The Mailbag: The NewsHour Dominates

Posted by Michael Getler on

The nightly, hour-long PBS NewsHour is an important and venerable institution. Millions of people watch it and depend on it for the news and for special segments that go deeper than other, shorter, TV news outlets about the main issues of our time, and that often tell us about happenings that we were not aware of or well-informed about.

Because it is on seven nights a week and deals with the daily flow of events and what people care about, it also generates, over time, more mail to the ombudsman than anything else on public television.

In my last column earlier this month, I wrote about something that was not actually on television but rather was a message on Twitter that NewsHour co-anchor Gwen Ifill sent out on Sept. 2. It was a retweet of an illustration from an Obama administration Twitter account that dealt with the Iran nuclear agreement. Ifill had put a headline on it that said: “Take that, Bibi.” The retweet immediately attracted a lot of attention and I started to get a lot of angry emails about it, and I wrote about it later that day.

Since then, I have received 977 emails and phone calls about the Ifill action and my column, more than any other single episode since this position began at PBS almost 10 years ago. With the exception of perhaps three or four emails, all were critical, for a number of different reasons, of Ifill’s action. My assessment then, and now, was that it was “inexcusable for an experienced journalist who is the co-anchor of a nightly news program watched by millions of people over the course of any week.”

Other Responses

PBS’s Audience Services, where people also write to comment on issues, reports that it has received close to 200 messages, mostly emails, from viewers about the tweet episode. In response, they sent this to those who wrote:

“Thank you for contacting PBS. Gwen Ifill was monitoring reaction to the news that the White House had secured support for the Iran Deal in the Senate. She observed and retweeted a tweet from @TheIranDeal – which is an official account of the White House – with a top line that said “Take that, Bibi.” Ms. Ifill has explained to our office that what she was trying to do was underline that the White House’s own tone that seemed to be saying “Take that, Bibi.” Her intention was to point out the tone in that official communication. We agree that what she was trying to highlight could have been presented more clearly. Ms. Ifill later clarified her point on Twitter. We appreciate the opportunity to provide additional context regarding this matter.”

In a report in the Sept. 8 edition of Current, the trade publication “for people in public media,” Sara Just, the executive producer of the NewsHour, was quoted as saying in an email to Current that: “The subtlety of what she [Ifill] was trying to highlight with the retweet of the White House’s account was lost on some and, we agree, could have been presented more clearly.” But “Gwen Ifill remains an unbiased observer and journalist who was in no way making commentary of her own,” Just said. Ifill was aiming to match the White House’s tone and raise questions about what was happening, Just added, according to the report.

I’ve chosen to post, below, just one of the letters I've received on this issue. It’s from a viewer in San Diego. It is long but touches on many of the issues.

‘All That and More,’ as They Say on the NewsHour

Following that letter is a sampling of recent letters on other subjects dealing with the NewsHour.

One of these subjects is the new set for the NewsHour that was introduced in July. Since then, I’ve received about 55 emails from viewers. I’ve forwarded most, if not all, of them to the NewsHour. Most, but not all, are critical of some visual aspect, or the music. That is a fair amount of email but I am only including two very brief letters on this. My experience is that when a redesign of something important and familiar is changed—like a magazine or newspaper or TV set—a fair number of people will not like it, at least initially. So perhaps the amount of mail is not surprising.

Personally, I think the set, and the music, are fine, and not really my business—with one exception; that long, narrow rectangular box of a blurred, moving stream of colors that sits in the corner of the screen. It seems to me and others to serve no editorial purpose other than perhaps a designer’s need for something distinctive. Yet it distracts from the person on screen delivering the news as well as the news itself and the accompanying news photos. Several of the letters make this point and so two are included farther down.

Here Are the Letters

As a long time member and regular contributor to PBS, I have long relied on what I had believed was one of the most unbiased sources of reporting available and have counted on the highest journalistic integrity from the organization. As traditional networks have seemingly become more polarized and their agenda less hidden, I had turned to PBS and NPR to help form my opinions.

As such, I cannot overstate how outraged I am with Gwen Ifill's recent Tweet. It is, at the very least, unprofessional given her position of trust and responsibility. At a more fundamental level, it serves to irreparably undermine her reputation for unbiased reporting. It was also particularly crass, rude, and petty as it was directed at the head of state of one of our oldest allies...regardless of one’s personal political leanings.

Her "explanation" was not only unconvincing but placed her firmly in the camp of the long line of pundits and politicos who trivialize their responsibility to the public trust and whose unwillingness to admit facts further confirms the suspicion that we should no longer have confidence in them…I did read your response to the event on the home page. I took heart in your seeming appreciation for the gravitas of the situation. To my great dismay, I have seen little or no evidence that the upper echelons at KPBS have responded in any meaningful way. Indeed, my impression is that there is a commitment to allow this to pass and, as such, tacitly condone the opinion…She [Ifill] stands as a revered representative of your entire organization and must be viewed as speaking for it unless we hear a very loud proclamation to the contrary. I am, in short, appalled by the entire event and look for some evidence that this concern is shared at a higher level. I know that I am far from alone in this sentiment.

San Diego, CA

What Is That ‘Blurry, Moving, Thingy’?


What is that annoying, blurry, scrolling, horizontal bar behind your hosts and guests on the TV program? It is useless and a distraction. Doesn't anyone have better judgment than that? It undoubtedly serves no purpose so why is it there?

Janet Millhouse, Grand Junction, CO

 ~ ~ ~

Trying to find out why the NewsHour has that blurry moving(?) thingy in the background of Gwen &/or Judy—the anchor table. It is distracting. And of no use to the N-H broadcast?? Any chance of removing it?

Cincinnati, OH

More on Race

(Ombudsman’s Note: I have written many times about coverage of race, most recently last month. Much of what viewers wrote and I wrote in that column apply to the points raised in some of the letters below. The NewsHour, to its credit, has devoted, I believe, many more hours of more in-depth coverage to the increasingly intense focus on racial issues, especially relations with and actions of the police, than any other major television news program. That is all to the good because it is a huge—and almost always—complicated national issue. As I’ve written before, it is important, it seems to me, to always keep that complexity in mind in the way that otherwise thorough news coverage is presented to viewers. The case of the shooting of Michael Brown repeatedly comes up with viewers in that respect. Short-hand is frequently accurate, as it was in the case below. But in today’s contentious environment it can also oversimplify and lead viewers to believe that an “agenda” is at work.)

On the Sept. 14 PBS News Hour, Gwen Ifill had a segment in which she interviewed a minister and a MO [Missouri] senator about changes needed to prevent more incidents like Ferguson, MO. She introduced the segment by noting that Michael Brown was an unarmed Black man shot by White police officer, Darren Wilson. While that might be true, it ignores significant context, giving the wrong impression completely. Brown had, in fact, grabbed for Wilson's gun in an earlier scuffle, and was charging him full-steam when Wilson opened fire on Brown. One could easily argue that Wilson's actions were in self-defense, and it seems the investigations done concluded as much.

Ifill's prefacing remarks are technically correct, but they give the wrong impression -- that an armed Wilson gratuitously shot an unarmed Brown, and that this was a clear case of excessive use of violence. The theme of the discussion that followed was that police need more education and training, that there is inequality among Blacks and Whites in the area, and so forth. Granting all that, what was lost was the concrete situation facing officer Wilson. Neither Ifill nor the interviewees seemed to have much interest in that issue, choosing instead to present Blacks in the area as victims of White oppression.

Wichita, KS

~ ~ ~

This evening Gwen Ifill began the story about Ferguson by saying "it started when a white policeman shot an unarmed black teenager." The problem is that what she said is only partially the truth. I believe at this point in time, since the white policeman was found innocent in court, that omitting that important fact is unfair and wrong. It feeds a false narrative. That in turn breeds the anti-police sentiment which we are seeing happen across America. Police have been murdered lately because of it.

D. Paul, Panama City Beach, FL

~ ~ ~

Once again, Gwen Ifill described Michael [Brown] as an "unarmed" person. Please, he was 10 years younger and outweighed the policeman by 80 lb. That's not "unarmed." The many witnesses (black like Michael) confirmed the policeman's testimony under oath, so why not go along with them and say Brown was killed by a policeman defending himself from an attack by a lawless citizen. Why mention the policeman's name over and over again. Nothing to do with him; any policeman or armed citizen would have responded in the same way if they cared about their own life. After all, Brown had already proved his intent by previously grabbing the officer's gun.

Downers Grove, IL

And About Katrina

I thoroughly enjoy your show. I make sure to listen to it online daily. I have noticed your focus upon New Orleans this week [Aug. 28] for the Katrina anniversary. As a native Minnesotan, I have no claim to the frustration I am about to state. Katrina hit more than one city. In fact, it hit a few states. I moved to Biloxi, MS, to aid in the recovery and stayed. I find it myopic to only focus on one city for the anniversary of this detrimental storm. It would be best for you to remind the nation it hit the gulf coast, actually damaging other communities directly as a storm. I do appreciate your depth of reporting but your lack of breadth in this important event is disappointing.

Jesse Weber, New Orleans, LA

~ ~ ~

I am deeply saddened and disappointed. Not one story, not one minute of your coverage is being given to the areas and people directly hit by Katrina. The people of Waveland, the people of Biloxi and Gulfport and Long Beach, and most directly the people of Pass Christian and Bay St Louis MS, all are being ignored - and discarded - in your coverage and therefore in the national view. Are these people less worthy than those of the Ninth Ward and the French Quarter? Are their homes, livelihoods and lives less valuable? Is the devastation that wiped those communities almost from the map somehow less striking than that affecting New Orleans? Shame on you for your pandering to the core, for your focus on race over humanity.

Tony Higgins, Las Vegas, NV

Posted on Sept. 17, 2015 at 2:16 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.
The ombudsman does not replace viewers' long-standing ability to contact stations, producers and PBS.
If you have a comment related to PBS website design or user experience, please contact the Audience Services team.


Will PBS Be a Victim of ‘Dying to be a Martyr’?

An old teaching plan revives an even older controversy.

Some (Almost) Closing Thoughts

Some thoughts about an old “great war” and a new not-so-great one.

The Mailbag: When Interview Subjects Can Be Seen as Stereotypes

Viewers call attention to how interview choices can be interpreted in different ways.

E-mail Update

Sign up to receive an E-mail notification when new columns are published.

Your E-mail address:

Unsubscribe from E-mail update.