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The Ombudsman Column

Changing the Rules

Is this a great time to be an ombudsman, or what?

Yes, it is a good time but a lot of the action was elsewhere last week, although several PBS viewers in certain parts of the country were upset — justifiably in my view — when pledge-drive programming Friday evening bumped timely broadcasts of the regular weekly NOW program and Bill Moyers Journal.

The NOW program seemed to me to be especially timely, featuring an interview with retired Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, former chief of the US Central Command, who resigned in March after only a year in charge of this crucial command when it appeared in a magazine article that he had some public policy differences with the Bush administration. The NOW interview was a natural, for example, for the wonk-heavy Washington, D.C., area but none of the three PBS channels serving this area showed it. On the main D.C. outlet, WETA, viewers got 1960s pop music instead.

There's more on PBS farther down in this column, however . . .

Working the Rope Line

If you were an independent ombudsman last week at, for example, The Huffington Post Web site (they don't have an ombudsman), you could have grappled with the question of whether Mayhill Fowler should have identified herself as a blogger for that Web site when she got Bill Clinton's attention along the rope line at a campaign stop in Milbank, S.D., on June 2 and asked him, digital recorder in hand, what he thought of "that hatchet job" that former New York Times reporter Todd Purdum wrote about him for Vanity Fair magazine.

I think people serving as reporters always should identify themselves. Indeed, that is standard operating procedure in traditional news organizations. Fowler didn't do that. She offered explanations later to The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz: she dropped a business card she meant to proffer to Sen. Hillary Clinton, and then the scene at the rope line became too chaotic to start identifying herself, although she said she meant to do that, rather than just asking questions. But still, folks, reporters asking face-to-face questions, even untrained amateurs in the new Web world, need to be told to say who they are and who they represent. It doesn't take long to say, "I'm with The Huffington Post."

And the Sex Lines

And, of course, if Vanity Fair had an ombudsman, he or she could have addressed Purdum's almost 10,000-word, so-described "hatchet job" on Clinton. Although the bulk of it dealt with what the magazine described as Clinton's "dubious (and secretive) business associations" and his "private-jetting around with a skirt-chasing, scandal-tinged posse," the article — based on unnamed sources described in three-dozen different ways — was also laced with insinuations of new post-presidential sexual misconduct but with nothing to back it up other than rumors, tabloid speculation and Internet intimations. While reporting all this and suggesting even more, Purdum does the fairness and balance thing, stating, "Nor, indeed, is there any proof of post-presidential sexual indiscretions on Clinton's part," while Vanity Fair cleverly promotes the sexual angle with the headline, "The Comeback Id."

I always read and respected Purdum's reporting for the Times over many years but was disappointed in this piece. For one thing, Purdum's wife, Dee Dee Myers, was Clinton's first press secretary. He discloses this in the article and says she has not been a source. But that would seem to me to be too big a possible conflict of interest for Vanity Fair, where Purdum is now the National Editor, to choose him to author such a piece.

This article does pull together a lot of things about Clinton's post-presidential years and associations, and there is certainly value in doing that. And Clinton is a vulnerable target, so it is easy to believe new insinuations because he disgraced the presidency and the Oval Office by his previous acts. In that earlier period, the charges were on-the-record; people came forward. But there is actually nothing other than anonymous suggestions to back up the sexual innuendo in the Vanity Fair article, and some of the most dubious business associations had previously been reported on by Newsweek and the Times, for example.

And, as was the case with the highly controversial, front-page New York Times story about Sen. John McCain in February, in which an alleged romantic relationship with a female lobbyist is sensed by unnamed aides, the sexual angle in that story overshadowed a broader, documented story about McCain's political relationships with lobbyists. The suggestion of an affair in the Times story has remained exclusive to the Times at this point.

Los Angeles Times media writer James Rainey last week quoted Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism, on the similarity about this point in both these stories: "We are looking at a new, evolving standard," Jurkowitz said. "Now, if something raises to the level of concern for an aide or advisor, then it passes muster for publication. I think you need a stronger standard than that." Well said.

What Happened, or Why Did He Do It?

Then, of course, there was also the emergence of the book by former presidential press secretary Scott McClellan titled, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception." This book became an instant best-seller and source of controversy, as supporters of the Bush administration attacked it and the author, and some journalists and media discussions seemed to be focused as much or more on McClellan's turnabout from spokesman to critic, rather than the content.

PBS was on top of this one, especially the nightly NewsHour with Jim Lehrer that devoted two informative segments to the book, led by correspondents Jeffrey Brown and Ray Suarez on May 29 and 30, including interviews with McClellan and other guests and debate between regular commentators Mark Shields and David Brooks.

On the May 29 NewsHour, author and journalist Ron Suskind, who wrote a much earlier insider book, "The Price of Loyalty," based on the experiences of former Bush administration Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, said: "Scott is saying what a lot of people around town have known for a very long time. The problem is they've had no credible witness in the inner circle to step up and say, 'You betcha.' And let me explain exactly why this is so different, which is what McClellan does in the book. You know, they're going to plead insanity. They're going to say, 'Scott has lost his mind, and he's not the Scott I knew.' But the fact is, is that McClellan has essentially stepped up to establish or try to establish some basic rules of the game that, frankly, we used to use a bit more, which is you don't go to war under false pretenses, for instance."

Bill Moyers, on his program, asked John Walcott, Washington bureau chief of McClatchy newspapers, whether McClellan did a good thing. Walcott said: "I think on balance, yes. This is one of the first times, I think, that a member of the President's inner circle, one of the Texans who came to Washington with him was regarded as being very close to him, has gone this far in denouncing what the Administration did with respect to Iraq and has come right out and said that they deceived the American people. And that is news."

Washington Week Takes a Different Snapshot

McClellan was also one of the main topics of Gwen Ifill's Washington Week program on May 30, with Martha Raddatz of ABC News taking the lead on the press spokesman-turned-author and focusing heavily on the question of where was McClellan and his head during those seven years he was in office.

That's certainly a legitimate question, and Raddatz captured that transition as only someone who sat through McClellan's briefings for years can do. But, as a viewer, I felt she provided virtually no focus on what seemed to me to be the ultimately and overwhelmingly more significant aspect of what McClellan has now done — provide the most comprehensive insider's look thus far at how we went to war under what turned out to be false pretenses. This is such an over-arching subject, for the nation and the press that is supposed to be a watchdog, that any and all credible testimony that helps us pin this down is of absolute importance.

A Long Overdue Report

A few days after the McClellan flap surfaced, the Senate Intelligence Committee published a long-delayed report on "whether public statements regarding Iraq by U.S. government officials were substantiated by intelligence information." This report had been held up for years by partisan arguments when the Senate was controlled by Republicans. But it finally was concluded and published under the new chairman, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). The report, endorsed by committee Democrats and two of the seven Republican members, essentially made the case that the administration repeatedly exaggerated what they actually knew about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorist organizations and downplayed disagreements within the intelligence community.

The New York Times put this story on the front page. The Washington Post, where I used to work as an ombudsman, put it on page A3. Had I still been at the Post I would have written a column questioning why this was not on page one. The editors would not have been surprised.

Certainly, we have all become aware for some time now that there were no weapons of mass destruction, and that disputed intelligence was downplayed. But what this report does, and what the well-done stories written by Times and Post reporters highlight, is that not only did the intelligence prove faulty but that the administration consistently presented this pre-war intelligence to the public with a great but false certainty. That, to me, was a grievous offense and it is why I think Post readers deserved to see it prominently displayed, even at this late moment.

The NewsHour, to its credit, also did much more on the Senate report than did the three major commercial networks that night (as far as I can tell only NBC even mentioned it), including clips from both Rockefeller and Republican co-chairman Sen. Kit Bond, who blasted it.

The Last Word

Finally, there was a bit of uncharacteristic PBS derring-do on the NewsHour in that May 30 NewsHour segment on McClellan. As Shields and Brooks were wrapping up their dueling analyses at the close of the broadcast, Brooks made the point that before the war began, every major intelligence agency around the world was saying that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and that there was no way reporters are going to be able to challenge that. "There was an absolute consensus about this," he said.

Then moderator Suarez slipped in this editorial corrective: "Well, I don't think Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei were in the consensus. But let's move on. I've got to go. Have a great weekend fellows." Suarez was making a factual reference to the two top United Nations officials who had expressed pre-war reservations, especially ElBaradei as chief of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, about just what Saddam had.

Here Are Some Letters

About six months ago, I wrote an email to KQED's president describing my displeasure that David Brancaccio's NOW program had not been shown that week. I described that I felt that along with a few other programs (Bill Moyers Journal and Frontline), that it is one of the few investigative news shows on your station and serves a very important role in keeping your audience aware of important current issues (public financing, voter fraud, etc.).

Tonight, for the third time in about six months time, NOW was again not shown. The topic to be addressed was whether the views of a former military commander under President Bush cost him his job? Admiral William J. Fallon, who resigned in March after a year of duty, was at odds with the Bush Administration's policy toward Iran and Bush's push to attack Iran. After seeing the devastating affect of Bush's war on and occupation of Iraq, could any issue be more important to address? And this was once again cancelled!

I am not one to normally resort to such methods but I plan to stop my automatic monthly deductions to KQED over this. It is that important an issue for me. I would not normally do this because your station makes such an important difference to our community and I have been a contributor to KQED for many years now. But it simply does not work for me when such a critical program (NOW) is being displaced for some other program (tonight it was a program on yoga).

F. Michael Montgomery, Santa Rosa, CA

Once again Sacramento's only PBS station, KVIE, Channel 6, leaves their viewers guessing when and where they can see the show, "Bill Moyers Journal."

This Friday night KVIE chooses to show a 1981 recording of Queen's performance in Montreal instead. All of the PBS stations up and down the state aired the popular Moyer's news show at its regular time, Friday, 10 P.M. But not KVIE. KVIE does this every pledge week. All of the other PBS stations still air Moyers show on pledge week. In fact Moyers included time for a pledge break in his show.

But this appears to go beyond something as simple as pledge break. KVIE has a long history of hindering their Sacramento viewers from seeing Bill Moyers. Spokespeople for KVIE say they air the Moyer's show twice, Friday night and Saturday morning. But the viewer never knows which show is going to get bumped. Sometimes it's the Friday night show bumped on a moment's notice and sometimes it's the Saturday morning show. It's like "Button, button who's got the button," and sometimes there isn't any button...

This button game with Bill Moyers has gone on since the summer of 2004 when Kenneth Tomlinson, the George W. Bush appointed chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) complained about Moyers' liberal bias with his PBS show. Without CPB's permission Tomlinson took it upon himself and stopped funding for NOW because Bill Moyers was the host.

I wrote letters and called the KVIE staff several times since that Summer in 2004 about airing problems, and the staff always seemed surprised. They were always very polite and courteous. After missing many of the Moyer's specials and not airing the first four shows of "Bill Moyer's Journal," I finally went to a KVIE Board Meeting armed with over 20 names and emails from other complaining Sacramento viewers. The station manager David Lowe said that sometimes the show is aired ONLY on the Comcast channel. People who are not cable subscribers do not get all the shows. Once again we were left looking for the button.

Pat Snelling, Garden Valley, CA

Not a point of momentous import, but as a longtime listener who particularly appreciates the thoughtfulness of Shields & Brooks, I was quite put off this evening when Ray Suarez purported to elicit their views near the end of their comments about the Scott McClellan book, then interjected his own views — and immediately precluded them from responding by indicating time had run out! In all fairness, most of us listen to Shields and Brooks because we want to hear their views, & Mr. Lehrer & Mss. Ifill and Woodruff understand that they are only facilitators in the Shields-Brooks exchange; indeed, Mr. Lehrer's last words to one or the other invariably is, "Well, that's the last word." I think that Mr. Suarez, at a minimum, was rude, & that he owes Mssrs. Brooks & Shields an apology.

Washington, DC

I am a regular viewer of NOW on my PBS outlet in Knoxville, WUOT. I often disagree with the host, David Brancaccio, but I am never disappointed in the stimulating nature of the programs. Tonight's program, aired on Friday, June 6, 2008, contained an informative interview with Adm. Fallon, former commander of Central Command, but began with an inaccurate premise. Mr. Brancaccio opened the interview by stating that a major foreign policy disagreement between presidential candidates revolves around whether or not the U.S. should engage in diplomatic discussions with countries with which we are at odds, such as those, like Iran, suspected of sponsoring terrorism.

Very early in the Democratic presidential campaign, Sen. Obama announced his willingness to meet without precondition with leaders of countries such as Iran and Venezuela with which the U.S. has sharp foreign policy differences. Sen. Clinton took Obama to task for his naivete in failing to understand the significance of summit meetings between the American President and foreign leaders who could use the occasion for propaganda purposes without the possibility of achievement of any significant U.S. foreign policy objectives. During the primaries, Sen. Clinton, and Sen. McCain both stressed the need for proper diplomatic preparation to lay the groundwork for tangible results before a meaningful summit could be arranged. Sen. Obama has since adopted this position in his speeches on the subject.

The interview with Admiral Fallon was informative and a refreshing affirmation that many of our military leaders are thoughtful and informed thinkers in the realm of foreign affairs. Mr. Brancaccio cited Gen. David Petraeus as another advocate of engaging in regional diplomacy to help resolve the major problem of Iraqi security.

But, why has Mr. Brancaccio and his staff fallen into the trap laid by Donald Rumsfeld that foreign policy decisions regarding Iraq and the region should be guided by the Department of Defense? It may be almost thirty years since State Department personnel served on the ground in Iran, but Foreign Service Officers have for years been engaging in the kinds of regional diplomacy with friendly nations and those who oppose us, in the Middle East and elsewhere, that Adm. Fallon and Gen. Petraeus advocate.

In my opinion, a well rounded examination of the candidates' positions on the circumstances under which the new president should agree to a summit with the leader of a nation with which we have profound foreign policy disagreements should involve a proposal for returning the practice of diplomacy to the diplomats.

Philip A. King, Lenoir City, TN

How can you waste our time on a pathological liar like Scott McClellan on the NewsHour? We all knew he was a liar at the time, and continue to give him some modicum of veracity with a protracted interview. Let his book go to hell — it is not worth the paper it is printed on.

F. Brent Reeves, Fort Collins, CO