The Mailbag: The Debate and an Omission

Posted by Michael Getler on

I’ve said many times in this space that people who write to an ombudsman usually do so to complain about or criticize something. So it is not surprising that most of the more than 300 (and counting) or so emails (and some phone calls) that landed in my mailbox in the hours after last night’s Democratic debate on PBS between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders were critical.

This is a hastily put together mailbag because of the timeliness of the event. What follows is a representative sampling of those letters that have arrived thus far, and is meant to provide a quick sense of the criticism and, in a few cases, applause at the way the debate was handled. Several of the critiques below raise good questions about topics and questions that were not raised.

But I should say at the outset that while I believe there were some other questions—especially on new revelations about a State Department inquiry into the Clinton Foundation—that should have been asked but were not, I felt, personally, that this was a valuable and well-handled debate.

A Good and Useful Debate, in My View

My sense is that a fair, open-minded viewer watching this would have been able to come away with quite a good sense of both candidates and how they handled themselves personally and on a wide range of topics. I thought those questions that were asked were good ones, that the moderators stepped back in ways that allowed both candidates to put themselves most fully on display, which was most important, and that the event itself was substantive, revealing and informative and largely devoid of the personal attacks that have characterized much of the political debate this campaign season.

I should also note that the arriving emails and calls had a distinct flow and pace. Those that arrived within the first several hours generally raised substantive challenges about specific issues that those viewers felt were either left untouched or unchallenged.

Many of those that arrived a bit later were more pointed and followed some critiques posted on the conservative website Breitbart and on the media news and gossip site Gawker and within a YouTube video posted by something called “SeeknExpose Truth” that includes some barely audible whispers by co-anchor Judy Woodruff that are alleged to be critical. No one who wrote to me early claimed to have heard this, and I surely did not, and I would bet 99 percent of the listeners did not. It is also not at all clear that this was critical rather than just questioning.

Gawker later posted an explanation from NewsHour Executive Producer Sara Just that said: “Throughout the debate Judy and Gwen had occasional low volume, whispered conversation with each other and producers in the production truck about timing and upcoming questions. Because this PBS debate had no commercials, this kind of normal broadcast communications had to happen while on the air. At this particular moment late in the debate, the producers and anchors were making decisions about questions we had hoped to get to and were running out of time to get to the obligatory closing statements. There was no editorial comment made.”

At the end of the Gawker post, there is also a disclaimer from the author that says: “I’ve donated money to Bernie Sanders’ campaign and fully intend on voting for him in the primaries and, god willing, the general election.”

A Serious Omission

On the other hand, the failure to ask Clinton about a revelation that appeared on the Washington Post’s website around noon on the day of the debate was to me a hard-to-understand omission. I asked the NewsHour about this but Executive Producer Just said she would "prefer to let the debate speak for itself."

On the morning of the debate, the Post reported: “Investigators with the State Department issued a subpoena to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation last fall seeking documents about the charity’s projects that may have required approval from the federal government during Hillary Clinton’s term as secretary of state, according to people familiar with the subpoena and written correspondence about it.”

Later that afternoon, Post political blogger Chris Cillizza wrote: “Clinton will almost certainly be asked about the latest State investigation in the debate tonight. How she responds — and whether Sanders or the debate moderators push her on that response — could be a pivot point not just tonight but in the race more generally.”

That didn’t happen.

Here Are the Letters

As someone who watches the PBS nightly news consistently, I know that Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff understand the implications of climate change for this country. Dealing with it will be one of the most complex and costly problems our next President will face. It is understandable that the candidates say as little as possible on the subject. It is not understandable and not excusable that the Ifill and Woodruff failed to push them on that question. I write this to you as I see it as a matter of journalistic ethics that a question they knew to be so important was not mentioned.

Jay Mulberry, Chicago, IL

~ ~ ~

Last night's Democratic debate was supposed to focus on foreign policy. The mainstream commercial media, whose entire business structure hinges on pumping up fear and sensationalism, typically interprets that as terrorism all day every day. But we expect more from PBS. The most important foreign policy question of this century is climate change, but there were no questions on this topic, which is even more stunning given the Supreme Court decision to stay the implementation of the Clean Power Plan. Why? It's frankly appalling, and poor coverage of climate change issues is one of the reasons I have cut back on my contributions to public TV.

Rick Knight, Brookfield, IL

~ ~ ~

I had looked forward to the Feb. 11 debate hosted by PBS. I was stunned when your moderators (who showed a clear tilt toward Mrs. Clinton) carefully avoided the critical — very critical — topic of trustworthiness and honesty. This is a key part of any campaign for President (especially this one), and it should have been addressed. You let us down.

Bob Burdick, Greenwood Village, CO

~ ~ ~

Just wondering why in the debate last night the candidates were not asked how they would create or stimulate private sector jobs. Seems no one in either PBS or the mainstream media seeks an answer to this fundamental question for our economy.

Amarillo, TX

~ ~ ~

Your PBS Democratic Debate, Feb 11th, 2016 political commentary and analysis of both candidates was abysmal and offensive to the intelligence of our American People. THE ONLY CREDIT GOES TO BOTH CANDIDATES FOR ENGAGING EACH OTHER IN AN INFORMATIVE, RELEVANT AND LIVELY DEBATE.

San Francisco, CA

~ ~ ~

I am very disappointed in the lack of hard questions for Clinton and Sanders tonight. Just exactly how does Sanders plan to pay for all his giveaways? How does Hillary distinguish herself from Sanders when it comes to capitalism and the free market? It seems like neither one believes in either. They both seem to be trying to outdo the other when it comes to promising Americans the moon, paid for by someone else. Bernie is running as Democrat but is still an Independent (Socialist). Why, and what's the difference?

Great Falls

Some Thumbs Up

Thank you for airing the PBS Democratic Debate in Wisconsin tonight. Great moderators! PBS continues to be the best source of political news on television—fact-based, intelligent, relevant, informative.

Carol Magnusen, Tallahassee, FL

~ ~ ~

I was immensely impressed with the conduct of last night's debate by Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill. They posed intelligent and important questions to the candidates. They were fair and non-biased. They put to shame the previous so-called "celebrity high-profile" moderators. Judy and Gwen should host all the remaining debates.

Richard Ursillo, Mason, OH

~ ~ ~

I am watching the Democratic Debate. You should have actual fact checkers checking out what they say. They went back and forth for 15 minutes about $500 for $5,000 in health care ratios.

They could have stopped that in two if there were people for the interviewers that would fact check and relay to the interviewers the info it would shut them down. Bernie Sanders talked about our health care in relation to England and Canada. What are the tax rates in those countries paying for that health care?

Richard C. Hermann II, Lewisville, NC

~ ~ ~

It is very unprofessional for PBS to be making [analytical] comments on the debate in the middle of the Democratic debate on PBS tonight.

Eldon Linnebur, Los Alamos, NM

~ ~ ~

I am watching the Democratic debate on PBS NewsHour now. The audio quality from the candidates' microphones is atrocious. I realize this is probably a moot point since the debate will be over, but I can't believe you don't have sound engineers listening to this and correcting the problem.

Patrick Brady, Santa Rosa, CA

Silence About the Clinton Foundation

Excerpt from headlined news article: "On the same day that the Washington Post reports that the State Department issued subpoenas to a family foundation bearing Hillary Clinton’s name as part of a federal investigation, the PBS debate moderators didn’t ask her about it."

JM Mahoney, Dallas, TX

~ ~ ~

Don't you think two on-going investigations in Mrs. Clinton's activities warranted any questions?

Both PBS moderators, Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill, ignored the controversies that have dogged Clinton's candidacy, despite fresh developments on both fronts. A top FBI official confirmed earlier this week that the probe regarding the former secretary of state’s private email server remains “ongoing.” This, after Clinton boldly declared at the last debate she’s “100 percent confident” nothing will come of the investigation.

And hours before the PBS-hosted debate in Milwaukee began, The Washington Post reported the State Department inspector general last fall subpoenaed the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation for records relating to charity projects that might have come before the department when Clinton was secretary of state. The Public (as in your network's name!) has a right to know about these issues for someone running for president.

Daniel Potter, St. Louis, MO

~ ~ ~

As a viewer of the PBS Democratic Primary Debate last night I was appalled to hear the moderator whispering (loud enough to be picked up by microphones and broadcast) comments against Bernie Sanders. Please see the video at for additional details.

Sterling, VA

~ ~ ~

I watched what PBS called a debate between Democrats Clinton and Sanders! Tax payer monies go to PBS and there is not one question to Clinton about her private e-mail server that shared Top-Secret information! No question about quid pro quo at the Clinton Foundation either! PBS is publicly funded. It is not funded by the Democrats!

J.T. Jenkins, Greensboro, NC

~ ~ ~

How is it PBS can host a Democratic debate and not ask a single question about an active FBI investigation into both Hillary Clinton or the foundation. PBS loses credibility and looks like they are an enabler not journalists.

Patrick Flandreau, Allendale, MI

Posted on Feb. 12, 2016 at 7:01 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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