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PBS Ombudsman

Ombudsman's Mailbag

Welcome to another Ombudsman's Mailbag. Here's a representative sampling of the e-mail from viewers — commenting on several different programs — that landed in the inbox since late last week.

Labeling Ladies

On tonight's (Oct. 26) Washington Week, a panelist-reporter, a Ms. [Helene] Cooper of the NY Times, continually referred to Secretary of State (Condoleezza) Rice as "Condi" Rice. This to me implies a friendly familiarity with the Secretary on the part of the reporter. How can the reportage and analysis offered by a reporter who is on such friendly-familiar terms with the Secretary be trusted in a report where the performance of Sec'y Rice is the subject? I think such friendly informality is inappropriate and casts great suspicion on the reporting. I noticed that the moderator was very correct in referring to the Secretary as Sec'y Rice. That should be the standard!

Alvin Hofer, St. Petersburg, FL

Tonight (Oct. 31) on Jim Lehrer, in the analysis of the most recent Democratic debate, Mark Halperin referred to Hillary as being "shrill"! I am sorry, but I find this extremely offensive. Has any male presidential candidate ever been referred to as shrill? Could it be that it is because she is female?? What I heard was a candidate defending her position. Is that shrill? And for your information, I am not particularly a supporter of Hillary. I am undecided as to who I support, and I have major concerns about Senator Clinton, but none of them are because she is "shrill!" Shame on you and please watch your language!

Mary Anne Crawford, Cumberland, ME

No Fan Mail for Podhoretz

PBS demeans itself and dishonors its listeners by inviting Norman Podhoretz to speak on the NewsHour and advocate the bombing of Iran. This reinforces the notion that the U.S. is being taken over by maniacs. On second thought, maybe it's true, and you are not abetting it, merely reporting it.

Alan Goldfarb, Fremont, CA

I respect the balance of PBS in its discussions of world topics. That said, I think that it is not balanced to give a forum to Mr. Norman Podhoretz and listen to his frantic attempt to drag this nation into ruin. I believe that his gang is desperately fearful that when our little Caesar of a president has gone, there will not be a president who will do the bidding (co-ersed or co-incidental), of the Israeli lobby. I find these pro-war rantings so insane that I do not consider them worthy of the status of debate.

Grand Blanc, MI

I watch the Evening News regularly, and am becoming more and more convinced that your choice of topic segment length compromises the information value of the program. Your aired on the Evening News Monday evening October 29th was a good example of the problem. The example was your "debate" between Norman Podhoretz and [Fareed Zakaria] somebody from Newsweek on the danger posed by Iran's nuclear "threat."

Those were two very opposite points of view, on which it was reasonable (given Podhoretz's well known personality, controversial position on the issue and propensity for modes of ad hominem argumentation) to expect that the segment would require an extended discussion. The Newsweek guy was very articulate, and in the very short time frame granted him made a very commendable attempt to at least begin to introduce the many substantial arguments opposing Podhoretz's position.

However, the Newsweek guy was constantly cut off by Judy Woodruff, in the interest of containing the debate into a very short allotted time frame, and by her inability to keep Podhoretz within reasonable time and topic bounds. (This) gave Podhoretz an opportunity to make an extended fact-less rant about how irredeemably bad "Islamofascism" is, without giving the Newsweek guy an adequate opportunity to give the many well documented oppositional points there are to Podhoretz's position.

The end result was a classic example of a conclusory "he says, she says" interview . . . with no discussion of the evidence and argument supporting each side. It's too bad, because the topic was crucially important, because Podhoretz has gotten a media platform on that issue far exceeding his expertise, has gotten it free of any consideration of his substantial biases and because most other networks don't even give the opposition the time of day.

Even granting the Newsweek guy's very informed, articulate and well prepared position, he couldn't possibly have been expected to discuss the issues in the sixty seconds Judy granted him. There are some life or death issues that deserve extended time, and this in my opinion was certainly one of them. It takes more than sixty seconds to bring out Podhoretz's longstanding pro Israel biases, and his lifetime history of fact-free (or fact-bending) vitriol against anyone who stands for a relatively Israel-neutral position on crucial issues in the Middle East.

George A. Johnson, Boulder, CO

Here's the response of the NewsHour's Executive Producer, Linda Winslow, to Johnson:

"I agree with you. We did not allow enough time for Judy to explore all the issues raised by Norman Podhoretz and Fareed Zakaria (although the discussion ran 12 minutes and 30 seconds, not 60 seconds as you charged). That's two or three minutes longer than the average NewsHour discussion. We produce the NewsHour live each night, so we try to guess in advance how long it will take to cover any given topic and, in this case, we guessed wrong.

"I do not agree with you that Judy constantly cut off Zakaria and not Podhoretz. If you review the transcript, which is posted on our website, you'll see that she had to ask both gentlemen, repeatedly, to let the other finish a point. Frankly, since they were both on interconnects and therefore difficult to control, I thought she did a pretty good job of asserting herself as the moderator. Her mistake was telling them (and our viewers), when she got a cue 11 minutes into the segment, that she only had a minute left. When the discussion is the first one of the night, most viewers don't understand an instruction like that; there's a whole program left — so why does she only have a minute left?

"Watching the program, I was sorry when the discussion ended because I was enjoying the give-and-take. However, I thought the two men had covered most of the salient points of their respective arguments. There was certainly enough said to help the attentive viewer decide which one he or she agreed with. I do take your point about the he-said, she-said kinds of discussions that pass for 'analysis' on so many television outlets. I don't think this was one of them, but I appreciate your taking the time to explain why you disagree."

(Ombudsman's note: Ms. Winslow's response sounds good to me. I thought this was a fascinating exchange that gave viewers plenty of material to form judgments about the argument.)

. . . Or for the Undertaker

While reporting on how people deal with dying and death is always valuable, I was dumbstruck by tonight's (Oct. 30/Frontline) uncritical acceptance of the American way of death, which in fact amounted to an endorsement of the funeral industry. Nowhere in the program were questions raised about whether the practices of the funeral industry create needless expense and delusions about what happens to dead bodies in sealed caskets, or the fact that people have alternatives. You simply allowed Mr. Lynch, the undertaker, to espouse his view of how we should care for our dead, to wax poetic about his belief that the funeral industry "serves" both the living and the dead. In 1963 Jessica Mitford exposed the funeral industry for what it was in her famous book "The American Way of Death". Apparently the producers of tonight's program haven't read it. Her investigative journalism was honest, probing, and revealing. Unfortunately, too little has changed since then. Americans continue to pay huge bills for funerals, continue to burn up expensive caskets in crematories, continue to believe that embalming is mandatory and will somehow save Aunt Sally for eternity — the list goes on. Tonight, Frontline utterly failed to educate the public about the funeral industry and alternative options. You owe the public an hour about how others have found a better way to honor their dead relatives.

Tom Kara, Norwood, MO

In the program The Undertaking — I was unhappy with the subtle untold story. The real story is this cloying, obese (he obviously lives well) "poet" funeral director showing how he carefully handles a dead loved one, while with great sympathy, he "robs" a family at their time of grief.

Note the price of a coffin costing over $3000. Add to this, the cost of the dressing, makeup and time (time is money) put into these departed soles. Along with the cost of plot, the gravediggers, spiffy black hearse and limos for the grieving family, along with the rate and time for the use for the funeral home. The display of this funeral "parlor" with its numerous flower arrangements, expensive coffin, perfecting the look of the dead, and portraying this as the only "proper" way to handle death was another "taking" of our public. What did all of this cost?

If you are to tell the real story of death, you need to tell Americans about other burial choices, such as the Memorial Society and the services this organization offer. Death need not cost exorbitant amounts of money. After all, the departed is truly gone and this is a public show for all comers.

Martha Bubb, Hudson, OH

More on the Heart

I read your column on the funding of the Mysterious Human Heart with interest. It turns out there was another layer of apparent conflicts of interest involving this show. The show's two main medical advisers had financial arrangements with AstraZeneca and Medtronic. See this post on our blog, Health Care Renewal.

Roy Poses, Warrant, RI

In your series about the Human Heart there was mention about Chagas Disease in South America and your program said positively that Chagas had been eradicated in Brazil. Now, Brazil is a big place and while it may not be easy to contract Chagas in the City, the people in the countryside are still exposed to the bite of the "kissing bug" and Chagas Disease. In fact, it is a concern in Southern California that global warming will permit the spread of Chagas to the United States. We have lost the antigen that we need to protect us from the bite of the Triatoma Protracta (kissing bug). In 1999 the FDA shut down the only lab that was manufacturing the antigen and to this date we have not been able to continue our antigen protection. There are many that are allergic to the bite of the Triatoma in California and Arizona and also in the other southern states.

Shirley Milligan, Banning, CA

Thanks for thinking twice about the Medtronic commercial aired on PBS. Below is my email to my local (Indiana University) PBS TV station, WTIU, and a response. The response, while very good and very specific, I do not find satisfying. In short, this program was a commercial for the underwriters, with all the weight of the integrity of PBS and WTIU behind it. I've worked in media all my life and I understand how this works. Specific deflections of funding to once-removed endowments hardly matters. It matters that young people will feel that 'this is how it is, this is what's good' because they saw it on PBS/WTIU and so may suspend, as did you and I, critical faculties while viewing these things, because of the reputation of truth and integrity that PBS/WTIU bring to the screen.

Steve V. Johnson, Bloomington, IN

Here's the original note from Johnson to WTIU:

"We began to watch 'The Mysterious Human Heart' in anticipation of new insights into how the heart works. Instead we find emotional stories of folks whose health problems are addressed by innovative hardware. OK . . . a little disappointing . . . until we noticed that the program was provided by Medtronic. Ahhh. Now we get it. It's a COMMERCIAL! Oh, this probably has something to do with nice research grants that IU has gotten from Medtronic, right? Oh, ok, I should look the other way, or just be glad, is that it? Funny, at the break there was some promo bit about PBS that used the word 'trust' . . . Trust would come with a little more disclosure, maybe a bit of explanation at the breaks. Just-say-what the relationships there are, eh?"

Here's the reply from WTIU Station Manager Phil Meyer:

"Thank you for your comments pertaining to 'The Mysterious Human Heart' on WTIU. The program is a co-production of David Grubin Productions, Thirteen/WNET New York and WETA Washington, D.C. The Medtronic funding (as well as that provided by AstraZeneca, Mars, Inc. and the Fannie E. Rippel Foundation) went to those three organizations, not to WTIU or to Indiana University. The Medtronic Zipes Chair in Cardiology at IU was funded in 2004 by the Medtronic Foundation in honor of one of the advisors to the series (Dr. Douglas Zipes), but that funding went to endowing that position, not to WTIU." (The station response then refers to additional comments by PBS and the producer in last week's ombudsman's column.)

There were also additional comments and explanations from officials at WNET in New York and PBS within an Oct. 29 online article at Broadcasting & Cable. The article referred to the complaint about the sponsorships by Jeffrey Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy, and went on to report:

"I understand where Jeff Chester is coming from," said Kellie Specter, WNET's director of corporate community relations, "but we have a major firewall between underwriters and production." Specter says the companies got involved via a cardiologist friend of the program's producer, but that WNET's marketing department handled the underwriting. Moreover, PBS vetted and OK'd the sponsorship.

PBS VP of Communications Lea Sloan echoed Specter's "firewall" comment, saying that underwriters "have no access, they have no input, they have no influence" on content. In an ideal world, Sloan adds, "one might find underwriters who are absolutely disinterested in the subject matter . . . [But] it doesn't happen very often," the article reported.

Iraqi and American Casualties

When reporting on the decrease in Iraqi civilian casualties, don't you think it would be important to give some population statistics? After losing hundreds of people per day over a four-year period, isn't it possible that both Sunnis and Shiites are running out of warm bodies? In fact, there has been considerable ethnic cleansing throughout the country which also will have an impact on the murder rate.

Kay Watson, Arlington, VA

I just watched the program about casualties being down in Iraq. Judy Woodruff interviewed two experts about this. My recollection is that about two months ago [Muqtada] al-Sadr, one of the key Shia religious leaders, announced that the Mahdi Army would cease operations for about six months. The start of the moratorium coincides approximately with the beginning in the drop in casualties. Ms. Woodruff did not mention this fact or ask any questions about whether the action by al-Sadr might in some way be connected with the casualty decline. I am concerned that PBS might be seen as going along with the hype about how effective the surge is. Would it not be a good idea to continue exploring the reasons for the change in casualty levels?

William Archerd, Arvada, CO

I am an avid viewer & supporter of PBS. I am deeply affected by the Roll Call of American Casualties at the conclusion of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. It is important that we keep this Roll Call before the American public to remind us of the great cost our boys in the armed services are paying. I am grateful to PBS for reporting these numbers.

This month both Jim Lehrer and Gwen Ifill have added their subjective comments to the death toll report, "lowest monthly total" — " 3 more American casualties, on track to be the lowest death toll month." This way of announcing a death toll is unnecessary and belittles the importance of the announcement, and perhaps makes some Americans think, "Oh, that's not so bad." One more way for us to ignore what is going on. Not one American boy is worth this fiasco in Iraq. We should honor our boys by bringing them home, not by adding them to a death toll, no matter how big or small. With deepest respect to the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer report, I offer these comments and suggestions.

Shirley Duff, Cincinnati, OH

Here's a response from Linda Winslow of the NewsHour:

"Thank you very much for your comments. As far as the NewsHour's Honor Roll of military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think you are mistaken: The copy we read to introduce that segment at the end of the program is the same each night and makes no reference to the monthly, or daily death toll. The anchorperson simply announces how many people are included in any given Honor Roll. That is by design: we want that tribute to be as free of political overtones as possible.

"I think what you're referring to is the way we report the death toll in Iraq in our news summary at the beginning of the program. The phrase Jim or the other anchors use is not a subjective one; it's a fact, and as such it belongs in a news story. For months we've been reporting 'Highest death toll since . . .' or something similar. This month the death toll will indeed be the lowest in quite a while. That, too, should be reported."

(Ombudsman's note: There were also a couple of telephone callers who objected to the formulation used in the Oct. 30 news summary, not the Honor Roll, in which it was said that three "more" soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb. The callers felt this was subtle editorializing. But host Gwen Ifill's next sentence said, "But for October, the overall toll could be the lowest in nearly two years.")

Other Stuff

As a long time fan and supporter of public radio and TV I was extremely disappointed in the recent NOW segment, Insurance 911. I just never expected this kind of uninformed and one-sided journalism from PBS. The insurance industry can always improve its communication to and education of its customers, but customers must take responsibility too. A policy is a legal contract and must be understood when purchased. The fault here would lie between the insurance agent (I am an insurance agent) and the customer, not the industry or insurance company. Extended replacement cost would never be my first choice of contract language, however it can indemnify a total loss as intended, if current building costs are monitored and the policy limits are kept current. You never explained to your very intelligent viewers the mechanics of the policy so they could draw conclusions as to the fairness of the contract themselves.

John Sutton, Sioux Falls, SD

Thank God, "your lucky stars" or evolution (whichever you prefer) for Bill Moyers. This past Friday's program was the clearest discussion yet of the danger we face if we do not use the voice each of us was given by our Constitution.

Peg Peist, Hackensack, NJ

I am a lifelong PBS watcher, and I have never found it biased. However, in the watching of the program "Storm of Emotions," recalling Israeli police evacuating Israelis from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank in 2005, I do think PBS sadly met (for a moment) that generalization. I feel moreover that the program left out important voiceovers which could help future listeners understand the complexity of the situation. A single program, created by an Israeli company, dictating the removal of Israeli citizens, cannot suffice. It only managed to review the wide range of platitudes of altruism the soldiers held, leaving no mention of why they decided to destroy the Gaza buildings, thousands of buildings; no question was posed, merely a rubric of pity, cohesion, and piety — something not true during this time. The film was, in the definitive sense, propaganda.

Bryan Swan, Chicago, IL

The Charles Schulz bio documentary reminded me of a typical, overwrought, high school English class discussing another chapter of Great Expectations; too much psycho-analyzing and dwelling on difficult pasts and relationships. I believe you were justified to parallel the comic strip "Peanuts" with the author's personal life, but you left out their most consistent theme. If the strips were indeed autobiographical, they didn't tell much about Charles Schulz's family, but did reveal the soul of the cartoonist, and unlike the tone of your documentary, Charles Schulz always left the reader with a light heart and at least a bit of a grin.

Ted Clemens, Sachse, TX

American Masters: Charles Schulz — I think it is terrible how PBS ended the program. The scene of the bench, and the sad ending, quiet ending. So, PBS jumps in with a commercial for the WAR and then Carol Burnett, then finally goes back for the rest of the Schulz show , more cartoon scenes. And credits. Really ruined the ending for me. To go from quiet reflection to WWII in a split second. You are not commercial television and I expect better from PBS.

Laura Bateman, Slippery Rock, PA

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