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The Ombudsman Column

Another 'Shiner' for 'The Media'

The press, the pundits and the polls all got a big black eye this week after forecasting, with considerable certainty, a big victory for Sen. Barack Obama in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire. Much has already been written and broadcast about this episode. Newspapers and television networks have had stories about how everybody got it wrong and what the various reasons may have been.

I don't have much to add to this other than to wonder if individual news organizations — aside from their obvious, next-day follow-up stories — took some time to conduct their own in-house post-mortems to figure out if this glaring error in polling and news judgment should alter in some fundamental way the manner in which they approach political coverage. It's not as though it hasn't happened before.

The press has taken some body blows over the past several years — from the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times, to one involving once star-reporter Jack Kelly at USA Today, to the Dan Rather/CBS episode involving President Bush's National Guard records, and to the broad failure to challenge with sufficient vigor the pre-war explanations for going to war in Iraq. There were others as well.

On a sliding scale of importance, the New Hampshire pre-primary reporting won't come close to Iraq, and will get washed over within the media pretty quickly by the next wave, and then flood, of new primaries. Everybody makes mistakes, and there have been many other times when individual polls have led us astray, although it's hard to think of a recent time when all of them went down the wrong road like this before any votes were cast. But what seems especially interesting about this episode is that it was overwhelmingly a television event that unfolded in front of many millions of people and it was obvious within hours that what viewers had been led to believe just a short time ago was completely wrong.

Moreover, the excitement of this year's primary season drew especially large audiences to these broadcasts. The forecasting failure was focused on Obama, who was generating what seemed like an extraordinary wave of new enthusiasm for politics, and Sen. Hillary Clinton, an older but surely superstar-quality celebrity. So, whether or not news executives take the time to look deeply into this and figure out how to protect against it happening again, this is a scar that may remain visible in the public memory longer than earlier foul-ups, and it needs to be fixed in newsroom memories as well.

There are many components to what went wrong. The polls were the biggest culprit; all eight or nine of them getting it wrong. And, the polls had cut-off a day or two before the voting. There were hundreds of reporters there but it is indeed hard to sense at the last minute what is really going on in something as private as how people will actually vote. The pundits, especially on cable with endless hours to fill, provided most of the sense of where this was supposedly going. Many are commentators not reporters, but they have become part of what people think of when discussion and thoughts turn to "the press" or "the media." Howard Kurtz, the media reporter for The Washington Post, provided a tough and comprehensive look yesterday, Jan. 10, at what went wrong in both television and newspapers that is definitely worth reading. "Not since the networks awarded Florida to Al Gore on Election Night 2000 has the collective media establishment so blatantly missed the boat," Kurtz wrote.

But the best public efforts I saw at real accountability reporting — meaning top news executives going on the air, online, or in print discussing their own operations and where they fell short — came from The Politico, the new online and print publication in a Jan. 9 article by its two top editors, John Harris and Jim VandeHei, and from PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on Jan. 9, the day after the primary. I thought Lehrer pressed both his own reporters, his guests from the polling business, and his resident pundits in a way that was illuminating for viewers and that reminded one that it takes several minutes of air time to discuss such matters rather than the 30 seconds that one might get on commercial news operations.

On the Other Hand

One of the side effects of all that primary watching was that I actually watched TV more than usual these past several days. What came across to me were how many good programs there were just routinely on PBS and what a pleasure it is to watch drama, documentaries and discussions without commercial interruption. That sounds like a commercial on my part for PBS, but it isn't meant that way. It is simply true, as many viewers also say, that it is especially enjoyable to watch and absorb, without distraction, a two-hour segment of "Jane Eyre" on Masterpiece, an hour of Frontline examining "The Medicated Child," parts of the series on "Pioneers of Television," the beginning of a three-part series on "The Jewish Americans," a look at an unusual condition, Asperger's syndrome, on Independent Lens, lengthy interviews on Bill Moyers Journal of Republican Ron Paul and Democrat Dennis Kucinich, candidates that many viewers feel have been ignored by the mainstream press, and an unusual segment on early onset Alzheimer's on the NewsHour, plus the NewsHour's extended discussion of its own short-comings in New Hampshire.

Some of these programs and others like them, of course, generate critical comment from viewers and I try to deal with that. But the point here is only to say it is hard to imagine being informed and entertained in this concentrated manner elsewhere on the tube.

And Meanwhile . . .

Here's a sampling of letters from the past week or so, including some at the bottom related to last week's column on the controversy about remarks on the Mormon faith on The McLaughlin Group, which is not a PBS program but which airs on a lot of PBS-affiliated stations.

Tuesday night's NewsHour had written Mrs. Clinton off in the NH primary, going on and on about Barack Obama. Thankfully the voters once again show they have their own voice. I hope in the future, MPBN can remain more impartial regarding the candidates and hold all candidates to the same standard.

Margaret Meyer, Auburn, ME

I have been a NewsHour viewer for more than 10 years and I am writing to say that I am deeply disappointed in their coverage of the Iowa and NH primaries. My husband and I (who disagree on a number of issues) both concur that the coverage was biased and hyped, particularly related to Obama. Their propensity to jump on the bandwagon and not vet the candidates (ask Illinois NOW about his voting present on bills crucial to women's lives) is frightening. They fell for a tall guy with a nice demeanor and pretty words. Shields and Brooks were terrible. If the media fails to do their job like they did in 2000 we are in bigger trouble than I thought.

For the first time ever I agreed with Lou Dobbs comments that the media predictions that the winners of primaries in two very small, states with very different populations would sweep the nation and cause the demise of Hillary Clinton's political career were ridiculous. I'd say pitiful. I hope the NewsHour gets its groove back. We need them and their substantive coverage of the issues and careful analysis.

Mary Klenz, Charlotte, NC

The news on Jim Lehrer's NewsHour Friday evening after the Iowa Caucus was decidedly uneven and practically ignored Obama's victory and stirring speech — one of the best in ages and should have been made available; however, since Robin MacNeil retired the NewsHour is noticeably tilted toward Republican positions.

Robert Wilson, Mount Dora, FL

I object to David Brooks' severely negative attitude towards both Senator Clinton and President Clinton. On the NewsHour tonight (Jan. 8), he was venomous, describing the nature of the Clinton campaign in viciously negative terms. He seemed even to suggest that the initial poll results in New Hampshire had been rigged. I think someone else should be found to balance the views of Mark Shields on a regular basis. I am an independent, by the way, not committed to any candidate at this point. David Brooks' obvious bias makes his comments unhelpful to me as a faithful NewsHour viewer trying to decide who the best candidate will be.

Shaw Island, WA

I am gravely disappointed that PBS is participating in the Hillary/Obama newsfest and not giving equal coverage to all of the candidates. It is unfair to the American public. We deserve an opportunity to learn the positions of all who are running for president, and not be given silly stuff that we can get anywhere about haircuts and other trivial subjects. After all, "If PBS won't do it, who will?" Seemingly, the answer is nobody.

Providence, RI

It was a real joke to see the McLaughlin Group program on Tuesday night after the New Hampshire primary. It discussed the Iowa primary and it shows how off base the media often is in their predictions. It sure was funny watching the "media experts" making asses of themselves.

Ron Jones, Lamar, AR

What can be done to get news media, this includes the NewsHour, to cover more than the "top three" candidates? The coverage that other candidates get is sadly lacking. PBS is just as bad as all the rest. All candidates have opinions and ideas that we ought to get a chance to hear.

Charles Buchanan, Santa Cruz, CA

Bill, Ron, Dennis and John

I had the privilege to view Mr. Bill Moyers' excellent interview with Dr. Ron Paul this evening on PBS here in Phoenix. This was the most fair, impartial enlightening interview that I have seen during the entire presidential campaign. I was very pleased to see that PBS and Mr. Moyer have not taken the approach of other media networks and commentators who are trying to marginalize Dr. Paul's beliefs which are contrary to those of the establishment. Dr. Paul's message of liberty and freedom came through loud and clear on PBS. Freedom of speech is such a refreshing concept.

Brian Reilly, Chelan, WA

What seems to be the problem? With the notable exception of the candid, realistic and outspoken views of Congressmen Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich on Bill Moyers Journal last Friday night, it seems the news and commentary of late have taken a definite turn toward the religious right, in proportion to new, corporate advertising. Am I imagining things? Or, is that the price PBS, also, must pay to obtain and maintain new, sordid corporate funding, to compensate for lost revenues from memberships of individuals who can no longer afford to support PBS in an inherently self-destructive, self-professed 'Born-again Christian,' Bush, economy.

Then, too, there is a program I personally just discovered on PBS (WPT) on Sunday, between 12:30 and 1:00 PM: 'Religion and Ethics Newsweekly,' with one Mr. Bob Abernathy. If that program doesn't directly give implied credibility to, and promote religion, then just what does it do? Of course viewers of PBS and WPT have the right to worship as they please, but not on the public dime.

Charles Shaver, Westfield, WI

I just watched Bill Moyers' interview with Ron Paul. I want to express my deepest appreciation for the fairness and unbiased questioning presented by Mr. Moyer. How I wished the journalists from most other media would take a lesson on unbiased interviews. I strongly dislike verbiage that stages and sets up answers. We Americans see far too much of it on most media interviews, and we roll our eyes in disgust in prefabbed jargon and slighted questioning.

Chuck Matts, Tacoma, WA

I watched three PBS programs today. I can only conclude that PBS has joined the corporate cabal and declared "Edwards" an obscene word, not to be uttered on their station. At the same time I listened to PBS pundits and guests eulogizing Barack Obama and castigating Hillary Clinton. I just watched Bill Moyers interviewing Kathleen Jamieson. Ms. Jamieson criticized the main stream media for not giving recognition to other candidates while she, herself, never mentioned the second place winner in Iowa — John Edwards — but mentioned almost all others. We can save us citizens a lot of energy and money by letting a few people in Iowa and the media (including PBS) elect the presidential candidates.

Duane Overby, San Jose, CA

I just finished watching Bill Moyers Journal with interviews of candidates Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich. As a conservative and Republican, I find both of these candidates to be much more in line with my ideals and values. It remains to be seen whether independent media can open the political process to include candidates who are "outside" of the interests of the mainstream media and bring the real issues to the forefront of the political debate. I believe this is a watershed moment in American politics and PBS deserves credit for helping us to realize the full potential of the political process in this country.

Rex Stuessy, Tucson, AZ

Thank you for bringing Dennis Kucinich onto the "Bill Moyers Journal" program. I wrote to PBS making this request some months ago — as I'm sure others did as well. To see him (and Congressman Ron Paul) on with Mr. Moyers made for supremely thorough and wonderful viewing. My wife and I never miss "Bill Moyers Journal", "Frontline", "BBC World News", "NewsHour" and "Charlie Rose".

Brooklyn, NY

I enjoyed today's show. Dennis Kucinich mentioned that a probable cause that he was not included in some of the national-TV debates was the obstruction by a corporate sponsor, AARP. I am concerned by this accusation as Washington Week with Gwen Ifill is now partly underwritten by AARP. Is public broadcasting also slowly encroached by big corporation with special interest too? Who is checking on Public Broadcasting now?

Christopher Chew, Brooklyn, NY

As someone who tunes into PBS news coverage because of mainstream media's abundance of faults, I have been thoroughly mystified by your refusal to devote equal time of your political coverage to Sen. John Edwards, who is running for President of the United States. You would think that fact to be self-evident, but I have been consistently amazed by how little Sen. Edwards is mentioned on your network and given short-shrift by your group of pundits and anchors, especially last night in the aftermath of the Iowa Caucuses. It's beyond time for us to move past a two-party system, and Democratic voters need more than just Obama vs. Hillary. As a believer in fair and accurate coverage in the media, and a person who turns to PBS because networks like MSNBC, Fox News and CNN do such a poor job of it, I ask that you improve your coverage in the future.

Michael Kim, Brooklyn, NY

On Sponsors

I can't believe PBS allows Chevron and AT&T to sponsor the only remaining "news for adults" program on the air — "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." All the other (and I do mean all the other) news organizations are bought-and-paid for propaganda machines for either the White House or major corporate interests. Yours is the only unbiased news show left, and the only one free of the ridiculous computer graphic abortions we see on other networks. Chevron is busy promoting itself on your network as "green" and "clean" which is ironic since this industry and this company will continue to be the main impediments to forward progress on caring for the environment and fighting global warming. AT&T conveniently capitulated to the White House and gave the NSA free reign over all the voice and data traffic within the United States between American citizens and others. The actions of these companies are well known and have been discussed at length. So why do you allow them to be sponsors? Are you selling out too?

Scott Gentry, Mountain City, TN

More on O'Donnell

Interesting feedback about Lawrence O'Donnell's "Mormon" commentary. And, of course, your point that McLaughlin Group is not affiliated with PBS is well taken. I don't see much mention of the real point of O'Donnell's rant, which was that Romney, unlike Kennedy, does not say that he would not allow his religion to control his acts as President. Therefore, the details of Governor Romney's religion are EXTREMELY relevant to his presidential campaign. Mr. O'Donnell could have been a bit more reserved, thereby making his point less offensive to Mormons, but his point is certainly valid enough.

Hugh Caley, Albany, CA

I think you've done admirably, Mr Getler and that PBS has as well. I can certainly understand the reaction of the many good people who are Mormons, but as the smoke and heat subsides, perspective will return and the issue will be seen for what it is -the price of real, on-the-fly content that is not immune to the occasional excess of a hot headed guest. The McLaughlin incident is a blip of minor consequence on an otherwise exemplary record of quality reportage and commentary by responsible people. Keep up the great work!

Seabury Lyon, Bethel, ME

I applaud Lawrence O'Donnell for finally voicing what most people know to be true about Joseph Smith and the Mormons. Joseph Smith had been prosecuted for fraud just 18 months before he supposedly encountered the angel Moroni. His scheme to get other men's wives in his bed by lying to the husbands came as no surprise. And what about the secret underwear they're supposed to be wearing. Those people never cease to amaze me. Thank you Mr. O' Donnell.

Michael Cindrich, Kansas City, MO

I am quite disappointed in the response of the ombudsman related to letters on the comments of Lawrence O'Donnell on The McLaughlin Group related to the Mormon faith. You stated, "Ombudsmen generally steer clear of shows that are clearly premised on airing the editorial opinions of the guests." You also noted, "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."

These statements justify O'Donnell's comments and serve to abdicate the responsibility you have as an ombudsman. Certainly, he has the right to present his opinion, but in this day and age responsible broadcasters should and have been distancing themselves from these types of discriminating behavior. Don Imus was fired for much much less; unless there is some kind of double standard in America. It is unfortunate that PBS and The McLaughlin Group would lose this opportunity to establish themselves as reputable and decent productions. Rather they have allowed others to drag them down to the level of shock jocks and smut mongers.

Huntsville, AL