The Mailbag: Some Choice Words for ‘The Choice’

Posted by Michael Getler on

The end is near. Not for the world. Just for this bitter, grueling, polarizing, unusual, important, possibly unprecedented and seemingly endless political campaign. But it isn’t over yet and one day after the first nationally-televised debate on Monday night, Sept. 26, between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, PBS’s flagship investigative series Frontline broadcast its quadrennial biographical documentary about the two leading candidates called “The Choice.” Frontline has done this every four years since 1988.

Frontline described this two-hour broadcast on Tuesday evening the 27th as going “behind the headlines to investigate what has shaped Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — where they came from, how they lead and why they want one of the most difficult jobs imaginable.” Dozens of interviews over hundreds of hours, Frontline explains, were conducted in order to better understand the people, moments and forces that have shaped these candidates. Eighteen of these conversations are published on the program’s website. Taken together, “this collection offers new insights into who the candidates are — and how they might lead as president,” the producers say.

The program was widely praised in press reviews, winning accolades in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, ForbesVariety and many other publications.

But this is the ombudsman’s mailbag and so you can be sure there were some viewers who have a contrary opinion. Actually, I was surprised at how little mail I got; only a handful, literally just three or four emails, and all of them critical. There are a few more similar critical assessments in the comments section of the program’s website. Perhaps most people liked it and didn’t write. Or perhaps people are so exhausted by this campaign and feel they already know too much. In any event, those who wrote raised serious questions, especially about fairness and balance, and in so doing raised what I thought were interesting challenges for journalism in covering such an unusual campaign.

What follows, first, are three letters from viewers. I sent these to Frontline and asked for its response and that follows the letters. Finally, there are some thoughts of mine.

Here Are the Letters

I watched your documentary on Clinton and Trump. I noticed a lot more negative points about Trump, then Clinton. Early on I had the impression that Trump was practically a boy Hitler while Hillary is attending MLK events, nice pictures etc. Later, Hillary's actual misdeeds are barely mentioned in passing without anywhere near the detail spent on Trumps downside. He certainly is a person with issues but she is painted largely as a hapless victim of Bill. You could have dug in even a tad deeper to show Hillary's direct involvement in her many scandals. What to include and how long to dwell on things is an edited planned decision and I am sorry but I found it biased.

Peter E., Seattle, WA

~ ~ ~

The program "The Choice", which aired on 9/27/16, was blatantly biased. I heard all positive reporting on Hillary and nothing but bad comments on Donald during the segment. This is probably the worst news documentary I've ever seen. I had a great deal of respect for Frontline shows because they seemed to be at least relatively objective, but this piece was just blatantly one-sided and full of propaganda. If it would have covered both candidates equally and represented both positive and negative aspects of the individuals, I would have had no problem w it because it would have led me down a course of impartial reasoning and given me a "choice" for which candidate I was going to support, instead, I have recognized the blatant attempt of coercion that Frontline was trying to do w this segment. I welcome any response to my email on this subject to see what exactly the goal was in this news documentary. Maybe my assumption on this segment is not on par with the intended purpose of the show, so I would welcome some clarity on this matter. I look forward to hearing back from you.

Altoona, PA

~ ~ ~

I just watched your program “Choice” featuring articles on the two candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Your BIAS was unbelievable. You showed nothing but Great images of POOR, Sweet Hillary and nothing but Nasty, Jealous comments by people who have an ax to Grind against Donald Trump. You said NOTHING good about him and Hillary you portrayed as SAINT HILLARY.

She has had an agenda for a long time. She stayed with her husband because it got her KNOWN and she had plans all along. Without her exposure as First Lady she would just be a nobody from Arkansas. All his sexual forays played right into her hands. She came across as the POOR Sinned against Spouse. Look at her, she is HARD, she is responsible for those people that died in Benghazi. She was angry at the senate hearings. Her attitude was HOW DARE YOU. One of the wives is taking her to court. I Hope she is destroyed. You are responsible for portraying her as the Victim. This Lady is as HARD as they come. She thinks she is above the Law. She takes secret information out of a government office and sends it to her home computer and she gets away with it. I am not even a citizen of your country but I am appalled at this program “Choice” There was no choice given. You tried to make the choice for people to very strongly influence the vote.

Kathy Cholod, Canada, BC

Frontline Managing Editor Andrew Metz Responds:

“Here are my thoughts about the letters you shared, and the general suggestion of bias that they raise. Much has been said about the deeply polarized, partisan state of the electorate, and it would make sense that those who favor one candidate or another would take issue with things they perceive as critical or negative about their candidate. As for this year's production of The Choice, the film presented deeply-reported and accurate portraits of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – from people who were with them at key moments in their lives, and from their own words and actions over the years. With regards to complaints about the film's portrayal of Trump specifically, it is worth noting that even his avowed supporters said things that a viewer might consider negative or unflattering. That reflects reality.  It is in keeping with the provocative nature of his character and his candidacy. 

“In a recent review of the film, The New York Times put it well:  ‘What if laying out the simple evidence you find might make you seem to be taking a side? ‘The Choice’ makes a good answer. You give the candidates equal time; you are not required to equal out their portraits. You present, as directly as you can, reality as you have found it. If someone doesn’t like that, so be it. That, too, is a choice, and it’s the right one.”

My Thoughts

First, I should say that I thought this was an excellent and very useful and informative documentary that did, indeed, tell me things about both candidates that, despite endless year-long coverage, I either didn’t know or it hadn’t really sunk in. I admit that I am a longtime fan of Frontline and of the work, especially, of Producer/Writer Michael Kirk, who co-wrote this program with Mike Wiser. And, although I have written critically on a number of occasions over the years about one broadcast or one segment or another, I feel that Frontline is the best, almost the only, program of its kind left on American television.

There is another level as well that I feel is worth noting on the positive side. While PBS gets only a small fraction of the overall American commercial and cable television viewing audience during election campaigns, as a viewer I feel it is a pleasure to watch a serious, intelligent, uninterrupted two-hour, rant-free, scream-free exposition of the backgrounds and life stories of two of the most controversial candidates in our modern history.

As for issues of fairness and balance, this program struck me as something different from a traditional political/policy assessment and deserves to be judged differently. It was much more of a portrait of two extraordinary individuals and what formed them, a character study about two unusual, trouble-strewn paths to the top that documented what was relevant—good and bad—and that would have suffered from any formulaic attempt to use fairness and balance to obscure the reality of these two fascinating, poles-apart candidates. In short, I felt it was fair, even-handed and well documented.

There has never been a candidate like Trump and the formative background documentation needs to be relevant and candid, and it was. Clinton has had a long career of public service and is the carrier, among other things, of a penchant for secrecy that started much earlier, has hurt her, and that was explored in the program. Along those lines, I also asked Frontline why stories about the missing and then found documents from the Rose Law Firm had not been included along with the big profit from her cattle futures investment. Metz said: “Vince Foster did not appear either, though Travelgate and others were mentioned in the scandal montage. But I think in spotlighting the few moments we did, the film presented enough substance on both sides to serve the mission, understanding the motivations and forces that have shaped these two people.”

I would not argue with viewers who felt that this program turned out to be harder on Trump than it was on Clinton. The strongly positive review in The New York Times that Metz quotes above also says about the sketch of Trump: “The narrative is sober, straightforward and presented without editorializing. But it is quietly, firmly damning.”

But Trump is a newcomer to politics and would-be public service and is simply a highly controversial figure about whom much less is known than what we know about Hillary Clinton.

In closing, I want to go a bit further than Metz did in quoting the full, closing portion of the review in the Times by James Poniewozik because it goes to a subject that has always been there lurking in debates about journalistic fundamentals but has been elevated to new and ever more serious heights by the emergence of Donald Trump.

This is not to say, he writes, that “The Choice will necessarily change a single mind. This election has shown that Mrs. Clinton’s and Mr. Trump’s voters do not just have different opinions but occupy different psychic universes, operating under different definitions of qualification and character. In any case, affecting votes should not be the measure of political journalism. But the two hours are a striking example of how to avoid the journalistic pitfall sometimes labeled ‘false equivalency.’ What if you have to cover two candidates and they simply don’t compare equally? Do you grade them on a curve? Stretch to find counterexamples for the appearance of balance? What if laying out the simple evidence you find might make you seem to be taking a side? The Choice makes a good answer. You give the candidates equal time; you are not required to equal out their portraits. You present, as directly as you can, reality as you have found it. If someone doesn’t like that, so be it. That, too, is a choice, and it’s the right one.”

Posted on Oct. 5, 2016 at 4:56 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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