Where’s the Bern?

Last Updated by Ricardo Sandoval-Palos on

Herding Political Cats Is A Thankless Endeavor

Politics Monday is the NewsHour’s rundown of the chase for the presidency in 2020. But a benign omission of Bernie Sanders from the round-up ignited a backlash from hundreds of his supporters and NewsHour viewers.

 

I have spent a good deal of time this week taking the temperature of the Feel The Bern community.

Right now it’s smoking hot – with anger aimed at the PBS NewsHour.

Hundreds of Bernie Sanders’ ardent followers have sent critical notes and tweets since the airing on Dec. 2 of the NewsHour’s weekly roundup, Politics Monday. Many of the emails appeared to be part of a coordinated protest, as they were the same letter, word-for-word, under different names. But many others seemed like genuine, individual outrage that the NewsHour had not mentioned the senator from Vermont, an Independent running for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Viewers were also upset that his name was not uttered in a subsequent roundtable conversation between the NewsHour’s Yamiche Alcindor and two invited analysts – Domenico Montanaro of National Public Radio and Amy Walters of the Cook Political Report.

I understand the frustration: the segment and the conversation lasted 13 minutes. The wide-ranging presentation hit on several topics, like former Vice President Joe Biden starting up his “No Malarkey” bus tour; Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s emotional moment onstage with a supporter; and Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s scramble to lure African-American supporters. There were several minutes devoted to the political risks and potential rewards of the ongoing impeachment process in the U.S. House of Representatives. And then Montanaro signaled that front-runners in the Democratic Party’s crowded field are already calculating their best “paths to the nomination.” This is where I thought someone would bring up Sanders, who by all accounts is a leading contender to win the nomination to run against President Donald Trump in 2020. That didn't happen.

No surprise then that Sanders supporters like Nancy Elkins of Maplewood, N.J., are upset.

“All my life I loved and respected PBS, but I have not been happy for a long time and this is the final straw. You should issue an apology and make amends to the whole country.”

Sanders’ absence from the segment sparked accusations that PBS and the NewsHour are consciously biased against him, erasing him from the crowded 2020 primary slate.

“Please give Bernie Sanders equal air time with all other candidates running for office. Your failure to include him does the public a great disservice.” – Nancy Brightwings, Big Rapids, Mich.

How The Sausage Is Made In Newsrooms

I can report that there’s no conspiracy against Sanders. I’ve not yet taken a calculator and added up exact minute-counts for each of the candidates this year, but it’s easy to find a record of robust Sanders coverage on the NewsHour. Visit the web site and see a stream of videos and articles, including a pair of one-on-one interviews. (Other candidates have gotten only a single one-on-one interview.) And like other candidates, the NewsHour maintains its own web page of Sanders news and features.. A simple search on Google or YouTube with the words “NewsHour” and “Sanders” also yields a long list of links to the show and video features on the candidate.

As for the Dec. 2 omission of Sanders in the campaign roundup, it’s evidence of how the sausage is really made in news media kitchens.

When journalists scramble to prepare meaningful (and not boring) reports that sum up all of a week’s political campaigning, they will look for the most notable, recent and potentially engaging pieces of information. Most likely, candidates made it onto the Dec. 2 NewsHour roundup because they had just jumped into the race (Michael Bloomberg) or dropped out of the parade (Montana Gov. Steve Bullock). Others were there because of their precipitous drops in polling (California Sen. Kamala Harris). Had the roundup aired on Dec. 3, Harris would have likely dominated the segment. Reporters and analysts would have talked for some time about why she dropped out of the race. They would have spent several minutes deciphering the political impact of the news.

This is a long way of saying that over the long Thanksgiving weekend and through Monday, Sanders was, perhaps, not “in the news” as much as other candidates.

Sara Just, the NewsHour’s executive producer, explained it this way:

“NewsHour airs a segment wrapping up the weekend’s campaign news just about every Monday, ahead of our weekly “Politics Monday” segment. This Monday we did in fact look for Bernie Sanders campaign footage from our usual news coverage partners (the AP, ABCNewsOne, Reuters) and there wasn’t any of Sanders.”

Just added that not everyone makes the roundup each week. Indeed, in the Dec. 2 segment there was no mention of Julian Castro, John Delaney, Tom Steyer, Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang, Deval Patrick or Tulsi Gabbard.

Fair And Balanced?

You might be thinking that a 100-percent objective approach – a safe way to avoid upsetting a particular candidate’s flock – might be allocating a guaranteed block of time to every legitimate candidate. They’d get, say, five minutes, regardless of how active or newsworthy the politicking was that week, or what polls were saying about a candidate’s viability.

This would be a recipe for televised disaster. Today you’d need at least an hour-long show, once a week, just to give each candidate five minutes. It would also force reporters and editors to inflate an unchanged campaign, with no new or significant speeches, policy papers or town-hall meetings, just to fill a prescribed time slot.

Phony fairness and balance could lead to false equivalencies. Audiences would likely also ask for equal treatment for their candidates. For example, if a news show accurately revealed a big lie by Candidate A, blind fairness could dictate that reporters find something negative to say about Candidate B, even if it is nowhere near as significant as the lie from Candidate A.

I preach that objectivity is a mythical standard in journalism. We often pound our chests and promise objectivity to our audiences, even though it’s something few people believe we actually deliver.

Journalists are humans and we all make subjective decisions every day. We’re subjective when we choose the words to describe something or someone. Editors are subjective in deciding what news you’ll see or hear, and how much space or time will be devoted to a story. Meanwhile, individual viewers or readers use their own subjectivity and bias to decide what news they’ll ultimately believe.

Is NewsHour Unfair to Bernie?

Instead of asking if a journalist is objective, we should demand that the news be demonstrably accurate and fair.

So, the questions stand: Is the PBS NewsHour portraying the Sanders campaign accurately? The record shows that it is. Was it unfair to leave him out of this one episode of Politics Monday? OK, maybe. NewsHour reporters and producers could have probably found a way to legitimately talk a bit about Sanders in the 13 minutes of Politics Monday without harming the segment’s flow. But they shouldn’t be sent to the stockades for skipping him this time.

What I took away from this Bernie brouhaha is the impressive level of enthusiasm among his supporters. I don’t yet see the same behind the other candidates. His people truly feel the Bern. That alone is good copy for any reporter.

Posted on Dec. 6, 2019

ABOUT THE PUBLIC EDITOR
As public editor, Ricardo Sandoval-Palos 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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