PBS Election Special Blames GOP for 'Meaner' Debate, Skips Over Shooting of Scalise

December 21st, 2023 11:32 AM

Journalist Judy Woodruff retired from the PBS NewsHour anchor desk in 2022, but spent 2023 on a cross-country tour filing reports on political polarization, some of which ended up in this year-ending hour-long election special America at a Crossroads, used as connective tissue to go along with new content.

The special's thin patina of objectivity -- there were limited mentions of Donald Trump -- was amusingly broken by Woodruff herself, with some liberal slant via an archive clip nearly 40 years old, from Woodruff’s days reporting for PBS’s McNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (later to be renamed the PBS NewsHour).

1984 Woodruff characterized a clash on the House floor.

Woodruff: A feud that has been simmering for weeks between Democrats and a group of conservative Republicans finally reached the boiling point.

That was Woodruff from a May 15, 1984 story introducing a clip of liberal fixture and then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill blasting conservative House leader (and future House Speaker) Newt Gingrich. (Democrat O'Neill was reprimanded by the House for his outburst against Gingrich, as the original report showed.)

Why air that old clip at all? It was Woodruff’s example of how things were changing for the worst in Washington since she’d arrived to cover Democratic president Jimmy Carter, a time when House Republicans were conveniently more passive and amenable to the House Democratic regime.

Woodruff lamented: But over time, I began to sense that things were shifting in Washington, that the tone was changing,” and that the “big debates…became more personal and meaner.

One of the mean bits? A Republican congressman shouting “You lie!” at President Obama during a 2009 joint session of Congress. No mention of Democrats hollering “No! No! at then-President George W. Bush at the 2005 State of the Union when Bush called for Social Security reform.

A montage misleadingly included the attempted assassination of Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona as a violent incident “based in hatred of race, religion, and politics.” (The media irresponsibly suggested Republican Sarah Palin was somehow responsible for the act of the killer, a schizophrenic.) There was no mention of the Sen. Bernie Sanders supporter who tried to assassinate Republican House members on a ballfield in 2017, and nearly killed Rep. Steve Scalise. 

Woodruff received a potted political history from Lilliana Mason of the SNF Agora Institute, but Mason’s analysis carried the smug left-wing assumption that leftism stood for going forward and conservatism going backward.

Mason: “Essentially, the left is now taking the position of ‘We want a fully egalitarian, pluralistic, multiethnic democracy. We have never fully had it, but we want to make it happen.’ And what Trump has been saying -- right? -- "Make America Great Again,’ is the definition of going back in time. And so there is this conflict between ‘Do we want to move forward or do we want to move backward?’”

The special ended with a conversation at a spot chosen to instill majesty, with Woodruff conveniently bookending the hour-long show with more labeling bias.

Woodruff: Here at the Lincoln Cottage in Washington, where the 16th president spent time during the Civil War and where he conceived of the Emancipation Proclamation, I recently gathered a group of highly respected thinkers to discuss their concerns at this moment. They were former Federal Appellate Judge Michael Luttig, a conservative stalwart; Vanderbilt political historian Nicole Hemmer, who has studied and written about the conservative movement; and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick who now teaches leadership at Harvard.”

Only Luttig was stuck with an ideological label, while Hemmer, a conspiracy-minded liberal, and Patrick, a Democrat, weren’t similarly burdened. (Suggested show subtitle: "39 Years of Judy Woodruff Labeling Slant.")

Hemmer snuck in some partisanship into the generic conversation, returning to the show's original polarizing sinner, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Hemmer: “It's something that we saw in the politics of the 1990s. Newt Gingrich, as Speaker of the House, saw polarization as a powerful weapon. He circulated rhetoric that talked about Democrats as disgusting and evil as a way of having voters recoil against this group, seeing them as enemies rather than opponents….

It's self-serving to place this on Gingrich's doorstep. They'll ignore that old PBS star Bill Moyers and the Lyndon Johnson campaign putting out a TV ad in 1964 suggesting Barry Goldwater would murder little girls in a nuclear war.