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PBS Ombudsman

Katie, Jim and the Mailbag

Like some eight million or so other Americans, I've been tuning in to watch the new "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric" whenever I could these last few weeks, mostly to try to get a sense of how she was doing as the new anchor and how the program may have changed since she took over just after Labor Day.

As an observer, I thought there were some strong segments and some weak spots. That, of course, doesn't tell you much. But my point here is not to critique the new CBS Evening News, which isn't my job. There have been scores of articles elsewhere that have offered assessments. Ms. Couric is a solid and savvy professional whose presence behind, or sitting on, the anchor desk could draw more people to tune in to the news. So I wish Ms. Couric well, along with her competition at ABC and NBC, in presenting the news to what is a still sizeable chunk of the American public. Most people get their news from television and it is vitally important that citizens be informed and that the three main commercial broadcast networks, in particular — with their combined audience of more than 23 million nightly news viewers — do a good job of it.

So what does this have to do with PBS? It is this: after watching the new Evening News intently for several days, the most dominant conclusion that came to my mind was that PBS viewers are fortunate to have the "Nightly NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" as an alternative, or supplement. About 2.4 million viewers a night, on average, watch the NewsHour.

This was not a new thought, but rather one that reinforced a long-held conclusion. It is also not meant as criticism of CBS or the broadcast networks. The NewsHour, after all, has just under an hour, uninterrupted by commercials, to present both a pretty comprehensive daily summary of the news in this country and around the world, and four or so more in-depth segments exploring specific topics. The commercial network news programs are 30 minutes, but once commercials are accounted for, there are only about 20 minutes left to present their mixture of news and other features. If those newscasts were an hour, they would undoubtedly be much more comprehensive and valuable, to the public, at least.

A Bigger Dose of News

But for the time being, if you wanted, for example, a much fuller account of what President Bush said at the United Nations last Tuesday (Sept. 19) beyond the two brief sound-bites on the CBS Evening News, or to know that day that three more American service personnel had been killed in Iraq since Sunday, along with 15 Iraqis, it was on the NewsHour. Or the day before, on Monday, you may have wanted to know that 40 people had died in Iraq and 19 in Afghanistan, including four Canadian soldiers, and that the President of Somalia had narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. That was on the NewsHour, as was a new UN report last Thursday, Sept. 21, that said nearly 6,600 Iraqi civilians died in violence in July and August, far more than original estimates.

A valuable aspect of the commercial networks, and of course of cable news channels, is that they have their own correspondents and often contribute to uncovering news and advancing stories that were in the morning newspapers. The NewsHour, although it makes good use of its very small staff for occasionally covering stories on its own, basically uses reports from correspondents from other news organizations, and detailed follow-up reports and interviews pulled together by its own staff based on news that has unfolded elsewhere.

The NewsHour, like any news program these days, or any news organization, gets its share of criticism from viewers who think it has been too soft or too hard on this or that or left out some important background or context. Some of that has wound up in this column in the past year, and there is some more further down in this column.

Nevertheless, for citizens and viewers who want a full dose of news and in-depth follow-up interviews and discussion that almost always illuminate these subjects further, the NewsHour, in my view, wins hands down.

Now, on to some of the mail that arrived in the past week or so while I was away.

Loved the Program; Hated the Ending

Several viewers wrote to me — and others telephoned — immediately after the conclusion on Thursday of the two-day, four-hour "American Masters" documentary, produced by Ric Burns, on the life of legendary American artist Andy Warhol. They loved the film but hated the way PBS handled the ending and closing credits. These people were really angry; the kind of special anger that comes from admirers who feel betrayed by the one they admire, in this case PBS. This is a subject that has come up before — at the close of the broadcasts of holiday concerts, for example — and it seems worthy of attention and solution.

Here are some letters:

I am writing to express how absolutely appalled, shocked and disgusted I am with what happened during the closing credits on tonight's showing of American Masters featuring Andy Warhol. Never, never would I have expected it of a broadcaster I've always have such utter respect for to be as inane as to not only squeeze the credits off to the side while PBS "does a little business," but furthermore, to have the sound of the closing credits squelched so that the "business" being conducted could supersede it. For God's sake, did no one realize that after watching a four hour documentary, maybe, just maybe the viewer would like to hear words out of the subject of the documentary's mouth, as Ric Burns had intended. Shame on PBS.

Maury Feinsilber, Brooklyn, NY

I just watched 2nd installment of American Masters/Andy Warhol. Great stuff as always but . . . at the end credits running Andy talking some interview somewhere and like every friggin network everywhere you're showing previews for some other show on PBS. Don't do stuff like that. It ruins everything. The filmmaker put the ending in for a reason. It's not a cue to advertise. Don't do it.

Bill Bradley, Lyndhurst, NJ

Thank you for the wonderful 4-hour documentary on Andy Warhol! I write now because I was very disappointed and surprised that after all that, Andy's last comments and the majority of the credits were apparently deemed insignificant by having been put on half screen and silenced. Frankly, I was horrified by this disregard of the subject and your viewers' interest at the 11th hour!

Susanne Moss, New York, NY

I finished watching the second two-hour installment on Any Warhol this evening, and I became speechless at what PBS did while the credits rolled.

For four hours I listened about Andy Warhol, or listened to Jeff Koons speak for Warhol. When, at the very end of the four hours, the man finally gets to speak, and in a surprisingly candid mode, Valerie Solanas rises from the grave and strikes again. Instead of letting us hear him speak, no less than a Warhol split-screen takes over and instead of hearing the interview, it is usurped by a stupid promo for another show.

If this was commercial TV, I would expect that type of gaff, but YOUR PBS! Shame on you!

MH Burnham, New York, NY

Don't you yahoos know better than to split the screen when you're running the credits?

I enjoyed watching your excellent Ric Burns AMERICAN MASTERS documentaries on Andy Warhol, and was looking forward to seeing where the still photos came from, who the patrons were etc., but was rudely interrupted in this pursuit when the screen split in half so make room for PBS coming-attraction ads, even though there was 10 minutes of empty air time immediately following.

This is one of the more egregious practices of commercial television, and now PBS is aping it. Please stop.

David Lasker, Toronto, CT

NOW and Voter Registration

Several viewers wrote to me earlier this month taking sharp exception to two, back-to-back programs on voter registration aired by the weekly public affairs program "NOW with David Brancaccio." The first one was on Sept. 1 called "Block the Vote," and the next on Sept. 8 called "Down for the Count."

The American Conservative Union also put out a statement attacking the broadcasts as "biased pieces of yellow journalism that insinuate the Bush administration and Republican legislators across the country are engaging in a campaign to deny minorities and the poor the right to vote." They also urged their members to call the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and their Congressional representatives. The ACU said that, "The reporting is rather convincing. The only problem is that it is also purposely misleading and disingenuous."

The ACU statement, and the mail to me, dealt overwhelmingly with the first segment, "Block the Vote," reported by NOW senior correspondent Maria Hinojosa and produced by Peter Meryash.

The key points raised by the ACU were that: "Two of the more outrageous allegations concern recently enacted state laws that require people to present a valid photo I.D. when voting and require those who are conducting voter registration drives to turn in voter registration applications within 10 days of the applications being filled out. These laws may seem like reasonable measures to minimize voter fraud and protect the rights of those of us who actually have a legal right to vote, but PBS obviously thinks otherwise," the ACU states.

What follows are some of the letters, and a response from NOW's New Media Senior Producer, Joel Schwartzberg.

Some Thoughts of Mine

First, here are some thoughts of mine. As a viewer, I was glad to know about this situation and grateful to NOW for reporting on it. I thought the arguments about the new state laws and restrictions were aired by both sides in such a way that a viewer could make up his or her own mind. The program reports on a leaked internal Justice Department memo by lawyers and analysts that recommended four-to-one to reject a Georgia voter I.D. law. But that recommendation was overturned by the Department leadership. The reporter says a request for an interview with Justice was turned down. It also reports on a temporary blocking of the new law in Florida by a judge, and on Federal and state judges in Georgia finding the law unlikely to be constitutional.

So I would agree with the part of the ACU assessment that says, "The reporting is rather convincing." But, as a viewer, I came away also feeling that the piece had a distracting, advocacy tone to it rather than one that let the reporting alone lead to whatever conclusion the viewer came to. It is hard to put a finger on specific points where one can say "gotcha." But I think it had something to do with the fact that the reporter was also the narrator and thus is the one saying things like, "And what's more, civil rights advocates say . . . the Bush administration is part of the problem" because the Justice Department has signed off on these measures. On balance, however, I thought the program was a plus for viewers.

Another aspect of this program that a few viewers commented upon negatively was a second, and closing, segment on the Sept. 1 program featuring journalist-author Eric Boehlert, who is also a blogger on the popular Huffington Post Web site. He was interviewed by host David Brancaccio. Boehlert has been sharply critical of both the press and the Bush administration, and it actually struck me as odd that he just appears on the program talking about the latest White House offensive.

Boehlert is a very astute critic. But his appearance without any introductory context from Brancaccio as to why he was on or how he fit in to anything else added to the advocacy tone of the program. When I asked NOW Executive Producer John Siceloff about this, he said, "We invited Eric Boehlert as part of an effort to get different views about the election and the political situation in the weeks leading up to the midterm elections. This week, for example, we have Angus King, the former governor of Maine. Next week, we have former Sen. John Danforth, a Republican, about faith and politics."

Here Are the Letters and NOW's Response

Why is PBS using our tax dollars to air the Block the Vote show? We need to reduce voter fraud. If PBS was truly interested in helping people vote then you would focus on helping people obtain the proper ID rather than propaganda about how government is trying to keep minorities and the elderly from voting. Public funding should be pulled from PBS and should rely on other sources of funding. If you created good programming you would be able to raise all the funds you need.

Victor Goodrum, San Jose, CA

I found PBS's story on "Block the Vote" extremely biased. It is both responsible and necessary to eliminate voter fraud. The nation should automate the voting process and require verifiable IDs. In this regard, the U.S. lags behind new democracies like Iraq and third world countries like Mexico. I have already stopped contributing to PBS because of their bias. I object that my tax dollars are being used by PBS to promote voter fraud?

Gig Harbor, WA

I am outraged by the lack of integrity regarding your reporting on voting in this country such as Block the Vote and Down for the Count suggesting that the President is responsible for machine malfunctions, among other things.

It takes merely a second grade education to cast a vote in this country whether it be on a punch ballot or electronic. If someone cannot properly cast a ballot . . . then maybe they should go back to second grade. Time to get over it PBS, Bush won in 2000 and he still won after the many recounts and the ridiculous chad incident in which people tried to determine "voter intent." Your programming is misleading and disingenuous at best and we see it.

Forked River, NJ

PBS currently has two productions "Block the Vote" and "Down for the Count" which it plans to air and which not only violates PBS's own stated Editorial Standards, but also appears to violate the Fairness Doctrine for a non-profit publicly funded television station. While I am aware that the Fairness Doctrine is no longer a rule of the FCC, an alleged public service/interest station such as PBS may be violating its FCC license when it broadcasts biased programming that lacks integrity and truth.

In particular, PBS is broadcasting outright lies with the intent to deceive when it suggests that Republicans, Americans, and/or the Bush Administration are engaging in acts with the intent of denying any Americans the right to vote.

To say that requiring picture ID cards and that voter registrations be turned in to the appropriate department within ten days of completion somehow suppresses voting is bordering on insane. Any person who actually reports this or believes this to be true needs to take an extra dose of whatever anti-psychotic medication they are taking. More importantly, if PBS is submitting this story to the public for its truthfulness, PBS is violating sections (A), (B), (C), (D), (J), and (K) of its own Editorial Standards.

While I recognize that my letter will only be thrown away with the other complaints and will not suddenly entice PBS to find integrity, balance, and fairness in its broadcast programming and decisions, I do hope that it creates and encourages some minimal desire for self reflection.

For over fifty years Democrats controlled Congress and during that time America's public schools and morality slowly eroded into wastelands. During that time, the tools to succeed were taken from African Americans because Democrats wanted African Americans to remain dependant on white Democrat politicians. In the last twenty years, a whole generation of African Americans have discovered the tools that can make them successful and have prospered in spite of Democrats telling them that only government can make it happen for them. Every election cycle more African Americans vote for Republican candidates because they see that there is truth, hope, opportunity and success in the Republican message.

K. Landreneau, Baton Rouge, LA

More on NOW

I never in my life saw such a blatantly left wing biased program as the one on voting requirements. It was almost embarrassing. Here in Orange County during a congressional election (Dornan-Sanchez) a few years back, there were about 400 fraudulent votes by non-citizens! The reaction by people who claim that voting is such a cherished right? "Well, it really wasn't enough votes to change the election." Pretty cavalier huh? The fact is that people who want an honest election want voters to show a valid ID.

Dan Montoro, Laguna Woods, CA

NOW started off accusing the Bush administration of trying to oppress black voters b/c they are allowing states to make photo IDs mandatory. The correspondent focused on Georgia, obviously b/c they are southern racists. Yet, she intentionally failed to mention that Jimmy Carter, a big Georgian liberal, in his report recommended that all Americans be made to show photo ID when voting. That is a clear violation of journalistic integrity and bias. She clearly did not mention it b/c it did not fit her blatant agenda. She also went on and on about how black people are too stupid to figure out how to get a photo ID or how to absentee vote. Next week's show was previewed to show how poor black and Hispanic voters, once they somehow manage to find their voting place, cannot be expected to figure out how to correctly function a voting machine. It was an absolutely disrespectful and insulting as insulting can be report.

Then the show moves on to the host interviewing some liberal hack from the friggin Huffington Post. Who the hell would bother interviewing someone from an extremist liberal blog site? Oh, the two of them had a ball laughing at the Bush administration and insulting the American public. They agreed that there is no way us simple-minded Americans could possibly even know what the term Islamic Fascist means. The guest just states that no one thinks the war in Iraq is winable which I have not heard anyone else claim. The host was the big problem. He was making faces and scoffing and giggling about the Bush administration. Is he supposed to be objective? I felt like Michael Moore produced this show.

Christine DeBenedetta, Fort Myers, FL

Here's NOW's Response

"Both 'Block the Vote' and 'Down for The Count,' were meticulously researched, reported, and fact-checked, including interviews with both Democrats and Republicans. 'Block the Vote' featured Florida Republican Representative Ron Reagan, Georgia Republican State Senator Cecil Staton, and David Becker, a former worker in the civil rights division of the Justice Department under President Bush's administration.

"The reference to the Bush Administration, specifically the Department of Justice, comes from a leaked internal Justice Department memo recommending 4-1 to reject a particular Georgia I.D. law because of its potential to disenfranchise voters. That recommendation was overruled by the Justice Department leadership, as we reported. The Justice Department itself turned down our request for an interview to explain the rationale for rejecting that recommendation.

"The stories of hardship involved in getting a proper I.D. were not our own, nor coached or exaggerated. They were the real stories of people living in rural communities, some of whom made personal sacrifices to acquire the right to vote in the first place. Compared to our discoveries of potential voter disenfranchisement, we found relatively little credible evidence to support a claim of widespread voter I.D. fraud, the stated need for these particular reforms.

"In 'Down for the Count,' we sought insight from Deforest Soaries, who was appointed Chairman of the Election Assistance Commission by the Bush White House. Like Mr. Becker, we chose Mr. Soaries for his unique insider's view of inner government workings and dynamics. At NOW, we don't rely on sources without first-hand knowledge or outstanding expertise on the subjects of our investigations."

On NewsHour Coverage of Maher Arar

Jeffrey Brown missed it tonight (Sept. 20) on his story about the man who was taken from US and tortured in Syria . . . Syria and not one question as to why the US sent him to Syria and he was tortured there. Syria cooperating with the US? But he only followed the simple story line without any inquisitive questioning of the story. He is generally good but missed it here.

New York, NY

Here's a response from Executive Director Linda Winslow:

"Last night we chose to focus on what was new about the story (i.e. the Canadian Commission report) and not to explore the U.S. role. We did so because we felt the Arar story itself was old news; it has been reported extensively since it first came to light. In Mr. Brown's defense, he was forced to work within the time constraints I placed on him, given the other elements we had to accommodate in the program. If that meant he didn't have time to explore the many twists and turns in this fascinating story, you should blame me, not him. In the context of the debate now taking place in Washington over how the U.S. should deal with "detainees", I think this story and its implications for American policy makers merits more coverage. I think this is something the NewsHour can and should provide, especially now that Congress is racing to wrap up its agenda before the session end."

And on the 9/11 Discussion

Monday evening Jim Lehrer conducted the roundtable discussion about how 9/11 impacted the lives of eight people with superb grace and sensitivity. The group's diversity reflected a wide range of reactions and responses. If one wonders about our country's individualism, the comments of this group presented a pinprick of a view into the hearts of the people of the United States. It was Jim Lehrer's ability to speak gently, question and move forward that made this segment not topple over into what could have been a group needing conflict resolution. Thank you, Jim and NewsHour for this glistening pearl on this day of remembering and moving forward.

Mary Elizabeth McIlvane, Altamonte Springs, FL

The NewsHour gives hope of intelligent life forms. Tonight's roundtable was particularly edifying because it truly did present diverse and cogent points of view. What has definitely come out after five years is that we are not safer and that our system of checks and balances did not check the power grab of the current administration nor did the judicial and legislative branches provide any balance.

Ingrid Krause, Bel Air, MD

I have just watched the September 11th NewsHour and want to compliment you on the wonderful panel you assembled to reflect on 9/11/01 and the essay by Richard Rodriquez. I have avoided watching any television today but am glad I didn't miss the News Hour. Thank you.

Patricia Gyi, Peachtree City, GA

Thank you for the Discussion Group on Jim Lehrer's NewsHour on Sept 11. It was good — but I noticed that the only two people whom Lehrer cut off in the middle of their comments were the political philosopher who was explaining why it is impossible to have dialogue with the terrorists, and the young college grad who was explaining why his peers want to succeed in Iraq. Why were these two not permitted to complete their thoughts??

Betsy George, Murphysboro, IL

I refer to Jim Lehrer's panel on 9/11. Please, when you have a panel and it includes a college student or recent graduate and the student or graduate talks about this generation of college students. How they are patriotic, support the troops and Bush's policies. Have someone point out there is no draft and the students are not subject to being hauled into the Army and shipped off to Iraq. If they were it might modify their attitude.

Terrell Crawford, Tumwater, WA

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