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PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

Ombudsman's Mailbag

Welcome to another Ombudsman's Mailbag, a sampling of comments from viewers during the past week. The volume, as measured in numbers, was down a bit compared to our normal flow of incoming e-mail and calls. But the volume, as in strength of feeling, was normal, which means strong opinions, especially about the regular Friday night edition of Bill Moyers Journal.

Last Friday's "Journal" focused on what Moyers called "inequality in America . . . the growing divide" between top executives and workers in "the Great American Wealth Machine that has been cranking out jackpots for the people at the top and pushing working people further down the ladder."

Aside from his own views, he interviewed author Holly Sklar about whether the American Dream has been put into reverse (yes) and historian Steve Fraser about whether this country was in another "Gilded Age" similar to the cronyism, corruption and extreme disparities in wealth that Mark Twain captured in his 1873 novel and that characterized the first such period some 130 years ago (yes).

The first two letters printed below, one from Utah and the other from Georgia, capture the on-going pros and cons, or cons and pros, of the Moyers program as experienced by his critics and fans, and the special impact it has on PBS viewers.

I've written about Moyers and his Journal a half-dozen times since this program returned to the air in the spring of 2007. You can find all of those columns, and a Moyers response, by clicking on the archive link on this page. I don't want to repeat all of that, but suffice it to say that however one feels about him and his program — and he obviously has huge numbers of fans and a fair number of critics — Moyers poses a unique challenge to an ombudsman. That's because he is unique; an outspoken, judgmental, iconic force and figure unlike anyone else on the big three commercial television networks and within the public broadcasting service. On the one hand, he comes at issues, especially in his commentary, from a clearly liberal or center-left position, although he also at times reminds us of conservative support for some of those same themes. On the other hand, his reporting and interviewing is fact-based and he puts before the American public scores of important topics, explored in depth with interesting guests, that you would not have a prayer of learning about on commercial television.

Just taking last Friday's program, for example, when was the last time you heard someone on commercial TV report in some depth on the struggling labor unions, which still count millions of workers in their ranks? Or how else would you learn, unless you read the Wall Street Journal that Moyers quoted from, about some corporate CEO deals that include pay-outs to their heirs of, in one case, $288 million — more than the company's first-quarter earnings — and in other cases $298 million and $115 million. And who else on TV is conducting interviews providing historical perspective about crucial periods of economic/social tension in America?

So that, to me and the letter-writer from Georgia, is a very big plus and an important public service. But in this program, Moyers fails to provide even a whiff of counter-arguments, interpretations and opposing analysis of the facts. And that's what has bothered me about some previous programs, and that's what also bothers the letter-writer from Utah quoted below.

Moyers calls his program a "Journal," and PBS says viewers understand that what they are getting is "the strongly reasoned viewpoints" of Moyers and his guests. I'm not arguing for some specific notion of "balance"; that's not going to happen and is not the operating style of the "Journal." But the too-frequent absence of any balance, it seems to me, diminishes the influence and impact of such programs beyond preaching to the choir and leaves it vulnerable to fair journalistic criticism.

'Left-Wing Cheerleading' With No Opposing View

It's 10:00 Friday night (6/13/08), and as nerdy as it may be, I just finished watching the "Bill Moyers' Journal" on KUED. His topic was the wealth divide in America. His position was, unsurprisingly, leftist and progressive and his tone unconditionally condemnatory of the political right and free market economic ideas.

I think this is an extremely important topic and I was excited to hear a good discussion of the issues pertaining to it. I was terribly disappointed. Not once was any statement or idea espoused by Mr. Moyers or his guests ever questioned! Not once was any opposing view ever used to challenge the opinions of the host and his guests! It was like watching a liberal Sean Hannity show if only Bill Moyers would have yelled a little and occasionally heard from a flustered caller.

I once had a class on constitutional law at a very homogeneous school. The teacher rightfully chided students who made arguments that were only convincing to people who already agreed with them on everything: "make arguments that would be convincing to someone who doesn't agree with you or else you're just cheerleading." What could have been a very interesting show that productively challenged people who held politically-right-free-market-economic ideas like myself just sounded like left wing cheerleading.

All of this wouldn't be worth writing a letter about if you were MSNBC. One sided presentation of ideas is expected from MSNBC and Fox — but, from what I understand KUED is public broadcasting and supported by taxes and required to strictly adhere "to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature" (according to Wikipedia). I've donated to NPR every year for the last several years and appreciate public broadcasting/radio, but I was shocked, by how insultingly one sided and partisan this show was. Not only did Mr. Moyers only present one side of this topic, he even went as far as beginning and (especially) ending his show with all but explicitly saying: vote Obama and vote Democrat, because if you vote Republican you are voting to help the CEO of Comcast sap all hope of survival out of the poor. With the tone of discussion what it was by the end, it wouldn't have seemed misplaced to bring Kanye West on to close up the meeting by reminding everyone that Republicans hate poor people.

What exactly is the purpose of public broadcasting — I thought it was to create an unbiased source for information for everyone? Was this unbiased or even open-minded or even journalism? Was it something more than cheerleading?

Derek Higginbotham, Salt Lake City, UT

'Quite Excellent,' Play It Again, Bill

I'd just like to say that I think that both NOW and especially Bill Moyers Journal today were quite outstanding. I am never disappointed with either, but today in particular Bill Moyers Journal was quite excellent. His guest's analysis of our financial situation as regards salaries was a program that I really feel ought to be made available in prime time so that as many people as possible would be able to watch it. It inspired me to become more vocal than I have been to date in order to foster changes in the way that so many people are paid and the inequity in the pay of executives and the ordinary man. There is a pervasive unfairness rampant in our country, and I deeply feel that as many as possible should have the opportunity to see it; that would be greatly facilitated by broadcasting the entire Bill Moyers Journal during the week in Prime Time. Thank you, and please maintain the quality of these programs.

Charles Etheridge, Atlanta, GA

Other Voices

Watching Bill Moyers Journal segment on comparing our country today to the Gilded Age caused me to realize how much Moyers must hate the USA. His brand of extreme liberalism would destroy the free enterprise system that made us the world's last bastion of hope and opportunity. Ask any immigrant why they endured all to come to our great country. They will tell you that our country offers them hope for a better life for them and their family. The ideas promoted by Moyers would allow us all to be equal. That is to say "Equally MISERABLE"!

Richard Griffin, Fort Smith, AR

Is Bill Moyers a communist or socialist? The program on the division b/w the wealthy and the poor was completely one sided. (Why should I expect anything different from PBS/NPR?) There has always been this disparity since time began!!! But his show had two authors who wallowed in the arms of socialism and how it will save the world. For once I would like to see BOTH points of view!!!

Wilfred Denis, New Orleans, LA

Bill Moyers & NOW 5 Stars PLUS!!!!
Steve Fraser . . . what a clear thinker and go getter.

H. M., Landrum, SC

I am new to watching KCET, and must say I love it. I thought that it was somewhat of a contradiction, to show a show about how people in our country weren't able to earn enough to stay out of poverty, due to large companies not paying adequate wages, and then to have as your sponsor one of those large companies, namely Wal-Mart. Thanks for listening.

Anne Vanoni, Ventura, CA

Disputing NOW

This was a disappointing portrayal of the Army and the military's medical personnel in particular, not in that it indicated some well known systemic problems for soldier care, but in that NOW offered a biased (surprised) and basically one-sided review — in less than an hour — of some very complicated subject matter that pure emotion alone can not answer. The professional leadership in the DOD is beyond aware of the combat and family stresses being placed on our brave and selfless troops; that does not negate the need to make tough command decisions, for the best daily functioning of battlefield units — decisions which at times do not meet the individual expectations of some weary soldiers, and certainly not the families that must always worry about their loved ones in harm's way. The leadership and medical care provided in America's armed forces is not always perfect, and never has been — but it is not the blatant conspiracy against the few individuals unable to realistically cope and adjust, even with the horrors of war, that you wrongly and weakly suggest in your recent NOW hit piece, that only seeks to degrade the Army and with very little background for making such a public move against the troops, people that make your right to prattle thinly so easily available. A very poor and very forgettable "news" effort that does not honor the troops you allegedly seek to make whole through myopic media attention.

J.G. Ulmer, Ink, AR

Will NOW ever stop ranting about how crappy the military is? Not one feel-good story? Sniveling becomes the host as it did the previous one. But, I shouldn't comment as I only inadvertently watch it after Gwen for the short time it takes to locate the remote.

Myron Fristad, Benson, AZ

. . . and Frontline on China

I am disappointed with PBS, which is nearly our only media outlet that attempts to educate the public with their in-depth history, cultural and news programs. I think PBS, in some programming, might be slipping off that pedestal (and I don't mean their airing of Gospel music and Lawrence Welk — PBS is for everyone).

To me, the recent, beautifully filmed, "Young and Restless in China" felt like an advertisement meant to make Americans think:
— China is a happening, normal place — not as bad as Americans think (you need to contrast a govt with its citizens — Chinese govt is fairly nasty — look at the support it gives for genocide in Darfur!)
— Health Insurance is one of the major needs in the Chinese health system (not medical education, better facilities, etc)
— Hey — look at the 40 cents an hour those Chinese Wal-Mart sub-contractors get — don't complain so much about American wages, you ingrates!
— the corruption (i.e. bribery required for Chinese government cooperation and business operations) in China is so bad . . . when the more subtle corruption of Wall Street, US financial companies, hedge fund practices, 401k fees, insider trading, etc, is much more destructive, unfair, involving the whole world economy.

Susan Mahoney, South Bend, IN

Screaming Over Streaming, and Other Stuff

You may count me as officially complaining about PBS's decision to add commercials to the streamed PBS shows on Hulu. This violates the very foundation of PBS, which is non-commercial. This is another step in turning PBS into yet another commercial media company. Stop this now, do not continue on the slippery slope (justification for this move was done by referring to PBS video on Joost and YouTube). PBS is good specifically because of its independence from commercial funding. Do not wreck this institution.

MacDonald Jackson, Corvallis, OR

In general I like the NewsHour but (most recently the Thursday interview with John Boehner) I frequently see politicians asked good questions to which they give answers which either don't answer the question or which are patently incorrect. No attempt is made to follow through and either get a real answer or make it clear that the question is being ducked. What made Tim Russert such a good interviewer was primarily that he didn't let his interviewees get away with pabulum answers. I'm not being partisan by citing the Boehner interview, you do the same thing with Democratic interviewees.

I know that you get part of your funding from the federal budget and you may fear budget cuts if you point out the flaws in an interviewee's answer but don't you have journalistic ethics problems (and viewer confidence problems) with letting interviewees just spout partisan blather instead of actually answering questions?

Steve Palmberg, Spokane, WA

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