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PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

The Ombudsman's Mailbag

Welcome to another Ombudsman's Mailbag, this time with a representative sampling of mail from viewers during the last week in June and this holiday week in July.

It includes reactions to the big, annual "Capitol Fourth" telecast on PBS of the July 4th concert and fireworks display from the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The mailbag also includes reactions to the first "All-American Presidential Forum" featuring all eight candidates for the Democratic Party nomination and hosted by PBS's Tavis Smiley at Washington's Howard University. And it also includes viewer responses to a Bill Moyers' editorial assault on Rupert Murdoch as the News Corporation chairman seeks to buy The Wall Street Journal, and on segments of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer dealing with Michael Moore on health care and the attempt to spread democracy abroad.

First, a couple of thoughts on the two main events for viewers — the concert and the forum.

The mail directed toward the ombudsman's office immediately after the concert was, with the exception of two e-mailers and one caller, uniformly critical. That was also the case last year when I wrote a column about this event. Indeed, I could just re-post that column today and not find much that was different. I don't want to go back over all the details but somebody — probably PBS rather than the show's producers (Capital Concerts, Inc.) or the National Park Service that controls the fireworks — ought to fix this so that an important, popular and memorable evening is not turned into an angry disappointment for many viewers year after year.

The July 4th concert is consistently among the most popular shows on PBS, with more than 10 million people watching this year, and every year for a long time now. But the show, for one thing, consistently seems to go off the air before the fireworks are over and while the orchestra is building toward a crescendo, with credits rolling and sponsorships being announced, as required, before the grand spectacle has played itself out. That is, by far, the biggest and most consistent complaint.

But this year, some of the letters also took issue with the religious content of some of the entertainment and whether that is appropriate for a PBS broadcast. That is a good question, in my view, both for the producers of the show and PBS.

It's true that the mail that comes to me is a tiny bit of the audience. But as I wrote last year, my sense is that these letters represent a much larger number who are dissatisfied and displeased by the way this annual event unfolds on their screens, and that seems a shame for viewers who look forward to, and want to feel good about, this very special celebration.

As for the "All-American Presidential Forum," the biggest flap, generating hundreds of e-mails, actually came before the event. The liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America had attacked the choice of pollster Frank Luntz by Smiley's organization to help analyze reaction to the forum and the candidates' performance. The press release in April announcing the June 28 forum said that "immediate public feedback on the performance will be conducted by noted pollster Frank Luntz, who will also appear on 'Tavis Smiley' on PBS the following evening to discuss his findings."

Luntz is a longtime consultant and pollster for Republicans, and has been criticized by some polling organizations for some of his work (one of the e-mails to me came from the president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research that censured Luntz in 1997 for what it said were ethics code violations). Media Matters reported all this and took off after PBS and Smiley for choosing Luntz to participate.

Eventually, Smiley's producer, Neal Kendall, responded by explaining that Luntz "is not participating in the forum itself or in the live broadcast of the event," but that he was "selected by Smiley to obtain on-the spot-feedback" from a focus group of 30 people who watched the forum live. Luntz and the focus group would then appear the following evening on Smiley's regular show to discuss their thoughts, Kendall said. He also told The Los Angeles Times that, "I don't understand why if someone has been a consultant for Republicans they're incapable of conducting a focus group. If anyone has a concern about the objectivity of Friday night's program, I invite them to tune in and see for themselves."

As for me, that seemed like good advice. Whatever one thinks of Luntz — Smiley introduced him by saying he was named one of the four "top research minds" by Business Week — I thought he and Smiley did a good, lively, informative and fair job on that follow-up discussion.

A second forum, featuring Republican presidential seekers, is scheduled for Sept. 27 at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

Here are the letters:

What Makes a Memorable Concert?

My fiance and I turned on the Capitol 4th PBS special to enjoy a celebration of what has made America great — our diversity. We were dismayed to find ourselves listening to a series of songs that while beautifully sung, were a celebration of Jesus. We are not ones to complain about the saying of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools or take offense with God Bless America, but the unveiled, in-our-faces push of Christian beliefs during a national celebration for all led us to turn off the television. That no one at PBS recognized this affront to non-Christian viewers or worse, recognized it and did nothing, is perhaps the greatest disappointment for these viewers. This was not a special on religion or separation of Church and State where views may be slanted, this was a national celebration that turned into a commercial for Christian beliefs and PBS should be embarrassed to have not called the producers on their blatant disregard for what has made America great — its diversity.

F. Beller, Ashburn, VA

My wife and I thought that the Washington DC July 4th coverage was horrible. Tony Danza didn't seem to know where he was or what was happening and the constant movement by the cameras wouldn't allow a viewer to see the fireworks as they were meant. The camera crew needs to learn from the crew that did the Macy's in NYC.

John Buening, Jacksonville, FL

I think it is outrageous that you cut off the Capitol 4th fireworks before they were even complete. And for what? So we could see an encore of 2 hours of Tony Danza drivel! We would prefer a FULL Capitol 4th. Instead, we were forced to change the channel to watch the sub-par NYC fireworks.

Michael Sommers, Alexandria, VA

I am absolutely speechless at this moment. The D.C. fireworks display went off the air before the finale. Watching Boeing commercials and the credits as the show was ending prematurely was unbelievable. I just don't have the words to properly express my profound disappointment. Pathetic!

Richard Knapp, Monterrey, Mexico

I just finished watching "A Capitol Fourth" and felt cheated and betrayed that the rigid scheduling agenda and sponsorship obligations of the PBS network necessitated the stepping on and premature truncation of the end of the fireworks display. I would like to know how such broadcasting practices are essentially different from the commercial stations' blatant and arrogant disregard of their audiences' interests.

Richard March, New Paltz, NY

Who made the decision to run credits and leave the air before the Grand Finale of the Washington, DC, 4th of July fireworks display? Is he or she still employed by PBS? He or she should be discharged!

John A. Alexander, Old Lyme, CT

I wanted to enjoy the Fourth on PBS; unfortunately, you chose to run end credits over the crescendo of fireworks. Thanks a lot. Another bit of America lost to corporate interests.

Eve Parente, Georgetown, FL

The Capitol Fourth Concert was well done — tasteful, diverse, professionally presented and non-political.

Carl Ellsworth, Columbia, SC

I was enjoying "A Capitol Fourth" with my family and friends, when we were stunned and completely appalled to hear one of your performers start singing about Biblical prophets and her Lord, Jesus. How utterly inappropriate to include in a public broadcast, on public property celebrating the formation of a new nation of freedoms, diversity, and a land founded on the separation of church and state. We were insulted and offended and promptly turned the TV off. I'm so very surprised and disappointed in PBS.

J. Rothstein, New York, NY

I am highly offended by the song selection on "A Capital Fourth" broadcast preceding the fireworks. The religious song of Yolanda Adams was very inappropriate. Gospel music as a theme is fine, but to feature Jesus-front-and-center music on federal property on a publicly funded network is a violation of the separation of church and state. Shame on PBS.

Mary E. Gressler, Silver Spring, MD

I am so disappointed in the Capitol Fourth. When it started and through the years until recently, it was a celebration of our nation. Whether it was Hal Holbrook doing the Gettysburg Address, or the Marine Corps Band marching and playing, it was a beautiful celebration. Great performances from top people, all geared to Independence Day. This year was embarrassing enough that I am done. No more. And it was one of the broadcasts I used to look forward to each year. Tony Danza can neither sing nor dance. Evidently can't shave, didn't rehearse and can't read cue-cards either! It seemed as though, with the exception of Bebe Neuwirth, the performers were either brand new on the scene or should have left the scene long ago. Were these the best that could be drummed up? Sad situation.

Jenny Paschall, San Diego, CA

It would have been nice to see the titles of the marches as they were being played at the end of the program, maybe a bottom line across the screen. Thank you — the program at Washington was truly a gem of musical greatness!!!!

Glen Witsaman, Cuyahoga Falls, OH

I must express disappointment with the last two National holiday broadcasts. The one time we would like an unapologetic dose of patriotic music, we get hillbilly singers pounding their git tars, multimillionaires though they be. No thanks. Better TV elsewhere. I don't much want to glorify the war machine either. This whole event has spun way off course and I don't know what to suggest to fix it.

Springville, UT

Tavis Smiley and the Democratic 'Presidential Forum'

Great debate! I am encouraged by the fact that Tavis Smiley and the others asked the Democratic candidates intelligent, thought-provoking questions related to critical issues facing our country. No time was wasted with "gotcha" questions and sensationalism. I hope the other networks will follow your example with future debates.

Scottsdale, AZ

That Democratic Forum was the most hateful discussion by political candidates. They did not pander the Black community, they insulted them on each and every topic and blamed the white population for every one of the so-called problems focused on the blacks. They stated AIDS, drugs, crime, low income, poverty etc, are/were all the blame of whites. They gave the audience no credit for any accomplishments or power toward the African American folks who are successful but insisted they are all a bunch of victims because of White policies. It was a disgusting parade of a bunch of "do-good" politicians. Any American can do what ever they want to do with their life and don't need jerks telling them they are hopeless and should vote for one of those fools to get them on track.

Jane Burrington, Richmond, VA

Thank you for the Democratic Presidential Candidate forum. It provided an opportunity to hear the candidates address some of the most important questions I've heard on television political coverage in a long time. It brought some under-discussed issues to the attention of voters and politicians. The issues raised affect all of us. I'm appreciative to see such substantive coverage on television.

S. Walker, Bakersfield, CA

We wanted to say that last night's debate was by far the best managed debate that we have seen so far this year. We want to commend PBS, Tavis Smiley, the journalists and others that contributed to the debate. We would like to see the microphone shut off if the candidates go over their allotted time frame. We want to hear from all candidates equally.

Tracy Kozinski, Huntsville, AL

Thanks for the Democratic debate last night. This was the first time I've heard the candidates talk about real issues all Americans should care about. The debate gave us a chance to differentiate between the candidates on issues beyond Iraq.

Leslie Bales, Houston, TX

Last night's so-called "All-American . . ." was a disgrace! More appropriate would be: "All left black-America . . ." How would the left, err, Dems feel if you held it at an all-white Christian stronghold for the Republicans? To pander to blacks is bad enough, but to hold a faux presidential debate under the rubric of "All American" using our taxes is disgraceful.

Mike Pupis, Newtown Square, PA

The Democratic position was undefined by all those trying to define it. Too much agreement of all the points made by other candidates only supported the lack of any one candidate other than Dennis (Kucinich) to stand out and be more of the force needed to direct our country. If we could put Dennis's strict political views in office without putting his appearance in front, we would be on the right track to regaining control of our political system.

Daniel Whitton, Justin, TX

I just watched the 'All-American Presidential Forums' program and I'd like to say that the airing of a program that has sub-par directing of video, sound, and light management is surprisingly unlike any PBS broadcast I've ever seen. I know it was live, but it was not professional at all.

David Kim, Antelope, CA

I just watched the Pres. candidates' debate — the first I've bothered with. There were lots of topics and good comments but I think time was wasted with all the opening hoo-ha. It was 12 minutes before they started introducing the candidates. Then according to my clock they quit at 24 minutes after the hour and gave us pictures of the candidates shaking hands, etc. The opening could have been for the studio audience. Tavis Smiley did a good job with the timing but I wanted more of the candidates.

Gwenneth Browne, Stockton, CA

I write to express my disillusion at PBS for hosting such a poorly thought out event as the All American Forum. How can you call something All American when you clearly have only one portion of the American people present? In a time when Americans should be coming together as a people and looking past race, PBS goes and brings race front and center again. As Americans, we should not care if you are black and I am white. I don't look at blacks and think they are African-Americans, I see them as Americans. With all the problems race issues have cause us in this country, why on Earth would PBS want to put that front and center other then to bait or gain ratings. Would PBS ever consider doing the same with an all white audience? I don't think so, nor should they. I would write this and will write in again when the Republican version of this show is aired because it clearly has no intentions of being all American in any sense of the word.

Shawn Tolivar, Roeland Park, KS

I would like to thank PBS for hosting the 2007 Democratic Forum at Howard University; specifically directing the candidates focus on the minority (African American) people and the obvious imbalances that exist within this nation. It was an empowering opportunity for me in becoming conscience in making a more informed decision, in the up-coming presidential election; and the impact it would have on the minority (African American) people.

Birmingham, AL

I normally am an avid listener of Mr. Smiley, however, I am gravely disappointed in his program of the presidential candidates. Mr. Smiley clearly, consistently, and with bias permitted Barack Obama (for whatever the reasoning — friendship, kickbacks, etc) to EXCEED his 30 seconds and 1 minute time limits. I felt this was completely unfair being that he consistently stated that he was "unapologetically" allowing all of the issues to be addressed within the time allowed. For this reason I was hugely disappointed. The forum's intention was to give every candidate EQUAL time constraints and should have been strictly adhered to.

Regina Woods, Ozark, AL

I just finished watching the Democratic debate at Howard U. and thought the handling was very unprofessional. The first 10 minutes wasted by thank-you's, introductions, and book promotions. The audience never admonished to hold their applause — so much time wasted — when there are so many important issues to discuss. If you're going to broadcast it, exercise some control!

Jack Ciccolo, Woodbridge, CT

Thank you for preserving the journalistic integrity that SHOULD go into conducting a presidential debate, yet which no other "major" network has been able to achieve. Tavis Smiley did an excellent job this evening — along with the journalists asking questions — of promoting a higher level of thoughtful debate and conversation about important topics. I wish all the debates could be produced and directed by PBS with Mr. Smiley as the moderator!

Alicia Horton, Austin, TX

Tonight I watched the All American Presidential Forum with great hope for real discussion of issues. I am utterly outraged at how this production squandered the opportunity to change the direction of sound-bite-driven political campaigning. I was disappointed when I found that the response time given to candidates was one minute — barely enough time to get started with the mere germ of an idea. When the format shifted to 30 seconds, I was beside myself with disgust. NOTHING of substance can be said in 30 seconds. This is the very definition of a sound-bite. Mr. Smiley tried to justify the format by saying that the producers wanted to cover more ground. They covered NOTHING! No idea with the slightest meaning can be even touched on in one minute, let alone 30 seconds. This was the worst excuse for a debate I have ever seen.

Frank Caruthers, Berwyn, PA

I just watched the PBS special "All American Presidential Forum" with Tavis Smiley. It should have been called the "Black American Presidential Forum." During the introduction, every time I heard the phrase "Black America" (and there were very many instances in the first 10 minutes), I knew that did not include me — a white male. Can you imagine the feedback you would receive if there had been an equal amount of concern expressed about or references made to the concerns of "White America?" I like Tavis Smiley, and I generally like PBS. But this type of hyperbole borders on racism. I watched the program hoping to latch onto some reason to want to vote for one of the Democratic candidates, but was immediately turned off by the way the forum was packaged. You can do better than this!

Tony Panneton, Fresno, OH

Moyers on Murdoch

I have tolerated politically skewed programs on PBS now since I began watching. I have contacted my Senators and Congressmen when your funding has been in danger. I do not have to watch Bill Moyers Journal. He is a bitter, used up, network has been. He needs to go home. It has been pointed out that he does not tell the truth and takes comments out of context to suit his point of view.

John W., Johnson City, TN

When is PBS going to become embarrassed with Bill Moyers? He has become your Jimmy Carter. A perfect example of the elitist loony left.

Nashville, TN

Having just viewed the tirade given by Mr. Moyers about Rupert Murdoch and Fox News, I must say that I am a bit shocked that PBS would get into any kind of "War of Words". I assumed that PBS was politically neutral.

James Holler, Houston, TX

Why do millions of Americans have to pay taxes to support PBS programming that spreads propaganda and partisan opinions that are out of line with their beliefs. I just listened to comments by Bill Moyers on Murdoch, the owner of FOX News. I happen to like FOX News because on FOX, I can get ALL sides of the issues instead of a liberal slant on the issues that PBS presents. My tax dollars do not pay for FOX News. My tax dollars do pay for PBS. Someday, that will stop. It is not right that millions of Americans are forced to subsidize programming that they disagree with and that could not make it if forced into the marketplace.

Calie Stephens, Dallas, TX

And Moore on Health Care

Your left-wing agenda is showing again by the promotion of Michael Moore's film "Sicko" without allowing any opposing views.

Chuck Woolweaver, Boynton Beach, FL

It was gratuitous to refute the content of the movie "Sicko" in the context of NewsHour's coverage/review of its opening. I was left to wonder just whose axe PBS was grinding . . . and why.

N. M. Postlethwaite, Gainesville, FL

Somehow you folks managed to avoid all hard facts stated within the movie, avoid quoting any sources of the hard facts stated in the movie.

Tom Poe, Charles City, IA

I would like to convey my disappointment with the NewsHour piece covering the new Michael Moore film "Sicko." The segment didn't have one person who agreed with the idea of National Healthcare. That's not objective journalism. It's not enough to announce there's a film out. That's not counterbalancing the issue of national or private healthcare. I hope to see better in the future.

Justin Finney, Austin, TX

Tonight's NewsHour discussion of "Sicko" was unbelievably wimpy. It was a great opportunity to discuss our failed system. Instead it appeared to be an indictment of the movie. I am a retired physician who has been promoting a single payer government system for years. The Canadian system is not a failure — ask Canadians. We have a great deal more facilities here and should be able to run a much better system anyway. I got the impression that PBS was afraid to be accused of being left wing. I think it was a no guts show.

Johns Island, SC

Spreading Democracy . . . at Home?

During the discussion of how well the U.S. is "spreading democracy" abroad on the "NewsHour" this evening I sensed the absence of two factors: 1. the loss of democracy here at home, the cancelling of Habeas Corpus, the unauthorized wiretapping carried out by the national administration, the FBI harassment of peace groups, etc., and 2. there was no effigy of that hooded and electrified tortured prisoner at Guantanamo, so well-known around the world now, floating in the background. Unexplained is how a former democracy which has become a militarized police state EVER CAN "spread democracy" abroad when IT HAS NONE AT HOME, especially after the Pres. has given himself the powers to run the entire country in case of some "national emergency", details of which can be arranged easily at any time with the coordinated help of the FBI, CIA, and military!! Now, if you'll kindly return to the business of reporting the news honestly and stop remaining a mouthpiece for the powers-that-be MAYBE, just MAYBE, you'll become worth watching again.

Mort Shafer, Seattle, WA

NewsHour — July 4, 2007, on subject of "spreading democracy." How could the entire presentation not mention if only for contrast, the decline of democracy in the United States under the current administration: loss of habeas corpus, major media "stenographer of the White House" before the Iraq occupation and now in preparation for the bombing of Iran, failure to allow pictures of the caskets and or the wounded; to explore in depth Cheney's role as the 4th branch of the government, secret prisons, torture accepted and encouraged, vote caging, electronic voting machines owned by the party in power, public airwaves controlled by a few big corporation with news in the entertainment section . . . billions on a war with states selling their highways to foreign countries to support the state's coffers suffering from reduced federal payback . . . global monopolies operating without antitrust sanctions with jobs shipped overseas as tax exemptions . . . and not least, a president who ignores the rule of law, writes his own, and acts like a king . . . No one can say that America is a great beacon of democracy . . . but, it is easier to discuss "spreading democracy" in places than other than here at home — where our Constitution is being shredded everyday.

Barbara Ruether, New York, NY

A long time watcher of The NewsHour and a regular contributor to WNET, I object — in the strongest possible terms — to the piece on July 4, led by Ray Suarez, which was introduced in terms of President Bush's message that the US is "in the business of promoting democracy." The President's "talking points" have proven to be no more than propaganda and are totally incompatible with his government's policies and practices — which actually are leading us down a distinctly undemocratic path.

Ann Galloway, Stamford, CT

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