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Opinion

Column: Anchor Judy Woodruff on the dare-to-be-boring ‘PBS NewsHour’ in the era of Twitter and ‘fake news’

PATT MORRISON ASKS

Ah, the good old “PBS NewsHour.” These days, you can watch it on YouTube, on Apple News, and on its website. You can listen via podcast. And you can still see it at the same time each evening on a piece of furniture called a television set. But its journalist’s soul is a thing unchanged since 1975, when the program was created by two guys who’d won an Emmy for their Watergate coverage, and who thought people wanted to know more than what the other national news shows were giving them.

In 2016, the original anchor guys’ chairs were filled by two women, Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, a veteran of CNN and NBC news. The much-loved Ifill died in late 2016, and now Woodruff has become the show’s solo anchor and managing editor. Cabinets and Congresses come and go, yet even in this moment of presidential bluster about fake news, and the malign influences of actual fake news, Woodruff, and the most durable hour of news on television, soldier on.

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You worked in network news, in cable news and at the “PBS NewsHour.” How have television news audiences changed?

When I started out as a reporter for the local CBS affiliate on a television station in Atlanta back in 1970, we were using something called film. I would go to the state Capitol and shoot my stories, and then I remember exceeding the speed limit to get back to the station in the afternoon so we could get the film in the soup. That’s what we called the film processor. And 35 minutes later it emerged and we began editing.

Now a lot of what we do is with much smaller cameras, and it’s almost instantaneously transmitted on computer, and the audiences have had to come along with us.

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What that means is we have less time, frankly, to process the information. We get the picture faster, and the sound. But the information I don’t think goes through the thought process as much as it did.

We’ve seen how networks have retreated from foreign bureaus and foreign coverage at a time when the world is smaller and more complex.

It’s something that I lament because the world is a tougher place to exist in than it was back before the Cold War ended. We’ve got more players on the scene. The United States has to interact with many more individual countries and many more individual forces at play than back when it was the U.S. versus the Soviet Union. And that requires a lot of reporters in a lot of places. At a time when news organizations have been scaling back, they’ve been laying off and firing reporters, and newsrooms have closed down and downsized.

And so at a time I think when the American people need more information than ever before, the ability to get that information has changed. The digital sector has picked up the baton in some ways; you see reporters doing phenomenal work as freelancers, and going around with their handheld smartphones doing interviews and sending back reports. So in some ways we are better informed, but in other ways we are struggling.

What I worry about is that when the networks started doing opinion surveys of their audiences, and asked them what kind of news they liked the most, foreign news or international news often came in near the bottom of the list. So they started doing less of it, and I think that we’ve suffered as a result.

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What did you think when you heard the accusation that we were doing “fake news” in the news business?

It’s been disturbing, because most of the people I know who work in journalism do it because they love it. And they take it very seriously. They are not about creating stories that are false. I think it’s done some harm to how the public sees journalists and journalism. Our credibility is on the line every day, every night, everything we do when we go on the air every evening, or whatever we put on our website or out on social media.

When we get something wrong, or if we don’t tell the whole story, or if what we report seems tilted some way or another, we’re not serving our audience. We’re not serving our original mission, which is to go out and cover what’s going on and report faithfully and then let the public make up their mind.

To the extent the public now has questions about the motives of journalists and whether we’re really covering the whole story, I think that’s harmful, because for democracy to be strong and to continue to function in the way the Founding Fathers intended, we have to have a strong press in this country. It’s what sets us apart from so many other parts of the world.

When we get something wrong, or if we don’t tell the whole story, or if what we report seems tilted some way or another, we’re not serving our audience. Judy Woodruff

I think that damage has been done, but we just have to keep doing our jobs. I don’t think it serves us well to get into fights or some kind of contest with our political leaders, whether it’s the president or someone else. We should stand up for what we do when something is said about us that’s specifically wrong. We should correct it. But I don’t think we should dwell on it. We need to move on, and spend most of our time and energy figuring out what is it that the American people need to know, what are the stories that are not getting covered.

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I worry more about that today than probably anything else. There are just so many things happening in our world and in our country and in our communities that people need to know about. That’s where we need to keep our focus and not worry about these political squabbles with someone who doesn’t like what we’re doing.

Often that phrase “fake news” is thrown out, instead of any kind of specific denials of actual, factual news story content. But there’s criticism now on the left that the press is not doing the job it should be doing, calling out President Trump — specifically that when he says something that is wrong, why not call it a lie?

I actually believe that that’s a responsibility that we have to call out. I don’t know whether “call out” is the right term or not. But to point out when there’s a misstatement or something that isn’t borne out with facts — we point that out and we do it on a regular basis.

I will tell you that it wasn’t something that I came easily to. I’m not accustomed to covering politicians who I have to fact-check on a constant basis.

Sure, politicians embellish and they want to look as good as they possibly can. But in terms of the kinds of statements that we’ve seen coming from President Trump and some others — who we now frequently have to follow up a statement or a quote and say, “In fact that is not the case, and that is not accurate.” And then say, ”Here’s what’s accurate” — it wasn’t something that we just naturally fell into.

We’re in a different period right now with President Trump, who is perfectly comfortable making statements because he believes something strongly himself. It’s part of how he communicates with the American people.

I would say that for me personally — and I know this is true of our entire newsroom — the word “lie” suggests and implies that the person making this misstatement knew that it was wrong, and that they were deliberately trying to mislead to make a misstatement. And so you get into the question of motive.

That’s not necessarily our job, to ascribe motives, whether it’s President Trump or anybody else, unless we happen to know it for a fact.

But what we can do is say, when we know for sure that something is wrong, or that it’s not correct, or that it can’t be backed up with any factual information, is, “That is incorrect,” or, “In fact, the number is so-and-so,” and fill in the blank.

One of the co-editors-in-chief of the newspaper at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School described journalism as a kind of activism. Is journalism a kind of activism, or should it be?

I think a lot of people go into journalism because they care about the world around them and they want to be part of telling that story. But anybody who observes actively and wants to share what they’re seeing, and then by inference is suggesting that if there’s a problem, it needs fixing, it needs addressing, and that’s why I’m highlighting it — that is a kind of activism.

It doesn’t mean we carry banners around and we take sides in political fights and disputes. We don’t do that here at the “NewsHour.” But by virtue of the fact that every day, we hope to shine a light on what’s going on in this country or another part of the world that we think our audience needs to know about, we are in a way being activists. We’re saying, “Hey, take a look at this. What do you think about this?”

We’re not prescribing a solution or a fix or a remedy. But often, we are saying, “Hey there’s a problem.” That’s not the same as going out and trying to raise money for a cause and advocating a particular solution. But it is clearly a kind of activism.

We’re not carrying the picket signs — we’re interviewing the people who are carrying the picket signs.

Exactly. And the people who are arguing with the people carrying the picket signs. We’re not doing our job, we don’t think, unless we’re hearing from all sides, if there is another side to be heard.

Whether it’s kids’ shows or documentaries, PBS is pretty much the nation’s most trusted media institution. What’s the “NewsHour’s” role in that?

I think it goes back to the founders. Robin MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, when they started this program in 1975. What Jim has often said is, when we get up in the morning, we don’t have to worry about what kind of program are we going to do today. All we have to worry about is what’s the news, what’s happening, what’s important. We don’t have to think about how are we going to entertain and how are we going to make sure we don’t bore people.

Robin was famous for saying at one point something like, “We dare to be boring.” Heaven knows we don’t ever want to be. We want people to watch, we want to be interesting and we certainly strive to do that.

But we’re not driven by that. We’re driven by what we think our audience needs to know in order to be a good citizen.

We need to pay as much attention as we can to what’s going on in the middle of the country and in the rest of the country as we do to what’s going on here on the East Coast. And we are mindful of that every day, that we’re reporting for the whole country.

We’ve got public broadcasting television stations all over, and in every state and every congressional district. So that’s part of our mandate.

And still, every few budget cycles, and with changing administrations, there are cries to cut public broadcasting funding, and then it doesn’t happen. You find people like former Republican Sen. Bob Dole, who was a defender of public broadcasting, because in some cases that was the only television that his constituents got that had children’s programming and other pluses for them. So why is there the constant tug of war over an institution that, in the scheme of things, doesn’t cost very much and ranks very high across the board for Americans?

When I talk to members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, they tell me they know their public television station in their community. They hear from the folks who watch public television, who watch PBS, watch the “PBS NewsHour,” and they hear that [viewers] like what we’re doing. I think that is one of the many reasons that they continue to support what we do.

But you’re right, there’s a political argument about that. But when it comes right down to it, when they have to make the funding decisions, there is serious backing for public broadcasting in the Congress on both sides of the political aisle. And that’s how we keep going.

We can never rest on our laurels. We have to remember that we’re trying to reflect the entire country and to do it in a responsible way.

What are your viewership demographics? Are you reaching young people through whatever social media you are using?

I’m always happily surprised when I’m at an airport, or traveling, and young people come up to me who say, “Oh, I wouldn’t miss the ‘NewsHour.’ I love the ‘NewsHour.’”

Having said that, I know that the majority of television audience these days — the folks who watch exactly at the time we’re on the air — that tends to skew older, because those are the folks who may be in front of a TV set when we’re on.

More and more, our audience watches us either on a mobile device or they watch us later, on a DVD or on Apple TV or some other method. It’s a serious priority for us to build our digital audience, which has just grown by leaps and bounds.

In reporting on your new position, the New York Times called this “a haywire era” of American news. I think that’s the case. And maybe you agree?

Well, it’s haywire because the business model changed, the technology’s changing, and the politics of journalism is changing. It’s all changing at the same time. We are in the middle of a transformation. None of us knows where it’s all going to come out.

But the guts of journalism is the need to send smart reporters out there, who don’t have an agenda, to cover the news and come back with the best kind of stories they can.

We need investigative reporting, we need the whole nine yards. We need reporting on our healthcare system, on education, on how we’re treating kids, how we’re treating women, what are we doing in our agricultural sector, and what’s going on around the rest of the world. There’s so many places that we need to be, and we need to cover.

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MORE PATT MORRISON ASKS

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