The Nasty Truth
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PBS NewsHour stands up to presidential diatribes and viewer complaints
A global pandemic demands tough questions from journalists. Amid the coronavirus crisis, journalist Yamiche Alcindor has delivered robust and sober reporting that some PBS NewsHour critics mistake as political bias.
On March 29th, in this Year of the Pandemic, the nation had ground to a halt. We were heeding orders and pleas to stay home and collectively disrupt deadly waves of COVID-19 infection. With the crisis deepening, President Donald Trump was on television, live, launching verbal salvos at the media. Once again, he’d been set off by a hint of a probative question from Yamiche Alcindor of the PBS NewsHour:
Trump: "Why don’t you act in a little more positive … "
Alcindor: “My question to you is … “
Trump: “It’s always …getcha, getcha … And you know what? That’s why nobody trusts the media anymore … “
Alcindor: “My question to you is how is this going to impact … “
Trump: “Excuse me. You didn’t hear me. That’s why you used to work for the Times and now you work for someone else. Look, let me tell you something: Be nice …”
Alcindor: “Mr. President, my question is …”
Trump: “Don’t be threatening. Be nice. Go ahead.”
All this, in 30 seconds, just as Alcindor was ramping up to an important question about Trump’s own, on the record, characterization of shortages of personal protective equipment reported by healthcare professionals around the country.
Such exchanges have become commonplace between Trump and Alcindor. And, as the pandemic intensifies, he’s increasingly attacking other reporters who omit platitudes before they ask questions about life and death matters the nation must address with urgency and selflessness.
It’s never been the job of journalists in the White House press corps to preface questions with nice praise for dear leaders. Thankfully, reporters have traditionally held little fear of presidents. Time and again White House correspondents have shined with aggressive questioning of chief executives. Some presidents deftly turned the art of the dodge into a spectator sport. Ronald Reagan classically feigned poor hearing when ABC’s Sam Donaldson boomed “Mr. President!” ahead of a biting question.
Today, though, as thousands of Americans die each day and well more than a million human beings across the globe have been infected by the coronavirus, Trump’s adverse reaction to inquisitive journalists is not at all amusing or charming.
A majority of NewsHour viewers agree. Dozens have recently written to me in support of Alcindor, who’s currently Number One on the president’s “nasty” list.
In this national crisis, the NewsHour also has won praise for skipping live coverage of White House Coronavirus Task Force press briefings, in which valuable public health and economic rescue information is too often supplanted by a political circus, complete with the president’s hawking miracle cures for COVID-19.
The NewsHour decided from the start not to televise the briefings. But that decision was actually more about saving broadcast resources for crisis newscasts that require the show’s full attention and technology. (Still, live coverage of the briefings is easily found on some PBS stations’ sub-channels, or streamed live on YouTube or on social media. I can see the task force pressers cast live on my Facebook page, courtesy of northern Virginia’s WETA, home of the NewsHour.)
What the audience says
What has emerged as the show’s real controversy, however, is Alcindor. We can brush off inexplicable presidential rants, but we can’t ignore the ire of PBS viewers who believe she’s too aggressive toward the president.
In the week that Trump once again chided Alcindor, 104 messages about the exchange came into the PBS Public Editor’s mailbox. Of those, 40 could be labeled “against” Alcindor.
Alcindor has long been a lightning rod, pushing NewsHour viewers to comment regularly (pro and con) since she rose to prominence in the White House press corps. Until now, I avoided writing about that chatter because it is not unusual for good journalists to attract abundant praise and disdain. Frankly, some emails have been poisoned by direct or implied racism aimed at Alcindor. Those notes end up in my computer’s trash bin.
The majority of emails, however, have been positive and civil. Here are a couple of examples:
“Keep it respectful and you will change America! We all want honest, respectful, non-biased reporting. And that’s coming from someone who voted for Trump! and may again, may not. But this war on the virus is really showing everyone’s true colors. And Yamiche shines like a hero when she stands up to the most powerful person on Earth and asks questions that need to be asked!”–Alex Kish, Rittman, Ohio
“Please pass along my kudos to Yamiche Alcindor for her strong resolve when confronted by the belittling, and in my opinion derogatory, comments during her questioning of the president on March 30.” – Emmett Murphy, Buskirk, N.Y.
Detractors commonly feature complaints like these:
“Why does the PBS reporter Alcindor have to be so negative and disrespectful to the president? We are ALL in a crisis. It is up to ALL of us to do our part. But why does this woman keep badgering and attempting to make the president look bad?” – Angelica Garcia, San Diego, Calif.
“Why can’t [Alcindor] ask productive questions instead of adversarial ones, during this time of intense crisis? People are dying by the score during these briefings, and instead of trying to extract important information to disseminate amongst victims and their families, she only shows interest in tripping the President up, or embarrassing him with questions that serve no public interest, and smack of tabloid sensationalism.”– Bob Cushman, Millis, Mass.
Is it bias, or analysis?
Angry viewers have pointed to PBS and NewsHour standards that call for journalists to be objective and avoid opinion. Against that measure, some say, Alcindor has a bias against the president.
But viewers should not conflate tough inquiry with bias. NewsHour journalists have a tradition of tough inquiry, and Alcindor is one the best practitioners. She has a responsibility to deliver straight-up accounts from the White House. But like many Washington, D.C., correspondents, Alcindor is also routinely asked to analyze events and issues, not just report them. Analysis requires honest assessment of different sides of an issue, in search of the argument that is most compelling or most truthful. That’s different from biased banter.
A review of some of Alcindor’s important NewsHour conversations does yield a bias – against untrue White House statements.
“When I cover [the White House COVID-19 press briefings] I try to add as much context and fact-checking as possible,” Alcindor told NBC talk show host Seth Meyers last week.“Covering President Trump, you have to have context, you have to tell people: here’s what the facts are. Here’s when he’s wrong and when he’s right.”
Does Alcindor take it personally when Trump comes after her? “I think the president wants an opponent. He wants a foil at all times,” she said.
Eyes on the mission
The COVID-19 crisis has shown Alcindor and her editors at the NewsHour at the top of their games. A truism in journalism holds that you will never make everyone equally happy, regardless of how objective you try to appear. (In a given week, I see as many emails in our archives complaining of the NewsHour’s perceived liberal bias, as those asserting that PBS shills for major corporations, thereby serving a conservative, pro-business agenda, or at least giving it lip service.) Despite the pressure, Alcindor and the NewsHour remain committed to the work at hand.
“Yamiche is a highly professional, talented reporter and we could not be more proud to have her as part of the PBS NewsHour,” said Sara Just, the broadcast’s executive producer. “She is doing exactly what is expected of a free press in our democracy: posing timely, pertinent questions to those in power on behalf of the American people.”
It is good that NewsHour viewers have strong opinions about the quality of its journalism, even if more than a few are negative. Besides, Yamiche Alcindor can take it. Run a search of “Trump and Yamiche” on YouTube and marvel at how she stands up to shocking verbal abuse heaped from behind the podium in the James Brady White House Press Briefing Room or in the Rose Garden.
Search results include the March 13 Rose Garden briefing at whichTrump accused Alcindor of asking a “nasty question.” You can decide for yourself whether Alcindor was behaving in an untoward fashion when she asked the president whether he took responsibility for disbanding the White House pandemic office, asking him to respond to officials’ comments that the White House lost valuable time in responding to the pandemic.
Constructive criticism from viewers like you is important. It holds broadcast editors, producers, anchors and reporters to account. And at a time when misinformation can be as dangerous as disinformation, I’ll count on audiences to continue telling us if PBS journalists are getting it right.