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Can We Count on PBS's New Program 'Need to Know' to Report the Truth?

Billed as part of an effort to "revitalize public media," a new planned public affairs series on PBS hosted by Newsweek editor Jon Meacham has many doubters.
 
 
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Alison Stewart is one of the anchors of Need To Know, a new public television public affairs offering that began stirring controversy long before its launch. Billed as part of an effort to “revitalize public media,” the program was first attacked simply because it will replace Bill Moyers Journal and Now, two hard-hitting, independent PBS mainstays that just ended long runs. Next, after news leaked that Newsweek editor Jon Meacham was slated to become Stewart’s co-anchor, the media watchdog group FAIR issued an “action alert.”

In it, Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and omnipresent chatting head on broadcast and cable, was slammed as “a consummate purveyor of middle-of-the-road conventional wisdom with a conservative slant.” FAIR said his prominent role on Need To Know “sends a clear and troubling message about PBS’s priorities,” and his “approach to journalism seems to be antithetical to the hard-hitting approach of Moyers and Now.”

The FAIR broadside, which resulted in thousands of emails to PBS ombudsman Michael Getler, was clearly in part a cri du coeur from progressives angry at the simultaneous loss of both Now and the ever-iconic Moyers. As Getler wrote, “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…” Getler also raised an interesting side issue, noting, “I would think that being the editor of Newsweek is a full-time job, as is the co-host, and driving force, behind a public affairs television program that millions of people will want to depend on.”

I planned to ask Meacham to respond, but he was an inexplicable no-show for our interview, so we’ll have to leave his future PBS work to speak for itself. Co-host Stewart, however, did provide thoughtful, revealing answers to the questions raised by FAIR, Getler and this reporter, which would seem to bode well for “viewers like you,” as PBS likes to put it.

Described as “a multi-platform current affairs news magazine, uniting broadcast and web in an innovative approach to newsgathering and reporting,” the Need To Know hybrid effort premieres nationwide this week on PBS — and on line at PBS.org/NeedTo Know.

I spoke with Stewart just after the web site launched and just before the first broadcast taped, and asked what exactly it is she thought we “need to know.”

“We need to know… the truth, I guess, is the answer,” she replied, after just a moment’s bemused hesitation. “And all I can add is that I will do my very best to get it to you!”

Stewart’s heartfelt tone elevated her response beyond cliché to something approaching archetype, as the late, great  Marshall McLuhan might put it, and the Peabody Award-winning broadcast journalist and veteran of both pubcasting and more ‘mainstream” media like CBS and NBC, seems more likely than most to deliver on that promise.

“Look, we’re not ‘replacing’ Bill Moyers,” she added. “You can’t do that – it’s impossible! Nor do we want to…but we would love to inhabit some of the same space that his show did, and to be of similar service.

“I understand the emotional reaction of people who watched Now and Bill’s show,” Stewart continued. “That’s one of the things I love most about public broadcasting—that people care intensely about it, that they feel real ownership, and that it is important to them and valued in their lives… As a journalist, you just don’t get that reaction anywhere else. So if we can follow in that vein that will be great – but it puts a lot of responsibility on us, and that trust is something we’ll have to earn.

Stewart, who like Meacham is forty-something (“on the youngish side for public broadcasting,” as she cheerfully admits,) says Need To Know will not be “your father’s PBS” and that she has no intention of trying to be “edgy or groovy.” Instead, she believes in tradition – “but not convention!” – and would rather make the show “post-modern, something really classic in design but updated and more modern.”

Need To Know and its vaunted “multi-platform” hybrid template sure sounds modern – but the proof will be, as ever, in the execution. Stewart, who once worked on NPR’s short-lived  Bryant Park Project, is thus familiar with the form, and thinks one key to successfully integrating web and broadcast operations is to have just one editorial team, working on both sides of the newsroom. “We can begin things on the web, add to it and let it grow all week, then have a chance to sit back a little and go more in-depth in the weekly broadcast,” she told me. “Then hopefully they will feed each off each other – content and context, perspective and analysis…”

And opinion?

“I don’t plan to offer my opinions,” Stewart stated forthrightly. “I’d much rather offer people a lot of information instead, and try to help them understand what’s going on.

“Look, it’s totally understandable that people were attached to what came before us,” she concludes. “It was something unique and valuable, and they wonder if what comes next will live up to those standards. So we have to focus on offering high quality and rigorous journalism – that’s what will carry us forward, rather than trying to ‘replace Bill Moyers.’”

As for Jon Meacham, Stewart chose to let him – and his absence – speak for themselves, other than to note that “the poor guy has fifteen jobs, he’s knee-deep in the news and maximizes every working hour – but for me, Need To Know is my primary focus and full-time job.”

I for one am glad to hear it — and willing to give Stewart and her new show the benefit of the doubt, and enough time to work out the kinks that inevitably come with the launch of anything news – especially television programs… But like a lot of people:

“I’m sick and tired of hearing things from uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocritics. I’ve had enough of reading things by neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians, and no short-haired, yellow-bellied, son of tricky dicky is gonna mother hubbard soft soap me with just a pocketful of hope.”

So I’m counting on you, Alison, and expecting you to live up to that promise. Please — just gimme some truth!

Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor is the author of "Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio" (AlterNet Books, 2008). O'Connor also writes the Media Is A Plural blog.
 
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