Mar 23 2010

PBS Ombud Responds on New Public Affairs Show

Moyers 'not exactly replaceable'--so here's Meacham instead

PBS ombud Michael Getler (3/18/10) responded to a FAIR Action Alert (3/10/10) that criticized PBS‘s choice of Jon Meacham as co-host of the PBS public affairs show that will fill the slot left vacant by Now and Bill Moyers Journal. Wrote Getler:

During the past week, my office has received about 3,000 e-mails from people, most of whom seemed to be subscribers to FAIR–the media watchdog group that describes itself as “progressive” and stands for “Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting”–and were spurred on by an online “action alert” on March 10.

Getler reiterated his concern that Now and Bill Moyers Journal leaving the airwaves could be seen as “signaling a move away from hard-hitting, controversial programs.” He added: “I can understand the anxiety of those viewers who feel, rightly in my view, that both Moyers, especially in his interviews, and Now through its choice of subjects, frequently go after issues and personalities that simply don’t get aired elsewhere on commercial networks.”

But Getler suggested that FAIR was unfair to hold Meacham’s new show, Need to Know, to the standards of Now and Moyers:

Part of the problem in writing about what is happening here is that FAIR and others see the new program as “replacing” Moyers and Now. That is true in one sense because it will fill 60 minutes of what was 90 minutes (60 for Moyers and 30 for Now) every Friday night. But Need to Know is, indeed, billed as a different program and Moyers, especially, is not exactly replaceable.

This argument is unpersuasive; Moyers was the host of Now until he left that show to host the Journal. The show was handed off to David Brancaccio and Maria Hinojosa, who have continued the tradition of solid, bold investigative reporting that Moyers established for the program. There is no indication so far that Need to Know sees itself as being in the same mold–which is why FAIR’s alert, as Getler noted, concluded that “public television still needs to find suitable replacements for the hard-hitting, independent journalism of Now and Bill Moyers Journal.”

Getler also seemed to feel FAIR was too hard on Meacham, saying we “took some very hard shots at a widely respected author, editor and commentator” who is “clearly a brainy, broad intellect.” Neal Shapiro, president of WNET, the PBS affiliate that is producing Need to Know, likewise stuck up for Meacham and co-host Alison Stewart (Broadcasting & Cable, 3/17/10): “They are both are incredibly smart. And I think, given their intellect, neither are people you can pigeonhole left or right.”

By Shapiro’s logic, of course, anyone who actually is on the left or right can’t be very bright. It’s an unintentional insult to progressive supporters of PBS that goes along well with the more substantive insult of failing to provide any serious replacements for Bill Moyers Journal and Now.