The Mailbag: A Mixed Bag as Some Viewers Saw the Conventions

Posted by Michael Getler on

The Republican and Democratic Party conventions ended last night after eight full days, combined, of intense, high-stakes politics and eight evenings of intense, highly-scrutinized news coverage and commentary by all the major broadcast and cable networks and by the PBS NewsHour in a first-time, on-air collaboration with NPR.

During that time, more than 400 emails landed in my inbox from viewers. Some applauded the PBS/NPR presentations, both for their content and for devoting far more air time (three hours-plus) each night than did the major commercial broadcast (non-cable) networks. But most of the mail was critical about one thing or another. That is not unusual in the sense that most people write to an ombudsman to complain about one thing or another.

The PBS/NPR team that provided the coverage—the anchors, floor reporters, and analysts and commentators around the table to discuss what was happening—largely remained the same throughout both conventions. These conventions, of course, produce intense reactions not just inside the arenas but among those watching at home. So it is not surprising that a sizeable chunk of the mail during the RNC gatherings saw an anti-Trump bias in what it heard from the booth above the fray and that many who wrote about coverage of the DNC saw what they considered an anti-Clinton bias.

I’m not going to try to analyze those perceptions, many of which are generalizations based on watching several nights of coverage, and many of which are also based on what commentators, rather than reporters, had to say. Commentary is commentary and not the usual fodder for ombudsmen.

Fortunately, these conventions only take place every four years and it may be hard to take away enduring questions from them. But I would say that one point—the cutting-away from speeches being made on the stage of the convention for either general discussion or analysis by the anchors and commentators—accounted for the largest single complaint and does, in my opinion, hold some lessons for broadcasters.

I wrote about this earlier this week, expressing my view that it was a mistake to cut away in the example I focused on. But that column also contains explanations from NPR and PBS about why and how those decisions are made that are definitely worth reading. So it is not an easy call.

What follows, without comment from me, is a representative sampling of the letters we have received just in the past 24 hours and also over the past two weeks. There are also some other themes—the role of reporters and the quality of the questions they ask on the floor of the conventions and the commentary and analysis on some other networks—that are also worth contemplating. More than a million people probably watched the PBS/NPR coverage every night so these letters may not be representative but here is the thrust of what they said:

More on Speakers vs Talkers

Thank god for CSPAN since PBS is more interested in having their commentators and guests ramble on and on instead of letting American taxpayers listen to the speakers. Although now I get to hear Katy Perry on PBS instead of the speakers before her. What is the thinking behind this "journalistic" decision!? What a disappointment in the supposed nation's network.

Steve Hunt, Alexandria, VA

~ ~ ~

After he was bumped from Wednesday night's schedule, I had been looking forward to hearing Sherrod Brown speak at the DNC for 2 days. He is one of our most prominent, outstanding senators, from a large swing state, who was closely vetted for VP. Instead, we saw your pointless round table discussion and interviews with random people on the floor. Do you really think this is why people watch convention coverage? My friends and I who had gathered to watch this evening, all of us looking forward to seeing/hearing our brilliant, Ohio senator, were furious! What an outrageous snub! Senator Brown wasn't even mentioned! I truly cannot find the words that are sufficient to express my outrage! Next time: CSPAN.

Dayton, OH

~ ~ ~

Honestly, you have abandoned the very reason I and many others choose PBS in the first place. I would have liked to have heard the Mayor of Atlanta. But not one word of his speech was broadcast. Rather every member of the cast of characters was given an opportunity to frame the Biden speech, to put it in context, as it were, but really all they did was state the obvious, ad nauseam. So there was no time to see or hear the Mayor of Atlanta, who is a compelling and smart speaker. Why?

Vienna, VA

~ ~ ~

I taped the PBS coverage because I usually find your coverage to be fair and impartial. Mistake on my part. Your coverage of the Democratic Convention is sadly very biased. Snide remarks, criticism, and, most importantly, lack of actual coverage. I do not want to hear your commentators; I want to hear the speakers. I am intelligent enough to make my own judgments, but you refuse to allow the TV audience to hear them. Less commentating and more coverage would be appreciated.

Ruth Haynes, Richland Hills

~ ~ ~

I'm on my last evening of the Democratic National Convention and after spending the first 3 nights with PBS, sorry to say, I have moved to MSNBC. Why, you may ask. It's the commentators you have at the table. And the interviewers on the convention floor. They have a very tiny repertoire of questions (i.e. "What do you think Hilary will do tonight?") And they seem to think if they say the question enough to enough people, someone will give them a different, better, more meaningful, shocking answer. Really?

You must know it's much worse than this. Boring, meaningless comments. The same ones over and over again. They must think they are acting Incisive and retaining their objectivity when the kindest thing I can say is that they are repetitive and shallow. Under no circumstances do I want to sound vitriolic and Trump-like about these people but it is quite a disappointment.

New Mexico

~ ~ ~

Thanks for everyone's hard work this week & last at the conventions. But, could you PLEASE NOT talk while the speakers are giving their speeches? This is most annoying! I know that everyone around the table has something interesting to say. But none of these speakers on stage are insignificant to us & it comes across as disrespectful for anyone to speak over them. Perhaps you simply have too many people around the table to begin with? I have loved the NEWSHOUR since its inception and am loath to criticize you for any reason. Thanks for listening to me & for giving us such fine quality news programs over the years.

Charlotte, NC

On Clinton

I have been a regular viewer of the PBS NewsHour since at least 1975. I watched your coverage of the conventions (both) and found it to be bland and generally uninformative. I found in particular the commentary of Shields and Brookes flat, jaded and cynical. Frankly, you need fresh voices that approximate the repartee that once existed between them. Nothing reflected that quality more than the panning that Shields and Brookes' (and to some limited extent the other journalists present) gave to Clinton's acceptance speech. I don't say this out of partiality for Clinton. I have the vantage point of decades of viewership of your show. I say this because there was such an apparent superficiality about their comments which actually were so brief and ephemeral to undercut what in the past has been the NewsHour's most distinguished feature – depth and insight that is lacking in more traditional media.

Seattle, WA

~ ~ ~

I was astonished to hear the same rhetoric from the commentators regarding Hillary Clinton's speech as being subpar, lacking tonal variety and reducing it to "checking the boxes" and then compared it to the other speeches given during the conventions. Do they think that we are busy comparing her speech with other speeches given this week and rating whose was better?! I listened to the individual speakers during both conventions for their messages, role, relevancy, truthfulness, purpose and passion. I saw the speaker as a whole - WHO they are and their message - and not a speech to be graded. When did speeches become a competition versus taken on their individual merit at a unique point in time? I can think for myself.

St. Louis, MO

~ ~ ~

Well, NPR and PBS ended like they started, unbelievably negative towards Hillary Clinton. For David Brooks to say it was a "below average” speech are the comments of the man who sees the Republican Party, his party, crumbling before his very eyes.

Mike Scott, Micanooy, FL

~ ~ ~

Watching the DNC coverage, Gwen and cast repeatedly focus on the impression that Americans don't “know” Hillary. I believe they perpetuate a fallacy. I'm not particularly a political animal and still I know more about Hillary than I do about my partner of 5 years. Also after General Allen spoke, with dozens of military officers and vets standing on stage with him, the commentators focus on whether General Allen is alone as military who support Hillary. Weren't the commentators watching the stage. He wasn't alone! Another fallacy perpetuated. I expect better from PBS.

Lewis Maurer, Rehoboth Beach, DE

~ ~ ~

Why on earth do your commentators feel the need to talk so much? I tune in to the Convention at night to hear the speakers and be introduced to people I don't know and up-and-coming figures in the party, yet the commentators often pull away from the speakers to give their own colleagues and guests the air time, relegating the person at the podium to the background. But I would much rather hear what Sen. Amy Klobuchar has to say than endure yet another oh-so-serious conversation about Hillary's "likeability" (Really? We’re still stuck on that one?). I'm a loyal monthly subscriber to two PBS stations in DC and addicted to the NewsHour, but you’ve lost me to MSNBC and CNN for this round.

Judith Michaels, Washington

~ ~ ~

I've always been a fan of Newshour, but what is going on with the convention coverage? It seems so unorganized and includes a lot of rambling about the obvious and superficial. Thanks for many enjoyable years of news coverage!

S Jackson, Mobile, AL

~ ~ ~

I am overall a huge fan of the NewsHour; I watch every night (at 7:00 pm here in Kentucky) and never miss Friday evenings in particular, so as to be sure to be enlightened by the civil discourse between David Brooks and Mark Shields. Of all the available choices, I selected PBS to bring me coverage of both the RNC and the DNC, primarily because I expected even-handed reporting and discussion. I thought I saw that at the RNC. However, I do not feel the same way about the first night’s coverage of the DNC.

Specifically: there was news interest in the Sanders supporters who were vocally protesting and, I think it’s fair to say, doing their best to disrupt the proceedings. It needed to be covered without question. Where I think the coverage became quite unbalanced, however, was in the continuing parade of Sanders delegates interviewed through the evening, and the paucity of Clinton delegates accorded the same attention.

Allen Lopez, Louisville, KY

On Trump at the RNC

Why is it worth watching or listening to your round table evaluations when 100% of your representatives are pro-Hillary and begin and end every comment with anti-Trump, none truthful, unfactual and slanted evaluations of any statement or direct speech by the Trump campaign or Trump. Very controlled, insulting broadcasting.

Dan Schnorr, Houston, TX

~ ~ ~

First, I applaud PBS for the extended coverage of the Republican Convention, since the networks only covered 1 hour/night. However, as an independent/republican leaning viewer, I thought 85% of the commentary (not necessarily the floor reporters) had a liberal bias. Most of the panel appeared to be picking at what they perceived to be the negatives they could exploit. Trump supporting guests appeared to be challenged on their views. I'll be watching the Democratic Convention to see if your panel is equally as critical of their convention and platform as they were this week. Maybe all this goes back to Mitt Romney wanting to axe Big Bird?

Lake Orion, MI

~ ~ ~

RE: 7/21/2016 Commentaries made after Donald Trump speech at RNC. PBS cannot possibly meet any standard of editorial integrity with that Commentary staff. They are PAINFULLY/OBVIOUSLY biased and LIBERAL/LEFT. Nothing "positive" was said about a speech given by a man willing to go up against the MACHINERY and who could possibly win our country back from total economic disaster, moral decline, and attacks from terrorists or other internal enemies. There was no integrity there and I encourage PBS to CHANGE their staff so that the comments are "BALANCED and FAIR." Perhaps half Conservatives/half Liberals....

Morrison, CO

~ ~ ~

Because I do not have cable, I viewed, not all, but most of the RNC on PBS! While Donald Trump and many others made outstanding speeches, from the comments of Gwen, Judy, David Brooks, Mark Shields and others you would have thought that the speakers were out of touch with America and the American people. That was far, far from the truth – Donald Trump’s speech was outstanding, and in fact, having watched many convention speeches in my long life, this was the best speech I have ever viewed! He spoke to me and how he’s going to make me proud again to be an American! Finally! But NO, National Public Broadcasting along with NPR, doesn’t want to give any credit to any conservative.

Memphis, TN

All’s Well That Ends Well

Absolutely superb coverage of the conventions (both Rep. and Dem). Really grateful for PBS and its uncompromising journalistic integrity. Thank you!

Saila Pillai, Indianapolis, IN

~ ~ ~

Thank you for your strenuous and informative coverage of the Republican National Convention. It appears that one or more producers have been ambitious and aggressive in assembling a large panel of experienced commentators and floor reporters. Ms. Ifill and Ms. Woodruff are juggling all these balls in the air, being sure to touch base with each element, to maximum effect. The knowledge shown in their follow-up questions and promptings cannot be faked. Mssrs. Shields and Brooks never fail to provide a prospective I had not considered. Ms. Walter is brilliant at punctuating the discourse with salient statistics and facts. You all deserve a massage, a bonus, and few days to lie on the sofa and count ceiling tiles.

Diane Brandt, Ann Arbor, MI

~ ~ ~

Yes!!!! You've got the sound right! The Republican convention was an embarrassment for you because of the awful background sound. You have the BEST commentators and now I can hear them! CONGRATS!

Oneonta, NY

~ ~ ~

Do away with background noise during election coverage. Otherwise great coverage.

Stewart Taylor, Billings, MT

Posted on July 29, 2016 at 4:19 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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