The Ombudsman's Mailbag
By Michael Getler
November 3, 2006
Welcome to another Ombudsman's Mailbag. This has been a relatively quiet week for the inbox. Maybe people are so fed up with what has seemed like an endless political campaign accompanied by endless and ugly political advertising that they just shut off their televisions until Nov. 7.
PBS, of course, sort of floats above the fray and has much less of the truly irritating stuff than the commercial and cable networks at such times. So whatever is going on among the non-stop attack advertisements elsewhere, there are PBS watchers who are concerned about an "Independent Lens" program that zooms-in on the skinning of muskrats, or a "Masterpiece Theater" version of "Casanova" that some thought was too explicit about sexual taboos.
But PBS did not escape entirely from the political wars, as several viewers wrote to express their unhappiness at the way the story of Sen. John F. Kerry's statement about how you wind up "stuck in Iraq" if you don't study hard was presented on "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.
Just in case you really have had your TV turned off for the last few days, here is what Kerry said during a speech at a rally in California for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides: "Education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. And if you don't you get stuck in Iraq." Kerry was immediately pounded by Republicans and criticized by some Democrats for appearing to insult U.S. troops. He eventually — after what many press and political observers said was too long a delay — apologized for this remark and called it a "botched joke." His office later released a copy of his prepared remarks that he was supposed to have delivered that read: "Do you know where you end up if you don't study, if you aren't smart, if you're intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush."
Here is a sampling of what those viewers who wrote to me had to say about the NewsHour coverage.
On Kerry's 'Botched Joke'
I turned on the NewsHour on the radio as I was working, and turned it right off when I heard the program lead with the Kerry misstatement and apology. How dare you fall for this stupid manufactured conflict with someone out of power about nothing? In fact, I don't believe any of you could be that stupid. Then, the question is — how dare you make a decision to play along with the diversion of interest from real issues in the upcoming election? PBS used to have a better reputation, one that is no longer deserved.
Sandra Yolles, Richmond, CA
I was shocked to hear Jim Lehrer close out his broadcast tonight (Nov. 1) by saying that John Kerry had apologized for saying that "if the troops did not study they would end up stuck in Iraq." That is not what John Kerry said or meant. While the Bush Administration has tried to twist Kerry's comment this way in a desperate attempt to change their downward slide, the remark was a straightforward strike at George Bush. Anyone who has listened to the comment in context can see that easily. Many in the news media have said so.
Nancye Mims, Brookline, MA
I could not miss Jim Lehrer's spin in presenting the story about Kerry's "botched joke." For two nights in a row, he has emphasized the "insult to the troops" interpretation, while barely mentioning Kerry's explanation of the context of his remark as a reference to President Bush. This seems to me to be a deliberate effort to help the Republicans in the eleventh hour of the run up to the election. Public TV should be more impartial than this!
Mountain View, CA
I am a great fan of PBS but was so disappointed yesterday when PBS reported the John Kerry controversy exactly like everyone else EXCEPT for Chris Matthews. Chris Matthews repeated the WHOLE transcript of what John Kerry said and it was obvious that he was not talking about the troops but his criticism was of George Bush. As a result, most Americans will accept the spin that the Republicans have put on this whole thing.
Carol Mitchell, Marietta, OH
I think it was shameful that the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (10/31/06) failed to report the key information about what John Kerry meant to say in his botched joke. It is clear that he is not apologizing to the troops because he had no intention of criticizing them, but rather President Bush. People need to know what he meant to say to make a fair judgment.
Wil Silverman, Skokie, IL
My Two Cents
The NewsHour devoted what I thought was a fair amount of coverage to this story, which got a great deal of coverage elsewhere on commercial and cable TV for two solid days. Critical viewers, of course, are correct when they point out that Kerry is not running for anything in this election and also, in my view, when they say that in some ways this was a "manufactured conflict."
On the other hand, Kerry said what he said and it was a legitimate news story because he was the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 and was said to be preparing to run again in 2008. Additionally, there was the fascinating spectacle of this leading Democrat, once again at a crucial time for his party, saying something like he did in 2004 — ("I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." Or, asked if he would have still approved the war knowing Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction, "Yes, I would have voted for the authority.") — that made him vulnerable to critics and took the air out of his supporters at the time.
So, for many Democrats, Kerry's remarks and delayed apology were undoubtedly a huge two-day distraction and may have produced a sense of a losing history repeating itself. For Republicans, they must have seemed like an early Christmas present. Did the press make too much out of this? Some news organizations did and some did not. It was an irresistible story on several levels. Did Kerry mean to insult the troops? That's hard to believe, but who really knows why he shortened his prepared remarks.
As for the NewsHour, I thought they kept the story in perspective, but with one important omission. I agree with those viewers who said that the coverage should have included the remarks supplied by Kerry's office as they were supposed to have been delivered. President Bush and White House spokesman Tony Snow were given a fair amount of time on the programs to deliver their views and interpretations of what Kerry said, and it seemed to me that Kerry's would-be remarks were important to hear for the context in which the senator supposedly meant to deliver them. The NewsHour did carry a clip from a Kerry news conference on Oct. 31 but that showed Kerry attacking the administration rather than explaining what he meant to say.
More on Casanova
(The following letter starts out by quoting an e-mail from a viewer in Oklahoma that appeared in the last Ombudsman's column.)
"I was greatly distressed and morally offended Sunday evening when I clicked onto my local PBS station 11 (Tulsa). The movie was 'Casanova,' the scene was of a brother and sister in a sex act. Nothing was left to the imagination. I cannot believe 'Masterpiece' produced such a vile film, nor would I believe PBS or Chanel 11 would show it had I not seen it personally.
To Claremore, OK:
Uh, don't think so. Maybe that's what you "wanted" to see or "thought" you saw. Check it out . . . no one was naked. There was "implication" only — all in tune with the theme. You knew full well what could possibly happen. You were certainly warned many, many times [that's my complaint] of the nature of this presentation. "Nothing was left to the imagination." . . . I guess you stayed around long enough to make a comparison. You could have left anytime you wanted. If you don't like it, don't watch it.
David Petersen, Kansas City, MO
Most people probably thought "Casanova" was too boring to bother with, or you would have gotten even more complaints. Rape and bare butts etc are not unknown on PBS. They really should quit selling themselves as "the family friendly" station, and not claim to be "educational" ALL the time. Some is just plain degrading, just like the rest of TV many producers make. PBS should just accept the fact that they are many times not much different from run of the mill stations.
I was tremendously disappointed by this recent Masterpiece Theatre. I have been in love with PBS ever since I graduated from Juilliard as an actress, and my first job was with PBS. It's the only thing I watch because I can always count on a show that is intelligent, uplifting and moral. I found none of that in this show. I felt, beside the perversion, the script was pedestrian and sophomoric . . .
Is this your attempt to pull in the commercial, hormone-crazed teenage audience? (I was so embarrassed! As a teacher, I've always felt safe recommending any PBS show.) I'm sure you are thinking I'm just an old prude, It's a shame more people don't take the time to write & express their dismay, but it's easier to just turn to another station & hope it doesn't happen again. But I am sincerely pleading with you, please do not try to go more "commercial" to pull in more funds. Have another pledge drive & tell people that that's how you maintain your integrity, by not selling out.
How could you call that Masterpiece Theatre and join it with the company of such greats as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens? I doubt I was the only viewer who found the graphic description of how three sisters make love to each other to be nothing but pornographic. PBS has always been a beacon of hope, inspiration and integrity. America's most evolved, enlightened, and educated BEST are your grateful audience. Please do not take away our voice and our vision.
Cynthia Herman, Peoria, IL
1. Casanova was fabulous — a superior and intelligent offering. Thank you PBS for airing the production.
2. I just read your commentary on Charlie Rose and his participation in honoring Walmart's CEO. Anyone who hasn't perceived Rose's conservative bias on his interview show these past few seasons, has not been paying attention. We were particularly annoyed when he "interviewed" George Soros. We never were allowed to hear a single, complete response from Mr. Soros to Rose's questions. Charlie Rose interrupted almost every one of Mr. Soros' statements. Please recommend that PBS have someone do a decent and informative interview of Mr. Soros, i.e. one in which he will be asked challenging questions AND allowed to answer the questions.
M. Meyers, Littleton, CO
On Muskrat Skinning
The e-mails below refer to a program on the "Independent Lens" series that aired Oct. 31 that focused on a rural Chesapeake Bay community in Maryland in which a yearly outdoors show includes both a beauty pageant and a muskrat-skinning contest. Some of the e-mails appear to have been written either before the program actually aired or by some who had not actually seen it. The beauty pageant and the skinning are separate parts of the show. The young ladies do not skin the muskrats, as one letter says. That is done by experienced trappers and skinners. As someone who grew up in the Bronx, I'm not familiar with muskrat skinning and didn't particularly like to watch it on PBS. But it is part of the history of Dorchester County and some people apparently like to eat these creatures and make use of their coats.
Here are the letters.
With reference to the muskrat skinning contest currently being shown on "Independent Lens" — just because something that once was common and is now considered a cultural remnant of the "good old days" does not mean that PBS should consider it decent and acceptable for today's audience. As a donor to PBS and an avid watcher, such a choice will certainly make me rethink my previously favorable and supportive views.
Virginia Fuller, Belmont, MA
I am informed that you are highlighting a "muskrat skinning contest" on your program this week. If this is true — almost impossible for me to believe that it is — I would be disgusted, and will remove PBS from my dish programming. What justification does PBS find for highlighting such savagery and conveying the message that the carving up of our fellow sentient beings is somehow worthy of our amusement? Disgusting!!!
A new low for "public" television. Independent Lens show seems to be NOT so independent after all, just as public TV is serving the agenda of animal abusers. To show kids skinning animals, making a contest out of it, is just plain perverse. How about showing the Chinese doing it to cats and dogs? How about a contest skinning horses? A nation that glorifies needless, outdated, cruel, violent trapping is a nation that clearly, as any animal abusers do, needs its head examined. PBS like NPR took the P out of public and replaced it with a C. Shame on the parents of these kids, and a community that normalizes a practice of mutilation.
Laura Beth Slitt, Bartlett, NH
I became completely disheartened and disgusted when I found that PBS will be airing a "muskrat skinning contest." How heartless do you have to be to publicize such a cruel event?
PBS and WVIZ have established a new low in promoting a muskrat skinning contest in Dorchester County Maryland. Muskrats die of drowning in steel jaw traps or having their skulls caved in. God exorcise PBS WVIZ and Dorchester County.
Our organization will ask people all over the US to end contributions to PBS until there is a complete change in programming.
Animal Rights Coalition, Akron, OH
Some Other Stuff
Last night (Nov. 2) you aired a segment about the situation in Iraq with Ambassador James Dobbins.
Ray Suarez interviewed him and didn't challenge him on any of the blatantly false representations he was making about how the neighboring states view the war and how the eventual outcome will effect them. Where did this guy get his information? And why was he allowed carte blanche to air views which are not only fantasy, but do great harm to the viewers who are trying to come to grips with the situation there. PBS should really give more thought to who they bring on as commentators, and when one goes awry, they should be challenged by the interviewer (Ray Suarez).
Thank you for such excellent programs as Tavis Smiley . . . who has very excellent and poignant guests, and for the "green architecture" program series . . . can't recall the name, but definitely vital and fascinating and encouraging! And thanks too for Charlie Rose and his guests. You give me hope when mainstream media gives me little!
Catherine Bartholome, Kansas City, MO
This letter is a comment about the inadequacy of a report about electronic election equipment aired on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on November 2. As county clerk and recorder in Douglas County, Colorado, I spent 4 hours last week with Terry Rubin, one of your Colorado-based producers, and 2 crew members, under the guise of capturing footage for a report about "Election Security." There was absolutely nothing in the report about election security, but there were pictures of my voting sites and election judges. I have to ask the question whether Terry really knew the story was not about security, but was, in fact, about the ALLEGED unreliability of electronic voting equipment.
The report as it unfolded was a good overview of the beliefs of some computer experts that we should not be using electronic voting equipment because it is hackable. Following those comments, were comments by the vendor, Diebold, who noted very accurately that the "hacking" shown by the computer expert was not a "real-world" example. Further definition of the protections around the machines was missing. No one pointed out the fact that the hacking was achieved with the use of a key to the voting machine! Do you really think we election officials hand out keys to the machines when people go to the voting booth?
A balanced report would have transitioned into the many photos and comments gleaned from Terry's visits to my office related to the real-world security we place around the machines. This would have included video cameras, sealing devices, double locks, restricted access to sensitive areas, etc. And, very importantly, wouldn't it have been logical to have comments about the topic from an election official who is in the trenches of the elections business every day?
I am most concerned about the damage being done to public confidence in our voting process based on sensational and incomplete information in the media and in Hollywood movies. I would not expect this type of reporting from The NewsHour.
Carole Murray, Clerk and Recorder
Douglas County, CO