NewsHour sticks to founding mission: “Allow the audience to reach its own decisions”

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In the first installment of our interview with Linda Winslow, outgoing e.p. of PBS NewsHour, she discussed her early start in broadcast journalism and working with Fred Friendly, a founding father of public broadcasting. In this, the second of three parts, she discusses the start of the NewsHour, working as a woman in media, and the NewsHour‘s commitment to its mission. Part three will be posted next week. This transcript has been edited.

Current: What did you do next after Public Broadcasting Laboratory?

Winslow: I have all my life worked in public television, and one job led to another. So the PBL job led to a job as a producer for what was then the WNET Washington Bureau. It was a short-term job producing coverage of a State of the Union address, which everyone rolled their eyes at. Why would anybody want to do that? That became a staple for a long time, public television covering the State of the Union.

And then in 1971, NPACT was created, the National Public Affairs Center for Television. That was another experiment. Like PBL, it was a nationally televised program. But it produced programs more than once a week and had different elements. It had a documentary series, a magazine program, one-on-one newsmaker interviews and a Special Events Unit. I remember one in Nebraska when Bob Kerrey was a young veteran, just home from the war. It was basically a discussion with the townspeople about their reactions to the end of the war and to the war itself.

NPACT was meant to provide national programming. It also produced Washington Week in Review.

Current: How was it funded?

Winslow: By CPB. If you go back far enough, you will find that there was a concerted effort by the Nixon administration to get rid of it. During the first year of NPACT, the two anchors were Sandy Vanocur and Robin MacNeil. The Nixon administration targeted them in particular and NPACT in general as being too liberal. And the Nixon-appointed head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was a man named Henry Loomis; he was a very solid Republican supporter of the President and an ally or at least a colleague of Clay Whitehead, who ran the Office of Telecommunications Policy inside the White House.

Forty years later, I read minutes of these meetings that had been made public, and you could see that we were not being paranoid when we said that they were trying to kill NPACT, because they were. In principle, they just didn’t want a national program. They wanted public television, if it existed at all, to exist as individual local stations with no national umbrella pulling them together.

After a couple of years, however, NPACT was absorbed by WETA. So the next iteration in my career was as an employee of WETA. It would have been ’72 to ’73-4.

Sandy Vanocur left after the first year, so Jim became the new anchorman with Robin. They then became the co-anchors of the live coverage that NPACT produced of the Senate Watergate hearings.

Current: Were a lot of women working with you behind the scenes in production roles and things like that?

Winslow: Yes.

Current: So women were coming into broadcasting, then.

Winslow: Women were in public broadcasting because it was easier to get a job in public broadcasting. It didn’t pay as much. If anybody was going to have a job that was going to pay a living wage, it was usually in commercial TV. The guys got those jobs.

But public television was always very open to women and accessible in terms of the job market. So while all of my bosses at NPACT were men, I worked with a great number of women. I worked with a lot of women as colleagues, but my bosses were all men.

Current: Was there a time in your career at all when being a woman drew comments or backlash? Or because there were women in public broadcasting, were you sheltered from that?

Winslow: No, we got comments. I had a boss tell me that I would have been a producer sooner if I’d had different plumbing. I wondered if that meant that I wouldn’t be able to take it at a stakeout as long as a man could. Why exactly did that matter?

But I never felt like I was being held back by being a woman. I have been in a number of meetings all my life where the men in the room didn’t hear women’s voices. So a woman would say something and everyone nods and they go on with the conversation, and then 40 minutes later a man says the exact same thing. Everybody says, “Great idea, Harry. I’m so glad you had that.”

Current: How did you come together with Jim Lehrer and Robin? You were with NewsHour from the very beginning, right?

Winslow: We spent a lot of time sitting together watching the hearings, and then we produced programs about them and interstitial material, so they had a lot of downtime to talk to each other. And they talked a lot about what a public affairs program would look like in their ideal world. And it would look like what became The MacNeil-Lehrer Report, where they could just really focus on one subject, make it clear that there is more than one way to look at this issue and allow the audience to reach its own decisions, rather than try to force-feed everybody solutions.

Current: And that has stayed at the heart of the show through its entire run?

Winslow: It has, because that is what our mission is.

But for a while we all parted company. Robin went back to the BBC, and Jim stayed at NPACT and WETA and worked on documentaries and things. And then at some point, Bob Kotlowitz, a very farsighted guy at National Educational Television, and Jay Iselin, then the president of WNET, decided to start a local news program with Robin as the anchor.

So they flew over to London to talk him into it — there is much more to it than that, but that’s the short version. Robin came back and immediately wanted me to come to New York to work on it. There was another producer named Howard Weinberg, and the two of us were going to produce everything, which became crazy after a while.

Winslow and Lehrer

Winslow and Lehrer prepare for the day’s show in Lehrer’s office, 1997.

Jim was in Washington and still working for WETA. Eventually — within a year — Robin had convinced WETA to let Jim be a co-anchor and follow through on the conversations they’d been having during the Watergate hearings. WETA itself became a co-partner in this.

So I was there in ’75 when the curtain went up on the half-hour program. It was probably three years later that I came back to work for WETA, because by then the station had a new grant to cover Congress. And, believe it or not — this was pre–C-SPAN — we were going to cover hearings and congressional events and things like that and also make programs out of all that. I was a political junkie and I loved Congress, so I loved trying to understand what made it work. And I ended up as the vice president of news at WETA.

But in 1983 I was charged with writing a proposal for the public television system that would explain what an hour-long version of the MacNeil/Lehrer Report might look like and how it would differ from what everybody else was doing in news and public affairs.

Current: What was the reaction in the system?

Winslow: They hated the idea. They just thought that was the worst thing that anybody could impose, largely, from what I am told, because it was a programming problem. They had all these half-hours, and if they put in an hour, then what?

Current: Why did you feel that the hour was important?

Winslow: I was now a vice president at WETA, mind you, and thought the program would have so much more room to grow if they could do more than one subject a night.

The half-hour format was limited to one subject, and I liked the idea of being able to add some variety. We always used to advertise, “Watch them” — meaning the three nightly news shows — “then watch us, and they’ll tell you what happened, and we’ll tell you why.” I was beginning to realize commercial TV news shows weren’t telling you so much about what happened anymore, and we might have the possibility of being an alternative as opposed to just a supplement if we went to an hour.

Because Jim and Robin themselves are such charismatic characters, I thought there was a good possibility that we could really make something wonderful happen if we had the hour to fill.

I shouldn’t make it sound like the whole system was opposed to this. There were some very strong stations that immediately got on board with the idea and said, let’s do it. But it was a selling job in the end.

By then Jim and Robin had hired Les Crystal to be the executive producer.

Lester Crystal, Winslow, Lehrer and Robert MacNeil after PBS NewsHour received the Chairman’s Award at the 2010 News and Documentary Emmy Awards. (Photo: Marc Bryan-Brown Photography)

Lester Crystal, Winslow, Lehrer and Robert MacNeil after PBS NewsHour received the Chairman’s Award at the 2010 News and Documentary Emmy Awards. (Photo: Marc Bryan-Brown Photography)

Current: And now the news cycle is 24/7 and TV news segments are getting shorter and shorter and shorter. In 2001 an American Journalism Review article said: “. . . ‘The NewsHour’ is something of a loner — strolling along to its own beat. . . . All substance, plenty of politics and foreign affairs, long, long, long segments. No frills, no bells, no whistles. And it’s been like that for 26 years.” It seems as if the things that make the NewsHour unique are just as important now, but for different reasons.

Winslow: It’s funny because we think we’ve changed. Our segments are now much shorter. One day we sent one of the desk assistants to the archives to dig up something, when some Supreme Court justice died or something, and he came back with this astonished look on his face. And he said, “I found the show that we did the day this guy was nominated. There were eight people on that program talking about the Supreme Court.”

Those were the days. We don’t do that anymore. We have shortened the segments and the discussions, we’ve added a lot more video and a few bells and whistles, but our mission hasn’t changed. That’s why we keep looking like the show your grandfather made you watch.

Even though we think we’ve modernized, we’re staying the course in a business where everybody else is changing their mission or appears to be, anyway. And I think that’s what makes us unique. We are who we are and we’re not questioning that, whereas everybody else is still rattling around trying to figure out if there is a new way to do this.

Current: News is becoming much more advocacy-oriented, too, while NewsHour is still balanced. You have the people talking on both sides of the issue.

Winslow: I think there is room for both kinds of programs, especially in the world of public television. But certainly our stock in trade will always be an attempt to be balanced. That’s why people watch us. That’s what the brand means. There may come a point where nobody wants that anymore, in which case we’ll go back to the days of William Randolph Hearst and Joe Pulitzer shooting it out. But I think as long as there is an audience for what we do, we are going to try and supply it the way we’ve been doing it.

One thought on “NewsHour sticks to founding mission: “Allow the audience to reach its own decisions”

  1. There is a lot of false balance at the NewsHour and tons of Villager Think. A Right Winger and a Third Way poser does not a balanced presentation make. NewsHour stopped being relevant a long time ago and is larded with commercial TV cast offs.

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