The Mailbag: Speakers vs. Talkers

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

* New statements from NPR and the PBS NewsHour have been added at the end of this column.

There was a lot going on, from beginning to end yesterday, on the opening day of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. And to their credit, and to the credit of public broadcasting, a first-time collaboration between PBS, the PBS NewsHour and the news staff of NPR once again brought more than three hours of gavel-to-gavel coverage to their audiences on television, radio and digital platforms just as they did during the four-day Republican National Convention in Cleveland the week before.

What follows is not an overview of what’s happened so far in both conventions but rather a brief snapshot of one issue that popped up at the start of the Republican gathering and continued, with a blast of emails to me last night from many angry PBS viewers all over the country. That is the occasional interruption of speeches from the floor of the convention by switching back to a press booth high above the convention floor for commentary and analysis by talking heads pulled together, in this case, by the NewsHour and NPR.

And in this case, it was the PBS/NPR team that cut into a speech by New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a very powerful speaker about whom there had been some possible vice-presidential buzz. Booker was about half-way through and seemed only to be building momentum and changing the tone of what had been a contentious start to the convention, when the NewsHour team that was anchoring the broadcast went back to their group of analysts, commentators and floor reporters and left viewers and listeners only to hear the muffled noise of a crowd in the background that seemed to be increasingly embracing whatever Booker was saying.

The reaction from viewers was swift, and I have to say that I thought, at the time and for whatever reason, cutting off Booker was a mistake and was certain to anger viewers and cause them to change channels. I’ve asked the NewsHour for an explanation. They are extremely busy, as you can tell, these days and nights, but if one comes along I will insert it into this ombudsman’s mailbag.

But First…

Several of the letters are posted below. Also, in case you're interested, the video above shows the Booker speech in its entirety, not as interrupted in the actual NewsHour broadcast.

But one or two other things first. I was unavoidably away for most of last week and thus missed watching, first-hand, the first three days of the Republican convention. I did see the last night and the acceptance of the nomination and speech by Donald Trump. So I’m trying to catch up with the programs and the letters. But while I was away, the ombudsman at NPR, Elizabeth Jensen, wrote about what she was hearing from listeners and they pretty much correspond to some of the issues I’ve been hearing about, especially audio problems with crowd noise drowning out interviews and commentary, and the cutting away from speeches. So I’m posting it here as a worthy substitute.

The second point is that the analysis that the PBS/NPR team provides is generally useful, candid and, as I see and hear it, journalistic and not ideological. If you are a public broadcaster or a commercial broadcast network, there is simply no benefit in being partisan. And all networks use basically the same format; cutting away from the podium from time to time to talk with the talking heads around the table upstairs. Sometimes, it may not be an easy call about when to cut away. In this case, I think the viewers who wrote to me were right.

Here Are the Letters

Hello. Cory Booker was making a riveting speech at the Dem convention. Whoever is in charge of the NewsHour decided that it was more important, in the middle of the speech, to cut to the talking heads so they could yammer until the concluding seconds. Whoever made this decision needs to be told that some things are more important than the opinions of their commentariat. Damn I wish I had cable. Thanks for listening.

Terrence Wildman, Wheatland, CA

~ ~ ~

Why oh why did Judy Woodruff [It was actually Gwen Ifill] talk over Cory Booker??? Did she think the audience was more interested in her than in Booker??? Was this a mistake or astounding disrespect? I was so angry, had to go to C-SPAN and will continue with C-SPAN for the remainder of the convention. Colossal blunder, and she went on and on, cutting him off. I would appreciate an email response explaining this action. Whose decision was that?

Lynne Portnoy, Plainview, NY

~ ~ ~

Inexcusable to cut away from Cory Booker. The producer should be reassigned.

Don Crozier, O'Fallon

~ ~ ~

Please don't talk over the speakers at the convention. Breaking away from Corey Booker was inexcusable. We watch PBS to see what's happening. Let it happen. That's what's important. Then discuss it. We missed a lot of a speech that viewers streaming got to see. Thank you.

Beth Conklin, Richmond, CA

~ ~ ~

I was disappointed in your lack of coverage of Cory Booker's speech at the DNC this evening. He was delivering an excellent speech, a powerful counter to Donald Trump's tone. And then PBS/NPR cut away for basic punditry. Nothing the hosts were discussing was so pressing that it couldn't wait. Then, the show cut to Rachel Martin who was updating us on what Senator Booker was saying and how the crowd was responding. You were supposed to be showing the convention, and I would've seen it for myself, but I had to be told.

Thomas Singleton, Mobile

~ ~ ~

I am furious that the commentators spoke over Cory Booker this evening, as well as other important speakers. I tuned in to listen to live coverage. I can hear commentators anytime.

St Paul, MN

Is C-SPAN the Answer?

We tried to watch the Democratic convention on PBS last night. What a disaster; Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill consistently kept talking over speeches; in particular, over Cory Booker's and Sarah Silverman's speeches. We switched to C-Span. And that's what we'll be watching tonight. There's more than enough time for pundits to pontificate on air, let the convention speakers speak uninterrupted.

Rebecca Zicarelli, Bethel, ME

~ ~ ~

While PBS does an excellent job covering the convention I wish we could have watched Cory Booker's awesome speech without commentaries to the end. It was also rude to interrupt it... and made me to switch to Yahoo news.

Tampa, FL

~ ~ ~

Watching the Democratic Convention and have to ask: Why in the world did you cut the speech of Cory Booker and go to the talking heads and people on the floor? We are interested in listening to the speaker and not the opinions of the others.

Jan Nixon, Bowling Green KY

~ ~ ~

I find it wrong that the Corey Booker speech was interrupted by the commentators at the DNC. I am a loyal PBS fan, and I feel that this interruption was very ill timed. While I appreciate your insights, as a voter I need to hear the entirety of those speaking so I can make my own decisions, and form my own impressions of what is being said and how it is being perceived by others.

Joanna Pickrell, Worthington, OH

~ ~ ~

Dear Newshour Folks, I watch you every night and looked forward to your commentary at the DNC. But, Shame on You! You talked through the last part of Cory Booker's awesome speech. Did you talk through Paul Simon's painful song or movie star Eva Longoria? No, you talked through Cory Booker, a man many of us wanted as Vice President! Shame, shame, shame on all of you!!!

Lynn Supp, Baltimore, MD

~ ~ ~

Watching the Democratic convention on PBS. Cory Booker is giving a speech for the ages - not talking about Trump, or Hillary, or Bernie, or politics. He is talking about America. About the things that make us strong. About the things that make us great now. And he is cut off in the middle of his speech so your commentators can talk about .... what? Certainly nothing more important than what he was talking about. Your network will forever be known for cutting off this speech by the future Second Black American President. I hope I am still alive to see it when it happens.

Scott Chandler, San Francisco, CA

~ ~ ~

The coverage of tonight's Democratic Convention is very frustrating! Why chat during Sen. Booker's rousing speech - the panel added nothing but drivel! Save it for the breaks! I am disappointed - it seemed they just wanted to hear themselves speak! PBS is better than that.

Larry Moher, M.D., Tucson, AZ

~ ~ ~

PBS and NPR's coverage continues to be extremely negative .You interrupt Sen. Booker’s brilliant speech for more of the same talking points that have already been discussed over and over about dissension from a few vocal Bernie Sanders supporters. I'm hearing nothing but applause and laughter from the crowd but yet PBS continues to point to some terrible dissension that is just not on the floor tonight. I have no idea what has happened to the journalistic integrity of PBS?

Mike Scott, Micanopy, FL

~ ~ ~

Cory Booker’s speech was interrupted so that Gwen, Amy, David, etc. came on and we lost a good portion of his wonderful speech. That was rude and uncalled for. Whatever made them think they were more important than this speech by a Wonderful senator and terrific young politician. I am very offended and disappointed at the decision of the producer. Really stupid.

Tarrytown, NY

~ ~ ~

Please! Stop talking while speeches are going on. We wanted to hear the whole speech of Cory Booker -- why are you talking over him? We love Gwen and colleagues, but we would like to hear their analyses between speeches. Thank you.

Elaine Unkeless, Brooklyn, NY

~ ~ ~

I am a supporter and daily viewer of PBS. I must voice that I and my family are completely disgusted with your coverage of the convention. On two occasions we have been watching important presentations, which were interrupted by your 'talking heads'. If we wanted to watch this kind of coverage, we would watch CNN or FOX. PLEASE save your commentary until after the speech is concluded! Thank you for your attention.

Vers Live, Horseshoe Bay, TX

~ ~ ~

Your coverage interrupted Sen. Cory Booker's speech. How could you!!!!! I am completely disgusted with the emptiness of the commentary when an actual speech was getting delivered. Nothing was added to the conversation except to let your own mouths run. I directed my wife to change the channel to CSpan.

Steven Gargo, Appleton, WI

~ ~ ~

Can you let Gwen Ifill and her panel members know that we want to hear the convention speakers' speeches and not be interrupted by their chit chat about stars in the audience and their various thoughts? There is time enough between speakers. Otherwise, good job. Thank you.

Judy Taylor, Overland Park, KS

~ ~ ~

I was watching an incredible speech by the senator from New Jersey, and it was interrupted by your commentators drivel. Are you kidding me???? I've rarely been this disgusted by news coverage. I would much rather listen to what's happening and make up my own mind. I don't need you to tell me what I think. Honestly. Back off. Yuck!

Doug Smith, Susanville, CA

Seeing Stars

Watching the Democratic Convention tonight. I CANNOT believe the commentators interrupted Cory Booker's speech to make comments about which stars were in the audience. I could see Fox News do this, but PBS??? They did not interrupt Sarah Silverman (Hollywood) or Paul Simon (entertainment), but Cory Booker - making such a strong and important speech - they decide to break in???? Ugh.

Maureen DeLaughter, Essex, NY

~ ~ ~

What's wrong with you people? On Monday night, I would have liked to have heard Senator Booker's speech. But the Newshour cut away for more blah blah from your blowhards, minutes and minutes of it, to cut back to Sen. Booker only for the final 2 sentences. Very disappointed!

Vienna, VA

~ ~ ~

Hey... Shut up while these great leaders are speaking!!!!! I would have loved to hear Cory Booker!!!! I am sort of hating PBS right now!!!

Elizabeth Clark, Grand Junction, CO

~ ~ ~

During the democratic convention, the commentators broke during Cory Booker’s very motivating speech. That was horrible. What could they possibility say that was more important and couldn't be said after he finished?

Susan Phillips, Louisville

~ ~ ~

Why did your reporters not let us listen to Cory Booker's full speech? You've lost me for the rest of the evening. I'm very disappointed.

Cockeysville MD

~ ~ ~

Someone in the organization should be fired for this DNC coverage. How can you cut away from Senator Booker's speech for pundits to blather pure nonsense? The pundits' comments are actually missing the very point of the Senator's speech. Unacceptable. This is embarrassing for your organization. Please stop interfering with the event and cover it. Let us hear the speakers, not know-nothing pundits.

Urbana, IL

~ ~ ~

I find it very disturbing that the commentators interrupted the speech by Sen. Cory Booker at the DNC to comment on who was in the audience. What these speakers are saying is important and should be allowed to be heard by your entire audience. Please do not interrupt these important messages.

Grace Evans, Raleigh, NC

~ ~ ~

Why in God's name are your correspondents cutting into Cory Booker's speech&);;$&)&@!!!?(

Amazingly tone deaf!!!!!!!!!

Chris Lynch, Portland, OR

*NPR Explains Reasoning about Booker Speech

Soon after this mailbag was posted, NPR’s ombudsman let me know that she, too, had written about complaints about how Booker’s speech was handled and that NPR’s head of news, Michael Oreskes, had offered the following explanation:

“We aired more than half of his speech. We are always seeking to give a full view of the story of the convention, not only what is being said from the platform. That involves reporting among the delegates on the floor (it’s just as much their convention) and other reporting and analysis from our team in the booth. In this case we knew that the major speeches of the evening were coming up. Michelle Obama, Senator Warren and Senator Sanders. These we knew we would air in full as we had aired in full several presentations earlier in the evening. Our total presentation of speeches is clearly greater than any other broadcasters, except for C-SPAN. They do not seek to bring independent reporting or analysis to their convention coverage.

“There was a major story underway during the evening. Would the Democrats be able to bring disappointed Sanders supporters into the tent? So, while the speeches mattered, so, too, did our reporting on that larger context to the evening. So we aired 12 minutes of Senator Booker, broke away for discussion and reporting, and then returned to the end of his speech. This is an entirely reasonable editorial judgment. We captured all his main points and the full speech is easily available on line.”

And the NewsHour Adds This

At these conventions, we are seeking to strike a balance among airing speeches, reporting among the delegates, and offering context and analysis. But if any member of the audience wants to watch only the program from the stage, without any reporting and analysis, it can be seen at​.

Posted on July 26, 2016 at 3:54 p.m.

Search Ombudsman Archive

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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