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The Ombudsman Column

Ombudsman's Mailbag

Welcome to another collection of viewer responses to what they see and hear on PBS. Things were a little slow this past week; nothing that generated a great deal of mail. But what does arrive is always interesting. Here's a sample.

A Program Promising 'The Truth'

"The Truth About Cancer" — an excellent documentary — heartbreaking in its realism and compassion. I have been a critical-care nurse for 25 years and also lost my dad to mesothelioma 2 years ago, which is the same disease the producer focused on (among others). Outstanding programming. I wish this could be required viewing for laypeople to increase their understanding of how many fronts the cancer battle is being waged on.

Danville, CA

The Truth about Cancer. It was fabulous. I have been a RN for 24 years and worked on an oncology floor in a hospital outside Boston for over 12 years. I always felt privileged to work with these patients because of their courage, not to mention being able to witness first hand the best and worst of a person, sometimes in the same day. The story presented tonight rang so true to everything I experienced working with these wonderful people. They helped confirm and solidify in me what my faith in God and in humankind really means and I will be forever grateful for being a part of their lives, even if for a short time. I am out of the field now but miss it and this program reminded me of how much.

Hebron, CT

The documentary "The Truth About Cancer" is an irresponsible, harmful betrayal of cancer patients throughout the world. While I feel compassion for Linda Garmon's terrible outcome and support her right to use filmmaking as a therapy for her grief, it is simply morally reprehensible for her and for PBS, WGBH, the John Wayne Cancer Foundation, and the Susan G. Komen Foundation to support this untrue and misleading piece of propaganda. Please consider the withdrawal of this documentary to avoid any further irreparable harm and immeasurable damages from incurring. At the very least, the title of the film should be changed to "My Experience with Cancer" or "One Person's Truth About Cancer." To characterize this grief stricken film as "The Truth About Cancer" is unconscionable.

Mimi Rothschild, Philadelphia, PA

(Ombudsman's note: I wrote to Ms. Rothschild to ask what, specifically, is "irresponsible" about this film and why it is a "harmful betrayal"? She sent a lengthy reply but the crux of her response is that: "Many cancer survivors attribute diet, exercise, nutritional supplements, herbs, prayer, acupuncture, laughter therapy, and a host of holistic treatments to their total remission of cancer. In a film that claims to contain 'the truth about cancer', isn't it a woeful betrayal to all of those patients and families who are fighting cancer to be told they have only three choices for treatment, when that is simply and unequivocally untrue?")

That Debate on ABC

The debate on ABC Television between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama Wednesday night, April 16, in Philadelphia produced an outpouring of reaction and controversy around the country, much of it focused on the performance of the two moderators, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, as well as the candidates. The following evening, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer program properly devoted an extensive segment to reporting and analyzing this debate. Yet it failed to make any mention of the controversy surrounding how this debate was conducted by the two journalists. Maybe that will happen in an upcoming program. The candidates, of course, should be the focus of the report. But the failure to make any mention of the controversy that immediately erupted surrounding the role of the moderators, and was also clearly news, seemed to me like an obvious omission. Following are a couple of letters to me touching on some of this. I'm not endorsing the views in the letters, or the quality of the debate; only that the role of the press had become news and an issue worthy of reporting.

It is stunning to me that PBS laid over and bought into the chattering class debate. Patriotism? Flags on lapels? Are you kidding me? Are you really trying to become FOX NEWS journalism? The report the day after the debate should have included the water cooler talk that was happening across the country — the failure of ABC to run a respectful and informative debate. Your reporting today was horrific. Shame is shared by PBS.

Jesse Putnam, Seattle, WA

I was saddened and angered that your evening news chose to replay the trite, useless, hot button questions that were asked by ABC's moderators last night in the presidential debates. Both candidates have worked on issues vital to the US and our world. Why would you replay last night's disgusting/cheap focus on hot button issues? Tonight's news should have been how two professionals could perform so unprofessionally in their moderation of the debate. ABC and PBS owe people an apology for such a simplistic, cheap approach. If I want that kind of news I will pick up a copy of the National Inquirer.

Dale Stuepfert, Minneapolis, MN

There was a representative from factcheck.org on the Jim Lehrer NewsHour. He reported that Obama had "mis-stated" by saying he "never refused to wear a flag pin". The rep for factcheck.org pointed out that Obama had made such a statement (not verbatim) in the past. During the debate Obama made the comment that he had worn a flag pin the day prior to the debate. My problem with this is that the fact check person did not mention "this" statement. As a viewer I don't know if that statement was true or not. I thought it was poor journalism for the host "not to ask" about that very relevant statement. I know this may sound like nit picking but given the present status of the mass media circus PBS is one of very few reliable news sources. Coverage is usually in depth and balanced and this was the first time I felt it was a bit lacking. I am an Obama supporter because I am first and foremost a "truth seeker."

James McLoryd, Monroe, NY

(Ombudsman's note: On the program, Brooks Jackson of FactCheck.org pointed out that Obama had stated: "I never said that I had refused to wear it," referring to the flag lapel pin. But Jackson pointed out that in Iowa several months ago, Obama had told a TV interviewer that after 9/11 he had decided not to wear it because, in his view, it had become a substitute for true patriotism.)

PBS KIDS Sprout or Comcast KIDS Sprout?

As the mother of four children ages 3-10, I wish to express concern about commercials on the PBS Sprout television channel. Since our eldest child was two-years-old, we have allowed PBS to be on in the late afternoon/evening on weeknights. This helps manage the chaos of arrivals from daycare/school/work at once while getting dinner ready.

We were appreciative when PBS Sprout first aired since it presented quality, commercial-free programming on weekdays later into the evening. Please consider that local PBS programming is not an option for children (without TiVo or a similar device) who are not at home during the day. And, previously, no other channel we receive aired commercial-free programs for kids.

Over the years, we were confused to notice commercials on PBS Sprout. It was the primary reason we stopped donating to PBS. Over the same time period, we noticed that Nickelodeon expanded its Noggin channel which offers excellent programming with no commercials at all. Our children watch commercial television on weekends. We are not trying to ban commercials from our home entirely, but rather to limit them, especially to very young children.

This note to you was finally prompted by the weekly insistence from my eldest children that they need a "Pancake Puff" pan because they are bombarded with this ad on PBS Sprout. This is the only product they have asked me for this year from any commercial they have seen on any station. Lucky for me, our local consumer reporter recently tested the "Pancake Puff" and found it does not perform as advertised. I suppose I can thank PBS Sprout for giving me the opportunity to teach my children an educational lesson about false advertising claims. Yet, I'd still prefer they did not learn about this product through a channel labeled as "public broadcasting". Parents allow their children to tune to PBS with the assumption of ad-free programming. I'm afraid that putting the PBS name on a Comcast commercial channel is a bit like saying the "Pancake Puff" really works. Sadly, I fear stories like ours signal the beginning of the end of "public" children's programming if these issues are not corrected.

Julie Rocchio, Alexandria, VA

PBS KIDS Sprout Responds:

"Sprout was created as a partnership among Comcast Corporation, HIT Entertainment, PBS and Sesame Workshop. We do not receive any public funding and, much like other networks, we require the support of program sponsors and advertisers in order to provide quality programming. Advertising or sponsorships on Sprout will never interrupt a program, and we only feature messages targeted to the parent or caregiver, not the child viewer. We follow the guidelines established by the children's industry and the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) Self-Regulatory Guidelines for Children's Advertising."

As Does Ms. Rocchio:

I appreciate you providing more information about PBS Sprout. Your email helps to better inform my decisions but does not address my concerns at all.

— I expect a channel with PBS in its name will never have commercials, regardless of who they are targeted to or when they air. I will change that expectation from this point forward which will in turn change my viewing decisions.
— I believe it is blatantly deceptive to only use the PBS name on a channel owned in part by a for-profit corporation.
— I also fail to imagine how a "Pancake Puff" product is not marketed towards children no matter how it is rationalized otherwise.

(Ombudsman's note: The subject of advertising on PBS, and especially the then-new and unique arrangement with the commercial cable-provider Comcast, was the focus of two earlier ombudsman's columns in 2006.)

On Last Week's Ombudsman's Column

I believe I know what the problem is; I do not have even a clue as to the solution. I was born just after World War II and shared more of my parents' views than my motorcycle hippie personage would imply. Many of us are on a quest for knowledge — any that could be gleaned from any source, opinion, information, the more the better, discourse. The more we learned the more confidence we had in being able to manage ourselves in the world. Around fifteen years ago I noticed a trend in my profession and the society. As the Chief Engineer in a television studio, it had long been a practice that everyone knew how to do everyone else's job . . . As jobs became more complex, our roles became simpler and more highly defined. People that did a very good job at a task are replaced by machines that are perfect but not good at the job . . . We are now lazy! We are unwilling to invest the effort necessary to learn the arcane, mundane facts. Who cares that for want of better information we are in a costly war? It is just too difficult to learn history; our own or anyone else's for that matter, and too easy to believe any lie and pass the blame off to the perpetrator of that lie for our lack of knowledge. You cannot blame it on the news business because they can't compete with the sexual antics of Paris Hilton or the lunacy of Brittany Spears. We are collectively at a point where we avoid news, especially the news that by avoiding the news we are shirking our civic duty. No one that needs to hear that will get it; those that already get it will probably read every word.

Mike Knight, Tampa, FL

Our society has changed greatly over the past half century. The society at large has become interested in 'Self-Esteem', and horrors if it is ignored. Parents go to great lengths to intimidate teachers, and even professors, for not being more understanding of their children. Children have been encouraged to do their 'own thing' even when they have no clue as to what that means. Therefore they herd together and the lowest common denominator of opinion becomes 'their own thing.' To do your own thing implies an understanding of life and the choices in the world, but with no knowledge of the world in all its complexity, it is difficult to understand how to decide what your own thing is.

The bloggers often give opinions off the top of their head, having the same lack of knowledge, so why read them? Much of the news is focused on ditzy blondes, on crooked magnates, or those who are quite self-obsessed, or violent crime and accidents, and I'm not interested in that — so why should anyone else be . . . Added to the 'self-esteem,' we're becoming self-absorbed, all those ridiculous studies that are printed or aired daily on the state of one's health and which are always contradicting one another . . . The news is mostly about entertainment people, a kind of ersatz substitute for a family . . . People in Iraq, in the Middle East, in Africa, South America know that what governments do can have a bearing on their lives, so they pay attention — as to those Americans who are losing jobs — but young people in this country? What's government got to do with their life?

Tillie Krieger, Eugene, OR

One unmentioned reason for disconnect with the news is that the quality of coverage and what is called news are poor and banal, respectively. There are important issues, but the news people covering them are poorly informed, bring great bias to their reportage, and focus on "opinion makers" whose views mirror their own. Every medium has earned a reputation for bias and less-than-factual reporting that is so strong that youth is right not to listen. Alas, the NPR and PBS are as guilty as anyone in this respect . . . Shape up on quality and depth and facts and coverage of credible counter views, or today's youth will be tomorrow's adults, and they will not be listening to you.

John McNiff, New York, NY

I applaud David T. Z. Mindich as a journalism professor for his study to evaluate the degree to which people read news publications. Many news consumers have grown numb to journalism that attempts to get attention by sensationalizing news articles and appealing to the base appetites of most people with sex, violence and corruption. Also, we have editors who direct journalism to their own special interest and try to impose and shape public opinion. Most people do not like to be told what to think. Journalism can also be bias to the intellectuals with their prejudices against common folks who do honest manual labor and religious groups.

Alan Klaus, Santa Fe, NM

Finally, 'Ms. Perky' and the Poet

I assume your Globe Trekker show is supposed to be light fare, but it reached a new low in your airing of Ms. Perky's romp through Los Angeles. Instead of showing some of the real substance of Southern California, the show portrayed Hollywood, Hollywood, Hollywood with all the myths and stereotypes the host could muster. It also misstated many facts about a variety of subjects including mass transit while ignoring the massive character and diversity of Los Angeles which, among other things, includes some of the best hiking in the world from Griffith Park to the Santa Monica Mountains, Verdugos, etc. This show should be on a mediocre travel station, not PBS. Why does PBS allow a poorly done, pseudo travel log rather than something that educates and has substance?

Michael Miller, Los Angeles, CA

I am outraged at what I just witnessed on your American Experience: Walt Whitman. Using TAXPAYER dollars, you show softcore pornography on OUR channel. Video of a man jacking off is NOT educational! How dare you devote money to this! You can give a biography of Whitman without putting a sex scene (a long one, at that) on full display. You don't have to deny what he was, but for heaven's sake, it is completely irresponsible to use it as a venue for porn. I am disgusted.

Knoxville, TN