The Mailbag: More on the Issue of Cops, Killing and Race

Posted by Michael Getler on

* This column has been updated with a response from NewsHour Executive Producer Sara Just.

The mail keeps coming from viewers engaged with the powerful, important and controversial drama that has unfolded in recent weeks from Ferguson, Mo., to Cleveland, Ohio, to Staten Island, N.Y. Usually, these ombudsman mailbags contain comments from viewers about many different PBS programs. But these past several weeks have brought about a natural, heavy focus on the nightly PBS NewsHour since it is the program delivering what has been a heavy and steady dose of news and analysis on this compelling story of police, race and justice in our country.

My goal has been to present as many substantive points of view and observations as possible from those who write to me, along with brief comments from me—and from the NewsHour—wherever appropriate. My general sense is that the nightly NewsHour has presented more coverage and more in-depth analysis than any other broadcast TV news operation but, as several of my recent postings (they can be seen along the righthand-side of this page) reflect, viewers will find legitimate holes and presentations to question, and at times the ombudsman will agree or raise his own issues.

So, to stay timely, here are a few more viewer observations that landed in my mailbox after last night’s broadcast.

A Poet With a Lot to Say

I find the NewsHour to be the best, most balanced news coverage on television these days - it generally lacks the biases that we find on Fox, CNBC or any other channels that focus on news. However, in the recent coverage of Ferguson and the Staten Island stories, I feel that you have strayed from unbiased coverage. The initial presentment of the cases was fair, balanced and nuanced enough to ferret out the issues that we should consider when evaluating these admittedly complex situation as the viewing public. However, on Thursday, December 4th, thstory on "Poet/Play-write" Claudia Rankine completing the broadcast to me invalidated all of the balanced hard journalism presented earlier in the show. This exposure, for a person not beholden to fact-checking and who (self-identified as a "citizen walking around collecting stories") and the claims made regarding Ferguson /Staten Island (not direct but indirect) went entirely unchallenged. I think this represents a view of the world that is - counter to the general perspective of the News Hour - unassailable, and which distorts a story, without the opportunity for credible challenge.

What - to me - separates your program from all other is 1) The opportunity for credible challenge, and 2) the tone with which this is delivered. People like myself have stepped away from other news due to both tone and absence of credible challenge - but to cloak in a news program the work of Ms. Rankine without appropriate credible challenge is not appropriate, and does not live up the expectations I have of your program, or (I hope) the expectations you've set for yourself.

M. Webster, Philadelphia, PA

(Ombudsman’s Note: I must say that I also found this segment puzzling and not in keeping with traditional NewsHour formats of interviewing and questioning authors that appear on special segments. In this case, poet and playwright Claudia Rankine, whose book “Citizen” was a finalist for the National Book Award, was simply introduced to viewers by co-anchor Gwen Ifill to present her “personal reflections on the recent upheavals involving black men and white police officers in New York, Ferguson, Cleveland and beyond” and given five minutes to lay out those reflections. Rankine is very expressive, but I thought this gave an unnecessary, in my opinion, editorial slant to the end of the program.)

The NewsHour Responds

When I asked the NewsHour about this letter, they forwarded this message from viewer Anne Petersen that went directly to the program: “Thank you for the moving final segment of tonight's PBS NewsHour. The featured poet's expressions of outrage and sorrow at the events in Ferguson were unforgettable as was Gwen Ifill's earlier interview focusing on the death of Eric Garner. I came away feeling there was cause for hope.”

On the other hand, the two comments (as of this posting) on the NewsHour webpage devoted to this segment are also critical.

A fuller response from the NewsHour may be forthcoming and, if so, I will add it later. This is a very busy time for that program and asking them to respond on short notice to inquiries from viewers and the ombudsman is easy for me but not for them.

This arrived Monday from NewsHour Executive Producer Sara Just:

* "NewsHour has for many years included poetry among its coverage of the arts. Poetry is by its nature a single person's point of view. The NewsHour has frequently aired self-narrated poetry pieces like the one featuring Ms. Rankine. You can find more examples of such pieces on the NewsHour's Arts Beat page. The poets featured are chosen because they have something to say about a current news story (e.g. past contributors have considered such issues as gun violence, unemployment, the death of American manufacturing, immigration, etc.) and because their work is highly regarded by their professional peers. Rankine fits that definition. Over time, we try to balance different perspectives and world views."

Other Comments

I commented on the NewsHour's coverage of the Ferguson grand jury decision because PBS failed to adequately explore the use of deadly force by police; tonight's [Dec. 4] coverage of a grand jury's failure to indict a NYC police officer in a choke-hold death unfortunately presented a rare opportunity to compare/contrast these two cases. The NewsHour not only failed again to address the central legal issue, but it then hosted an "expert" who completely misstated the law. Negligent homicide is a crime in NY and many other jurisdictions; I don't think anyone saw this case as a murder and now your viewers may incorrectly believe that a lack of intent in the killing of another human being absolves them of criminal liability. As a bonus, the NewsHour then misstated in its next story that Sen. Gillibrand's bill would remove military commanders from investigating sexual assault allegations.  In truth, her proposal would remove commanders from acting as convening authorities in sexual assault cases; investigations are handled by each of the service's criminal investigative organizations.  

Lone Tree, CO

~ ~ ~ 

Candace McCoy, a so called legal expert made a common mistake in the media of saying the grand jury decides more probable than not. This is a huge mistake that the media is allowing. The standard is probable cause to support a charge which means some small bit of evidence to support. It is definitely not a standard of more probable than not. This problem is part of what is at the heart of what is wrong with these two grand jury non-indictments. Allegations of defense do not even come into play in probable cause. If some evidence is shown to support the indictment, the rest of the evidence does not matter. The DA's, no doubt in these cases, did not tell the grand juries this and were complicit in allowing the grand jury to misunderstand the legal standard in order to bring about no charges, which the DA's likely intended. The grand jury does not decide to charge, really, but is used to check the prosecutor's decision to charge. That is how they are used in 99% or more of cases and that is their function. I think your program in the interests of full disclosure of this issue must bring this out by appropriate experts, with of course, a contrary opinion available.

Gary Getzin, Wausau, WI

Posted on Dec. 5, 2014 at 3:23 p.m.

Updated on Dec. 9, 2014 at 12:21 p.m.

Search Ombudsman Archive

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 >
Have a comment related to the journalistic integrity of PBS content? Send an E-mail to Michael Getler or contact him at 703-739-5290.
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