The NewsHour Did Okay. In Fact, Quite Well

Posted by Michael Getler on

There have been hundreds of columns, essays, critiques and I-told-you-so pieces written and broadcast about how the press missed this extraordinary election. I don’t have much to add to the collective wisdom one can draw from these observations other than it is another one of those crucial contemporary events—like the origins of the 2003 invasion of Iraq—about which the news media must engage in intense, no punches pulled, introspection to diminish the chances that it will fail in its role of informing the American people, and, indeed, mislead them instead.

My focus in these postings is always a pretty narrow one: PBS. I’m not a media critic in the sense that scores of others are—in print, online and broadcast—whose charter and reading and viewing habits extend over the whole canvas of coverage. So what I would add to the discussion may well be observations that you may have already heard, thought or read someplace else but, nevertheless, are some of the things that just struck me, personally, as a news consumer.

First, let me get to PBS and, specifically, the nightly PBS NewsHour, which accounted for the overwhelming amount of campaign coverage on PBS, and mail to the ombudsman. Last month, before the voting, I said that PBS, in my view, had “provided routinely steady, informative coverage—mercifully civilized in tone and substance—in its major public affairs programs.” I still feel that way.

I also pointed out that “PBS only gets a small fraction of the overall television news viewing audience in comparison to the major commercial networks such as NBC, CBS and ABC and the big cable networks such as CNN, Fox and MSNBC” and so is usually not included in the many critiques about how the media did or did not do in covering this highly unusual election campaign.

The bulk of the critical letters that came my way from Trump supporters both during the campaign and after the voting claimed that the NewsHour had missed the outcome because, like the rest of the media, they had lost touch with the dimensions of distress in much of the country that would have strengthened the likelihood of a Trump victory.

I think it is true that the media, generally, did not either pay enough attention or simply did not provide enough coverage of the movement toward Trump, relied too heavily on what the polls were showing, and were based too heavily within coastal bubbles of Democratic strength. I do think, however, that newspapers did much better than television in covering this contest. But who reads newspapers anymore?

Looking back over NewsHour coverage, my able assistant, Marcia Apperson, and I were able to pull together an impressive array of seven- to nine-minute segments in the eight months leading up to Election Day that, I believe, puts the NewsHour well ahead of most, if not all, other regular TV newscasts in this kind of extended news coverage.

For example, here are two important and specific segments that appeared in March from North Carolina and from economics correspondent Paul Solman, and another in April from Wisconsin. In August, there were segments on alt-right chat rooms and from Virginia. September had three segments with veterans, with Trump gaining Ohio Democrats, and about “the struggling rural white communities that feel like nobody cares.” In October, there were segments on white nationalists and on Clinton and Trump supporters in Florida and Nevada, and two more from the swing states in early November, a shorter one here and a lengthy, and I thought very informative one, by correspondents John Yang and Jeffrey Brown on the day before the voting.

So, as the headline on this column says, I think the NewsHour “did okay, in fact, quite well.”

A No Trump Problem

There is one other thing worth mentioning. Back in May, I also wrote: “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.”

On March 30, for example, co-anchor Gwen Ifill told viewers: “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 added at the time: “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.”

Some General Thoughts, Not About PBS

What follows now are some general thoughts about how things unfolded that are just personal observations, for whatever they are worth, that struck me over the past many months and at the end which I think contributed to the surprise that so many felt.

First, and most importantly to me and lots of others at the time, was what seemed to be the colossal failure of the polling/forecasting services, especially the ones that journalists tend to monitor. These forecasters had Clinton’s chances of winning anywhere between 70 and even 90-plus percent right into the last week of campaigning. There is lots of speculation as to why this happened. Yet a few national polls, rather than state polls, began to be far more accurate toward the end. The ABC News/Washington Post poll just a few days before the election, for example, actually had Trump leading by a percentage point.

And we need to keep in mind that, as of this writing, and while some states are still counting ballots—which is in itself amazing for a supposedly advanced country three weeks after the election—Clinton has about a 2.3 million lead in the popular vote, according to the Cook Political Report. That, of course, is not how we elect presidents but it is still historic and astounding. In 2000, Al Gore lost the election with a popular vote surplus of some 540,000 votes.

So that’s twice in this young century and both times it was a Democrat. In 2000, the Supreme Court interceded. In 2016, you could argue that it was the FBI. I’m not arguing that it was the public involvement of FBI Director James B. Comey, 11 days before the election, that cost Clinton the presidency. But it did at the time, and still does, strike me as an unprecedented and highly controversial action that seemed clearly to have halted and reversed her momentum.

Double Jeopardy

But what was also extraordinary was that President Bill Clinton late in June made an apparently unplanned visit to Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch at the Phoenix airport at a time when the FBI was still investigating Clinton’s use of a private server for many of her email communications years earlier while Secretary of State. This was an incredibly stupid move by Bill Clinton and by Lynch, who met with him and who, as a result of her lapse in judgment, committed herself publicly to accept the forthcoming FBI conclusions, thus ceding the normal review role of the attorney general.

I think both of these episodes deserve intense, additional reporting. I say this not out of any partisan motives but rather because this is the presidency that we are talking about.

Speaking, again personally, of specific moves that struck me as monumental mistakes at the time was Clinton’s use of a private email server while Secretary of State and her description early in September of half of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” 

I thought the mainstream news media, as a whole, did better than many of its critics suggest in terms of its reporting. I thought there were many stories about Clinton and Trump that were excellent, revealing, tough and important. I thought this was especially true for the major newspapers, which just enhances my fear that we rely less on them in today’s anything goes internet, Facebook and Twitter environment.

Reminder for President-Elect Trump: There is a First Amendment

News and accountability journalism that is important, accurate and verifiable remains central to an informed democracy and electorate. Yet it seems to be fading in terms of public acceptance, and that is at our peril. It is also faced with a unique threat from Trump, who has mastered the new era of social media to go around the mainstream media and directly to tens of millions of followers via Twitter without holding a news conference since July, without exposing himself to direct questions from experienced reporters who may challenge the basis for his statements and policies, and while threatening to alter libel laws and seeking to demonize reporters whose coverage he doesn't like.

There is, fortunately, a First Amendment to the Constitution that protects freedom of the press, along with other crucial rights. And it was no accident that the framers of the Constitution made that the first amendment. A serious and fearless press is central to our system of checks and balances. I have no worries that the American press will shrink from its challenge to dig, report and seek truth. I do worry that it won't matter or won't reach large chunks of our fellow Americans in today's environment. 

Today, virtually all newspapers face severe economic constraints. Some have already folded or been diminished. Staff cuts have removed thousands of reporters and editors. Fewer news organizations and reporters are covering state capitals and communities and that may well have been a factor in not telling the story of 2016 accurately enough or in underestimating Trump's strength rather than missing it completely.

I remember when, about six or so years ago, The Washington Post, where I had worked for 35 years, closed all seven of its bureaus around the country as a cost-saving measure. The idea, there and in other places, was that you could still cover the country by sending reporters from Washington or other headquarters to other parts of the country on reporting trips. But there is nothing like local reporters to put real and powerful stories on the front pages and to capture voter sentiment.

Television has also come in for a lot of campaign coverage criticism. But here, too, I think the reality is more complex. There is no doubt that there were probably too many Trump rallies that got more unedited air time than they should, way too much coverage of Clinton's emails which allowed a false equivalency with Trump's many misstatements, insults, divisiveness and vulnerabilities, too many meaningless spin-room interviews and talking heads, too little discussion of issues and too little coverage early on of Bernie Sanders, especially by ABC News and some other networks. But there were also many solid, challenging interviews by TV anchors and reporters, especially of Trump.

A Unique, New President-Elect

More importantly, Trump was and is a unique candidate, major party nominee and now president-elect. There has never, in living memory, been anyone remotely like him about to enter the White House. And all the TV coverage especially, on balance, presented voters with a picture, either appalling or approving, of someone who came out of nowhere. So it was important, and natural, even if excessive. Television remains enormously powerful and remains central to the complex reasons people choose and thus remains a mirror of who we really are.

One of the great benefits to come out of the campaign has been the emergence of serious and highly professional fact-checkers within the press. They began to emerge years before but they were crucial to this campaign because there had never been a nominee that said so many things that were shown to be false. Fact-checkers, however, are after-the-fact practitioners. They are rarely of-the-moment and in real-time. And, in the end, they didn’t matter, either.

Donald Trump won this election. But in the course of doing so he said many awful things and insulted many different people. So finally, and personally, there were two things that he said early on that especially shocked me. They have nothing to do with my politics or politics in general.

One was his mocking of a New York Times reporter who suffers from a congenital condition that affects the use of his arms. The reporter, a former colleague at the Post, is an excellent journalist and fine human being.

The other was in July at a Family Leadership Summit in Iowa when speaking of Sen. John McCain. Trump said: “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Again, this was personal. I spent four years as a Naval officer in the late 1950s, much of the time with a detachment of early warning aircraft on the carrier USS Forrestal which, a decade later during the Vietnam War, would be home to McCain. He was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 on his 23rd bombing run over North Vietnam. He was injured, captured, tortured and isolated for much of the five and a half years that he and his fellow airmen survived in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison. They behaved, under the most horrendous conditions, the way American servicemen and women are supposed to behave. So I have always had a soft spot for McCain.

Donald Trump received five draft deferments during the Vietnam War period, four while a college student and one for medical reasons. He was hardly alone in receiving such deferments in those days. But putting McCain down was, to me, the embodiment of the very worst in what American politics had become. And there was a lot more coming after that.

Posted on Nov. 29, 2016 at 12:46 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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