The Mailbag: Viewers Like You and Guests Like Him

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

It has been widely reported that draft versions of President Trump’s first budget will call for the elimination of taxpayer funds for the support of public broadcasting (these funds make up about 15 percent or less of the PBS budget), along with the elimination of government support for other entities such as the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities that have long been in the crosshairs of conservatives.

Should that be proposed, I will let the Congress, PBS, NPR, viewers (especially those who don’t get or can’t afford cable), listeners, and voters battle that one out.

But, it raises a question: without PBS, where would all those Trump administration officials and spokespeople go to be interviewed and make their case, other than perhaps on Fox News? My unscientific guess/sense is that Trump administration representatives have had more television air time on  the nightly PBS NewsHour than any other prime time broadcast outlet, maybe even including Fox News.

Who’s Who

By my count, Vice President Mike Pence has been interviewed twice by program anchor Judy Woodruff, who has said that Pence gave the NewsHour his first TV interview after being nominated and his first after taking office. Woodruff also conducted a recent and lengthy interview with Speaker of the House, and Trump supporter, Paul Ryan. Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway has been interviewed four times since the election, press secretary Sean Spicer twice, Kansas Secretary of State and prominent Trump adviser Kris Kobach has been on twice, and one-time campaign adviser Carter Page has also been on.

Even at the close of the NewsHour’s special coverage Tuesday night of the address to a joint session of Congress by President Trump, the last three interviews conducted were of Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, the conservative former governor of South Carolina.

Then on Wednesday, deputy assistant to the president on national security matters Sebastian Gorka was on, for the first time, in an interview with Woodruff. I’ll get back to him in a moment.

First, Some Thoughts

Many viewers have written to me since the election suggesting that PBS and the NewsHour have, through their choice of guests and the frequency by which they’ve appeared, been seeking to curry favor with a new and potentially hostile administration. First, there is no evidence to support such a suspicion about such a venerable and trusted program. And, as I have written a couple of times in recent months, “it is crucial, valuable and necessary to hear the views and explanations offered by the administration and the NewsHour is doing the right thing by inviting them on to the program.” The program is providing a public service, as it should, and viewers can make up their own mind about what these officials have to say.

On the other hand, this is an unusually controversial presidency and administration that has been accused by a number of fact-checking organizations of making numerous false or misleading statements. For example, last month The Washington Post’s Pinocchio-awarding fact-checker published a new list of “100 days of Trump Claims” that started this way: “Donald Trump earned 59 Four-Pinocchio ratings as a presidential candidate. Now that he’s president, he has continued his proclivity for making dubious, misleading or false statements. He also often repeats the same debunked claims even though they have been fact-checked.”

So this puts a burden on reporters and interviewers to be especially well-prepared on the subject matter and to offer factual challenges in real time, which is frequently hard to do.

This brings me back to the Woodruff interview with Gorka. The subject was questions that persist over the deadly and controversial special operations force raid in Yemen last month. Some of the letters posted below are critical of Woodruff. I disagree with their sentiment. I thought she raised the right questions, retained her composure and was not knocked off course by some of the guest's responses. Personally, and as a viewer, I found Gorka to be aggressive and condescending, as some viewers also point out, and not to be a good spokesperson for the new administration.

Gorka was not as well known until recently, as some of the Trump people have become, and it is fair to say that he is controversial. Here are a couple of recent pieces from The Washington Post, one an interview and one a critique, and here is a piece defending him and critiquing his critics that appeared Wednesday on Gorka is a former editor for the far-right Breitbart News and a friend of Stephen Bannon, the former Breitbart chairman who is now a powerful advisor to President Trump.

Here's the Video

Here Are the Letters

Re: Sebastian Gorka. I had not heard of him. Listening to his pompous, condescending replies to "Judy Judy Judy" was a pile of laughable lies. Who puts out a "spokesman" so off-putting? Why, Mr. Bannon does, of course. Kudos to Ms.Woodruff for not taking his bait. Looked him up on Wikipedia. And Business Insider described Gorka as "widely disdained within his own field," with a number of academics and policy-makers questioning both Gorka's knowledge of foreign policy issues and his professional behavior.

Lou Ann Roth, Alameda, CA

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Last night, J. Woodruff interviewed Sebastian Gorka in his capacity as a deputy assistant to the President. It is one thing that this administration relies on such a person; it is another thing for PBS to legitimize this man. If the administration sends this person as its representative, it is incumbent upon PBS to refuse and ask for another deputy…Just read up on him. I cannot imagine that PBS does not know he wears a medal associated w/Miklos Horthy, a Hungarian Nazi collaborator. Horthy allied Hungary with the Nazis and deported over 400,000 Jews to Auschwitz. This medal or pin Gorka wears plays respect to that regime. How in the world PBS allowed itself to be used in this way is beyond me. Gorka was presented as if he were some normal spokesperson. There was no context given. I shudder to ask you, as I asked myself last night, if PBS News is now trying to lean to the right to please Trump.

Deborah Schiavo, Bronx, NY

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Who is Gorka…He is unbelievably obnoxious.

Toronto, Ontario

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If you continue to present Sebastian Gorka as an "expert" on national security and Islam, I will stop watching PBS NewsHour. Please exercise some judgement on what you judge to be a credible source and stop compromising your judgement in the interest of playing nice with the administration.

Richard Elmore, Jamaica Plain, MA

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Please do not ever have Sebastian Gorka on again. What arrogance and condescension! Judy did a great job of not laughing in his face.

Captain Cook, HI

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I'm watching an interview with Sebastian Gorka by Judy Woodruff on the PBS Newshour, about the Yemen raid and am very displeased with the "microphone" he is being given. Ms. Woodruff is an excellent journalist, and I have watched her and the NewsHour for decades. However, I strongly feel that here, and in the recent past with K. Conway, Ms. Woodruff has done less than her duty to challenge the White House representatives' assertions about the mainstream media – including PBS – and does not push back when those spokespeople accuse reliable, carefully reported journalism of "fallacious" stories (Mr. Gorka's term). He himself peddled "fake news" relentlessly at Breitbart, and is continuing to spew such tales now from the Oval Office and thereabouts.

A harder line must be drawn in these interviews. Our journalists must push back, even with the highest ranking officials (Ms. Woodruff's interview of V-P. Pence several weeks ago was similarly lacking). We (Americans) need you all now more than ever to be balanced, but not bowled over.

H. Grossman, Urbana, IL

(Ombudsman’s Note: Woodruff, properly in my view, brought up a recent interview on Fox News with Trump in which the president, referring to the generals who planned the raid and the carrying out of the attack, ended by saying: “And they lost Ryan,” a reference to the Navy SEAL who was killed. Woodruff asked: “Does that mean he doesn’t accept responsibility?” Gorka responded: “Of course it doesn’t. And I find it quite churlish when the media focuses on half a sentence here, half a sentence there. Why would you even posit that of the president? It’s really unbecoming.” Actually, it was a sentence, and the president said it, just as he said last week “It’s a military operation” in describing deportation of undocumented workers, which later had to be clarified by aides.)

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Why would the highly respected NewsHour invite Mr. Gorka, a known con man originally from Hungary [he is of Hungarian ancestry but was born in the United Kingdom and became a naturalized American citizen in 2012], as a guest on the program? It does not matter what position he has been given at the White House by the Trump Administration. We Americans must have factual news provided to us. I, and many, many Americans depend on the NewsHour. Check the information provided about this Gorka person by the New York Times.

Lois Scanlon-Geffert, Prairie Village, KA

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I'm deeply concerned that Judy Woodruff is routinely unprepared for her interviews of members of the Trump Administration. It’s alarming how easily the WH advisor Gorka walked all over Judy… Please, please do better to prepare our journalists or we will likely have to endure a long and unfortunate downturn in our culture. Why even give Gorka the chance to spew his propaganda on PBS when it is clear that he is not driven by truth, but only by dominating at any cost? Look into his background...know who you are dealing with.

New York, NY

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Please do not have Sebastian Gorka on again. He was rude and dismissive of Judy Woodruff.

Banks, OR

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I don't understand why you gave Sebastian Gorky a segment. I looked him up and he has no credibility on anything he talks about. He should not be given credibility on your program. I am baffled why you give him voice on national television, especially pbs newshour.

New Orleans, LA

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Dr. Gorka was a crashing Boor on tonight's newscast. Rude! I would prefer not to see him on your otherwise excellent shows! Thanks!

Robin Alexander, Magnolia, DE

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I have watched and regarded the NewsHour as mostly non-partisan and good journalism. I have especially like Judy Woodruff's coverage. Of late, I have been disappointed. It seems that PBS and many other news outlets have opinions to pursue rather than journalistic information. Tonight’s news seemed to focus on snippets of text rather than facts. The Yemen raid, which was a failure for the military and Pres. Trump, was also a failure for PBS. I didn't get a sense that you were trying to understand the purpose of the raid, the timing, the equipment, the danger, the possible ambush from lack of secrecy, rather you focused on a decision "over dinner" with the Secretary of Defense, the Vice President and others.

I don't remember much criticism of President Obama over his failure to act after weapons of chemical warfare were used and he said there was a red line. Unfortunately, that decision and lack of action resulted in tremendous world problems. Bush left Obama with a fiscal disaster and Obama left Trump with an international disaster. Good journalism which is factual and not pursuing the interviewers or the networks agenda would be much appreciated. Trump has issues for sure, but journalists do also. You owe it to yourself and all of us to report the news as facts and information. We can decide what we think about it. Nonetheless, I think PBS is the best.

James Pepple, Baltimore, MD

(Ombudsman’s Note: There was a huge amount of criticism of President Obama, especially from but not limited to Republicans, and it lasted throughout the rest of his presidency.)

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Why on earth are you wasting valuable airtime interviewing that fraud, Sebastian Gorka. Of all the questionable characters Trump has staffed the White House he represents the worst of the worst.

Franklin D McNish, Lake Oswego, OR

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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