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The Ombudsman Column

On Politics, Religion, PBS YOU and NOW

One thing that readers of this column need to keep in mind is that, for the most part, people write or call an ombudsman to complain rather than to compliment. I mention that because it is always on my mind as I try to report about complaints from sometimes just a handful of viewers that raise interesting and important challenges to the way things are presented or reported on PBS, even though I have no way of knowing if those challenges registered with many others.

According to the Nielsen Television Index, some 80 million people a week tuned in to a local PBS television station or program for the viewing season that ran from October 2004 through September 2005. That's a lot of people and I'm grateful that they don't all write to me. I should also say that in my first two months here, I have received many messages from viewers that are very complimentary about PBS and specific programs.

But the ombudsman's business is complaints and what follows is a sampling of viewer observations and criticisms that came to me in the last week or so. I should also point out that many other questions and complaints that are not dealt with specifically in this column are passed along directly to program producers so that they are aware of these challenges and can respond to them.

Last week, for example, several readers e-mailed me to complain that PBS's flagship news program, the nightly NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, failed to take note last Monday, Jan. 16, of a major speech that day in Washington by Al Gore in which the former vice president accused the Bush White House of a "shameful exercise of power" by authorizing wiretaps on U.S. citizens without court-approved warrants. "The president of the United States has been breaking the law repeatedly and insistently," said Gore, according to an account in Tuesday's Washington Post. To those who complained, NewsHour Executive Producer Linda Winslow responded: "You're right. We should have reported the Gore speech in our news summary the day he made it. For the record, we have invited Mr. Gore to appear on the NewsHour to discuss the points he made in his speech."

It is a mark of today's red-hot political environment that several of those who complained said, "It is hard to escape the conclusion that PBS has been successfully emasculated by the Bush administration," as one viewer from Berkeley, Calif., put it. As a regular watcher of The NewsHour, I find that kind of assessment without any merit. The Gore speech actually did not get much coverage in the press generally. Unless I missed it, it wasn't even in Tuesday's "Washington Final" edition of The New York Times, for example. Nevertheless, I'm with the reader in Clemmon, N.C., who said, "Shame on you, PBS NewsHour," for not reporting it. This is a very big issue and Gore is an important and outspoken voice to many people. I view it as a stumble by a normally alert and comprehensive news program.

The NewsHour also took some knocks from the opposite political direction from several viewers on Wednesday of last week for a lengthy interview with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that was part of a broader segment on the need for lobbying reform in Congress. In response to Jim Lehrer's opening question to Reid about "why has it taken so long for everybody to move on lobbying reform?" Reid launched into a lengthy and repetitive attack on what he called the Republican "culture of corruption." After a while, and after a long list of infringements, Reid finally said, "Jim, your question is very valid, and I'm sorry I didn't get to the answer sooner."

It should not be shocking that the Democratic leader in the Senate would take off on the majority party after a period in which a string of serious lobbying scandals have surfaced. But some readers who wrote to me felt that there should have been a Republican response immediately to this sustained attack. Lehrer pointed out at the end of the interview that The NewsHour had extended an invitation for a similar interview to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) "and we hope to have that soon." Producer Winslow said that the invitation to Frist was extended "several weeks ago" but as of last Thursday, Jan. 19, "we haven't had a response."

One viewer, noting Lehrer's explanation that Frist had been invited, said The NewsHour should not have committed to the Reid interview without knowing for sure that the other party's view would be presented. But that's not how journalism works. The subject was timely, Reid responded, and he is the leader of the Democrats. Again, these are important issues and the beauty of a nightly newscast, or a daily newspaper, is that there is always tomorrow — or even later that same day on the Web — and that all sides of a debate, eventually, emerge.

Too Much Religion?

One of the interesting aspects of ombudsmanship is that at times you can see broad themes emerge among viewers — again, the numbers are small but perhaps reflective of a wider group — that are not so easily visible to producers of individual programs and local stations, or perhaps even to the programmers and executives of the Public Broadcasting Service.

For example, in recent weeks I have received dozens of e-mails from all parts of the country about the religious content of several recent offerings on PBS. For the most part, these have been commentaries on specific programs. But within this correspondence is a broader theme, expressed this way by a viewer in Milwaukie, Ore.: "I am very concerned about the amount of Christian-related content oozing onto PBS. It seems each show, whether it's historical, scientific or documentary in nature is flush with some sort of Christian angle. In this age of growing multi-ethnicity in the U.S., and increased conflict and tension between cultures of religion around the world, I find this bias highly disturbing and worse — validating the new Right Wing Evangelical perspective that has become oppressive in this country." This viewer mentioned recent, high profile and high viewership series such as "Walking the Bible" and "Country Boys" and an earlier documentary on "The Appalachians."

Another Oregonian said, "Would you please tell me why we are receiving so much 'Christian' religious programming on PBS lately? If people want religion, they can either go to church or watch the 'Christian' TV stations. I expect better from PBS."

A couple of California viewers e-mailed to complain about a program called "The Privileged Planet," describing it as "faith-based propaganda and disinformation." A viewer in Vermont complained about "an episode of NOW" featuring what the viewer described as "a Christian fanatic giving her view of how the media has not given a fair view of the anti-abortion crusade." A couple of other California viewers wrote to complain that even "the lovely concert with Renee Fleming singing Christmas music was marred by awkward segments between songs in preachy tones about the importance of Christmas," as one said. "I question the judgment of that heavy dose of religious programming which, except for the artistic merits, left those of us of a different persuasion out in the cold," wrote another. A viewer in Blacksburg, Va., writes to complain about the regular airing of Christian religious programs by Blue Ridge Public Television in prime time." In her opinion, she said, this "violates the mission of PBS."

Viewers in Texas, Pennsylvania and two or three other states wrote to complain about what they viewed as "make-ya-feel-good religion" programming, as one put it, during PBS fund drive weeks that featured the work of Dr. Wayne Dyer and "The Power of Intention."

It is hard to know what to make of all this, and I'm not going to try at this point, other than to think that coincidence may have played at least some role in this convergence.

We have, of course, just passed the Christmas season. And we are also at a time, in mid-January, when the three-part documentary "Walking the Bible" is airing around the country. This series is based on the best-selling book by author Bruce Feiler, who also hosts the series and takes viewers on a 10,000-mile journey based on a retracing of the routes contained in the first five books of the Bible. This series drew above average viewership nationwide, and, according to the producers, the "vast majority" of the responses sent directly to them were positive. I got some of those as well. But the majority of people who wrote to me complained. "The show is simply religious propaganda wrapped in pseudo-history and dubious legend," wrote a Baltimore viewer. A resident of Omaha, Neb., said, "The schools and governments are prohibited from promulgating superstitious dogma. How is it that PBS can even consider such as 'Walking the Bible'?"

The "Walking the Bible" miniseries also roughly coincided in January with the airing of "Country Boys," a three-part, six-hour documentary presented by PBS's highly respected "Frontline" program and produced by widely-acclaimed producer David Sutherland. This was a very powerful program. The mail to me was overwhelming positive, and I'm the guy to whom people are supposed to complain. This painstakingly documented portrait of two teenagers struggling to escape poverty in a small Kentucky town also achieved solid viewership around the country, although not as high on average as the Bible series. But "Country Boys" also had a sizeable dose of religion throughout.

On the other hand, religion is a big part of life in those communities, and that's just the way it is and it needs to be reported and reflected. I didn't see "The Appalachians," which aired well before I got to PBS, but it is the same region. Indeed, Christianity, and religion generally, have always been a very big part of American life and it is only natural that portraits of who we are as a country will contain this as one aspect.

Yet, I found this collection of messages from viewers around the country to be important and worthy of attention and discussion within PBS and its vast network of independent member stations. Is religious content being elevated these days? If so, why is that happening? Is it intentional and how should public television handle it?

Mission Failure?

Last month, executives here at PBS decided to cancel a service known as PBS YOU, a round-the-clock educational channel shown on DirectTV, Dish Network and some local PBS digital cable channel stations. It featured what were described as personal enrichment programs such as news, cooking and other self-improvement programs. Many viewers complained, and PBS responded by explaining to them that "due to significant financial constraints, PBS made the difficult decision to end the PBS YOU service. Further investments would have been required to refresh the content on PBS YOU."

Some of those who complained also wrote to me. They were mostly from rural areas and they felt abandoned by PBS. Many of them, in particular, said they could no longer get the "Charlie Rose" program, which, as a viewer in Woodland, Utah, put it, "offers the best and most diverse interviews and guest lineups on television. PBS YOU is the only station available to me that broadcasts Charlie Rose. Losing this station is a disappointment to me."

A viewer in Jackson, Miss., put it more broadly: "PBS YOU is part of the fulfillment of the mission of PBS." By not continuing the funding, he says, "PBS is again out of touch with its mission and its members. PBS seems to make decisions with little regard to what viewers want. Such an attitude will keep the current dwindling base of supporters but will not add new supporters like me."

I have no doubt that money is tight at PBS and that this was a tough decision even though, as I understand it, PBS YOU was a relatively low-cost operation. And since I have no responsibility for budgets, or anything else for that matter, it is easy for me to say this was a mistake. But I think it was. I can't imagine anything more painful to those committed to the concept of public television and the need to make sure it gets to those viewers who truly hang on it then to cut off PBS YOU viewers.

Finally, NOW

So, while I am in the business of handing out other people's money, I will relay a pitch that several viewers have made to me during these first two months — expand the half-hour weekly news magazine program NOW with David Brancaccio to one hour. I agree with them. The NOW program used to be a full hour when its longtime host, Bill Moyers, was at the helm. After he left in December 2004, it was cut back to 30 minutes. NOW is a very timely news magazine, closely tuned to the issues of the week and with a reportorial edge that attempts to cut quickly to what they see as the heart of the issue. I think that is good, conceptually. But it is hard to do in what is essentially a little less than 30 minutes. An hour would allow a fuller, more comprehensive presentation of stories that would have a better shot at capturing the complexity of issues and enhancing public understanding. As to where the money should come from, that's easy for me to say. You figure it out.