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The Ombudsman Column

'The Group,' the Gripes and PBS

What happens, or should happen, when a guest on a popular TV opinion show goes beyond normally accepted criticism and launches into a harsh characterization of someone who is a revered prophet of a religion with about 12 million adherents, half of them in this country?

That's what took place on Dec. 7 when Lawrence O'Donnell, a TV producer and political analyst, was a guest on The McLaughlin Group and described Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, as a "lying, fraudulent criminal . . . who was a racist, who was pro-slavery. His religion was completely pro-slavery." O'Donnell launched into this attack when the discussion on the program turned to the just-delivered speech by Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a Mormon, in which he talked about his belief in "the faith of my fathers."

O'Donnell's outburst, not surprisingly, has caused quite a furor among Mormons, who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many of them wrote to me, and to The McLaughlin Group, sharply criticizing O'Donnell, The Group and PBS for broadcasting what they considered to be not only slanderous but factually inaccurate attacks on Smith and the Mormon faith, and demanding apologies. To many of them, it was doubly egregious that this took place on public television.

I published a fair number of those letters in the Ombudsman's Mailbag of Dec. 14 along with a response from the program and a brief assessment of my own. But the outrage, e-mails and responses have continued, and so I return to the subject today. A representative sampling of the new letters is printed below.

Not Guilty, Says PBS. But How Would You Know?

First, and most importantly, it is necessary to repeat a point I made in that earlier mailbag. Admittedly, my nose for news wasn't operating as well as it should have; the section on the still-brewing controversy over O'Donnell was at the bottom of that mailbag. But one of the points I made then was that The McLaughlin Group is NOT a PBS program.

You can, however, forgive any viewer who thinks it has the PBS stamp of approval because it regularly airs on more than 200 stations that are affiliated with PBS. This is a confusing matter and has been the subject of previous ombudsman columns. But all 350 or so such PBS member stations are independent and can run whatever they want. Most run a heavy dose of those programs accepted and distributed by PBS — the ones with that little PBS logo in the lower corner of the screen and at the end of the program. But they also purchase and broadcast material produced elsewhere. The McLaughlin Group is one such program. It is distributed by Oliver Productions of Washington, D.C. It also airs on some NBC stations.

Lea Sloan, vice president of communications for PBS, says "The McLaughlin Group is not distributed by PBS. We have absolutely no connection to this program in any way. We have no role in the production or administration of the program, which runs on both public and commercial stations across the country."

Another point I raised in that earlier column is that The McLaughlin Group is an opinion program — a famously raucous, free-swinging program that has been on the air for some 25 years — and that ombudsmen generally steer clear of pure opinion programs.

So, technically, I could end this discussion right here as not in my court on two counts. But this is an interesting editorial issue generally and, having started down this road, I'll continue a bit further.

An Addition to the Initial Response

I did get a response from the program last month and added my own assessment, in the Dec. 14 mailbag, that I thought the response was "reasonable" and that the other guests on the panel, especially Patrick Buchanan and Eleanor Clift, strongly challenged O'Donnell on the air. I also added a link to the transcript so you could judge for yourself.

As a reminder, here's what The McLaughlin Group said in response last month: "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 truly over the top, panelists and the host are quick to separate themselves from the opinion and the opinionator. This amounts to a de facto repudiation. This was the case in the recent panelist flare-up."

Now, in response to continuing criticism from some viewers, and to further questions from me, the Group, hosted by founder John McLaughlin, adds this: "Mr. O'Donnell is not an employee or agent of the McLaughlin Group production company (Oliver Productions Inc.) As with other panelists he is paid an appearance fee, serving technically as an independent contractor for Oliver. Many of our viewers have written to dispute Mr. O'Donnell's accuracy and his disparagement of the Mormon religion. His views are his own. Some viewers have asked that we apologize for Mr. O'Donnell's statements. That can only come from him. We will continue to defend the right of individuals to express unpopular views. We avoid censorship in all forms, whether pre or post. This does not mean that we will sanction gratuitously offensive discourse. Oliver Productions Inc. regrets the offense caused by Mr. O'Donnell's statements."

I think this now-combined response continues to be a reasonable one. Indeed, it is pretty clear and comprehensive as media corrections and clarifcations go. It acknowledges that O'Donnell's comments were "over the top," that they received a "de facto repudiation" by the panelists and the host, that the program "will not sanction gratuitously offensive discourse," and that the production company "regrets the offense."

At the same time, the statement defends the expression of unpopular views, which is fundamental to the program's role, and appears to be trying also to convey to its regulars, guests and audience that it does not want to inhibit opinions on what is essentially a live program, which is also central to freedom of expression.

Talk About It on the Air

I would add two suggestions. The Group says it is going to post the full statement on the program's Web site today (Friday). I would also suggest that McLaughlin take a few minutes on one of his next programs to discuss this on the air as well. My unscientific sense is that most viewers of TV programs do not go to the Web sites for backup material. Addressing this on television will allow that much larger number of people who watch, but don't go to the Web, to understand something more about this issue. Readers and viewers of the media these days demand more and more transparency, and talk shows should not be immune. Another suggestion would be to include in this some independent assessment of the accuracy of O'Donnell's charges.

As for O'Donnell, I didn't seek out his views but obviously they are strong ones so I don't think he feels an apology is in order. Here are his post-McLaughlin thoughts expressed on The Huffington Post.

As for Joseph Smith, he was no stranger to harsh words. In a cover story in 2005 to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth, Newsweek described him as "prophet and polygamist, mesmerizer and rabble-rouser, saint and sinner; Smith is arguably the most influential native-born figure in American religious history, and is almost certainly the most fascinating." He lived in a hard-scrabble, post-Revolutionary War America, founded the church in Fayette, N.Y., in 1830 and was fatally shot in 1844 by a mob of inflamed non-Mormons who stormed the Illinois jail where he was being held. He was 38.

Mormons, wrote author Jon Krakauer in his 2003 best-seller "Under the Banner of Heaven," have "done their best to airbrush every blemish from the portraits of Joseph they display to the word. But unlike Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha, Joseph was a modern prophet who lived in the brightly lit age of the affidavit and the printing press. Because many who felt the pull of his immense charm left a written record of their observations, his imperfect humanity has not been so readily erased from the historical record."

Smith was involved with dozens of lawsuits, charged with fraud — although defenders say these were often trumped-up charges — and jailed. He said he was commanded by God to take plural wives like Abraham and other Old Testament figures, Newsweek recounted, and wound up with more than 30.

For more than a century, until 1978, the church that Smith founded did not permit blacks to be ordained to the priesthood, which gave it a racist reputation, although Krakauer notes that Smith, personally, "had been opposed to slavery on moral grounds" — which would contradict O'Donnell's assertion — and in 1836 Smith ordained at least one black man to enter the priesthood. But according to a recent assessment in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the church itself was not an early champion of racial equality and that as the Mormons moved West their new leader, the Prophet Brigham Young, "denounced abolitionists and allowed slavery in the Utah territory" and "said that race-mixing should be punishable by death." Krakauer calls Young an "unapologetic racist" but also notes that was true of a great many 19th century Americans.

"Whether one believes that the faith he spawned is the world's only pure religion or a preposterous fable," Krakauer wrote, "Joseph emerges from the fog of the time as one of the most remarkable figures ever to have breathed American air."

Here Are the Letters

I have always enjoyed PBS and felt that it provides a forum for the type of balanced, yet fair discussion that we need more of in this country. That being said I am very disappointed in PBS's lack of response to the libelous, incendiary, and completely inaccurate comments by Larry O'Donnell regarding Mormons on the McLaughlin Group.

Mr. O'Donnell's outrageous bloviating and lies about the LDS church appeared barely related to the topic at hand (Mitt Romney speech on Faith in America) and more intended to cast millions of decent, neighborly Mormon Americans as the successor of the Ku Klux Klan. Besides the completely inappropriate tenor of the comments, Mr. O'Donnell's comments blatantly misrepresented basic facts about the Mormon church and Joseph Smith regarding African Americans, slavery, and other claims.

Most ironic of his many libels, was O' Donnell's claim that Joseph Smith and the early Mormon church was somehow pro-slavery. In fact, according to nearly every leading historian, it was the early Latter Day Saints staunch anti-slavery politics that was the biggest factor behind their slaughter and pillage at the hands of pro-slavery Missourians in the 1830. Larry O'Donnell is free to hate Mormons and Mormonism with all the bile of his black little heart, but PBS is demeaned by allowing his lies on your program to go unrebutted and unchallenged. The response by O'Donnell's co-panelists, while appropriate, does not let PBS off the hook.

Ron Fuller, Layton, UT

I have been patiently waiting for a retraction from Lawrence O'Donnell for his rants about Mormon's supporting slavery on the McLaughlin Group program — and all I have seen is his further justification that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints church is an evil cult. What's up? I thought that PBS had higher standards of journalism. When someone makes such an obviously inaccurate statement — especially with such conviction — I expect them to let viewers know that they were confused. Otherwise, uninformed viewers might think there must be some truth in what he says.

If he refuses to at least retract his offensive lies, I expect that you will not have him on your network again. If he had made similar remarks against gays, blacks, Jews, Muslims, etc — I am sure you would not tolerate it. Is there no integrity left at PBS?

Joel Cannon, Grants Pass, OR

Something needs to be done about O'Donnell's statements about Mitt Romney and the LDS church a couple of weeks ago on the McLaughlin Group. Those statements were not only wholly false and unsupported, they were also very likely reach the level of defamation and potentially subject to legal liability in my own opinion for the complete disregard for truth. Something should by done, if even an extended apology by the McLaughlin Group and/or O'Donnell.

T. B., Kaysville, UT

After reading some thoughtful and well informed rebuttals to Lawrence O'Donnell's atrocious rant against Mormons on the McLaughlin Group, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that O'Donnell is an ignorant, hateful bigot and a vile liar. "A strudel for Lawrence" written by Kaimipono D. Wenger is one such factual rebuttal of O'Donnell's false witness to Mormonism.

As I have not heard any apology forthcoming from O'Donnell or the McLaughlin Group, I assume that PBS and the McLaughlin Group approve of religious bigotry when directed toward a religion that is not likely to retaliate. The gutless O'Donnell would never think of spewing such garbage directed at Muslims or Jews.

G. T. Houston, TX

Gee, I've watched and enjoyed the McLaughlin Group for years and years. I didn't realize what a stupid Mormon I was. I thought I had a decent IQ, that I worked hard, was true to my wife, raised a good family, taught them to treat all other people with respect, obey the laws, serve others, you know, all that kind of stuff. But I guess I'm just a racist, and a believer in weird stuff. Thanks to Mr. O'Donnell, I now see that the McLaughlin Group has no problem with speaking hatred and falsehoods about a group of people they obviously know little about or who make up a significant amount of (possibly former) viewers and PBS supporters.

David Bradstreet, Wollcott, NY

I think it would behoove PBS to issue a public response regarding Lawrence O'Donnell's embarrassing rant on Mormons a few weeks ago. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, sure, but O'Donnell was spouting hate in everything ranging from minor inaccuracies and exaggerations to downright slanderous falsities. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I was deeply offended, shocked, and hurt, which is tough to do to a former missionary for the Church. I have endured my share of religious bigotry and intolerance. But on PBS of all places? Again, it would behoove PBS to issue a statement distancing themselves from O'Donnell's twisted take on what in reality is the most loving, giving, accepting, Christ-like Church the world has to offer.

Layton, UT

Lawrence O'Donnell's now famous anti-Mormon/anti-Romney rant was the vilest example of hate speech I have ever witnessed on a television talk program. His co-participants were obviously appalled by it, and appeared flabbergasted. If such an unexpected and out of control, hate-filled diatribe had occurred from an anti-Semite regarding the Jews, or a Klansman regarding blacks, would we not have, by now, heard an official denunciation of this from PBS, or the program host? Where is the outrage that was aimed at Imus, whose remarks, though ugly and inappropriate, were not spoken with the rage and venom of O'Donnell? Where is the demand for apology and/or blackballing that bespoke the indignation of your industry with Imus. Was Imus' insensitivity more or less egregious that O'Donnell's? Can you point to a single instance of such a bigoted rant against any other ethnic or religious group, where ALL — not just Mitt Romney — members of that group were so incredibly disrespected and dismissed as being worthy of anyone's positive sentiments? Please, PBS, an apology is in order, not only from O'Donnell, but from YOU for not immediately condemning his bigoted outburst. O'Donnell should be permanently disinvited from your programs until a heartfelt apology is forthcoming, a la Imus.

Dane McBride, Roanoke, VA

Lawrence O'Donnell's anti-Mormon and thoroughly bigoted "rant" on a recent McLaughlin Group was untrue, un-American, and unacceptable. That he has the right of "Free Speech" is true, but PBS has the right never to have this guy on again. I sincerely hope, for sake of viewership and public opinion of PBS, this right is exercised.

Randall Zernzach, Xenia, OH

Laurence O'Donnell's rant against Mormonism and Mormons was offensive on many levels. I am a Harvard MBA, a devout Mormon and, according to O'Donnell, an idiot and a liar since no one with an advanced degree could actually believe the doctrines of Mormonism. I would remind Mr. O'Donnell that many Evangelical churches in the South did not renounce segregation in their own congregations until the 1990s. Even still, such a comparison to Mormonism is unfair as Mormonism welcomed Blacks into its congregations, just not its lay priesthood. The ban was institutional, not social, as every Mormon I knew and currently know, we're praying for the lifting of such a ban. For O'Donnell to single out Mormonism as irrational is intellectually dishonest and very unfair. Every religion has its irrational doctrines; if not, it wouldn't be religion, it would be science. Somehow Mr. O'Donnell finds transubstantiation, the virgin birth, resurrection of dead bodies and faith healing more acceptable than similar irrational believes unique to Mormonism??? Go figure.

Nathan Bell, Moraga, CA

On to Other Matters

Please tell Charlie Rose to shut up once in a while. I had looked forward to hearing Paul Krugman, whose columns I admire. But Charlie kept talking and interrupting him so much that he could hardly get a whole sentence spoken. That was rude. He should get Paul back and let HIM speak.

Georgia Baciu, Friday Harbor, WA

My suggestion to the letters of complaint on Dr. Dyer and Robert Kiyosaki: Just turn it off. Don't buy the books or DVDs or CDs. But don't try to deny others the choice. These are wonderful men that are sharing their wisdom with those of us that choose to partake of it and PBS is a blessing to all that wish to partake of the wit and wisdom to be found there. I love the fact that I have the right to choose what is worth keeping and what is best ignored. Thank you PBS for allowing me the opportunity to choose for myself. Keep up the great work.

Barbara Sasse, La Center, WA

There is no way to express my thanks for the absolute EXCELLENCE of PBS. I would be lost and in deep depression without it. I absolutely ADORED "The Lost Prince" a docudrama about the age of the monarchies leading to World War I. That was absolutely fabulous as was the Bronte novel of Jane Eyre. I am looking forward to watching the Jane Austin series of Masterpiece as well. I cannot count the ways PBS contributes to my life. It is brilliant programming which I view ALL the time. I did contribute after "The Lost Prince" because I felt it was the least I could do to express my thanks for being the beneficiary of so much from PBS.

Natalie Rosen, Framingham, MA

I want to thank you for your detailed responses to viewers' letters. Please continue the good work. Bill Moyers has been an invaluable resource as an offset to the persistent tilt and tumble of coverage on the Bush administration and its policies. I, too, gasp and wonder when "journalists" of popular renown say nothing when patently untrue statements are made by leading figures in the administration.

Raymond MacDonald, Braintree, MA

Today's airing of Bill Moyers Journal was nothing short of disgraceful. Thomas Cahill mentions the cruelest societies in the world today and he comes up with China, Saudi Arabia and the USA. Now this Cahill can choose to be another clueless writer trying to sell his hack book if he so chooses. But what is so staggering is that Moyers just nods back at him without challenging Cahill whatsoever. Any journalist worth his salt would've at least asked him to explain such a controversial statement. Your guidelines speak of journalistic integrity but in practice it is often lacking by allowing so many hard left-leaning views to be put forth without any semblance of a challenge or opposing viewpoint. That isn't responsible journalism — it's propaganda. What a travesty this has become.

James Khury, Clawson, MI

I don't like seeing ads such as from Lockheed Martin on PBS. Likely, I am part of a small minority that object to this. Commercial broadcast runs the same series constantly. They are most carefully calculated to appeal to deep emotions related to patriotism, sacrifice, etc., in order to firm viewer identification with the company, and thus, the company and shareholders' "bottom line." And, yes, this is why I reluctantly do not send PBS the checks I used to. I'm not so naive as to think this practice has a ghost of chance to be stopped, but thank you for reading my view.

Neil Williamson, Greenbelt, MD

What has happened to good classical music on PBS? I do not consider the blind singer or the Dutch violin player good classical music but they seem to have the corner on your music market. The last two classical programs I saw on PBS were hosted by Renee Fleming. Can't you find someone else? Frankly, I'm tried of seeing her all the time and what a bad job she did with interviews on New Year's Eve Program.

Frederick Paonessa, San Francisco, CA

I just finished watching the Andrew Jackson documentary and I can only describe it as horrific. One of the most incredible pieces of revisionist history I've ever seen. Jackson's relationship with the Cherokee Nation was whitewashed down from Holocaust to political disagreement. There was so much major information left out, replaced by meaningless fluff; so many actual inaccuracies, that it will take me a day or so to write a comprehensive review! I promise to send a copy to you as well as every financial supporter of PBS that I know. This kind of irresponsible programming must stop.

Dean Hutchins, Spring Valley, NY