The Mailbag: Next Up, Vice President Pence

Posted by Michael Getler on

Mike Pence, the new vice president of the United States, sat down for his first television interview since taking office with NewsHour anchorwoman Judy Woodruff on Feb. 1. It was a long interview – 19 minutes, which is very long by NewsHour standards.

Pence did very well: smooth, calm, clearly ready for all the expected questions and flawless in support of his boss, President Donald Trump, and with easy, total recall of all the talking points that support the Trump agenda.

He made one tiny bit of news, saying that he was “hopeful” that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would not have to resort to the so-called “nuclear option” of changing Senate rules to get Judge Neil Gorsuch approved for the Supreme Court even though Trump had said “go for it” to McConnell.

He also made one mistake, which I thought was much bigger than the tiny bit of news. When Woodruff questioned him about Stephen Bannon, “the adviser to the president, having more influence than anyone else now on the president,” as she put it, “And looking at his background, running Breitbart News, being an advocate of limiting immigration, keeping out people from the United States who are not in his view welcome here. Are you comfortable with the amount of influence Mr. Bannon has?”

Pence answered: “I’m very comfortable with the fact that there’s only one person in charge of the Trump administration. It’s President Donald Trump…But we value Steve Bannon’s input. Here’s an individual serving in a war, a captain in the United States Navy, a partner at Goldman Sachs, successful businessperson who brings a strong perspective into discussions.”

A Big Promotion

Actually, Bannon was a lieutenant in the Navy and, as far as I can tell, he did not serve in a war. This is not to diminish Bannon’s service at all. I was a lieutenant in the Navy as well and very proud of it, as I’m sure Bannon is. It’s just that it seems to me that this kind of easily-checked mistake should not be made on national television and at a time when the assault on facts and truthfulness is on full display. (See the latest exhibit here.) A captain in the Navy is a much higher rank than a captain in the Army, Air Force or Marines. It is just below admiral, takes many years to reach and is hard to achieve.

Several viewers wrote to me about it and commented on the NewsHour’s web page. Yesterday, the NewsHour added this to the bottom of the online transcript of the program: “Editor’s Note: Vice President Mike Pence’s office clarified after the interview that he misspoke. Steve Bannon’s rank in the Navy was not captain, but lieutenant.”

Correct On-Air Errors, Even by Guests, on the Air

I would have voted for an on-air correction. Bannon is an important figure. I felt the same way, and wrote about, last month when one of President Obama’s outgoing national security deputies misspoke on the NewsHour about Israeli settlement construction.

The Trump administration has done well by the NewsHour in terms of getting its spokespeople on the program since Election Day. Counselor Kellyanne Conway has been on four times since November, Press Secretary Sean Spicer was on twice in December, campaign adviser Kris Kobach was on last week and now Vice President Pence. They have all had quite a bit of air time. That, without a doubt, drives the Trump-haters crazy and the mail to me reflects that. But in most cases, the mail reflects much more than that. Viewers want tough, aggressive questioning. They want those officials to be challenged in a way that reflects the strong arguments, and facts, that the opposition to Trump musters.

My view is that the NewsHour is performing a public service and doing its journalistic duty by inviting leading figures from a new administration onto the program. That’s the way it should be with any administration, and whatever the level of questioning, viewers make their own assessments of these officials and of those asking the questions. The problem these days, it seems to me, is that nothing changes anybody’s mind, at least not yet, in this clearly divided country.

What follows is a sampling of the mail to the ombudsman’s inbox in the aftermath of the Pence interview. Most, although not all, of it is pretty tough on Woodruff. But when you listen to the interview or read the transcript you will see, as in other interviews, that the questioning is fair and more challenging than one might think but less than many viewers want. And that is very frustrating in today’s political environment. Many of those who write also are not specific about what they say is false.

For example, Woodruff presses on why Democrats should move quickly on the new justice when Republicans would not even hold a hearing for nine months on President Obama’s pick of Merrick Garland. She presents some good research challenging rhetoric about extremist involvement in this country, and whether the immigration executive order will actually make us less safe. She brings up the thousands of State Department workers who feel the same way and attempts to follow-up but Pence moves on.

Here Are the Letters

It is not journalism to ask predictable, softball questions to a government official and let him go into a prepared response. For Pence, this was better than if you just handed him 19 minutes of airtime. Woodruff gives Pence the appearance of fielding questions and criticism. But her performance was better suited for someone playing a reporter in a Pence promotional video. Better to not have him on at all.

Norwood, MA

~ ~ ~

I tuned in tonight and was dismayed by Judy Woodruff's interview with Mike Pence. For all intents and purposes, she simply provided him a microphone and stepped back. I accept and applaud the "civility" of PBS discourse, and also acknowledge the fact that CPB [the Corporation for Public Broadcasting] is again under assault by this Republican Congress. But if you want me to fight for you, and I have, then what am I fighting for? Certainly not this. She didn't push back on even the most obvious BS and just let him keep spouting this administration’s prevarications. As someone unfortunately famous has said: "SAD!"

Colleen Carpenter, Milwaukee, WI

~ ~ ~

Judy, I know you need to have access but you need to be tough in getting answers to your questions. He used your interview to promote the Trump agenda. You can do better than that! This is serious and being meek in the face of a crisis in America doesn't cut it. Don't be FOX or CNN but be fair and push aggressively for the facts and the positions this ultraright is promoting. You are still my go to news.

David Oake, Phoenix, AZ

~ ~ ~

This is the very first time writing for me. I have faithfully watched since the 1970's. I watch Charlie Rose every night, along with Judy earlier in the evening. On Fridays, I watch David and Mark for their honest comment about the week’s happenings. Within this Political Climate, "I Have Had Enough." I am sick, tired and frustrated with your approach to covering the Outrageous Campaign and now this Outrageous White House! When are you going to stop these politicians from telling "Lies" and alternative facts about the Documented Historical Truths? Everyone knows that the interviewers time is limited, but just tonight I heard Judy let Mike Pence never answer her question, and fabricate an unrelated situation. When the "Hell" is someone going to stop these people from not just spinning, but down right fabricating lies about important issues?

Bryan Pilkington, Lockeford, CA

~ ~ ~

Don't waste our time w/these pabulum interviews, ask hard questions not just questions that Mike Pence could answer w/ typical party BS. These soft interviews are an affront to our intelligence & I question why I should continue to support PBS.

Cynthia Barbarisi, Lecato, FL

~ ~ ~

Countless times Vice President Pence repeated his claim that Trump is a man of his word, keeping campaign promises. Why did she not respond, asking the logical question: "Sir, President Trump campaigned on many issues, including, 'Draining the Swamp,' standing up for working people, and protecting Medicare and Social Security; there are countless examples of these explicit promises being broken, including, but not limited to, nominating billionaires, and those with Wall Street connections, who have engaged in the kind of 'pay to play' practices for which he criticized Hilary Clinton; he appointed a labor secretary, hostile to workers’ rights; he appointed Mulvaney and Price, whose actions and views explicitly contradict his promises on protecting Social Security and Medicaid. How do you square this current state of affairs with your repeated characterization of the President, as a man who 'keeps his promises'"?

To fail to ask such an obvious question in the face of repeated VP claims to the contrary is an abdication of journalistic responsibilities. Furthermore, such journalistic acquiescence, only enables this administration's game plan, namely, when whoppers are repeated enough times, unchallenged, they become accepted as true.

One other thing: Judy asked Pence an excellent, critical question, whether he agrees with Spicer's statement that 1,000+ state department employees signing a letter in protest to Trump's travel ban, should leave. They too contend that Americans are put at greater risk by this policy; did Pence agree that such dissent should not be tolerated? Great question. However, it was more than disappointing to see, that when he ignored her direction question, she did not instead press him, following up, "Thank you sir, but with respect, you did not answer my question: Do you believe such dissent should actually be encouraged, and if not, is it cause for resignation or firing?"

This is no small matter, but rather a recurring practice. Far too often, Judy Woodruff and her colleagues do not ask obvious follow-up questions when their guests evade answers. Why?

At this singular moment in our history, when our democracy itself is threatened, with one crucial pillar of that democracy, the free press itself, is under daily assault by the White House, it is essential, for journalists to step up their game. Is it because PBS and NPR fear having their funding cut by the new regime? Don't be self-censors, but ask yourselves, "What would Edward R. Murrow do?" each day.

Oakland, CA

A Positive Take

I'm writing about Judy Woodruff’s excellent interview of Mike Pence to say thank you to Woodruff and the NewsHour. Judy showed her professionalism, knowledge and insight of issues. Overall, Judy’s interview was open and honest, something I have come to expect from her and the NewsHour. Her questions comparing the situation of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee and Republicans previous blocking of Obama’s nominee were respectful and to the point. This line of questions is something that I am very interested in and was glad to see. Also her questions about Trump’s Muslim ban were very good and to the point of what most Americans are concerned about, the fact that in practice this ban is a religious test. I’m a long time viewer and proud of the fine tradition of open inquiry and facts.

Valdosta, GA

Anchors (and Facts) Aweigh

In the Judy Woodruff interview with Mike Pence that aired last night, the Vice President falsely stated that Steve Bannon was a Navy Captain. He was a Lieutenant. Big difference. I would have expected PBS to have fact-checked the content of the interview prior to broadcasting and to make a point of not assisting this administration in disseminating "alternative facts."

Karen Haas, Fair Haven

~ ~ ~

In his interview on the PBS NewsHour today the US Vice President told Judy Woodruff that Steve Brannon was a Captain in the US Navy. He was not. He was a Lieutenant.

Richard D Campbell, Austin, TX

Posted on Feb. 3, 2017 at 4:11 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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