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PBS Ombudsman

Ombudsman's Mailbag

On the Frontline, Again.

Frontline, the outstanding (my opinion as well as that of many others) documentary series marked the beginning of its 25th season this week with another look into the often-closed world in which Vice-President Dick Cheney operates. The hour-long debut on Tuesday evening, Oct. 16, was titled "Cheney's Law." It was produced by Michael Kirk, who could reasonably be labeled Minister of the Interior for his efforts, over the past six years, in turning out ten Frontline programs that, in one way or another, probed those activities of the Bush administration—whether one agrees with them or not—that have largely developed and been carried on out of public view.

The program was widely reviewed in the newspapers. Here are links to some of them in the New York Times, the Denver Post, USA Today and the Boston Globe.

The reviews that I read were all rather positive. That is not the case with several of the letters that arrived in my inbox in the aftermath. The result is a rather looooong ombudsman's mailbag that, aside from "Cheney's Law," contains observations about some other programs and still more on Ken Burns' series, "The War." Some of the letters on the other subjects are also long and have a PBS response attached. Nevertheless, at the risk of taking a bit more of your time, and on the assumption that readers find viewer comments interesting, they are printed just below.

But first, a brief comment on "Cheney's Law." I find myself much more in agreement with the positive reviewers of this documentary than the critical e-mails posted below. This program is about the power of the executive branch of government in relation to other supposedly co-equal branches such as Congress, and about secrecy within our government, especially the Vice President's office. It is about the interpretation of executive power and Dick Cheney's 30-year battle to recapture the presidential power and privilege that he believes Congress took back from the presidency starting in the 1970s and the aftermath of Vietnam. This is a crucial battle, one that has been made ever sharper, more heated, emotional, political, ideological and important by the events of 9/11 and its aftermath.

The President, Vice President and all of their cabinet officers and spokespersons get to make their case essentially at will any time they ask for a public platform or TV time. The other side, the darker side, as one previous Frontline program put it, the side that is formulated behind closed doors, has also been probed and reported on by serious news organizations for the last few years, most recently an excellent series on Cheney published in The Washington Post in June. So for those who follow such matters closely, this latest Frontline doesn't actually tell us things that we are not already aware of in a general way.

Nevertheless, it is a powerful and, in my view, extremely valuable film and public service. It uses on-the-record interviews to document the dimensions of what has gone on behind-the-scenes at the White House and Justice Department, the high-stakes battle between executive and legislative branches and within the civil service over the legal foundations for secretive programs.

There was one note of dissonance for me; the accompanying music. It often sounded and felt like a conspiratorial, editorial touch that seemed unnecessary or overdone and distracted from the skillfully put-together narrative.

It is not surprising that Cheney and his top deputies did not agree to interviews with Frontline. That has happened before. Yet the administration's arguments, and the passion they feel about the stakes and how things had to change after 9/11, are clearly in this film. That, in my view, is the power of it; it is hard to punch holes in it despite the administration's unwillingness to participate. It is a very dramatic and extremely important story based on the facts, at least as we in the public domain have had access to them thus far, and it is essential for an informed citizenry that this story be reported and told as fully as possible, to TV viewers as well as newspaper readers.

I thought that Gina Bellafante, writing in the New York Times, said it just right:
"'Cheney's Law' is an exemplary exercise in synthesis that displays a reserved tone and still manages to feel like a riveting political thriller as it diagrams the ways in which the vice president's vision was often so seamlessly assimilated."

The Letters Start Here

Just watched a portion of your Frontline piece called "Cheney's Law" and it reaffirmed why I've stopped supporting PBS. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but I am, at the degree of one sided, anti-Bush administration political propaganda that is served up under the guise of journalism. It's often quite subtle, such as playing back an interview with the Vice-President on his belief that Congress has over the years eroded the authority of the executive branch, but with some ominous sounding background music to cause the suggestion that the VP is somehow saying something that threatens our very freedoms. I can somewhat accept that most of the commercial media has been taken over by liberal progressives but it pains me to know that my tax dollars go to pay for such an unbalanced perspective on PBS. It's a sad state of affairs we citizens endure in this nation.

Lester Iwamasa, Seattle, WA

We all owe you enormous thanks for the excellent program "Cheney's Law" on Oct. 16. A democracy can function only if the public is aware and engaged. It is high time that a TV program clearly showed what has been going on for years and how much our Constitution is being endangered.

Hannelore Eck, Kalamazoo, MI

I am not sure the number of you at PBS that gathered their ideas together to portray the Federal Freak Cheney and some of the other criminals/citizens we have in Washington now. I am however glad and write now to THANK ALL OF YOU. Please DO NOT STOP. Reveal and Report to me, just one citizen, and to all our Americans. We all must stop and prosecute these criminals. I myself am doing my small part toward my democracy and America. We Americans must finally know and learn all the truth.

C. P., Portland, ME

The program on Frontline on Tuesday - Cheney's Law - was the best and most terrifying exposure of presidential abuse of power since the Washington Post exposure of the Nixon abuse of power in the 70s... thank you for bringing this to public awareness in a way that avoided confusing legalistic terminology. The question is: why have these tyrants not been brought to impeachment by the peoples' representatives in the Capital Rotunda?

D.C., Dallas, TX

I was disappointed in "Cheney's Law." The program rightfully portrayed the Administration as fascists using the event of 9-11 as an excuse to undermine the principles of the US Constitution. However, it insulted intelligent Americans by conclusively inferring that 9-11 was engineered by terrorists and not the Administration itself. As a supporter of PBS, I expect the entire truth for the American public from PBS.

Mark Serati, St. Louis, MO.

I have always had a very high regard for Frontline, but this Tues., 16 Oct., you outdid yourselves. My compliments to all involved in the Cheney's Law segment for outstanding reportage of a crucial issue. It calls to our attention the gross malfeasance and corrupting of our government. I hope it causes a revolutionary reaction.

Jack Katz, Mesa, AZ

I want to thank PBS for airing Cheney's Law on Frontline tonight. But I have a concern. Why do PBS and its local affiliates re-air entertainment, and blockbusters like "The War", but not make the effort to regularly re-air documentaries like Frontline that are critically important to informing the public on a regular basis? In particular, why are Frontline documentaries not re-aired during the week and on weekends, to reach a larger viewing audience? In contrast, CNN regularly re-airs "CNN Presents" documentaries at prime time slots, catering to different viewing audiences – and sometimes gets higher ratings on these re-airings than on the original broadcasts. Considering the expense of producing Frontline's sometimes excellent documentaries, PBS should be interested in making these programs more broadly available. Putting them on the PBS website is good as far as it goes, but it certainly doesn’t substitute for broadcasting them to a wider TV audience.

Kreszentia Duer, Washington, DC

Just watched FRONTLINE: Cheney's Law. More appropriately called THE HATCHET JOB. The show confirmed my trust in this administration. After a lifetime of watching the Vice President's office being a joke for late night television we finally have an administration that works as a team. It's time authors, disgruntled employees, ACLU, congress and newspaper people accept the fact "THEY DON'T AND CAN'T RUN THE WORLD". The bottom line is I want to have a safe America for my Grandchildren. If that means having a certain about of secrecy, then I suggest a different line of employment to all the vultures.

B. Friesenhahn, San Antonio, TX

I watched your program on Dick Cheney. I wonder if we could balance the "debate" on terror threats into the Clinton years of inaction? It seems that with the movement toward the "fairness doctrine" on talk radio that something is totally amiss? I could spend hours on the lack of that administration to combat any threat or how different the Libby indictment was compared to the President of the U.S. that lied under oath and never received any jail time? Or Sandy Berger is rewarded with a post on Senator Clinton's staff after "stealing", "destroying" crucial Clinton documents with IMPUNITY! We live in a upside world where that receives no attention or even PBS research....I pay $$$ for public TV with only "one-sided" studies into the workings of our past administrations. How does this work in "Public" TV? I look forward to a Clinton PBS "in depth" expose...but I won't hold my breath too long. I will be disappointed, I am sure. My $$ go unsupported for some "equal time"!

Per Halvorsen, Columbus, MI

I just watched Cheney' Law on PBS. Thanks for having the integrity to expose the behind door's politics that goes on in our government. I watched a similar documentary about the CIA a while back. Most Americans do not realize checks on the Presidency are the safeguards to prevent a dictatorship. While Satan's schemes for the world go on, I'm glad a few good men still stand for freedom.

Jim Ponder, Wilmington, NC

I just got finished watching your Frontline piece on Cheney and President Bush on their abuse of power. As we were watching this, both my wife and I looked at each other and shook our heads in absolute amazement. Portrayed in sepia colors with somber scary music and a deadly tone in the narrator's voice, we were seriously wondering if this program was bought and paid for by Mr. Bin Laden. Who is our enemy here? Is it Bush and Chaney? After watching your depiction of our elected leaders with all the cinematic tricks of a Hollywood production, I started to wonder. Was it the administration that blew up the World Trade Center? Did Cheney and Bush televise the beheading of their captives? Did they wield the knife? Or is it the same administration that presided over a difficult and dangerous period in our history after 9/11 with no further acts of terrorism on our soil? If your ridiculous, one sided portrayal of the Bush Administration would have presented both sides of the argument, then, maybe, you wouldn't be insulting the intelligence of fair minded people. And if I want to see this kind of crap, I'll spend my eight or nine bucks and enjoy one of Hollywood gross distortions. At least I'll get popcorn out of it.

Jay Price, Langhorne, PA

I am outraged at the slanted and slanderous portrayal of VP Cheney on the show "Cheney's Law". The sinister-looking photographs, the jaws-like suspenseful music, and the comments from only leftist journalists, authors and professors was almost like a Saturday Night Live parody. I am enraged that my tax dollars goes to support such propaganda. Shame on you, you steal money from the citizens to propagate your own left- wing philosophy. It was innuendo and hateful speculation. What kind of Americans are you?

M. Twaro, Fayetteville, AR

Thanks for Frontline's marvelous expose of Cheney's Law. I would imagine PBS has gathered enough additional data on the topic, as yet unused, to put together a full length documentary movie. Maybe Ken Burns would be interested?

Dr. Bill Wharton, Port Charlotte, FL

Never in the history of our nation has there ever been such a mutilation of our Constitution and concept of government. I want to know what ALL the candidates (Democratic and Republican) would do to correct the abuses of the present occupier of the White House? Why does the media cringe at asking these type of hard questions?

Arthur Armstrong, Staten Island, NY

I saw the Cheney show last night. It was good. Not to give anything to Bush, but how much power did the president have during WWI and WWII?

K. Orzechowski, Newburgh, NY

A comparison for you: PBS's hit job on Dick Cheney versus the Fox News more colorful approach to the VP. Do you wonder why many of us in 'flyover land' don't watch your political shows?? The reason is that they show a liberal bias. You showed lots of black and white pictures of the VP in serious, sinister or scowling images. It looked like a Democrat campaign advertisement against the VP.

I used to watch Washington Week religiously, but since there is no attempt at a balanced group of commentators, only the left and far left, I have stopped Tivoing that program!! Why waste my time??
And, of course, anything with Bill Moyers name attached is never watched. Why bother?? Your comment? My taxes support your organization and my viewpoints should be seen and heard too!!!!

Minneapolis, MN

Your program on "Cheney's Law" was excellent. Great reporting. Please keep up the good work.

Brooks Euler
Thompsons Station, TN

More on 'The War'

Keep up the good work! We appreciate the efforts of you and your staff. You are a necessary part of PBS. The comments regarding "The War" and Ken Burns is an example!

William Crane, Philadelphia, PA

A cursory review of current postings reveals, as I suspected and wrote in my previous commentary, Ken Burns' THE WAR seems to have stirred up emotions and patriotism rather than disdain for war and pointing out that humanity should have evolved above and beyond it by now. Clearly, the current war in Iraq, especially the early support for it (the war; as opposed to support for the troops) demonstrates, unfortunately, many Americans (especially in high places) don't learn from their mistakes. Iraq, Syria, Iran? What next, another '9/11' followed by Armageddon? Humanity is capable of much more than that; I hope.

Charles Shaver, Westfield, WI

Those complaints and negative remarks towards "The War" by Ken Burns - are absolutely the most short-sighted, preposterous, and bizarre reasoning ... !!! And disturbing that such thinkers as these are out there VOTING!!! -- POV and Frontline = wonderful educations!!!

Gary O., Seattle, WA

Regarding "The War," I reluctantly write this piece, because being a WW II historian, I looked forward to another documentary on that war. But after watching the entire series, I felt I should say something about it. I thought it was somewhat boring, after repeated interviews with the same four-five individuals over and over again. I especially got tired of hearing from the lady from Mobile who had nothing to contribute but overly simplistic platitudes with a southern drawl.

But the straw that broke was the interview with the gentleman from Waterbury, Conn., who testified about a German prisoner who told him that he was familiar with the Waterbury area because that was the area he was to "administer" after the war was over! I have read almost all of the histories of WW II by authors such as Churchill, Lukas, Schirer, Seaton, Liemke, Eisenhower, Liddell Hart, Kershaw, Bullock, Fest, Gordon, Speer, and many others, including German writers. The story of the gentleman about such a detailed plan by the Germans to administer the U.S. has never been even hinted at in previous histories to my knowledge. This is so incredible as to stretch credulity. Any serious student of the Hitler phenomenon would look at this yarn as preposterous. Hitler was too busy with trying to subjugate Europe and Russia to have had his regime occupied to any extent over such a nonsensical idea. Credible historians all agree that Hitler reluctantly went to war with America because he was committed to do so by the U.S. declaration of war against Japan.

Another grossly distorted idea in the film was that the Germans were "frantically" developing the A-bomb in 1944. In truth, Hitler shelved the idea as far back as 1942 as impracticable. Indeed, Werner Heisenberg, the project manager, affirmatively advocated with the Nazis against the idea of using such a bomb on moral grounds! This has been brought to light on PBS itself in an earlier telecast program "Copenhagen Fallout".

There is enough about WW II to make a lengthy, factual film without having to fabricate stories. One can only surmise that there is some editorial agenda on the part of Burns and others to permit such untruths. Even the Germans would have a right to object to such falsifications.

I was very disappointed in this endeavor by Burns. I realize he is not technically a historian, but a filmmaker, but still what he represented in his film is taken by some as historical fact. At the least, he should have utilized some verification process before he pawned this off on the American public. It is intellectual dishonesty.

As a result, his film, to my thinking, is not on a par with the scholarly "World At War" narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier. That documentary, a British production, gave a far more truthful account of what went on in that momentous conflict.

K. Mattlage, Austin, TX

Co-Producer Lynn Novick Responds:

"You raise a concern about a story told by Ray Leopold in our 6th episode about meeting a German POW who said he was in training for 'the administration of the territories,' ie the United States. In this scene, Ray Leopold recalls an event that happened to him. We do not say that the German soldier was telling the truth -- what we present is Ray Leopold's account of the encounter. There is no way of knowing whether the German was being truthful about training he had received (perhaps years earlier) or whether he was simply trying to frighten his captors about what would happen to them once Hitler won the war. We explain this point in greater detail in our companion book (see page 311).

"In our discussion of the atomic bomb, we say simply that the bomb 'had originally been intended for use against the Germans, who had been feverishly working to make a bomb of their own-but it had not been ready for delivery before they surrendered.' The three-year American effort to develop the bomb was originally inspired/motivated by fear that the Germans would beat us to it. During the war, the Germans had actively been working on a bomb (please note that we do not say when during the war these efforts were most intense)."

And Other Stuff...

I watch "public" broadcasting to try to get a different perspective on the news from commercial TV. However, when I watch Washington Week, I see all the guests are from major commercial corporate media. Why can't there be some other organizations and viewpoints represented?

Jay S., Bellevue, WA

Much is said of "media bias" these days. If one wants to experience TRUE bias they have only to visit the heartland. We are bombarded with rant or religious radio, have limited access to other than network broadcasts in rural areas and few printed news sources have the courage or financial independence to express any but the conservative view. Without NPR and PBS all would be lost! Though on a fixed income, this household supports public broadcasting wholeheartedly to the fullest extent possible. This valuable asset to freedom of expression must be protected and sustained. It remains one of the beacons of hope in the increasingly controlled world of media.

Kathie Moore, Hutchinson, KS

On Friday Evening, October 12, 2007 on Washington Week, the Nobel discussion for Al Gore's win was completely biased. It did not in any way discuss the very serious concerns of many people that this award is now completely political and completely leftist in nature. Why is the Nobel Committee and your station unwilling to acknowledge the refutations of much of Al Gore's film on GW? There is a great deal of hocus pocus in Al Gore's film and disdain from many people on this award should have been covered. Giving Al Gore carte blanche without discussing his detractor's ideas means Washington Week obviously doesn't want to cover the whole story which, I guess, is to be expected.

Peter Courtenay Stephens, Hayes, VA

THE WAR: I have only watched segments of the program, but what I saw was outstanding. A view of an event (too small a word) that involved and affected so many ordinary people and presented this aspect, probably the most important of it, so well.

REDUCTION IN CANCER: Cheers for your reporter who asked the question whether better access to health care would further reduce cancer deaths. Access is the big issue of American medical care. I wonder how the numbers stack up against a country like France that has universal coverage.

SOMALIA: I couldn't help saying to myself "America at it again" causing untold suffering in the world. Your piece did not comment on the US involvement in this human catastrophe.

HEALTH CARE: Americans are fed this claptrap about high taxes and poor service in other Western countries that provide universal health care. I have been married to a French woman for 40 years. During that time we have occasionally used the system, and more importantly I have seen the services my 88-year-old mother-in-law and my other French in-laws receive at costs much lower than that in the US. If ordinary Americans knew the true story, I think their knee jerk reaction to universal coverage as socialized medicine (like Social Security) and meaning higher taxes would change. I think PBS has to explore this aspect of health care and how it compares to our system in the service provided ordinary Americans. The private press and our political parties won't tell us.

LIVING WAGE: Of late I have come to the conclusion that the Federal minimum wage laws actually work against a great number of Americans being paid a living wage. In France my nieces and nephews get minimum wage—a living wage—for their part-time jobs. In America, the logic is these folks are kids and therefore should not get a living wage for the work they do. Unfortunately this logic gets translated to adults supporting families, also getting just or little more than the minimum wage. Another argument against raising the minimum wage and thus not paying a living wage is it would hurt small businesses. To me that is a who-is-on-top argument that just gets me angry. It would be fine if Americans recognized that having a low minimum wage creates social/family situations and problems that affects us all and obligates us to provide a stronger social safety net. I wish that PBS could explore this issue more fully.

Thank you for providing this feedback venue

Joseph F. Costa, Baltimore, MD

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