The NewsHour Gets Tattooed

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

On Tuesday evening, the PBS NewsHour aired a relatively brief, less than four minutes, segment aimed at shedding light on the strong support that Donald Trump continues to receive despite the controversies surrounding his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Introducing the segment, co-anchor Judy Woodruff said, “We talked to one family with differing politics spanning three generations to hear why they’re going all in for Trump.”

The family is the Tillys of Fayetteville, N.C. The viewers got an earful and an eyeful, which I will explain below.

I didn’t get an avalanche of mail and phone calls about this segment—about a dozen or so—but it touched off a heated debate, involving hundreds of commenters, on the NewsHour’s website and attracted a fair amount of online media coverage.

It also caused the NewsHour to post an “Editor’s Note” Wednesday evening at the bottom of both the online transcript of the segment and on an accompanying online story posted just before the program aired, and also to change the headline on the transcript to read: “Tar Heel family explains why they support Trump.” It previously said: “Tar Heel family illustrates why Trump appeals to the South.”

First, a little background. There was no reporter seen or heard in this segment; just the family members talking. Woodruff’s only apparent role was to introduce the segment. In part of the Editor’s Note, the NewsHour explained this. It said: “At several times during this campaign the NewsHour has featured video packages of voices of voters, profiling different families and their views on the candidates and how they have arrived at them. These reports have been presented without reporters’ narration. It is true that this storytelling style requires the audience to draw its own conclusions about what they see and hear, but we believe the audience is able to do so.”

So far, so good. Whatever one thinks of Trump and his campaign, this family was very straight-forward and confident in their spoken views, very authentic, open, clear and colorful, no pun intended. I thought it was a worthwhile political and family snapshot, echoing several aspects of concern.

What the Tattoos Said or Didn’t Say

One thing that was also very apparent was that this was a family heavily into tattoos. They were everywhere, except on the 11-year-old son of Grace Tilly, the 33-year-old mother who is a volunteer for Trump and who has the most to say in the segment and is very heavily and obviously tattooed. Here is where it gets complicated.

As a viewer, there is no way, at least as I saw it, that you would not be aware of how heavily this woman was tattooed, from her hands to her neck and whatever skin was showing. But as a viewer, I could not tell what they meant. If I were a reporter at the scene, I hope I would have asked, which then would have drawn a response and presented a sound-bite from Tilly for this visually obvious aspect of the segment. But who knows if I would have actually done that in that kind of situation.

Enter Gawker

This is where the online media fly-speckers come into play. They also probably generated the email and calls that we did get, all of which came in after the media reports. The first to take note was Gawker, which wrote: “If you can put aside the fact that the Tillys are rallying behind Trump, this is a small but almost heartwarming story of a family choosing to engage with democracy. That’s also if you can put aside the fact that Grace, one of the central characters in the story, has large white power tattoos on each of her hands.”

Gawker identifies these as “the Celtic Cross tattoo on her right hand” and says, “despite the tattoo being in plain view of PBS’ cameras, the story never acknowledges that it is interviewing a walking white power billboard.” It invokes an explanation from the Anti-Defamation League that while the Celtic Cross is a revered symbol typically not associated with extremism, that a particular version of it is one of the most “commonly used white supremacist symbols.” Gawker also noted the number “88” on her left hand is a “white supremacist numerical code for ‘Heil Hitler,’”also citing the ADL website.

Many other sites have now written about this, including AlterNet, Talking Points Memo, Washington Times, Salon, and Erik Wemple's blog for the Washington Post.

A Representative Viewer Letter to the Ombudsman:

I know you've probably heard about this multiple times already, so I'm not going to go on and on about it. Grace Tilly is explicitly shown with white supremacist and neo-Nazi tattoos. This is not up for debate. Her tattoos specifically are symbols for support of white supremacy and a coded message meaning "Heil Hitler." These symbol have been used by the fascist right for fifty years at this point. They are well known to anyone that has grown up around these people, been savaged by these people, or has been affected by them in any way. Yet, for some reason, PBS made what I assume is a editorial decision (as I can't believe that a news program of this caliber would be ignorant enough not to know what they were witnessing) Not to mention this obvious political issue...The simple fact is, that by ignoring this, PBS becomes not only neglectful of its duty to inform, but complicit in publicizing fascist support for a candidate for president.

I would find it hard to believe that the amount of viewer contact that you've received on this isn't far higher than what you usually receive, so please, do the right thing by your viewers.

James Snyder, Portland, OR

Critics Are Flat-Out Wrong, says Tilly

Grace Tilly has strongly denied these interpretations in many postings she has made responding to comments on the PBS NewsHour website under the story by Elizabeth Summers that was posted just before the program aired on television. Here is some of what Tilly said. She goes into more detail in other responses.

“My tattoo is and will always be taken way out of context and I wouldn’t expect close minded individuals to understand why I put that tattoo on my hand where everyone can see it. It is Odin’s eye and means protection to me and it is religious, it is not my fault that certain people use it in a negative manner and for the wrong reasons. You should quit quoting the first thing that pops up on Google and reeducate yourself before you go on blabbering about something that you actually don’t have an effing clue about.”

She also said: “I got my tattoos because I know what they mean to me…and didn't let someone's misguided opinion, someone who frankly doesn't matter to me keep me from getting them. If you actually wanted to have any intelligent conversation I would welcome it, but unless you truly know me you shouldn't spew bs like that.”

And the NewsHour, in its initial editor’s note, said: “In this case, a debate about Grace Tilly’s tattoos has started online. As you can see in the comments section posted with this story, Ms. Tilly argues that these tattoos are not representative of neo-Nazi positions but are connected to her family’s Celtic religious beliefs. That is what she told our producers as well. Others among our online commenters vehemently disagree.”

My Thoughts

I have no way to know what is in Grace Tilly’s head, other than what she has now said, with respect to the tattoos and what they are intended to mean. But I am interested in how this segment was handled. With respect to the NewsHour statement above, I asked the executive producer a number of questions, including when did Tilly tell the producers that these tattoos are connected to her family’s Celtic religious beliefs. Was it before or after the segment aired and did anyone actually ask her about the tattoos before the broadcast? Did anyone have an understanding before the broadcast that these supposedly had another meaning?

Later today, the NewsHour posted this new editor's note on its site and also read it on the air near the end of the program this evening:

In our report Tuesday night on a North Carolina family that’s supporting Donald Trump, we were continuing a long NewsHour tradition of talking directly to voters.

We want to hear from them, in their own voices, speaking about what motivates their political preferences.

Regrettably, none of us at the NewsHour recognized the questions that could arise from Grace Tilly’s tattoos, and we didn’t raise them with her until after the report aired. At that point, our producer contacted Ms. Tilly and she insisted the tattoos are religious in nature and have nothing to do with a neo-Nazi theme or white supremacy.

We referenced her comments in an editor’s note, posted on our website.

Many of our online commenters have since let us know they reject that explanation. We’re now posting this note as a follow up.

We at the NewsHour remain committed to being as transparent as possible in covering this election.

My point here, and now, is not to criticize the NewsHour for this segment, which, as I said, I thought was definitely worthwhile. And, again, I say that without any understanding of the tattoos' meaning except that they were very obvious. But if the NewsHour understood more than I did as a viewer, it would have been proper, indeed incumbent upon them, in my view, to illuminate the viewers. I thought the Post’s Erik Wemple put it best: “To the point about the absence of reportorial narration in the story: That’s true, but the statements of the Tillys in the story are clearly responding to questions from PBS. Why not just include a response to the question: ‘What’s up with your tattoos?’”

Posted on March 17, 2016 at 7:07 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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