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PBS Ombudsman

Ombudsman's Mailbag

Here's some more mail about recent Bill Moyers Journal programs and the exchange between Moyers and me over the question of balance. If you can't get enough of this, here's a link to the original July 13 Moyers program dealing with impeachment, here's a link to my July 20 column about it and to the July 26 column in which Moyers responds.

I'm taking some time off in the first half of August, but the e-mail and phone lines stay open, so keep in touch.

Here are some of the latest letters and also some additional comments of mine in response to one viewer.

More Letters

Bill Moyers is using his previous reputation of presenting interesting purely information programs in an obfuscation of his rabid political views, now unleashed; unleashed now because he does not have any fear of retribution. His program on impeachment was an orchestrated attempt to garner support for the ACT OF IMPEACHMENT, not the explanation of the process. As to comments that there were some on the show that "had" right of center views is a farce. These were picked from a pool of "conservatives" because they favored impeachment and could dupe the public with their pseudo-conservative vitas. Your first comments on the Bill Moyers program were on spot!

Mineola, NY

Bill Moyers is right that a substantial part of the country has indicated they would like to see impeachment of one or both elected executives. This is why it is even more important to give them the arguments against impeachment, so they can know the drawbacks. If they continue to support impeachment, that's fine, as I am not interested in convincing anyone, but informing them: an opinion unchallenged isn't worth anything. As Proverbs says, "The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him."

I am not asking for "balance." What I want is for the audience to be truly well-informed. If there were no reasonable arguments against impeachment, or if all the arguments on that side were well-known, I wouldn't say to put opposition up merely for the sake of having "both sides." But, of course, that isn't the case here. Even if the opposition response in this case were just an opportunity to come on after the fact and rebut some of the claims, rather than having equal time, that would have been useful and served the purpose of informing the public.

Moyers is basically contradicting himself. Implicit in his mission is that he wants to inform the public, which assumes they do not know all the arguments for impeachment (else why bother?). It also assumes they do not know all the arguments "against" impeachment. And he obviously doesn't care if they ever find out what those arguments are — at least, not until impeachment becomes more of a "story" — which means he really isn't interested in informing his audience, but is attempting to push his preferred course of action: impeachment.

He speaks of not being an "echo" of other broadcasting, but an alternative. He also says that merely half of Americans want Cheney or Bush impeached, yet the response to his broadcast was positive by a ratio of 20:1. This seems to suggest that, indeed, he is indeed being an echo. He should strive for more than that. Mr. Getler, thank you for holding his feet to the fire, even if he comes away essentially unsinged.

Chris Nandor, Arlington, WA

In his response to your letter, Mr. Moyers wrote, "the journalist's job is to seek out and offer the public the best thinking on an issue, event, or story." This is truly an astonishing statement by Mr. Moyers in light of his history of advocacy journalism. One has to ask, whose best thinking? The answer appears to invariably be the best liberal thinking. By his own definition of a journalist Mr. Moyers has failed to meet the standard.

The two most recent episodes of Bill Moyers' Journal offer clear evidence of his advocacy.

On July 20, 2007, the Bill Moyers Journal broadcast an interview with Mr. Martin Espada. The interview was introduced as a study of what it's like to be an immigrant in a country that doesn't want you. The interview, however, quickly turned into an attack on America for being racist for not accepting Hispanics, completely ignoring the huge problem of illegal immigration, which overwhelming comes from Hispanic countries. Mr. Espada referred to "so-called" illegal aliens to make his case, raising the question, does Mr. Espada believe Hispanics have special rights to enter the U.S. which other ethnic groups don't? Did Mr. Moyers invite Mr. Espada because he shares this view regarding immigration with Mr. Espada? No mention was made of the objection the American people have for illegal immigration. According to the interview this is all about race. Is this "best thinking" as Mr. Moyers sees it? While the interview with Mr. Espada included video clips of Hispanic children impacted by America's objection to illegal immigration, why have we never seen in his stories over the years the faces of American children without health insurance due to the economic impact of illegal immigration? Where's the "best thinking" on this issue?

On July 27, 2007, Bill Moyers Journal broadcast a story called Sacrifice and War. The introduction presented the story as a tribute to a fallen American soldier. In the middle of the story there was an odd transition to a story of the willingness of American youth to sacrifice for their country. Then things got ugly, and the misinformation began. The story became an attack on Republicans. Making his attack more loathsome, Mr. Moyers included video clips taken at a Young Republicans convention. Mr. Moyers attacked high school and college students, rather than mature and experienced adults, who make up the majority of the Republican voting public, and whose votes one would assume Mr. Moyers would like to influence. Mr. Moyers was not yet finished with his misinformation. He referred to Max Blumenthal, the creator of the video taken at the convention, as a journalist. Mr. Blumenthal is an entertainer and partisan political commentator. Calling him a journalist just plainly lacks credibility.

It is my great hope that you take action to ensure that opposing views on all issues are given equal time, when there is strong support for both sides. I phrase my request as I do to account for the valid concern you expressed in your response letter to Mr. Moyers, where you wrote "it [balance] can create a false sense of equivalence among readers or viewers in cases where that is not justified." I agree balance is not justified when the evidence is overwhelming in one direction, but even then I believe it's always necessary to at least acknowledge the opposition and to briefly offer a fair statement of their position. This is how small movements who argue for an honorable cause have a chance to gain recognition. One example would be the environmental movement. There was a time when it was a small fringe movement, but its arguments were given a small voice in the media during its early days, and it eventually won the day. We now accept without question the need to protect the environment, even when we don't act on the belief.

Regarding impeachment, Mr. Moyers offers the inclusion of Bruce Fein in the discussion as an example of presenting "the best arguments driving public sentiment." By presenting Mr. Fein in this manner his obvious objective was to leave the false impression that calls for impeachment are common among conservatives, which is not true.

Paul Gelencser, Austin, TX

Ombudsman's note: The above letter includes references to two Bill Moyers Journal segments that have not been commented upon in previous ombudsman columns. My own reaction to them is different from the viewer in Texas, although these segments do, as is the case at times with some Journal treatments, open themselves up for criticism that is worth airing. Both of the segments mentioned above go to the special nature of reporting and presenting that Moyers, uniquely, brings to viewers of public television. As a viewer, and citizen, I would rather have these segments than not have them, trusting in my own ability — and those of other viewers — to understand what is going on and what the issues are more broadly about. But for me as a journalist — as a believer that even perceived bias reduces the power of the information — segments such as these also produce frustration, along with the illumination and documentation, because they are, indeed, easy to portray as advocacy. So, yes, one can find flaws in both of these segments, and I'm grateful to the Texas viewer who laid them out.

On the other hand, both were powerful segments, in my view, that captured truths that we don't see others recording. The segment on Martin Espada was about poetry and how he helps young Hispanic children find expression through poetry. If you follow the news, you know about the immigration debate. But meeting Espada and these young people is something else, a special treat, and it left me, personally, with a good feeling. I was glad that someone introduced me to him and these young people. The segment filmed at the College Republican Convention in Washington did smack of politics, but it also smacked of truth. A group of college students are asked their views and all say they support the war in Iraq and that we are fighting there so we don't have to fight al Qaeda here. Then Max Blumenthal asks them if they are going to enlist since they support the war, but nobody seems anxious to do that. Now, maybe results to the question about enlisting would be the same at a Young Democrats gathering, but the answers to the first question about the war might have been different. In any event, I thought this segment, whether political or not, captured a reality of contemporary American attitudes.

'Since When Does the Truth Need to Be Balanced?'

Re: "lack of balance" in Moyers' impeachment show. Since when does the truth need to be balanced? And how do you balance the truth? With lies and spin? That's one of the primary reasons our country is in the mess it is in, by scared news organizations, including PBS, being afraid of presenting the truth in fear of the right wing boogie men complaining. There's this myth of balance that allows you and others to present spin as facts, lies to counter facts, and you don't call BS on those lies. Instead the lies are presented with the same straight face as if they were just facts in dispute.

I survived the Cold War, knowing that the USSR had missiles pointed at us and was quite willing to use them. We survived the Cold War with most of our liberties intact. Yet, we're supposed to consider a bunch of fundamentalist cave dwellers as bad enough boogie men that we have to give up our liberties for security. Please! I'm not that big of a coward, although you may be if you still think balance is needed for the Moyer show. Bruce Fein, as celebrated conservative Constitutional scholar who worked for Mr. Reagan is quite enough balance. He understands the horrors perpetrated by the current administration against our Constitution. Him, I respect. You? Not so much.

Richard Taylor, San Antonio, TX

I saw the Bill Moyers' program on impeachment and agree with him. Richard Perle went on for an hour on PBS about his cockamamie views on Iraq and the Republic didn't fall. I suspect it will still be standing after the literate and compelling arguments for impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. If you want porridge, watch Washington Week or the NewsHour.

Silver Spring, MD

First, I would like to say that I was really impressed with the conversation that Bill Moyers had with his two guests. I was delighted that Bill was back on the air. The interesting thing is, since then, my Nebraska PBS is playing sports events, instead of the NewsHour and NOW and Bill's program! So does my local station think those programs are too "liberal"? When I complained, they informed me that those are on "NET2". . . Guess what, NET2 is not accessible! You think there is not a problem with balance?!!! In Nebraska, there is a real problem.

Nadine Fahrlander, Minden, NE

Wow! You actually give credibility and a forum for Mr. Moyers to present his self-important all knowing view on impeachment. Did you even read his letter to the ombudsman justifying his opinion? You let this loose cannon pick a subject that he is obsessive about then give him complete control to present his opinions. His statement, "The journalist's job is to seek out and offer the public the best thinking on an issue, event, or story" should be changed to read: The journalist's job is to seek out and offer the public 'only my best' thinking on an issue, event, or story.

He picks a national poll and creates a one-sided story to push his opinion. "Official Washington may not want to hear the best arguments for impeachment — or any at all — but a lot of America does. More than four out of ten people indicated in that recent national poll that they favor impeaching President Bush and more than five out of ten, Vice President Cheney." Does this mean that he can pick any national poll in which less than half the people want something, and create a story with his facts, his editing, and his experts to justify his opinion?

His letter to you was scary. What is more scary is that you believe in him, let him get away with his all knowing 'world according to Moyers' point of view. Most of his work is one-sided and opinionated (and PBS allows it). This story and especially his letter to the ombudsman was over the top! Mr. Moyers may not want balance but what about PBS?

Austin, TX

As an avid viewer and supporter of PBS I say again, I do not give a whit for balance. What I want is reporting. Pick a subject and report about that subject. With all the hollering from the conservative right I am now suspicious of the current administration and have changed my position from not favoring impeachment to favoring it. This change in position is due not to the Moyers reporting that left me with questions but to the over-the-top conservative responses that give me the same feeling that the initial Watergate responses did. I am getting the same little voice telling me that someone has their hand in a cookie jar somewhere. As I have stated to you previously, Edward R. Murrow did not need any balance in the Harvest of Shame or Joseph McCarthy Red Scare stories. Bill, keep it up — only stuck hogs squeal!

Mike Knight, Tampa, FL

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