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The Ombudsman Column

Ombudsman's Mailbag

Maybe it's just the February blahs, but there was less than the average amount of viewer mail this past week, and no dominant themes emerged. There was what looked like a relatively small e-mail write-in campaign from critics questioning the relationship between PBS and the annual Sundance Film Festival. This struck me as worth addressing and explaining, and PBS officials lay that out in this mailbag. And there were viewer comments on the two-part, four-hour series on "The Supreme Court" produced by WNET/Thirteen in New York, on the treatment of the recent United Nations panel report on global warming, and some other things.

The mail on the PBS-Sundance linkage seems to have been generated by online postings by the American Family Association and FreeRepublic.com, which describes itself as the "online gathering place for independent, grass-roots conservatism on the web."

Here are a couple of letters that capture the complaint:

I was recently alerted to the fact that PBS gave funds in the amounts of between $50,000 and just under $100,000 to the Sundance Film Festival. Could you verify this? The reason I am concerned about this is because I do not want my tax dollars going to support sickness masquerading as art at the Sundance Film Festival. I was told via e-mail from a very reliable source that two films featured at the Sundance Film Festival were, One, "Hounddog," featuring a scene where a 12-year-old girl is raped and the other film, "Zoo," about a man having sex with a horse. The National Endowment for the Arts gave between $100,000 and $249,000 to help underwrite the festival, and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) gave between $50,000 and $99,999.

I was also told Hollywood has hundreds of millions of dollars to underwrite the cost of the Sundance Film Festival, but they would rather use your tax dollars than their own money. The arts community annually gets over a billion dollars from private sources to finance their art. Yet they still go to Congress to ask for receive, millions of tax dollars, and they receive it.

Shannon Mitchell-Schlosser, Angola, IN

I understand PBS gave the Sundance Film Festival between $50,000-$99,000. When I give money to PBS, I assume it will be used for "healthy" programming. I am further upset to find out that tax dollars were given to PBS by the NEA and went to support such events as the Sundance Film Festival. I oppose giving tax money to help underwrite such events. When I give to PBS, I am not giving to the Sundance Film Festival but it appears that I am. Events like the Sundance Film Festival, which featured one movie in which a 12-year-old is raped and another where a man has sex with a horse, does not deserve tax support nor my money! Also, I thought PBS raised their money from their supporters as every other non-profit broadcast station does. Now I find out the NEA gives you tax money and you support trash like what was produced at the Sundance Film festival. It appears you do not need my money anymore if you have an extra $50,000-$99,000 to give away.

Jeff Lynn, Olathe, KS

It's $40,000, Says PBS, and 'No Control and No Influence'

Here's the PBS response and explanation from Lea Sloan, vice-president for media relations:

"PBS participates in the Sundance Film Festival because it is the highest profile showcase for documentary films in the United States, allowing PBS to gain important visibility for some of its most significant programs. PBS has no control or influence over the films the Sundance Film Festival accepts.

"PBS dollars ($40,000) go to sponsor events at the Filmmaker Lodge, a venue for educational panels on filmmaking, film distribution and other industry issues. PBS executives participate on panels at the Lodge in order to provide information to documentary filmmakers on funding and distribution and to highlight the PBS filmmakers whose films were accepted by the Festival. None of the sponsorship dollars go to any particular film. The PBS budget for this project is supported by PBS member station dues, not taxpayer money. Regardless, we feel our sponsorship is educational in nature and a cost-effective way to educate and inform the filmmaker community."

(Ombudsman's note: The list of sponsors included on the Sundance Institute Web site does, in fact, list PBS as in the category of those contributing between $50,000 to $99,999. Sloan's office says they cannot explain the discrepancy but insists that the amount was $40,000 and that they are certain because the sum comes from their budget.)

Sloan continues: "PBS continually seeks to provide quality content to its member stations. Factual and documentary programming comprises a significant percentage of the PBS schedule. PBS has had documentaries in the festival since its very first year. Some of the films over the years have included Martin Scorsese's "The Blues," Ken Burns' "Frank Lloyd Wright," "Hoop Dreams," and "A Lion in the House."

"On a separate note," Sloan adds, "taxpayer funding for PBS comes through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and represents about 13% of our operating budget. In Fiscal Year 2007, CPB dollars continue to be invested through PBS in the series: PBS KIDS: CYBERCHASE, MISTER ROGERS, READING RAINBOW and SESAME STREET, and in primetime in AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, AMERICAN MASTERS, GREAT PERFORMANCES, THE NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER, NATURE, MASTERPIECE THEATER, NOVA and WASHINGTON WEEK. In addition, PBS and CPB have a joint programming venture called the Program Challenge Fund (PCF), in which each entity allocates $8 million. The PCF was created in 1987 to fund high-visibility, primetime, limited series for the national public television schedule."

That sounds to me like a good reply and a reasonable relationship.

Judging the Supremes

The four-hour series on "The Supreme Court," which aired in two parts, one on Jan. 31 and the other on Feb. 7, drew only a handful of comments to my office. Here they are:

I was intrigued by, but ultimately a bit disappointed by the PBS series, The Supreme Court. The essence of my disappointment stems from what I found to be, from a seeming majority of the on-screen commentators chosen for this series, revisionism. I was also disappointed by the short shrift some of the cases and rulings received, not least of which was the handling of the Florida ballots in the 2000 presidential election. Finally, the series provided a much-too brief, overly simplified, and exaggerated view of President Johnson's commitment to the civil rights movement. But on balance (I use the term not literally, but rather a bit sarcastically) the program similarly overdid it on attributing some political savvy on a specific political platform to Richard Nixon. All in all, I think that the production overreached, and perhaps should have been given more time (as in more episodes) to fairly and adequately cover some very complex material — and a broader range and number of on-screen commentators would have helped provide more balance, and perhaps less revisionism.

Phoenix, AZ

I just want to congratulate PBS yet again for its absolutely wonderful programming. I watched its program "The Supreme Court" last evening and was enthralled. It was brilliantly done. Thank you SO much PBS for bringing to this country the excellence in broadcasting that so many of us are yearning for. You make my life better and I very much appreciate that!

Natalie Rosen, Framingham, MA

Never have I seen a program on PBS so glaringly deceitful in its glorification of a man so undeserving of recognition. Yes, I am talking about william rehnquist (and I deliberately do not capitalize his name). The Supreme Court under this man's leadership is responsible for the single most destructive ruling in the history of the United States. I am speaking of the decision not to allow a recount of the Florida votes after the 2000 election. This is the man who led a court that looked the other way when it came time to act and defend voting rights at one of the most crucial times in this nation's history.

This pseudo-documentary (which is really a right wing lovefest) based on far right conservative opinions only serves to buttress the notion many real thinking Americans have about what PBS has become. PBS is unfortunately no longer a voice for free thought, but another right wing propaganda machine hosted by bush appointees with a very obvious agenda.

Guy Desrochers, Bloomfield Hills, MI

The contrast in views on display within this small batch of letters, in a way, parallels what I thought was an unusually sharp difference in view about this series in reviews written in The Washington Post (positive) and the New York Times (negative). For those of you who have watched, or plan to watch any rebroadcast of this series, and who have not seen these reviews, I think they are worth reading.

Here's the lead of Washington Post critic Tom Shales' review: "Although the idea of spending four hours listening to professors and law clerks might not sound precisely irresistible, 'The Supreme Court' — a two-part history of 'the most powerful judicial tribunal in the world' — bravely upholds a PBS tradition. Namely, providing television for people who have a serious interest in the country and the world around them."

New York Times reviewer Virginia Heffernan, however, concluded in her critique: "Perhaps 'The Supreme Court' does serve as a spur to thinking, if only in reaction to its boringness. Consider me for the dissent, then." She contrasted how other cable channels might have handled this history with "rip-roaring re-creations, often to thrilling (and amusing) effect. Better still, by using interviews with the academic C list, including some potential crackpots, the netherchannels manage to work noncanonical history into their version of events. Their talking heads also display less smugness and more lapel-grasping passion; this is just how lay history should be."

As a viewer, and not a reviewer, I found myself much more in the Shales camp. I thought the program was excellent, not at all boring, and exactly the kind of public service that PBS should be producing and does best. I do agree, however, that the treatment of the extraordinarily daring and important decision in the Bush vs Gore case about the hung 2000 election, which many viewers lived through, was too limited, given its historic importance, and fell short in capturing the controversy that still surrounds it.

Censoring the 'Hand of God'?

Two previous columns in January dealt in part with a Frontline documentary called the "Hand of God." The second of those columns dealt with the circumstances surrounding the decision by a station in Texas (KMBH), managed by the local Roman Catholic diocese, not to air the documentary at its normal time but rather at 1 o'clock in the morning. The film dealt with child sexual molestation by priests in the Boston area.

Here is one more letter on the subject that I thought summed up the situation:

Monsignor Briseno's explanation of the scheduling mix-up would appear on its face to be believable, but it wilts in light of the true facts. The Frontline program listed in the KMBH program guide, "News War," was not available on Jan. 16 so KMBH did not air it in place of "Hand of God." Instead, it is my understanding that the station elected to rerun the previous week's edition of Frontline on Jan. 16, when the "Hand of God" episode was readily available that evening and already on the station's on-line program schedule. It smells like censorship to me.

Edwin J. Cook, McAllen, TX

The NewsHour on Molly Ivins

Your "tribute" to one of the greatest journalists in America, Molly Ivins, who succumbed to breast cancer, was pathetic! Using an archival piece about Texas statues of ugliness does nothing to show the depth of her work as a superb journalist. A viewer who has little or no knowledge of Ms. Ivins might easily think she was a comedienne. Indeed she had a marvelous sense of humor and used it in her writings, but she also had a keen understanding of the political scene and did not fail to inform the public, when she could find a media outlet courageous enough to present it. America and the world have lost one of its best voices. Shame on PBS and Jim Lehrer for this disgraceful travesty! As supporters of PBS we expected a higher standard!

Beverly & Dan Sweeton, Lebanon, TN

And on Global Warming

The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer's coverage of the IPCC (the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report and global warming in general was disconcertingly one-sided and biased. I have always counted on that program to present all sides of any issue so as to allow the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions. However, in this instance, it featured two scientists who basically said the same thing and agreed with each other on the issue. There are many dissenting voices in the scientific community regarding this topic-Edward Wegman of George Mason University, Duncan Wingham, Professor of Climate Physics at University College London, Christopher Landsea of NOAA, Nigel Weiss, Professor Emeritus University of Cambridge, and Richard Lindzen, Albert P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT to name a few.

To anticipate the objection that the report reflected scientific consensus on the issue, I would point out that consensus does not necessarily mean accuracy. There was once a scientific consensus that the sun orbits the earth and the earth is flat. Additionally, contrary to the assertions that the IPCC report reflects the unanimous consent of 2500 scientists, it is my understanding that there were many dissenting voices and that the final report reflected numerous political considerations. It is my fervent hope that this report was an aberration and that future stories will contain the balance and neutrality that I have come to expect, and believe viewers deserve.

St. Clair Shores, MI

Now comes the IPCC report on climate change that was discussed on the NewsHour on Feb. 2. So whom did Margaret Warner interview on the approaching "calamity?" Two people who contributed to the report! Where was at least a token representation of responsible dissent (e.g. Prof. Lindzen of MIT)? Is this the PBS that brags in commercials that people look to PBS for a "balanced" view of the news? Perhaps you should watch Fox News Channel to see what "balanced" (and sometimes raucous) means.

Ira Charak, Willowbrook, IL

The recent coverage on global warming on the NewsHour was not balanced at all. Not every one agrees with those findings. It would have been nice to have opposing views like they usually do.

David Smith, St. Augustine, FL

Has PBS broadcast the views of scientists who believe that global warming is just part of a natural warming cycle rather than a largely human caused phenomenon? Do you have any statistics indicating the number of scientists who believe/disbelieve that human activity is primarily responsible for the current global warming trend?

V. J., Cincinnati, OH

I am amazed that a government funded news show does not include the costs of controlling global warming. My understanding is that a UN report says that we will still end up with a warmer climate, but the remedies involve curbing economic growth and produce more poverty as a result. At this point it's a rhetorical question as to why you do not present the full picture.

William Ray, San Diego, CA

My View

I thought the NewsHour report was appropriate, given the news and scientific consensus that this broad international panel represented. There isn't any doubt in my mind, as a viewer, that the evidence is overwhelmingly on the side of the scientific assessment represented by the IPCC findings. But I do think that many programs that address this extremely important and complex issue, not just the NewsHour, rarely do present the alternative scientific view. Viewers can deal with it, even if it is a minority or even fringe view. Too frequently, programs just present or refer to Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., and his "it's all a hoax" mantra.

On Washington Week, and a Final Note

In watching Washington Week tonight I was disappointed with the discussion about Iran's role in Iraq. Little mention was made of the commerce and exchange of civic life between the two neighboring countries. A number of people speaking on NPR have mentioned the possible beneficial effects of establishing commonalities through commerce and areas of civic life together. The talk on Washington Week was all about laying ground for reasons for the US to confront Iran. That probably is the way the administration thinks but the Baker Report and others in Washington talk of more subtle and multileveled diplomacy. Wouldn't it be helpful for Washington Week to talk about this, too. I remember when we went into Iraq there were few discussions of alternatives. Let's not put blinders on again.

Niantic, CT

I am quite taken by the members of the press, including those appearing on Washington Week, that keep referring to the debacle in Iraq as a "sectarian conflict." (Washington Week 2/2/2007). In the very next breath the terms switch to Shiite vs. Sunni. Webster's defines a sectarian conflict as "one comprised of a narrow or bigoted denominationalist." My point is that it is not a narrow or bigoted group in Iraq causing the violence, rather it is the mainstream and it is every bit a "Religious Reformation" dispute parallel to that started by King Henry the VII and propelled by Martin Luther in the West. It is a bigoted dispute that has been going on for 1000 years in which Muslims have no problem killing another Muslim because of his or hers beliefs. Politics in the Middle East is Religion; for as we know Iraq has defined itself as an Islamic democracy. My point: call it what it really is, a Religious Conflict, a Reformation! Our Western minds are burdened with the concept of "Separation of Church and State." We are ill equipped to comprehend their value system or to inspire them with our ethics.

Michael R. Wimberly, Houston, TX

Why did the "journalists" on Washington Week in Review this week repeat the word "surge" several times when talking about the ESCALATION in Iraq? That's not journalistic integrity but merely parroting the spin the warmonger Bush guv'ment is placing on the ESCALATION of that war! An ESCALATION by any other name is still an ESCALATION! So-called journalists are reporting the very same misguided way they reported Bush's lies about Iraq's alleged threat to the USA regarding its alleged "weapons of mass destruction. The "journalists" and "reporters" in this country simply repeat Bush's twisting of the truth rather than questioning his statements and exposing them for what they are: spin, half-truths, deceptions, propaganda and outright lies! Why are Bush and his cronies using that euphemistic word "surge?" Because they don't want people to compare the war in Iraq to Vietnam during which they escalated that war until 500,000 troops were there at the height of its ESCALATION! That's what Iraq is: Vietnam all over again; no difference! The similarities of both wars are obvious: false pretexts were used to start both. Both wars were mishandled by the generals in charge of the US involvement in both so that ESCALATION was reckoned as the only way to win both. And, not until people take to the streets in greater and greater numbers and more often, spurred on by a few opinion leaders, such as the way Walter Cronkite accelerated protests against the war in Vietnam, will the USA's participation in the war in Iraq finally end!

NL Carnes, Tujunga, CA

Here's to Wit and Reason

I am pleased with PBS programming. However, it seems to me that no one in TV programming has noticed that we are so focused on technology, but not on wit, and reason. What are the lessons we are teaching our children? That technology will solve all our problems?

Altamonte Springs, FL