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The Ombudsman Column

Ombudsman's Mailbag

Debating the War

Welcome to another Ombudsman's Mailbag. This one comes close on the heels of Tuesday's mailbag, mostly because this extraordinary election campaign season continues to generate a relentless stream of issues, controversies and interest among viewers. And, since so much attention is on the news and analysis that unfolds daily, a lot of the mail recently has focused on PBS's flagship, five-nights-a-week program, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Many of the letters being posted today are critical. Some of that criticism I agree with and I'll explain why. But it is also important to keep a couple of things in mind. As I have said before, most people write to an ombudsman to complain. Election campaigns are naturally heated and divisive, so some viewers may come at things driven by partisan considerations or a sense of unfairness. And a program like the NewsHour, like any large and serious news organization, needs to be judged not by any one segment or one night's performance but by its performance over a longer period. With that as a yardstick, the NewsHour has always seemed to me to be about the best television has to offer for solid, fair, comprehensive and non-partisan presentation of the news.

Nevertheless, the daily critiques that arrive here are frequently useful in pointing out moments when things appear to fall short. For example, Wednesday night's broadcast (March 19) included a lengthy segment in which senior correspondent Judy Woodruff continued a NewsHour election season "Big Picture" series in which correspondents travel around the country to discuss important national issues with groups of citizens. Wednesday night's session in Washington, on the fifth anniversary of the U.S. war in Iraq, tackled views about that conflict with some of those citizens who took part in previous sessions elsewhere and were brought to the Washington area for the discussion about Iraq (and a subsequent one on the economy).

The segment on the war drew a fair number of e-mails and phone calls, almost all of them critical. A sampling of the letters follows. My own view of this segment is two-fold. On the plus side, as I have said before, it is a good and proper journalistic exercise for the NewsHour and public television to be bringing the voices of citizens into these discussions, and it is valuable for viewers, whether or not they agree with the opinions expressed, to hear them. On the other hand, this turned out to be a collection of citizens that did not seem, at least to me and to some of the letter-writers, particularly well chosen to reflect the real debate on so controversial a subject.

The 10 guests included four identified as Republicans, four Independents and two Democrats. The Republicans were generally supportive of the war and a couple of them tended to dominate the conversation with their confidence. The Independents seemed largely neutral, seeing lots of different aspects. So, unless all the opinion polls are wrong, the panel was hardly reflective of public feelings. There were only two voices that expressed strong views against the war, and the Democrats seemed strangely under-represented.

The guests were selected from the dozens of citizens the NewsHour interviewed about a range of subjects in the series. NewsHour officials say the guests were picked for a mixture of age, gender, ethnicity, income level, region and actual experience with the war, and that many of the Independents, based on earlier discussions, tended to be inclined more toward the Democrats. Maybe so, but you couldn't really tell that from the commentary and I was left thinking that this discussion turned out to be not very reflective of the debate, at least as it is played out every day in newspapers and newscasts. And it seemed kind of bizarre, and distracting right from the start, to have such an identified and unbalanced group of participants on such a divisive subject. Of course, it may be that the collection of views expressed is more representative than the polls suggest. But the make-up of the panel seemed to diminish the overall credibility.

Here Are the Letters

Judy Woodruff's (March 19) interview with the ten people regarding the Iraq war was one of the worst episodes I've ever seen on the NewsHour. Why would you possibly want to present such a biased sample of opinion? As I recall, there were 4 republicans, 4 independents, and only 2 democrats. All of the independents, as would be expected, expressed republican opinions. Thus, your sample, which you selected, could be expected to run 80% in favor of the Iraq situation, when in the real world at least 60% oppose the war. Thus, you manipulated your sample in order to manipulate the (pro-war) information conveyed to your audience. Given that these people had already been interviewed, you knew in advance what they were going to say. This is utterly irresponsible journalism.

Doug Derryberry, Philomath, OR

Your Mailbag provides an excellent forum for viewers to voice their reactions to segments on The NewsHour. Tonight (March 19) Judy Woodruff's roundtable discussion was outstanding and clearly reflected the disparate views of Americans regarding the Iraq War. I found it ironic that two outspoken defenders of the War were of foreign ancestry. Perhaps the rest of us should take a closer look at what they have to say.

Sandra Packer, Stuart, FL

Tonight the NewsHour included an amazingly biased panel discussion of selected voters from around the country. The proportion favoring the war in Iraq was far out of line with poll results suggesting that a majority of the country is not in favor of the war. It is highly unlikely that this happened due to chance, since the participants were selected from participants in previous discussion groups, so that their views on the war would have been known to the NewsHour staff. I am most disappointed in this bias.

Marjorie Reed, Philomath, OR

I have been watching a panel discussion tonight about the war. It seems that you picked the most ignorant among us to be on this panel. I can't believe that these people are representative of what the American people are thinking. Try and do better in the future and maybe get a few more Democrats on there.

Ted Thomas, Arvada, CO

I watch PBS to get an honest picture of what is happening in this country. The Wednesday panel on the war in Iraq did not seem balanced to me. It was the sort of balance that one would expect from Fox or some other right wing organization . . . No one noted that it was not very intelligent to attack a country that had no involvement in the attack. No one commented on the number of other very bad governments that did not get attacked.

Ralph Ekwall, Omaha, NE

I just finished watching the Lehrer Report's meeting of various Americans with Judy Woodruff. I find it hard to believe that not one of the participants was firmly, I mean firmly, against the war in Iraq. I can't believe that the NewsHour couldn't find a single American to represent this side. More and more I'm coming to believe that the NewsHour especially is so afraid of offending the government that it often bends over backwards to represent the middle and right of America and leaves out the voices of the left. I'm a liberal, I admit it, a step away from hell. This is the only news program I watch because of the balanced reporting that has gone on in the past. More and more this is not the case on the NewsHour. I'm not looking for a purely liberal discussion. But I do expect the really liberal voice to be represented. This so-called discussion of the fifth anniversary of our invasion of Iraq was a real travesty and I expect better, much better, from this program.

Richard Siegel, New York, NY

What happened to the NewsHour? And, who is responsible for the demise of this once proud standard? To the viewer this free fall has been both astonishing and disgusting. Starting from the pinnacle of fact based analysis and reporting, the Hour first fell to the less informative "he said, she said" format. Although less informative than fact based analysis this format did produce benefit because it typically presented points of view from people recognized in their field who deserved to be heard. But, last night the Hour crashed into the gutter of junk news where facts don't matter at all. I'm referring to the sponsorship, at considerable expense, of an uninformative exchange between a collection of people who knew no more and in some cases had chosen to know less than the audience. So again what is going on and who is responsible?

Salem, OR

I am troubled by the very lengthy segment March 19 interviewing a group of people about the war in Iraq. So much air time was given to people who were not truly aware of the facts. It was akin to "man on the street" interviews (which may have their place, but not on The NewsHour). Perhaps the program could have been more balanced if Judy Woodruff had intervened and questioned some of the participants instead of just being a "traffic director". All that misinformation was broadcast with the imprimatur of The NewsHour. You were leaving the correction of biases and misinformation to the other participants. I really found it shocking that you aired this. The preceding interviews with such groups were not instructive but this reached a new low. It is also interesting that the general outlook of that group is in such contrast to what all the polls indicate. That's a mystery to me.

Zena Lerman, Oxford, MD

I'm beginning to wear thin at the Lehrer program. This evening's conversation with truly stupid people was almost unbearable. And, by-the-by, I thought Anne Taylor Fleming on Spitzer's wife was remarkably insightful and decent. Are we becoming a nation of blockheads?!

Chesterfield, MO

But We Like Anne Taylor Fleming, and Others

Thank you for your comments regarding the essay by Anne Taylor Fleming on Silda Wall Spitzer. I completely agree with you and am surprised that there were so many negative comments from viewers. How well Anne Taylor Fleming captured the essence of a life so publicly humiliated. The expression on the face of Silda Wall Spitzer leads us all to wonder how we would fare in her place. A poignant observation by a most gifted essayist.

Sandra Packer, Stuart, FL

I just read this week's letters, mostly of criticism of various segments of the NewsHour and other news shows on PBS. I disagree with ALL of the criticisms.

I felt the essay on Mrs. Spitzer's sad face was right on. And it was about time it got talked about. Especially since another one of those "sad, adulterized faces" who never got talked about is now running for president! Let's get it out in the open. I loved A.T. Fleming's essay! It was perfect in its honest display for once.

I love David Brancaccio's NOW show. Of course, it's biased, it's supposed to be! He's showing the down-side of politics and government and all of that, that NEVER gets exposed. He's exposing it! Good for him! I love that show.

Also, I watched Gwen Ifill's interview with Barack Obama. Not once did I see her smile. I watched and waited! Not once. I think those viewers thought her "pleasant demeanor" was a smile. I actually felt she was trying very hard to ask very neutral but tough questions, with no bias either way. She's not there to cut his guts out, after all. Is she? Is that what viewers really want? Although Jim Lehrer could have explained, with just a bit more communication (as I have accused him of before) of just WHY Obama needed to reschedule the interview. Just a word or two would have sufficed.

I also LOVE Gwen Ifill and her Washington Week. If she said offhandedly that someone wanted to tear someone else's face off, then that probably WAS the case. I consider Clinton to be somewhat schizophrenic in her "kitchen sink" politics . . . she is changeable to the point that I wonder who she really is? Besides the wife of an ex-president who is now running for president. Hard-working? No doubt. But "slippery in a negative way" is a good way to describe her, in my opinion.

I also LOVE the 10 p.m. Friday news show with (his name escapes me at the moment — the famous older man). His pertinent, insightful, and cuttingly truthful exposes are refreshing, to say the least. I like hearing the truth, even if it needs to be described with negative images. If people can't take the truth, they should watch something else.

I do have a few criticisms of "Pledge Week" shows, namely, that if we are to invest money in PBS along the lines of the particular shows airing during pledge times, then shouldn't those SAME shows be aired during regular times? Yet, they are not. Are "The High Kings" and Brenda Watson and Dr. Wayne Dyer et al ever aired regularly? No, they are not. That is something PBS might want to think about.

Adele Sonora, Davis, CA

To call Gwen Ifill's interview with Barack Obama "flat and somewhat disappointing" (as the ombudsman did in Tuesday's mailbag) is like calling George Bush's tenure productive, something of a misstatement/understatement bordering on untrue.

Mike Knight, Tampa, FL

'Winter Soldiers'

In the previous mailbag, I posted e-mails from some viewers who were disappointed that PBS had not provided any news coverage about the gathering in Silver Spring, Md., last week (March 13-16) of dozens of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their testimony about what they saw and experienced. This week, the organization called Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), which describes itself as a progressive media watchdog group, also criticized the U.S. media broadly for not covering this event. FAIR noted that none of the major broadcast networks — ABC, NBC and CBS — mentioned the gathering, nor had the New York Times and many other newspapers. I saw rather good coverage in The Washington Post and the Boston Globe among papers that did report on the proceedings. Others covering it included Time magazine and National Public Radio, and there was also a fair amount of coverage in several other newspapers during the weekend and early this week. The hearings, named after the Vietnam-era veterans gathering in 1971 at which war crimes were reported, were organized by the Iraq Veterans Against War.

A producer at the NewsHour explained the lack of coverage this way: "The NewsHour did not cover the Iraq Veterans Against the War event on the weekend. Our program is broadcast Monday through Friday. The IVAW event on Friday was not covered by a press pool. The program does not normally cover panel discussions unless they are Congressional hearings with news value. One of the NewsHour's producers," he said, "had wanted to attend the Winter Soldier event on Friday at the National Press Club to see if there was a story we could produce in the future, and to meet war veterans who might be good guests on the program. But he was unable to attend because he had to fill in for his boss who was out of the office that day. In addition, our producer was in touch with people connected to IVAW about what might happen next on this story. There was no thought that this event should be 'blacked out' or deliberately not covered, nor did we think this would be the last opportunity to cover issues raised at Winter Soldier. The NewsHour has had members of Iraq Veterans Against the War on the program in the past and will continue to keep them in mind as we cover the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

More Criticism

I just finished reading all the letters the Ombudsman printed this week and now I understand my disappointment with the Jim Lehrer NewsHour. This was always a view of the "news" one could depend on as being unbiased. This is no longer the NewsHour we have come to know and respect. It certainly is possible that Lehrer is being unduly influenced by peddlers of "action type" news. Let's hope he realizes how unfortunate this is becoming.

Sellersville, PA

Amen to the comments on Bill Moyers. His bias is extreme. If PBS is going to continue him (and I hope they don't) why not have an equally biased rightist. Then I wouldn't have to watch Moyers and the liberals wouldn't have to watch the rightist.

Michael Hayes, Westminster, CO

I found many of the postings intelligent and interesting. I do, however, have a problem with individuals who think that just because they don't like a program or an interviewer that then they should be removed. I personally have greatly enjoyed many of the singers that you've had on especially ones like John Denver, Jewel, James Taylor, the Irish singer, etc . . . I also have watched many of Bill Moyer's interviews and appreciate them. Just because I don't agree with something he may say does not mean that he should go. If that was the case all interviewers should go, after all I never agree totally with anyone. Isn't Democracy about allowing others who we disagree with still have their say? I am very thankful for your programs whether they are my cup of tea or not.

B. Hoover, Lebanon, PA

I was sorely disappointed by the Jim Lehrer Hour coverage of Senator Obama's speech on race last evening. Probably due to the tenor of Judy Woodruff's questions, the commentary on Obama's rhetoric, in the best sense of that word, so unique in contemporary America never rose above treating it as a common campaign speech. We turned off the program feeling that even PBS has succumbed to political hacks.

Gail Wilkie, Sun Valley, ID

World Events

Please reconsider PBS carrying BBC World News America. It is NOT real news or real BBC for that matter. I lived in London for 5 years and have watched BBC World News in the U.S. since moving back. It gave me a more European-centric point of view than most U.S. news reports. The BBCWNA is NOT the same thing. It is the UK's version of what it thinks U.S. Fox TV/CNN viewers want to have. Their reporting is hysterical, slanted tripe. Please, please do not sully PBS's news integrity with the garbage being put out by BBCWNA.

St. Petersburg, FL

According to my Comcast cable TV schedule . . . the (New York Philharmonic in North Korea) program was to be in High Definition on the Saturday after the event. Future repeats were in the schedule. As it happened we got the one standard def. broadcast on the 28th. No repeats, no HD. I have made inquiries and no one at our local Twin Cities Public TV seems to care about it. I think that a lot of their system is automated and indeed humans don't know much or care so very much. I spoke with the PBS affiliate that produced the program and indeed it was shown there in HD.

I am a weary old anti-cold-war-propaganda activist. This kind of thing used to happen all the time in regard to somewhat positive events in the USSR and Cuba. There are people who step on the toes of people who think that it is okay to shine a "friendly" light on commie stuff. This is how American propaganda worked throughout the cold war years . . . voluntary avoidance of "trouble." All this said . . . I am a classical music fanatic and a HD TV fanatic. I want arts on TV in HD. This event was a breakthrough event . . . not unlike the Nixon in China story. I hope to see the light of day shining on just what happened.

Robert Perschmann, Chaska, MN