An Unplanned Aberration: A peek behind the curtain at the PBS NewsHour
If the camera had continued rolling Monday night at the NewsHour after I completed a segment on the debate over the so-called “ground zero mosque,” you would have seen me beating my head against the anchor desk.
I am not one to tell tales out of school, but we got a ton of mail from viewers this week who were dismayed by a discussion I conducted that night on the President’s decision to weigh in on the debate about whether to build an Islamic center a couple of blocks away from the “ground zero” reconstruction site in lower Manhattan.
The discussion was loud, erratic and, frankly, kind of out of control. It was not the NewsHour’s style. More important, it did nothing to move the debate forward. I’m still kicking myself about it. Here’s what happened.
A week earlier, my colleague Jeff Brown conducted a thoughtful and wide-ranging discussion on the topic, featuring a cast of four who laid out their support for and objections to the idea – including two people who lost relatives on 9/11. It was enlightening.
Then, late last Friday, President Obama weighed in for the first time, telling a White House audience at a Ramadan dinner that developers had the “right” to build the project. Less than 24-hours later, he amended that statement, telling the press that he did not mean to suggest that it would be wise for the project to be built, just that there was a right.
And with that, the Pandora’s box was reopened. After some debate at our daily NewsHour planning meeting, we decided to pull together a segment on the political fallout from the President’s comments.
Our goal was to get a Democrat and a Republican to discuss the wisdom of the President’s decision to insert himself into an already raucous debate – one his spokesman had previously described as solely a local issue.
As we made calls seeking guests, we began to notice a pattern. Most Democrats did not want to discuss it. Few Republicans did either. In retrospect, I should have taken that as a sign.
Fairly late in the afternoon, we had two takers – the Republican former Congressman Rick Lazio, who is running for New York governor. We knew from his previous public statements that he opposed the idea and disapproved of the President’s intervention.
The second guest was Mohammed Hameeduddin, the mayor of Teaneck, New Jersey. A Democrat and a Muslim, he actually attended the Ramadan dinner where the President made his first remarks. He, too, had been quoted on the topic and was supportive of the President and the project.
Neither was in the studio with me, which is a significant detail. When things go off the rails at a distance, it’s a lot tougher to stop the train.
It worked just fine for about a minute. Lazio – keeping his eye on the political ball -- quickly turned the subject to Andrew Cuomo, the New York state attorney general he is running against for governor. (Cuomo, by the way, was not present.)
Lazio also said Obama was trying to have it both ways on the mosque controversy. But he sidestepped my question about Republican Newt Gingrich, who had compared the building of the Islamic center to Nazis placing a sign next to the Holocaust Museum. None of that was surprising.
But Mr. Hameeduddin opted to attack Mr. Lazio himself, interrupting repeatedly to accuse him of using the discussion to “whip Muslims,” raise money and denigrate the Constitution.
Lazio did not take this well, and the conversation I envisioned disintegrated quickly after that. Much of the time, they talked over each other. All I can remember is waving my hands and saying: “Hello? Gentlemen, I’m still here,” as I tried in vain to regain control via satellite. I can’t say I ever did.
There are plenty of places where this would have been considered entertaining television. The NewsHour is not one of them.
Viewers apparently agree. “PLEASE, no more yelling, feuding interviews, as was the Ground Zero Muslim center "discussion" on today's NewsHour,” one viewer wrote me on Twitter. The rest of the mail got a lot meaner than that.
In the end, I was sorely disappointed, not only because of the din. Discussion segments do not always live up to expectation. But in this case, I think we lost the opportunity to tell an interesting story well.
I don’t know how many times I’ve told college audiences and aspiring journalists that the NewsHour prizes light over heat. That didn’t happen last Monday, and for that I apologize.