Legendary PBS anchor Judy Woodruff visits Lehigh Valley to explore political divides
BETHLEHEM, Pa. — A pioneer broadcast journalist made a stop in the Lehigh Valley on Thursday to learn about political divides for a national program featuring Pennsylvania voters.
Former longtime “PBS NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff came to the PBS39 studios at the Univest Public Media Center as part of her new series, “America at a Crossroads.”
- "PBS NewsHour" filmed a segment of “America at a Crossroads" at the PBS39 studios in Bethlehem
- Former longtime anchor Judy Woodruff fronts the series
- The segment will likely air in mid-September
Begun in February, it is a biweekly segment on “PBS NewsHour” about political differences in the United States.
“We're trying to understand from the American people themselves how they see our divisions, what they think is causing our political division or polarization, and how we work our way out of it,” Woodruff said.
At the studio, Woodruff watched two focus groups of Democratic voters moderated by Republican strategist and pollster Sarah Longwell. Woodruff then interviewed Longwell.
Tape from the focus groups and the interview will be cut into a 12-minute segment that will likely air in mid-September.
“America at a Crossroads” featured a similar segment in July with Republican voters in Iowa.
Woodruff said she has been to the Lehigh Valley several times and that it is “terrific to be back.”
The focus groups
The focus groups were each made up of seven to eight Democrats from the Lehigh Valley and eastern Pennsylvania.
The discussions lasted about an hour and a half, covering topics such as the state of politics, how former President Donald Trump has affected the country and the direction of the Democratic Party.
Longwell said she used to conduct focus groups with both Democrats and Republicans, but she found single-party discussions to be more productive.
“They're much more willing to talk, they clearly feel safer to express their opinions. And it keeps it from sort of evolving into people arguing back and forth with each other,” Longwell said.
Focus group member Anthony, of Macungie, agreed, saying he would have felt more anxiety if there were Republicans there. The show did not use the panelists’ last names because some received harassing calls in an earlier story, according to PBS.
“I don’t think Republicans are open enough to listen to Democrats,” Anthony said.
Gus, of Allentown, disagreed. He thought the focus group could have gone well in a mixed group.
“If civility could’ve been maintained, there could’ve been good dialogue,” Gus said.
Longwell conducts focus groups about once a week and uses the recordings in her podcast, “The Focus Group.” She also uses her findings to develop messaging for multi-million dollar political campaigns, such as one to persuade Republicans to vote against Trump in 2020.
“I think these are the places where it's going to matter how voters are feeling about the economy, how voters are feeling about Joe Biden."Republican strategist and pollster Sarah Longwell on why she chose the Lehigh Valley
Longwell said she chose to conduct these focus groups in the Lehigh Valley because Lehigh and Northampton counties are “bellwethers,” meaning they reflect — and often predict — national political trends.
“I think these are the places where it's going to matter how voters are feeling about the economy, how voters are feeling about Joe Biden,” Longwell said.
The focus groups keep Longwell grounded in what voters are actually thinking about, she said.
“There is a way that people substitute their own judgment for what they think voters will think,” Longwell said, “and that is often wrong.”
Woodruff on political divides
Woodruff stepped down as “PBS NewsHour” anchor at the end of last year. She has covered Washington for decades, going back to the Jimmy Carter campaign of the 1970s when few women were covering national politics.
She said in making her new series, she has learned that the political divisions in the country are more complicated than some believe.
“Many people blame it just on President Trump and his rhetoric,” Woodruff said. “But it turns out it goes much deeper than that. It goes back farther than that.
“People have just increasingly begun to identify more and more with their political party and not just with who they are and where they live.”
Republicans in the focus group in Iowa identified the news media as one of the primary sources of divisions in the country. Woodruff said as a journalist, she thinks there is “something to that.”
“All of us fall into that trap, I think of focusing on conflict, focusing on drama. And that just by its very nature doesn't lend itself to finding common ground,” Woodruff said. “Common ground and compromise often doesn't make a great story. What are the great stories: tension, conflict.
“So some of it is just the nature of the news media. But I would also say it's just gotten worse in recent years, with social media, with cable news, with talk radio.
"All of those new forms of technology that are delivering the news, I think, lend themselves to dividing us.”
Woodruff recommended journalists think about how people might find common ground when covering controversial issues and avoid focusing on divisive language.
“Ask people about it, you know, ‘Why are you using that kind of language about somebody else?’ rather than saying, ‘Aha, I've got a great soundbite, somebody called so and so a rascal,’” Woodruff said. “I think reporters just need to think about it more.”
Woodruff said she has found some hope that the political divisions in the nation can be healed — some of the participants in the focus groups said they would be willing to sit down and talk with people who disagree with them.
“If your political identity is your entire identity, and that's all there is, then I think you're going to have a tough time relating or getting along with, or having somebody who's a friend, on the other side."Former longtime “PBS NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff
But the trend of people identifying with their political groups does not lend itself to depolarizing debates, she said.
“If your political identity is your entire identity, and that's all there is, then I think you're going to have a tough time relating or getting along with, or having somebody who's a friend, on the other side,” Woodruff said.
Woodruff said “America at a Crossroads” will run every other week for another year.