PBS / Washington
At your service
The US Public Broadcasting Service is one of the country’s most-trusted national institutions. From dogged reporting on everything from the election to antics in the White House, its flagship news programme is a beacon in a noisy news environment. But will the Trump years make or break it?
Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, is laughing with a group at the end of a long grand corridor inside the US Senate building on Capitol Hill, away from the hubbub of the Senate chamber nearby.
“I want to see if I can catch her,” says Lisa Desjardins, a political correspondent for PBS Newshour, the flagship news programme broadcast on public television across the US every night. She walks along the hall towards Warren, keeping an eye out for any of the little unscripted signals – a smile, a nod, a quick thumbs-up – that indicate whether a senator is willing to talk to the press. The sign doesn’t come.
“She’s pretty hard to get in the hallways anyway,” Desjardins says. “Especially when it’s a time like this – the procedural circus that it is at the moment.” She turns back towards the scrum of correspondents, reporters and producers gathered outside the senators’ lifts across the hall from the Senate chamber. They are hoping to snatch a comment from law-makers who are leaving the floor after the most anticipated vote of the day: on Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, the oilman Rex Tillerson.
A gaggle has formed around Joe Manchin, the senator from West Virginia. He’s a Democrat in a red state who didn’t vote for Tillerson. Desjardins listens in and takes note of the senator’s opinion on Trump’s nominee for the vacant seat at the US Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, unveiled at the White House the night before.
“Here you’re always rolling the dice,” Desjardins says as staffers and other personnel mill in the corridors around her. “Do I move on or will I miss somebody?” The huddle around Manchin disperses and Desjardins heads down a red-and-green marble staircase, a large oil-rendered depiction of the battle of Lake Erie looming above. Her pace is slowed by a group in front of her, which includes Neil Gorsuch himself. “Mr Gorsuch!” Desjardins calls from behind. “Congratulations!” “Thank you very much,” the judge says warmly, turning back to look at her. “How are your meetings going?” asks Desjardins. The judge politely turns away without a reply and is ushered away by his team. “I’m not going to get any more out of that,” says Desjardins lightly, turning back up the stairs.
This dance around the corridors of the Capitol, the scoping of stories, the snatched comment in a stairwell, the chance meeting around a corner, are nothing new to a correspondent who has covered Capitol Hill for the past 11 years. But the pace is new, she says, in these opening days of the Trump administration. “The atmosphere here is like nothing I’ve seen before. It’s such a frenzy right now.”
PBS Newshour has carved its name by unpicking the frenzy of the times since its inception. It debuted in 1973 as the nightly televised round-up of the US Senate’s Watergate hearings. The show’s anchors, Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil, became household names and went on, post-Watergate, to host a nightly 30-minute news programme devoted to a single issue every night. In 1983 it was extended to an hour and in 2009 was rebranded as PBS Newshour, with Lehrer as the anchor.
“I think this is the perfect moment for us,” says Judy Woodruff, the show’s current anchor, speaking in her office at PBS Newshour’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. “We’ve always been a programme for the public to turn to when there’s a lot of change going on.”
Yet while the Trump administration may be a ratings winner, it has created uncertainty for PBS’s finances. The network is government funded and the Republicans have long had it – and other media organisations – in its sights. PBS, its radio cousin NPR and the National Endowment for the Arts are all galvanising their supporters ahead of any potential attempt to cut their funding.
Public-service television may account for only 0.01 per cent of government spending but it has a far greater symbolic value on both sides of the aisle. Were PBS to be privatised, as some in Washington have whispered is under consideration, it could have a major impact on the ability of the network, and programmes such as PBS Newshour, to hold the government to account.
Perversely the potential of a future battle over funding may help the network in the short term. Many of the programmes on PBS, including PBS Newshour, rely on additional funding from trusts, organisations and individual donations. Since Trump was elected in November, media organisations that have been attacked by the new president, from The New York Times to Vanity Fair, have experienced a dramatic spike in subscriptions and support.
PBS Newshour’s fate in the broader political chess game of public funding isn’t something that is dwelt on much in its newsrooms in Arlington, says Woodruff. “We really don’t have the luxury of sitting around and thinking ‘Gee, are we going to be around?’ What we have to focus on is doing our job.”
For Woodruff, who has now covered 11 inaugurations, that means preparing for an interview at the White House the next day with vice-president Mike Pence, his first since taking office. “I do feel a lot of responsibility,” she says of her imminent meeting. “I think there’s probably some additional pressure on me because it’s so early in this administration and it’s such an unusual one. I’m never completely calm and at ease before a big interview like this. I want to do it right.”
Next door the 14.00 editorial meeting is underway. The majority of PBS Newshour’s 120 staff are stationed in Arlington. Its newsrooms accommodate many of its specialist correspondents and producers too; its celebrated science, economics and arts coverage are treasured parts of the offering.
It also has a dedicated poetry beat and has garnered praise for its regular series of televised essays, in which an essayist muses, directly into camera, on topics from immigration to social welfare and even cookery. But politics pervades most corners of the newsroom; colourful dog-eared placards from the 2016 campaign trail are still stuck to the newsroom walls.
Public-service television is often accused by the right of being a liberal bastion but PBS Newshour’s journalists refute that. In fact, because of its reach – 98 per cent of the country has access to it via 300 PBS stations – the programme arguably provided the most comprehensive coverage of the election. “Public broadcasting is important in middle America,” says Mike Melia, the show’s senior broadcast producer who has worked here since 2003. “Lots of people watch us as a result of our presence there.”
Despite PBS Newshour’s liberal reputation it is actually popular in many of the places that ultimately voted for Trump. Alaska and several of the Midwestern states; “Do they care about this in Kansas?” was a longstanding motto for the programme under Lehrer. “Did we predict the outcome of the election?” says Sara Just, the executive producer. “No, we did not. This wasn’t a prediction people were making based on the data. But based on the mood? Yes, we were noticing from our reporting that it was going to be very close.”
PBS Newshour’s television audience is older (an average viewer is in their late sixties), more likely to have at least one university degree and more affluent than those who tune into its commercial competitors, the programme’s research has found. But its blossoming online offering is drawing in a younger and more diverse audience too.
“There’s a strong desire here to take advantage of this moment,” says Travis Daub, digital director. “Our audiences feel that we treat our coverage with fairness, which I don’t think they feel they can get elsewhere. That’s a really important feather in our cap.” January 2017 saw more people consume PBS Newshour’s coverage online than ever before: 17 million viewed its website, while tens of millions more read or watched its content elsewhere online. “We are in front of millions and millions more eyeballs than we were during the last election cycle because of those same mechanisms that drove fake news. So I think it goes both ways. I’m glad we’re taking advantage of this moment to push our products. I hope in the end that we’ll win out,” says Daub.
Traditional television news formats may have struggled to keep viewers from going online but the number of those tuning into PBS Newshour is rising: during the next 12 months PBS expects to better the 14 per cent growth it enjoyed in 2015-16. “I think it speaks to a desire from our audiences to find news and not noise,” says Melia.
PBS Newshour’s highest-rated programme since it began recording nightly viewing figures two-and-a-half years ago came on the Monday after Trump’s inauguration, a particularly noisy news day among the many that have followed. The first flurry of executive orders had been signed, thousands had taken to the streets in women’s marches worldwide, the saga of the size of the inauguration crowd rumbled on and Sean Spicer’s chaotic debut as White House press secretary had taken place two days previously. “I think the depth and breadth of the coverage really sets us apart,” says Melia. “Compare us to nightly network news: it will give 90 seconds to a story and we will give it seven minutes. We allow topics time to breathe; we try to give as many voices and perspectives as possible.”
But the slipperiness of the information coming from the White House and the relentless pace of the news cycle since Trump took office is an opportunity, says Just, rather than something to decry. “We’re challenged in all kinds of ways at the moment. It’s important for us not to lean on patterns that have always been there; Washington is not following the script. And that forces us to work harder. It feels like a new chapter for us; it’s an exciting time.”
Back on Capitol Hill it’s another busy news day. President Trump has addressed his first annual National Prayer Breakfast and has had spats with both the prime minister of Australia and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and that’s all before lunchtime.
“It’s important not to get distracted,” says Lisa Desjardins as she heads to a morning press conference by Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House. “I’ve never felt as strongly as I do now about our responsibility to get the truth out there,” she adds. “That responsibility isn’t new but things are happening really fast here at the moment. We have to follow what’s important and not just the sparkling lights.” It’s something that cable-television news, with its array of partisan talking heads yelling soundbites past each other, should also consider.