Gwen Ifill and the Decline and Fall of ‘PBS NewsHour’

Over the years, we’ve written a lot about long, slow ratings collapse of broadcast news. But ABC, CBS, and NBC aren’t the only ones experiencing this decline. As reported by David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun, the ratings for PBS NewsHour show are almost in a freefall, even compared to their commercial competitors.

By its own count, NewsHour had 2.5 million viewers in 2005. This year the show is at 1.3 million. That’s an astonishing drop, nearly 50 percent, unmatched by any of the commercial broadcast evening news shows.

(Note: Those numbers are likely overestimates. Read the Zurawik piece to see the details.)

Beyond the ratings though, the show, which was founded by Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil in 1973, is also having financial difficulties. Despite having laid off several staffers for the first time in decades, MacNeil/Lehrer Productions is still trying to stave off financial woes and is actively trying to get the largest PBS station in the Washington, DC area, WETA, to purchase the program outright.

It’s almost certain that much of NewsHour’s decline can be attributed to the departure of Lehrer from the show, no doubt an unwelcome change by the older demographic which primarily watches the program. The way in which Lehrer was replaced has also likely caused problems for the show. As he began transitioning into retirement, the show had no official replacement(s) for him. A number of different hosts were placed into a rotating position until NewsHour decided to formally name news veterans Gwenn Ifill and Judy Woodruff as the dual hosts of the show.

As someone who leans rightward, I’m probably a bit of a heretic in having a soft spot for both PBS and NewsHour. While there certainly are many more alternatives out there for news television than in the 1970s, the fact remains that both broadcast and cable news have had to move away from comprehensive discussions of significant issues into debate formats or “lifestyle” programming in order to remain relevant. Not being subjected to such commercial pressures, NewsHour hasn’t had to delve into such insignificant topics like Miley Cyrus or poorly researched medical studies with outrageous claims.

The other significant thing of value in NewsHour has been its relative political neutrality compared to the more liberal newscasts produced by ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN. But that’s changed somewhat after Lehrer officially left and Ifill became a co-anchor. While she generally has a calm demeanor, it’s quite obvious that she is a Democratic partisan as we at NewsBusters have documented on numerous occasions over the years.

In 1998, she went after opponents of new campaign finance regulations by comparing them to terrorists. In the 2012 presidential campaign she had no problem echoing the Obama campaign’s attempt to turn Republican nominee Mitt Romney into Gordon Gekko.

Ifill has persistently tried to brush away the various scandals that have plagued President Obama’s second term as “distractions.” She also rued how the White House’s lies about the Benghazi attacks continue to be a problem for the administration. “Why is this stuck? Why is this a story that never went away?,” she asked in May. In September of last year, she sniffed at it as merely a “dustup.”

Away from the camera, Ifill’s liberalism has become even more apparent. In 2008, a year in which she moderated a vice presidential debate, Ifill wrote an lengthy magazine profile of Obama that was almost a love letter. A few months later, she expanded her adulation in the form of a book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, where she hailed Obama and several other black Democratic politicians. Once word of the book-length valentine got out it nearly got her blocked from moderating the debate. Her partisan reputation likely stopped her from being permitted to moderate a debate in 2012, a decision that was said to have made her “livid.”

In Obama’s second term, Ifill has become even more overt in expressing support for the Obama administration. In April of 2012, she emceed a fund-raising event for a left-leaning gay group which hailed Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Invitees had to cough up $1,000 for the privilege of helping her celebrate the occasion. Aside from being condemned by PBS ombudsman Michael Getler, this gross violation of impartiality seems not to have affected her status at NewsHour or PBS generally.

In June of this year, Ifill blasted critics of Attorney General Eric Holder in a decidedly intemperate manner claiming that it was “fun to see the same (named & unnamed) folks calling for Holder resignation who always have.”

Given that NewsHour has a rather aged demographic and that this group has tended to vote Republican in the past several years, it’s worth considering the degree to which Ifill’s Democratic loyalties have caused a least some portion of its audience to stop tuning in. Given the other high-quality anchors and reporters available to the show’s producers, it would not be difficult to replace her with someone who is not tainted by a partisan reputation.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013