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Posted at 5:53 PM ET, 01/ 9/2011

PBS 'NewsHour' talent talks Tucson shooting, Juan Williams firing

By Lisa de Moraes

The shooting outside a Safeway grocery store in Tucson, Arizona Saturday that left Rep. Gabrielle Gifford will a bullet to the head and at least two dead including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, will lead to "long overdue conversation about the kind of political discourse we have been having for the last several years in this country," longtime PBS news on-air personality Judy Woodruff tells The Reporters Who Cover Television at Winter TV Press Tour 2011.

Some reporters in the room, who'd been around a while, covering TV news, are dubious.

"We are overdue to have a discussion about the political climate," Woodruff, a panelist on a "PBS NewsHour" panelist, continues when challenged by one of them.

"A significant portion of the American public is very concerned about the hyperbolic exaggerated [political] discussions we have now. People are not only being accused of being wrong, but being traitors...How many people really think it's healthy?

"It may be great for ratings," Woodruff at least acknowledges.

But even as Woodruff speaks, the political parties had already started shouting for ratings as to who bears some responsibility for the shooting. And more than one news report had already noted that last March, on MSNBC, Gifford had warned of "consequences" to her inclusion on a SarahPac email that put gun crosshairs on her Tucson district.

Miles O'Brien -- the straight-shooter on the "NewsHour" panel -- can I say that? - says, far less naively, that he'd be happy if Saturday's tragedy at least got news outlets and politicians to "think about what words they we use."

"If nothing else, removes reckless use of 'killing' and 'gun' metaphors - 'lock-and-load', 'take aim'," O'Brien says.

"Words count and, even if it's used metaphorically, there are people out there" who might misconstrue the message, O'Brien notes. If the media agrees to remove the killing analogies - "the 'I want this person dead' analogies, we will have made progress," he adds.

And no PBS day at this press tour is complete without someone bringing up Juan Williams who was let go by National Public Radio in October for comments he made on Fox News Channel. Williams was already a contributor to FNC and was subsequently re-signed by FNC in a multi-year pact that expands his role there - a deal reported to be worth up to $2 million.

Simon Marks, president of MacNeil Lehrer Prods, which produces "NewsHour," suggests "NewsHour" would not have the same problem because its rules about its reporters making outside on-air appearances are "very clear. "

"When 'NewsHour' staff is out there making those appearances, they are making as what they are: reporters, not analysts, not commentators...We don't trade in personal opinions. We trade in fact. That is as clear a path as you can be on...and helped us avoid some of the difficulties others have encountered," Marks says.

Woodruff then begins to spew "You know it when you se it," "you can' smell it and we don't do it," and "that doesn't mean we don't have opinions, we're human beings" blah, blah, blah in all directions.

"NewsHour" senior correspondent Ray Suarez, who was also on the panel, begins to simper that his personal opinion is that "I think Juan Williams used to work for NPR and I think he doesn't work there any more." Hardy har har.

Then Woodruff jumps back in and says, "I think it's unfortunate...I know Juan personally."

O'Brien says Williams was a commentator on NPR, while they are "honest brokers of the facts." Not wanting Miles to get in the last word, Suarez comes back with a note that a FNC gig like Williams had "was unlikely to be greenlighted" for a 'NewsHour' staffer in the first place.

"I know a label is attached to me wherever I go," Suarez explains. "It would be nuts to damage that...there's no percentage in it - and nobody offers me that much money."

By Lisa de Moraes  | January 9, 2011; 5:53 PM ET
Categories:  Winter TV Press Tour 2011  
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