Print This Page

The Ombudsman Column

Ombudsman's Mailbag

The biggest news on PBS last week was the first installment of a four-part, 4 ½-hour "Frontline" investigative series on the future of news. "News War: Secrets, Sources & Spin" premiered on Feb. 13 and will continue on Feb. 20 and 27, then take a one-month break before concluding on March 27. Only the first two segments of this series were actually completed at the time of the premier. The last two were still being edited. But the production, based on previews of the first two episodes, was widely taken note of and reviewed in many of the nation's newspapers.

"Frontline," now in its 24th year, is the best on-going documentary series in television, in my view, while CBS's "60 Minutes," now in its 39th season, is also, in my book, still must-viewing for a steady diet of more timely investigative work. As viewers, we are all fortunate to have these two series still available at a time when public affairs documentaries and in-depth investigative reporting on television is so diminished.

Despite the many newspaper reviews, "News War" generated hardly any mail to the ombudsman in the aftermath of the first episode. So I'm going to wait a bit, watch the next episode, and see what develops. The first part of the series was, not surprisingly, expertly put together by "Frontline." It does well, in one part, untangling and putting into greater context the role of the press and the Bush administration in the period leading up to the invasion of Iraq and the unraveling of administration rationales afterward. And the timing was also rather amazing because it aired as the high-profile Washington trial of Vice President Dick Cheney's former top aide and chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was moving toward its concluding phase.

How About 'Frontburner' Plus 'Frontline'

If you had followed the news closely, and the news about the news, then there is not much that is very surprising or new in that first segment. Yet it still makes compelling television even for those who have followed events closely, and is very useful and educational for a broader audience, as well. Like so many such projects, it, of course, mostly looks backward; it is derivative of news and stories that have already unfolded, mostly but not exclusively, in newspapers. And one of the thoughts that did occur to me after watching this first segment is that it would be nice if PBS had a national program that was called "Frontburner," in addition to the venerable "Frontline." That suggestion is open to other television services as well.

By "Frontburner" I mean an investigative team, or teams, with an outlet and the charter to do many more stories in near real time, when they can have much more impact upon events. By a team, I mean a half-a-dozen or so experienced journalists, editors and producers who don't take six months or a year to produce their material but can produce authoritative, in-depth material that still packs a wallop and is truly useful to a public struggling to make sense of things as they are still unfolding. One still needs the longer-term, longer-range stuff that helps us, or should help us, not make the same mistake twice about many different issues. But the lessons of the Iraq war tell us that the public needs more intense reporting sooner rather than later and a focused effort on producing it would seem to be to everybody's benefit. The Web also makes such teamwork more plausible these days. Finding the money and the airtime is another issue but that's for someone else to figure out.

A Star Is Born

Paul Solman is the economics correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. I've watched his reporting for years and think of him as one of the most engaging reporters and interviewers around in presenting complex economic issues in a clear and frequently entertaining and illuminating way for a television audience.

But on Feb. 14, Solman did a segment on the impact of globalization and free trade on the U.S. workforce that was based on a lengthy interview with Thea Lee, the policy director of the AFL-CIO. The few letters that I got about this segment were strongly critical of Solman. I've included a couple of those letters below.

Setting aside, for a moment, the criticism of Solman, I thought the star here was Lee, who, in my view, came off as the most well-informed and articulate spokesperson for American workers, at least those that are unionized, that I've heard in a long time. We hear and read a lot about the exporting of jobs but probably not often enough are we allowed to sit in on a serious and challenging interview with such an expert witness for the workers. Solman's questioning was aggressive, and I can see where it may have seemed even condescending. But I thought that was an adopted style that actually added to the overall value of this excellent exchange because Lee seemed perfectly equipped to deal with everything that came her way. Solman's questions contained almost every critical reason, along with the attitude that goes with them, that opponents of Labor's view throw at them. I, of course, don't know what was in Solman's mind as he conducted the interview. But whatever it was, it seemed to me it made for a lively interview on what is often a deadly, although important, topic.

Here are some of the letters:

Could you send me Paul Solman's (The NewsHour) credentials? I watched him for the first time on Wednesday and I thought he was an idiot. I have watched TNH for years and admire all of the reporters. They are intelligent, thoughtful, incisive, and act like reporters. Mr. Solman was intrusive, projecting his own point of view (I thought reporters were supposed to be neutral) and frankly was as far from my idea of a NewsHour reporter as could possibly be. He appears to be so in love with himself I was astonished. This is NOT the way the NewsHour reporters are supposed to report the news. He was making fun of the average American worker and all the money they make. I hope Jim Lehrer and the staff reconsiders Mr. Solman's employment.

Susan Paskerian, Costa Mesa, CA

Tonight (Wednesday) the NewsHour aired a Paul Solman interview with Thea Lee of the AFL-CIO. Mr. Solman's questions were needlessly confrontational and, to my mind, representative of nothing but corporate interests. In fact, his questions weren't questions at all. They were provocations that shed no light on an extraordinarily complex issue. This is, without doubt, the worst piece of fake journalism I've ever seen on PBS. And now that I think of it, I have to say that none of Mr. Solman's economic reporting has been particularly illuminating. If I've watched the NewsHour for this many years and still don't know how we finance our trade deficit with China and other countries, then maybe it's time for a new economic reporter.

Gabe Sinclair, Baltimore, MD

A Fat-Free PBS?

Jeff Chester, the ever-vigilant executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, wrote to me on Feb. 14 about another instance in which he viewed non-commercial PBS as marching into the world of commercialization through insufficient attention to potentially compromising sponsorships. Chester also wrote apparently at the same time to Broadcasting & Cable advising them of what he had written to me.

Here's what Chester said, referring to a forthcoming PBS program on obesity:

"'Fat: What No One is Telling You' appears on PBS stations April 11th. We note that funding comes in part from GlaxoSmithKline. The drug giant just happens to have a recently approved for over-the-counter drug on the market — under the brand name Alli ™ — that is for 'use by overweight adults along with a reduced calorie, low-fat diet.' A PBS health-related campaign was launched Feb. 14. PBS program executives need to 'cut the fat' out of their sloppy review of what's appropriate for underwriting. Programs on PBS should be free of connections to sponsors who have a vested interest in an issue. PBS should 'take one step' [that's the name of a related health public education campaign they're running] and clean up its underwriting practices."

Here's how PBS responds to Chester's criticism:

"PBS and The Corporation for Public Broadcasting provided the initial production funding for FAT: What No One is Telling You through its 'Program Challenge Fund,' which also included a grant for an educational community outreach initiative. Production on FAT: What No One is Telling You began in October 2005 and was nearing the end of production when the corporate sponsor, GlaxoSmithKline, came on board in January 2006 and provided additional funding for the broadcast, community outreach and Spanish language translation. As is always the case with corporate funders of PBS programs, at no time did the corporate sponsor have any editorial input into the show, nor have they seen it, and this strict separation was maintained throughout production. Lastly, the sponsor credit for GlaxoSmithKline is a corporate image spot and does not mention any drug product, including those used to treat obesity." The program, they added, "looks at the complex issue of obesity and the very personal stories of those who struggle with the label of being fat, focusing on social and emotional consequences, as well as related-health problems. The documentary is part of a larger PBS health initiative that also includes programs on heart disease (airdate: Feb. 14, 2007) cancer and depression, which are in development."

My view is that Chester's eagle-eye provides a continuing, very useful challenge to PBS, a challenge that I agree with even though I sympathize with PBS's constant search for funding, the difficulty of finding sponsorships to bolster more traditional funding, and the fact that some funders simply have an interest in seeing subjects aired and are willing to take their chances on how the program will come out. But in this case, there is little doubt how a program about obesity is going to turn out. Even though GlaxoSmithKline came in late and, under PBS policy, has no say in any of the content, this kind of possible conflict can undermine credibility and, without knowing the financial details, doesn't seem worth it. I've written about this issue a couple of times before.

Letters from the Heart

Here are some letters about the first program in this health initiative series, dealing with heart disease, that aired on Feb. 14:

The program on heart health was outstanding. I knew a lot of this information, but was surprised to find some new ideas and approaches to this problem, and hear that much of it can be prevented with lifestyle changes. Great job, I look forward to the second in the series. Thanks!!

Kansas City, MO

Thank you for an exceptionally well done, informative program on heart disease. Unfortunately, people most in need of the information provided were more than likely not watching (It aired at 10 p.m.). Will the program be rebroadcast soon? I would like to tell everyone I know to not miss a moment.

Tujunga, CA

Last night I watched most of your special on heart disease "The Hidden Epidemic." It was so startlingly out of date in terms of recent cardiac research on the function of cholesterol and of statins that I assumed it was an old film. Then I figured it had been paid for by Merk-Frosst or another statins-producer. These drugs were presented as absolute wonders, with no down sides, whereas the painful and debilitating muscular weaknesses they can cause can afflict as many as 20% of the people taking them, and their effectiveness in actually preventing heart attack events is largely unproven (they do lower cholesterol, but that's not the same thing).

You did discuss the differences between men and women and cardiac disease, but neglected to mention the latest research, which clearly shows that for women past menopause, high cholesterol coincides with reduced mortality rates, not more risk of death by stroke or heart attack. Researchers are looking into its protective value against cancer. You discussed a family with a gene for high cholesterol and a great deal of heart disease, completely omitting the fact that most families with naturally occurring high cholesterol do NOT die of heart disease and should probably not be put on statins. The animation showing the effects of cholesterol on the arterial walls did not explain that the plaques are sent out by the body to support disease-weakened walls, and cleaning them out does little good except in the short term. The Farmingham cardiac studies were presented in this WGBH production as gospel, despite the facts that the conclusions drawn from them (particularly concerning the dangers of dietary cholesterol) have been very serious challenged and largely disproved.

In general, this would have been a fine documentary if produced ten or fifteen years ago. Aired today, it smells of Big Drug money and may cause harm to some people's health. I would love to see a full list of the funders. Normally I love your stuff, so this is merely a caveat!

Chicago, IL

I feel very strongly that PBS has crossed the drama line that permeates mainstream television today. To fluff a program such as Hidden Epidemic: Heart Disease in America with gratuitous weeping and unnecessary soap opera gimmicks was a total disaster. I am a 56-year-old male, have had a heart attack, and am overweight. I was SOOO looking forward to seeing a Nova type presentation and you presented me with a Lifetime or Hallmark tearjerker. The program did have its highlights; it would have been a good one hour documentary. By editing in the sixty minutes of over dramatized side stories the program became little more than a glorified soap opera.

Please, insist that PBS not cave in to what the masses feel they need; the useless drivel that is called reality TV. American Experience, Nature, Nova, Frontline; these are the backbone of public broadcasting. I must give kudos to Independent Lens. This is a strong young program that really exhibits the best of independent film makers. Thanks for letting me vent; I feel better already.

Michael Mullins, Winchester, TN

Are Viewers Being Short-Changed?

I am not the only one that has noticed this trend recently . . . programs like "The NewsHour," "Nova," "Nightly Business Report," "Washington Week in Review," and many others have at least five minutes cut from the program at the end. And what is aired? Local and national promotions and many local and national commercials. Change PBS to "Public Bucks Service."

David Petersen, Kansas City, MO

Good question. This is the only viewer that wrote but I've noticed that as well. Here's what PBS has to say:

"PBS programs must adhere to strict time limits allotted for breaks between programs. The maximum amount of time overall is five minutes and thirty seconds, which includes production credits, national promotion, and no more than one minute of national corporate underwriting credits. The remainder of the time is used at the discretion of the local station and may include spots for upcoming programs, station identification and local underwriting. These breaks do not interrupt programs. By comparison, commercial networks run an average of more than 17 minutes of non-programming content every hour, much of which is shown during the program itself."


I just watched American Experience about New Orleans. Overall a well done piece. Of course no story is complete without a reference to Katrina and once again the focus on what areas and races were affected was lopsided, to say the least. I would like to watch a film by PBS, Spike Lee or anyone else that for once gave a balanced view of how the city and its people were affected. St. Bernard, Lakeview and parts of Old Metairie, all mostly white areas, were completely wiped out yet you never see a scene in a documentary showing those areas. According to a 2/23/06 report by the Louisiana Dept of Health and Hospitals 52% of the deaths were African American, yet 100% of the journalistic effort is focused on that segment. It's time for someone with the guts to tell the whole story. After over a year, it's sickening to keep seeing the same lopsided journalism day after day after day.

New Orleans, LA

I am a New Orleanian woman "in exile," whose family roots go deep into the city's past, and who attended Loyola University there. I was very interested with your American Experience's episode "New Orleans," and I was very happy to know that some of New Orleans' unique history and culture BEFORE Katrina were being presented. The content was excellent in many ways. As the program went on, however, I noticed with increasing dismay that the ONLY female scholar or commentator you included was a lawyer early in the program. I became more and more taken aback by this exclusion. In these times, there are many women academics, artists, writers, and historians who surely have much to offer on this subject. Not to include them is a glaring omission. In a program purportedly about the uniqueness of New Orleans' diverse yet unified culture, how can you possibly exclude the observations and input of half of New Orleans' past and present: the women who have lived in, loved, cherished, and studied this marvelous city?

Robyn Reso, Houston, TX

Watched tonight the excellent New Orleans segment; only comment is Prof. Raphael Cassimere attended a Louisiana Public University which from day one in 1958 was fully integrated. The Franz incident in 1964 was, therefore, not the first, by far, but only the most publicized to integrate. Perhaps it's time for a segment on UNO — the FIRST — the University of New Orleans — the efforts of a southern politician named 'Long' to establish it including overcoming Levee Board's objections, their start-up, most recently their pre-, during, and post-Katrina comeback and the preparations for a 50th anniversary.

Chalmette, St. Bernard, LA