A stream of viewer emails and voicemails question the neutrality of PBS journalists. Is it the reporters, or the viewers, who are speaking through biased filters?
On the Oct. 8 broadcast of the PBS NewsHour, the nation’s infectious disease czar Dr. Anthony Fauci answered questions about a White House event where few people wore masks and guests squeezed into rows of folding chairs to honor President Donald J. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
Shortcomings in COVID-19 protocols — sparse use of masks and social distancing — were noted by Anchor Judy Woodruff. In response to a question about whether he thought it was wise for the White House to hold such an event during a pandemic, Fauci rattled off standard preventive measures that he said anyone ought to take, leaving the question of wisdom to his interviewer and to the audience. Woodruff transitioned to the next question, but not before saying, “And a number of those things were what was not done at the White House.”
That observation prompted a NewsHour viewer to send an email to the PBS Public Editor’s inbox that read:
"We have supported your station and watched the PBS NewsHour for as many years as I can remember because it was unbiased reporting of the news. It is no longer that. It is clearly anti-Trump and even though I agree with that, I do not appreciate your change. We looked to you to report the news fairly and we can no longer trust that.
The viewer, from South Carolina, asked to remain anonymous in any public discussion of the complaint.
This note was the latest in a recent stream of emailed concerns and objections to what dozens of viewers — from different sides of the political spectrum — said is a trend toward bias and commentary disguised as news reporting on public affairs programs from the Public Broadcasting Service.
Was Woodruff’s follow-up to Dr. Fauci evidence of her opinion about the White House event, or the president?
Anger, fueled by confirmation bias
When I first read the complaint from our South Carolina viewer, I flagged it as a sentiment I wanted to explore more deeply. I wanted to see what it was about Woodruff’s words that would draw an intelligent viewer’s ire.
So, the public editor team engaged the viewer in an email conversation. We asked, What was the evidence that Woodruff, a veteran journalist, was insinuating her opinion into the broadcast?
"My remarks came specifically from a comment (she) made after asking Dr. Fauci what precautions Americans should be taking against the virus. He answered the way he said he does to anyone who asks the question, and it included masks and social distancing. Judy's comment was … more of a mumbled aside than anything else, but indicated her views of the President's behavior, which was not the topic of the discussion for that segment."
We watched the episode and read the transcript to see how that interview unfolded.
Woodruff introduced the conversation with this:
"COVID cases are continuing to spike around many parts of the country, and that includes right here in Washington, D.C., where the president's own case and many others in his inner circle and around the White House have been a source of serious concern this past week. Dr. Anthony Fauci joins me now. He's the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH."
Woodruff’s first question was about Trump’s own bout with the coronavirus: "When do you think he will be out of the woods?" The second question: "Do you know when his last COVID negative test was? And is that relevant?"
The two questions and the introduction establish that Trump was part of the discussion, if not the main topic.
Woodruff's next question was about the judgment of "the White House" to host the event honoring Barrett.
“In retrospect, Dr. Fauci, was it wise for the White House to host this — over 200 people in the Rose Garden, but also indoors, the event for Judge Barrett, with — where you had very few people wearing masks, no social distancing, in retrospect?” Woodruff asked.
Fauci did not answer the question directly but listed preventive measures that people should take. That’s when Woodruff observed that those measures were “what was not done” at the White House.
Our South Carolina viewer must have thought she detected some derision in Woodruff’s closure to the question.
People perceive different things from a single uttered statement, depending on how they interpret non-verbal cues and context. But in journalism, reporters and anchors are used to getting political answers from subjects who are trying to stay out of hot water. The elephant in the room — in this case, the White House and its Rose Garden — was the lack of mask wearing and social distancing at the Barrett reception.
Photos and film from the soiree were all over the internet, including Twitter, with observations that participants were doling out air kisses and hugs with nary a care. Both interviewer and interviewee were familiar with the controversy. The interviewer had to close the loop that the interviewee left open. Woodruff would not have asked the question, was it wise to hold such an event, out of the blue. So I would argue — with some force — that Woodruff’s trailing remark was not biased chatter, but rather, the act of applying Fauci’s soft answer to her hard question.
In the end, the South Carolina viewer said, the complaint was probably “much to do about nothing. I have always enjoyed and appreciated the NewsHour and will continue to watch. I simply can't wait for this election to be over.”
Something’s bothering viewers
Our viewer had a sense of proportion and didn’t want to blow up the issue into something bigger than it ought to be, but clearly something was bothering her.
I don’t mean to pick on one particular viewer. I selected the complaint for it’s succinct reflection of what has been a significant trend in recent viewer sentiment.
When I asked a number of professional journalists, both outside and within the PBS system, what they thought of the tenor of the tide of emails I was seeing and whether they thought the comments revealed some kind of wider problem, their general response was a tad defensive: Of course not, most said. It’s no big deal because partisan viewers always think we’re biased.
Surveys show that viewers and readers increasingly see reporters as everything from political hacks to paid operatives. But I know the work of dozens of professional journalists and the vast majority are earnest believers in the need to display at least a perception of objectivity in published or broadcast work. They know their work has to stand up to scrutiny.
But we must acknowledge two things:
The first is the very human reactions of our viewers and readers. We can’t just ignore their concerns that PBS may be slipping below a standard of neutrality that, over the years, has won its public affairs shows a high level of public trust.
The second thing is that there is — especially on cable television — a noticeable need to be edgy, loud, and, yes, opinionated. The likes of MSNBC and CNN have claimed one side of the political divide, perhaps as a ratings strategy to counter the popularity of the right-leaning Fox News and One America News Network.
Is PBS politically biased today?
Does this mean that PBS public affairs programming is drifting toward more analysis and commentary, away from traditional news reporting?
We spent considerable time reviewing NewsHour broadcasts and documentaries in the Frontline series. We were poised to find bias, simply because viewers had drummed the thought into our consciousness.
The result: There is no evidence of an increase in unmarked commentary and opinion, at the expense of news reporting. Woodruff and her team are not lefty socialists out to undermine the Republican Party’s control of the White House and the U.S. Senate, as some viewers have complained. Nor are they cheerleaders for the Trump administration, as other viewers insist.
How about the rest of the broadcast dial?
“There is a lot more opinion out there, in the same real estate as news,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the American Press Institute. On some broadcasts “there are no boundaries between opinion and news.” But on PBS’ leading public affairs shows there’s a sense that audiences “get both sides of a controversial matter.”
“People look to the NewsHour for that,” he said. “And with Frontline, you have (top editors) insisting on radical transparency … Nowhere else will you find balance like that.”
The difference, Rosenstiel said, is that the NewsHour is one daily news show where editors and reporters can take the time to properly consider all dimensions of a story. Other cable news shows are 24/7 breaking news and “speed is the enemy of accuracy.”
Raney Aronson-Rath, Frontline’s executive producer, said the program’s well-earned credibility is the result of a drive to “fortify the journalism process.” There are layers of editors, producers — even a lawyer — vetting documentaries and asking questions about a film’s process. You can call it “trust but verify,” Aronson said. The show not only fact-checks the reporting that goes into a documentary, but it reviews the edits too, all to underscore transparency and fairness.
For Sara Just, executive producer of the NewsHour, proper framing of reporting or commentary is vital.
“We are very careful in establishing what viewers see and hear,” Just said. “(Segments) are labeled with clear banners, and the anchors introduce guests and reporters with clear words that describe what a segment will be all about. We talk about those things a lot before and after shows as we work to get it right. Could we do more? Yes, we have to keep asking ourselves if we’re being as transparent and clear as possible.”
An outdated view of television journalism
It is clear that more viewers have outdated views of what objective journalism is supposed to deliver these days. Everyone seems to understand when journalists show what happened. But today, it’s important for a program like the NewsHour to explain for viewers the why and the how of news. The NewsHour airs most places in the evening and for just one hour. These days that’s well after social media and online platforms have already delivered the what, the where and the who with little depth and analysis.
When Woodruff asks NewsHour White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor to tell us what a White House policy, decision or position means, the question is not designed to give Alcindor leeway to tell us her opinion, but to get viewers beyond journalism's five Ws — to benefit from her numerous sources and her keen eye for misdirection, contradiction and hypocrisy.
Starting Nov. 3, it will be on us as journalists to hold the hands of our viewers and readers, so they understand the results of a tumultuous competition for that chair behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. These days, with so much disinformation and selective facts and data mixed in with legitimate reportage, it’s important that audiences have a safe space to go to for the straight skinny. I’m convinced PBS news programs continue to be that place.
Daniel Macy, researcher for the PBS public editor, contributed to this article.