Rogers & Astaire, Torvill & Dean, Shields & Brooks

Posted by Michael Getler on
Like floor dancers, ice dancers or a horse and carriage, as the old song goes, these two go together. But not always. Sometimes one or the other of the PBS NewsHour’s long-running team of Friday night news analysts—New York Times columnist David Brooks and syndicated columnist Mark Shields—is away. Usually taking their place these days, when the need arises, are two Washington Post columnists—Michael Gerson, a former top speech writer for President George W. Bush, and Ruth Marcus, a longtime Postie.

But Shields and Brooks are the franchise opinionators. Broadly speaking, both appear to me as political centrists; Brooks a little to the right and Shields a little to the left. Shields has been sparring with a string of more conservative partners on the program since 1988, and with Brooks for the past 10 years or so.

I get only a modest amount of mail about this now very familiar pair and almost all of it gets passed along to the NewsHour because these guys are, after all, columnists and they are there expressly to express opinions and analysis and that is not the usual fare for ombudsmen. If there is a theme to the mail, it is mostly from those from the political right who feel Brooks is not sufficiently “conservative.”

‘Real Conservatives Need a Voice’

Here, for example, is an email last week from a viewer in Kansas City, Mo., who poses a specific challenge:

"The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 requires the CPB to operate with a 'strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature'. It also requires it to regularly review national programming for objectivity and balance, and to report on 'its efforts to address concerns about objectivity and balance.' How would you square the lawful requirement of objectivity and balance with the fact that David and Mark both hold liberal positions on the most controversial issues of the day - abortion, gun control, the definition of marriage, and immigration? Real conservatives deserve a voice on the NewsHour. I nominate David's colleague at the Times, Ross Douthat.”

I asked the Corporation for Public Broadcasting spokesman if the CPB would like to respond and he said it fit more neatly into my charter. I asked the executive producer of the NewsHour, Linda Winslow, for her thoughts and, as always, she responded.

“They are each highly respected journalists, first and foremost,” Winslow said. “One tends to identify more with the issues and values of the Republican party, and the other with those of the Democratic party. Neither of them, however, is a shill for either party's positions. I believe our audience appreciates their commitment to personal reporting on the subjects and people they cover, the sophistication of their judgments, and their ability to look objectively and critically at their respective parties.

“Each week, they provide our viewers with analysis that goes beyond the superficial, conventional, or predictable. They also make serious analysis of the news and the politics of the week uncommonly fun to watch. We believe the way they interact, with civility, mutual respect, unorthodox insights, original thinking and the willingness to occasionally agree or concede the other man's point, is why they have become our most watched-and highly valued – contributors.”

On some of the specific points raised by the viewer, Winslow adds that Shields is a devout Catholic and is totally opposed to abortion. For another, “They disagree sharply on a major social issue of the day: income inequality and what to do about it. They also take different positions on immigration policy, but they do agree that the present one isn't working. And so on.”

More colorfully, she says to me that she would send “the exact same message—over and over again—to the people who think this NewsHour segment is [CNN’s] ‘Crossfire’ and want ‘their’ guy to beat the crap out of the other guy on point x, y, or z.  My response is [meant] to explain to those people what we are producing. It's not supposed to be a fist fight. In fact, this segment has been around longer than most cable television shouting matches—or what passes for ‘political analysis’ on cable television. Those programs trained people to expect a lot of head bashing when the subject of politics comes up; sorry, that's not our M.O.”

My Thoughts

I think Winslow makes her case well and that there is no case that this pairing somehow violates CPB standards. I would add that the Times’ Ross Douthat has been a guest on the NewsHour numerous times in various capacities, and also that one thing that I like especially about Shields and Brooks is that both are not reluctant to criticize their own side’s action when they think they are wrong. This, of course, can also contribute to the sense that these guys are really never far apart.

I believe another factor, extraneous but probably real in its effect, is the recent cancellation of the 40 year-old “Inside Washington” weekly program, hosted for the past 25 years by a local ABC-TV anchor, Gordon Peterson. This was not a PBS program but was produced and syndicated widely by Allbritton Communications and many PBS-member stations aired it. The regular panel included Charles Krauthammer, who is almost certainly viewed as a more purely conservative and ideological voice on many issues than is Brooks.

I don’t like labels but they are hard to avoid these days and I have, on several occasions, described the NewsHour, and PBS generally, as operating in what I would describe as the “safe-center” of the politics and issues of our time. That’s probably a good place for public television to be, and probably where the majority of the country is, but it also means that voices beyond that zone of general safety—and I’m not referring here to truly extreme views—often don’t get heard, even though they might be held by a significant minority on the left or right at any one time, or just by an individual who is thinking and challenging outside of the proverbial box.

That’s why I thought Bill Moyers, although he had many critics on the right, was such an important force on PBS because he consistently, through his interviews rather than through his personal commentary, brought interesting people and views into American homes that are rarely, if ever, heard on commercial television.

So bottom line for me is that Shields and Brooks have become a part of speech, like the horse and carriage, or joined at the table like Felix and Oscar of “The Odd Couple,” politely grumpy and squabbling but illuminating. The line-up of substitutes works fine but every now and then you’d like some really crazy uncle or aunt to show up somewhere and reveal that he or she isn’t so crazy.

 In Case You Missed This…and It Was Easy to Miss


A viewer in Raleigh, N.C., wrote to tell me he had “caught a few words” at the end of the NewsHour broadcast on Feb. 28 “about some change Kwame Holman is doing. I think he is leaving the NewsHour. I tried to find information about this on the PBS web site but there is nothing. Can you tell me if Kwame is leaving the NewsHour? I always liked and respected him.”

Well, the viewer heard correctly and he is also right; there is nothing to find on the PBS web site, as far as I can tell. Judy Woodruff was the anchor that evening and she ended the program this way: “Before we go, we want to bid a fond farewell to a long-time member of the NewsHour family, Congressional Correspondent Kwame Holman, who is leaving us after more than three decades spent covering a wide-range of stories…He is setting up his own production company and, fingers crossed, our paths will cross again.”

I’m not big on celebrating journalists but this brief though nicely-stated farewell seemed a little too subdued for a very solid, venerable newsman who has reported big stories for the NewsHour for decades and is among the comfortable presences that adds to its credibility.

 Posted at 11:14 AM

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler 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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