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The Ombudsman Column

How Do We Love Thee? Let Us Count the Ways

With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the headline above just about sums up viewer attitudes about PBS that landed in the ombudsman's inbox this week. The comments came in the aftermath of a controversy that had been stirred up by an article in the New York Times on Sunday, Feb. 17, titled, "Is PBS Still Necessary?"

Last week's Ombudsman's Column played off of that. Headlined, "Is the New York Times Still Necessary?" it dealt with the controversy and included links to more than 800 comments posted on the Times' Web site and more than 6,500 responses posted on the Web site of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, which also devoted coverage to the Times article.

The letters that follow represent a sizeable sampling of the mail to me after last week's column. Most of them, not surprisingly, are from viewers who rallied to PBS. So, while there is a strong, supportive sameness to the viewer observations posted below, what I also found interesting were the variations contained within the positive responses — the spread of commentary from mothers to motor home residents, from big cities to boondocks, from those without cable to those who have more of a choice but don't like much of what they see elsewhere.

But First: Did You Watch That Concert?

Allow me, please, a slight detour to lodge a personal complaint about not being able to view on PBS here in Washington, D.C., the extraordinary and historic concert by the New York Philharmonic orchestra in North Korea on Tuesday, Feb. 26. If you live in New York, you could have watched and listened to a tape-delayed (to allow for time differences) presentation of the concert on a special, two-hour edition of "Great Performances" on Thirteen/WNET from 8 to10 that evening. Or, if you live in North Korea and have a TV set, you could have watched it live on national television there. It was also broadcast live in South Korea, China, France, Germany and other European countries. But no other PBS station in this country carried it at the time.

WNET, which is the producing station for the "Great Performances" series, had an exclusive on this one. They made the arrangements, wanted to capitalize on the "live" nature of the concert and broadcast, and of course operate in the city that is home to the orchestra. Officials at the station said the Tuesday night broadcast achieved very high ratings, with some 230,000 local viewers tuned in, easily double what other classical concerts might attract, even with a prominent performer. And, they explained, setting up the concert and telecast was a complicated process that didn't get settled until early this year, a much shorter lead-time than the months of advance notice that stations usually need for program scheduling and production of published viewer guides.

PBS is making the concert program available for broadcast nationally on Thursday evening, Feb. 28, and some stations undoubtedly will be showing it. But if you live in the Washington area, home to thousands of diplomats and tens of thousands of Asian-Americans — not to mention foreign policy wonks and music lovers — you will have to wait until April to see it on WETA, or May if you watch KCET in Los Angeles or KQED in San Francisco, for example.

I'm sure there are good and complicated reasons and explanations for the way this unfolded. Indeed, KCET executives laid out their scheduling dilemma very well in this Los Angeles Times article today. But it seems to me that, even though all PBS affiliated stations are independent, this is a big dropped ball by PBS as the mother-ship that is supposed to look out for all viewers. This concert was news, but not exactly breaking news. It wasn't a secret. It was known about several weeks in advance. It was historic, the biggest contingent of Americans in North Korea since the Korean War more than 50 years ago. It was dramatic and emotional, on the front pages of many newspapers. It was high-quality entertainment. It was controversial. It was the kind of event that public broadcasting is uniquely suited to broadcast. Somebody should have thought about all the viewers of public television and worked harder to make sure it had the best possible chance to be seen promptly and broadly around the country.

Back to the Letters

It is difficult to find words to describe my reaction when I read "The New York Times" article about the relevance of PBS. I am a dedicated listener of NPR and am also a dedicated watcher of PBS. I often say that I don't know how I could function without PBS. One of my very favorite things is Friday night watching PBS starting with The NewsHour and finishing with Charlie Rose. Nowhere else on television is there the depth of coverage about news and issues which are vital in our lives.

Ellen Blauner, White Plains, NY

I read the article "Is PBS still necessary" . . . don't let those guys get you down. You have more of an impact than you know.

Philadelphia, PA

We were out of NYC when the Times article regarding PBS was published — we have since read the article and disagree with its thrust. In fact, some of the personal criticism of Jim Lehrer is truly sophomoric, without merit and deplorably age discriminatory in tone. We were surprised that the Times stooped to publish an article written in such a fashion. We watch the NewsHour regularly not because it is PBS but because it is the only news forum that gives an in depth look at issues. It is one of the few places that one can find content rather than news bytes.

We also look at a number of other PBS programs — we did watch the one on Mormonism and learned a great deal. Charlie Rose does excellent interviews . . . most of the time though he did one a while ago that should have said, paid for by Obama for President. We check first what is on PBS before going to other programming. And I love the Antique Road show . . . so much stuff we accumulate.

Cathrina and Jean-Pierre Sevos, New York City, NY

How can anyone make the argument that PBS is no longer important just because "Friday Night Smackdown" gets more viewers? As a regular viewer of PBS for 30 plus years, I would admit that the quality of PBS has diminished. Even the NewsHour is not as evocative as it was 10 years ago. However, relative to commercial TV, PBS today shines even brighter. Just like a plant or animal that fades into extinction, too many people won't know what they're missing if PBS fades from the air waves.

James Phillips, Friendswood, TX

I use "The NewsHour" as my only reliable news. Where else do you get 15 minutes on a topic and both sides of the story? Local news shows are just that — shows. They give a 30 second info section followed by six minutes of ads. I don't mind a few commercial messages on PBS at the beginning or end of a show. They never interfere.

Linda Freed, Los Altos, CA

I read this article in my home-delivered Sunday Times, and as soon as I saw the headline I said to myself: there it is, the 'low-end barbarian' at the gate. In fact, the article wasn't the hatchet job I expected to painfully read through — it seemed reasoned and for the most part supportive. I am always willing to read anything that criticizes with a constructive purpose rather than a 'killer' mission. What dismays me is that amidst all of the serious problems this dear country is facing — the majority of them due to dumbing-down cost-cutting bean counters and non-achieving politicos, there seems to be energy left to focus a negative eye on the only reasoning and level-headed source of public information in the nation. St. Louis' PBS outlet is ranked #1 for a reason, I'd suppose — and that is because we are the 'show me' state, and we need, absolutely demand, truly cannot live w/o sources of information (high and low) that give us reason to believe we know what's going on in the world around us. I wish there was more money for the PBS budget, but I's suppose it is what it is. Americans seem to have an in-born grudge against anything that is a 'national standard' of excellence. Jim Lehrer may be in his 70s, but what on earth does that have to do with the caliber of excellence and sound judgment he brings to the News and his other duties at PBS!

Bill Lampman, St. Louis, MO

I would encourage PBS to respond to the NY Times commentary as a wake-up call. PBS is a national treasure and the best of the national programming is educational and entertaining. However, our local PBS affiliate seems to be struggling, as evidenced by an increase in fundraising, commercial advertising, and programming focused on aging rock stars and health gurus promoting questionable remedies — perhaps we can blame this on the Republicans, but I think it will be hard to fix without adequate funding and some thoughtful revitalization. I see television, commercial and public, as an important cultural medium that is at risk in general. I don't know what Mr. McGrath has been watching, but most of what I peruse is banal and constantly interrupted with commercials.

Ann Arbor, MI

Yes, the New York Times Is Necessary, Too

The New York Times is EXTREMELY necessary!!!! They are the only paper with the integrity to research and write ALL of the news no matter what the consequences. Since the Bush administration came in, we have been starving for the truth. PBS certainly fills in some of that gap too.

Kay Erickson, Marysville, WA

It was a surprise to learn of Charles McGrath's comments on PBS. There is not a single channel on the Network TV nor on the cable, that has such superior programming as NewsHour, Bill Moyer, NOW, Washington Week, Masterpiece Theatre, American Masters, American Experience, Between the Lions, Nightly Bus. Review, Nova, BBC News, Globe Trekker, Charlie Rose, Frontline, Antiques Roadshow, and several such enlightening shows on just one channel. The United States Government should support it entirely thru the subsidies, for it informs, encourages and prompts responsible civic actions on the part of its viewers that enormously assists Americans build a viable democracy. It is beyond a shadow of a doubt that PBS is absolutely essential to good, clean informative public viewing Television. Take note, McCain, Clinton and Obama.

Mandhata Chauhan, Los Angeles, CA

Yes, the Times is still necessary. But their problem is the same problem that the American press has in general. The press is far too consumed with sensationalism, soap opera reporting and "editorial bias". They need to do more reporting of fact with less attempts to "control" what they want the public to believe and think. I think that PBS does a better job than the press in general in reporting the facts. Perhaps an expansion of PBS would serve as a challenge to the others to do better!

E.L. Smallwood, Bridgeport, CT

Is PBS still necessary? — YES! Television without PBS would be mostly meaningless dribble. It baffles me that one could think otherwise.

Joe Gianono, New York, NY

Is PBS still necessary? For me absolutely. If I do not learn something new every day I feel cheated. Cable and satellite programming just doesn't cut it . . .

Hilton Ernde, Waynesboro, PA

Love It All, and Wayne Dyer, Too

I just wanted to state my strong feelings about public broadcasting. I listen to public radio about 20 hours a week and watch public television about three nights a week. I don't watch many other television stations other than CSPAN and PBS even though we have cable. I feel in these times of immense change and global upheaval being informed truthfully is crucial . . . Thanks for Frontline, Bill Moyers Journal, NOW, McNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, Charlie Rose, NOVA and many other informative and enlightening shows. I also love the spiritual lectures such as Wayne Dyer's.

Pamela Driscoll, Dexter, OR

All I want to say is that PBS television and radio are the very best stations on all our airways. They are extremely important to me. I have learned so much — almost like a college education — and mainly, without interruptions of commercials. What is wrong with the New York Times? They make me so mad. I don't think they are in tune with what people really want and enjoy on TV.

Tina Rodrigues, Halethorpe, MD

In brief, PBS is needed more now than ever! It is the best investment of public funds for the retention of truth in news, vital for a democracy. Re-examination is always valid, but the role and need for PBS is unquestionable.

Nick Gervasio, Hancock, NH

Has anyone taken steps to send the responses generated by the NYT article and the PBS website to the appropriate members of the federal legislature? My conjecture is, if they possess any vestige of a rational thought process, that they would come to the conclusion that PBS and NPR are wonderful, and virtually the last bastion of thinking citizens everywhere in this country . . .

Ancient Bear, Chula Vista, CA

I am an immigrant to America from Scotland arriving for a "years" adventure in 1971. I was overwhelmed and confused by all that I saw but felt America's great gifts and attributes. However, I did not see these attributes reflected on the airwaves, TV or Radio. When I finally discovered PBS and NPR, I knew I could stay in America. The skilled programming with minimal commercial interruption is something of enormous value to me personally and perhaps, I might add, to the integrity of America as part of the international community. I became a citizen of the United States. What would I do without PBS & NPR? The idea is appalling to me!

Mary Ross, Anchorage, AK

We plan our week around Bill Moyer Journal and Frontline. The news we trust most to give a fair and balanced account without the sensationalism of cable programs is Jim Lehrer. The most important channel that we receive is Channel 9, PBS. I have always respected the New York Times, but they are way off base here. We need PBS as it is the one place you can get news that you know you can trust.

Bob and Rita Bazley, Snohomish, WA

Hey, We Are Still Out Here!

I go into panic mode every time there is a challenge to the usefulness of PBS programming. There is a world beyond hi-speed Internet, pod-casts, cable/satellite TV access. Those of us struggling out here with dial-up (no streaming video), broadcast access only, and a disheartening dearth of little radio fare beyond evangelists and Limbaugh, yearn for our chance at News Hour, Charlie Rose, Bill Moyer, Now, Frontline etc, etc. It's our connection to another world that is hard to reach without PBS. Can't stress enough the value of your programming to us in the rural areas of the heartland. Don't even suggest abandoning us.

Kathie Moore, Hutchinson, KS

PBS is the singular source of original content for me. Since the networks have lost their sense of direction with cutting edge, relevant journalism, and because I live in a motorhome with no access to cable TV, my principal sentinel and truth-talker is my local PBS station. NOW and Bill Moyers' Journal and Frontline and Nova and American Experience give me the information I need to stay attached to this world. We Americans are just too smug about the rightness of our position in the world. As a government, we give far too little of our national wealth to help those less fortunate than we.

Robert Mellis, Palmetto, FL

Mr. McGrath does not seem to appreciate how much we in the hinterlands rely upon PBS for exposure to the arts and educational programming, along with in-depth news coverage, investigative reporting and scientific features such as NOVA. To suggest that cable news is comparable is laughable. All Americans cannot reside in Manhattan, San Francisco or Boston. The challenge is to improve PBS programming, not eliminate it.

Louisville, KY

Yesterday I sent you comments regarding the need for PBS in rural areas in the face of proposed cuts in federal funding. Waking this morning, I was again fearing the loss of PBS and thought of the following: Those people who choose not to have cable or satellite for economic reasons and as part of deferred gratification in their push out of poverty in the cities have only PBS as their window to culture, fine arts, science, and most importantly educational programs for their own children to instill in them the goals of a better life. In other words, PBS gives hope, support and inspiration to those following the American dream. Okay, now I'll be quiet — and feel a bit better knowing that these points of view have been heard. Thank you.

Erna Barnett, Port Orford, OR

Attention Rose and Kerger

Please see Charlie Rose's list of interviewees: 250 men, fewer than 50 women. And a third of the women are actresses. WHERE ARE THE FEMALE OPINION- AND DECISION-MAKERS? Please alert PBS President Paula Kerger to this imbalance. I am contacting Coca Cola who funds his program. Tavis Smiley is a far better host — more fun, more insightful and more fair.

Brigid Donelan, Jonestown, TX

PBS happens to be my favorite channel. I can ALWAYS find something educational, newsworthy, or entertaining on PBS. My child also enjoys both morning and afternoon children's programs. For weekly family time, we gather around and learn about our amazing world on Nature. Sure, sometimes the commercials are a bother when I am intently watching a program, but such is the case with all TV. And with PBS, I do not have to constantly monitor shows for sexual or violent content that is unsuitable for young audiences. What we need is more TV like PBS.

L. Bessasparis, Billings, MT

I raised my 18-year-old daughter on Sesame Street and other quality programs. Today, PBS is our primary source for news and entertainment. The news is accurate and unbiased — unlike the sensationalism of bashing talking heads. There are no other offerings that come close to the quality of PBS programs. We can not allow the taste level of the least common denominator (public) to determine the value or PBS when they prefer the trash such programs as the "reality show" trend. We must keep our most valued PBS as an alternative!!

Tommie Kelly, Hot Springs, AR

PBS is essential to my quality of life. I'm continually amazed by how little programming of quality appears on hundreds and hundreds of channels, while PBS gives quality insight and information every minute of the broadcast day.

Nina Shandler, Amherst, MA

The four major networks, ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC continue to present a constant rehash of the same thing with new titles, i.e., shows about lawyers, doctors or cops plus a mind numbing mix of sitcoms, "reality TV", and game shows. Basically, what they've been doing since they got their broadcasting licenses from the FCC. In comparison, PBS treats me as if I have a brain. The variety of informative, educational and inspirational programs offered is without question the kind quality programming I want. My TV remote's only use is to switch between World, Encore and HD programming presented here in the Bay Area on KQED.

Douglas Tinney, Fremont, CA

The NewsHour used to be my favorite show. Now, it has become boring and depressing. I think the problem is with Jim Lehrer. He's obviously a good editor but his delivery is old and senile. I would watch the NewsHour again with passion if a younger anchor were employed.

Phillip Sharp, Austin, TX

NYT off the edge. I can't live without Lehrer news. Unique. Special. Way ahead of all "competition" (there is none). Your web site needs a brush up. NYT way off base!!! Keep it up, Lehrer and associates.

Robert Schwartz, Chestnut Hill, MA

I'm the Ombudsman and I Approve This Message

I've read comments by you and viewers on the Ombudsman site for years. There is some very good writing here. It is so refreshing to see PBS putting views — positive and negative — on their site for all to see. This is what free press means to me. Compare that with the one-sided views we must label propaganda on some cable stations. Where can we find protests? Not on that cable channel — never, ever. Could we have a show on PBS airing some of the excellent discussion on the Ombudsman's site? I think it could be an interesting and lively program.

William P. Gloege, Santa Maria, CA

Thanks for the excellent article in response to the NYT article on whether we need PBS any longer. Glad you are there to be our spokesman.

Barbara Buttel, Hot Springs, NC

Thank you for this presentation of not only your thoughts but the opportunity to hear WE THE PEOPLE. Your candor, fairness, and articulate overview of "current events" — and rare overview of journalistic practice — is much needed oxygen.

Estelle Ellis-Rubinstein, New York, NY

RE: NY Times. I am comfortable with mustiness. It is familiar, civilized and trustworthy. PBS covers a wide spectrum of interests. It is what it is. Keep up the good work. Being retired military, I appreciate the NewsHour's moment of silence in honoring our fallen service men and women. That alone is uniquely PBS with no hidden agenda Thank you.

David Bacon, Sierra Vista, AZ

I can't believe there is any question regarding PBS's significance. Whenever I watch PBS or hear NPR, I feel like I have had a mini-course in the topic at hand. Short of returning to a university, there is no alternative to public television and radio. My life is greatly enriched by the variety of opinions, in depth reporting and sustained examination by PBS and NPR. Our nation's culture is dependent on providing such stellar programming in news, drama and conversations among representatives of the world at large.

Dana Jones-House, Pasadena, CA

Better Coverage Needed

The Jim Lehrer NewsHour is a superior source of comprehensive, in depth news coverage. But I am disappointed in the interviews and coverage of the presidential candidates. I don't think it is too early to start plumbing the depths of questions such as who might be the candidates' advisors and what are their political philosophies. What does the candidate look for in a prospective Secretary of State? How about some questions regarding the art of governing. Where do you draw the line between partisan ideology and governing the nation? Will a candidate repudiate the abuse of signing statements by George W. Bush? Also, the state of education in America is quite varied yet news programs treat education as though it were one vast monolith in a sad state of affairs. No one seems inclined, or perhaps capable, of mounting a comprehensive, in-depth consideration of education in America. I believe our nations desperately needs a 9/11 type commission to examine what we, as a nation, need to do to provide all our children with a quality education. Can PBS do this?

Tom Larson, Helena, MT

I have been disappointed in the corporate media and how the programming does not address issues concerning the loss, and attempts to curtail our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. We are not idiots, and if the current administration has its way we would all be mushrooms, being fed bullshit and kept in the dark. If an impartial and informative source of information like PBS loses public funding we are screwed. Remember, it is called the PUBLIC Broadcasting Service for a reason. Fight the good fight.

Tim Matthews, Blue Lake, CA

Missing from the News about Castro and Cuba

It's sad to see PBS, our most "honest and credible" news source report so one-sidedly on the Castro news. Not a word of credit to the Castro government. Yet this government threw out those who kept the lower classes in servitude under Batista and all previous governments who were mere vassals of the US. Castro created the ONLY country in Latin America that actually raised lower classes from their misery. He established universal education. He put in place a superior health care system and turned out professional doctors and other medical personnel to the benefit of the populace. He put land in the hands of the inhabitants of Cuba instead of a few rich Cubans and international corporations.

There was no "democracy" but the vast majority of Cubans did not protest this. They overwhelmingly support Castro (not a word about this wide support from PBS) and his government which gave them for the first time, a basic, decent life. Instead, PBS gave us mainly Florida Cubans who are primarily made up of Cubans and their descendents who were in power and reaping the wealth of Cuba to the detriment of the majority of the people. These Florida Cubans cry out for "democracy". It's a joke — where were they when the Cuban people suffered in poverty and dictatorship for centuries?

William P. Gloege, Santa Maria, CA

On this evening's NewsHour (Feb. 19) regarding Castro's resignation, it was reported that the Cuban missile crisis ended as a result of Cuba agreeing not to pursue their missile program in exchange for U.S. assurance there would be no U.S. invasions of Cuba. However, for some reason, I believe a key point of the agreement has been ignored. In addition to U.S. assurances not to invade Cuba, it is my understanding that the U.S. also agreed to and dismantled the Titan missiles stationed in Turkey. I have found it interesting that this point is ignored. In brief, the U.S. had nukes on Russia's border, prior to Russia's attempt to get Fidel to station them in Cuba.

Hagerstown, MD