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PBS Ombudsman

'American Idol,' It's Not

Well, it wasn't what you'd call gripping, edge-of-your-chair television, and it didn't attract many letters to the ombudsman.

But when correspondents for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer fanned out to five different states this week to talk to small groups of citizens about issues that were important to them as the Super Tuesday presidential primaries approached, they were doing, it seemed to me, exactly what public television ought to be doing. That is, using the network's national reach to provide timely access for the public, and to add new voices to the debate about important issues confronting the country and its voters.

There was something very real about this, more intimate, useful and down-to-earth than the typical town hall meetings occasionally held on commercial or cable television with much larger audiences and people lined up at microphones. And there was a significant amount of air-time allotted for each of these discussions, so it wasn't just sound-bites.

The correspondents went to five of the 24 states that hold primaries or caucuses on Feb. 5.* In New Jersey they asked about health care and the economy. In Minnesota, the focus was on taxes and spending priorities, and in Colorado the talk was about immigration issues. In Arkansas, it was to inquire about trade and globalization, and then to California tonight to assess the impact of the sub-prime mortgage collapse. I would have voted for one more state and topic — the war in Iraq — that sought to gauge how more recent developments on the ground there are, or are not, affecting attitudes.

Just Right, or Just White?

There were some differences of opinion and critical comments about the series from some viewers, mostly about the segment on immigration. An e-mail from Gregory Hooper, a viewer in Glendale, Calif., captured the greater good that he felt from the discussion: "Highest compliments to The NewsHour and Ray Suarez for conducting a panel discussion of Illegal Immigration. The panel was well selected from as broad a range of concerns as possible, and all participants gave important insight based on experience. The time, 15 minutes, was just about right, also. Thank you!"

On the other hand, a viewer in Waukegan, Ill., said about the same segment: "I have watched the NewsHour for at least 2 decades. I am watching it as I type this message. It hit me, as I watched the segment on voters and the issues in Colorado — there must not be any people of African descent in that state or the producers and moderator of that story did not think they have anything to say about immigration issues. It seems that even PBS and the NewsHour, just like others in the media, think that if the topic is not about poverty, crime, or 'Black issues' people of African descent do not have anything to say or at least anything of significance."

Here are a couple of other letters on that segment:

Regarding the show tonight about immigration, I know I am a voice crying in the wilderness, literally and figuratively. But what about the lady who stands in the harbor? The lowly masses yearning to breathe free? Send them, the tempest toss'd to me, I believe she says. I think States and communities could resolve the situation if the Federal Government was not constantly breathing down their necks, a Spanish-speaking teacher has to meet their rules, gimme a break . . . thanks for the chance to sound off! A sensible immigration policy is needed, and part of that should be an enforceable extradition policy . . . you advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government, out you go.

Ruth Neher, Dollar Bay, MI

Re illegal immigrants: The real problem is not the illegality but MONEY. The communities with large number of low-paid workers feel the strain to their service budgets. The use of low-wage workers benefits us all in the form of lower prices. I believe if a fund were created to compensate affected communities for these increased costs that much of the passion about illegals would simply go away.

Joseph Miller, Belle Vernon, PA

Outrage Over Florida and Michigan

Now, will it surprise anyone if, down the road beyond Super Tuesday to the Democratic nominating convention in August, and even beyond to the presidential election in November, the press, the pundits and the people once again discover that maybe there had been an earlier problem in Florida and Michigan that deserved more attention than it got at the time? And maybe, in a tight race, it may be of more interest, in hindsight, that states that allowed very early voting in primaries — a month before the actual primary date in California, for example — had also skewed results.

I mention those issues because it seemed to me — and to some viewers who e-mailed and others who called — that the press, in general, and television in particular, including PBS, did not do a good job at the time of explaining the implications of Democratic primaries in Michigan and Florida in which no nominating convention delegates were awarded to candidates because the Democratic National Committee had punished those states for advancing the date of their primaries against DNC wishes.

There were many stories that told the tale of why the states were being punished, and that reported on whether Sen. Clinton was or was not seeking to claim popular vote victories in those states even though no delegates were officially at stake. But these are big and populous states and there seemed to be few, if any, nationally-aired stories that captured the sense of disenfranchisement by millions of Democratic voters there, caught between state legislators who moved the primary date and DNC officials who punished them. That's what I heard from several viewers, and I agree with them.

Here, for example, is how David McDonell of Ironwood, Mich., put it. "As a Michigan Democrat, I cannot vote for my choice of candidate. I see news about people that cannot vote elsewhere in the world but when it happens in Michigan, one of the biggest states in the U.S., I do not hear anything on the news but who is ahead in the polls! I sent this to you because I can trust you to report on it. I try to call it in to the local area news. I only got voicemail. One TV station message said its news hours were 9 to 5 Monday to Friday! I hope you can get PBS to report on this before the primary. A real mad Michigan voter."

And there were also few stories about how those decisions might affect the outcome of the nominating convention, beyond reports that Sen. Clinton would work to get the would-be delegates seated. Furthermore, the very early and very large absentee voting in Florida and California also is a potentially decisive factor in close races, and that, too, seemed to get less attention at the time. In California, for example, absentee balloting for the Feb. 5 primary started on Jan. 7, well before several of the candidates in both parties had dropped out and before the campaign had played out in other states and on the airwaves.

How might this evolve this summer and fall? Can the Florida and Michigan Democratic delegate issue get worked out? What might have been the impact of the Democratic candidates not campaigning in those states? What about the voters? Are we heading toward still another election in which quirks and disputed procedures in crucial states once again diminishes the confidence of the American voter in the general outcome?

Related Letters

Here are a couple of letters related to this subject but centered on an interview with Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report:

Last night (Jan. 29) the NewsHour had an interview with a political analyst, Stuart Rothenberg, who proceeded to pronounce Senator Clinton willing to "do anything" to win the election for President including, he implied, cheat to win a "victory" in the Democratic Florida primary. From his reporting, one was led to believe that her going to Florida AFTER the polls closed somehow was in violation of the rules. There was no discussion of any of the underlying reasons that Floridians are so sensitive to the prospect of having their votes ignored. Many of us remember the debacle that was the 2000 vote count. There was also no discussion that this far into the primary season, and with the virtual wall-to-wall coverage of Sen. Obama's S. Carolina win and subsequent endorsements by various Kennedys, he was unlikely to be an unknown, and Sen. Edwards had run in a previous national election. Additionally, Sen. Obama's campaign had been running national ads in Florida, unmentioned by Mr. Rothenberg. There was no effort to correct him, or question his reasoning. Then tonight there was no mention of the outcome of this primary on the Democratic side. Aside from the fact that Sen. Clinton won with over 50% of the vote, over one million Democrats went to the polls after being told by many that their votes "didn't count". Whether the Democratic National Convention ultimately decides to seat any or all of the delegates from Florida, the event did happen and more people voted than in any previous primary. Considering some of the trivial aspects of the ongoing election coverage, this should have at least been mentioned.

A. S. Chalson, Omaha, NE

I'm outraged by the spin of guest Stu Rothenberg on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Tuesday evening. His shameful attack on Hillary Clinton's pending visit to Florida, clearly no violation of the DNC's "rules" because she didn't campaign, was gross, and, well, shameful. When Judy Woodruff laughed at Stu's seeming verbal faux pas, she revealed her own bias.

Park City, UT

* Clarification: This number reflects the total number of states holding primaries or caucuses on Feb. 5.

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