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The Ombudsman Column

'There's Something About Mary'

"Welcome to the broadcast. I'm Mary Matalin, former White House counselor, sitting in tonight for Charlie Rose."

That's how the May 31 broadcast of "The Charlie Rose Show" began.

For the roughly three million people a week who watch Mr. Rose's popular late-night interview program on PBS, it was well known that Rose was still recuperating from heart surgery and that guest hosts had been filling in for him for almost two months.

On Monday night, June 12, Rose returned — looking fit and healthy, and talking about as much as ever — to take his seat at the familiar round table. The first half of his hour-long, post-operative debut was taken up by a discussion of his ordeal with invited guests Bill Moyers, the well-known PBS journalist and producer who is a longtime friend of Rose's, and Yvette Vega, who has been with Rose since the program began in 1991 and is now the show's executive producer. She was with him when he fell ill in Damascus, Syria, and during his recovery in Paris and New York.

I'm not a great fan of program hosts talking at length about themselves and their illnesses on the tube. But considering that Rose has a big and devoted following, and that large numbers of Americans are afflicted with some form of heart disease, it was probably of interest to many viewers.

According to Vega, there have been about 70 guests and hosts sitting in for Rose during his long absence. But the appearance of Matalin, sitting in for Rose as host and directing "a conversation about war coverage," was the only one that produced some e-mail to me by viewers who took offense. Only a few people wrote, and a few others made similar comments on the program's Web site. But they nevertheless struck me as raising an important issue.

Matalin has been a very visible and well known White House and Republican Party insider and official adviser to both President Bush and Vice-President Cheney. And, although her title on the screen said "former" White House counselor, having officially stepped aside from her role with Cheney at the end of 2002, she is clearly still a highly-valued confidant. Just as one example, she was summoned back to the White House to help in the strategy dealing with the episode back in February when Cheney accidentally shot his hunting companion. According to a story in 2003 in The Washington Post, she was also part of the White House's pre-war "Iraq Group" that helped set the strategy for dealing with the public about the threat from Saddam Hussein.

So, What Is It About Mary?

So the issue, for me, is whether a person that is so politically identified, both officially and unofficially, with a serving administration — and its principal undertaking, as well — should be a guest host on "The Charlie Rose Show"?

Here's what a couple of viewers said. The first is from West Sacramento, CA.

"I understand the need for PBS to reverse the impression that it leans left. However, I have been watching Charlie Rose for over 10 years and tonight's show with Mary Matalin was a terrible disappointment. It appeared like a far too obvious overture to address PBS' liberal stigma. I also don't remember ever watching such a partisan guest 'host.' She had carte blanche for pushing her views that the war in Iraq is just a media problem. Her occasional 'questions' didn't mask that. There were good points made on both sides, but . . . guest hosts should at least be arguably neutral. Tonight's was not."

And this one from Brooklyn, NY:

"I am currently watching Mary Matalin filling in for Charlie Rose, who if I am not mistaken, is currently employed by the current administration as a spokesperson for Vice President Cheney, and if not, she's a vocal employee of the Republican Party — is this a joke? She is a partisan shill, and representing journalistic integrity and neutrality — when did PBS become Fox News? This is an outrage to citizens of this country whose tax dollars fund this network, not to mention individual supporters of PBS. What a sad, sad day this is."

A viewer on Rose's Web site said:

"There have been many reasons to watch Charlie over the years. One of the most compelling is his neutrality; forced or otherwise. To replace Charlie, even as a one-night stand, with exasperated apologists like Mary Matalin undercuts the integrity that separates the show from the rest."

When I asked Executive Producer Vega to respond to these complaints, she said:

"Ms. Matalin was someone who Charlie had asked (to be) guest host since they have known each other a long time and has been a gracious guest. It was also no secret what her political affiliation was, as has been the case with many of the other 70 guests and hosts we've had for the past 2 1/2 months, from Edward Galeano, Noam Chomsky to David Brooks, William Safire and Frank Rich, all from the New York Times, to Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard to Bill Moyers and Richard Holbrooke, former Assistant Secretary of State. We have had a range of hosts step in, many journalists and many who have held positions with various administrations. Plain and simple."

I'm With the Viewers

I have no idea if "The Charlie Rose Show" was trying to counter any impression that PBS leans left, as that viewer from California suggested. I doubt that, and it is the show that makes its own decisions, not PBS. And the Fox News comparison is ridiculous.

But, in general, I'm with the few viewers who complained on the basic point. I think it is a bad idea to have someone so totally identified with a sitting administration and its political face and strategy as a host — as opposed to a panelist — on a program such as "The Charlie Rose Show."

Matalin, during the segment, refers a couple of times to her work on many speeches by the President, Vice-President and others about the war, about Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's concerns that the enemy does a better media job than Washington does in today's media environment because it has no accountability. She asks reporters, and a former government spokesman, on the panel how the administration could do a better job, how would a fuller picture about Iraq be presented so that people could make informed judgments? "What is the template for success?" she asked the panelists. "If indeed soldiers and Iraqi security are being stood up. If, indeed, the economy is growing. If, indeed, schools and health clinics are being erected. If, indeed, there is a sitting government now — what is progress? If that's not progress, then what is?"

Those are all fair questions and points to raise. But they are also administration arguments, and they would be more appropriate to be raised by Matalin as a panelist rather than a host, in my view.

In the larger scheme of things, this may well not matter to the vast majority of viewers, or be just a small, easily explained point. "Plain and simple," as Vega says.

The reason I disagree is two-fold. "The Charlie Rose Show" is a very important and respected forum for interviews dealing with the broad spectrum of contemporary human endeavor. In my seven months on the job, and judging from the mail I get, it is clearly among the handful of regular shows that viewers seem truly attached to and value. My late night habits make me a fairly steady viewer (I was also a guest five years ago as the Washington Post's then-new ombudsman), and I find it steadily intelligent, interesting and fair-minded.

So I would acknowledge that the issue at hand may just be a blip because any long-term, open-minded watcher, I think, would agree that this is indeed a fair-minded show. But I would also argue that any dent in its credibility is worthy of note, especially when it is something the program chose to do rather than something a guest says, over which there is no control.

I would also say that Mary Matalin is about the best explainer this administration has had; she is a very sharp and quick thinker, and it is easy to see why she is so highly valued as a political strategist and presenter. That is also why she is a formidable presence as a panelist on lots of TV discussions and news shows.

But I don't think she, as one of the most well-known spokesmen of this administration, should be the guest host of the "Charlie Rose Show," making points, framing the questions and directing the conversation. Her identity is so glued to this administration, whether or not she is still on the payroll, that it struck me as a distraction, something that was in my head the whole time I was watching. The program and its credibility for the broadest range of viewers are too important for that.

And Now, a Program Note

I'll be away from the office from June 20 to July 17, partly on business and partly on vacation. But my assistant, Marcia Apperson, will be here and I will still be checking in from time to time on your e-mails and phone calls. So don't hold back.