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The Ombudsman Column

Roger Shoots Rudolph; Viewers Shoot Back

Many of the e-mails and telephone calls that I get each week deal with programs that I had not seen when they first aired. That's natural because one can't see everything live and because not all PBS programs air in the part of the country — around Washington, D.C., and nearby Virginia — where I live and work, respectively.

I do, however, watch as much of the public affairs programming as I can as it is broadcast, and a fair number of documentaries. And within the strange world of ombudsmen, there are times when this real-time experience provides an added bit of excitement as I watch something unfold on the tube that I just know is going to stir people up and generate e-mail in the morning.

Such was the case last Thursday, Dec. 22, when the normally deft essayist Roger Rosenblatt, appearing on the nightly NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, seemed to hit a wrong note in his assault on the kind of Christmastime music that undoubtedly is annoying for some people. We're not talking here about the great works like "Silent Night" or Handel's "Messiah." Roger, rather, was talking about the "Chipmunks" singing about dashing through the snow, and endless renditions of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in countless shopping malls and gas stations. "Am I alone in this or are you, too, going nuts because of the music of the season?" Rosenblatt asks. It is, he says, relentless, ubiquitous and ruinously endless.

Rosenblatt almost surely isn't alone. But you couldn't tell that from the PBS viewers who wrote to me, all of whom objected. "Please look into the poor taste of Roger Rosenblatt's critique of Christmas music. Surely there are essays in better taste that could have been broadcast — even one poking a little fun at the trappings of the holiday," wrote a woman in Fairfax, Va. "Not funny," said a man Rockville Centre, N.Y. "In poor taste, and, in my opinion, had a hint of anti-Christian sentiment."

Well, poking fun at some of the musical excess at Christmastime seems to me to be fair game for an essayist, and PBS showed some guts in airing this at the holiday season because it was sure to annoy some people. But where Rosenblatt, and PBS, went off the rails on this, in my opinion as well, came at the end of the segment when Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is leading Santa and his sleigh across the screen with the "Chipmunks" blasting away with "Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Claus Lane." Suddenly, the cross-hairs of a gun sight appear on the screen with Rudolph in dead center. A gunshot sounds and Rudolph, the scene and the "Chipmunks'" voices disappear.

I winced when I saw that and thought it was a bad way to end an otherwise legitimate commentary on a touchy subject. A viewer in Greenwood Lake, N.Y., watching with his grandson, says this upset his grandson and angered him. "Why kill, or talk about killing, Rudolph? It's not funny. Do you listen to the news? Daily reports of kids shooting each other. Oh well. They showed a bull's eye on the NewsHour and Boom. Bye, bye Rudolph. I never write to programs but this made me mad." Another New Yorker said, "If Doris Kearns Goodwin can be banished from the NewsHour for omitting a footnote, Roger Rosenblatt has certainly earned the same fate by maligning Christmas music and graphically suggesting the murder of Santa's lead reindeer." A Petersburg, Va., caller said this was "unprofessional and was unnecessary violence. Something went terribly wrong here." There were others, but you get the picture.

Rosenblatt had said earlier in the segment that "an ordinarily serene and gentle friend of mine said that she wanted to shoot Rudolph in flight. They don't sing songs like that in other seasons," he quoted his friend as saying. So that, apparently, was meant to set-up the viewers for what was to follow. The NewsHour's Executive Producer, Linda Winslow, in answering the comments of critical readers, said that the program had received many such responses but also had "an equal number of replies thanking him (Rosenblatt) for finally saying out loud" what his friend was thinking. Again, my feeling is that the flaw was in the execution, so to speak.

The next night, Friday, Dec. 23, The NewsHour went from what some critical viewers saw as taking a shot, literally, at Christmas music the night before, to what other viewers saw as a politically correct use of "Have a wonderful holiday weekend" in the sign-off to the final newscast right before both Christmas and Hanukkah.

The veteran and also, in my view, very deft broadcaster and interviewer Margaret Warner was hosting the program that night in the absence of Jim Lehrer. Viewers noted that she was wearing a bright, Christmas-red suit with a very noticeable gold Christmas tree broach. But when she finished a segment with regular commentators Mark Shields and David Brooks, she bid them to have a "great weekend," and later signed off for viewers with "Have a wonderful holiday weekend."

A Georgia viewer, who says she has "great respect" for Warner and "her expertly conducted interviews," says of those two sign-offs, "What an extraordinarily flat, blah, disappointing thing to say on Christmas weekend. It hit me like a lead balloon, and left me feeling rather deflated. If PBS is bowing to the ACLU in their efforts to eradicate Christmas, count me out." A North Carolina viewer asks, "Is PBS afraid to say 'Christmas,' or to be politically safe, 'Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday'?" Another said, "I have to tell you that we have had it with political correctness in all its forms. We wouldn't mind it if on Hanukkah and Kwanzaa PBS were to acknowledge those. If you can help PBS overcome this infantilism — great."

I'm with the viewer who said this sounded flat and blah. I thought so, too. This was the last broadcast heading into Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa — a big deal for lots of people — and there is nothing wrong, even for public television, in finding a way to say so, along with the general greeting. In fact, it's part of the news.


NOW on FEMA

Back on Sept. 30, the weekly PBS newsmagazine program NOW with David Brancaccio featured two segments, one on the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the wake of the deadly Hurricane Katrina, and the other on the political troubles of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). Both were very timely. The hurricane had devastated the Gulf coast region late in August and hearings were being held in Congress that week in September on why the emergency response was so tragically ineffective. In that same week, a grand jury in Texas indicted DeLay on one count of conspiring with two of his fundraising officials to violate state campaign finance laws.

There were only two complaints that came to me about this program and, oddly, they arrived more than two months after the program aired. One was from a viewer in Georgia. The other was from Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.). The congressman's letter was actually sent to the president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Patricia Harrison, who forwarded a copy to me. They raised similar points. "The tone of the show was strongly critical of Republicans and the Administration. All of the guests expressed a critical view, and almost no effort was made to present balancing points of view," as Inglis put it. "It is certainly true that the federal response to Hurricane Katrina was lacking. But I would hope for more balance in a public news program," he wrote. Inglis also included some specific examples from the show to buttress his points.

First, the part about FEMA.

It's true that this segment was uniformly critical of the federal agency's leadership and performance and that those interviewed provided the criticism. There are no voices to contradict or challenge any of this. On the other hand, this was a story — prepared while the aftermath of the Katrina disaster was still unfolding — for which there was not much, if any, natural balance. The failures of federal, state and local organizations and leaders in that case were being generally acknowledged and were apparent for all to see. The power and value of this segment, it seemed to me, was in some good work by the program's senior correspondent, Maria Hinojosa, in getting a number of state and local officials, former FEMA officials and a current FEMA union boss on camera to provide insight and an inside look on why some things went wrong in the Gulf, and elsewhere, that hadn't had much previous exposure.

Hinojosa also reported that FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to numerous phone calls and e-mails requesting an interview. So that might also explain the lack of any balancing comments. But, as I'll explain in a moment, it wasn't clear, at least to me, what part of the report on FEMA these interview requests were related to.

The FEMA segment goes on to include reporting on other projects and controversial FEMA actions in Washington state, for example, and then segues into an important section on FEMA's actions in Florida in 2004 that also had drawn a lot of criticism. Hinojosa continued her report with this: "Some of that fumbling was evident last year when four hurricanes hit Florida. The South-Florida Sun-Sentinel (newspaper) broke the story that FEMA bought Miami-Dade residents rooms full of furniture and thousands of appliances to the tune of $21 million for a storm that inflicted little damage in the county.'"

"Remember," she then volunteers to viewers, "Florida was a battleground state in an election year."

Hinojosa then talks with former FEMA official Jane Bullock who worked at the agency for more than 20 years under Republican and Democratic administrations. Her last job was chief of staff under James Lee Witt in the Clinton administration. Bullock says that assets were pre-deployed to Florida before those hurricanes hit in 2004 and that mobile homes didn't go to Mississippi until almost 10 days after Katrina hit this year.

Then there is this exchange:
Hinojosa: They were willing to spend money in Florida before because (pause)
Bullock: I think it's politics.
Hinojosa: There was an election coming up.
Bullock: There was an election coming up.

Hinojosa then reports that, "In May, a government audit found that FEMA made $31 million in questionable payments in Florida during that 2004 hurricane."

That report by the Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General is sharply critical of FEMA procedures and lack of required preliminary damage assessments, and it casts strong doubt on the money spent in Miami-Dade as opposed to the much harder hit areas elsewhere in the state. It says nothing about political pressures or political motivation. It reports that the FEMA file, contrary to a presidential order, "contained no evidence of a preliminary damage assessment as specified in the President's September 4, 2004, declaration" of a major disaster.

It is here that Hinojosa reports that: "The Department of Homeland Security and FEMA did not respond to our dozen phone calls and several e-mails requesting an interview. A FEMA spokesman did tell us politics played no role in disaster response. But that's not how insiders see it."

This tells us that NOW did seek an interview, and that a FEMA spokesman denied the claim of politics. But it isn't quite clear if the request for an interview with FEMA and Homeland Security came only on this point about the Florida hurricanes, or whether it applied to the first segment about Katrina and other problems as well.

At one point, a cluster of Sun-Sentinel headlines appears on the screen. One of the those reads, "Disaster, Politics Go Hand in Hand." But this story is actually a broad, nationwide survey of recent years about how "assistance designed to help those struck by disaster has also become a tool for politicians to bring home prized federal dollars and a windfall to residents in some of the nation's poorest communities," and how "privately contracted damage inspectors with little incentive to safeguard the public purse" are allowed to operate between FEMA and the public.

The segment on Florida is troubling to me because it implies a political connection, but there is no evidence presented to viewers; only the opinion of Bullock, the former FEMA employee. And it came across to me as Hinojosa sort of pulling the politics charge out of Bullock and then specifically injecting the point that 2004 was an election year. The Florida governor is, of course, the president's brother, Jeb Bush. In his letter, Inglis says that, "NOW correspondent implied that FEMA gave money to hurricane-struck areas in Florida because it was an election year." I agree. That's what the report implied. But it didn't back up.


. . . and on DeLay

The Sept. 30 NOW broadcast then switches to Rep. Tom DeLay, the other thing "creating headaches for the White House this week."

In his letter of complaint, Inglis wrote that, "David Brancaccio interviewed Craig McDonald from Texans for Public Justice, a group that has been very critical of DeLay and corporate involvement in politics. There were no pro-DeLay voices." That is true. The entire segment on DeLay, with one exception, is consumed by an interview with McDonald, who Brancaccio describes as from "the non-profit watchdog group Texans for Public Justice." McDonald is the group's executive director. The only other person heard from is District Attorney Ronnie Earle who led the state probe into DeLay's actions.

But Brancaccio, in his questions, helps add some balance to this segment. He quickly points out, for example, that it was McDonald's group that, a couple of years ago, "filed a complaint with the district attorney's office there in Austin that was one of the things that got the ball rolling." He reminds viewers that, "Whether or not actual corporate money was used, I guess a jury has to figure out." And in another question, he says, "Congressman DeLay says he has done nothing unethical. He has done nothing illegal. Is this going to be a tough case to prove, this supposed conspiracy?" he asks McDonald.

Nevertheless, this segment is, as Inglis claims, essentially a non-stop opportunity for McDonald to lay out the case against DeLay without interference from anyone with an opposing view. There was no sound-bite or film clip showing DeLay reading his statement in his own defense. On the other hand, as a viewer, I found the segment and interview informative in terms of providing important background on the real news that unfolded just two days before the broadcast — the indictment of this very powerful congressman — with some of Brancaccio's questions at least filling in some of the gaps.

What bothered me more than not having DeLay on camera was a film clip from the files, used after the segment and narration was over, that showed a smiling DeLay in a golf cart with President Bush. This struck me as a political touch that could undermine the informational aspect of the interview with McDonald.

Katrina was a FEMA screw-up, big time; no doubt about it. And the report of the Department of Homeland Security's own inspector general makes clear that the excessive FEMA aid to Miami-Dade the year before was also a big foul-up. And DeLay has been indicted by a Texas grand jury. No doubt about that either, although he hasn't stood trial or been convicted of anything.

The NOW program focused on these three issues and put valuable material in front of the public. It provided some fascinating on-the-record testimony about what FEMA looks like to some on the inside, insights that go beyond Katrina and that didn't get much exposure elsewhere in all the coverage. It provided a national TV focus for the excellent work of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and the mishandling, fraud and waste that accompanied the Florida hurricanes a year earlier. And it provided an unfettered look at the case against DeLay by someone who helped bring that case.

But when you take the presentation as a whole, it seemed to me to have a few political touches here and there that were small and quick yet distracting, that diminished the power of the report, and that also seemed to me to be unnecessary. The Florida segment brought suggestions of election-year politics into the story with basically no evidence to back it up. It would not exactly be shocking if politics were involved. But why not, for example, ask the three Florida lawmakers — the two Republicans and one Democrat who first called for an investigation about how the money was distributed — if they thought it was election-year politics and what they based that on? The DeLay segment was informative but noticeably one-sided. A brief clip about what DeLay said about the indictment would not have diminished the power of the grand jury action and McDonald's background to the case. Maybe time could have been found for a 15-second sound-bite by dropping the golf cart scene at the end.