Big Bird, little bird

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

* This column has been updated. See the ombudsman's note below.

While Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders was addressing more than 10,000 supporters at a rally in Portland, Ore., last Friday afternoon, March 25, a little green bird landed on the stage just in front of him and then hopped up onto the podium just inches from the Vermont senator. Sanders paused, smiled broadly at his tiny visitor, and the crowd went wild. So did the world of Twitter and online videos.

Whatever you think of Sanders, it was a rare, warm, sweet, unscripted moment in what has too often been a poisonous, at times vulgar and violence-provoking primary season.

The little green bird got tons of online and Twitter attention but not much network news attention (NBC used it), and it didn’t make it onto the PBS NewsHour Friday or over the weekend. That’s not a big deal and nobody wrote to me about it. But it struck me, personally, as something that would have been good to share with PBS viewers simply because it was fun and spontaneous and because lots of people saw it on other platforms all over the country. NPR did a story about it, as did Fox News (using a widely-used Associated Press account), CNN, Fortune, USA Today, The Boston Globe, The Oregonian and scores of other newspaper, news and entertainment websites. If you haven't seen it, click on the video above. It's worth a few seconds. And it makes great television.

* (Ombudsman’s Note: Sara Just, the executive producer of the PBS NewsHour, points out, “My understanding is that the bird-meets-Senator video occurred after 5 pm, less than an hour before the NewsHour goes on the air. While we can make changes to our planned broadcast for breaking news at that hour the bar is high because of the technical challenges in such a tight timeframe. We didn't think the bird moment met that bar. Instead, we put that video on our Facebook page where a half a million people have seen it, so far. Your column fails to note our sizable Facebook audience for this video and suggests we ignored it altogether. I hope you will make a correction.” In this case, it was my fault for not asking the NewsHour why there was no coverage of the bird-meets-Sanders episode. The day before, I had asked for a response to mail I had received from viewers about a March 23 NewsHour interview of Sanders by co-anchor Judy Woodruff and got no response.)

A Bigger Bird

Not to dwell on that little bird but it also reminded me of another bird – Sesame Street’s loveable, 8-foot, 2-inch yellow canary named “Big Bird” – that also played a much-remarked upon role in the Oct. 3, 2012, debate between President Barack Obama and then Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and was moderated by PBS’s Jim Lehrer.

I wrote at the time, “Romney started it all by volunteering in the debate that, as one example of what he would do to cut the deficit, he was ‘going to stop the subsidy to PBS . . . I like PBS. I love Big Bird. Actually, I like you, too,’ he said to Lehrer. ‘But I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.’”

I also noted in that column, “Big Bird must rank as one of the all-time great press and public phenomenon to ever flow out of these debates. It has produced hundreds of news stories, including front page displays in major newspapers, scores of television accounts on major networks and late-night comedy routines, countless online outlets, and a boom in the sale of Big Bird costumes for Halloween.” That tiny green bird in Portland is no match for Big Bird but I’m grateful for anything that injects some humor and humanity into this campaign season.

Now, from Birds to Bernie

Two days earlier, on March 23, Sanders appeared on the NewsHour for an extended (nine and a half minutes) interview with co-anchor Judy Woodruff on his approach to dealing with the threat from ISIS and his possible path to the nomination. That did produce more than a dozen or so emails to me – all of them critical of Woodruff – and also produced a much larger stream of comments on the NewsHour’s website, many of them also critical. I’ll include a couple of representative emails to me farther down in the column but first a couple of thoughts and impressions.

First, I think Woodruff is a very good interviewer. Indeed, she and co-anchor Gwen Ifill probably do more live, in-depth, face-to-face interviews with more guests on more subjects than any other news program anchors. That requires familiarity with lots of subjects.

As for this particular Sanders interview, I thought she asked tough questions and she said she was “playing devil’s advocate.” But her tone did get in the way a bit in the last few questions, so I understand some of the complaints I got. But, so what? Better to be challenging than to lob softballs. And Sanders sensed the tone and shot back, at one point asking Woodruff: “You don’t understand how we destroy ISIS?” after trying to explain his reasoning on that point in two previous answers.

The key figure in such interviews is the guest, not the interviewer, and Sanders, perhaps energized even more by the aggressive approach, provided what I thought were solid responses and explanations of his positions. In other words, the most important thing in this interview, and the most valuable thing for viewers, is Sanders; how he handles himself and what he has to say. As I watched it, the exchange definitely added substance to whatever views you held of Sanders, good or bad.

Back in October, Woodruff interviewed Hillary Clinton and the questioning challenged many of Clinton’s positions. Just recently, Woodruff interviewed Jeffrey Goldberg, the writer for The Atlantic who authored a widely-noted article on President Obama’s foreign policy. What struck me about the questioning was that Woodruff threw at Goldberg virtually every criticism Republicans have made about Obama’s foreign policies, but the result was an enlightening and informative response by the author.

Writing last month in The Nation – a magazine that goes back to Civil War days, espouses progressive causes, and has endorsed Bernie Sanders – writer Eric Alterman called attention to "how right-wing memes dominated the February 11 debate that PBS moderated between Sanders and Clinton."

Here Are Some Letters

Re: this evening's interview between Judy Woodruff and Senator Bernie Sanders. Her condescending interview with Senator Sanders was outrageous. It was painfully clear from her line of questioning what her objective was, which was to downplay his abilities to fight ISIS, by expecting nothing less from Sanders than an ultimate solution to the terrorism problem. She wasn't playing the hard hitting reporter or the devil's advocate, as she put it, but asking carefully crafted questions around a topic for which there are no ultimate answers. She went on to mock him by asking why he even bothers to stay in the race. Even doing so with a hint of laughter in her voice.

Fran Hoef-Bouchard, Portland, ME

~ ~ ~

I wanted to tell Judy W. that her interview of Bernie S, tonight, Mar 23, was 50% a waste of air time. Pushing Bernie on the phrase "destroy ISIS" caused me to wonder 'what were you really after – make him mad? Or did you want to hear him say he was going home to get his sword and hurry over to get those bad guys? How many times do YOU, Judy, have to ask him about his delegate count and how he hopes to win? That was a really lazy question – even I could have asked that one. Again, what do you want him to say? There are more intelligent questions than what you asked. Beyond this, I generally like you and Gwen. IT's a great news hour.


~ ~ ~

Judy Woodruff's interview of Bernie Sanders tonight betrayed a clear bias against the candidate. Nearly every question she posed about responding to ISIS was in the form of "but your plan won't work". Since she began the segment by outlining Hillary Clinton's ISIS plan, the entire interview came across as an endorsement of Clinton and a poorly disguised dismissal of Sanders as a legitimate candidate. It should be clear by now that a great many voters – and presumably NewsHour viewers – regard Sen. Sanders as a significant and meaningful candidate. Judy Woodruff's dismissiveness was unwelcome, unwarranted.

Paul George, Los Altos, CA

~ ~ ~

I am concerned about the interview of Bernie Sanders by Judy Woodruff on March 23. The interview looked like a personal attack on Sanders. I do not object to aggressive questioning, but I do not recall Woodruff conducting equally aggressive interviews of other public figures. My impression was that the interview was strongly politically biased, something I deeply deplore. I detest politically motivated attacks on other TV channels, and I am deeply disappointed to see it on the NewsHour.

Ursula N. Peterson, Indianapolis, IN

Posted on March 29, 2016 at 3:58 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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