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PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman's Mailbag

Covering the Dems, the Economy and the Cost of the War

Welcome to another edition of the Ombudsman's Mailbag. This one deals mostly with viewer comments, and some of my own, on recent coverage of the Democratic primary campaign, followed by a sampling of letters on other subjects.

Then, I take advantage of this platform to raise a question of my own, as a newspaper reader and television viewer, that is also about the primaries but which deals with something that is not being covered — the financial costs of the war in Iraq which, in about two weeks, will enter its sixth year.

First, the Big Switch

Surveys of campaign press coverage in the week before the big primaries in Ohio and Texas on March 4 showed clearly that Sen. Hillary Clinton's decision to challenge the press to generate more critical coverage of Sen. Barack Obama worked. Not only was there a noticeable shift in critical focus and questioning away from Clinton and toward Obama, but the press seemed to buy in to the idea that they, until now, had been soft on Obama and tougher on Clinton.

The evidence and analysis is laid out by the highly respected Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) in its weekly Campaign Coverage Index covering Feb. 25-March 2. Sen. Clinton, deftly and at an absolutely crucial time, turned the tables on Sen. Obama and much of the press seemed to agree with the charge that perhaps they had been patsies. The PEJ account, for example, quotes ABC's Diane Sawyer on the Feb. 28 edition of "Good Morning America" as asking: "Have all of us in the media used boxing gloves on Clinton and kid gloves on Obama? Have we been unfair?" The New York Times, the next day, asked, "Are the media giving Obama a free ride?"

Whatever is the accurate answer to that question, there is little doubt that rather suddenly reporters began pressing Obama hard about his relationship to Louis Farrakhan, to Israel, to real estate developer Tony Rezko whose trial opened this week in Chicago, to an aide's conversation with Canadian officials about where Obama really stands on NAFTA, and even to continuing whispers that he is a Muslin. The PEJ report quotes CBS correspondent Dean Reynolds stating on the air: "Questions persist about Barack Obama's identity, who he really is."

Whatever the substance of these issues, watching television, in particular, during that week to 10-day period before the March 4 primaries, it was clear that the tone of the reporting and presentation had changed, and the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer did not escape scrutiny from some viewers on that point. Not many viewers wrote to complain, and my sense is that the NewsHour has been a model of fairness and balance during the campaign, including the run-up to the Texas and Ohio primaries. I would agree, however, that, as elsewhere on TV news programs, some viewers could have detected a shift in balance and tone. It may have been because the NewsHour's Judy Woodruff had a lengthy interview with Clinton on Wednesday, Feb. 27, but did not have one with Obama. But Lehrer explained at the end of that segment with Clinton that an invitation had also been extended to Obama. So content during that stretch was, on one hand, an accurate reflection of what was happening, and it had to be covered. Yet television news coverage broadly, it seemed to me, also had a manufactured quality to it, as though Clinton had indeed succeeded in refocusing the news spotlight and agenda, and that many news organizations had thought about that and decided they were going to fix whatever they may, or may not, have been doing wrong.

Here Are the Letters

Re: Tonight's NewsHour (March 3): You should take a stop watch and time pro-Clinton and pro-Obama content. I think you forgot fair and balanced.

Oakley Goodner, Lopez Island, WA

I have found in recent weeks a particular bias in the reporting concerning the campaign for the Democratic candidate. I timed the coverage and the content in the Jim Lehrer reports and found a distinct bias in favor of Hillary Clinton. Of course this left a bad taste in my mouth as one surely expected much more but alas PBS has now joined the ranks of the rank reporting that is full of bias.

Studio, CA

I have been watching for a promised interview with Obama, following a lengthy one with Clinton. On March 3, the day before the elections in Ohio and Texas, I feel more time was spent on Clinton than Obama. I hope this was not intentional. I would like a response directing me to the interview with Obama. I hope Hillary's whining about unfair media coverage has not resulted in a short shrift for Obama.

Joyce Schreiber, Voorheesville, NY

(Ombudsman's Note: At the end of that segment, Lehrer stated, "We've also extended an interview invitation to Sen. Obama.")

As a nightly viewer of The NewsHour, I find coverage of the Primary in the past few days very one-sided toward Hillary Clinton. We watched on both Friday, Feb. 29th and Monday, March 3rd only to find the primary coverage again spending an unnecessary amount of time focusing on Hillary Clinton. Tonight, March 3rd the spotlight was on Cleveland, Ohio. Where was coverage for central and southern Ohio? You are not providing full Ohio coverage. PBS chose to focus on African-Americans' voting for Obama while mostly white persons of middle/upper class voting for Clinton. It is disappointing to see such a one-sided view on our Public Television station. We are white, middle class older adults and find Barack Obama the only honest candidate in this primary.

H. Patterson, Cincinnati, OH

After watching in Denver the last 25 minutes of Wed. evening's The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer my impression was that you were giving Hillary Clinton a 25-minute PBS commercial. Just one person's opinion.

Denver, CO

On Other Matters

As a viewer over 60, I can't figure out how to use your web site to tell Jim Lehrer that the interview just held of the folks from Michigan and Florida re. their primaries failed utterly to challenge them on the ILLEGALITY of their primaries. I am just so distressed and disgusted that she didn't press them on this. They sat glibly expecting everyone to pay for their failure to play by the rules, and she didn't even mention it.

Chicago, IL

Re tonite's (March 6) Lehrer report on the USAF selection of the EAD's K45 Tanker, I wish to protest at the totally one-sided and bias in the facts displayed by Congressman Dicks and the lack of an adequate rebuttal by a person not that familiar with the facts of the selection.

Congressman Dicks was in error on many important points from the fact that significantly fewer K45's will be required vs the B767 to complete the mission to the point that major EU countries purchase many more major US systems than we do from them from the Star Fighter, thru the F-16 to the upcoming F-35 [JSF] in which they have already invested over $8B and will buy 500-1000 a/c at $50-60M/copy.

The point was made that 15% of the B767 was purchased overseas but failed to mention that that a/c has completed its commercial production life whereas the K45 commercial version is still in production as the A330 and EADS has said that it will bring that production to the USA.

Michael Tyler, Cincinnati, OH

Other Stuff: Pete and the Pop-Ups

I had the pleasure of watching the American Masters episode about Pete Seeger tonight. It was a very good show, and a long overdue tribute to a great man, but the entire 90 minutes was marred by a pop-up promotion for another show that appeared on the screen literally every five minutes. I expect to see this annoying advertising tactic on cheesy stations but NOT on public television.

Elkton, MD

God Bless Pete Seeger!!! If it were not for Mr. Seeger and his music, I might never have become involved, however little or much, in my American politics. I truly believe he is the reason people pay attention to what politicians try to ignore; especially during election years!

Devona Bailey, Bessemer, AL

This evening I turned on the show American Masters about Pete Seeger. I have to say that the programming is wonderful, but I rarely watch PBS. I find the incessant plastering of bugs and crawls and the like detracts from the programming.

Lawrence Jamieson, Homosassa, FL

The Economy and the War

Later this month, this country will enter its sixth year of war in Iraq. As American casualties in Iraq have declined in recent months since the "surge" of additional troops into the war zone began, and as the war has faded from the front pages and television screens, the economy has clearly emerged as the number-one concern for the largest number of Americans. Yet the financial cost of the war, it seems to me, is rarely linked in campaign oratory and debate, and in the press, to the U.S. economy and to the overall concerns Americans express about their own economic well-being and the functioning of the society around them. So my suggestion is that this question should be raised, illuminated and assessed at this time to a far greater extent than has been the case.

This, it seems to me, needs to be done however one feels about the war; whether one supports Sen. John McCain's view that the battle must go on, or the views of Clinton and Obama that a phased withdrawal must begin. The United States, according to the Associated Press, has already spent $500 billion — that is half a trillion — on the war in Iraq. The military spends, according to various estimates, $9 billion to $12 billion a month in and on Iraq. A new book co-authored by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz and Harvard Professor Linda J. Bilmes is titled "The Three Trillion Dollar War," an amount that estimates future costs as well as the many hidden costs of conflict and borrowing and veterans care that don't show up easily in official budget projections. An excerpt from the book appears in the April edition of Vanity Fair magazine.

The White House disputes this assessment and says the authors "lack the courage to consider the cost of doing nothing and the cost of failure," according to spokesman Tony Fratto. The war, he adds, "is also an investment in the future safety and security of Americans and our vital national interests."

Nevertheless, whatever the finally tally, it is a huge amount of money. It is enough to start down the road to fixing Social Security and Medicare, or rebuild schools and roads and sewers, or lots of other things. On the other hand, it doesn't necessarily follow that money spent on the war would, in fact, be used for anything else. Where, exactly, does all that money come from and how will it be paid back, and by whom? How do citizens imagine such mind-numbing numbers? War costs represent just a small fraction of our gross national product, so maybe the numbers just sound big but aren't such a big deal. Maybe the U.S. economy is just so big and complex that nobody really understands it and how it works.

Still, it strikes me as bizarre that with the economy the number-one concern of Americans, and with the war at least high-up on the list, the two rarely attract any linked, in-depth debate — beyond a line or two in some campaign speeches and an occasional reference in a budget story in a newspaper or a two-second mention in a television newscast — that sheds light on the relationship.

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