The Ombudsman's Mailbag
By Michael Getler
January 13, 2006
Welcome, once again, to the Ombudsman's mailbag, an occasional feature offering a sampling of letters in which PBS viewers and online readers comment on what the Ombudsman has had to say in previous columns.
There was a fair amount of mail in response to the most recent column, on Jan. 6, about the decision by the nightly "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" to include U.S. military fatalities in Afghanistan in the program's "Honor Roll" of war dead, which had previously been limited to Iraq. There was also some interesting response to the column on Dec. 30, 2005, about one or two Christmas issues — including the execution of a singing Rudolph — that were also raised on that program late last year. The first mail bag column, which appeared Dec. 21, included letters about two of the three columns that were posted earlier in December, one dealing with an "American Experience" series on Las Vegas and the other with a segment of "NOW with David Brancaccio" that dealt with Latino workers in New Orleans reconstruction. A couple of additional letters arrived since then taking issue with those columns, and they are also included below. If you want to read, or re-read, the columns that all these letters refer to, you can click on the Archive link at the right. Thanks for listening, and responding.
"Here, In Silence, Are Eight More."
As I am riveted by those words "Here, In Silence, are Eight More", I am also drawn to your column. I, too, am a Lehrer News Hour junkie, and as I watch each day and we come to the end of the program, I steel myself for what's coming. I make it a point to read the names aloud and I then say a prayer. I am one of the lucky ones; I am an aunt of a Lt. Col. in the USMC. He was in service during Desert Storm and has been in Iraq three times that I know about. I do not like war at all. He and I have had interesting discussions about the war, but he hasn't changed my mind. I can support him in what he was/is trained to do. I think sometimes that my prayers are so selfish; thanking the Creator for my nephew's life. But I do it anyway. Thank you for your work; I really enjoy your writing style.
J J Peatross, Lockhart, TX
I concur with Mr. Getler's observations re. the honoring of the military. Since I wrote PBS inquiring about the absence of those killed in Afghanistan, I'm pleased to see and hear the inclusion of all military killed in war zones. The few moments of silence are a poignant memorial regardless of one's views on the "war on terror".
Dick Hepler, Morgantown, WV
Well written and on the mark. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder so is the perceived politicization of the Lehrer Report silent tribute to our military who made the supreme sacrifice carrying out our administration's undeclared war. Those who objected to these silent tributes also prevented photographing the flag draped coffins that were being repatriated so that the public would not see the inestimable cost of these ill conceived military adventures.
Matt Schwartz, Laguna Woods, CA
I very much appreciate Mr. Getler's balanced comments on The News Hour's "Here, in Silence" segments. I am glad for the News Hours recent inclusion. As a U.S. Citizen, PBS supporter, and a U.S. Navy veteran, I salute them. May God Bless you all for your service and your efforts! You folks rock!
Jack Duncan, West Covina, CA
I appreciate your thoughtful writings about the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a very painful time in our country and to see the faces of the handsome, talented, brave young men who have died fighting is heartbreaking.
I just today visited this website because of a local PBS show I saw on homebuilding. I was a little leery because I didn't wish to view any more anti-American sentiment by the media when we have fighting men and women overseas. Sure enough, the very first news item that pops onto the screen is a story on how America might be executing innocent people.
I respectfully submit to you that this is a time in our country when we all need to pull together despite our deep differing opinions. When soldiers die wearing uniforms with our country's name on them, they should know in their hearts that we will stand with them back home even if we vehemently disagree with their military orders. This is the best way to let our enemies know that we are united and will not fold under their stealth and viciousness.
I believe that if you want to protest our country's involvement with Iraq, even as I have, you should first offer your country your most intense allegiance not just in deference to our young fighting men and women but to keep our nation united for its own sake. The USA is not defined by a President that you don't like. I wish the media would balance their unrelenting, clamorous criticism with some pride and respect for the United States.
Deborah O, Salt Lake City, UT
Your remarks about and history of the NewsHour's feature "Here, In Silence . . . " are very powerful, informative, and inclusive of all the aspects. This time of remembering has become a personal time for me of entering into the reality of these wars by taking away the numbers, the arguments, the strategies and replacing them with the faces, names of the victims of policy. These people have given all that they can and this silent memorial is very appropriate. I only wish that the names and faces of all those lost on all sides could be known. Thank you and PBS for your wonderful work.
Colleen L, Inver Grove Heights, MN
I read with interest your comments on including the number of war casualties in Afghanistan as well as those in Iraq on the NewsHour. I agree with what you say. But I wish to make an urgent point. The deaths of Iraqis matter every bit as much as those of Americans. I realize that it would be impossible to list the names of every dead Iraqi, but some acknowledgment should be made on the NewsHour about the number of Iraqis who have been killed.
Mary Ann Wimsatt, Columbia, SC
I disagree with your editorial. By merely broadcasting silently about soldiers who died in the global war on terrorism, you are just emphasizing the deaths. The men who died are much more than death. They accomplished much more than giving their lives. Don't you think an occasional mention of those accomplishments should be mentioned? Shouldn't you do an occasional story about why they believed they should put their lives on the line? Perhaps a mention of the chance for freedom they have given the Afghans and Iraqis and the security they have provided all of us. Thank you.
RJ Burns, Jacksonville, FL
I would like to thank you for touching this very important subject "Here in Silence, Are Eight More." The roll call on the NewsHour is one of the most riveting moments on television. Our family stops to watch it together, and it always sparks a conversation about international current affairs. It keeps the war on the radar for so many Americans who can so easily forget about or avoid it when they do not personally know of persons currently in military service. It is a sad comment on Americans, however, that it is only on public television we get the moment of silence. And I am glad for it on the weekdays, because it's when most people are paying attention to news. Also wanted to thank you for the great job you are doing to provide insight into the programming on PBS.
Rachael Landau, Rochester, NY
I always wondered why the names of those killed in the Afghanistan war were not included in the Honor Roll of the NewsHour. On the evening when Jim Lehrer explained that from now on they would be, I felt an immediate sense of relief and gratitude.
I just want to share my thanks and express the respect for the decision that was made to make the addition to an already very moving and powerful segment of the show.
Denise Leitzel, Davis, CA
Roger Shoots Rudolph; Viewers Shoot Back
Re: the essay on christmas music (oops, I didn't capitalize the word Christmas — I'm in big trouble!). What a whiney, humorless reaction on the part of so many of the viewers. My wife and I laughed out loud, which isn't the usual response to most NewsHour features. We, too, are very tired of the relentless nature of the pre-Christmas season music, and Roger's comments were right on. The holiday greeting by Margaret Warner was appropriate. She isn't on Good Morning America for godsake. I hope more humor, outright belly laughs, can be included in the work of the NewHour essayists.
George Lusk, Phoenix, AZ
I was reading the comments from you and other viewers of the News Hour about Happy Holidays issue. I am a long time Christian, over 50 years, and feel that these "Christians" who are complaining about the Happy Holidays are not "True" Christians. We should be a people of inclusion not exclusion. At a time of celebration of the Birth of Christ who came to spread peace and love we should not be complaining about Happy Holidays. Holiday days means Holy Day. Do these people really think that the retailers want to get rid of Christmas? I do not think so and I personally do not feel that my Religion is under attack. I do feel that my Religion is attacking me and other people. So, do not bow down to these people. They are not real. It is just another issue to divide us.
William K. Noble Jr., Glendale, AZ
It seems that all the people who complain to you are from the right. It also seems to me that you are slanted in your opinions of what is on PBS — to the right. There is nothing wrong with "Happy Holiday weekend". Stop trying to pander to the Bill O'Reilly factions — sent to their TV's to "catch PBS in Liberal thought."
Caroline Metzger, Sharpsville, PA
I missed the shooting of Rudolph, and the following essay, unfortunately. I think, however, that I can only concur with the gentleman's remarks on the tasteless, tacky and ubiquitous ersatz Christmas music which assaults us in virtually every public place, beginning, in some places, at Halloween. For those sincere Christians who mourn the loss of the true spirit of the holiday, I extend my sympathy; but I should like to point out that the ACLU doesn't need to try and kill Christmas: Corporate America has already done a great job on its demise. Is it too much to ask that Christmas celebrations, including both the music and the pressure to spend, spend, spend, not be allowed to start until after Thanksgiving is over?
Patricia Kelly, Colorado Springs, CO
First of all, congratulations on your appointment as ombudsman for PBS. In my opinion, self-critique is the only path to improvement, and it doesn't surprise me that PBS would take this step given its open and fair-minded philosophy.
I am perhaps in a minority of your demographic, being only 27 years old, but I look to programs like the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Nova and Frontline for a level of sophistication and — sometimes — candor unavailable through network or worse yet, cable news. I have not been let down in any significant way, and will continue to watch these programs.
I do have two concerns, however, that I would like to voice, one of which is concrete, while the other is less so. First of all, I fear to see the programming on PBS fall prey to a radical interpretation of faith that requires its acknowledgment and subservience. The responses you reported on the holiday stance taken, for example, by Margaret Warner, are in my opinion overblown. How much must PBS prove its devotion to the Evangelical community? Is holiday garb enough, or perhaps we need a pointedly religious greeting? What about a bible quote? In short, one would have to be living in a cave not to know it was Christmas, and even then the saccharine cacophony of holiday music would, as Roger Rosenblatt observed so astutely, find a way to penetrate the ear of said caveman and drive him mad. Just because some people shout louder than others does not mean they should be listened to — and the people who empathized with the essay, like myself, are far less likely to give feedback.
Second, as I mentioned earlier, I am a younger viewer and cannot help but notice that the stories on the NewsHour are geared to older people. Of course this is the core demographic of PBS, and I would not ask that you eliminate, for example, stories on Social Security developments. At the same time, following along this example, young adults today will play a critical role in the future of such entitlements. While many of us remain ignorant of such looming dangers, some of us are actively discussing the ramifications, and the ideas we have may surprise our elders. Perhaps some stories viewing youth as key players in the future would help restore some of the faith my generation has lost in government, media and our own role as emerging leaders.
In closing, I promise to do my part by following current events, continuing my contributions to PBS and testifying the gospel of the NewsHour to my friends still lost in the purgatory of cable news. I hope that PBS will do its best to remain honest, objective and relevant for the coming generation, the woefully misnamed "Echo Boomers". I believe you will do this.
p.s. Seriously — Roger Rosenblatt's essay was dead-on accurate; I only feel murderous rage around Christmas.
Scott Miller, Los Angeles, CA
A note to tell you how much I enjoyed Roger Rosenblatt's essay on some of our Christmas Music. I think Mr. Rosenblatt is one of our most perceptive writers.
Tom Stockdale, University City, MO
What Did NOW Know?
I understand your concerns over journalistic fairness and I understand the errors that have been made by NOW. However, my fear is that focusing on these journalistic details too much is clouding the big picture which this report clearly uncovers: that in the reconstruction for one of the biggest disasters in US history, the US government is allowing a subcontractor to hire outside, foreign help, when at the same time there are skilled, local people that would absolutely need this work.
I mean don't you agree that there shouldn't have even been foreign workers on the site, no matter what they get paid? Sure, NOW should mention that the $14 claim is not true, and that was your main task as ombudsman to clarify that, but don't you also get the big picture here?? Why is the government supporting corporate profits no matter what happens, even if it is a huge disaster? THAT is the real story.
You are sympathetic to BE&K because NOW reported they pay foreign workers $14 when in reality they seem to claim (without evidence I might add, payroll, etc.) that they pay foreign workers, of which some were apparently illegal, $18 and beyond. That's totally, absolutely missing the real point of the scandal this report uncovers. This report isn't about BE&K per se, it's about how the government allows a subcontractor to use imported workers because it's good for the subcontractor's business.
Listen, I have worked most of my adult life for a large corporation and I totally understand that it's just plain cheaper and makes more business sense a lot of times to outsource work and as such it's better for a subcontracting business. The point is, however, that we as a society should be smart enough to say, hey sometimes what's great for a subcontractor or its business isn't good for the whole societal system itself, and, yes, even if it hurts, in this case the contractor needs to hire skilled, local labor and pay the expensive union wage. To mediate that and enforce that should be the role of the government here, but the opposite is happening. That's the whole scandal here.
As ombudsman I would have really expected you to couch your, albeit, proper critique of the $14 issue into this larger context which the NOW report draws out. Your failure to acknowledge this larger point of foreign workers in Louisiana with even one sentence in your critique is unsatisfactory.
Christos Talanoez, Seattle, WA
Las Vegas: Did PBS Load the Dice?
Hi. Welcome to PBS, and thank you for your words on the NewsHour this evening.
I want to comment on your comments on the piece about Las Vegas. I didn't see the show, and while I agree with you that sponsors who stand to benefit economically from the show or have a vested interested in what the show includes and excludes, their sponsorship damages, or at least sands away at, PBS's credibility. That is costly.
I am concerned, however, by your statement that the producers should have looked for funding elsewhere. While I agree with that statement and sentiment on its face, I don't believe we know that they did not attempt to do so. I think until we know for a fact that they did not make that attempt, we need to give them the benefit of the doubt. It could be that they tried and, having failed, made the reasonable and responsible decision to go ahead with what funding they could get. Know what I mean? I look forward to a response if you have time for such. If not, I understand and won't take it personally.
Thank you for taking the job for the benefit of all of us, not just for us PBS addicts.
Tom Ehnle, San Francisco, CA