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Third Rail with Ozy is the newest addition to the news and information lineup on many PBS stations. Produced by WGBH with the digital magazine it styles itself as “a new seven-part cross-platform series. Each week, expert and celebrity guests debate a provocative topic, incorporating audience input and exclusive national polls.”

The show is recorded on a set that seems to be fashioned as some sort of jazz bar cum coffee shop, in front of a studio audience that aims to add a sense of engagement beyond the usual TV talking heads. 

Last week’s show “Is Free Speech Alive and Well?” led to a spirited post-show discussion on Facebook, which seems appropriate given that the show bills itself as a “cross-platform” series.  Guest Emily Miller, representing the side that believes Free Speech is Alive and Well, took issue with a comment in the thread that claimed she said something that she didn’t.  The comment is no longer there.

The more weighty issue she raised was her objection to the show being edited. As it turns out, one of the guests on the opposite side, Linda Sarsour, also complained on Facebook about the editing of the show. They both complained about the same exchange that was mostly edited out.

I asked WGBH about some of their policies around this program with regard to recording and editing.  

For our audience it’s important to understand the terms we are talking about. A live show is just that, being broadcast live as you are watching it. Live-to-tape means that the show is pre-recorded but to the exact time of the length of the show. Third Rail with Ozy is scheduled for 26 minutes and 46 seconds, so they will record for 26 minutes and 46 seconds, including their title pages, credits, etc. Anything longer than that is subject to editing. This particular episode ran over 12 minutes and thus was edited.

According to WGBH, “The portion that was edited was Ms. Sarsour’s comments to Ms. Miller about privilege and systemic racism and their exchange about race and being stopped by police officers. This was edited because the exchange moved away from the show’s topic of free speech and into a discussion of racism (which had been the topic of a previous Third Rail program).”

WGBH also adds that guests are told that the show is “’live to tape’ but that taping may extend beyond the needed show length and will be edited. We make sure they understand the producers reserve the right to edit.”

Producing a live show is one of the hardest things to do in broadcasting, but for a show that is built around this format I think it is the best way to do the show in order to live up to its promise of provocative topics with “no holds barred.” WGBH says, “If we tape to time we do not have the ability to edit in case our host needs to do any re-takes with factual/scripted material. We also want to ensure that every participant and point of view is heard.”

While I sympathize with the desire to make it perfect with editing, I think that editing actually does a disservice not just to the guests but to the audience, too. It is the role of the host to keep the content on point and make sure the conversation doesn’t veer off course.  

This show promises to be something different from the regular news and information fare on PBS, it has that veneer with the set and the promise of continued conversation in the social space. But it seems to me that the “electrifying conversation” that is “no holds barred” is dampened by editing this particular format of show and opens producers to criticism that the viewpoint of every participant is, in fact, not being heard. The format is a worthy one to try and could be an interesting addition to the range of news and information programming on PBS. I look forward to watching how the show evolves. 

WGBH has posted the entire transcript of the unedited show "for complete transparency."  



Viewer Monty Shore is one of a few viewers who points out, “Judy Woodruff did it again this Friday night; her last words to Ezra Klein were 'we didn’t even get to ‘tax reform’.’” Mr. Shore’s objection is to the use of the word reform, which, he believes contains a value judgment that implies improvement.  That’s a value judgment that he disagrees with with regard to GOP tax plans. 

Merriam Webster defines reform as thus:

1       a. to put or change into an improved form or condition

         b. to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses

2       to put an end to (an evil) by enforcing or introducing a better method or course of action

3:      to induce or cause to abandon evil ways - reform a drunkard

It is clear that the meaning of “reform” in our politics is in the eye of the beholder. Republicans genuinely believe that their plan will improve the tax code. Democrats disagree.

In the rat-a-tat world we live in with a constant bombardment of news and information, the pressure on journalists to move fast and respond immediately means that, on occasion, precision in language gets lost. Sometimes words are used interchangeably, like tax plan and tax reform.

The fact is, there has been scant detail released about the tax plan from the administration or Republican leaders in Congress. PBS NewsHour has conducted fair reporting on what little is known about the tax plan. This is just a useful reminder to be mindful about the use of precise language as this issue becomes the focus of heated debate on Capitol Hill.

Posted at 10:13 a.m.