The Mailbag: What to do About Bernie?

Posted by Michael Getler on

Throughout this amazing and truly quite extraordinary campaign season, the majority of the mail coming to me that focuses on political coverage has centered on Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and how he and his campaign have been covered by the PBS NewsHour.

Most of the mail is critical of the coverage and most, but not all, seems to come from Sanders’ supporters, and some from those who don’t like Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton and are not sure about Sanders but are fascinated by his campaign, its effect on the other candidates, and see important value in it.

I have written about this several times, starting back in December of last year. Then came the Feb. 11 Democratic debate between Clinton and Sanders in which NewsHour co-anchors Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill were the moderators. Two months ago, Sanders was on the NewsHour for a lengthy interview with Judy Woodruff, and two weeks later Sanders was on Charlie Rose on CBS and PBS.

So now, as the primary season draws to a tense close, especially on the Democratic side, the mail continues, and it remains generally critical of the coverage. I’m going to post, farther down in this mailbag, a representative sampling of some of the letters I’ve received in the past two weeks or so. I passed many of the letters along to the NewsHour for a response, and this is what they said:

The NewsHour Responds

“We appreciate viewers’ attention to our ongoing election coverage. The NewsHour is committed to covering this election with the highest standards of accuracy, fairness and balance that the program has maintained for more than 40 years. We recognize there is still a contest underway for the Democratic nomination and we’ve reported on the competition between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in each of the 44 state primaries and caucuses held so far. We plan to do that until the primaries conclude and on through the Democratic Party convention.”

Well, okay. That’s always what one hopes for, is good to hear but not apt to satisfy those with specific challenges. On the other hand, the NewsHour has, in my view, done quite a good and professional job on the campaign, and on Sanders, thus far. There have been some stumbles, omissions, body language and questionable tone on occasion that viewers, and I, have called attention to along the way in all of those columns mentioned above. That should not be surprising in a campaign that in its ferocity and cast of characters could fairly be described as unprecedented in our modern politics.

My Thoughts

But before I post some letters on the campaign, and some other subjects as well, allow me, at the risk of considerably lengthening this positing, to offer my own contextual sense.

First, a word about co-anchor Judy Woodruff, who is the target of a lot of the letters from viewers who claim to see bias against Sanders in her questioning not just of Sanders but of other guests when Sanders is the subject.

I disagree with that. Woodruff, as was the case with Charlie Rose, has asked tough questions of, and about, a Vermont senator who was not a Democrat but came out of nowhere to run an astounding and outstanding campaign but has not been questioned intensively in many places on many things. At times, as I’ve said in columns, the challenging tone with Woodruff and Rose can, understandably, get in the way for some viewers. But, as I’ve also said, the key person here is Sanders not the questioner, and he has done extremely well, in my view, in providing a clear picture of himself for a PBS audience under that tough questioning. Woodruff’s interview with Hillary Clinton back in October 2015 was tougher than others I've seen, directly challenging many of her positions and framing those challenges using the positions of Republicans and other critics to elicit fuller responses.

Also, Woodruff’s co-anchor, Gwen Ifill, has been away for nearly two months. She will be back, the NewsHour says, around Memorial Day weekend. This has meant that Woodruff, with help from weekend anchor Hari Sreenivasan, has handled the vast bulk of political interviews during this intense closing phase of the primary season, and has handled them well, with more challenges to the guests on specific policies and issues than one generally finds on a lot of news programs.

As I’ve also noted previously, the NewsHour has provided, in my unscientific survey, more coverage of Sanders and devoted more interview time to him than any of the major broadcast networks. It has also been noted by me, and others, that questioning by NewsHour anchors during the Clinton-Sanders debate and in other interviews, at times, frames the questions in terms used by Republicans in their talking points. But that, too, forces candidates and their surrogates to respond publicly to the challenges coming at them from their opponents.

One, No Trump

And, while the NewsHour has devoted considerable coverage to Sanders and Clinton, and to earlier interviews with Ben Carson (actually several interviews) and other former Republican candidates, there has not been an election-season interview with Donald Trump. So the balance in tough questioning and political framing has never ultimately been tested for NewsHour viewers. That is not the program’s fault.

At the end of the NewsHour’s March 30 broadcast, Ifill said: “For the record, the NewsHour has requested an interview repeatedly with Mr. Trump. And we have yet to make that happen. They have yet to make that happen. We will keep trying.” Executive Producer Sara Just adds: “We have had several Trump advisors and supporters on the program. We continue to be in regular communication with the campaign staff about an interview in the near future with Mr. Trump.”

Judge for Yourself

Finally, most of the letters that have arrived recently have landed after segments on the NewsHour on May 9 (here and here), 10, 16 (here, here and here), 17 and 19. These links are to transcripts of each segment so readers of this column can judge for themselves about their quality.

Indeed, a Woodruff interview on the May 16 broadcast with Sen. Jeff Merkley, the Oregon Democrat who is the only member of the Senate to have endorsed Sanders thus far, produced what I thought was both news and badly needed perspective about what was unfolding. Woodruff threw everything at him – “all delegate projections show it’s all but impossible”… “Clinton has big ideas, too”… “How far does Senator Sanders want to push this”… “What does he do about those voters who have supported him” and Merkley gave what I thought were really informative answers. So how much is that worth? On one hand, some viewers will see bias in the questions. I saw really useful and timely answers that I had not seen elsewhere from someone close to and committed to Sanders.

Here Are Some of the Letters

Judy Woodruff's obvious bias against Senator Bernie Sanders in the context of a purportedly unbiased news broadcast is both embarrassing and troubling. Her annoyance with his astonishingly successful, and popular, campaign is so transparent that I will no longer watch her discuss the political scene.

Susan Kenney, Boise, ID

~ ~ ~

I have long admired Judy Woodruff on PBS. One of the qualities I really appreciated (besides her obvious intelligence) was her impartiality. Until now. She is so clearly very emotionally invested in Hillary Clinton's campaign, and so unhappy with Bernie Sanders that she's lost that amazing quality.

Katherine Schroeder, Holland

~ ~ ~

It is very clear that Judy Woodruff is a Hillary supporter. For example, in tonight's [May 23, 2016] broadcast there were several references to the WSJ/NBC Poll, but no mention that Sanders beat Trump far more decisively than Clinton. No mention of this significant fact. Why not? In many subtle ways, from word choice to what is left out Ms. Woodruff is doing everything she can to help Clinton.

Joseph Martin, Surfside Beach, SC

~ ~ ~

The PBS News Hour led mostly by Judy Woodruff is constantly marginalizing Senator Sanders. For example: only millennials vote for him. Well I am 69 and all liberal democrats vote for him. This is a primary and not a race between Clinton and Trump. The Clintons have always been on the right of their Party. They have always used and abused the left. Judy Woodruff just keeps questioning why Sanders is still running while raising the specter of Trump and his women attitudes, talking as if Sanders is doing a disservice to the campaign. She never questions the trumped up system of the democratic party which is not so democratic with its rigged system of over a thousand Super-delegates who only represent themselves and not the people. Judy Woodruff is basically using her position as anchor to manufacture consent by questioning Sanders's relevancy from the inception. Please forward this message to Judy who I admire as an investigative journalist since the days of the Iran- Contra affair.

James Bailey, Moss Beach, CA

~ ~ ~

Just watched the weekly politics segment [May 9, 2016] with Ms. Woodruff hoping to find out information about our candidate, Bernie Sanders. Although there were pictures of Trump, HRC and Sanders there was NO mention of Sanders except for Tamera Keith stating Sanders supporters were tweeting her saying they were changing to HRC to stop Trump. A few days back I watched Ms. Woodruff interview Bernie. It seemed to be a series of gotcha questions with no focus on the issues of normal Americans.

Andree Laval, Sacramento, CA

~ ~ ~

In tonight's show [May 18, 2016], Judy Woodruff reported that Donald Trump published a list of people he might consider for the Supreme Court. Then she went on to say "they are all white." As a reporter she crossed the line! Would she have said after reporting on a crime that was perpetrated by Black individuals "they were all Black"?

Bradenton, FL

~ ~ ~

In you discussion on the Quinnipiac poll, your crew neglected to mention that B. Sanders does considerably better than H. Clinton in a matchup against D. Trump, especially in the key states of Ohio, Pa, and Fla. I'm really getting the impression that Woodruff is biased in her reporting...or perhaps her writer/producer is. It's very disappointing that the NewsHour has become just another mainstream outlet.

B. Boehm, Arlington, MA

Over Uber

Tonight's report [May 11] about UBER and comments from the New York Times reporter were inaccurate: City Council, not state legislature, enacted requirements for fingerprints of drivers. Group backed by ride-share companies got over 60,000+ signatures for special election on May 7. UBER and Lyft spent $8 million plus on campaign but 62% of voters defeated ride-share question allowing them to operate without fingerprints. UBER and Lyft have pulled out of Austin but local ride-share companies have indicated they will fill in the gap.

Nancy Burns, Austin, TX

~ ~ ~

Wednesday's broadcast discussed Uber/Lyft in Austin, TX, and referred to a decision by the state of Texas. It was NOT a state decision, it was decided by a municipal election in the city of Austin!

Paula Eisenstein Baker, Houston, TX

The NewsHour Responds

The mail about the Uber segment highlights a moment when the guest misspoke about a factual matter. Sometimes during a live interview, on a complex story like this one involving legislation in several states, a guest may state a fact incorrectly and the anchor cannot always catch every such instance in the moment. We appreciate our alert audience for bringing it to our attention.  The guest was indeed referring to the Austin City Council in his final comment, not the Texas State Legislature. We have added an editor’s note online to clarify this.

Other Stuff

There was not a word tonight (5/9/2016) on the News Hour on either the Ben Rhodes story or the discovery that Hillary Clinton's IT specialist Bryan Pagliano’s archived emails for nearly 4 years are missing. Pagliano set up and maintained Clinton's private email server. Rhodes bragged about creating a phony narrative to sell the Iran deal and manipulating the press to help him sell it. These are both major stories and virtually all the major news outlets covered. PBS didn't mention either tonight. Not a word. How can you even maintain a pretense in impartiality with such gaps in your coverage?

Pete Brown, Anchorage, AK

~ ~ ~

I am a fan of PBS and a Frenchman based near Boston. I was disappointed by the reporting on the demonstrations and strikes in France these days. PBS said it is about the reform of the labor code to make it more flexible and allow bosses to fire more easily, but this is not in the law anymore, it has been taken out weeks ago under the pressure of unions. Critics now are about minor stuff unrelated to that at all. Strikes by French railway employees in particular are about a reform of their job organization, not this new law at all. PBS had it all wrong this time.

Lexington, MA

Posted on May 25, 2016 at 12:06 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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