NewsHour Convention Coverage: A Little Out of Whack?

Sep 02, 2020

If you turned on your television wanting to see all of the back-to-back Democratic and Republican political conventions recently, the PBS “NewsHour” was not the place to go. Especially if you were watching the Democratic event.

Telling viewers it would be providing “insightful analysis,” the “NewsHour” cut away from a lot of the DNC and RNC convention proceedings with “takes” on convention happenings from its reporters and panels of experts. And you also heard other stuff while the conventions were going on: reporters weighing in on whether DNC host city Milwaukee was making money; what was happening in Wilmington, Delaware, where Biden was located; and updates on Hurricane Laura.

The “NewsHour” chose which convention videos and speakers it let the public see as producers monitored the convention lineup “over their shoulder.”

Convention coverage
NewsHour White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor and the Bidens in split-screen coverage of the Democratic National Convention  

The speakers that reached the air were more often high-profile rather than ordinary citizens. For the DNC, they included former presidents and presidential candidates, Republicans now supporting former Vice President Joseph Biden, and some statesmen and members of Congress. For the RNC, speakers included several members of Trump’s family and administration appointees, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Sometimes, the “NewsHour” tuned into speakers it decided to air after they had already begun their remarks.

Over the eight nights of both conventions, speakers and convention videos, by my count, got about 838 minutes of “NewsHour” airtime. “NewsHour” reporters and commentators got 336 minutes. That means the “NewsHour” aired about 71% of the overall convention evening programming from 9 p.m. until wrap-up sometime after 11 p.m. By comparison, the pundit-heavy CNN and MSNBC were credited with airing about 90% of the overall proceedings, according to Newsbusters.

Convention analysis
Analysis by Jan Schaffer

“NewsHour” commentary that covered over convention programming ranged from a DNC high of 44 minutes on the last night of the DNC, when Biden spoke for about 24 minutes, to an RNC low of under 12 minutes on the last night of the RNC, when Trump spoke for over 70 minutes. Ironically, that was a night when other news outlets, such as MSNBC and CNN, opted to weigh in with considerable fact checking. 

The “NewsHour’s” heaviest commentary, however, was on the RNC’s first night, when it covered almost 50% of the convention, covering over 64 minutes and delivering only about 69 minutes of proceedings on the air.

Unlike all of the networks, the “NewsHour” aired slightly more – two minutes – of live coverage of the DNC than the RNC. That’s despite the fact that the RNC program ran 30 minutes longer each night. The “NewsHour” aired 420 minutes (70%) of DNC proceedings with 179 minutes of commentary. For the RNC, it showed 418 minutes (73%) of the convention with 157 minutes of commentary

Increasingly, as the conventions progressed, the “NewsHour” began showing more convention programming – but as a backdrop, overlaying its own reporting and commentary on top of convention video or speakers, sometimes splitting the screen with an anchor or journalist. In those instances, I credited the same amount of time to both the convention and the “NewsHour.”

“We consider it our journalistic responsibility during a political convention to do more than simply pass through the party-produced events, but to include context, fact-check and provide analysis. We cover the conventions, we don’t just carry them,” said Nick Massella, “NewsHour” senior director of brand strategy and communications.The cutaways, which riled a lot of viewers, were likely more noticeable this year, because both conventions were tightly produced, with fewer speaker transitions that could be covered by commentary. “In a live event, there are more obvious lulls – applause, walk ups to the stage, walk offs, , etc. This year, with party-produced live streams, we were presented with a different challenge,” Massella said. 

As long as we have covered the conventions, there are some in the audience who consider analysis as taking away from the official programming,” Massella said. This year, PBS gave viewers the option to watch a full livestream of convention proceedings on its YouTube channel.

Indeed, many viewers were not happy. The uptick in the number of comments, mostly critical, about both the DNC and RNC, far outweighed the average posts to CPB’s “Your Feedback” page.” Moreover, viewers seemed to employ more aggressive language in lodging their complaints.

A prevailing theme in the emails were: “Just broadcast the event, don’t comment on it.”

“If they wanted to stay unbiased all the station would have had to do was to televise each speaker without anybody from PBS making comments. The American people can think for themselves they don’t need a commentator giving us their opinion,” wrote one critic. 

Said another emailer about the RNC coverage: “Many of the speeches and films were omitted by PBS. What is worse, the producers chose to cut away from many speeches, using the time to frame each speech in a negative way … The result was that PBS viewers were denied many of the strongest speeches of the evening … I conclude that you did not want those messages to be heard … You illustrated the dangers of ‘cancel culture.’ ”

“I was saddened to watch PBS last night, well after the Demo convention started. And all I saw was your talking heads,” said another. “Your talking heads are as dumb as the rest of us, but paid more. I find them uninteresting, aged and tired.”

“I enjoy watching the PBS “NewsHour” regularly. Judy's coverage on 8/19/20 was poor -- we need less talking heads (panel of experts!) and more uninterrupted coverage of the convention … Please reconsider – I don't care what talking heads have to say until the end of the evening.”

I’ll admit that I was surprised at the results of my content analysis. I have no problem with fact checking or context. But this year, the pacing, choices and technical skills on display during each convention – unique factors this year – told me a lot. A lot that I missed from the “NewsHour” coverage, which seemed a little out of whack.

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