Diane Haithman contributes to Deadline’s TV coverage.
It came as no surprise that panelists at the TCA presentation to discuss PBS’ 2012 election coverage were asked whether the Colorado movie theater shooting would affect the debate in the upcoming presidential campaign and election. Panelists included Gwen Ifill of Washington Week and PBS NewsHour; Judy Woodruff (PBS Newshour); Raney Aronson, deputy executive director of Frontline; Maria Hinojosa, co-host of the new program Need to Know and John F. Wilson, PBS senior vice president and chief television programming executive.
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Woodruff took on the question first, noting that the tragedy had already resulted in President Obama and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s temporarily pulling themselves back from the campaign trail. However, she said she does not see the tragedy having much influence on gun control laws.
“The last time I was out here [for TCA] was in January 2011, just after the Gabby Giffords shooting – after Gabby Giffords, Virginia Tech, you don’t see any change,” Woodruff said. However, she added: “I think it is the right thing to ask the candidates what their position is on gun control, now there is very little conversation about it.”
Ifill said statistics show that gun sales go up after such tragedies, but added that it is important to look at the reasons. It is not necessarily because of potential copycat killers, she said. “Gun sales go up when people feel threatened.” She agreed with Woodruff that the shooting will not affect the presidential race, but added that is important to find out what the candidates have actually said regarding gun control (“not the ads”) and to examine what is really driving gun sales what the nation sees a spike.
All of the panelists said they believe that PBS planned in-depth coverage that will allow viewers to explore the reality behind often misleading polls, statistics, ads and statements. “If anything cries out for analysis, it’s these elections,” Ifill said. “We’re not CSPAN. We’re here to explain it, not just show it.”
Woodruff said that’s the idea behind PBS’ extensive convention coverage. “There’s no opportunity like it,” she said. “Not everything has to be condensed down to a few minutes. It gives Democrats and Republicans a chance to tell their story.”
Woodruff also said that American politics is more polarized than at any time she can remember. “It’s more pronounced these days,” she said. “I don’t see how you can [ignore it when you] look at Washington, where virtually nothing is getting done; members of Congress don’t know each other. Members will tell you privately, the ones who have been serving for years say it’s never been this bad.”
The panel was asked whether TV is responsible for this polarization. Woodruff acknowledged that TV plays a role, but thinks the main responsibility falls to the “cross-fire culture” of political parties that act “as if they are behind the ramparts, firing at each other.”
Ifill and Hinojosa defended what they believe to be PBS’ nonpartisan stance. Ifill called much of TV’s political coverage “silo programming,” and says viewers come to PBS to “tell me what’s in the middle.” Hinojosa, pointing to the panelists’ background in commercial television news, said of public broadcasting: “It does make a difference if you’re not thinking about feeding the beast.”
In terms of changing the way PBS operates, Ifill, who is African American, had only one joking request: “I’m personally lobbying for a black character on Downton Abbey,” she said. “Or a Latina,” Hinojosa chimed in.