The Mailbag: When to Quiet Down and When Not to

Posted by Michael Getler on

It will not come as a surprise to readers of this column that I am writing once again about the PBS NewsHour. Ever since the 2016 election campaign began, viewers have been overwhelmingly and understandingly consumed with the drama surrounding that contest and its results. The NewsHour, of course, is the major PBS stage on which that drama plays out every night, and that has also led to a boost in its viewership, which, in recent months, is up about 24% over the same period last year.

But this posting is about two segments broadcast Monday evening, March 13, that drew quite a bit of mail to the ombudsman, all of it negative. A sampling of those letters is posted below. But first some background and my two cents' worth of commentary.

A Fight but Not to the Finish

The first cluster of letters is about a segment, hosted by correspondent John Yang, that was meant to present two opposing views on the pros and cons of the new Republican health care bill (the American Health Care Act) and the analysis of that proposed legislation by the Congressional Budget Office. The guests were Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, and Lanhee Chen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution who had also served as a campaign advisor to both Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio.

I have from time to time characterized the typical NewsHour "he said/she said" segment as polite, civilized and informative, but also occasionally boring and leaving viewers not knowing what to think. On balance, they are a plus. But this one was a slugfest, with both guests talking fast and at each other and interrupting each other. Once it got started, Yang seemed like a bystander, as though he had lost control. Those who wrote were uniformly critical of what they had seen and heard.

I can understand that, and while watching it I was also wondering what was going through Yang’s head as this unfolded on live television. I sent all the letters (on both segments) to the NewsHour but haven’t heard back. But giving him the benefit of the doubt, I think Yang understood he was witnessing a rare, and welcomed, outbreak of unabashed passionate conflict about a crucial issue on this overwhelmingly genteel program, and felt there was no harm in letting it play out. That's just a guess, of course. Maybe he did lose control. Whatever, I rather enjoyed it.

Enough Already?

The other portion of the broadcast that was in the crosshairs for those who wrote to me was the regular Politics Monday segment that features anchor Judy Woodruff questioning Tamara Keith of NPR and Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report. This is primarily a news analysis segment, rather than the regular David Brooks/Mark Shields Friday segment, which is more commentary. But it does, at times, veer into opinion, and it was Walter’s opinion on the news media’s pursuit of President Trump’s evidence and source-free assertion, in a series of early Saturday morning tweets two and a half weeks ago, that President Obama had tapped his phone that got a lot of viewers stirred up.

Walter is a smart and experienced analyst and her views are worth listening to. But I also found myself surprised at some of her comments since, at the moment at least, President Trump's specific charges and personal insults hurled at the former president strike me as the absolute worst of many bad and unproven things he has said, and needs to be pursued relentlessly and thoroughly.

Here is the relevant portion of the transcript:

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Amy, where does this go from here? We’re waiting to see if there is any evidence. But, meanwhile, this is a very serious charge that the current president levels against the previous.


And I want to go back to where you started this conversation, Judy, about the public and their frustration with the media, this idea about fake news, and who they trust and who they don’t. And as I watch the story unfold, I think I can understand where a lot of Americans get frustrated with this story. The president tweeted something out that clearly is completely unfounded, in the same way he tweeted out this statistic that there are three million to five million Americans who voted illegally, that the president wasn’t born in this country.

And the news media’s job is to report that this is unfounded, we haven’t seen any evidence of this. But, every day, the question is presented to Sean Spicer or Kellyanne Conway, when it looks like in a way that the media’s trying to get a gotcha. Let’s make them have to say that he was wrong. Let’s put them in an uncomfortable position.

And I think what Americans are looking for is, we get it, he said something that’s unfounded, but it looks like the media is trying to prove a point, rather than trying to look out for the other issues that are out there, spend more time focusing on health care and those other issues. I understand undermining the president, the former president, is a big issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But without pushing forward, Tam, you’re left with a sort of ragged uncertainty. If you stop talking about it, stop asking about it, then, basically, you’re leaving it unresolved.

TAMARA KEITH: And, at the moment, it is still very much unresolved.

AMY WALTER: But do you have to do it every single day? I agree it is unresolved, and that question has to be answered. But I don’t think we’re going to — we’re not going to get an answer.

TAMARA KEITH: But — and more to the point, we keep trying to ask the president, too. And he hasn’t yet answered either.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He’s not going to …

AMY WALTER: And he’s never going to admit — we know this. If it’s not true, he will not admit that it’s not true.

Here Are the Letters: First, Emanuel vs Chen…

Before tonight ( March 13) it had never occurred to me that I would ever want to send a message like this about PBS NewsHour. I am a huge fan. But the segment on the healthcare bill and debate was not up to your usual standards. John Yang was interviewing Ezekiel Emanuel and Lanhee Chen. He allowed them to get into a give and take in which they were talking over each other and generally being uncivil. I had to stop listening because no clear message was being conveyed, only their animosity towards each other’s views. I watch the NewsHour because this kind of behavior is not tolerated. All interviewees are generally allowed to have their say uninterrupted. I like John Yang, but he totally lost control on this occasion. Please, do not let NewsHour become like the other news outlets where it is all about people shouting at each other. I was appalled.

Brucie Shook, Greensboro, NC

~ ~ ~

Last night [March 13] I watched the NewsHour piece about the CBO's report on the proposed health care changes. I was disgusted by the way you permitted the two people you interviewed to interrupt each other and talk over each other. Please stick to allowing one person to speak at a time. Don't let people just yell at each other. The anchor should have stopped both of them. If I wanted to waste my time listening to people yell at each other, I'd be watching Fox News.

Kathryn Kirkpatrick, CA

~ ~ ~

I am extremely disappointed by how the NewsHour has chosen to cover some critical issues. Rather than inviting guests who can offer an objective analysis, they have invited politically-affiliated spokespeople who share only their own warped perspective. Last night's "discussion" - about the new health care bill - is the latest example. John Yang's guests wrangled with each other, pushing forward their party’s talking points. But I don't feel as though I understand the proposed policy changes any better now, and I feel soiled by this raucous exchange of partisanship Please make it stop, and encourage your editors to return to providing unbiased and informative reporting.

Rockville, MD

~ ~ ~

I am watching an interview with two people discussing the healthcare effects. What was disturbing was that the commentator let them continue to talk over each other in a yelling match. Please make sure that both sides are able to speak their ideas without the other person trying to shout over the other person. I may not agree with either party, but if I can't hear them I can't make any informed decision.

Placerville, CA

~ ~ ~

I would like a consistent forum to get a real analysis of various topics, i.e. the new health care act. Listening to opinion shaded by right and left wing spins is not very informative and is certainly pretty predictable. This balanced approach may have good optics, but has precious little information. Tamara Keith and Amy Walters at least have facts, but still a lot of opinion. As Al Gore said, we have to combat governance by opinion, spin and polls. They are important in their own right but how do we who are wonks get accurate information to make the opinions that the polls reflect.

Jamie Pauley, Fishers, IN

~ ~ ~

My humble request. I think your membership has grown and I'm very happy about that. My request is please do not turn into cable news like Fox and MSNBC. Tonight you had two opposing views on side by side which I'm noticing more and more. And that's fine. Just please control that exchange so that it reflects the PBS I love and not just guests talking over each other like I see on other news shows. The exchange tonight about health care made me sad. I felt like I was watching Fox, which I don't watch. Thank you.

Catherine Craft, Arvada, CO

Pursuing a Tweeting President

Amy Walter criticizes the news media for asking questions about the President's accusation on wiretapping. The issue is unresolved and the question needs to be asked every day. Yes every single day. President Trump could save the country a lot of grief by telling the truth. Don't rationalize or normalize the need for the press to ask the tough questions. We disagree with any attempt to soften the truth or not search daily for the truth when the Trump administration demonstrates a daily pattern of not telling the truth, obfuscating the truth, or stonewalling. Amy's point is not completely lost on us. We get what she is saying. But it is not her job to worry about perception, certainly not in this case. There will always be someone in the press that will go too far and always someone who will be critical regardless. Get a grip on your oath to journalistic integrity. What is next -- Tell us not to worry that President Trump as he is not truthful to the American people; Don't make a big deal about it since this is just how he talks? I surely hope not.

David & Janet Stillman, Alverton, PA

~ ~ ~

I watched part of today's NewsHour (3/13) and Judy Woodruff's interview of two commentators. She asked about Trump's recent assertion that Obama had wire tapped him. One of the women seemed to discount the question, essentially saying that this was why people distrust the media, that more salient questions about health care, etc. should be asked, and that if Trump lied he wouldn't admit it anyway. Wow!! Trump may never admit to lying, or making up "facts," but the media must continue to press him and his people for the truth. How else to stop this from happening for the next four years?!

Santa Rosa, CA

~ ~ ~

I watch PBS NewsHour every day. Today 3/13/17 the segment ON POLITICS was presenting an ambiguous view from Amy Walter on the topic of fake news. She made a point about the media addressing Trump pronouncements which leads, in her opinion, to unnecessary emphasis on Presidential misinformation. Her suggestion to concentrate on other more important issues is laughable at best. The other IMPORTANT issues all have a start at the president desk. Not to bring attention to Trump tweets and pronouncements will be an abdication of duty of responsible journalists.

Pittsburgh, PA

~ ~ ~

Just watched talk with Tamara K and Amy W about Trump's lies. Chuckle chuckle. I'm sick and tired of this wink/nod acceptance of the dishonesty of this administration. Stop normalizing the deceptions and craziness. Media elites smirk or even worse, give Trump and Company "the benefit of the doubt" "in all fairness". Unconscionable.

Kate Cloud, Somerville, MA

~ ~ ~

I would like to express my concern again about the lack of journalistic integrity in the Politics Monday segment of tonight's (3/13/2017) NewsHour. Amy Walter failed to acknowledge how many media outlets do not identify as lies the many statements of this nature from Trump and his cronies. Shame on Ms. Walter and the NewsHour for this failure. In a separate segment it was disappointing to see Al Gore fail to acknowledge the nature of his relationship with Trump.

Ron Elsdon, Danville, VA

~ ~ ~

This is about Amy Walter's comments during Politics Monday, March 13. I have looked forward to your contributions to the NewsHour. Your comments tonight were so confusing that I am unsure if you were possessed. You played the false equivalency card when asked about the truths and untruths coming from our government. You seem to think that getting facts and news from the NYT, WAPO, BBC, LATimes, the NewsHour, etc. is equivalent to getting 'news' from Fox, Breitbart, and Alex Jones. Are you suggesting that reading professional journalism fills our heads with bias? How can we escape a factually based bias? Are you recommending that we break out from our 'bubbles' even if they are facts? This wasn't weird enough so you went on to say that reporters should not continue to ask Sean, etc. about Trump comments that undermine our belief in our democratic institutions. We need answers to claims that our voting process is horribly inaccurate, the former President tried to stage a coup against Trump's election, etc. How can fundamental lies about our democracy be ignored? You want us to break out of our 'bubbles' but think that the President has no responsibility to tell the truth. I am not frustrated about reporters asking for evidence, I am not hoping we catch Trump in a gotcha - I want facts, even from the President. If you can, please explain your thinking.

Larry Farwell, Santa Barbara, CA

~ ~ ~

The News Hour has deteriorated tremendously in the past year, as exemplified by Amy Walter who is full of such condescending platitudes, which most of us observed weeks ago. And today, her criticism of other journalists trying to play "gotcha" with the president boggles the mind of her shallow observation. If she were truly a journalist, she would pose the question continuously herself until it was answered.

West Hollywood, CA

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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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