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PBS Ombudsman

On Covering One's Self

On Nov. 10, Jim Lehrer, the host of PBS's nightly "NewsHour," was a featured speaker at the dedication of the new National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va. Also present was President Bush, who also spoke, the Marine Corps brass, and a crowd estimated at more than 15,000.

It is, to say the least, rare — and maybe even unprecedented, although I don't like using that word — for a journalist to get such an invitation. But is it news? The "NewsHour" that night devoted some nine minutes of its report to presenting Lehrer's full speech, as delivered.

Almost everybody who wrote to me or telephoned said, in one way or another, that they were deeply touched by Lehrer's speech and wanted him to know it. A sampling of their e-mails and, in some cases, phone messages follows. But there were also one or two who objected, who said this was, indeed, not news and that PBS erred in covering such a speech by one of its own.

I must admit that I, too, winced when the coverage kept going and I realized that, aside from reporting on the dedication, this was to be a long segment presenting the Jim Lehrer speech in full on the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."

It's Not About Us

I'm one who believes that journalists should not be the story, and I'm sure that Lehrer believes that as well. Certainly he is the most low-key, and I would say also the most respected and trusted, TV news anchor person around these days. So it didn't seem in keeping to me that this event, beyond recording the dedication and perhaps a quick shot of Lehrer and Bush, was obviously not going to be some routine 30-second film clip.

Yet, the more I listened, and the more I thought about it, the more I was glad that PBS presented this in full. I felt this way not because it captured the special élan of the Marine Corps, but because it reminded me, and I assume many other viewers, in an important yet not sentimental way, of times gone by and how things have changed. And it's a message that one doesn't hear much anymore.

Lehrer, who served as a Marine Corps officer in the 1950s, said the "first time I came to Quantico was 51 years ago. I came as an officer candidate, on the train from Washington, having just traveled from Texas on the first airplane ride of my life." This resonated with me, in particular, because 50 years ago I arrived at the Naval Officers Candidate School in Newport, R.I. There were millions of us in the military in those days. It was a much bigger part of American life for lots of people. There was still a draft, something that ended only in 1973 when President Nixon, in the last year of a by-then extremely unpopular war in Vietnam, allowed the Selective Service Act to expire.

Then Lehrer went on to say: "My Marine experience helped shape who I am now personally and professionally, and I am grateful for that on an almost daily basis. And I often find myself wishing everyone had a similar opportunity, to learn about shared dependence, loyalty, responsibility to and for others, about mutual respect and honor, and about the power of appealing to the best that's in us as human beings, not the worst.

"As a journalist," he added, "there has been one overriding effect of my Marine experience: While debates over sending Americans into harm's way are always about issues of foreign policy, geopolitics and sometimes even politics-politics, for me, they are also always about young lance corporals and second lieutenants and other very real people in all branches of the U.S. military, people with names, ranks, serial numbers, faces, families, and futures that may never be."

Very Few Serve

For a very long time now, since the beginning of the much smaller all-volunteer military in the mid-1970s and the end of the war in Vietnam, there have been fewer and fewer journalists who have any connection to, or experience with, the U.S. military. For that matter, there are very few businessmen and women, or teachers or politicians or top White House and Pentagon civilian officials who order people into war who have any connection or experience serving their country in this fashion.

On the other side, one of the things to come out of the war in Iraq is that news organizations, over the last three years, poured hundreds of correspondents into frontline coverage of the fighting, many of them at one time embedded with U.S. troops. So that has provided at least a new injection of experience and understanding into the ranks of those who bring us the news of real people in life and death conflicts.

So, on balance, and as a viewer, I thought the long clip about Lehrer was well worth doing; but I wouldn't make a habit of it.

Here Are Some Letters:

Please pass on to Jim Lehrer: Though I'm a former Naval officer and therefore somewhat dismissive of jarhead nostalgia, I doff my cap to you for your stirring speech at the Marine Corps Birthday celebration today. Your words brought tears to my eyes (and, not to be overlooked, made George W. Bush squirm in his chair). I have always admired your work; today, though, I choked with sobs as I listened to your evocation of pride of service and comradeship.

Bill Kennedy (LT, USN 1966-1970), San Francisco, CA

We watch the NewsHour most every night and fortunately I was watching 10 Nov. when Jim Lehrer's Marine Memorial speech was aired. Thank you for sharing that. What a speech!

Gordon Reynolds, Eudora, KS

I regularly listen to PBS or watch it. And I just wanted to say that Jim Lehrer's speech before the Marine Museum opening the other night was probably the best speech I've heard since JFK's inaugural.

Pauline Patterson, Longmont, CO

I strongly object to the NewsHour on 11/10 showing the host's speech to the Marines. I know it's Veterans' Day, but this week the nation resoundingly rejected the war strategy and that is a more important story. That much time to one person's biographical kissing up to the military is just too much, even for the overly militarized PBS. Besides, it featured an employee of PBS. He is entitled to make such a speech but it is NOT news. Please reconsider all the war programming, which is much greater in the last eight years and is a real sore spot for me, a life-long PBS viewer. But this was going too far.

San Rafael, CA

I am from Canada and my husband and I have been supporters of PBS for many years (even though we do not get a tax deduction for our annual contributions!). We are of the Vietnam generation. I lost a cousin indirectly through the war, though I was too young to appreciate the circumstances, and my husband, who was at Oxford at the time as a Rhodes Scholar, felt it daily with the U.S. students there.

Each night when the NewsHour runs the pictures, recently released, of the young people killed in the current war, we often comment on Jim's sigh when the camera returns to him. We think he feels as we do, that time spent on this each evening seems to grow longer daily and the faces seem younger. I listened to Jim tonight and learned for the first time of his Marine background, which gives his nightly expression even more meaning.

As I listened to him speak, I must admit that I was wishing that I was listening to a candidate for your 2008 Presidential election, rather than a truly gifted and lovely journalist. Any chance of encouraging him to run? Joe Lieberman did okay as Independent. What a great concept, an independent president!

Lori Duffy, Toronto, Ontario

I was absolutely "spellbound" by your emotional dedication tonight! I had no idea you are a former Marine! Great words . . . from your Canadian friends!

S. D. Jordan, Toronto, Ontario

A superb presentation. Perhaps Jim Lehrer's finest hour. One more reason to love Jim Lehrer.

John Blakemore

Next, a Correction

In the Ombudsman's Mailbag column on Nov. 3, there was a segment about viewer objections to an "Independent Lens" broadcast that featured muskrat skinning. In my comment, I noted that the skinning was done by experienced trappers and skinners and that the young ladies who take part in the beauty pageant portion of the program do not do the skinning, as some viewers had mentioned. I was wrong. A viewer points out that there was indeed a brief glimpse, a few seconds, of one young lady taking part in the "talent" part of the beauty pageant who is skinning one of the animals. I missed it.

Here are some letters on other subjects that arrived recently.

On Election Night Coverage, Not

How to express my dismay at the PBS lack of coverage on election night?? THIS IS OUTRAGEOUS ABDICATION OF RESPONSIBILITY ON THE PART OF PBS. I AM DISMAYED AND DISGUSTED.

Eugene, OR

Accounting 101, on the War

There are times in life that call for profound self-reflection and honest accounting. Anyone who has been there knows that one ignores this call at terrible peril. Such calls also come to countries and governments and institutions and media outlets and more. I believe the catastrophic failures in Iraq bring us to such a moment. I would like every PBS issues show to do a deep accounting of its coverage before and during the Iraq war. How much time was given to the voices who have turned out to be wrong? (See Vanity Fair piece on neocon regrets for a starting list) How much time was given to those who turned out to be prescient? (James Fallows, Scott Ritter, Al Gore, etc) Chart it; turn it into pictures. Hire some objective academic communication experts — fresh to the public, please — to analyze the quality of questioning and nonverbal expressions given to each. Then — since PBS is for the people — broadcast a town hall style discussion of the matter with the experts and the hosts — Charlie Rose, Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill, Bill Moyers, etc — and the public . . . toward learning how to serve the public interest better in the future. If not about this matter, what in the world would ever merit serious, in-depth accounting? Better yet, have objective experts do the same accounting of commercial news sources as well and invite their reps to join the town hall. This would be a great gift to America.

Victoria Trostle, Oakland, CA

On Hosting the 'Good Night Show'

Here we go again. If Sprout officials don't have any better intuitive sense about who they hire for CHILDREN's work, then maybe they had just better close down shop. Is it so impossible to find someone squeaky clean to work with kids these days?

Alexander, ND

I am an actress, and one of the things I had to overcome when I started, was "will people judge me by the part I play?" When I got over that hang up, I found I could take to the stage or work in front of the camera and be whomever I needed to be according to the script, very comfortably. How awful that these women are now being judged by the parts they played at one time or another. Come on, folks. Grow up. This is not the dark ages. The ladies involved are not porno queens, they are honest-to-goodness actors playing a role and earning money, or, in the case of working for college films, volunteering their time to help up and coming writers and directors hone their craft.

Nancy A. Cronig, Santa Monica, CA

Baker-Hamilton, Hamilton-Baker?

I am noticing that the Iraq Study Group co-chaired by Lee Hamilton (D) and James Baker (R) has been aired on many stations' news programs as the "James Baker Commission on Iraq". I believe this commission may offer viable solutions to the abomination we have created in Iraq. I would like to see the news outlets refer to this as the Iraq Commission headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton or the Baker-Hamilton or Hamilton-Baker Commission.

My fear is that the Republican machine will try to tout these solutions as a Republican solution to the problem and conveniently never mention that it was a true joint effort. Even the BBC has reported it as James Baker's bipartisan commission, and Katie Couric called it the Baker Commission last night at her 6:00 PM program (I was late turning to Jim Lehrer!), but I think it was for good reason. I would not have begun to hear the "Republican solution" lead by James Baker . . .

Teri Rooks, Franklin, MA

The Chimps Touch a Chord

Thank you for the Nature show aired last evening on the plight of the chimpanzees discarded by the Air Force. So few people realize what these intelligent creatures are being subjected to in the name of science and as the scientific community is now coming to realize, the tests are not accurate and there are more effective methods that do not involve animal suffering.

Also, I was pleased the program did touch on the cruelty of the entertainment industry. Each time I see the CareerBuilder commercials I wince when I see all of those baby chimps dressed in suits and ties being forced only through pain and fear to perform.

Please continue to offer these programs that enlighten many people and hopefully end some of the "dark ages" experimentation.

I was so moved, I actually adopted a chimp through the Save a Chimp Foundation!

Linda Gannon, New Castle, PA

Free Charlie Rose

Add my pleasure at seeing Bill Moyers return no matter how or when; it's always worth it. I have also been impressed with several PBS journalistic investigative programs including Independent Lens.

And for heaven's sake, leave Charlie Rose alone (This refers to the October 23 Ombudsman's column). There are some very important issues out there to get hung up on. It seems to me we should check our focus every now & again. Ombudsmen (& I've been one) always pick. And no, it doesn't all start small & grow without your input. Charlie Rose is fantastic as only some people have been. We have very few people like him left.

Laurie Taylor, Wheeling, WV

Charlie Rose is one of the few trusted interviewers on the air if not the most. He does enormous research before and asks very succinct and probing questions. Where was he last night? Only Smiley. I do hope he is well. Please let his loyal viewers know.

Kelowna, British Columbia

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