Tom Shales: PBS’ Need To Know a ‘Streamlined Tripe Dispenser’

By Alex Weprin 

Television critic Tom Shales of The Washington Post tuned into the premiere of the new PBS program Need to Know on Friday and, uh, he was not impressed.

Shales compared the new program’s tone and content to that of its predecessor Bill Moyers Journal, which ended its run April 30. He also took issue with PBS’ claim that the show “empowers audiences to tune in anytime and anywhere.”

Funny thing — after watching about two-thirds of “Need to Know’s” first edition, which is actually more than I could stand, I didn’t feel “empowered” at all. I felt embittered — angry that Moyers, with his contentious controversies and honest attempts at insight, was gone and this specious, streamlined tripe dispenser was sitting there in his place.


Shales also held nothing back when discussing Need To Know‘s hosts, Newsweek‘s Jon Meacham and NPR’s Alison Stewart.

The show’s at best semi-competent anchors were Jon Meacham and NPR veteran Alison Stewart. He looked forlorn, as if having been left out in the rain, and she looked as though she would have been much more comfortable in [show guest Bill] Clinton’s lap

Double yikes.

PBS ombudsman Michael Getler wrote a column in defense of the program Sunday, before Shales’ piece hit the web. Getler pointed out that the first episode of any TV show is not necessarily going to be indicative of future quality, and that the new show would have its work cut out for it having to follow in Moyers’ footsteps.

Getler declined to offer criticism of the program, save for two things:

The last segment, with comic Andy Borowitz, struck me as extremely un-funny and seemed a strange note upon which to leave viewers on a maiden voyage of a new public affairs program. Also, I personally find it distracting for the interviewing hosts to reach out to shake hands with the important guests at the end of interviews. It’s an unnecessary bit of politeness that diminishes journalistic distance and sort of says “we’re one of you.”

The PBS column also includes a generous selection of viewer feedback, both positive and negative.