The Mailbag: Rocky and Race, and the Gruber ‘Connection’

Posted by Michael Getler on

Two segments on the PBS NewsHour in the past 10 days or so made some viewers—most probably Republicans but maybe others as well—jump up and down, and then sit down and send emails to me crying foul.

The first occurred on Nov. 10 during an interview with historian and author Richard Norton Smith by NewsHour co-anchor Judy Woodruff. The subject was Norton Smith’s new biography of Nelson Rockefeller, the former four-term Republican governor of New York, vice-president under Gerald Ford and three time unsuccessful candidate for the presidency.

Early in the interview, Woodruff put a question this way: “Now, let’s talk about his politics. He [Rockefeller] worked for Franklin Roosevelt as a young man. Then he went on — he was a Republican. But he didn’t believe in so much of what was the gospel of the Republican Party. He was a huge supporter of the civil rights movement. He opposed everything Barry Goldwater stood for. Where does he fit in the ideological spectrum?”

That started alarm bells ringing, including mine. At best, it was awkwardly phrased. At worst, it suggested that Republicans did not support the civil rights movement. Several viewers wrote to me and some of the letters are posted below. I sent those letters to Woodruff for a response and here is what she said:

“I appreciate hearing from NewsHour viewers about the interview with Richard Norton Smith. My question to him about where Nelson Rockefeller fit on the ideological spectrum was intended in the context of his 1964 battle with Barry Goldwater over the Republican nomination, and their year-long debate over who was the true representative of Republican philosophy.  

 “Goldwater took positions on social security, the income tax and the United Nations, to name a few, that Rockefeller fundamentally opposed. Goldwater also cast one of 6 Republican Senate votes against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, despite his personal record opposing segregation. In Smith’s words, Goldwater represented a Western ‘individualism’ that ‘recoils from anything that smacks of federal coercion at the expense of local sovereignty.’ Rockefeller on the other hand, ‘hails from a very different tradition. The struggle for racial equality is as much a part of his family lineage as oil wells and art museums.’

“I should have worded the question more carefully, so as not to suggest that most Republicans at that time opposed civil rights.”

Woodruff, in my experience, is unfailingly responsive to viewer observations and, speaking only for myself, this response seems to me to be a valid explanation and apology.

Here Are Some of the Letters

I was disappointed when Judy Woodruff, who I previously admired, misrepresented the Republican Party in her interview of Richard Norton Smith, biographer of Nelson Rockefeller.

As an educated person and an impartial reporter she should know a larger percentage of the Republican congressman voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 than the Democratic congressmen. The southern states, predominately represented by Democrats, opposed the fact democratic committee chairs in both houses attempted to keep the bill from reaching the floor. Barry Goldwater was not against civil rights: he voted for the 1957 and 1960 civil rights bills. He had objected to two provisions of the 1964 bill which he believed were unconstitutional. He desegregated the Arizona Air National Guard in the 1940's and the Senate cafeteria in 1954.

It is unfortunate that the press continues to attempt to tarnish the reputation of the Republican Party and create division in our country.

Annemarie Colletti, Naperville, IL

~ ~ ~

During a segment interviewing Richard Norton Smith on his book on Nelson Rockefeller -- Host Judy Woodruff suggests that Nelson Rockefeller SUPPORTED CIVIL RIGHTS while his fellow Republicans OPPOSED Civil Rights. Which Republican leaders is she referring to? Not Eisenhower, or Nixon or Romney or Dirksen....This contradicts history and suggests unfair bias against Republicans.

Eisenhower (Republican President) sent US Airborne Troops to enforce a Supreme Court order desegregating schools -- he also actually integrated a segregated Army -- something ordered by Truman but not actually implemented. 27 of 31 Republicans in the US Senate voted IN FAVOR of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A large majority of Congressional Republicans SUPPORTED the Civil Rights Act in the US House. Until 1935, ALL Black Members of Congress who had been elected to office were elected as REPUBLICANS. Barry Goldwater had a record of supporting equal rights for Blacks in Arizona. And Governor George Romney of Michigan publicly and prominently supported Civil Rights for Blacks. Please set the record straight. Rockefeller AND Republican leaders were supporters of Civil Rights.

Champaign, IL

On Jonathan Gruber and the Affordable Care Act: Is This 'Grubergate'?

The second segment that caused a negative reaction among some started out as a non-segment. By that I mean that the first batch of emails I got about Jonathan Gruber started arriving on Nov. 10 and they were from viewers who were casting aspersions at the PBS NewsHour for not covering a story about remarks Gruber, an economist at MIT who was a major advisor and paid consultant ($400,000) on the administration’s health care plan, had made at a conference a year earlier.

Gruber, who was also a key advisor to former Gov. Mitt Romney for a similar plan in Massachusetts, has since apologized, claiming that he was speaking “off the cuff,” that his remarks were “inappropriate” and that he regretted having made them.

Here’s what he said about the Affordable Care Act to a conference in Pennsylvania in October 2013:

“This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO didn’t score the mandate as taxes. If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies, OK? So, it was written to do that. In terms — in terms of risk-rated subsidies, if you had a law which said healthy people are going to pay in, it made explicit that healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it would have not passed, OK? Just like the people transparent — lack of transparency is a huge political advantage, and basically call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but, basically, that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass.”

The story had started to surface during the previous weekend, on Nov. 8. It was first reported by the conservative news site Newsbusters and was quickly picked up by other conservative outlets and also by MSNBC and later by Major newspapers, such as The Washington Post and the New York Times, first started reporting online on Nov. 11 and 12, respectively, as did The Boston Herald, Chicago Tribune and Cleveland Plain Dealer. Then, The Washington Post put it on the front page of the newspaper on Nov. 13.

The NewsHour did their first report on Gruber in a segment on Nov. 17 that was combined with discussion of the opening of a new round of enrollment for the Obama health plan. So the NewsHour was clearly late getting to this.

On the other hand, when they did get to it, I thought they did a good job. In introducing the segment, co-anchor Woodruff set the stage about who Gruber is, included the video of his remarks the year before, reaction to the disclosure by President Obama at a Nov.16 press conference and used a critical clip from the Republican Senator-elect from Oklahoma, James Lankford, that had appeared on Fox News.

Ordinarily, I would include a video in this column to the segment, however only the discussion portion would show up. The NewsHour explained this in an editor’s note posted on its website, which also includes a full transcript of the program. The note states: “The video of Jonathan Gruber and reaction to his statements were edited from the original broadcast due to online rights restrictions. It was not an editorial decision to delete them. You can see the Gruber video here, and President Obama’s reaction here and also GOP reaction from James Lankford here.”

Some Letters from Before and After the PBS Coverage

Here are some representative letters from viewers who first complained about the lack of NewsHour coverage:

Why has PBS not covered the recently revealed comments of the ACA's "architect" Jonathan Gruber referring to the American voter's a "stupid" and the value of a "lack of transparency." Do you think this type of story would have been covered differently of it was a Republican program? If you do not respond, the answer is obvious.

Robert F., Austin, TX

~ ~ ~

When is PBS going to their jobs and tell the American People about Jonathan Gruber. Is PBS a news organization or a subsidiary of the Obama administration? Why does PBS cover up or not report important stories of great concern to most Americans. PBS has no credibility.

Bob K., Baltimore, MD

~ ~ ~

Why did your newsroom choose to ignore the huge story about the writer of Obamacare, Jonathan Gruber's comments about, basically, writing the bill in order to deceive and mislead both congressional members and the American public in order to get it passed. You are a sorry excuse for a news outlet.

Rochelle, IL

~ ~ ~

If there was ever a question in the mind of any critical thinking news consumer regarding the political leanings of PBS, all one has to do is search for a PBS story regarding Jonathan Gruber's inside baseball comments regarding the construction and passage of Obamacare. The silence is deafening to date [Nov. 11]. Even ultra-liberal MSNBC ran something on it. The journalistic integrity of PBS is nowhere to be found. Why don't you insist PBS tell all of the truth instead of just the portion that fits their political agenda? Lying by omission is shameful and devoid of all journalistic integrity. It's obvious PBS looks to tap the stupidity and/or influence the ignorance of the masses just as Gruber noted the Obama administration was doing in his candid commentary about the administration's willful and purposeful campaign of deceit regarding the Obamacare law. Gruber's and the Administration's willful use of verbal and written prevarication, obfuscation, and confusing and protracted wording to sell Obamacare to the voters and get it passed was as devoid of honesty and integrity as PBS's attempt at real journalism.

G. Housman, Orlando, FL

After the Nov. 17 Segment

I have been a critic of PBS' slanted (read "liberal") reporting of the news. For a change, I compliment you for your reporting of the Gruber/Obamacare connection. The mainstream media has scarcely reported on this scandal in order to avoid disclosing their sycophantic adulation of the Administration.

Ponte Vedra Beach, FL

~ ~ ~

I eagerly watched the coverage tonight and it was shameful. PBS buried the real story and the video clips that support it, which is that Gruber led the effort to conceal the real costs of the ACA. It was a redistribution of health care costs, the merits of which can be legitimately debated. Why not report the comments of David Axelrod, or the fact that President Obama claimed he never heard of him [Gruber], despite a litany of video clips that directly contradict that. I know a number of people - including family members - who are not "upper class" - that have been penalized by the ACA by losing their medical coverage and paying increased deductibles and copays. The story was not a fair depiction of the ACA.

Robert F., Austin, TX

~ ~ ~

It is frustrating to hear your news anchors, when moderating a discussion on the ACA, remark that it is unpopular with a majority of the American people. In fact, all of the express provisions of the ACA, except one, are popular with the American public (even Republicans). Moreover, even those who oppose want the law improved and not repealed.  The only provision of the ACA that is opposed by the public is the requirement that you have insurance. Kaiser polling and others confirm this. To repeat the statement that the ACA is opposed by the public only reinforces the looney tunes politicians who talk constantly about repealing it. BTW, it is also worth broadcasting that the public is poorly informed about the ACA's provisions and approve of the ACA more than Obamacare! Why could this be!

Cheney, WA

~ ~ ~

I am dismayed that the NewsHour chose to broadcast comments related to the Affordable Care Act made by an individual who has vague and unclear relations to the development of the law. The clip shown was old and out of context. This is a Fox News kind of thing to do. The ACA or Obamacare is addressing one of our most serious problems in this country and though it has shortcomings, it has improved many of the problems that have been costly and inconvenient - like setting up electronic records that save lots of time and easily connect the different aspects of care that many people require. This record sharing contributes to the safety of complex care networks. I am not trying to suggest that real news be overlooked, but balance the coverage. Harking back to the rough start a year ago plays into the hands of the nay-sayers. Nothing this major and needed can possibly be easy to implement, but we will not be served by having it repealed. You are piling on and losing objectivity.

Cincinnati, OH

~ ~ ~

For the past several PBS NewsHour episodes there have been daily segments about negativity of ACA. Granted there are negative issues but why omit positive issues. Many friends of mine gratefully - happily - positively are thrilled to finally have health care. If this newshour fails to show positive segments as well then you are no better than the louder talking heads on cable news which I have left turning to PBS for a more balanced news broadcast.

Natalie Roth, San Mateo, CA

Posted on Nov. 19, 2014 at 3:18 p.m.

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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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