The Mailbag: Covering Conway

Posted by Michael Getler on

I was out of town for a few days last week. No big deal, just a short break. But in the fire-hose environment of the then one-week old Trump administration, that seems to be the equivalent of being away for three months of any previous presidency.

One of the things I missed was the appearance of Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, on the PBS NewsHour broadcast on the evening of Jan. 26. But within hours of her appearance, in an interview with NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff, more than 80 emails from viewers landed in the ombudsman’s inbox. All of them, with one or two exceptions, were critical of Conway’s performance and of PBS for giving her too much air time. Several were critical of Woodruff but several others also commended her role. A generous but reflective sampling of the viewer mail is posted below, as is a video of the segment for those who missed it or wish to study it more closely.

First, some background and thoughts. Conway is a lawyer, and former pollster, not the press secretary or press spokesperson. But this was her fourth extended appearance in an interview on the NewsHour since Nov. 22, which seems highly unusual. The interview was almost 14 minutes long, roughly double the time for the average NewsHour segment, and Conway can talk faster than any other public figure that I’ve ever seen on television. So she said a lot. Also, she doesn’t stop talking when you expect most guests would, or when interviewers try and interrupt her.

What Counts

Most importantly, she is very good at her job—smart, quick, informed, unflappable, almost impossible to derail in advocating for her boss and in explaining away the large, seemingly unprecedented, number of controversial statements, tweets, policies, orders, events and charges of false statements and outright lying that have erupted during the first week or so of his administration. If you don’t like our new president, you will not like Kellyanne Conway.

She is, in short, a tough interview. Which brings me to Woodruff.

Several of the emails below are critical of PBS for giving Conway so much exposure and of Woodruff, essentially making the case that she is not a good match against Conway. But several others praise her precisely because she is firm yet polite. I would take Woodruff’s side in this. If you listen to the interview closely, you will see that Woodruff, in her questioning and her responses to some of Conway’s answers, does go to the inconsistencies that have surfaced about several issues and does try and keep the record straight as best anybody can.

For example, she pointed out that the president of Mexico said it was his decision not to come to Washington for a meeting with President Trump, not a joint decision. And her questions went to differing administration statements on financing a border wall, to 100 mayors saying they would not go along with ending sanctuary cities and that the idea that most immigrants are committing crimes is just not true. She questioned whether creating safe zones in Syria would not require U.S. troops and about resurrecting the use of torture and new “black sites” overseas. She said there was no credible evidence of widespread voter fraud and asked, “Couldn’t this end up just like President Trump’s longtime claim that President Obama was born outside the United States?”

This, to me, felt a bit like a boxing match with two experienced contestants with very different styles. Both, I thought, reflected where we are. Conway, a maddening, to some, but street smart fighter extremely fast on her feet and never at a loss for a counter-punch. And Woodruff, whose style may have seemed too soft for some but who kept her composure and focus on the news of an incredible first week.

The press’s reporting role is not to fight or, as the president's top strategist, Stephen Bannon, has put it, to "keep its mouth shut." Nor has it or should it become, as Bannon described it, “an opposition party.” Rather it should do as it is doing: asking the right questions, extracting information for the public, and letting viewers decide what it is they are watching.

Here Are Some of the Letters

I have watched the NewsHour for 15 years. For the perhaps fourth or fifth time, I listened to Judy's interview with Kellyanne Conway tonight. I very much appreciate that Trump representatives are invited onto the program, that's fair. However, to allow Kellyanne to speech-make incessantly with too few interruptions does not serve the greater purpose of providing news, especially real (as opposed to fake) news. Ms. Conroy is an expert at manipulating the venue. It's a daunting task for newscasters to modulate this but modulation is absolutely necessary (and not just for a partisan like me). This is how we got to this unusual moment where facts don't matter. On PBS, facts need to matter. If Ms. Conroy cannot agree to some ground rules and some persistent interruption when she does not answer questions or she proposes alternate facts, then PBS should not engage in this false equivalence experiment.

Stuart Winston, Ann Arbor

~ ~ ~

Count the minutes the NewsHour devoted to Kellyanne Conway tonight, 1/26.I will stop watching the NewsHour and contributing to my local station if this continues. Judy Woodruff is a capable journalist. Don't make her a shill for the Administration in the hope that it will guarantee federal funds for the CPB [Corporation for Public Broadcasting]. It won't work.

Zionville, NC

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I am deeply disturbed by the appearance of Kellyanne Conway on this evening's NewsHour. I have always looked to PBS as having the utmost journalistic integrity. I am surprised to see a guest on the program that over the last months has shown herself to be evasive answering direct questions and clearly lies! Please cover this administration like a hawk but spare us, please, from this propaganda spouting minion. I have watched the NewsHour for over thirty years and this is the first time I have been this concerned that I am writing. This country and the whole world need a media corps and journalists who will not be manipulated.

Alicia McGrath, Las Vegas, NV

An Offer of Advice

I watched the Judy Woodruff interview with Kellyanne Conway. I was extremely disappointed with the fact that she asked a question and let Kellyanne deflect and avoid the question. Take a lesson from [NBC’s] Chuck Todd and ask the same question till you get an answer. Ask 5 times if that is what it takes. Stop her as she goes off topic and do not let her manipulate the host and viewers. KA is rude to talk endlessly without allowing the questioner to regain hold of the topic. Do not lose control of the interview.

Lee Gilbert, Cologne, MN

~ ~ ~

Please don't have Kellyanne Conway on the show any more. Your (polite) format just lets her go on endlessly with her diatribes. Judy is no match for her.

John Vail, Worton, MD

~ ~ ~

Judy Woodruff’s interview of Kellyanne Conway provided Conway too many opportunities to lecture your audience on Donald Trump’s accomplishments. It is horrifying that Steve Bannon, who has direct ties to the Alt-Right and White Nationalism, is correct when he says the media is the opposition. Please behave that way, you need to work harder for the American public.

When Woodruff asked about fraud and the popular vote, Conway brought up Jill Stein’s recount with no challenge from Woodruff. One of many suggestions for challenge could have been the extremely narrow margins in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Some in the American public still believe the fake news claim that Trump won by a landslide…There were so many missed opportunities. I am fearful that PBS and other esteemed news organizations are forgetting their responsibilities.

When Conway says “listen more to the American people,” I know that she is not talking about me. It is therefore the role of PBS to reveal the divisiveness of Trump’s words and actions…Trump and his cronies are humiliating the media and you are allowing it. I am part of the majority that does not want this administration. I am sickened daily by Trump’s disinformation and I fear a divided and isolated United States. Rather than giving the administration opportunity, please be more responsible about exposing lies and propaganda.

New York

~ ~ ~

Despite the fact the Kellyanne Conway is Trump's counselor, I respectfully request she never be interviewed on your program unless her diatribes can be dealt with in an intelligent manner by an interviewer able to use intellectual argument to counter her verbal assault. She should not be allowed to spew random ideology rather than answer questions respectfully. Her patronizing and demeaning manner with your staff is reprehensible. It was horrible to watch.

Suzanne Brint, Oak Park, CA

~ ~ ~

I implore PBS NewsHour, as a responsible news source, to disengage from broadcasting interviews with Kellyanne Conway. You don't get your questions answered and she uses your time to spout her befuddling lies and gas-lighting agenda. Please spare us and stop giving her anymore air time. She is just using you and disgusting me with her twisted rhetoric. I have to mute or switch channels and I really would rather watch Judy Woodruff and her colleagues do their excellent coverage. Thank you in advance for considering and hopefully, fulfilling this request.

Karen Hunting, Monterey

~ ~ ~

I appreciate the difficulty that Judy Woodruff (and other journalists) has with interviewing Kellyanne Conway. I recommend that you no longer interview her because she does not answer the questions and lies.

Boulder, CO

The Liberal Left

Judy Woodruff’s interview of Kellyanne Conway was much too one-sided against everything Ms. Conway had to say... me and my husband are tired of the liberal left and the opinionated news people like Woodruff... we were only happy that Conway made Woodruff look foolish! It made our day! Please realize we now watch less and less news on tv due to your slanted news interviews! I sincerely hope you will change and join the LARGE number of Americans who chose TRUMP!!!

Joe and Janice Andreyka, Gold Canyon

~ ~ ~

It was distressing to watch the Woodruff-Conway interview last night. I believe this is the second time Conway has been on at length, giving her a forum and a soapbox. She talks over, deflects, lies, interrupts. Ms. Woodruff tried, but Conway brazens on. How about letting her "listen" for a change by not giving her air time?

E Murawski, Alexandria

More Complaints and Compliments

I would like to compliment Judy Woodruff on her interview last night with Kellyanne. I was pleased that Ms. Woodruff kept trying to keep Kellyanne on topic and answer the questions being asked. As always, Ms. Woodruff was gracious while being incisive. As Kellyanne is becoming well known for her failure to answer questions...I think she should no longer be interviewed by any journalist.

Elizabeth Whitmore, Barnstable, MA

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NewsHour needs to up its game! Last night's run-on, fact free, news free, 15-min Kellyanne interview by Judy Woodruff is case in point. Kellyanne steamrolled Judy [who] was unprepared to doggedly interrupt and challenge by stating the facts and demanding answers to Judy's questions. I blame both PBS for not knowing what was coming, and not being prepared to stop the worthless interview - which wasted 15-min of millions of viewer's valuable time…Please move quickly to make your changes and get on a footing that will be able to cope with the Trump Admin's lies, diversions, and steamrolling. A dedicated and caring, but frustrated viewer.

George Collins, Califon, NJ

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I would like to take the NewsHour to task for the Woodruff – Conway interview on 1/26/17. Ms. Woodruff was clearly unprepared for the verbal tsunami of misdirection she encountered with Ms. Conway. Ms. Woodruff was unable to get Ms. Conway to answer her questions in even a remotely direct way; and instead it became a propaganda piece for the administration. I recommend the NewsHour abstain from interviewing Ms. Conway and perhaps seek out Sean Spicer or some other administration official with whom NewsHour can have a direct, factual and illuminating conversation, one in which the interviewer controls the agenda. The NewsHour risks harming its journalistic integrity when it allows interviews like that one to air. Besides that, thanks for running the best news show on American TV.

Wayne Mueller, Oshkosh, WI

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For many years we have relied on the NewsHour to give us the news we don't get in our local media here in rural Idaho. We find ourselves increasingly unhappy with the amount of time allowed for Kellyanne Conway to give us blathering details of the Trump administration lies while NOT answering Judy Woodruff's important questions. We find out nothing we need to know.

Shoshone, ID

A Composed Anchor

Judy Woodruff is great. Watching her interview defensive, antagonistic, bully Kellyanne Conway is difficult to watch (I avoid KAC as much as possible). Judy holds her composure, her patience and her line of questioning. Keep pushing her, Judy! Push for the truth.

Roseville, MN

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Judy Woodruff is incredibly good. Today’s interview with Kellyanne Conway was a prime example of her civility and intellect versus the rude, bullying Conway. Keep up informing the public.

Oceanside, CA

~ ~ ~

I hope to never again see the PBS NewsHour give a platform to Kellyanne Conway. Her responses to Judy Woodruff were meaningless propaganda, not news. It was hard to watch and I will definitely change the channel the next time she appears.

San Diego, CA

~ ~ ~

Judy did a better job today interviewing Kellyanne Conway, who is hard to contain, since she wants to say what she wants us to hear, not the response to the question asked. Continue interrupting Conway while she takes every question as an opportunity to rattle on as she wants.

Margaret Durham, Evergreen, CO

~ ~ ~

I love the NewsHour and love Judy Woodruff. Please, please, when she is talking to Kellyanne Conway Judy must have another sharp, direct and boundary-setting colleague to double team Conway. Judy is great and she's strong with Conway but Kellyanne is as sharp and slippery as a fish and she is getting away with way too much talk time that is all about propaganda without answering the question fully. This is not a criticism of Judy Woodruff. We need to stop Conway’s nationalistic stance and lies that sound so convincing. She takes advantage of the time and is not respecting Judy's questions or boundaries. Just like a good police team, Judy needs another powerful person to double team because right now Kelly is running all over Judy and we can't have that and Judy is respectful and Kelly is not but appears as though she is. I beg you to do this so Truth can prevail.

Stockbridge, MA

~ ~ ~

Please refrain from giving Kellyanne Conway a platform to babble on live TV. She does not answer any question definitively .She certainly earns her money with her machine-gun like delivery of defensive rhetoric that makes you forget what the question was. Tape the interview ahead of time and if she ducks the question edit it out. Giving this partisan zealot a platform feeds into the dysfunction of their alt-fact universe that any reasonable person finds indecipherable.


~ ~ ~

Please never have Kellyanne Conway on the NewsHour again. Her vapid, annoying, unstoppable, prattle gives us a headache and taints the quality of the program. There needs to be a Dante 11th ring of hell where you have to listen to Kellyanne. That will stop all future cardinal sins.


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I do not find Judy Woodruff's interviews with Kellyanne Conway newsworthy. Instead, of furthering our understanding about what is happening in the nation, these interviews appear to only obfuscate the facts that our democracy depends on to make informed decisions.

J.D. Graham, Tallahassee, FL

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Congratulations and gratitude to Judy Woodruff for her interview of Kellyanne Conway tonight. Great job of bringing the interview back to questions asked rather than letting her go on and on with her own message. And great tactic of extreme politeness. I'm sure much work goes into preparing for such an interview. Thank you all at PBS for your professionalism and courage. I'm rooting for you. We're all depending on you and so is democracy.

Martha Skeeters, Norman, OK

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Thank you Judy Woodruff for interrupting Kellyanne Conway while Conway was aggressively hogging the airtime rather than answering the question. The press faces a big challenge to cover the White House these days. I normally don't listen to any interview of Conway because she really lies and distorts so much, but I assume the WH keeps making her available. Keep up the good work PBS. We need you in the game full force.

Gail Kong, Oakland, CA

Posted on Jan. 31, 2017 at 4:28 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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