PBS Ombudsman Bizarrely Claims Pitting Dick Armey vs. Arianna Huffington is Right vs. Center

The PBS NewsHour tried to balance a conservative Republican with a liberal Democrat when it interviewed (on two different Thursdays) Dick Armey and Arianna Huffington. Left-wingers complained to PBS ombudsman Michael Getler that NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff failed to press Armey about the Tea Party's funding from corporate billionaires. The far-left media monitors at FAIR wanted Woodruff to bash Armey as a hypocrite who benefits from government entitlements, like Bill Moyers did. 

Getler's response was jaw-dropping. He claimed that PBS had failed to achieve balance, since Armey is conservative and Arianna Huffington is a centrist "and her widely viewed website strike me, as a reader, as an equal-opportunity critic. Armey is not. There are plenty of sharp, critical assessments of the Democratic Party and administration on her site." Doesn't it matter that those critics are banging away that Obama isn't socialist enough?

Worse yet, Getler said this should be "remedied" by bringing on another leftist, author Will Bunch of Media Matters for America, because Arianna was clearly not left-wing enough or critical enough of the Tea Party. Getler lamented that PBS has lost left-wing shows like Now and Bill Moyers Journal that are "not in the safe comfortable center."

Getler has granted points to conservative letter writers on occasion (and it seems apparent from his report that he didn't get conservative letter writers in his latest batch). But Getler holds the liberal opinion that was mandtory for his hiring: that public television is not a forum that should be balanced because it's taxpayer-funded. Instead, because it is "public," it should rip on conservatives from the left, because the "safe comfortable center" is already represented by ABC, CBS, and NBC. "Public" television should be anti-corporate and anti-militarist and be so boldly.

Arguing that Arianna Huffington's "beyond left and right" palaver makes her a centrist is truly unsophisticated. In her media criticism like in her less-than-centrist-sounding book Right Is Wrong, that has meant the conservatives should be dumped, since the left is correct and it's unfair (and dangerous) to "balance" that with inaccurate conservatism, like on global warming.

In her PBS interview with Gwen Ifill, it's quite clear that while Huffington may have posed rhetorically as going beyond ideology, she is not a centrist. She's lamenting that Team Obama is pandering to centrists instead of being fully progressive when Democrats have total control of Washington:

[T]his has been obviously a failure of the Bush years that put their faith in free market economics and deregulation, but also the Democrats during the Obama years, when they had control of the White House, the House, and the Senate, but, instead of going forward with bold proposals that would address the fundamental problems in the country, they tried to basically do what they can to bring everybody along, sort of flirt with Olympia Snowe, and bring Larry Summers to head the economic team in a way that put Wall Street ahead of Main Street.

Getler is only correct in that when Ifill asked Huffington to critique or attack the Tea Party movement, she declined and used "beyond left and right" palaver to pose as above ideology (like, well, Obama). NewsHour tried to balance the segments. It was Huffington who failed the leftists' desire to have someone accuse the Tea Party of being the toy soldiers of billionaires.  

But while Woodruff gently pressed Armey that liberals say his proposals to make Social Security and Medicare voluntary would destroy these entitlement programs, Ifill offered no critique of Huffington's left-wing viewpoint from conservatives, that her proposed solutions would kill chances for a recovery (or that conservatives would say she's a phony for her pose, or question her funding from left-wing billionaires).

Both interviews were gentle, in the Jim Lehrer tradition. It seems as if Getler wants NewsHour to be anchored by Bill Moyers. Here's the gist of Getler's mystifying complaint:

In the segment with Armey, NewsHour correspondent Judy Woodruff told viewers that this was the first of a two-part series of book conversations with thinkers on both sides of the political spectrum and that “a very different perspective … a conversation with liberal Democrat Arianna Huffington” about her new book would be coming soon. The Huffington interview with correspondent Gwen Ifill aired Sept. 16.

One of the benefits of the NewsHour is that it has the time for this kind of series, allowing more in-depth exploration of supposedly opposing views, and I’ve always advocated that viewers judge a news program or publication on the continuity of its coverage of a subject rather than on an individual segment.

But this time it didn’t work, in my view. Woodruff is a good interviewer and managed to get in some brief but telling questions, although there was no discussion of Tea Party funding that was the focus of most of the e-mail to me. The “series” turned out, it seemed to me, to be a big public relations win for Armey as mostly a platform for his views, while Huffington’s main point was that “the solutions are beyond left and right” and spent as much or more time bashing the Obama administration, aside from noting that the problems grew from “obviously a failure of the Bush years.”

One is that Huffington may be labeled as “a liberal Democrat,” but she and her widely viewed website strike me, as a reader, as an equal-opportunity critic. Armey is not. There are plenty of sharp, critical assessments of the Democratic Party and administration on her site. For me, this fits into a purely anecdotal sense that I have that much of mainstream television coverage for some time now is more from a center-right starting point than left-center-right, where far more talking heads and pundits that are described as liberal or left-of-center, actually are closer to the center and just as likely to criticize the left as the right. That is usually not the case, at least as it seems to me, with conservative or right-of-center guests and pundits.

Another point goes to something I posted back in May in the aftermath of the shutting down of two major PBS public affairs programs — Bill Moyers Journal and NOW on PBS. I said: “Both provided an outlet for people and subjects that are not in the safe, comfortable center of what passes for most public affairs programming on television. Rather, they often presented guests and topics that rarely get an airing, although what they have to say is of interest to many people who live and think outside that safe comfort-zone.”

Both Armey and Huffington, even though controversial, are in what I’d consider that comfortable, or familiar face, zone. Both have many friendly TV and web platforms where their views and books can be, and are, promoted.

Coincidentally, between the Sept. 9 and 16 programs, The New York Times featured a review of a probing new book about the Tea Party by Will Bunch, a senior writer at The Philadelphia Daily News and a senior fellow at the left-leaning research group Media Matters for America. Why not have him, or someone else who has spent time looking into this movement, as a guest who clearly seems apt to present a different view? The Tea Party is important and detailed arguments that challenge it need to be heard and answered.

Feel free to contact Getler online here or call 703-739-5920. Be calm and polite, as he is.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis