I am not neutral when it comes to the PBS NewsHour. My parents raised me in a household where PBS was so revered that at times, NOVA, the NewsHour and Frontline would have ranked amoung the Ross family's Apple TV favorites -- if the device had existed at the time. Simply put, information was valued in my family, making the NewsHour something like a precious resource. The solid factual news and analysis, the dulcet tones and even the calming colors of the set and pacing of the NewsHour's stories all collectively said and continue to say that this was a place where information is and forever will be presented and packaged with care.
But, alas, there are times where all our gods and heroes will disappoint, confound and mystify. And for me and the PBS NewsHour, this week was it.
In an edited but in-their-own-voices-style report on a family of North Carolina Donald Trump supporters, the NewsHour aired an interview with one Grace Tilly. Tilly, a 33-year-old white woman who told producers that the Trump campaign has compelled her for the first time in her life to vote, is also a Trump campaign volunteer. (A video of the NewsHour segment in question can be found here. Click to view it.)
That, no matter one's personal political views, is fundamentally important to process and understand. That's arguably pretty darn interesting too. After all, white voters like Tilly have participated in presidential elections with steadily decreasing frequency since 2006.
Tilly and her family can, in that sense, offer us all some insight into why and what about Trump has animated them to not just vote but become deeply engaged in the 2016 election, volunteering what for them is clearly valuable time in which to potentially work and earn money to supplement what Tilly's husband describes as an uncomfortably tight household budget.
The problem with the Tilly segment is this: Producers clearly asked the Tillys a series of questions not aired to elicit the answers that were. But among the things producers either opted not to ask Tilly or to air was what, if any, relationship her possible neo-Nazi sympathies -- revealed by the combination of tattoos on Tilly's hands clearly visible in the footage aired on the NewsHour -- have to do with her support for Trump's candidacy or campaign. Does she hear or see in Trump a candidate who will advance neo-Nazi or white supremacist goals?
These questions are rendered suspiciously absent, not simply because Tilly's hands were visible on camera. (Both the Celtic Cross that appears on one of Tilly's hands and the Gothic-style number "88" that is tattooed on the other have been identified by the Anti-Defamation league as symbols embraced and often used by neo-Nazis and white supremacists to convey their views. Just to be totally clear, the number 88 is typically understood to be a numerical code for the phrase "Heil Hitler.").
Tilly's tattoos and questions about them are utterly germane because Trump has received the unsolicited but nonetheless full public support of one-time KKK leader and avowed white supremacist David Duke. They are relevant because "Heil Hitler" has reportedly been yelled at at least one Trump rally. They should not have gone unremarked upon because the Tilly family lives in Fayetteville, N.C., the very city where a Trump rally made international headlines this month after a white Trump supporter punched a black protester in the face as the protester was being escorted out of the rally.
Fayetteville is also a town where the area sheriff felt it necessary this week to discipline the group of sheriff's deputies who witnessed the punch but took no action at all to restrain or arrest the punch-thrower. The deputies did, however, restrain and manhandle the protester in such a way that the protester wound up on the ground. And Fayetteville is a town where said puncher later appeared on television indicating that such protesters deserved to be killed rather than just punched.
Both Tilly and viewers of the NewsHour deserve the respect of being asked and offered an explanation for her tattoos and what, if any, role or relationship their typical meaning has to her support for Trump. Tilly put the tattoos on a visible part of her body and, again, told producers Trump was the first candidate to inspire her to vote for the first time since she became eligible to do so. Viewers should neither be left to assume that Tilly is a neo-Nazi nor that any neo-Nazi sympathies she may hold are utterly irrelevant.
But, in truth, the moment where the NewsHour and its producers appear to have really and truly abdicated their responsibility to convey relevant and important facts about American voters and the voter concerns shaping the 2016 election, came after the segment aired. Viewers pointed out in the comments section of the NewsHour's website the widely-understood meaning of Tilly's tattoos. Some readers also offered alternative explanations for the tattoos. But the discussion made it clear: Viewers did not miss Tilly's tattoo choices. And for those who did, stories published by Gawker and a round-robin of other publications Wednesday made them clear.
We will presume that the NewsHour's producers thought that their approach was consistent with their dogged commitment to factual and neutral reporting. The NewsHour's producers posted a note online essentially doubling down on that claim despite the fact that the report actually omitted or did not include relevant and factual information.
Editor’s Note: At several times during this campaign, the NewsHour has featured video packages of voices of voters, profiling different families and their views on the candidates and how they have arrived at them. These reports have been presented without reporters’ narration. It is true that this storytelling style requires the audience to draw its own conclusions about what they see and hear, but we believe the audience is able to do so.
In this case, a debate about Grace Tilly’s tattoos has started online. As you can see in the comments section posted with this story, Ms. Tilly argues that these tattoos are not representative of neo-Nazi positions but are connected to her family’s Celtic religious beliefs. That is what she told our producers as well. Others among our online commenters vehemently disagree.
The headline on this transcript has been updated to more accurately represent the video segment.
The aforementioned headline was changed to, “Tar Heel family explains why they support Trump,” from, "Tar Heel family illustrates why Trump appeals to the South.”
Did they really explain?
Here is the thing: Trump, the content of his speeches and public statements, and what details are known of his policy platform have strained the ability of lots of news organizations to operate within the framework of neutrality that readers have a right to expect in straight-news stories. The work is hard but it must be done.
A large part of the problem is that the political press is part of the American public too. And there are many Americans -- particularly white Americans -- who simply grow remarkably anxious in the face of matters about race and racism. Too many people -- particularly white Americans -- have been fed a constant diet of ideas and suggestions that to even ask or raise the possibility that something is bigoted or a demonstration of bigotry is fundamentally insulting and out of bounds. And finally, too many Americans -- again, particularly white Americans -- operate under the utterly unfounded delusion that it is the act of talking about and confronting the continued influence of race and racism in American life are the country's problem, not racism or bigotry in whatever form, itself.
In truth, asking uncomfortable but direct question is not worse than possible bigotry shaping American politics and elections. Common sense tells us there is almost no problem resolved, reduced or addressed when we opt to ignore it. Journalists, more than most Americans, should appreciate and demonstrate this daily. And, for the record, there is no evidence that racism is the rare exception to this rule.
Trump's campaign has put the PBS NewsHour and every other news organization in a position where it must tangle with the best way to do this work daily. And sometimes many, if not most, news organizations have failed.