PBS’s Judy Woodruff Gives White House Communications Director a Free Pass

The PBS NewsHour led off its Thursday evening telecast with a story about the three scandals that currently envelop the Obama administration: the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups, the Justice Department’s subpoena of AP phone records, and the Benghazi attack. Rather than following the package with analysis from a journalist, as PBS often does with stories like this, the taxpayer-subsidized network brought on White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri to provide the White House's spin on these scandals.

Even worse, anchor Judy Woodruff did not rise to the occasion with any tough questioning, allowing Palmieri to spin her way right out of trouble. All of Woodruff’s questions dealt with President Obama’s reaction to the scandals; she never grilled Palmieri on whether the White House was involved in any of this. The assumption seemed to be that the president was an innocent bystander in all of these scandals.

Woodruff started with the IRS scandal:
 

"Republicans are saying, yes, it's fine, the president’s forcing these resignations, but they are saying there has to be more. There have to be prosecutions. People need to go to prison. Does the president agree?"

 

There was no question about what President Obama knew and when. It’s true that the IRS is an independent agency, but considering that it reports to the Treasury Department, which reports to the president, it is fair to ask if the White House may have been behind the unfair targeting. Woodruff’s softball question allowed Palmieri to prattle on about IRS "mismanagement."

The anchor’s next question wasn’t even a question, but a statement:
 

"[T]he president’s not only being criticized for what has happened, but also for how he's handled it, not just Republicans but a number-- even Democrats are saying the White House was slow to respond, the president has been passive, not proactive enough."

 

This is as close as Woodruff would come to criticizing President Obama. But again, the assumption is that he played no part in any of this. He is being treated as a father whose children did something naughty, and people are now wondering why he didn’t punish his children quickly enough. Woodruff never asked if Obama did anything unethical, such as alter the Benghazi talking points or order the IRS to withhold tax-exempt status from conservative groups.

But the veteran Washington press corps reporter saved her worst question for last, painting Obama’s agenda as the victim in all of this:

 

"Let me ask you, the president clearly does have a big agenda for his second term. How frustrated is he that all of this controversy is clearly detracting, if not undermining, his ability to get that done?"

 

Oh, that pesky controversy. How dare it stand in the way of the glorious liberal agenda that President Obama wants to unleash on the country in his second term. But Palmieri actually disagreed with Woodruff’s premise; she felt that the scandals were more of a speed bump than a roadblock to Obama’s second-term agenda. She essentially dismissed the seriousness of the controversies, saying, "There’s always going to be some measure of distraction like this." But the people’s business was still getting done, she assured us:
 

"So, it may not be getting attention, but the work of the country is continuing. And we under -- we have got to deal with these issues, and we are, and we think that the attention will turn back to the actual work of the country that the president is focused on."

 

It’s awfully arrogant for this White House spokeswoman to sweep three major administration scandals under the rug as a "distraction" from the "work of the country." Congressional investigations into governmental wrongdoing qualify as "work of the country." It will serve the country’s interest to get to the bottom of these scandals and punish the people responsible.

Judy Woodruff should have seized the opportunity, with the White House communications director on her show, to ask her some tough questions to try and learn more about the White House’s role in these scandals. Instead, she rolled over and helped the administration spread its message.

Below are Woodruff's questions from the interview:

PBS NewsHour
05/16/13
7:07



JUDY WOODRUFF: For more, we turn to White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri. Welcome to the NewsHour. And first on the IRS, Republicans are saying, yes, it's fine, the president’s forcing these resignations, but they are saying there has to be more. There have to be prosecutions. People need to go to prison. Does the president agree?

***

WOODRUFF: Jennifer Palmieri, the president’s not only being criticized for what has happened but also for how he's handled it, not just Republicans but a number-- even Democrats are saying the White House was slow to respond, the president has been passive, not proactive enough.

***

WOODRUFF: Well let me ask you, the president clearly does have a big agenda for his second term. How frustrated is he that all of this controversy is clearly detracting, if not undermining, his ability to get that done?

Paul Bremmer
Paul Bremmer is a Media Research Center News Analysis Division intern.