once again, I waited in vain on last night's "NewsHour" for someone, anyone, to challenge David Brooks. A few days ago, it was his arrogant comment that Romney is a decent guy. I would like to assure Mr. Brooks that to a gay man, Mr. Romney is most definitely not a "nice guy" in his animus towards GLBT people. Last night it was his ridiculous assertion that twisting the facts (read, lying) is "just politics". I sometimes admire Mr. Brooks, but his airy dismissal of deliberate falsification on the part of Ryan, Romney, et. al. is very disturbing. It may be part of the political world he inhabits. I don't want it part of mine.
James Davis, Gulph Mills, PA
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The problem with the NewsHour crew at the convention and throughout the rest of the year is that the Conservative/Republican point of view is not represented. David Brooks is somewhere in the middle, Mark Shields is on the left, and the 'news correspondents' have an obvious preference for the Left which they hide well much of the time. But they can't help being who they are, Liberal-Left, as are the vast majority of people in 'news' outside of Fox, Talkradio, and the Wall Street Journal.
Michael F., Sylmar, CA
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Let me start by saying I appreciate so much of the great PBS programming — truly grateful for a lot of that quality material.
However, your political commentators are boring and from the stone-age — all of them. With all due respect to Mr. Shields and Gwen, they couldn't hide their political extreme bias if they tried — a joke of "journalistic independence" carrying the Democratic agenda. If your target audience is 70-90 and all left-leaning, then you are covered, but how about some fresh blood for younger folks who appreciate the quality of programming, but would enjoy and objective point of view with politics. I don't want a right-winger either. Just some folks who are young, intelligent, and thought provoking. You don't have that today. Mark, Gwen, and David's time have passed. With extreme bias between Fox to the right and MSNBC to the left, you have a real opportunity to satiate the thirst for objective reporting — time to freshen things up. Appreciate your consideration!
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I have been a long-time supporter of local public television (TPT), but I have recently stopped that philanthropy. I'm watching your national coverage of the Republican National Convention. I appreciate your extended coverage compared to the National networks. But I also understand why you are struggling economically and to find relevance. I'm 62 years old, but I find your anchors, experts and approach so outdated as to put my generation to shame. Talking about history is interesting, but less and less relevant to the future we face. Please, please find some anchors and experts who, while they might be learned in the past of 50 or even 150 years prior, can relate to the issues, concerns and tone of the present. Without that change, you are doomed to increasing obscurity and irrelevance just when you could be (as you have been in the past), a balanced and contemporary voice of true journalism. Please, please, please do better.
Mark Banks, Minneapolis, MN
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In reference to last night's Republican Convention and Mark Shields. This man looks tired and so partisan it pained me to watch him! Can't you find some balance in reporting on this panel? David Brooks used to provide some Conservative perspective but he too has been swallowed up in the Liberal press. Please, please retire Mark Shields with a fresh face and unbiased reporting. I am quite certain that if Mark Shields is on this panel for the Democrat Convention he will be a vocal cheerleader for President Obama. PBS is a public television station supported in part by taxpayer funding. You can do better than this! Thank you.
William Seiter, Brighton, MI
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Great job by Mark Shields challenging the Rep. Senator from Wyoming. It is important to stand up to pontificators on soapboxes lest history be forgotten or changed for convenience. BRAVO!
Also, Judy should get a medal for not punching the governor of Iowa. KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK!
Gordon Lawrence, South Burlington, VT
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I have yet to find a news department on tv that is unbiased. Public television has had some black eyes but I thought I would try watching your coverage of the Republican convention. I was so pleasantly surprised that aside from Mark Shields, the interviewers, while from the liberal camp, seemed very fair in their questioning. When you invited into the booth the authors of The Real Romney, I was disappointed. Will you invite the author of The Roots of Obama's Rage to the coverage of the Democratic convention?
P. Neely, Tempe, AZ
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It appears that I agree with most of the comments you have received about the biased comments of your staff that is anchoring and covering the 2012 RNC, particularly the extreme bias shown by Mark Shields. I understand his title is political analyst not reporter. That may excuse him in your eyes but not in mine. I have now seen PBS operate in a different light than what I would expect from a "Public Broadcasting" entity. The public should not support this kind of reporting at all! I for one will not.
Tom Scanlon, Kansas City, KS
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I am irritated by the obvious liberal bias that is part of the analysis given by Mark Shields and David Brooks. Mr. Shields' opinions are obviously in support of the democratic point of view, but Mr. Brooks' does not give a fair portrayal of the conservative viewpoint, if that is supposed to be his intention. Your programming should aim to be more inclusive of all points of view rather than so blatantly liberal.
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I appreciate your coverage of the Republican National convention but could you not find any pro Republican commentators. It appeared that tonight's [Aug. 28] commentators were very pro Democrat, as I would expect of PBS, but it was very obvious in the comments and questioning this evening. Can we expect pro republican commentators for the democratic convention?
Dennis McCoy, Salisbury, NC
A 'Liberal, Bleeding Heart' or Too Soft on Boehner?
I listened to your program during the Republican National Convention and was GREATLY disappointed with the comments from the PBS hosts. It is VERY plain to see that PBS is a liberal, bleeding heart, democrat-controlled media outlet. It seems your hosts were hell bent to demonize any and all Republicans. Democrats support anything and everything that is immoral and leads to destruction of that which is right and good, especially the traditional family unit. I had thought maybe this might be the year I actually support PBS with some funds, BUT NOT NOW.
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I am so disappointed in your election coverage. Is Judy Woodruff new? Why does she let John Boehner go unchallenged when he flat out lies and says Obama has made the economy worse? Do you need us viewers to do the research for you? If Republicans win and get their wish to destroy public t.v., you can always console yourself by remembering that you were part of the problem.
Linda Katz, Philadelphia, PA
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I'm disappointed and a bit surprised that PBS covers the RNC convention as the commercial networks do when it's practically part of the RNC platform to pull any federal funding for Public Broadcasting. Wake up!
Bill Buss, Hilliard, OH
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Please do not tell me that you believe Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff have any journalistic standards when commenting on Republicans. It is a joke to have them there. Any time a Republican starts making a good point, Judy butts in with a line straight out of the DNC playbook. Gwen has a look on her face as if she is interviewing the devil himself. If you are also an undercover Democrat you will think they are doing just fine, any thinking person can see what they are doing. I urge my elected officials, defund PBS now!!!
Tony Fisher, Ennis, MT
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Your coverage of the RNC is sickening. When Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodward interview anyone especially the two former Congressmen from MN [Aug. 29], it was just Obama bashing without any offsetting Democratic point of view! We can't believe how uneven-handed your coverage is!
Chris Scafidi, Rio Rancho, NM
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I want to complain about the flagrant bias in the coverage of the Republican convention by the NewsHour. Because we do not carry cable or satellite TV, we must watch over the air television and hence watch PBS. NewsHour is one of the many reasons I will never contribute to PBS and it galls me to think that my tax dollars go to contribute to their salaries. It is obvious that the reporters are pro-Obama and the comments are always slanted from that perspective. Just like their counterparts in the mainstream media, they have joined the ranks in doing and saying whatever it takes to get Obama re-elected. The worst of the lot is Mark Shields with venom for conservatives dripping from every comment he makes. That is my complaint about PBS in any claim of diversity. How can you be truly diverse without one single voice of conservatism who can articulate its value and perspective?
Gayle Horn, Smithville, TX
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You co-anchors and the syndicated columnist are PATHETIC. Liberal . . . liberal . . . liberal. Understand this. The American people are growing sick and tired of the liberal bias and propaganda. We are also tired of the destruction of the US through government intrusion, the war on Christianity, the stripping of individual freedom, wasteful spending, etc. Count me out of any future donations to PBS. The network could at least find anchors who could maintain some modicum of balance at the RNC. Once again . . . PATHETIC.
Rick, Houston, TX