Over the last several years, I’ve become a devoted fan of Judy Woodruff and the PBS NewsHour – as citizens and journalists. I admire their work ethic, their no-frills professionalism, their quiet dedication to “getting it right.” In dishonest times, when everything seems to have a price tag or hidden motive, they strike me as “Honest Brokers.”
There’s a dignity to the journalism of the NewsHour. Compared to some of the cable channels, it’s delightfully old-school. The NewsHour isn’t about anchor-as-celebrity or flashy sets or political attitude. It’s about the work. It’s about the journalistic mission. As an every-day viewer, I sense that Woodruff and her staff believe reporting the news gives life to democracy.
I find the NewsHour refreshing – essential – in the age of Donald Trump and “alternative facts.” This is how so many journalists of our generation were trained: To care about the mission. To get out of the way of the story. To serve the citizen-viewer. First. With verifiable truth.
Do you know what else I love about the NewsHour? Its abiding cordiality. Courtesy and civility abide there … The viewer feels welcomed. Come in, join us in this reflective and substantial space. Guests on the show seem to feel the same way. Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, alike, know they will be treated with respect on a NewsHour interview segment – even as they know that Woodruff’s incisive questions await them. Woodruff – 73 years old now, and a NewsHour anchor since 2013 – has long embraced the reporter’s role, the anchor’s role, as that of an impartial advocate of the viewer. As in: “You are an observer, not a participant.” Hers is the abiding philosophy of the NewsHour. Present the facts. Offer them fairly, in context. Then let the viewer decide.
I believe in the NewsHour ethos. In fact, I’m downright protective of it. “Hey! The cynics among you who cry out ‘Fake News?’ Watch the PBS NewsHour. This is what integrity looks like. This is what every farmer, every teacher, every lunch-bucket American, every corporate chief and banker should expect of an honest, independent news program. Even-handedness? Fairness? Dignity? Your values are their values.”
I have a confession to make: The American in me, the journalist in me, is beginning to feel troubled. Lately, too often, I see political guests – especially Trump allies, Trump apologists, in interview or ‘live’ settings – exploit the NewsHour’s ethos. They take its even-handedness, its civility, its trust in shared American values, and manipulate it to their advantage.
Sometimes, I ask myself as I watch: Is the Honest Broker getting played? Are we, the citizens, getting played in the process? Do the Honest Brokers of American journalism stand a chance in the authoritarian-style street market brawl of the Trump administration? And what impact does that have on the future of our democracy?
Here’s what I mean. On August 25, Judy Woodruff welcomed Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN) for a one-on-one interview. Emmer – a conservative, an attorney, a born-and-bred Midwesterner serving his third term in Congress – chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, the fundraising arm for Republicans running for Congress.
Emmer has a flair for the inflammatory, for thinly veiled antisemitic broadsides. Like Trump, he uses language to demean and diminish. He has referred to US Congressman Max Rose of Staten Island, for example, as “Little Max.” In an interview with Politico, Emmer declared that he and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy have delivered a “direct mandate” to the NRCC communications team to “be ruthless” in the Republican quest to win congressional seats.
In a 2019 fundraising letter to NRCC members, Emmer wrote that “three left-wing radicals” – Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer and George Soros – “essentially BOUGHT control of Congress for the Democrats.” In the same letter, he wrote that “the news of impactful, real (Trump administration) progress on turning our nation around was undercut by biased media and hundreds of millions of dollars of anti-Republican propaganda put out by liberal special interests.”
So Judy Woodruff – who covered the Carter White House and the Reagan White House, who has encountered all manner of media manipulation in Washington, D.C. over the last 45 years – certainly had a sense of how this interview might go. All the same, she welcomed Emmer with characteristic NewsHour warmth and invited him to share his first impressions of the Republican National Convention.
After last week, Judy, where the Democrats came out and literally embraced Bernie Sanders’ radical left-wing socialist agenda, and then showed their unhinged hatred for this president, I think what Republicans did last night on the first night of the convention is show everything that’s good about America.
Woodruff did not take issue with the exaggerated rhetoric. Radical . . . socialist agenda . . . unhinged hatred of the president . . . but she did remark – firmly, pointedly, in dignified understatement – that “I think Joe Biden would dispute that he embraced anything like socialism. But that’s a conversation for another time.”
After a short discussion about Republican prospects in the fall elections – Emmer predicted the GOP will reclaim a House majority – Woodruff raised a question about morality and ethics, in the context of politics and the NRCC:
You have made statements referring to Democratic Congressman Max Rose of New York State as ‘Little Max.’ Now, this is someone who served in Afghanistan. He was — led an Army platoon, wounded in combat, got a Bronze Star. Is that an appropriate label for him?
Emmer ignored the question. He did not mention Rose. He did not broach the moral essence of the question, which involved decency and civil discourse and campaign ethics. Rather, Emmer returned to the subject of Joe Biden and the “socialist agenda,” suggesting a Biden “embrace” of the Green New Deal and Medicare for all.
At the end of the interview – after injecting, again, “Joe Biden has not embraced those things” – Woodruff raised another moral issue. She referenced Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, and other Republican candidates, who have supported or endorsed QAnon conspiracy theories during their congressional campaigns.
“(Greene) has said that Nancy Pelosi committed treason, should be executed. She said that Holocaust survivor George Soros collaborated with the Nazis,” said Woodruff. “Is – are these – is she a candidate that the NRCC is supporting?”
Again, Emmer ignored the question, blatantly, even after Woodruff interrupted to raise it a second time. Instead, Emmer filibustered. With enthusiasm, he offered a jargon-laced statement on NRCC election strategy. Taking contextual liberties, Emmer declared that Barack Obama told America during the Democratic National Convention that Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden “are basically the same.” Then he said: “The choice is very clear in November. It’s between freedom and socialism. And this is why the Republicans are going to win back the House.”
Watching from home, I felt my blood rise – as a citizen and as a journalist. Tom Emmer knew exactly what he was doing. He had taken measure of the NewsHour’s abiding ethos: Cordiality. Decorum. Even-handedness. Politeness. Then he exploited it, to the advantage of the NRCC.
Clearly, Tom Emmer felt no “obligation” to address Woodruff’s questions and their ethical context. I figured he had made a calculation, going in. He’d determined that the benefit of spreading misinformation and inflammatory rhetoric would outweigh, in political terms, any moral failure to acknowledge Woodruff’s questions. That Emmer embraced this approach with such relish made it hurt even more.
Much to my surprise, I found myself channeling my “inner” Judy Woodruff during the Emmer interview. Hey, what can I say? I’m a loyal viewer. After watching for so many years, I have a feeling of what goes on in the hearts of people who care . . . I imagined Judy Woodruff pausing that interview, midstream. She’d say: “Congressman Emmer. I imagine a great many NewsHour viewers are saying to themselves right now, ‘This man owes us an apology. For disrespecting the ethos of this independent broadcast. For making statements, boldly, that you know are not true. For refusing to acknowledge or address important moral questions that impact our democracy . . .’”
It’s one thing for a politician to filibuster, or spin, on a news broadcast. I marvel, for example, at Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s ability to receive a question – especially, it seems to me, on National Public Radio – and turn that single answer into a monologue that comes close to filling an entire interview segment. . . .
Yet it’s quite something else to filibuster with the intent to inflame or distort. To filibuster in the name of a lie. To erase truth, or invent truth, in the name of propaganda.
Since I’m practiced at imagining, I can hear Judy Woodruff speaking eloquently on behalf of the Honest Broker. It’s our job to conduct the interview, to ask the questions, to receive the answers. If a guest is reckless or disingenuous – even if that guest ignores me – the gesture speaks for itself. But we are not the story. We were never the story.
Yet I fear it isn’t quite that simple. The Trump administration has made sure that journalism and journalists are the story, every day: With every claim of “fake news.” Every time the president declares that news media is an enemy of the people. As he plays “favorites” at press conferences. As he pulls the press credentials of CNN’s Jim Acosta. . . .
I think a lot about PBS White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor, who has stood steadfast in the face of Trump ridicule. I recall the post-election press conference of November 2018 when Alcindor asked if the president was concerned that his “nationalist” rhetoric might be perceived as an embrace of white nationalism. Trump scolded her: “Such a racist question. . .”
Like so many quiet heroes of American journalism, Alcindor turned the other cheek that day. She continues to do so as the president insults her, time and again, as the cameras roll. But as Alcindor wrote this March, via Twitter, after Trump again mocked her at a White House press conference: “My take: Be steady. Stay focused. Remember your purpose. And, always press forward.”
Mary Louise Kelly – another Honest Broker, and a co-host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” – faced a similar challenge in January when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lashed out at her privately, in what NPR described as a “profanity-laced rant,” minutes after he cut short a recorded personal interview in Iran. Pompeo had bristled and ended the interview shortly after Kelly shifted her questioning from US-Iran relations to Ukraine – in this, the month of the Trump impeachment – and sought to clarify Pompeo’s role in the firing of US Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch in 2019.
Pompeo’s post-interview rant – in which he suggested, unsuccessfully, that Kelly wasn’t capable of identifying Ukraine on a map – wasn’t the story. Rather: US-Iranian relations were the story. Pompeo’s lack of support for Yovanovitch was the story. Kelly knew this, honored his, filed the story. All the same, she didn’t exactly turn the other cheek. She acknowledged the tirade and reported it as an addendum to the main NPR interview.
In the end, Pompeo, like other bullies in the Trump entourage, advanced the notion of “reporter as the story” by releasing a State Department statement questioning her ethics and complaining about the “unhinged” media. But in the defining moment, Kelly demonstrated how an Honest Broker can honor journalistic principle, foremost – and stand up to the bully, too.
The Republican National Convention offended me, jolted me, struck me numb with incredulity – both as a citizen and a journalist. I watched all four nights, most often in a spirit of melancholy. Has American discourse sunk to this? Really?
The convention, of course, had little to do with Republicans. Rather, it was about The Donald Trump Circus Act: Trump arrogance, Trump showmanship, the Trump family Shades of the Peróns, Juan and Evita.
“Shame,” I uttered softly, reflexively, as I watched the first two nights. Vainly, of course, perhaps stupidly, as I watched an event that felt more like bad theater than politics-in-action.
Donald Trump Jr. comparing Joe Biden to the Loch Ness monster? Florida Lieutenant Governor. Jeanette Nunez characterizing Trump as a “friend” of Puerto Rico? The anti-immigration president hosting a White House naturalization ceremony? Eric Trump stating, as truth, that Democrats want to “erase history . . . forget the past . . . burn the stars and stripes?” Mike Pompeo flaunting the Hatch Act in Jerusalem? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. imagery in the presence of a president who can’t utter the self-evident truth that “Black Lives Matter?” The Republican Party declaring victory over the coronavirus?
We’re not talking, here, about the freedom of speech in a Democracy. This is about the freedom to deceive, to distort, to lie.
“To recast Trump’s record on the coronavirus as a triumph isn’t revisionist history. It’s science fiction. It’s historical erasure . . .” Frank Bruni of The New York Times wrote in his column, “The Epic Shamelessness of the Republican Convention” the next day. “And the speakers at this convention dare to praise his outward focus, generosity of spirit, compassion and kindness? They are standing – no, grandstanding – at the confluence of audacity and absurdity.
“And they are scaring me, because they are demonstrating Trump’s most formidable advantage, which isn’t incumbency. It’s shamelessness.”
My moment of reckoning: Night Two, ending with the Melania Trump speech. What a heartbreaking spectacle. The Rose Garden as a political stage. The First Lady’s “runway walk” to the podium. And then the attempt to convince America that her husband is a man of compassion and virtue. An America that recognizes that he’s a misogynist, an America that has heard the content of the Access Hollywood tapes, an America that knows the long list of women who have accused him of sexual assault or misconduct.
At night’s end, PBS cut to the studio where Judy Woodruff and analyst Amy Walter sat at an anchors table. Flanking them were two giant screens tracking the Trumps as they departed the Rose Garden, hand-in-hand. The two-screen set at PBS seemed to amplify the oddness of it all: Two Donalds, two Melanias, larger than life, yet somehow normalized by their placement within the familiar frame of television, legitimized within the template of a traditional convention broadcast.
In the studio, Woodruff hesitated just a bit, struggled to find the right words, the right tone to summarize what we’d just seen. Woodruff observed the speech was “different,” that it addressed different topics. Empathy, for one, in the face of the coronavirus.
I felt the wind had been knocked from me. Did Woodruff? Did her colleagues? Did Yamiche Alcindor? Did capitol reporter Lisa Desjardins? I couldn’t tell. But I’ll tell you what I think I saw in those three faces, alive in that moment, for all their professional resolve: numbness. Incredulity. Soul-shock in the presence of shamelessness.
It’s possible, of course, that I’m merely projecting my own feelings onto those TV faces. But what can’t be so easily dismissed is the Republicans’ proposition that we not connect the dots about Donald Trump – inviting us, instead, to accept an alternate truth of their own creation.
Woodruff and her team had tried to be so fair, so open-minded, throughout both conventions. They traveled the high road, turning the other cheek, as countless Republican speakers characterized the media as fabricators, the enemy, ignorant, a threat to the American way, even as so many resorted to rhetorical distortion and deception themselves.
Sadly, I felt the Honest Broker had been played, that I’d been played, and that my country had been played, too.
Two days later, August 27, Judy Woodruff welcomed White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in a “one-on-one” segment before the final night of the convention. In the interview’s first minute, she raised the subject of integrity and truth-telling. She reminded Meadows that Joe Biden has not advocated defunding of police, has not advocated Medicare for All as policy positions.
“And yet,” Woodruff continued, “speaker after speaker at the convention is saying (Biden) is for these things. They’re saying he’s a socialist, he’s going to bring the country to ruin. Why not just say, ‘This is what he believes’ and not exaggerate?”
Meadows’ answer: “Well, I don’t think there’s any exaggeration . . . “
And so it goes. Judy Woodruff raises the questions in the service of truth, in the service of democracy. But the answers of Meadows? And Emmer? They blow past the boundaries of “dissenting opinion” and into the country of propaganda. They are an assault on reason, on logic. They threaten a citizen’s capacity to discern.
Citizenship, at its heart, demands self-examination. Introspection. Who are we as a country? What are our values? How do we wish to represent ourselves to the world? How dearly do we value the public good, the common good? Citizenship requires honest accounting. It requires that we reckon with the truth of our history and the truth of the moment.
Judy Woodruff – a hero to me – places an inherent trust in the American public’s capacity to discern. She and her team of Honest Brokers trust citizens to recognize virtue when we see it. She trusts citizens to recognize propaganda when we see it. Amidst the chaos. In spite of distraction. Without interjecting. Without naming it for what it is on the air.
Do we recognize it, as citizens? On the eve of this historic election?
That is the question.