The newsroom circus

Michael Getler, the ombudsman for PBS, has written the longest online column — ever — about a remark NewsHour’s Jim Lehrer made recently:

Among the things Lehrer told the gathered students was to stick to the basics of news. “If you want to be entertained, go to the circus,” he said. “Don’t watch the NewsHour.”

Those of us who came to public broadcasting by way of commercial radio better understand the philosophy than those of us who have spent a lifetime in public broadcasting. Here’s the underlying theory: If you’re boring and you put the same faces on a panel to say the same things day after day, it must be a deeper, more insightful form of journalism.


Getler doesn’t exactly say so — he’s too good for that — but he acknowledges what Lehrer doesn’t. There’s a lot of journalistic real estate between some of the nonsense on network TV news and the static inner-Beltway interpretation offered by NewsHour, and it’s not heresy to say so.

Many people who responded to Getler’s column, by offering suggestions for improvement said so.

Reduce the number of panels in which Democratic and Republican strategists simply contradict each other, often leaving the viewing audience numb and angry. There are simply too many of these in which the viewer is sacrificed on the altar of “balanced” news coverage that actually does not inform. This extends beyond politics to many other subjects. Sometimes, of course, this is necessary. But the key to making these segments useful is the interviewer, who must be prepared to challenge guests, not just with the other person’s opinion, but with facts and alternative analysis that helps viewers judge what is being said. Challenge and confrontation often does not seem to be in the NewsHour playbook.

Getler, in a courageous move, takes on the 800-pound gorilla that exists in most news organizations: The “indisputable sense of sameness.”

Nevertheless, it seems to me and those who wrote, that both the NewsHour and Washington Week would benefit from bringing at least some new faces, voices and settings into the mix. That’s not a reflection on the current staffs at all, and it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the commentary of Mark Shields and David Brooks (I do but they each have their critics within the viewership) or the always well-informed and trustworthy journalistic guests on Ifill’s Washington Week program. To be sure, there is a slightly varying cast of characters now. But there is an indisputable sense of sameness on these programs; the same formulas, the same approach to news and the way it’s presented, mostly the same people. Rarely does the off-beat or non-mainstream news item or analysis that may actually have broader resonance make it through the gate. To borrow a line that MSNBC’s Chris Matthews uses on his show: “Tell me something that I don’t know” or let me meet some people that I don’t know.

That’s a hard thing for news show producers to do. There’s nothing quite so comfortable as that which you’ve done before. The role of journalism is not to be a comfortable pair of slippers.

So let’s take Getler up on his request for suggestions. Whether it’s NewsHour, or MPR, or the local TV station you watch: What would you like to hear, see in the coming year that you’re not hearing or seeing now?

Be tough, but don’t be insulting. And, as always, if you have a person you think is doing great things that should be in News Cut, let me know. I’ll go anywhere, anytime for a good tale.

(By the way, on Friday at 9 a.m., MPR’s Midmorning will feature the ombudsmen for NPR and the New York Times. I’ll be live-blogging the show.)