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PBS Ombudsman

Ombudsman Warming

Last Friday, Feb. 24, I appeared as a guest on the PBS weekly television news magazine program "NOW with David Brancaccio." It was a short segment at the end of the program. The first part of that segment was basically to introduce me to NOW's television audience, explain a little bit about my new role at PBS, and tell viewers how to find my online columns on pbs.org. So far, so good.

The last part of that segment dealt with two subjects that I had written about in my column on Feb. 13 — how PBS dealt with the story of the inflammatory cartoons first published in Denmark depicting Islam's holiest figure, the prophet Muhammad, and with a lengthy "NewsHour" interview with Vice President Dick Cheney. That was okay, too.

But in the middle, there was a brief portion of the interview that dealt with the issue of global warming, how it had been handled by NOW in previous programs, and my reaction to some viewer comments. I had not actually written about this, so the questions and answers on the program marked my first comments on the subject.

In the aftermath of the program, I got about three dozen emails from viewers. A few were complimentary. But mostly I got hammered for what I had said, or for how what I had said was perceived and absorbed by those who wrote.

This is the ninth column that I have written since becoming the first ombudsman in PBS's history in November. The columns have dealt with many different subjects and all are available by clicking on the "archive" link at the upper right corner of this page. In addition, there have been four "Ombudsman's Mailbag" columns, also available in the archive, that contain scores of letters from viewers and online readers sent to me in response to those columns, and on other matters as well.

I mention this because this offering today is a combination column and mailbag that provides some background, discusses what happened on the program, and includes a sampling of the emails from viewers.

First, a bit of history. NOW has done a good deal on global warming; and properly so because it is hard to overstate its importance. A lengthy, original treatment of the issue aired in April 2005, well before I got here. An updated version of that also filled the full half-hour program on Dec. 30, and then another shorter update was part of the Feb. 10 program. I watched both of these more recent programs, and you can see how the issue was handled by reading the NOW transcripts.

After the Dec. 30 program, I received a couple of critical emails from viewers, and there were a handful as well after the Feb. 10 program. That is understandable because, for the most part, people write to an ombudsman to complain. The NOW producers said the great bulk of the mail on their handling of this issue was very positive and I, too, receive many messages that are complimentary generally about NOW's reporting on many issues.

Now, back to my debut on NOW Feb. 24. Here's how that segment went. Brancaccio is referring to the Feb. 10 program and I am referring specifically to the few negative comments I saw about that program, and also in general to the few I had received after the Dec. 30 broadcast.

BRANCACCIO: Now, you're pretty new at this job on television. You did it for a good while at the WASHINGTON POST. But already you've criticized us on this program. The other day, for instance, we broadcast a piece, viewers seem to love it; stories about global warming.

GETLER: Right.

BRANCACCIO: And we got some reaction.

GETLER: Well, I thought that the one — the viewers that wrote and were critical, I thought they had a point. I thought this — thought it was a good program and a very important issue. The global warming issue is huge, and it's one-sided in the sense that — certainly the bulk of scientific evidence suggests this is a very real, very large problem, and that people contribute to it.

On the other hand, I thought in the presentation of the program, it came across, as one viewer put it, you were sort of "demonizing" the people who disagree with that, sort of ridiculing them politically. And I thought there was something to that, I must say. And I didn't think it was necessary. I thought the factual presentation was solid. And that the people who disagree with what the great bulk of scientists are saying sort of needed to be represented in a way that an independent-minded viewer would say, "Well, now I understand. There is an opposition, but still this case is pretty overwhelming."

BRANCACCIO: But, you know, we try to get the facts right. We try to be fair. But the other thing we struggle against is, come on, global warming. It could be insipid. If nobody watches, I wouldn't have done any good.

GETLER: Well, I have no quarrels with the facts as presented in the program. It's just — it's just the tone of things. And I think people are sensitive to that now. They are distracted by anything that suggests that there's an agenda or they sense any bias, perceived or real. I think viewers are smart enough to absorb the facts of the stories.

The reason I think this whole matter — the TV interview and the viewer comments that follow — is an interesting exchange is because it gets at the question of how crucially important issues, very much in the news, are presented to the public in different ways and in different parts of the media.

A newspaper, or the nightly PBS "NewsHour," for example, might report the issue in one way. But a news magazine such as NOW often comes at issues more frontally, especially one where the weight of evidence is more on one side than the other. That's a legitimate and important part of journalism, and NOW does a good job of it and has a loyal and engaged audience. But the question then is how that is presented. Is it forceful yet fair? Or is there a tone to it that undermines, at least for some, the facts of the matter? That's what I was trying to get at, although I may not have succeeded. Or, as viewers critical of my comments suggest, would attempts at some balance on an issue that doesn't have a great deal of balance to offer, in fact, undermine the larger truth that the program is trying to get at?

What follows now is a sampling of the few letters that were critical of the program's approach, followed by a much larger sampling of those responding to what I said during the interview. To get a fuller sense of this issue and the approach to it, without having to go back and review all the programs, it would be worth reading the transcript of the Feb. 10 NOW segment on global warming.

First, here are some letters from viewers who raised criticisms about the Dec. 30 and Feb. 10 programs:

The Critics Write . . .

I encourage you (NOW) to take a more balanced view of the global warming issue. As a long time environmentalist, I am concerned that the environmental movement may in the long run lose credibility with respect to environmental issues due to potential false claims surrounding global warming. Your show of Feb. 10 seemed to demonize those who may be doubtful of the global warming claims when it pointed to Sen. Inhofe. Could you not have been a bit more objective in attempting to repudiate doubters of global warming? How about engaging in a dialogue instead of presenting only one side?

Tom Schurch

The segment this evening on global warming was misleading. You "cherry picked" the Greenland ice core studies. You omitted the main point of this scientific research. These studies found that there has been drastic and very rapid climate changes on Earth long before man was ever on Earth — no greenhouse gases to cause the warming!

Further, computer studies conducted a number of year's ago predicting global warming due to greenhouse gases have not correlated well with the temperature of the Earth since then.

Robert K. Murray, Las Cruces, NM

I am generally a fan of the show NOW. However, I'd have liked to have seen more balance in last night's show (Dec. 30) on global warming. We were told that there was a scientific consensus that pollution causes global warming, and that industry has paid scientists with the minority view to state otherwise on their propaganda films, which are then used by the politicians on the right to call global warming a "hoax." While I seriously doubt that the majority view of what causes global warming is a hoax, I would like to have learned the extent of the dissenting view and the rationale behind it. How many scientists in the minority? Why weren't they interviewed on the show? The clear implication was that the dissenting scientists are simply in bed with industry, that their views are not credible because they appeared in films that were made by industry and touted by the political right . . . What is the basis of their dissent? Do they have different data, or do they interpret these data differently? After watching the show, I don't know the answers to any of these questions because their positions were not given any hearing. Viewers would have come away better educated if we had understood something of why the dissenting view exists and how the majority view would respond to the arguments of the dissenters.

Longmont, CO

The only opposing views of scientists presented were from those accused of accepting bribery for their opposition. There was total disregard of legitimate voices of opposition and illegitimate voices biased in favor of the concept of global warming.

Harold Clisset, Eatontown, NJ

Just saw PBS program on global warming. It contended that warming was definitely man-made. This is where large segments of the scientific community part company. Among those that concur with the warming view, many, not just those bought off by the energy industry, believe that the causes are natural, not man made. The earth has warmed and cooled cyclically numerous times in history and this warming cycle may be no different as to its root cause.

It also implied that those that disagree with the warming thesis or that it is caused by human activities are only doing so out of self interest. I for one am concerned with my and the globe's self interest and until an incontrovertible case is made for human induced global warming, we cannot afford to wreck the developed word's economic stability to combat a theoretical problem over which mankind may have no control . . .

Allendale, NJ

. . . And the Critic Gets Criticized

I didn't enjoy seeing David Brancaccio being criticized on screen by the PBS Ombudsman for some vague notion of "tone" in exposing Bush's anti-science stance on global warming vis a vis energy industry funded studies. What "demonizes" people is their own demonic behavior, not a journalist's exposure of them. I value NOW more than you can imagine, as one of the last news outlets that delivers the truth. Here in Texas, before we had Bush as a president, we put up with him as a governor, when he called for environmental studies after which all of the scientists had to wonder why he bothered, since he wasn't the least bit interested in reading the results. The ombudsman deserves the spanking, not Brancaccio. The very idea of Brancaccio being brought to task over "tone" and "demonizing" (exposing) makes me absolutely sick.

Melanie Cordell, San Antonio, TX

I was watching NOW this past Friday with your interview with David Brancaccio. I'm commenting on your critical analysis of the global warming episode the week before. You felt that even though you believe global warming is a serious concern, the piece on NOW was not balanced. You felt the few opposing global warming shouldn't have been made to look ridiculous. You feel that they really believe in what they are championing and their opinions are legitimate.

Frankly sir, I'd expect more from you. Jim Inhofe is doing the dirty work for the oil industry. Even Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster who has convinced the media to call it climate change because it carries less of a negative connotation, has been on record saying to the GOP that scientific evidence is on the side of the environmentalists. But we'll have the framing of the issue on our side. All we need to do is distort the facts to make the issue vague.

What I find perplexing is that someone as distinguished as you doesn't realize there are no two sides of a debate when facts are undisputable. James Inhofe deserves no credibility. In fact I'd like to see a special on the buying of a US Senator from Oklahoma.

Vincent A. Panvini Jr., Haddon Heights, NJ

I was a little chagrined to hear you scold David Brancaccio about not being properly respectful to the global warming skeptics. I've been professionally involved in the subject for 40 years now and believe that the skeptics have forfeited any right to respect that they may once have had. The writings of Bjorn Lomborg, Michael Crichton, S. Fred Singer and the other members of the chorus are so full of deliberate misdirection, half-truths and outright lies that they should be put in exactly the same category as the creationists when they speak on scientific matters.

Dan Lufkin, Frederick, MD

I just wanted to say that I greatly enjoyed your interview on NOW. I had some concerns when you offered your criticism of the NOW piece on global warming, but when you spoke about the interview with Cheney, I saw that you really do strive for balance and fairness. One comment regarding your concern about the "tone" of the global warming piece. It occurs to me that the "tone" may have been the result of the frustration felt by scientists who have been warning this country for 20 years . . . with no apparent response. On the whole, however, I felt really glad to see and hear you, and impressed with your bipartisan approach. Keep up the good work!

Leigh Keeley, Ithaca, NY

Dear Michael, first of all, thank you . . . I saw your recent interchange with David Brancaccio and I was impressed with your integrity and "calling them as you see them" . . .

Brent Everett, Garden Grove, CA

I watched NOW last night and listened to your comments. I was not happy with your criticism of the previous show on NOW on global warming. How could you complain about NOW pointing out that the Bush Administration is, to a certain extent, responsible for the US not complying with international environmental laws and buying scientists to state there is no such thing as global warming . . . Please don't restrict our understanding of what is happening in our country today. This is a crossroads in our country, and if the people don't hear the truth, there with be a further erosion of our earth. The people who have not addressed global warming are the Bush administration. The US is the number one polluter in the world and therefore responsible for most emissions. These are the facts.

L. DeVito, Locust Valley, NY

This is my first time ever to write PBS, but after just watching your interview on NOW, I knew that I needed to speak up. I have not given my support recently to PBS because I have had such deep, deep concern that integrity in journalism was even here being compromised. One huge exception has been NOW. Tonight you offered criticism about the piece done on NOW on global warming. Please know that I see an enormous price to our country and the world by refusing to hold people accountable, refusing to address the profound seriousness of so many issues that have been compromised by putting profits and corporatism before the true needs of people to be informed. We are in need today to swing back the other way, in which people like those who have misled so many for so long about global warming are utterly exposed and held to account. Part of revealing invaluable truth is shining light upon that which has diligently worked to keep the public unaware, uninformed, unempowered — and at a huge price to us all. NOW is one of the few places where I can go and can trust in the truthfulness, integrity, intention, and higher values that are country and the world are starved for. Anyone who diminishes the critical need to expose those who would seek repeatedly to keep profound truths from the American people is not serving the higher good of our country or our planet . . . or PBS.

Molly Strong, Gresham, OR

Your interview on NOW was informative. I watch NOW not because there is balance, I watch it for facts based on the research they do. The media has fallen into the trap of being balanced; that is, having opposing opinions represented rather than digging into the issues. Your comments on NOW are not encouraging and your criticism of the global warming story was misplaced and disappointing.

Bill Bakke, Portland, OR

I just watched your conversation on NOW. Excellent! I agreed with both of your points, but it wouldn't matter if I did or not, I greatly appreciated your position.

Re: the global warming episode yes, there seemed a bias to denigrate legitimate challenges to questions of global warming, despite what appears obvious. It undermines the validity of the debate.

The question how to keep the show NOW provocative is of course their challenge.

Jim Fuge, Durango, CO

I watched the Now program on global warming. I thought their tone was just fine. Global warming is a major problem that impacts our planet. The people that think it is not a problem should not be so thin skinned. We are fortunate to have a program like Now. If you want the other side, listen to Rush Limbaugh and Fox "news." You can also join the "Flat Earth Society."

Mark Rothacher, Salt Lake City, UT

I watched with interest your appearance on NOW February 24, 2006. I was especially interested in your comments about NOW's coverage of global warming and your opinion about NOW's appearance of bias against the anti-global warming side. Will you be writing a column on this? I would be very interested.

Brenda Phillips, Grand Rapids, MI

. . . And Criticized

Tonight I caught part of your interview on PBS (02/24/06) and you made a comment concerning PBS so-called ridiculing, politically, people who argue against the concept of global warming in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence.

My comment is so what. One of our freedoms is yes a right to an opinion or belief, but at what point do we say an opinion or belief without support and beyond all reason is simply the following of some ideology regardless of the facts and that this kind of empty thinking is what has gotten America to where it is today, basically in the throes of an intellectual and spiritual civil war.

Michael Cherry, Boca Raton, FL

Michael, you have fallen right into their trap (comments on Now tonight) — the Right that is, which they have so successfully perpetrated on the American Public over the last couple of decades (including consolidation of the media).

According to their version of traditional journalism, if reporters are fair, they are to tell both sides, as if there are always two, equally valid sides of every argument. The Right has taken advantage of this ridiculousness, by often paying "experts", who frequently possess phony credentials . . . So please, show some guts. By all means, air LEGITIMATE alternative viewpoints (that are peer-reviewed level, dealing in facts, not distortions, spin or lies). And if they are opposed to my ideology — fine. As long as they're factual and can stand peer-reviewed scrutiny, then present as an alternative. Otherwise don't cave in to his fake "balanced" reporting — ya, balanced like FOX . . .

Good luck on the new gig.

Danny Fitzgibbon, Boston, MA

No one watches NOW for an objective and boring analysis. I can get that from NEWS HOUR or NYT. I watch NOW to get charged the way I read The Nation, MS, or Washington Monthly. If someone is offended by the mocking tone on NOW, tell them to turn off the TV. I don't think they really watch the show anyway. Please don't infringe on the highlight of my TV viewing week. PBS is too way too boring already.

Marc Shechtman, Boston, MA

I saw you on NOW and I think it is great to see an inside critic. I watch PBS for my primary connection to the world. I think PBS does a wonderful job of bringing out the really important news without leaning too far left or right. I have seen the other news groups and it is a marked difference. Which is why I no longer rely on FOX or CNN. Sometimes bringing out the real truth makes individuals cringe because it is pointed. Sometimes the truth hurts. But it needs to be told. And PBS, I feel, does the best to tell it without sugar coating it. And I can live with that.

Irving, TX

I came to this country 30 years ago. For thirty years I am avid listener of PBS. I learned the language from PBS. I love PBS, because they provide variety of programs with learning capability. They are the only broadcasters that are worth to turn on the television. When it comes to politics they always present different point of views, and let us audience to make our own mind. If I want to find bias politics I would turn on Fox or other channel. I was appalled to see you, Mr. Getler, recently criticizing some programs. They don't need you. They are the only impartial broadcasters in the USA. Journalism should be journalism not right-wing or left-wing politics.

I know PBS gets some Federal funds, and recently politicians decided that PBS has to become right-wing politics. We are tax payers, and our funds are spent on lots of projects that we don't support. We need democracy in this country, not just in Middle East. In democracy, media suppose to be free from politics. I am independent voter. I can make my own mind, I don't need you to tell me what's right or not. The money you get for it can be better spend.

Jadwiga, Rosenthal, C. Conway, NH

This refers to your criticisms of Now's program presentations on Friday's show. We believe you are missing the reason why viewers (like us) tune in. We want a clear examination of what is wrong. We do not want it watered down in an attempt to be "fair and balanced." Your comments did not represent us!

Oceanside, CA

Just saw you on NOW and am very grateful for your comments. They were very constructive and I agree that information should be presented without condescending attitudes towards those who hold the opposite opinion. I expect PBS will improve, as has NPR, by appointing a new Ombudsman.

Philadelphia, PA

The Ombudsman institution may have a long history in the world of printed journalism, and because of that long history, I will not begin to debate it here. However, I have concerns about the creation of an entity in the PBS organization. As I see it, the Ombudsman, by default and unless special measures are taken, skews his organization's perception of its audience. The position does this by creating an artificial focus point for the smaller percentage of the PBS audience that does actively send in comments or criticisms. The larger percentage of the PBS audience, which does not actively provide feedback, should not be assumed to be neutral in attitude towards the programming they are watching. Explanations for their lack of comment are varied, including some being truly neutral toward the programming. Some could be categorized as very happy with the programming, but of a passive enough nature that prevents commenting back. Many could also be described as of a liberal "live and let live" attitude that precludes commenting about programming that they don't completely agree or disagree with. Then there are also those, like myself, who are the "busy" procrastinators who always seem to have something more important to do than comment on television programming. It has in fact been several days since I learned about the new Ombudsman position at PBS and I almost didn't voice my opinion for lack of imperative.

In conclusion, I would be interested in knowing about the methods and devices PBS employs to measure the audience attitudes towards programming besides simple focus on the percentage that sends in comments independently.

Jon Mocko, Setauket, NY

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