‘PBS NewsHour’ special looks at how Americans became so divided

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PBS NewsHour

Judy Woodruff, left, interviews Kristi Williams, a community activist in Tulsa, Okla., in a report for "America at a Crossroads."

A PBS NewsHour special airing Tuesday examines political divisions in the U.S. and their implications for the 2024 election.

Hosted by Judy Woodruff and produced through her “America at a Crossroads” reporting series, the hourlong special compiles significant insights from the project’s in-depth coverage of the issues that divide Americans politically.

“We have a very contentious election ahead of us, and we know there’s going to be a lot of attention paid to different political views,” Woodruff said in an interview.

“America at a Crossroads,” a two-year project that travels the country to bring local voices into its exploration of American politics, aims to build understanding of how Americans became so divided. The reporting team is also looking for “ways that people can possibly listen to each other, even as they make this fateful choice about who the next president is,” Woodruff said.

Since launching the series in February with an exclusive interview with President Biden, Woodruff and her team have produced biweekly segments that air within PBS NewsHour. They’ve interviewed people from across the country and spanning political divides — elected leaders, school officials and people from the communities they represent — to report on issues such as free speech on college campuses, the legacy of racism in the U.S., and school board debates.

Judy Woodruff interviewing Joe Biden for the first installment of "America at a Crossroads."
For the first installment of “America at a Crossroads,” Woodruff interviewed President Joe Biden the day after his 2023 State of the Union address.

The segments allow NewsHour to examine political issues at a deeper level than a daily news broadcast permits, said Sara Just, senior EP of PBS NewsHour Productions and SVP of WETA in Washington, D.C.

“Sometimes the news is not the day-to-day news — it’s a bigger trend, it’s bigger changes that happen slowly over time,” Just said. “You need the freedom of stepping away from the anchor desk and focusing on it fully to really appreciate the depth of it.”

The “America at a Crossroads” special, which will air in prime time, will repackage earlier NewsHour reports on how partisan politics have become central facets of American identity; the legacy of the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa, Okla.; and how the decline of local news organizations has further divided the nation politically.

A third of the special will be dedicated to conversations about the root causes of the nation’s political divisions, Woodruff said. Participants include retired U.S. Court of Appeals Judge J. Michael Luttig, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, and Vanderbilt University professor and historian Nicole Hemmer.

‘It’s a big division’

Woodruff, who has covered national politics since 1970, embarked on the reporting project out of recognition that partisan divisions in the U.S. are the worst she’s seen in her career. She stepped down as NewsHour anchor last year to take a deeper look at the problem through “America at a Crossroads.”

The return to reporting started a new chapter in Woodruff’s work as a NewsHour senior correspondent. Early in her career, she covered the White House for NBC News, joining NewsHour in 1982 as chief Washington correspondent. In 1993, she departed for CNN, where she worked for 12 years as an anchor and senior correspondent. Woodruff returned to NewsHour in 2006 for a special reporting project on young Americans.

In 2013, NewsHour set a new precedent in television news when it appointed Woodruff as co-anchor and managing editor. She and Gwen Ifill became the first female co-anchor team for a network news broadcast. Following Ifill’s death in 2016, Woodruff stepped up as sole anchor until the end of 2022.

“I’ve never seen a time … when Americans have been as divided and when our political leaders seem to be as divided as they are — not just divided but … they seem to think such dark thoughts about people on the other side,” Woodruff said. “It’s become more personal. It’s a big division, and I wanted to look at that; I wanted to understand why that is. How did it happen?”

Of her reporting so far, Woodruff has been struck by the sheer depth of the division, she said. “The divisions are deep and they’re wide, and it’s become clear to me that it’s going to take time for us to work through where we are right now,” she said. She has found organizations and advocates working to bring people together across party lines.

In early 2024, “America at a Crossroads” will report on presidential primary races from New Hampshire and other states and further examine the roles of young people, faith communities and college students in the election, Woodruff said. “Crossroads” will also cover the Democratic and Republican national conventions, though decisions about that phase of the election cycle will be made next year.

Coverage produced by both NewsHour and “Crossroads” allows for a broader view of the 2024 general election, Just said.

“We are so grateful to have both our daily coverage team … as well as Judy and the ‘Crossroads’ team looking at the underlying themes that are part of this election,” she said. “That will really help us treat this election differently and to illuminate what’s at stake.”

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