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The Ombudsman Column

Ombudsman's Mailbag

I was out of town for a couple of days last week, but wanted to keep in front of you comments, criticisms and compliments that landed in the ombudsman's inbox in the past several days, and to offer a few observations here and there of my own. So here is a mid-week, catch-up edition with a collection of e-mails from the past week or so.

This mailbag includes more comments on "The War" series by Ken Burns, a controversy over some opinion offered on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, some broadside shots at PBS, and some very old business involving Albert Einstein's first wife.

There was a batch of early comments from viewers that arrived late Tuesday night and this morning about the two-hour documentary broadcast last night (Nov. 13) on NOVA titled "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial," and I'll try to put those in front of you soon. I will also be away from the office for most of next week, but please keep the e-mail and calls coming.

Tonight at 9, 'The War'

ENOUGH! What is happening at PBS? One war story after another. Why? PBS offered the tedious Ken Burns spectacle "The War". It was followed by an episode on "conscientious objectors" (probably thrown in for perfunctory balance?). Soon came the Native American participation. Last night [Tuesday] offered a terrible documentary from "Independent Lens" titled "Red White Black & Blue" about the Alaska island of Attu and the 1943 battle to retake it from the Japanese. And on Thursday a Vietnam episode will be aired: "Be Good, Smile Pretty". It appears that obsession with war is a profitable staple of income for PBS.

On the plus side . . . Judy Irving's ("Independent Lens") "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" was a fine blend of Mark Bittner's life style and care of non-indigenous birds.

David Petersen, Kansas City, MO

When will PBS stop showing the un-insightful "THE WAR"? While offering no more perspective than my WW2 James Jones book of 1980, it seems to drag on forever. I can't think of a more dreadful waste of viewer time and funding than this never-ending series. The American perspective on this war has always been available and dominant. I do, however, appreciate the many reactionary sidebar documentaries around this. Please, PBS, don't do this again. PBS viewers like diversity, not homogeneity and certainly not "The War Channel", which it has become in our household. A thing of dread and pestilence, seeming to go on longer than the war itself.

Bloomington, IN

This is in connection with my recent observation of unusually frequent programs on PBS about wars conducted by the United States. So far it has been WWII. Until now I was always unhappy with low-brow stations such as the History Channel and FOX, for which history primarily means WWII, and their apparent purpose is the aggrandizement of war and the US military machine. I always saw those channels as some propaganda arm of the far-right in this country. Naturally, I am not at all happy to see PBS on the same bandwagon.

You were advertising a war program last week showing those huge bombers raining bombs on some unfortunate city and its people below. It almost looks sadistic to me. What is the purpose of all this? Almost everybody in this country saw this kind of program multiple times. Do you think war movies are like home movies of weddings, which people like to view again and again or are you conditioning the population of this country? Is it to make sure that every generation sees the gore and the glory several times? If it is regarded as entertainment or education, it can only entertain sadistic instincts and its educational value can only serve the purpose to desensitize the population to participating in such violence. After all, the tone of these programs is not 'look how terrible it is'. Perhaps the idea is to make them accept the idea of bombing of people all over the world more readily. Is that the purpose? Why don't you then leave it to the privatized propaganda organs I mentioned above?

I would like to suggest another kind of documentary on war. It could discuss the scientifically designed Anglo-American firebombing of German and Japanese cities in 1944-45. The program could explain how many thousands of airplanes for how long bombarded those cities. That could be followed up with showing and explaining with graphic detail the effects of the operation on the population of those cities and how many people were killed. The program could then explain what other military objectives the operation served other than the killing civilians and terrorizing those that survive. Next, it could show the dedication of the statue in London, erected to the memory of the British general, who planned and organized those attacks and who advocated such attacks on Germany years before WWII. In the last phase of the program then could present a few scenes from the Nurnberg trials, and a panel of four experts could briefly debate the question whether such bombing would have been found 'crime against humanity' at those trials if committed by Germany or Japan. The panel might also be asked to comment on the possibility that someone may be convicted (or even just charged) for war crimes, if that person is not on the loosing side in the war.

Such program, besides offering something new and practically unheard of, and never likely to be seen on a commercial channel in this country, would be far more educational than the familiar warmed up war programs we are fed again and again so we will accept mass destruction and mass killing more readily (provided of course that we are not on the receiving end).

Eugene Bercel, Naples, FL

I watched all episodes of The War and thought it very well done. I'm the widow of a WW II officer & appreciated the interviews with mothers, wives, etc in the US. However, I noticed one glaring omission even though he documented European and Pacific Island battles very well. He seemed to overlook one large aspect of the war — that being the CBI or China, Burma, India Theater. There was no mention of Gen. Stilwell & the Burma Road nor of Gen. Chenault and the AVGs or the Flying Tigers who followed them. My husband spent 28 months in South China as an Intelligence Officer for Chenault. There are still many veterans alive from that theater and I'm sure that they feel unappreciated by that series. I hope you will bring this to Mr. Burns' attention.

Sarah Kline, Grand Junction, CO


What novelty is being offered by Ken Burns' excruciating series "The War"? Where are new ideas, where is the true educational value? There is no intellectual value in talking about people or events per se. As a child I saw this footage in a series called "Victory at Sea" narrated by Walter Cronkite. Then the History Channel (aka The World War 2 Channel) presented recycled WWII footage ad nauseum for years. Fox News is now doing the cheerleading for war on a daily basis. Why is PBS now joining a bandwagon that the wheels are falling off of?

Las Vegas, NV

(Ombudsman's Note: Last month, I wrote that I thought the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick epic documentary "The War" was a "remarkable accomplishment by any measure." But I have to say that I agree with that one-word introduction by the viewer in Kansas City: ENOUGH! The constant replaying of this series, the ever-present promotional clips, and the related array of follow-up stories playing off the basic 15-hour series seems to be relentless and actually annoying to someone — like me and some of these viewers — who regularly tune in to PBS. It's just a personal feeling, but I also get the sense that the endless replaying of the series and the broadcast and DVD promotions give the project a commercial tone that dents its true artistic merit and image. On the other hand, I could be all wet about this.)

No Other Opinions Wanted

I believe The Lehrer Report should have a segment titled "The Earth, is it round or flat?" or "Evolution, did it really happen?" What has gotten into you people? Your desire to be fair and balanced has sullied your credibility. Waterboarding is torture. It has been considered torture for well over 100 years. There is no need to ask the question. I would expect this type of reporting on Fox News not on PBS. You should be ashamed.

Ina Mozer, La Mesa, CA

I cannot understand why the NewsHour is providing airtime to non-journalists during the Friday (Nov. 2) segment. Rich Lowry was allowed to grandstand about his personal views on waterboarding, ignoring Ray Suarez's moderation to a new topic. How about some commentary rather than barking heads trying to win shouting matches.

Chicago, IL

I was frankly disgusted by the polite, impartial "discussion" of waterboarding and torture on this evening's NewsHour. What drove that decision? I see "political agenda" all over it. There is no serious debate about the ethics of torture. Come on guys! There's nothing new here. Folks who want to torture have ALWAYS said it's bad but they must do it. I'm sure many, many compelling, sincere arguments have been advanced to explain its necessity — for hundreds of years. Torture is torture. It's a moral issue. The current administration flouts morality, the rules of our own military and international law and you — PBS — play along and present the matter as an interesting subject of suppertime debate. Shame on you. Fiddling while this country's ethical foundation burns. Who is calling the shots, PBS? Or perhaps I should ask, who is paying the bills?

Faith King, Montpelier, VT

Tonight (11-2-07) commentator Rick Lowry said on your NewsHour that in certain circumstances the interrogation technique of waterboarding is acceptable. Do you want this kind of editorial opinion espoused on you channel? How about electric shock to the genitals, slicing and dicing digits, beatings with chains or straps, starvation Holocaust style, the rack, etc. How about just "a little" of these coercive methods to make a terrorist babble? If in the light of day (or on TV) someone like Lowry can at all fathom this kind of torture as acceptable (under the right circumstances, of course), imagine what he might condone in the dark of night, in the damp cell, in the torture chamber itself. We all know the human animal can be despicable and perverse. We don't need Lowry or anyone else trying to justify these improprieties in the name of "the war on terror."

Lawrence Dolkart, Elmira, NY

I am an avid watcher of your program and I have not written you with my praises so it is difficult to write with my complaints, but I must. The discussion of torture in the "Shields and Lowry" segment was not acceptable and the remarks of Rich Lowry were shameful and deeply disturbing. Does your station endorse the views of Mr. Lowry? Mr. Lowry approved and defended the use of torture, an illegal activity under US and international law. Torture is in the same category as rape or murder; not an option for interrogation. I am, frankly, horrified that your show would pay someone to spread such a despicable point of view. He even brought up the subject again to expand upon his original endorsement and strengthen it. Thank you for a great program 99% of the time!

David Hennessey, Proctor, MN

I can't believe that you have Rich Lowry on the show actually talking in support of water-boarding. Lowry is a poor substitute for David Brooks. I am outraged that someone would condone torture as an OK thing, and that's a slippery slope. We are surely in moral trouble if he represents any kind of substantial constituency, and if he doesn't then he ought not to be on your show.

MB Markham, Arlington, VA

On Nov. 2, Ray Suarez was sitting in on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He was talking with Mark Shields and a young man named Rick, as David Brooks (no relation to me) was off. The young reporter with blithe arrogance condoned torture, insisted nothing was wrong with it "when needed" and said he'd be willing to volunteer for two minutes of waterboarding. Please rethink having such a callous, offensive "reporter" on PBS again. He gives journalism an ugly face not to mention the total disregard this young man has for democracy. Ray looked embarrassed. Mark Shields was obviously disgusted. Jim Lehrer's NewsHour is the most informed and dignified news we have in our country. Send this Rick over to Fox News and then he'll understand torture for himself.

Jacquelyn Brooks, Gloucester, MA

I STRONGLY object to Rich Lowry as the substitute commentator. He is either ignorant or a liar or both. In the discussion on waterboarding, he says that it is not torture. That is a lie, according to the Army manual, to the Geneva Conventions, to John McCain, to countless others. Are you pandering to the Bush Administration? If you don't have him as the substitute, will they cancel you? Give us an honest person. Where are your editorial standards?

Chapel Hill, NC

Here's the NewsHour's Response

This is from Executive Producer Linda Winslow: "A number of viewers wrote to complain about Rich Lowry's endorsement of waterboarding as an interrogation tactic on Friday. In most cases, the viewers wanted to know why he was allowed to express his opinion — which they vehemently disagreed with — on The NewsHour. Here's the answer to that question: Rich was filling in for our regular commentator, David Brooks, and participating in our regular Friday night analysis of the week's biggest developments. Like David, Rich leans toward Republican positions but, like Mark, he isn't expected to spout the "party line" on every event. He is encouraged to express his own opinions, which is what he did Friday. Although many prominent Republicans have denounced waterboarding, Rich is not the only person in Washington espousing the position he took. Some of them are members of the Bush administration. We think it is important that our viewers hear that argument, whether they agree with one side or the other. I think Mark Shields actively took the position held by the viewers who were offended by Rich Lowry's opinion. And I think Ray Suarez moderated their debate even-handedly. Below is the link to our web site if you'd like to review the transcript." http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/politics/july-dec07/slmukasey_11-02.html

(Ombudsman's Note: This seems like an easy one. Lowry appeared on the weekly analysis and opinion portion of this program. Lowry gave his opinion. That's what this is supposed to be about. They opine, you decide.)

Attacks (Mostly) from the Right Flank

I noted in reading over the PBS Editorial Standards, that "Diversity" is among them. I find though, as an avid viewer of WTTW in Chicago, that there is an overwhelming liberal/left bias to almost all of the shows on the PBS network's national presentations (not to mention the WTTW produced programming). Is diversity of political viewpoint not a legitimate concern of PBS?

Frontline, Nova, Bill Moyers Journal, P.O.V., Washington Week, The Nightly NewsHour, the list of liberal leaning political programming goes on and on. The McLaughlin Group is the only show (with the exception of some segments of The Nightly News Hour that feature conservative commentators — not David Brooks' portions — his purported conservative voice is merely a moderate one) that gives some airing of the politically conservative point of view.

It's my understanding that PBS receives taxpayer dollars in the form of government funding? If that's true, why are only liberal viewpoints espoused on PBS when at least half of the American taxpaying public is not of a liberal identification? Does PBS not believe that the best informed electorate is an electorate well informed in all political points of view? Can the liberal viewpoints PBS espouses not sustain critical examination by a conservative rational based program(s), or even occasional conservative commentators? Is "Diversity" only an editorial standard when it serves the liberal bias of your programming?

Jeff Lescher, Geneva, IL

Just watching the McLaughlin hour, it just seems like Sesame Street with a bunch of kids trying to talk over each other, instead of talking and discussing like adults. It is a shame that adults act like kids and then we wonder where they get if from. I will not be watching this nonsense.

Brad Swaffield, Brooklyn, OH

I am so impressed with Bill Moyers Journal. He is helping democracy through giving a forum and inviting guests to help educate listeners about current happenings. Thank you for the programming.

Mary Polta, New Ulm, MN

Bill Moyers' recent program with Charles Fried and Fritz Schwarz provided an enriching — I would even say extraordinarily enlightening — discussion of the constitutional/legal/political issues arising out of the conduct of the US war against terrorism and in Iraq. The three participants addressed the subject in depth and with wisdom. If this be talking heads, I am all for it!

Ruth Kahn, Detroit, MI

I have started watching Bill Moyers' Journal not because I enjoy it or think it conveys useful information, but to keep abreast of the exaggerations and preoccupations of The Left. Last night (Nov. 2) was a prime example. In his interview about 'The Missing Class' the guest [author Katherine S. Newman] proclaimed that 'for every $1000 increase at CUNY (the City University of New York) 4,000 students drop out,' which would approach 2% of the student body. Doesn't sound very plausible. And, it isn't. A 30-second internet search yielded this New York Times (not known for sugar-coating any news that reflects poorly on The Right) article which states that the 2003 increase (the first in 8 years) resulted in an increase in enrollment. Did some current students have difficulty with the increase? Yes some did. For them, a $4 million fund was available to help.

The previous week's guests were knowledgeable and well-meaning, but the 'conservative' guest was a pretty ineffective debater, and was debating not only against the other guest but against Bill Moyers, too. Again, not surprising. It had a sort of 'Roman Coliseum' appeal to it.

Michael Freed, Sylmar, CA

(Ombudsman's Note: I found this interview to be extremely informative, but as a graduate in the 1950s of the City College of New York, as it was then known and when it was free, my ears perked up as well at Ms. Newman's statement. Actually, she said that "every time CUNY raises tuition by $1,000, 40,000 (not 4,000 as the viewer heard) students drop out." Bill Moyers' only response was "Wow." I said the same thing. Here's a link to the New York Times article that backs up the viewer's point. I also spoke with CUNY officials who confirm that there has not been a tuition increase since '03 and that enrollment has increased about 20 percent in the last seven years. CUNY is now a huge system with some 231,000 students in degree programs at both community and senior colleges. Tuition is $2,800 for community colleges and $4,000 for senior colleges, according to officials.)

Taking Aim at Moyers

Bill Moyers sure gets a powerful position from which to tell us what a terrible country we live in. He has a podium from which to promote his political point of view. I was particularly hit with it tonight, at the beginning of his journal, November 9, 2007 on KCET. I was sorry to hear it. He gives his opinion as though there is no other position that decent people can hold. Fortunately, there are many people who do not agree with him. I want to thank KCET for the quality of The NewsHour.

J. H., Orange County, CA

Please flush Bill Moyers and his Journal. In July he had a full one hour program dedicated to impeaching President Bush, with the only two guests totally agreeing with Moyers! A couple of weeks ago he compared life in the U.S. now to the way things were in East Germany in the 1980s! Please! These are just two small examples out of a list that could go on for pages. He, or a guest, may briefly mention that an opposing viewpoint exists, but there is no chance of a real exchange of ideas on that program.

I was so glad to hear that Moyers was leaving NOW — I thought PBS was finally rid of him. I should have known better. PBS just created another program for him to spout the same BS, and NOW was taken over by David Brancaccio, who is slicker than Moyers, and he is only an extreme liberal, not a fire-breathing one like Moyers. But there is never a real exchange of differing ideas on his program either. So the final effect is that now there are TWO programs spreading the extreme liberal gospel on PBS instead of one.

Other programs (NewsHour, Washington Week, etc) definitely lean to the left, but they are tolerable to those of us who are able to think, unlike Moyers/Brancaccio. I know "Fair and Balanced" is not PBS's slogan, but don't you think it's a worthwhile goal? Don't these guys embarrass you, even a little bit?

Willis Hern, Charlotte, NC

Recent PBS shows have taken on what is a decidedly political, left overtone. As a long time supporter of PBS I observe that this switch is in complete violation of their own stated Guiding Principles. In particular it is my sense that they have in fact impugned their stated "Editorial Integrity". And I quote, "PBS's reputation for quality reflects the public's trust in the editorial integrity of PBS content and the process by which it is produced and distributed. To maintain that trust, PBS and its member stations are responsible for shielding the creative and editorial processes from political pressure or improper influence from funders or other sources. PBS also must make every effort to ensure that the content it distributes satisfies those editorial standards designed to integrity".

Bill Moyers Journal on July 13th clearly violates that principle. Calling for the impeachment of the president is not the domain of anyone on the PBS broadcasting staff. As well, Tavis Smiley's overt bashing of the four Republican presidential candidates for skipping the debate is in clear violation of PBS's stated editorial integrity. Permitting ITVS, a left-wing organization that draws large sums of funding from PBS and is now using those funds to produce films that are simply bashing President Bush! These are supposed to be the works of an organization that is, apolitical? My disappointment is deep. As an Independent voter, I find offence at this obvious change in your stated principles. These changes appear, at least to me and my circle of friends to coincide with the onset of the democratically controlled Congress and their pressure for their, partisan, "Fairness Doctrine" When PBS returns to the PBS it once was. My friends and I will return to watching and supporting. Until then, I will exit, stage left, so that you may support the left!

Jon Willey, Bridgeville, DE

Frontline Extraordinary Rendition: This program was so full of "bad" journalism and accusations that were not backed up with fact it was disgusting. It was not just seriously flawed it was fuel for the fire of those who want to believe we torture people, and revealed things that could interfere with our efforts to fight our enemies. Frontline just gets worse and worse . . . sloppier, less fact based, biased to the max and anti American. I am sick of this show and PBS's support for it. At the same time you censor and will not run shows like Islam vs Islamists?? You do not deserve public funding when you are continually supporting a show like Frontline that is constantly biased against our leaders and loves to paint them in a bad light. There is an Evil Empire that wants to destroy this country. Bush, Cheney, our CIA and FBI are not it! In all ways this program was terrible, and fed the cause of our true enemies.

Ann Mix, Moses Lake, WA

(Ombudsman's Note: With respect to those letters above that declare a clear left-of-center, liberal bias to PBS programs, I prefer to deal with all programs that come to my attention on a case-by-case basis, rather than to indulge in generalizations. In the two years that I've been in this job, I've written some 85 columns and mailbags dealing with viewer comments and criticisms, and some of my own observations. Several of those columns involved programs and documentaries that appeared to viewers, or me, to have some kind of a tilt, or advocacy aspect, to them; some to the left but at least as many to the right, as well. As for opposing views, it seems to me that conservative or right-of-center or pro-administration views and opinions have been very well represented on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, which is the flagship public affairs program broadcast five times a week, and are regularly aired as well by panelists and guests on programs such as The McLaughlin Group, the Charlie Rose Show, Inside Washington and probably others that I don't see regularly or hear about. The NOW program also seems to me to present and report opposing views, as do the reporters on Washington Week. Frontline, for my money, is the best, regular investigative program anywhere on television (unfortunately, there aren't many others), even though administration officials, according to the program, have frequently declined invitations to be interviewed. Probing and investigative journalism, if it is fair and accurate yet pulls no punches, is not partisan. Rather, it is essential to a democracy and an informed citizenry. Any administration in office will, and should be, the focus of hard-nosed reporting. There will always be people who don't like that and charges of bias, and those charges may well be true and need to be assessed. But if you think this is a one-way street, remember the media's role in the travails of the Clinton administration.)

Einstein's Wife; New Old Business

(Ombudsman's Note: The following letter is from Allen Esterson, a British lecturer in physics and math, who for the past year or so has been challenging, with some success, the content of a PBS documentary titled "Einstein's Wife" and its accompanying material on the program's Web site. Oregon Public Broadcasting recently made some revisions to the Web material based on some of Esterson's critique. I wrote about this initially on Dec. 15, 2006. I'm no Einstein scholar, but at the time, and after putting some effort into it, I wrote that "Esterson, with the support of a number of scholars he cited, presents a more convincing and well documented case that this is a factually flawed and ultimately misleading combination of film and Web presentations." I'm no more educated now in the scholarship about Einstein and his first wife, Mileva Maric, but Esterson remains unsatisfied with the changes made to the PBS material and he has a pretty good track record in my book.)

From Allen Esterson:

I'm disappointed that, in spite of PBS's Editorial Standards commitment to "respond to feedback", David Davis [vice president of national production at Oregon Public Broadcasting] failed to acknowledge my email of 2nd November that highlighted the numerous errors and misrepresentations of the historical record on the revised "Einstein's Wife" website, as of October 2007. It can hardly be that my critical assessments are not worthy of consideration, given that the belated rewriting of the website is a direct result of my initial complaint to PBS over eighteen months ago.

I have posted a fresh article on the Butterflies and Wheels website that presents my critical analysis of the current "Einstein's Wife" web pages in relatively concise form (now also posted by History News Network).

The editor of Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson, invites you to respond to my article. Her email address is opheliabenson@msn.com. I have also fully documented the errors and misrepresentations of the historical record on the current "Einstein's Wife" web pages on my own website.

I invite Andrea Gabor to respond to this critique of her website material. (I would hope that any such response will improve on the dismal efforts of "Einstein's Wife" writer/director Geraldine Hilton, whose notion of responding to criticism was simply to reiterate her erroneous assertions with little or no attempt to address my documentation of her misrepresentations of the historical record. For Ms. Gabor's benefit, my website carries articles examining just about all the historical claims made in relation to Mileva Maric.)

I would also remind the officials at PBS involved in this matter that PBS Editorial Policy commits "Producers of informational content" to "exercise extreme care in verifying information". It is abundantly evident that no such care was taken in relation to the "Einstein's Wife" film and accompanying website, including the school Lesson Plans. Large numbers of people will have seen the film over the four years 2003-2007, and some will have read the website material. Numerous teachers will have downloaded the grossly misleading Lesson Plans for their students. Can you not recognize that it is a matter of the editorial integrity of PBS that it should publicly acknowledge that it contravened its editorial standards in this instance? To fail to do so carries the implication that producers of PBS broadcasts and writers of website material can breach PBS editorial standards with impunity.