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PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

Ombudsman's Mailbag

Welcome to another Ombudsman's Mailbag. Here, without comment, is a sampling of letters from viewers reacting to last week's column about programs aired on Bill Moyers Journal and NOW. There are also letters from some of you who objected to lack of additional coverage of the actual awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize early this week to former Vice President Al Gore, although there was substantial coverage at the time when he was named as the recipient.

Toward the end of the Mailbag there are also letters from viewers who were upset at the views on the Mormon faith expressed by Lawrence O'Donnell, a guest on Friday night's edition of The McLaughlin Group. There is also a response from the McLaughlin Group. That program is an opinion show and O'Donnell, a TV producer and political analyst who is not shy about speaking out, was giving his opinion. Ombudsmen generally steer clear of shows that are clearly premised on airing the editorial opinions of the guests. Also, the McLaughlin Group is not a PBS program, although it normally appears on more than 200 PBS-affiliated stations. PBS member stations are free to purchase programs from other distributors such as, in this case, Oliver Productions of Washington, DC. The program also airs in the New York and Washington, DC, areas on NBC.

About Last Week

Thank you for reviewing and posting the recent complaints about journalism bias in regards to NOW and Bill Moyers Journal. I applaud your openness to viewers' comments and viewpoints. I agree that integrity is integral to honest, effective journalism, and I would have liked to hear that David Brancaccio and Bill Moyers had at least contacted people of contrasting opinion for interviews. Neither journalist should fear opposition; they both have a talent for asking questions that bring out people's true character.

I watch NOW and Bill Moyers Journal on a fairly regular basis, and the programs have always satisfied my hunger for a journalistic response to programs that lean the "other way" politically. Investigative journalism has truly lost its place in American culture, and I believe that those two programs fill some of that void. I also believe that if one side has a right to air programs to its own, people with other viewpoints have an equal right to voice through their own programs. As long as other networks champion the popular political stances as of late, PBS has a right to voice against those movements.

In the end, despite my concern for the lack of balance in those particular programs, I do believe that journalism can be biased while upholding strong standards of integrity. I support PBS's bold attempts to keep Americans thinking and questioning. Thank you for intellectual television.

Memphis, TN

NOW is very often tilted to the liberal viewpoint. I am not Liberal or Conservative, but whenever I watch NOW this is the point I get. More and more often I feel that the news programs on PBS are liberal, and that they are like all the other stations out there trying to get their agenda out to the people. I believe all news programs are there to report the facts from both sides, and yet whether it's FOX, ABC, CBS, NBC, or the cable channels all I see is news that is one-sided, and very often lacking in facts. I am sad to see PBS moving away from great programs that really could teach my family wonderful aspects of history, culture, and the beauty of our world to the world of one-sided news. There is enough of that on the airwaves.

Verona, WI

Bill Moyers is my hero. "Now" is the only program that I take seriously. There isn't another program that gives us the truth, whether people believe it's one-sided or not. I only wish it was on at an earlier time in the evening. So many times the things I've suspected about our culture comes to light on his show. I thank you and Bill Moyers for the time and effort it takes to give us good reporting.

Sanford, NC

The problem is that the producers of NOW and Bill Moyers' Journal think this kind of program IS 'fair and balanced' because of (fill in the blank — the Bush Administration, Conservative Talk Radio, Rightwing Extremists) and therefore doesn't need to provide balance within their time slot.

Michael Freed, Sylmar, CA

Spreading the Word

PBS gets funding from CPB and because of that, under Federal Statute, PBS must have "strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature."

So by that very definition and Bill Moyers' Journal (November 30th) unbalanced, highly-biased against Israel report, PBS has violated the Federal Law. Not only that, but that kind of "reporting" has tainted PBS's journalistic integrity. Whether Bill Moyers (who claims to be a Christian by the way) or PBS believes it or not, the Jews are a religious people and they have been given Israel as their homeland. This is history and the title deed is the Bible given to them by God. Now you may have an ulterior motive or maybe PBS is secretly getting Islamic oil incentives. But whatever it is, in the long run, this will cost PBS. Groups like the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) and interested people like me will not watch this garbage called "journalism" and we will spread the word about this. We will blow the whistle and by word of mouth the truth about PBS's real agenda will come out. A new year is upon us and PBS has a choice. Stop the lies, propaganda and biased anti-Semitic reporting and get back to the telling the unbiased truth. Or continue and lose viewership and financial support.

Jay Ricci, Medford, MA

Jesus was born as a Jew in Judea, lived as a Jew in Judea and died as a Jew at the hands of Roman occupiers of Judea. The Arabs were nomadic desert heathens from a distant land with no historical connection to Judea, who later invaded with Mohammed and conquered vast territories including Judea, the land of the Jews centuries later. Why does Bill Moyers feel that that Israel is not Jewish and really partially belongs to the Arab settlers?

Bernard Rachlin, Aventura, FL

I have been a faithful listener to your programs on WETA. I have always thought you to be objective in your comments. However, when I heard the program on Friday, Nov. 30th, I was surprised and saddened at the slurs against two organizations because of their support of Israel, American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Christians United for Israel. You seemed to place radical Muslims who favor terrorist acts in the same category as the above organizations. Why did you not explain the need for the wall to keep out suicide-bombers. I found your points rather one-sided. A correction is in order, or at the least, the opportunity for these organizations you defamed, to defend themselves against the accusations.

Bethesda, MD

Mark this viewer down as a heretic, Although I have enjoyed Bill Moyers very much in the past, especially interviews with folks like Joseph Campbell, on mythology, etc., I am turned off by his oh so "P.C." fashionably-tinted perceptual spectacles, when it comes to the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. Mr. Moyers, Israel is much more sinned against than sinning, and you know it. Is Mr. Moyers a Universalist-Congregationalist devine? A Quaker? My maiden aunt finds him delightful, but she swooned over Liberace, too.

Victor, MA

Bill Moyers' recent program on the supposed alliance of fundamentalist Christians and supporters of Israel was not honest journalism. It was advocacy and should have been labeled as such. Mr. Moyers acted as a prosecutor. In the presentation of his case, fundamentalist Christians and supporters of Israel were cast as defendants in Mr. Moyers' courtroom. Most egregiously, Mr. Moyers interviewed only people who agreed with his position. His interviews were designed to elicit opinions and "facts" that supported the position that Mr. Moyers carried into the program.

Had he chosen to, Mr. Moyers could have interviewed employees of AIPAC or members of Congress who support Israel. Incredibly, Mr. Moyers chose not to interview even one person who would defend the State of Israel or who would have explained why so many Americans, Christian as well as Jewish, support the State of Israel. Given Mr. Moyers' strong objections to American support for Israel, perhaps that would not have helped bring balance to the program. Had he interviewed any employees of AIPAC or any Congressional supporters of Israel, Mr. Moyers would have conducted the interview, not as a journalist, but as a prosecutor conducting a cross-examination.

In addition to Mr. Moyers' lack of fairness, Mr. Moyers' program was replete with factual errors. The central theme of Mr. Moyers' program was that AIPAC is so powerful and so nefarious that no presidential candidates dare to disagree with Israeli policies. This assertion by Mr. Moyers is nonsense. In 1984, Jesse Jackson was a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination. Mr. Jackson was very hostile to Israel and made no attempt to disguise it. In 1988, Gary Hart campaigned for the Democratic nomination and likened Israel to a "drunk driver" and said that "friends don't let friends drive drunk". In the current campaign, Dennis Kucinich has been very vocal in opposition to Israeli policies. Bill Richardson goes out of his way to call for an end to Israeli settlements. On the Republican side, Patrick J. Buchanan has run several presidential campaigns on a vigorously anti-Israel platform. As a candidate for reelection for president in 1992, George Bush compared himself to "one little guy" up against "hundreds of lobbyists" for Israel.

The vast majority of Americans support the State of Israel. Mr. Moyers isn't happy about it. Nonetheless, it is absurd for him to claim that American support for Israel is due solely to the "power" of a small lobby in Washington. If Americans did not love the State of Israel, AIPAC would be out of business. Finally, Mr. Moyers portrays AIPAC as an organization of such devious power that it always prevails. Actually the opposite is true. There have been two major battles in Congress between the supporters of Israel and the supporters of the Arab side. The first battle was the 1978 battle over the sale of jet fighters to Saudi Arabia. The second was the 1981 battle over the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia. In both cases the Saudi/Arab lobby got its way. With its endless supply of petrol dollars, the Saudis enlisted the support of oil companies and oil servicing companies and exporters to Saudi Arabia. The tactics employed were brutal but they worked. In reality, the Saudi lobby has managed to make opposition to Saudi Arabian policies virtually unheard in Washington. That is the true story of what is going on but it is a story that Mr. Moyers has no interest in telling.

Marc Mandell, Norwich, CT

Where Was Al?

I am so upset. Al Gore gave a marvelous talk upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Where did I hear it? Not on PBS which I support. But on Pacifica on Amy Goodman's program. The environment and global warming is the most important issue facing the world. Why are you so vacant? I am almost ashamed to be a member.

Verlaine Boyd, New York, NY

I was surprised and disappointed tonight when Jim Lehrer's NewsHour failed to even MENTION that today an American, Al Gore, received the Nobel Peace Prize. To ignore such an achievement by a fellow citizen is beyond belief!

Arden Hills, MN

I am stunned. The former vice-president of the United States receives the extraordinary honor of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize today, and this occasion is not even mentioned on the NewsHour tonight. While I might not be surprised at such an omission coming from the major networks, influenced as they are by corporate interests, that the NewsHour would omit this news is a disgrace, unless . . . PBS is now answering to corporate interests as well.

Caryn Converse, West Haven, CT

Comments on Commentary

The letters below refer to comments made by TV producer and political analyst Lawrence O'Donnell on the McLaughlin Group broadcast of Friday, Dec. 7 and carried by many PBS-affiliated stations. The question was about the recent speech of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney about his Mormon religion and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Here's some of what O'Donnell said:

"Here's the problem. He dare not discuss his religion. And he fools people like Pat Buchanan, who should know better. This was the worst speech, the worst political speech, of my lifetime, because this man stood there and said to you, 'This is the faith of my fathers.' And you and none of these commentators who liked this speech realize that the faith of his father is a racist faith. As of 1978, it was an officially racist faith. And for political convenience, in 1978 it switched and it said, 'Okay, black people can be in this church.' He believes — if he believes the faith of his fathers that black people are black because in heaven they turned away from God in this demented Scientology-like notion of what was going on in heaven before the creation of the earth . . . "

Here Are the Letters

I was shocked to see a segment of the McLaughlin Group where a political commentator, Lawrence O'Donnell, attacked the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the "Mormon Church" to those who are less informed). I find it unusual that a political commentator, not a religious scholar, would put himself in the position to make categorical statements about the doctrines of a church and the personal beliefs of church leaders on national television.

Once more, I am dismayed that you allowed this to happen. The McLaughlin Group permitted this without giving equal time to any religious expert to challenge the erroneous statements of Mr. O'Donnell. The McLaughlin Group is a political show, with political commentators who are prepared to combat each other on political topics, not a religious show with scholars of religion, or church history.

If Mr. O'Donnell wishes to discuss the stance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when it comes to historical issues of race or cast dispersions on the historical leaders of the church, like Joseph Smith, shouldn't that be done when there is someone present with the expertise to challenge Mr. O'Donnell's factually erroneous statements? I can understand why the McLaughlin Group gives a platform to people with differing political viewpoints, but I am extremely disappointed that you allowed a program to air nationally that allowed a man to rant falsehoods without correction and without balance. I expect more from the McLaughlin Group. I expect more from PBS.

Clint Gilmore, West Valley City, UT

I was very disappointed in Lawrence O'Donnell's comments on the McLaughlin Group. This is one of my favorite shows, and will continue to be. I was surprised that this level of bigotry would be on public display. If comments of this type were made about any minority group, or a more "mainstream" religion I am sure that he would not be invited back. Very disappointed.

Kevin Gildea, Visalia, CA

This is to comment on the insidious, untruthful comments spewed by Lawrence O'Donnell about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the McLaughlin Group discussion the other day. I read the transcript from the show and wondered what good it was to have O'Donnell on the show. His only impuissant comments were his anti-Mormon rantings. His comments were not truthful at all. He said that we are a racist church when in fact we are not. My own ancestors were killed defending the rights of African Americans and he has the gall to call us racist?! Few have fought for the African American more than the LDS Church (we are growing rapidly in Africa by the way). Why on earth do you think the LDS people were kicked out of county after county and state after state that eventually meant expulsion from the country? People feared the Mormon vote that may have gotten rid of slavery in states like Missouri . . .

He also said that blacks were only allowed into the Church in 1978 for political reasons and that we were officially racist until then. Blacks have always been allowed to be baptized into the Church . . . I may also remind you that polygamy was instituted by God to His prophets thousands of years ago. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David are only a few examples of leaders and prophets that were commanded by God to have multiple wives . . . I can hardly believe that such weight was given to someone that did not give a single reference and that only had an incredible hatred toward the LDS Church that only clouded his already embittered mind. Why are we not past all this in our country.

Joseph Ellis, Lehi, UT

Regarding comments made by Lawrence O'Donnell on last week's McLaughlin Group broadcast: If this man's hatred, viciousness, and religious bigotry represent the views of your organization, I certainly will mistrust whatever PBS broadcasts from now on. If it does not represent the views of PBS, PBS certainly needs to distance itself from such a dangerous person. To make such blatantly false and undocumented statements and accusations against Joseph Smith and the LDS faith is an act of supreme ignorance and irresponsibility on O'Donnell's part.

Rochester, NY

I am writing in behalf of the over 12 million members of the Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, expressing outrage for the libelous, slanderous, false and misleading statements made by Mr. Lawrence O'Donnell to Mr. McLaughlin and others on his show, concerning the Church and its beliefs. His statements show what a religious BIGOT he really is, repeating false information about the Church, and Mr. McLaughlin sitting there and letting him continue to lambast the Church with his lies and innuendo!

I suppose Mr. O'Donnell's stature as a TV actor, past political connections, etc., gives him the right to spread such lies. I firmly believe that PBS, Mr. McLaughlin, and others on the panel that day, should rise up in an act of moral courage and castigate Mr. O'Donnell for his tirade! Mr. Lawrence O'Donnell should be made to publicly apologize for his false and misleading statements about the Church!

Willis L. Wright, Draper, UT

The McLaughlin Group Responds:

"The McLaughlin Group television program is unscripted and unrehearsed. It is 'live-to-tape' meaning that when the cameras start rolling they do not stop until the end of the show. We do not edit the show's content. The guests are invited to express their opinions and analysis. We believe that panelists with different positions across the political spectrum create insightful debate.

"Sometimes opinions become impassioned, but invariably an impassioned position on one side is countered with an impassioned position on the other side. When an opinion is regarded as over the top, panelists and the host are quick to separate themselves from the opinion and the opinionator. This also serves as a rejection of validity. This was the case in the recent Lawrence O'Donnell flare-up."

(Ombudsman's Note: I thought this was a reasonable response from the program. There was quite a lively discussion and challenge of O'Donnell's view by other participants in the aftermath of his opening comments printed above. Here's a link to the transcript so you can judge for yourself.)

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