Much Vitriol Aimed at 'PBS NewsHour' Newscasts
I’ve been serving as CPB Ombudsman for more than two and a half years. And, year by year, the vitriol aimed at the “PBS NewsHour” nightly newscast and many of its journalists has gotten more acerbic. It’s now almost over the top, in my view. It is akin to the language used in the “stop the steal” assertions lobbed into the information stream by many of President Trump’s supporters.
It no longer is limited to accusations of “liberal bias,” or “unbalanced” or “opinionated” content. Viewers write that it is anti-Trump, “treasonous” and “a propaganda tool for the Communist Party,” to cite a few viewer comments that are publishable.
Longtime anchor Judy Woodruff takes a lot of the hits. “If she cannot report news without unnecessarily bringing Trump into it, she should retire,” demanded one viewer from Texas.
White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor has also been a frequent target of viewers complaining of bias and pro-Black sentiment even as she has withstood sharp attacks from Trump when he didn’t like her questions.
You might think viewers were talking about one of the cable news outlets – MSNBC or CNN, where it is easier to identify markedly loaded language and liberal leanings. Almost always, these viewers want the federal government to stop using taxpayer dollars to help fund public broadcasting.
Many of the complaints are generalized accusations, not accompanied by specific programming examples. So I’ve tried during my tenure to figure out if there are any particular patterns that prompt such fervent outcries. Here, informed by my mail and feedback to CPB, are a few of my observations:
- Story choices. Viewers experience the newscast as biased when it focuses on stories that are distant from their lived experiences. Unfortunately, this often means stories about the impact of policy or economic conditions on disadvantaged Americans or a minority group, who are generally not the “NewsHour’s” primary audience. But they are often stories not told in other media outlets.
Said one viewer who prides herself on predicting a typical ”NewsHour” story lineup: “I have every confidence that you will have a race-bait story, a opinion on race matters, COVID's impact on minorities, politics Monday – wherein the ladies will discuss race, #MeToo, and the need for a black female running mate for Joe Biden.”
- Repetitive questions. Although it’s a common practice for a journalist to ask the same question in different ways when an interview subject avoids answering, many “NewsHour” viewers hear this as berating an interviewee to elicit a response the interviewer wants. So when a Republican guest declines, under repeated questioning, to criticize something, say, that Trump said or did, the questions are interpreted as trying to eke out a criticism of the President. They also interpret as an effort to slant information when they feel a journalist didn’t give am interviewee enough time to answer the question posed.
- Sourcing. When viewers hear a reporter preface a recap of the day’s developments with “critics say,” they process it as a journalistic convention to open the door to a reporter’s individual opinions.
- Conservative panelists. It’s fine to have David Brooks be the conservative counterpoint to longtime (and now-retired) panelist Mark Shields. But conservative viewers say they want to hear from different regular conservative viewpoints.
- Women. Alas, to my profound disappointment, many of the complainers are pretty unhappy that the “NewsHour’s” most visible journalists are often women. Some actually complain that the show has turned into a bastion of liberal feminism.
“What in the world has happened to the ‘NewsHour?’ said one woman viewer. “For the most part, it has become a feminist mouthpiece. I liken the ‘Newshour,’ as currently configured, to watching ‘The View.’ The all-female panel of Judy, Amna, Yamiche, and Lisa just see things as either racist or chauvinist.”
What are the solutions? Who can say. Many press analysts are offering their ideas for journalism that better confronts unprecedented developments, false narratives and alternative versions of the truth that don’t devolve into he said/she said opposing viewpoints. But this is not easy when reporting is happening at the speed of light and in a polarized environment where “balance” and “objectivity” are perceived quite differently.
Claims of liberal bias in public media are nothing new. The history of public broadcasting has been plagued by concerns about such bias ever since its creation in 1967. You can read a conservative recounting of that history in this Knight Foundation report on public media.
Moreover, 60% of PBS’s audience is consistently or mostly liberal, according to a 2014 Pew Research Survey. Another 26% of the audience is mixed and 15% is consistently or mostly conservative.
Independent content analysts, however, give the “NewsHour” high marks for its reporting. “PBS NewsHour has been criticized as being left biased by the right and as being in favor of corporations by the progressive left. In general, story selection and tone slightly favor the left when it comes to environmental issues and with moderately negative reporting of President Trump. One thing that is consistent with ‘PBS NewsHour,’ their reporting is evidence-based and accurate,” according to mediafactcheckbias.com.
PBS released a nationwide survey saying that for the 17th consecutive year, it has been named America’s most trusted institution, “more trustworthy than government institutions and media sources such as digital platforms, commercial broadcast and cable television, newspapers, and social media.”
Survey respondents also ranked PBS as the most trusted source of news, with 73% of those polled trusting PBS’s public affairs programs over that of ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.
All that makes it hard to parse the tenor of negative feedback unless you account for a disproportionate number of complaints coming from viewers highly immersed in conservative filter bubbles.
Sara Just, the “NewsHour’s” executive producer, seems less bothered by the negative comments than I am: “As journalists, we expect to hear feedback from the audience, and we value it. That is especially true in public media. We do not have time or resources to respond to all of the mail we receive. But we read it, and consider it, and, at times, it informs our thinking and reporting.”
“I don’t think the level of ‘vitriol’ you refer to … is different from the kinds of criticism I’ve seen at every news organization I’ve worked with in my career,” she added. I think it is.
With a new administration with a different message and a new Senate majority taking the reins in coming weeks, it will be interesting to see if the harshness of the “NewsHour” criticism abates or grows. It’s something that public media has to endure to a degree that many commercial media outlets do not.