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PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

Ombudsman's Mailbag

I was away last week but the Ombudsman's Mailbag filled up with commentaries on many subjects, and the viewers who wrote to me seemed to be in a critical mood about lots of things.

The one that attracted the most mail actually involved a commentary by Anne Taylor Fleming, an essayist who frequently appears on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Fleming's focus last Friday, March 14, was Silda Wall Spitzer, the wife of the now-disgraced and now-former governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer. Specifically, the subject was Silda's face, the television image we all saw for just a minute or two but seemed like a very long time as she stood at her husband's side while he read his resignation announcement. A sampling of the letters follows. Most are critical, a view I don't share. I suppose I've become a fan of Fleming's commentaries. They almost always strike me as especially observant, natural and candid.

Just before posting this column, several letters also arrived that were all critical of an interview with Sen. Barack Obama on the NewsHour last evening, March 17. Those letters are at the bottom of today's mailbag.

That Face

The essay on the NewsHour Friday, March 14, on Mrs. Spitzer's face, was entirely odious. In the guise of sympathy, which I suppose was the hook on which this piece was hung, the author lasciviously plastered said face, in its sadness and hurt. And, ostensibly sympathetically, pictures of happier times for the poor woman were put up for comparison. And the essayist then had the effrontery to make slighting, cutting references to the glee of the conservative commentators. Their glee is also odious . . . but at least it's to be expected.

Duncan M., Niagara, Ontario

Re 3/14/08 essay on Eliot Spitzer's wife. Excellent, the only decent comments that were made all week. All the rest of the talking heads were like a pack of hyenas with a new kill to attack. Enjoy your essays.

San Diego, CA

As a longtime supporter of PBS I was dismayed to see Anne Taylor Fleming's tabloid piece on Governor Spitzer's wife's "face" The Lehrer NewsHour usually rises above such prurient nonsense. Do we really need to study anyone's face when they're going through a difficult time? Do we need to make assumptions about anyone's marriage when it's none of our business? This vapid story was not only prurient but unkind. "There are no words to describe that face," Anne Taylor Fleming says, after already describing (hyperbolically) what she saw. Aren't there subjects of more import in the world that she might like to explore?

Diane Stevens, Cambria, CA

My husband and I look forward all week to the Friday evening NewsHour program because we greatly enjoy the political commentary of Mark Shields (and, as his hapless foil, David Brooks). We are NOT interested in sex scandals; if we were, we would get our television "news" from some trashy local station instead of waiting for the PBS NewsHour. We were dismayed and disgusted, therefore, to see Mark and David cut short this evening to allow time for the musings of Anne Taylor Fleming on the facial expressions of poor Eliot Spitzer's wife. Yes, one feels very sorry for her, but can it possibly help her that millions of people are listening to someone say so in the most banal terms? No, it cannot. Does it inform or enlighten these millions of people in any way? No, it does not. So why waste our time with it? In short: more Shields! Less Fleming! And, while I'm sounding off, more Lehrer!

Sandra Ackerman, Durham, NC

This is not about editorial integrity, but just a comment on a segment of the NewsHour. I was always open to the stories of Anne Taylor Fleming, but tonight's commentary on Silda Wall Spitzer was over emotional and insensitive to many who have experienced "sorrow beyond words." I understand that this is a painful experience, but, I don't believe that statement puts it in any kind of appropriate perspective. Shame on you Anne Taylor Fleming.

Bay Village, OH

That Surge

In the NewsHour's segment (March 11) on the surge in Iraq, two views were presented. I was astounded that one of participants was Frederick Kagan, one of the architects of the surge policy. How you could expect him to offer anything but a biased view of the situation? Mr. Lehrer did not identify him as having played a role in the surge, a violation of professional ethics on Lehrer's. I think the audience deserves at explanation of this kind of distorted reporting by the NewsHour.

John Gillis, Berkeley, CA

Jim Lehrer's standards of journalistic integrity seem to have declined. In last night's interview [3/11] with Kagan and Rosen on the surge in Iraq he failed to inform the audience that Kagan was one of the authors of the surge idea. That seriously misrepresents the nature of the debate taking place, presenting Kagan as simply holding a different point of view. The audience deserves better, and Lehrer is well-enough informed to know of Kagan's role re the surge.

Charles Smith, Tucson, AZ

(Ombudsman's Note: I wasn't successful in getting an answer from the NewsHour on this one. But I do agree with the letter writers that Kagan should have been more fully identified as a leading developer and proponent of the surge concept — outlined in a paper for the American Enterprise Institute that he posted online on Jan. 5, 2007. That lack of fuller identification seemed especially lacking when the first question of the segment is addressed to him and asks: "You agree with the president that the surge has been successful, correct?")

That Other Face

I was very dismayed when Gwen Ifill (after a campaign clip featuring Hillary Clinton in which Clinton appeared conciliatory toward her opponent) commented that Clinton really meant "I'll rip off your face." I do not feel that this kind of characterization is helpful, especially for a female candidate, whose strengths are often unflatteringly portrayed as "unladylike" toughness. Whose being "unladylike," Gwen?

Lambertville, NJ

I have enjoyed Ms. Ifill's long time on-air work and welcomed her back with many others on her return from her trips abroad. However, both my wife and I, long time supporters of women's rights in general and African American women in equal measure, leading to our great support of Senator Clinton for the next presidency of our great but struggling country, I was shocked, dismayed, disappointed and not a little put off by Gwen's off-hand remark this past Friday evening suggesting that Ms. Clinton would tear off the face of anyone who would disagree with her strategy and/or her attempt to clearly and correctly present herself as the more experienced candidate; which is exactly the truth. "I'll tear off your face..." was mean spirited, uncalled for and anti-women.

New York, NY

(Ifill responds: I apologize to viewers who were offended by my offhand comment on last week's Washington Week. I certainly did not intend to demean Senator Clinton. In fact, I did not intend anything at all, which is why it would have been better left unsaid.)

Bang for the Buck

I read your comments about The War and The Economy and agree completely with your view. The housing/financial crisis is my main concern. The Bear Stearns fiasco has (until just recently) received perfunctory coverage by the networks and scant comment from the financial community. Scare tactics are one thing, but don't-scare tactics may be more ominous. In our newly evolved information age, you would think it would be fairly easy for any company in control of billions of dollars of invested capital to ascertain a value of the assets pledged against their loans. Evidently, this is not the case. Non-Disclosure to support Non-Panic may be the byword of both the government and the private sector. It will be interesting to see who comes up with a way forward out of this debacle. Unlikely that presidential candidates will face it squarely, but it's axiomatic that our next president will have to.

Bruce Garver, Murrieta, CA

Lack of coverage of the financial aspects of the war is consistent with the fact that the Nightly Business Report disappears from my local station every six weeks or so for fund raising. The Nightly Business Report is replaced by some program, usually musical, that the station shows repeatedly. It makes no sense to alienate viewers of a financial program when you're soliciting donations.

Coverage of finance is very weak on the NewsHour, and I suspect that lack of financial literacy is a problem nationally. But it's probably a waste of time to have politicians discuss business issues such as the tanker refueling contract that went to the EADS-led consortium. An article in the Financial Times reported that GE will provide the jet engines, 82% of which will come from US factories. If the NewsHour wanted dueling politicians, they probably should have had someone who represents the Ohio or North Carolina GE factory that will be a big winner to join the politician representing Boeing.

East Stroudsburg, PA

Missing in Action

It was almost inconceivable to me that neither the NewsHour nor Washington Week gave one word of coverage to the Winter Soldier testimonials being held this week in Silver Spring, Md. Perhaps you could offer some insight as to how this story is un-newsworthy.

Rochester, NY

I often note there are certain events missing from The NewsHour (which is a must-see in our home). This time I must write and question its absence. The Winter Soldier 2008 is going on now (March 13-16) at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, MD. The only coverage is on WPFW-89.3 and it has been live. FYI: The first one was held during the Vietnam War days with experiences coming from soldiers who were trying to serve our country but asked to do illegal things. Now soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are reporting on their experiences, as well as the lack of care for returning vets and other relevant experiences. Why would this not at least be mentioned if not covered?

Barbara Smucker, Falls Church, VA

Another MIA

I was relieved and delighted to see the NewsHour interview with Hillary Clinton, and hope that those in journalism will take a far more critical look at what 'negative bias' means . . . that it isn't just the amount of airtime, but the QUALITY of the story, the spin, the language . . . I finally got rid of cable as a way to protest the horrible negative bias against Hillary Clinton. I'm deeply saddened by the short shrift being given to Hillary Clinton's long and admirable career as a champion for justice, fighter against those who would keep power at the expense of others, and the light in which her work with women around the world is being disrespected instead of honored. The history of women demonstrates the deep strength shared across nation, religion, ethnicity, generation . . . And I'm curious, it seems questionable to me, that Barack Obama excused himself from NewsHour interview last night, at the same time that some challenging stories were coming out in the news (his pastor, the crash of 'taking-the-high-road' ex-gov Spitzer, etc) . . . to me, it just adds to the sense I have that Barack Obama purposely avoids the very issues and situations that Hillary Clinton takes a stand and makes herself available and accountable.

Nancy C., Oakland, CA

Taking Offense

I am a PBS supporter/viewer for over 20 years. I watch the NewsHour each night. It's the only news program I watch because it gives me the news, not personal opinions of the interviewers. But lately I have witnessed a troubling trend. The interviewers seem to "bait" their guests. Pitting one against the other. This I don't like. Now it seems the NewsHour has fallen into the same shame journalism that MSNBC, NBC, and CBS spew out daily just to increase their ratings. This week I actually turned the NewsHour off after 12 minutes of watching this "bait the guest" game. I like to listen to Jim Lehrer but he is doing the same thing. He will briefly talk about an issue, interview his guests, ask one a question, the guest answers then immediately Jim will say to the other guest, "...well, (guest) what do you think of that?" This isn't what I want from the NewsHour. Why can't the interviewers just continue the discussion at hand and not try to start a "war" of words within their guests.

Judy Harper, Kasilof, AK

I don't know how many times I've written to complain about Bill Moyers. Just heard him come on and bash the Bush administration again about using "slave labor" to build the US Embassy in Baghdad and how it's taken so long . . . that "pharaohs could have built the Pyramids in the time it taken already." Inane stuff like that. Why can PBS have another program to rebut all of the misstatements and rantings by this former preacher, and aide to LBJ? I wrote to my PBS station KCET that I'll not longer contribute until this is rectified. I suppose I'll get an answer back from this note saying that PBS is interested in viewers' comments. Great. Glad they're interested. When will they act? Please post this letter. But I'm not interested in it just being posted. What will PBS do about it?

Bill Smith, Palm Desert, CA

As a long time supporter of PBS (primarily because of the NewsHour), I find that the NOW series is offensive. It makes no pretense of balanced coverage unlike the NewsHour. I reached the boiling point with the telecommunication segment tonight. Where was the other side of the debate — nonexistent which is typical of this program.

James Thomas, Cave Creek, AZ

I have just finished forcing myself to watch a few hours of Pledge Drive programming, and I feel as though I have been hit on the back of the head with a blunt object. PBS has meant much to me over the years; some of the programming is truly excellent: NOVA, Nature, Antiques Roadshow, Frontline, to name a few. But, Oh, God save us from the drivel that gets trotted out during these pledge weeks! The "concerts" are awful, and seem to feature singers who appear to me to be straight off the supper-club circuit; or pathetic 70's has-beens who are actually painful to see perform in their dotage; or that Dutch conductor Andre what's- his- name performing quasi-classical milktoast and mush, or those truly silly Irish girls who leap around with their violins like something out of "Fame". But what I find most offensive are the "Motivational" lectures that are nothing more than infomercials. Watching these oddballs with their arrogant, demeaning manner is both insulting and enraging. "Programming" of this nature has no place on PBS. It fits more readily sandwiched in between such network fare as David Oreck and his vacuum cleaner and Ron Popeil. Frankly, I'd rather watch those two gentlemen than the self-help gurus any day. Why for heaven's sake can't the regular programs be retained during these periods?

David Salny, Anderson, SC

Soft Ball?

The letters that follow are about the interview of Sen. Obama by the NewsHour's Gwen Ifill on Monday evening. All the letters are critical of Ifill's approach to the interview. My reaction was that the interview was flat and somewhat disappointing. I don't know if Ifill could have extracted more from Obama or not because he seemed subdued in his responses. Perhaps because the senator's image is so much wrapped around his extraordinary speaking skills and his personality, and perhaps because he had cancelled an earlier scheduled appearance on the NewsHour, there was anticipation of a livelier exchange. Whatever the reason, it didn't happen, but I don't think you can lay the blame entirely on the interviewer.

During an interview tonight (March 17) on the Lehrer Nightly News, Barack Obama said that his father was African American. This statement is patently false. His father was Kenyan who spent some time in the US as a student after which he returned to Kenya. The interviewer, Gwen Ifill, should have, but did not, challenge Senator Obama on this misstatement. I admire Gwen very much, but this statement by Senator Obama was so at odds with the facts that Gwen should have immediately had a follow-up question on it. I am very disappointed on how this interview was handled. It appeared that once again the press was far too easy on Senator Obama.

Clayton, NY

Watched the NewsHour interview of Obama. Extremely biased toward Obama. Poor questions. Smiling interviewer showing prejudice to the candidate.

Clearwater, FL

Tonight Gwen Ifill once again held an interview with Barack that was more like a paid advertisement for the guy than an objective interview. She asked him all the questions everyone in the press is asking — but instead of asking these tough questions she prefaced them softly in a library room with her quiet viewpoint, asking leading questions and letting him go on to give such answers as saying, "The reason he did not distance himself from the words of Pastor Wright, was because he was not in Washington DC as long as Hillary Clinton and did not learn how to avoid these negative press comments by distancing himself from his friends!" Give me a break!! . . . She did not even question his answer!

Nan Hoback, San Diego, CA

Gwen Ifill should get a speedy nomination and unanimous election to the National Softball Interviewers All-Star Team for her questions to Obama. Interviews like this are just a joke.

Versailles, KY

The interview that Gwen Ifill just conducted with Obama was ridiculous. If one compares it to any of your recent interactions with Clinton, it was unfair. She did a poor job which mainly consisted of deferring to him and accepting whatever he said without question. The expression on her face told it all.

Richard Bobst, Chapel Hill, NC

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