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Sunday, December 21, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman's Mailbag

Welcome to another ombudsman's mailbag.

What follows is a sampling of e-mails from viewers and online readers in response to Monday's column about the Feb. 7 interview with Vice President Dick Cheney on "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," and also about the handling, on an earlier program, of the story about the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that touched off large protests and rioting around the world.

In addition, the airing on Feb. 7 of a PBS "Frontline" documentary titled "Sex Slaves," a hidden-camera, investigative look into the global sex trade — in this case focused on the traffic in young women from Moldova and Ukraine to Turkey — produced several letters to me focusing on a specific aspect of the report. This was a program in which the producer and the film crew were involved in the story. The mailbag also includes a sampling of letters about this aspect and a response and explanation from the program's producers.


Interviewing the Veep

Just read your thoughtful essay on Jim Lehrer's interview with Cheney. Thanks. I respect Lehrer as much as any MSM figure, maybe more. But I, too, was disappointed in the interview, and it boils down to a central issue: credibility. Again and again, Cheney has told the US and the world, "Trust us. We know what we're doing, and we're doing this for your good." He said essentially the same thing in this interview. Why didn't Lehrer say, "Do you understand why people have difficulty trusting you when you have misrepresented A, B, C, D, E, etc? And do you understand why people doubt your competence when you have bungled A, B, C, D, etc (the alphabet would not suffice!). Why should we now trust and believe in you?"

Thanks for your good work.

Bryant Woods, North Wilkesboro, NC



First, I think you did an excellent job in this column and in a recent WETA radio interview that I caught, and I thank you for honestly and thoughtfully addressing difficult issues.

One specific comment/question:

Use of the word PARTISAN: When you use the word "partisan" as you did in your column, how do you define that word? The reason I ask is that somewhere along the line, the distinction between legitimate criticisms and nonlegitimate criticisms seems to be lost in the way that term is now used. The result, as I see it, is that criticisms or comments that should be evaluated on their merits are often dismissed as "partisan" simply because more people in one party than another utter them. Moreover, I have almost never uncritical support described as "partisan" — by which I mean driven only or primarily by party loyalty rather than to ideas held by the party. Thus the term is more often or almost exclusively applied to Democrats these days than to Republicans.

Context in which you used 'partisan':

"On the other hand, I also have some sympathy with those who felt let down by it, even though some of those e-mailers came at this as partisans and critics of the administration." Why is this an "even though" issue? Do you mean to imply that anything said by "partisans" and/or "critics of the administration" should, as a general matter, be dismissed for that reason? And, given that most people don't give their party affiliations in their emails to you, aren't you sometimes assuming that anyone expressing intense criticism of something that the administration has done is — for that reason alone — partisan?

Please consider my suggestion that journalists should avoid using the word 'partisan" except where the meaning is clear and unambiguous — because of the imprecise nature of the word as generally used and because it has become inherently pejorative or non-neutral in tone.

Thank you.

Laura Greenberg, Bethesda, MD

Thanks. Good point. MG



I found your recent item on the Cheney interview refreshing for the most part, but problematic in a couple of instances. The most telling was the argument that there was balance because the day after the interview, you had two members of Congress on — Lindsay Graham and Jane Harman. What I find problematic about this is that these are not clear-cut opponents to the wiretapping. Graham, in fact, has been more of an opponent than his Democratic counterpart, who on Meet the Press bent over backwards to say "I think the program is a good one," I just have some reservations.

Why not a liberal or libertarian-minded individual? Or how about a legal analyst who isn't towing the administration line? Perhaps someone from one of the organizations suing the government?

Thanks for the excellent work you do. It's nice to see an organization truly reviewing its work.

Bob Fenster, Somerville, NJ



Sorry, but your rationalization in defense of Jim Lehrer's interview of Vice President Cheney was lame. There are very serious infringements of our Constitution and when the media fails to provide the essential scrutiny of the executive's actions in this regard, the media become enablers to its denigration.

Dean Wilson, Tacoma, WA



Thank you, Mr. Lehrer, for continuing your coverage of the suffering in Darfur last evening. I also appreciate your probing and respectful questioning of people I consider untruthful like Mr. Cheney. I believe that you are constantly TRYING to give us the TRUTH in your interviews.

Mary Fitzsimmons, North Arlington, NJ



Civil discourse does not mean you cannot tell a liar, that he is a liar. Dick Cheney has lied us into a war, and continues to play us. The news hour would be a hero if they called him and all his pundits. Look at the polls there are more of us then them. Know your audience, the wingnuts are watching the state-run Fox network.

Stan Matlin, Ft. Lauderdale, FL



I did appreciate it when Mr. Lehrer asked Mr. Cheney why anyone should believe him, I think regarding the "last throes" comment.

However, the idea that the interview with Sen. Graham and Rep. Harman the next day balances Mr. Cheney, is laughable. 1st Cheney gets a 1/2 hour, but the opposition party has to split their time. And next HARMAN DOES NOT OPPOSE THIS PROGRAM. They both went on about how they were happy to be briefed, and how spying on innocent citizens, without a warrant, is essential to our safety. Some universe of ideas. The NewsHour is one of the best things left on TV, please do not let it be dragged down by the rightwing propaganda machine.

Lee Gray, Seattle, WA



Since there was so much negative feedback about Jim Lehrer's interview with Dick Cheney, I'd like to chime in in support. I saw both the Lehrer/Cheney and Gwen Ifill's interviews the following night.

In my opinion, PBS journalists are the best in the business and Jim Lehrer is the best of the best. I thought he did a superb job of getting Cheney on the record. People forget that only last year this same guy and his cronies tried hard to neuter PBS for being too liberal. Cheney would never have appeared if he thought he was headed to a hostile interview.

Cheney's disdain for the media, and the opinion of anyone who differs with him, is well known and the interview captured that.

All in all, a good job by a really good journalist.

Ralph Adams, Westport, CT



Like you, I've been a fan of the NewsHour for decades. However, in recent years I've become more and more concerned about an issue that transcends what is aired on any one segment or interview: namely, it seems as though the political and social spectrum represented by guests on the program has become very narrow. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I am an unabashed liberal and have become distressed at how infrequently or weakly my brand of politics has been represented on the show. But this goes beyond my own personal tastes or choices. We see the same guests, experts, "usual suspects", time after time, and, coincidentally perhaps, they tend to cluster around the right of center. For example, to follow-up on the Cheney interview, we next heard from Lindsay Graham and Jane Harman. Presumably Representative Harman was supposed to balance the more conservative Graham, but she's more of a centrist than anything else. We never hear from people with even slightly controversial left-leaning views. The last such person on the show was Erwin Noll, whose death marked the end of liberal-left voices on the show. But it's not only political leaning that I'm talking about. We rarely hear from so-called "grassroots" folks: teachers, union members (except when there's, say, a mine disaster), blue collar workers, nurses, postal workers . . . you get my drift. We have an amazingly diverse and talented population, and it seems to me to be a shame not to see more of this diversity on the NewsHour.

Ithaca, NY



As usual, you miss the point of the complaints about the Cheney interview. There is no particular value in letting Cheney spew lies without challenge. We know what the administration's position is: we've all heard it a thousand times.

What would have been valuable is challenging the administration's lies and the half-truths. Challenge Cheney with the fact that the overwhelming majority of constitutional scholars consider Bush's legal position on warrantless wiretaps to be nonsense; that for all of the additional surveillance there hasn't been a single arrest stemming from the wiretapping program; that under the old system we had all the information we needed to avert 9-11 but we lacked the leadership to actually respond to that information.

We never get such challenges from the mainstream press. We expect much more from Lehrer and PBS. And in critiquing PBS, we expect more from you.

Chris Bennington, Moorpark, CA



Your review of Mr. Lehrer's interview is as flawed as the interview. Letting a politician have an hour to tell his side when the White House has an operation that does that 24/7 is really silly. The opportunity was a missed one to ask good, respectful questions that might have pierced the bubble we as citizens are in with this secretive WH. There are genuine concerns on the most basic of our freedoms needing more protection that the WH is willing to guarantee.

Let me address the issue of a follow up with two Congressmen. This like interviewing the Chief of Police and not asking him good questions but giving him the "opportunity" to tell his story and then getting two beat cops another day on follow-up. Do we really have to watch two days of coverage when one professionally interview would have sufficed? Would anything the congressmen might have said have the impact of a clear statement from the VP on these critical points? We got unchallenged talking points from a politician — is that an achievement?

No — this was not a great or even good interview.
PBS and Mr. Lehrer need to make the best of these rare opportunities. It is a critical time in our country's history and you have an important and neutral role to play. Please think about it.

San Francisco, CA



So your argument on Cheney's interview was you let the guy say what he has said in every Fox interview so let's have him repeat it on our show too.
That's not journalism by any standard, why not let the administration put out daily talking points and just read them and move on to women that run away or are feared kidnapped. No sirs, you added nothing to the discussion.

Neil Russillo, Miami, FL


Cartoons as News

Congratulations to the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. I have been following the cartoon crisis very closely for WEEKS and have been dismayed at the American press generally for their self censorship. With only a few exceptions, US newspapers have not printed the cartoons that are the immediate provocation for all the fury in the Muslim world. When a story becomes front page news day after day, readers deserve to know what is going on. The Washington Post has not told us all and I have complained to them. Thank god for the internet because with Wikipedia and diligent searching I have satisfied myself . . . in an oversimplified nutshell Islam expects non-Muslims to abide by their code of ethics. The Post has a great article today but still no cartoons. Two of the cartoons ARE offensive but I think should be protected by freedom of speech — they may be making a fair point, which is to ask, in political cartoon style, why are 90% of terrorist acts in the 20th century (& 21st) committed by Muslims. Anyway, thanks to PBS and NWJL for showing the TV audience some of the cartoons, the most offensive and the least offensive. You have higher standards and more faith in your audience than the NYT or the WP.

Neal Peterson, Harpers Ferry, WV



I am very disappointed in PBS for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (God bless and give him peace). Maybe without knowing it, it has offended thousands of Muslims living in different countries, including the U.S. In Islam, we're not supposed to draw the Prophet in any way because we're depicting a human being and because he is our prophet. Cartoons like those are telling people what is not true- that Islam is a very violent, vicious religion when, in fact, its very meaning means "the religion of peace." I don't understand how a religion that means peace can be as violent and vicious as the media is showing us all. I thought we are all trying to push away our differences and bring ourselves together as people, not groups of religions, cultures, and race. We have beautiful Barbie dolls of Muslims selling in the market, supposedly trying to send the message that we shouldn't always think about our differences, and here we are, trying to bring negative attention to Islam. I urge you to show Muhammad: A Legacy of a Prophet instead of showing cartoons that are hurting people and our beliefs'. We need to bring ourselves together, not push ourselves farther apart.

Lubna, Suboh, Fresno, CA



I thank you for your role as Ombudsman for viewers of PBS. I have strong differences of some things stated or quoted in your most recent article. An excerpt follows:

"Most editors and news executives in the U.S. argued that the drawings could be adequately described in words without showing the offensive and offending images. This, many argued, was not self-censorship but rather good editorial judgment."

I beg to differ. I see no editorial judgment other than self censoring in order to avoid upsetting a group of people who may be offended. "Good" is subjective here without question.

The radical Islamists succeeded in causing me to do what I probably would not have done otherwise. That is, to cut and paste the Danish newspaper's name, search for the cartoons and finally observe them (in large view) on my computer screen. That took all of five minutes. I'm sure many others did similar "news" uncensoring activities as well. I find the symbolic depiction of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban accurate. The vast majority of precipitous bombings against innocent civilians have been by Muslims, jihadists, and those sympathetic to their cause against anyone they don't perceive as "real" Muslims. I haven't seen recent equivalent bombings by Bhuddists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, etc., against Muslims. I am not suggesting no innocent Arabs or Muslims have been killed in recent years, but to suggest that any of the other religions plan to target and kill non-combatant civilians is just not looking at reality.
To show the cartoon to make a political statement as the Danish newspaper did is one thing. Even that would not justify the barbaric reaction and behavior of Muslims around the globe. However, not showing the cartoon as a visual aid in describing the controversy by American main stream press and media is flat out cowardice and masking fear with self-serving gratuitous statements such as good editorial judgment is not fooling anyone on real motives. If the press thinks that not showing a political cartoon is going to somehow prevent acts of violence from terrorists against western and non-sympathetic Muslims they are delusional at best . . .

Hampton, VA



Yes, I know PBS showed the cartoon images once and "in context." Hardly sufficient, but how about following up on the story after fear of having your building burned down subsides somewhat? How about bringing on a relatively sane and knowledgeable Muslim commentator who would show and discuss the cartoons in detail and explain that the Koran does not forbid the publication of images, that in earlier centuries depictions of the prophet were quite common? How about broadcasting some of the revolting anti-Jewish cartoons published in Saudi Arabian and other Muslim newspapers (Wolf Blitzer did this briefly on Sunday, Feb. 5) together with an interview of a Jewish spokesperson, who might be willing to explain why he and his community can object to such "insensitive" images without resorting to violent demonstrations?

How about a warning before broadcast that some viewers might find the images offensive?

Could you please do something to show that you are willing to stand up for freedom of the press in our own culture? That you will not allow the taboos of a medieval religion dictate your editorial policies?

After viewing Washington Week last Friday and reading Mr. Getler's comments on the press/Danish cartoons controversy, I remain unimpressed with PBS's permission not to broadcast the images. Gwen Ifill seemed self-satisfied with her claim that it would be sufficient to tell viewers what was in the cartoons.

This is nonsense. Viewers without access to the Internet cannot get an accurate idea of what the controversy is about. Descriptions of the cartoons vary widely. People in a democracy need the best information available. You have let your viewers down and weakened your profession.

Charles Marxer, White Rock, Canada


"Sex Slaves" — Viewer Response and an Explanation

How in God's name could the filmmaker, the camera crew, or ANYONE involved in the interviews allow that little boy to die without getting the medical treatment he needed? Or allow his sister to prostitute herself in an effort to get money for his medical treatment?

Setting up a fund to accept donations on behalf of people in need is NOT ENOUGH. You were THERE! What happened? Why?

We have been contributing members of OPB for many years. I'm so disgusted about this, I'm considering ending that support.

Dallas, OR



After viewing your program on the sex trade in Eastern Europe and the Ukraine specifically, I am highly disturbed. In fact, I am outraged that the woman who managed to escape and whose younger brother needed surgery which cost only a couple hundred dollars was allowed to return to prostitution! Why didn't someone from the reporting team help her?!!!??? Then to hear that she was arrested and deported and that her brother died a month after you filmed him — it is appalling! I understand that a journalist's job is to report, but a human beings job is to help his fellow man. The problem with the world today is that people don't realize we're supposed to take care of each other. How sad it is that we don't. Luckily, there is a special place in hell for people who torture and kill their fellow humans — we all die sooner or later, there's no escaping that.

Los Angeles, CA



The report on Frontline about Sex Trafficking was very compelling however I am confused and angry as to why the little brother of one of the featured victims was not given the $200 he needed to help save his life? How could the producer let this happen? I hope not for the sake of drama . . .
This was appalling to see and Frontline needs to address this issue to it's viewers. I am a longtime supporter of PBS, however, if Frontline does not address this question I will never come back. This ignorance was irresponsible and just as barbaric as the traffickers themselves.

Joe Morello, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL


The Response

Thank you for your comments.
FRONTLINE regrets that it failed to supply some information in this report and thus created a misimpression concerning Tania's situation and the production team's relationship with her.

The team did in fact give her the money she needed for the operations for her little brother. This is a gray area of journalistic ethics. FRONTLINE's policy is not to give money to subjects in a film. But it understands the producers' decision to help in a dire situation. We subsequently learned that the operations were not successful, whether due to bad medicine or to the seriousness of his condition.

The film's focus on her brother may well have created the impression that he was Tania's sole reason for re-prostituting herself. In her interview, Tania explained that she had other family members to support in addition to her brother, and few opportunities to make the money she needed locally, so she felt that returning to prostitution — legal in Turkey — was her best option. Like so many women who are trafficked, the promise of work abroad for desperately needed money is what initially lured Tania away from home, and it's what took her away from her family a second time, even after experiencing the horrors of Turkey's underground brothels.

Since the film's first airing in Canada and Britain, the production team has set up a trust fund for Tania for donations made by viewers, and they've helped make sure the money reaches her directly. (Anyone interested in making a donation can write to the producing team: victimsoftrafficking@apltd.ca) And producer Ric Esther Bienstock has been keeping in touch with Tania and the other women who appeared in the film. You will find information about what has happened to them, and how they've been helped, by going to the "Making of this Film" section of our Web site and reading Ms. Bienstock's Washington Post Live Chat that followed the broadcast.

— FRONTLINE


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