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The Ombudsman Column

'Nobody Asked Me, But . . .'

The headline above was made famous by Jimmy Cannon, a well-known and widely-read New York sportswriter and columnist in the 1940s and '50s. Lots of people, including me, sort of grew up reading his column. But every once in a while there really wasn't much going on in the sports world, or something else simply interested him more at the moment, and he used that headline to take himself and his column onto a different playing field.

Many others since then have used that same technique and, in that spirit, this column also makes at least a momentary detour from the world of PBS to the world of NBC because it was on NBC this week that something unfolded that struck me as important, generally, to television journalism and to informing the public.

Most of this column is devoted to posting a sampling of e-mails to the ombudsman from viewers reacting to this week's PBS program "Depression: Out of the Shadows" that aired Wednesday evening, or to issues raised in last week's ombudsman column about program labeling.

But the issue I wanted to raise first involves an interview that NBC's Richard Engel had with President Bush at the tail end of the president's visit to the Middle East last week. It aired on NBC's "Nightly News" program Sunday evening, May 18. Engel had a 15-minute interview with Bush, and NBC aired a little more than two minutes of it on the actual television news broadcast. Weekend anchorman Lester Holt then told viewers that the full interview could be seen on the network's Web site.

Let's Go to the Computer

I don't know how many people actually do that; watch the nightly news and then go someplace and fire-up their computer. I certainly don't and I doubt if many of the older folks who still watch network news at night do it either.

In the aftermath of the interview, a top Bush administration official, White House counselor Ed Gillespie, fired off a sharply critical letter to NBC News President Steve Capus claiming that the network had engaged in "deceitful editing" of that portion of the interview that had been shown, and that important and contextual portions of the president's answers had been cut. In the incestuous world of journalism, that became the big news, with online columnists and others assessing whether the White House or NBC was right. The consensus of reports that I read suggested that NBC's editing was in keeping with the tight, nightly news format and did not distort the answers.

If NBC had an ombudsman, that would have been a good issue to assess and address. But that's not what came to interest me most. The White House-NBC dispute over the editing did cause me to go back and watch the whole interview on the Web, and that's what moves me to say something about another network, and television generally.

This, of course, is purely subjective, but I thought this was one of the best and most challenging interviews I have ever seen with this president. Yet television viewers got to see just slightly more than two of the 15 minutes, and that's what bothers me. The subject was Iraq, Iran and the Middle East. President Bush had just delivered a controversial speech to the Israeli Knesset that made headlines around the world and caused swift reaction within the presidential campaign in this country.

Aside from being NBC's chief foreign correspondent, Engel has been in Iraq and the Middle East for the entire duration of the war in Iraq, "the only television news correspondent to cover the entire war in Iraq for an American television network," as NBC describes him. So Engel knows things firsthand. His questioning is informed by real, on-the-ground reporting. He is also young and part of a vanishing breed of American TV correspondents for the big three commercial networks that actually lives and works abroad. Many of the correspondents I hear elsewhere seem to have British accents.

Engel's questions themselves were informative and worth listening to. They were respectful yet this came across as a contentious interview. No softballs here. And the president was no pushover. He gave quick and clear responses, often disagreeing with the premise of the questions, challenging Engel, and presenting the opposing view in his own style. The president is not often challenged so directly and there was no doubt in my mind, as a viewer, that this was one of the toughest one-on-one interviews the president has faced on matters of war and the Middle East. The president, I thought, handled it well. But this was dramatic television. There was tension between the two. The news of this event, it seemed to me, was in watching the whole thing — or at least a lot more than the two minutes NBC devoted to the actual interview on television.

What Is News?

There are only 22 minutes of "news" in the typical commercial network newscast, so segments are short and tight. Intelligent editing is crucial, and I'm sure NBC does it as well as anybody. But the "news" has become half-filled with features every night about health or personal finance matters, or people doing good work. Nothing wrong with some of that, but it made me wonder if more young people, or just people, would watch these programs if there was more real news, and if they could see live, in-depth, extended interviews such as this one by an experienced correspondent questioning the views and challenging the answers on the spot of a president sitting three feet away. That doesn't happen very often.

It made me wonder why even another 15-20 seconds couldn't be found elsewhere in the program to at least allow the president's full answers to those questions that were aired. It made me wonder about news judgment that tosses out almost 90 percent of a timely, relatively rare, one-on-one shot at the president by a top correspondent on a crucial set of issues about the war and the Middle East. And it reminded me of the sound-bite nature of the way tens of millions of Americans still get their news and how hard it is to stay informed if that's all you watch.

And, there was one more thing that bothered me. The following evening, after the White House had complained about the editing, NBC Nightly News regular anchor Brian Williams said only that the White House had issued a strongly worded letter criticizing NBC's editing of the interview with Bush. But there was no other information supplied by Williams or reporting by NBC; just another suggestion to go to the Web site to see the whole interview, or make a comment on their blog if you cared to. The Web is great for many things, but it also can be a cop-out for television (and print, at times) news organizations that don't want to disturb their normal format when other news intrudes.

Okay, enough of that. What follows now are letters from viewers.

On 'Depression: Out of the Shadows'

I wish to comment on the program 'Depression: Out of the Shadows' that was broadcast nationally on PBS on May 21, 2008. I watched the program with care because I have known several people who suffer from bipolar disorder and at least one who has treatment-resistant depression.

On the program it was noted that psychiatric disorders can be misdiagnosed, and therefore wrongly medicated, with serious consequences for the patient. Of no disorder is this statement more true than of the bipolar condition. When I was in the PhD program of a leading private university, a respected young professor who was seriously bipolar killed himself. The information I have accrued suggests that the professor suffered from what is termed a 'mixed state' — a state that shows both manic and depressive features — when he took his own life. Mixed states are notoriously difficult to medicate, more so than is the bipolar disorder generally. Moreover, the professor had terrible psychiatrists.

I must therefore caution readers about psychiatrists. They should be approached with EXTREME caution. Perhaps they are better trained now than they were when the professor described above took his own life, but they should be approached with caution nonetheless . . . The field of psychiatric disorders, psychiatrists, medications, and other treatments remains a field that is still in the exploratory, developmental stage . . . Not everyone is so fortunate as the people who described their disorders and the treatment they received for them in the program 'Depression.' Talking therapy was frequently praised on the program. But I know people who have been seriously harmed by talking therapy. I am therefore extremely skeptical of the claims made by the various physicians, and also by the various patients, on the program.

Dr. M. A. Wimsatt, Columbia, SC

I loved the program last night on depression. It was so well put together, so informative, so great. Thanks!

Little Ferry, NJ

I watched most of the "One Step" program on depression last night and wish to express several major criticisms:

The program promoted psychiatry's discredited medical model of "mental illness". Your guests and other participants repeatedly called depression an "illness" or "disease" when it is NOT — depression is a common but obviously disturbing emotional state — your "experts" inappropriately pathologized it. At least two psychiatrists in a post-program discussion hosted by Jane Pauley falsely and irresponsibly claimed "genetic factors" or "genetic basis" as a major cause of depression — without citing one scientific or published study to support their claims.

The narrator's frequent claim that electroshock/ECT is "safe and effective . . . 80% effective [on elderly people]" is also completely false and lacks scientific support. Again, no scientific evidence was mentioned to support these sweeping claims. The real and horrific facts are that virtually every person undergoing electroshock suffers some brain damage including permanent memory loss and other 'cognitive dysfunction" or disability. (see Sackeim study in January 2007 issue Neuropsychopharmacology) Why were these widely known facts and risks suppressed or edited out?

WNED's "One step" program was blatantly biased in favor of the medical model of "mental illness" and electroshock. There were no alternative views or opinions expressed on depression and electroshock from dissident health professionals in the United States such as psychiatrists Peter Breggin and Peter Stastny, neuroscientist Peter Sterling, and neurologists such as Dr. John Friedberg, and psychiatric survivors . . .

Don Weitz, Toronto, Ontario

I was HORRIFIED at some depression/mental-health show on Wednesday promoting biological psychiatry/drugs/shock treatment etc, WITHOUT any opposing viewpoints. You should have a show featuring Dr. Peter Breggin, author of "Toxic Psychiatry" who has scientific proof that refutes all that was featured.

D F, Chicago, IL

Whose Program Is It, Anyway?

(Ombudsman's note: The following two letters raise questions about PBS's association with the program on depression. This was, indeed, a PBS program, part of a series on health issues including cancer, heart disease and fat. It was produced by Larkin McPhee for Twin Cities Public Television in St. Paul, Minn., and WGBH in Boston.)

Disclaimer missing. On Depression: Out of the Shadows, I waited carefully for my PBS broadcaster to issue a disclaimer that the views expressed do not represent the views or opinions of management — but none given. I'm a researcher into "NAMIfication" as a social movement. For journalistic integrity purposes, a disclaimer should have been given.

D J Register, Durham, NC

I'm writing in response to the documentary on depression which recently aired on PBS. I realize that this program was not produced by PBS, but I could not find a way to contact the producers of the program so I am contacting you.

I felt that the program adequately represented the biological bases for depression but did not adequately address alternate theories of what causes depression such as psycho-social models for depression. There is no substantial proof of a biological basis for depression, in fact the entire theory is based on a logical fallacy — affirming the consequent. The theory stems from the results of drug treatments and is highly suspect.

In addition SSRI drugs and ECT were consistently promoted on the program. While these drugs may have some efficacy, this is highly debatable. If you are going to discuss the efficacy of these drugs in a documentary then you also have an ethical responsibility to discuss their possible side effects (the same goes for ECT). Also, I felt the efficacy if psychotherapy alone was under represented. There is 50+ years of evidence supporting the efficacy of psychotherapy.

I thought the intention of the documentary was good, particularly in terms of the awareness that it will probably be able to spread. I do think, however, that it would have been better if it had been more balanced. The filmmakers could have easily interviewed Dr. Peter Breggin, M.D. or any number of other professionals associated with the International Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology (an organization which, unlike NAMI and NIMH, does not receive funding from pharmaceutical companies). Again, I think the documentary discussed an important topic and did a good job at spreading awareness, I just feel it could have been more balanced.

West Jordan, UT

More about Labels on PBS Programs and Stations

(Ombudsman's note: The following letters arrived in response to last week's column about the program called "Change Your Brain, Change Your Life" that was aired on hundreds of PBS affiliates in conjunction with a current pledge drive. But PBS had nothing to do with the production of this program and did not vet it in any way.)

I agree that this program was a particularly egregious example of using an infomercial to promote our local public television station. I, too, turn of the station for a week when fund-raising begins, dependent as it is here on sappy musical extravaganzas (most of which are reruns) or infomercials disguised as programming. Even the music retrospectives get tiring after the third or fourth showing. Thus, while stations may be pulling in new viewers through these stratagems, they are losing the contributions of steady viewers. Stations used to use premiers of new or favorite existing programs for fundraising — Civil War, Agatha Christie — have we run out of innovative programming that will pull real PBS viewers in and make us give up our dollars gladly? Surely not. I have complained about this practice to my local station, and things have only gone from bad to worse. Perhaps the national organization can exert some pressure in the right direction.

Robin Axworthy, Whittier, CA

I happened upon this issue in browsing the PBS home page. I had no clue about any of it. What are YOU going to do to stop people from being confused and mislead on a regular basis in the aggregate? Either have a disclaimer as standard policy for all the PBS station or vet the shows before you air them. Please don't try to make us do your job for you. Remember, you're not some soulless, for-profit company whose first and sometimes only priority is its bottom line. "Caveat emptor" doesn't apply here.

Hy A., New York, NY

PBS puts a logo at the END of every "official" program it shows — why not put it at the beginning as well? It would be a simple way to show that the program was created by PBS itself.

J Singer, Fairfax, VA

Since I send in an annual sum to our local PBS station, I receive a monthly list of programs. Nowhere in the calendar is any information about what is, or is not, a PBS program. Surely adding a note for each program would be easy, and would let me know the difference. I, too, have ceased watching PBS during fund drives since I don't care for the 'advice' offered. Thank you for letting me know why I have sometimes been unhappy about the offerings.

Tillie Krieger, Eugene, OR

I am surprised that you get so much mail about the McLaughlin Group, since it is one of the few shows on PBS or elsewhere which actually has equal numbers of Conservative and Liberal guest commentators and gives them all an equal voice. The usual formula, whether PBS or other networks, is one token "Conservative" and any number of "Liberals." Except for Bill Moyers' Journal where anyone to the Right of Bill Moyers need not apply.

Michael Freed, Sylmar, CA

I suppose I am getting burnt out on these complaints for no matter how much I agree with those that challenge their local station airing the infomercials and self-help programs, there is little that can be done. The best thing to do is to be somewhat eclectic and watch only what is pleasing and tune out the offensive materials. The voices of opposition fall basically on deaf ears as are complaints about shortened programs, commercials, questionable outside program acquisitions, and obvious bias. My affiliate is constantly whining about operational costs and a day does not go by without a nudge to visit their website for auction goodies to unload. Attempts to question my affiliate and receive a decent response from my affiliate fail: I get no answer or some slightly adjustable form letter . . . "Your letter has been sent to the correct party" — lost in a black hole of public television. Feedback is non-existent. The affiliate offers lip service to the public's input. I have discovered that the affiliate has extended themselves beyond television operations and is involved in educational services to children, young adults, and adults — since when are public educational services beyond the medium of television a concern of the local affiliate?

And those insidious infomercials. Is my city that stupid to support and line the pockets of the presenters? Will my affiliate disclose their cut of the "take"? No! Did they ever ask the public what they might like to view during a pledge drive? No! What are the operational expenditures? Who knows. All we ever see is a pretty pie chart of the derivation of funds. How much does the CEO make . . . a three figure salary? Who knows? Does the public have a say on the locally produced [and high dollar] affiliate productions [such as three weasels visiting national folk art individuals or the Kansas-Missouri conflict]. PUBLIC television — my butt. Interaction and courtesy are non-existent. So the bottom line is a cessation of complaints and just turn the television off and let the affiliate go unchecked and unchallenged. Nothing will change.

David Petersen, Kansas City, MO