Cut Once, Think Twice?

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

Last Tuesday, Aug. 23, the nightly PBS NewsHour devoted eight minutes and 12 seconds to an interview with Green Party nominee for President, Dr. Jill Stein. The interview was conducted by NewsHour co-anchor Judy Woodruff.

Dr. Stein, according to recent polling, is attracting about three percent of the vote. She does not get much attention. So the NewsHour is to be commended for giving her an opportunity to voice her views, under questioning, and for devoting a fair amount of time to the interview. I haven’t got any actual statistics on this but my guess is that the NewsHour appearance is one of the longest, perhaps the longest, single interview devoted to Dr. Stein on any of the major television news outlets. And the running time is within the normal span of most NewsHour segments. Last year, an interview with Sen. Bernie Sanders ran seven minutes and 40 seconds and one with Hillary Clinton last September ran just over 13 minutes.

But the real interview with Stein last week, at least by my watch, actually ran about 40 seconds longer than the one that was broadcast. That's because the NewsHour made the decision to cut that amount of time from the original interview, which had been pre-recorded on Facebook Live.

The material that was cut involved Stein being sharply critical of Hillary Clinton for Clinton’s support, as stated by Stein, of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, fracking technology and Obamacare. Of course, if you were watching the actual telecast, as I was, you wound not know about those particular Stein comments. Indeed, it was not until two days later that I began getting emails and phone calls from people who said they were outraged by this.

‘Shocked’

Here’s one of the first emails to arrive from a viewer in New York City: “I was shocked at the journalistic malpractice featuring the interview with Jill Stein, Green candidate for the US presidency. There is online footage of Dr. Stein justifiably criticizing Hillary Clinton's position(s) on the Trans Pacific Partnership that were conveniently cut from the on-air broadcast. The American viewing public, especially those like me who give generously to PBS, have a right to know one of the key differences between the candidates, but PBS cut it. This reeks of favoritism and re-enforces the Wikileaks documentation of collusion between the DNC and the media to be in the tank for Clinton. A network which is supposed to pride itself on journalism which wasn't supposed to be swayed by outside elements has lost complete credibility like the major networks and therefore can go get future funding from the same sources.”

Then Lots More ‘Shocked’

Since then, I have received more than 130 emails and calls about this. I don’t want to say that those who wrote are all NewsHour viewers because many of them appear to have learned of the editing after numerous conservative websites grabbed onto the story. For example, newsbusters.org http://www.newsbusters.org/blogs/nb/tom-blumer/2016/08/27/pbs-newshour-cuts-key-portions-jill-stein-interviewwhich frequently writes critically about PBS, offered “thanks to work done by leftist YouTube channel proprietor Matt Orfalea” for discovering the differences in the two versions of the interview. After that, stories also appeared on Breitbart http://www.breitbart.com/2016-presidential-race/2016/08/27/facebook-censors-video-exposing-pbs-cutting-hillarytpp-criticism-jill-stein-interview/, The Blaze http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2016/08/26/extensive-criticism-of-clinton-edited-out-of-green-party-nominees-answer-during-pbs-interview/ and many others, generating lots of mail to me—all critical.

The Details

First, here is the interview as it appeared on the NewsHour broadcast of August 23.

Here is what was said during the original interview that was cut out in the version shown on television. The cuts were made in Stein’s answer to Woodruff’s last question. The words cut from Stein’s answer appear in bold face in the portion of the transcript below.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me just ask you this. You have made it clear you think both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would be terrible presidents for the country. So, are you saying literally that Hillary Clinton is every bit as bad for the country as Donald Trump, that there’s no difference?

JILL STEIN: I wouldn’t say there are no differences, but the differences are not enough to save your job, because Hillary Clinton and now her transition director Ken Salazar, they’re big proponents of Trans-Pacific Partnership which is basically NAFTA on steroids, and most observers believe that it will send our jobs overseas as well as undermine American sovereignty by bringing in these international tribunals that get to pass judgement on our laws, on our public health protections, on our worker protections. So we can’t count on saving our jobs — saving our lives. One in three Americans now can’t afford healthcare under Obamacare. Or saving the planet because Hillary has been a big proponent of fracking as is Ken Salazar, her transition director. We feel that, in this election, we’re not just deciding what kind of a world we’re going to have, but whether we’re going to have a world or not going forward. And knowing that the majority of Americans is unhappy with those two party choices, this is the time for us to open up. Americans have not only a right to vote, but a right to know who we can vote for. So we’re pushing for opening up the debates. And then let’s see how the chips fall.

NewsHour Explains

I asked the NewsHour for an explanation of why that portion of the longer quote above was cut from the Stein interview.

Here is the response from Nick Massella, NewsHour's director of audience engagement & communications: “Sometimes when an interview is prerecorded, the producers must make some edits before air time as the rest of the pieces of our program come into place and timing is finalized. That is what happened here with our interview with Jill Stein and is commonplace in broadcasting. With the advent of Facebook Live, we can also offer viewers immediate access to the full interview, and in this case, the opportunity to pose questions to the guest. Judy Woodruff told the television audience that the full interview, including audience generated questions, was available online on Facebook at the end of the segment.”

I also asked if program officials could shed any light on why it was decided to cut that particular portion but was told, “That is our only statement on this.”

My Thoughts

First, I should say that as a viewer watching what I thought at the time was the entire interview, I felt this was a worthwhile session that told me a lot about how Dr. Jill Stein thinks about things and that it was good of the NewsHour to invite her on to the program.

It is also true that broadcast and print media both, at times, have to trim interviews due to either time or space constraints. And it is also true that at the end of the interview Woodruff told viewers, “you can watch our extended Facebook Live interview with Dr. Stein online. She answers your questions on Syria, vaccines, and the Black Lives Matter movement. That’s on our Facebook page at Facebook.com/NewsHour.” And that was also true, so you can, indeed, see the complete interview here https://www.facebook.com/newshour/videos/10154494946938675.

And it is also fair to say that Dr. Stein unloaded on Clinton in the televised segment as well, saying, among other things, of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton that “they’re the most disliked and untrusted candidates for president in our history.”

But There’s Always a ‘But’

I have no way to challenge the NewsHour’s explanation that the cuts were necessary due to timing, and no way to know, for sure, why these specific comments were chosen to cut. But an ombudsman, coming at issues after they have unfolded on the air, is sometimes a second-guesser and in that capacity my sense is that these combined decisions added up to the kind of mistake that makes PBS and the NewsHour vulnerable to criticism from those who believe, or want to believe, that public broadcasting is some liberal, left-leaning, Clinton-favoring operation.

Actually, much of the mail I got on political interviews this campaign year is from viewers who believe that interviews with Clinton and Sanders have often been too confrontational and based or framed around Republican talking points and thus are too critical.

News organizations, of course, must not make decisions for fear of being criticized—and in today’s media environment those criticisms are frequently immediate, harsh, widely disseminated on the web and social media and often have more to do with politics and ideology than concerns about journalism. On the other hand, news organizations need to be especially alert, as I see it from my more distanced perch, to be beyond reproach in their reporting and editing in this environment so as not to enable distraction from the journalism.

So some options in this case, at least as I see them as an outsider, would have been to find 40 seconds someplace else, or point out that the interview had to be edited in addition to explaining that the full discussion is online. I don’t know how many NewsHour viewers would go to Facebook to watch “our extended Facebook Live interview” but my oldtimer’s brain would guess not many.

Guesswork

Maybe the NewsHour didn’t answer my question about why this particular segment was cut because they didn’t want to discuss their internal decision-making or news judgment with me and you. Maybe it is because what Stein said about Clinton in that excerpt was no longer accurate or operative, in politics-speak. Clinton had been a strong and leading supporter of the TPP but came out against it last fall in an interview with Woodruff http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/07/politics/hillary-clinton-opposes-tpp/. Clinton’s support for fracking is also more conditional http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/apr/13/bernie-s/does-hillary-clinton-support-fracking/ than it was described by Stein.

I do not believe that NewsHour editors removed that section of Stein’s comments from the on-air broadcast because they were critical of Hillary Clinton. That just would not make sense and the program is and has always been routinely too good and committed to journalistic fairness to do something like that. There has been so much criticism of Clinton that has been aired in various ways—in questions asked and in other interviews with her critics and in film clips for a year now—that some additional critical commentary from a candidate getting three percent in the polls is not likely to move the needle.

But as long as the NewsHour doesn’t care to explain itself more fully I will offer my opinion.

Forty seconds or so is not nothing in TV time but in a 55-minute broadcast it would seem to me to have been worth finding those seconds somewhere else so as not to cut the first and perhaps only interview with Dr. Stein and to let her finish answering—and let NewsHour television viewers see and hear—one of the more provocative questions Woodruff asked. 

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ABOUT THE OMBUDSMAN
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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