The Mailbag: Things That Didn’t Happen

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

Two inquiring messages caught my eye this week that dealt with two unusual omissions—things that were not broadcast. One involved a PBS-member station in Nevada, KNPB, and the other involved a popular program, "Finding Your Roots."

First, the Big Thing

In the immediate aftermath of the Feb. 11 nationwide broadcast on PBS of the Democratic primary debate between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, which was moderated by PBS NewsHour co-anchors Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, Andrew Barbano, a columnist for the Sparks (Nev.) Tribune, wrote to inform me that “KNPB TV-5 in Reno-Sparks-Carson/Northern Nevada blacked out the Sanders/Clinton debate.” He asked: “How many other PBS affiliates did so and why?” He also offered to save me the time it would take to ask the station manager, Kurt A. Mische, at KNPB why they did this by including Mische's reply, which follows:

“There was and is no Republican debate scheduled. KNPB is committed to balanced, fair reporting and coverage of the day's issues. This is one of the reasons that PBS has been #1 in public trust for the last 11 years; and why KNPB is so highly regarded in the region. Unfortunately, PBS was not able to secure a debate between the Republican presidential candidates. We cannot, in good conscience, provide coverage of a debate for one party without a debate being scheduled for the other. We are sorry to have missed the Democratic debate, and hope you will understand that balanced, fair coverage comes first at KNPB. As the presidential campaign moves forward, our hope is that both parties will understand the value of having a debate on PBS member stations like KNPB.”

I checked with Mr. Mische and he confirms the accuracy of the reply. I will get to the question of how many of the more than 350 PBS-member stations carried the debate farther down in this column. It’s complicated and it takes a while to gather all the data. But PBS can say now that the debate was broadcast in all 55 major markets that PBS is able to monitor quickly, which accounts for 70 percent of all TV households. It may be that some smaller stations, amounting to perhaps four percent of households, may not have carried it. But it was not yet clear if that was so and why, since some places have overlapping PBS coverage from nearby cities the debate would still be available on air. PBS also pointed out, as it does all the time, that all of its 350 or so member stations are independent and they make the decisions about what, and what not, to air.

My Thoughts

I want to get first to the reasons for not broadcasting the debate cited by Mische in response to Barbano’s question. I applaud Mische’s forthrightness in explaining his position and his dedication to fair and balanced coverage. And a local NBC newsman reported that the debate was streamed on the station’s website.

But personally, I find the decision not to put it on television, although perhaps made with the best of intentions, to be incomprehensible in this case. To me, it turns journalistic principle on its head, producing instead a form of censorship that is disrespectful to local viewers—Republicans, Democrats and Independents. How can you refuse to allow viewers, especially those without cable, to see a nationally-televised Democratic primary debate—not a presidential debate and the first since the New Hampshire primary and seen by more than eight million people (on PBS and simulcast on CNN)—because a debate among Republicans, which PBS had also asked to do, has not yet been granted?

A Little Explanation Goes a Long Way

On a related point, I fault the NewsHour and producing station WETA in Arlington, Va., somewhat for not making clear in a very brief statement at the start of the debate that, as they said to those who asked, they “submitted proposals to host both Democratic National Committee- and Republican National Committee-sanctioned debates through the parties’ respective application processes last year. We remain in close contact with the RNC regarding other hosting opportunities, such as candidate forums, town halls, and similar events.”

When the NewsHour interviews leading politicians on its nightly program it normally points out that a politician with an opposing view will appear next or has been invited. In today’s poisonous political environment, with knee-jerk opponents of PBS ready to pounce on any perceived weakness, it seems proper to me, at least, to find a few seconds to present the bi-partisan basis of your efforts.

The Feb. 11 debate was a big deal for PBS and the NewsHour; the first campaign debate ever produced by the program.* Perhaps there is someone in this country—or maybe even on the planet—who has not seen, heard, read or talked about the many Republican debates. And certainly the NewsHour has covered news, analysis and filmed excerpts of those, and of the far fewer Democratic debates. So how can you deny viewers of public broadcasting in your region the chance to make their own assessments of the Democratic candidates face-to-face because the RNC hasn’t made decisions about NewsHour requests? To me, it doesn’t make sense; a bad decision and reasoning that is not consistent with public service broadcasting, and the same would apply if it were a Republican debate that was intentionally blacked-out.

Another Voice

Writing about this today, Dennis Myers, news editor of the weekly Reno News & Review, said: “...some Nevadans who depend on over-the-air television did not get to see that Clinton/Sanders debate. Its broadcast was suppressed in northern Nevada by KNPB seven days before the caucuses. About a fifth of households lack cable.”

Referring to Mische’s explanation, Myers wrote: “The notion of equal time is usually applied to a single race at a time. The Republican and Democratic candidates are not yet running for president, and are in separate races. They are running for their parties’ nominations for president. Thus, the Republican race is a different race than the Democratic race. Equal time is satisfied by including all the Democratic candidates in the Democratic debate. Mische’s stance is equivalent to withholding a debate in a Republican primary for governor if no debate in the Democratic primary for governor will be held. The notion that Republicans should be given equal time in a Democratic race, or vice-versa, is a novel one. There is nothing in broadcast law that requires it, and no television station in the nation could be found that has ever blacked out a debate for such a reason before.”

Back to the Count, Just Briefly

As PBS officials explained it further, the PBS NewsHour Democratic Presidential Debate 2016 was carried by all 55 of the 56 metered market stations that were entitled to carry it. The exception was WSBE-Providence, which operates under a different plan for PBS national programming. However, the Providence, R.I., market is overlapped by primary station WGBH-Boston, therefore viewers in Providence would have been able to see the debate on WGBH.

Aside from Providence, PBS says, Dayton, Ohio, is the largest market that did not seem to have carried the debate, but there were other omissions in the carriage file and this could have been the case with Dayton. The Dayton station's website indicates that the program was aired there. The projected carriage file shows that fewer than 20 stations, mostly in smaller markets and covering less than four percent of US TV households in total, may not have carried the debate. But PBS says it won’t know for sure for another week or so until final tallies are in and verified.

The Other Non-Event

This involves the popular genealogy program “Finding Your Roots” presided over by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and a letter from Jennifer Salk, a sharp-eyed “Roots” viewer in New York City.

I’ve written about this program before, in fact four ombudsman columns were devoted to it last spring after it was disclosed that Oscar-winning movie star Ben Affleck wanted his distant slave-owning ancestor “censored” from a segment Affleck was appearing in, and it got dropped, quietly, without telling PBS or sponsoring station WNET in New York. That caused a sizeable eruption within public broadcasting and institution of various “corrective measures.”

The current issue being raised by Ms. Salk is not in the same league. But it struck me as interesting, nevertheless. And here’s why.

“Why,” Salk writes, “does this show [which is designed around exploring people’s ancestry] constantly whitewash people's Jewish backgrounds? Harry Connick, Jr. [the March 25, 2012 program], Bill Maher [Jan. 12, 2016] and Patricia Arquette [Feb. 9, 2016] were all born to Jewish mothers, who were fully Jewish. Yet this was not even hinted at in their episodes, not in the slightest. This is even more absurd because Gates mentioned BOTH sides of the OTHER guests who were on. With Maher's episode, Gates went over Bill O'Reilly's father's side the most, but he also discussed a bit of O'Reilly's mother's genealogy. He talked mostly about Soledad O'Brien's father, but they also spent a few minutes about the fact that O'Brien's mother was a black Cuban woman. But apparently Bill Maher was conceived immaculately by his father. Did he even have a mother? What's going on here? It's ridiculous that an ethnic group that makes up 50% of a person's ancestry is never mentioned on their shows. Can you name any other group where this has happened, much less happened three times? (and where it's half of their ancestry). You can't. I've checked. It's never happened on this show.”

A Reply from the Program

I asked the producers of the Gates program to respond and this was their reply: “We try to balance all of the family stories we share in a given hour with the larger themes that emerge when we pair the guests together.  We have many guests this season that focus on Jewish roots including, Frank Gehry, Julianna Margulies and Norman Lear and a very powerful episode finale featuring Dustin Hoffman and the discovery of his Jewish ancestry. We hope you continue to watch and share your thoughts about the series.”

Not Accepted

Salk was not buying it. “The issue isn't ‘focusing’ on that side. You can ‘focus’ on whichever side, or story, you like, to explore in detail. The issue is simply mentioning it. It makes no logical sense on a genealogy show like this one not to mention that someone is 50% of a certain ethnic group (or in Maher's case even mention that his other parent ever existed). This takes approximately 10 seconds to do at worst, although you could even stretch it out to a full minute.

 “Like I said, for every other group - Italian, Irish, Greek, black, etc. - if a guest had a parent from that group, it was at least acknowledged verbally, even if they didn't spend much time on it. The only three times they didn't - in the whole history of the show going back to 2010 - were Connick, Jr., Maher, and now Arquette, which is pretty absurd (all three with the now-vanished Jewish mothers)… It's a bizarre and illogical pattern.”

My Thoughts

The Jewish Mother has been a character used by playwrights, authors, film and television producers, comedians, actors and millions of Jewish sons and daughters since, it seems, biblical times, and especially in this country. In all probability, they are no different from Italian, or Irish or African-American, or lots of other mothers. But for better or worse, they have come to characterize the loving mother that is on the excessive side when it comes to how much love is forthcoming, how proud she is of her children, and how guilty she can make them feel in an instant about lack of attention to her. So she is a force to be reckoned with who always leaves a mark on her offspring. She is definitely not to be ignored or messed with. So I’m with Salk on this one.

 

*Correction: A PBS old-timer points out that the first campaign debate produced by PBS took place on Jan. 31, 1992. Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, co-anchors of PBS NewsHour, moderated a Democratic primary debate featuring Jerry Brown, Bill Clinton, Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey and Paul Tsongas. It took place in the studios of WETA-TV. 

Posted on Feb. 18, 2016 at 2:30 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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