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PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

A Deadly Summer, and It Isn't Over Yet

An online reader of the Ombudsman's Column from Powder Springs, GA., dropped me a line on July 20 to note that, "The last comments published (on the ombudsman's Web page) were on the Fourth of July celebration. The real fireworks are in Lebanon."

That's for sure. I was on a brief vacation and out of the country when those first images of Israeli bombs cratering the runways of Beirut's International Airport hit the TV screens. It was especially jolting because I had just been in Beirut two weeks before that, taking part in a panel discussion on journalistic standards. It was the first time I had been in Lebanon since the 1982 invasion of that country by Israel, when I had been assigned to help cover that assault as a reporter.

Beirut, late in June, was a bustling metropolis, the damage of years past rebuilt and the city restored as a cosmopolitan destination for tourists, business people and investors. The scenes now, mostly from the southern portions of the country and the city where the Hezbollah party and its supporters are centered, are tragic. Hundreds of civilians have been killed, hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and the infrastructure, homes and businesses in many areas have, once again, been destroyed.

Dozens of Israeli civilians have also died now from indiscriminate Hezbollah rocket fire, and buildings have been destroyed. But what has always struck me as escalating the sense of overall tragedy in the broader region is that neither the government in Lebanon, nor the authority in Palestinian territories, has ever been able or willing to control or confront, let alone disarm, either Hezbollah militias in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza. So when Israeli reprisals come, even though they say they are carefully planned, they are certain to take the lives or the livelihoods of many civilians trapped in this endless confrontation that no one seems to have the power to stop.

Despite the drama and wider danger presented by the initial Hezbollah provocations and the on-going Israeli-Hezbollah clash, there was not a great deal of viewer mail on the subject last week or the week that I was away. I've included a sampling of the letters in an Ombudsman's Mailbag section of this column below. Maybe it's because it is summertime. Or maybe it's because PBS news and public affairs programming has been generally doing a good job reporting on this conflict. That would be my assessment.

There were some viewers, responding to specific segments of programs such as the nightly "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," who felt that there was a clear pro-Israel bias in the U.S. media generally, and that PBS was no exception. Others said this was reinforced by too much time given to representatives of the U.S. government, which has been backing Israeli actions. Others took strong exception to what they viewed as the unchallenged views of the Syrian ambassador to the U.S. during interviews.

Take the Long View

On balance, I thought the "NewsHour" did a solid job of presenting reporting and analysis on all sides of this conflict. That assessment is based on continuing coverage over the past two weeks rather than any one program or segment. There are frequently holes that can, and will be, properly poked by viewers in any one report, especially when it involves the Middle East. But in these on-going conflicts, it is also important to weigh the collective impact of the reporting and whether, over time, it covers all the bases and gets back to challenging faulty statements or assessments.

I thought PBS also did reasonably well—and much better than the major commercial TV news networks, in particular—in keeping the news from Iraq and Afghanistan from disappearing altogether during this time despite the dramatic new conflict in Israel and Lebanon. The "NewsHour" managed to keep those other stories from Iraq and Afghanistan in front of viewers, even if it was just in the nightly news summary at times, and I think that is a clear benefit of having a one-hour nightly newscast as opposed to the 30-minutes on the main commercial networks. While the outbreak of the Hezbollah-Israel war is clearly the dominant new news story, it also needs to be seen in connection with what has been going on in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although casualties among U.S. troops in Iraq are down so far in July compared with June, this is proving to be another exceedingly deadly month in Iraq with more than 1,000 civilians and Iraqi security forces killed so far. A new United Nations report said that the number of civilians killed in Iraq for the first six months of this year was 14,338, and that Iraq's Ministry of Health "publicly acknowledged information stating that since 2003 at least 50,000 persons have been killed violently."

In Afghanistan, Taliban insurgents have been re-emerging, launching more and more attacks against villages, particularly in the south. And now, Hezbollah provocations against Israel have sparked an explosive new war in the Middle East. So three major conflicts with Islamic extremist forces—al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, jihadist and insurgent forces in Iraq and now Hezbollah in Lebanon—are now underway; two of them directly involving the U.S. and its forces and the latest clash between Israel and Hezbollah with indirect support from the Bush administration for the Israeli counter-attack.

It is hard to see how or when any of these conflicts will end. And while there are crucial differences in each conflict—especially the fact that the war with Hezbollah is primarily Israel's war and that the war in Iraq was a preemptive strike launched by the U.S.—there is also a central thread that demands that the bigger picture of a spreading clash with militant Islamic extremists be kept in front of news consumers.

Lots of Other Stuff

Compared to what is happening in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Israel—not to mention many other places on Earth where terrible things are unfolding—other matters may seem trivial. But they are not, because we all have lots of interests and concerns, and PBS viewers care about how the public broadcasting service operates.

So in the ombudsman's mailbag in the past two weeks were expressions of viewer concern about PBS's new policy of bleeping and blocking certain profanities, even from documentary programs, in accordance with strict new Federal Communications Commission fines for what the commissioners consider to be foul language.

In the past few days, there was also an unusual development involving the new PBS Kids Sprout channel in which a popular show host was fired after it was revealed (by the host) that she had taken part in some distinctly un-childlike video activities a few years back. That continues to draw hundreds of e-mails, perhaps some of it a campaign, bashing PBS for taking this action and seeking to get the host's job back.

There was also a great deal of mail from viewers outraged by mistakes (that went uncorrected at the time) and assessments made on another "NewsHour" segment Monday night in which sports commentator Ron Rapoport was being interviewed about the victory in the Tour de France bicycle race by America's Floyd Landis.

So, here we go. First things first.

Good Night and Good Luck, Melanie

On July 20, PBS KIDS Sprout, a digital cable/video-on-demand channel that debuted last year, posted a "Notice to Parents" regarding its popular bedtime program for children under five years of age, "The Good Night Show," which airs nightly at 6pm.

It stated that: "Late last week, Melanie Martinez, host of The Good Night Show, alerted us to the Internet posting of an independent short film she appeared in seven years ago. PBS KIDS Sprout has determined that the dialogue in the video is inappropriate for her role as a preschool program host and may undermine her character's credibility with our audience. As a result, PBS KIDS Sprout has decided that she will no longer appear as host." The announcement went on to say that the program's "foremost priority is to do what is best for our young viewers and their families."

PBS officials concurred with the decision by program executives (Sprout is actually a partnership with Comcast, which owns the largest share, HIT entertainment, PBS and Sesame Workshop) and said "our foremost priority is maintaining the trust of the parents and families we serve." Ms. Martinez, a stage and TV actress with a toddler of her own, was featured in two 30-second videos seven years ago, long before her association with PBS. They were spoofs about teen sexual abstinence produced for TechnicalVirgins.com. They are not pornographic but definitely deal with activities and objects that will keep you from becoming pregnant.

Judging from the huge amount of mail I got, some of it clearly campaign-driven, Ms. Martinez is very popular with the kids who watch this show and their parents, at least those who wrote. The kids clearly would not have a clue about what these videos were spoofing and obviously would not have seen them. These viewers see PBS as bowing to fear of a backlash by the politically correct, or the religious right, and of punishing an actress, who did nothing illegal, for a role she carried out a long time ago. They cite numerous performers who appear regularly on stage and screen and who have had controversial roles, or real experiences, in the past that would seem inconsistent with other appearances they make.

Writing in the Philadelphia Daily News, critic Howard Gensler, said, "Heaven forbid, the woman made a joke video" about how young women can keep their virginity. "Give the woman her job back, PBS. You need a timeout."

The mailbag at the bottom of this long column has a sampling of viewer letters. Undoubtedly this was a tough call for program officials and PBS. There is probably little doubt that they would have been hammered by a much larger group than wrote in defense of Ms. Martinez had they taken no action, since the videos, which do have a shock effect, are now pretty easy to find on the Web.

Nevertheless, there is something very disturbing about firing somebody for something done many years ago that was not illegal, that is not hard to imagine as the kind of thing that young actors will do at the start of a career, and that was clearly a spoof. Was it a mistake in judgment? I don't know. But who hasn't made mistakes? Again, it's easy for me to say these things, but it would have been a greater bow to freedom of expression and against guilt by association for the program and PBS to stick by her.

Pixelate the Pres, or the Veep?

Speaking of indecency, lots of people are doing just that lately. That is, speaking of it. There is the Federal Communications Commission, which has been taking a tougher line on what constitutes indecency on the public airwaves and has been handing out fines to broadcasters for what are viewed by some members of the complaining public, and the commissioners, as on-air verbal offenses. There is the President, who signed Congressional legislation last month that raises the maximum fine for using such language to a whopping $325,000 per infraction—a ten-fold increase over previous levels.

And there is PBS, where lawyers, late in May—as the new FCC fines were about to become law—issued policy guidelines to member stations and documentary producers that not only called for bleeping out both parts of a two-word obscenity, as in "mother-F-word," but that also called for pixelating (digitally obscuring) the lips of the person speaking such a word so that viewers could not even recognize what the word was by watching the speaker's lips.

This is obviously a serious matter, but some viewers could not resist asking whether President Bush should have been pixilated earlier this month when he was caught on camera and on an open microphone saying to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, while chewing on a luncheon roll at the G-8 Summit Meeting, "what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this s---." And then there was Vice-President Dick Cheney's advice to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT.) on the Senate floor two years ago to "F--- yourself."

PBS is particularly vulnerable to this new legislation because a fair number of its 354 member stations are small and could be bankrupted by such large fines. A small station in California was fined $15,000 under previous regulations earlier this year, and is fighting that decision. I wrote about that case in April. I had mixed feelings. The FCC decision was based on a complaint by a single person, hardly evidence of a public that felt abused. On the other hand, in my view, some of the obscenities by one person, in particular, seemed gratuitous and had nothing to do with the artistic merit of the documentary, as the station had argued.

That Chilling Effect

The larger issue, however, is about the chilling effect that recent FCC decisions and financial penalties will have on the ability to produce hard-hitting, realistic documentary films that don't pull punches with adult audiences and are true to the realities of how situations unfold and human beings react.

Two recent articles, in particular, seem to have projected this serious yet relatively obscure issue more into the public domain than might have otherwise been the case. One was a news story in The New York Times on July 22 by reporter Elizabeth Jensen about how the new guidelines may meet a crucial test next year when a major new PBS series on a soldier's-eye-view of World War II by famed producer Ken Burns is scheduled to air.

The other was an article by Louis Wiley Jr. in Current, the newspaper about public broadcasting, on July 17, in which the highly-respected veteran executive editor at WGBH's "Frontline" operation in Boston said that what the new PBS follow-up action will mean is that "most producers will simply cut the scenes, no matter how powerful or relevant, rather than see them turned into a joke." And, he said, "what this means for public broadcasting is pretty simple: more self-censorship by producers."

A sampling of viewer comments is also included in the ombudsman's mailbag below. My own view is that the Congress and the FCC, and now PBS, are going too far and that, as in the case with the small California station, the evidence that the public is outraged over many allegations of indecency is thin and also possibly orchestrated by certain groups.

A Tour de Force It Was Not

Last weekend, two Americans won two of Europe's most prestigious and intense competitions. Tiger Woods won the British Open golf tournament and Floyd Landis won the grueling Tour de France, the world's premier bicycle race. Monday night, July 24, the NewsHour's Jeffrey Brown interviewed Ron Rapoport, a sportswriter and regular commentator for National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition," to discuss the events and the winners.

It started off okay, with Rapoport first discussing Floyd Landis's thrilling, come-from-behind, ride to victory in the Tour. The first two times he mentioned Landis's name, he got it right. But then he, inexplicably, referred to "Norris" and then twice to "Floyd Norris." Interviewer Brown didn't stop to correct this and later, as they say, the crowd went wild; the crowd, in this case, being lots of "NewsHour" viewers and racing fans who also did not seem to like some of the other things that Rapoport was saying.

Aside from getting Landis's name wrong, I don't know who is right or wrong about the other challenges, but here's a transcript of the interview, and here are some of the things viewers said:

The Mailbag/On Ron Rapoport

The comments made by the 'sportscaster' concerning Floyd Landis and the Tour de France were extremely inaccurate. First, his last name is Landis (not Norris, as was stated at least three times). Second, the Tour de France is a three-week event (not a one week event). Third, the entire content of the piece was dismissive. The News Hour is the best and most knowledgeable news program on television. It was most distressing to hear an extremely inaccurate account of a major sporting achievement.

Gail Berthe, Williamson, GA.

The Tour is 22 days long, not one week; Landis hails from Farmersville, PA, not Farmersburg; and the most egregious of all: his name is not Floyd Norris!

Kouise Brown, Bernville, PA.

I just watched Ron Rapoport's comments on the Tour de France and British Open. He has never been one of my favorite analysts, especially with his total focus on drugs and Lance Armstrong. But to listen to him talk of Floyd Landis' victory and seem to imply that it would soon be under suspicion was almost too much. What put it over the top was that several times he referred to Mr. Landis as Floyd Norris. When he commented on Tiger Woods victory and how common it is to choke on the final nine holes of a major, he cited Phil Michelson's collapse at this year's Masters. I assume Mr. Rapoport knows Floyd Landis's name, and that Michelson collapsed at the US Open rather than at the Masters, which he won, and maybe it was a slip of the tongue, but couldn't someone correct this before it hit the air, or better yet, couldn't you find a commentator who is either better prepared, or better informed?

Bob Stoll, Ithaca, NY.

The Mailbag/On Melanie Martinez

I'm deeply disappointed by this; it's a show that my wife and I have enjoyed watching with our two grandsons. Once again, it appears PBS has preemptively silenced someone based on fear that America's Right Wing will not like you. I have an important message for you: AMERICA'S RIGHT WING WILL NOT LIKE YOU AS LONG AS YOU EXIST. You can fire hosts like Bill Moyers and Melanie Martinez until the cows come home, and America's Right Wing will not like you. They fear the truth, and to the extent that your programs reveal the truth, you become the enemy. I suppose if you fill the entire broadcast day with "Antiques Roadshow" and "The New This Old House Hour", they may find you no longer the enemy. But they still won't want to see any CPB money flowing your way.

Returning to the topic of "The Good Night Show", PBS, once again, you've disappointed me. You had someone who was obviously talented at her job and doing it well. That she may have made a video seven years ago that someone, applying 2006 blue-nosed standards, may now have deemed "inappropriate" (what an ambiguous term!)is immaterial to what she was doing now. But you're cowards and you've once again allowed bullies to pound you.

Atlant Schmidt, Nashua, NH.

They should not replace Melanie on the "Good Night" show!! She is wonderful for my kids and I think parents everywhere will be up in arms about this change due to such a minor thing! By firing her, are they saying that no one at PBS has ever done any thing they wish they hadn't? Come on, let those without sin cast the first stone! She is great! Let her stay! What am I going to tell my little boy? -- HE LOVES HER! The kids don't know and we don't care about anything but our kids going to sleep in a PEACEFUL WAY! Melanie made that happen. Mom of 7 in TN.

Elizabeth Emanuel, Nashville, TN.

Thank you for the firing of Melanie Martinez after you became aware of the "Technical Virgin" video. This is obscene and ridiculous for her to be involved with. Good for PBS for doing the right thing.

Robert Appleby, Monrovia, MD.

My kids love Melanie and will be very upset when she "disappears" from their lives. What you have done does a disservice to your very young viewers. Children rely on the constants in theirs lives and to punish them for your mistakes is beneath contempt. Furthermore, anything Melanie did of an "adult" nature is irrelevant since the children will never have access or knowledge of it. If Melanie had compromised her role by actively continuing this aspect of her career, you might be justified. But the fact of the matter is that your company failed to protect your toddler viewers and should be held responsible. NOT Melanie. She comes across as sweet, kind and wide-eyed. My children adore her.

Julie Wood, Bellevue, NE.

As the parent of a 4-year-old who looked forward to watching Melanie every evening, I am appalled. The punishment meted out to Ms. Martinez was entirely disproportionate to the alleged "offense". My son has asked me every night this week "Where is Melanie?" I expected better from PBS. Are you bending to the political winds? Are you afraid of what might happen if the religious right protests? Whatever happened to freedom of speech and thought? Whatever happened to the independence and creative integrity of public broadcasting and PBS?

Bruce Meltzer, Philadelphia, PA.

I feel moved to write, sadly, on the topic of Melanie Martinez's recent dismissal from the "Good Night" show on Sprout. As a parent, a pediatrician, and citizen this seemed unwarranted. I think we are unrealistically rigid in thinking that actors have never had another role in their career.

This was not Pee Wee Herman being caught in a porn theatre.

My 5-year-old is not aware and wouldn't care about any other role Ms. Martinez has performed in. He likes the character on the show. This just feels like too much political correctness. I am saddened that PBS reacted so drastically to the fact that their actor had acted in something more adult. Will they now only hire a professional preschool teacher with no acting experience as the host? Is this what it has come to?

Eric Perez, MD, San Mateo, CA.

I am a pretty conservative Christian and father to a son who loves Melanie and watches her every night before going to bed. How is it that PBS, an organization dedicated to the education, socialization and teaching of tolerance to our children act like a bunch of reactionary fascists?

We can have a HIV-positive muppet, but we can't have a children's TV host who has a past? Who had a career (that you took away)? For something she did in the past? Something she was probably paid to do as
an actress and is not necessarily her personal beliefs. (Bad grammar, I know, but I'm too angry to care right now).

Todd Hibbitts, Houston, TX.

The Mailbag/On Indecency

I am incredibly disappointed with the May 31 PBS policy of not only 'bleeping out' offensive words, but also pixelating the mouths of those speaking the words, specifically in the case of documentaries. While I understand the FCC regulations (ill-conceived, in my view) that prompted this, I think that at least in the case of documentaries, the pixelation (and hopefully the 'bleeps' as well) should be done away with.

I watch PBS for the candor and impact of the documentaries, which in large part help make PBS programming the best on TV. I hope when Ken Burns' "The War" shows next year, the veterans in it will not be insulted and the series ruined by this folly. PLEASE, PBS - stand up for what is right. Force the FCC to re-examine its policies!

Paul Zablotski, Arlington, MA.

I just read the NY Times report about (possible) censorship of Ken Burns' new WWII documentary. Apparently it is lawful to show graphic violence before 10PM, but not the real language of the real people who saved this country and the world. With proper notification before the program begins, there's no reason parents can't make their children's viewing decisions, and their own. To water down what appears to be a powerful historical documentary to make it suitable for tiny tots and religious zealots is terrifying for the future of both our journalistic and artistic freedoms. If there was ever a time for PBS to take a stand against the arrogant, fundamentalist views of a narrow-minded few, this is it. I would be happy to donate to a legal fund that would help you do the right thing.

Jaye Lambert, Ridgewood, NJ.

Quality shows like those produced by Ken Burns are being threatened by the FCC's censorship rules with potential fines. Please do not cower to the FCC. Ignore them! Ignore the fines! What are they gonna do; come and get you? After all, our own president and his administration have been ignoring our laws for the last six years. I have been a viewer for 30 years and I was never treated like a child before, but I feel like I am now being treated like a child. If PBS continues to bow before our illegitimate federal government, I guess I'll have to start watching HBO, currently the only television available for adults.

Tim Weeks, Minneapolis, MN.

The Mailbag/On the Middle East

Lately there've been several guests speaking out on the Middle East conflict and shedding light on the fact that Israel has been largely the prime creator of the hostilities there. Israel's selfish and arrogant behavior among the neighboring countries seems to be passed over by big media. I'm happy to see PBS unafraid to air the Arabic viewpoint in the spirit of honest and fair dialogue.

Charles Benedetti, Evanston, IL.

I find it astonishing that your coverage is so difficult to distinguish from the mainstream U.S. media or from U.S. government administration. Your interviewees are State Department retirees, Israeli correspondents or government officials or persons with just the right-of-center view of this conflict. While the international media and even independent media here in the U.S. presents a stark and refreshing difference - it is a reminder to us how the U.S. media, even under the garb of a hypocritical "balance of opinion" show, is shameless in its pro-establishment bias. This is reflected in the terms, in the definitions, and even the nomenclature that your correspondents or interviewers use. Your usage of the definition of "terrorist" for Hamas or Hezbollah simply apes the pro-Israeli establishment. On the other side they are defined as a "resistance movement" against illegal occupation.

Portland, OR.

Your Lehrer Report coverage, which is my exclusive source of TV news because of its integrity, is failing to present a broad view of the Israeli/Lebanon conflict. I object to the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation being constant spokespersons. I suggest you contact Robert Fisk of the London Independent, who lives in Beirut, and who will give you a view of conditions which may well vary from the propaganda we are now being fed to support violence as a solution to humanity's problems.

Robert Burns, Mountain View, CA.

Tonight's Jim Lehrer program was VERY VERY troubling. It was deja vu. The analysts about IRAQ really understood the depth of the situation. But the two about ISRAEL's overkill were both pro-Israeli, as is our current government and lobby forces. I do not understand how on one hand you can show the utter horror to the Lebanese PEOPLE, INCLUDING CHILDREN, and then go blithely on saying that Condoleezza is saying "DO What you have to do...and I will be back in two weeks?" We are truly signing on with Israel to KILLING OF INNOCENTS and our Government is naively going along with it not recognizing that all we are doing is creating more terrorists. As if conventional overkill war would defeat terrorists! The average person I meet knows better. I watch your program
faithfully and loyally but tonight, 7/25, was a TOTAL BUMMER.

Elizabeth Dorsett, Evanston, IL.

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