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The Ombudsman Column

The Ombudsman's Mailbag

Last week's Ombudsman's Mailbag centered on a couple of letters from viewers about the June 13 edition of "Bill Moyers Journal" that focused on the theme of "inequality in America." I thought two of the letters, especially, captured the on-going assessment of viewers — pro and con — about Moyers' program, which is always thought-provoking and sometimes provocative. And I added some thoughts of my own.

I applauded Moyers for so often putting in front of the public views and issues that deserve exposure but which you "would not have a prayer of learning about on commercial television." Referring to the June 13 program, I asked where else do you hear in-depth reporting on labor unions these days, or learn about a Wall Street Journal story disclosing huge payouts by some corporate CEOs to their heirs, or find intense interviewing about crucial periods of economic/social tension in America. I said that was all a big plus and an important public service, echoing the enthusiasm of one of the letter writers.

But I also offered a criticism, as I have done before and as did the other letter-writer that I focused on last week, that there was not even "a whiff of counter-arguments, interpretations and opposing analysis of the facts" regarding the economic theme that this particular "Journal" was about. As readers of this column know, I'm not a fan of "balance" as a journalistic yardstick. There are stories that have no real balance to them and knee-jerk dedication to it can be misleading and produce a false equivalence for viewers. But I've also made the point that on many occasions the absence of any balance can also be journalistically misleading.

Well, those who wrote to me about last week's column voted unanimously for Moyers on this one. A sampling of their letters follows, and then I offer what I hope is not a defensive position, but an illustration of what I mean about the need for at least some balance on a program dealing with "inequality in America."

Moyers Fans Shut Out the Omb

Mr. Getler, I love the ombudsman column and you do a fair job. I do feel the need to defend Bill Moyers. His commentaries and program are not left or right, they are common sense. The Gilded Age — is there an argument why an heir should get $288 million? And his commentary at the end of a recent program on Bush's cronyism and special interest appointments as page after page of disgraced cabinet members were shown — we can all agree that elected officials shouldn't be crooked. I think Bill tells it like it is or the way we would all like to be. He's old fashioned that way. Here's to a better America.

Eddie North-Hager, Los Angeles - Leimert Park, CA

Moyers is the most compelling guy on TV, an interviewer on par with NPR's Terry Gross. He is THE reason I donate money to PBS. That he has a "liberal" point of view is not a problem, b/c he is upfront about his beliefs. That's called being honest, which as a politically moderate viewer, I appreciate. "The NewsHour" is great. But not every news show has to be or should be as down-the-middle as "The NewsHour." The day Moyers' show gets cancelled is the day I stop donating to PBS.

Emmaus, PA

I find your criticism of Bill Moyers' show on inequality in the US to be misguided. What kind of opposing views do you expect Mr. Moyers to put in a program about inequality? Someone who says that inequality has not increased? Or someone who says that inequality does not matter? Both assertions are demonstrably false, so why include them? Maybe Mr. Moyers should do what the mainstream media does best and ignore the issue altogether. How far do you need to go to show balance? Do you need to bring in people that will lie in order not to look biased? Thanks.

Sergio Lopez, Edison, NJ

I've given myself a headache trying to figure out what the "counter argument" is to the fact that some CEOs' contracts call for multi-million dollar payments to their heirs if they die while in the job. Perhaps "greed is good" or "rich people should get richer" or "if you're really smart you have lots of money?"

Jenise Porter, Tucson, AZ

In your blog on Moyers, you say "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."

I dislike the use of labels because they achieve the benefit of stigmatizing the complex for the convenience of lazy thinkers. The use of labeling contributes to the superficiality of understanding a person, institution, issue or ideology by pandering to the simplistic.

Does Moyers have a point of view? Yes. But why should he have to always give some sort of equal time to the other side (as if there were only two sides of anything)?

What he does is give a point of view that is simply not available in most other media that has any readily available audience. No one should have to apologize for that though I tend to believe that there are many who like to keep alternative points of view on the defensive so that more time is given over to those views held by the plutocracy of the world.

Dwight Bobson, Washington, DC

Some Stories Don't Have Two Sides

You said Moyers should present the other side but some stories don't have two sides. To use one example, if the Journal did a story on Darwin, would you demand they give equal time to creationism? We are living in a second gilded age. It's simply a fact. Look at the numbers, of the amount of wealth created by the top 1 percent. Is he supposed to bring up trickle down economics, which has been totally discredited? If he'd done a program on slavery in 1860, would you have wanted him to give the other side on the benefits of slavery to slave owners? The strange thing is that when there is another side — like in the run up to the Iraq War — the media gave little attention to the opponents. But when there isn't another side, you somehow want one. I hope Moyers and NOW keep doing exactly what they're doing. They're a breath of fresh air on TV.

Jacksonville, FL

Hoorray!!!!!!!!!!!! Thank you Bill Moyers for your Journal that exposes the criminal right for taking advantage of the poor. These people think they're entitled to screw over anyone they can. All I can say is that their time is coming when they will pass from the scene. Defense of greed is pathetic.

Michael Cindrich, Kansas City, MO

I thought that Bill Moyers was particularly good on June 13, 2008 on his episode on inequality in America. The sleeping regular media needs to learn to cover issues. This would have been a good show for them to watch. I live in a state that is still fond of wage slavery as most Southern ones are and so they don't want unions. People need to wake up while they still have a few rights left. Moyers may help people think and often gives voice to those who usually don't have a voice.

Hattiesburg, MS

I have always enjoyed Bill Moyers' Journal and the well-researched information it provides. I am astonished that people want him to include a "conservative" answer to whatever he is dealing with for the week. Progressives have so few channels of communication and now people like Mr. Higginbotham want us to cut the few we have in half? Talk radio has no progressive mouthpiece, and the commercial T.V. channels are all about selling products or waving the flag to make people "feel good". There are plenty of right-wing talking heads on T.V. and radio, please allow us to have some BALANCE to all that tripe.

I know unions are a dirty word in this country, but they are the reason we had a prosperous middle class with health care and pensions. You notice now that they are on the decline, we have the feel good slogans of "right to work" and "family values" and "prayer breakfasts". Well we now have the right to work for $10 an hour with few benefits and families living below the poverty line and politicians and executives holding one minute prayers and hour long greed sessions. People like Bill Moyers and myself and my family love America and are trying to keep it on track. You don't do that by sticking your head in the sand and hiding behind feel good slogans.

Kathleen Birch, Strongsville, OH

Quoting from your June 20 column "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".

Yet earlier in the column you admitted the almost total absence from the rest of the media of material that he provides. It's not just that his viewpoints rarely get aired elsewhere. All too often matters of fact, like sweetheart payouts to CEOs' heirs, are well protected from public view by media corporations that want to protect the status quo, and by producers, editors and on-air personalities whose salaries depend on their not rocking the boat.

So why on earth should you expect Bill Moyers provide "even a whiff" of counter-arguments and opinions, when these have long been the wallpaper upon which the mainstream media hang their collective picture of our society? Should the signatories of the Declaration of Independence been required to include a few clauses in defense of King George? In the context of all the material put out in the media, an entire season of Bill Moyers barely makes "whiff" status. Despite the illusion of competitive media, when it comes to many matters that should be of public interest, we are little better off than the USSR was.

Rochester, NY

A lot of what I hear on TV, and PBS, is slanted toward the Right, so I do not understand why Moyers should be harangued for arguing toward the Left. Fox claims its 'fair and balanced' whatever they might mean by that I'm not sure. I expect to hear a diversity of views, but I don't see why every program (particularly if they are center or slanted toward the left) should be the only one condemned for having a view point.

I seldom watch the NewsHour because they seldom, if ever, challenge anyone, or even ask for an explanation or clarification of a belief offered at 'truth'.

As for the condemnation of the way servicemen are being treated, I think the Services are generally aware, but they depend on the funds given by Congress and if Congress and the President don't ask for sufficient funding maybe more of us should contact our Congressional Representatives. I don't see that problem as one on the Left or the Right.

Tillie Krieger, Eugene, OR

My Response

It is clear that there is a lot of evidence to support the theme of the June 13 "Journal" program about "inequality in America." I don't argue with the thrust of that theme. Indeed, a major new poll and report by the highly respected and widely quoted Pew Research Center published in April was headlined: "Inside the Middle Class: Bad Times Hit the Good Life." Much of the material in this report documents the thrust of what Moyers and his guests were saying.

The report summary, right in the lead, said: "Fewer Americans now than at any time in the past half century believe they're moving forward in life . . . Americans feel stuck in their tracks. A majority of survey respondents say that in the past five years, they either haven't moved forward in life (25%) or have fallen backward (31%). This is the most downbeat short-term assessment of personal progress in nearly half a century of polling by the Pew Research Center and the Gallup organization." The italics are mine to emphasize the strength of what Pew was reporting.

The Big 'But'

But included in this report and assessment were other findings that, in my opinion, capture the issue in its greater complexity and provide what I call that "whiff of balance" that should be there in such a discussion and that adds understanding and credibility.

For example, the report states: "When asked to measure their progress over a longer time frame, Americans are more upbeat. Nearly two-thirds say they have a higher standard of living than their parents had when their parents were their age . . .

"Economic, demographic, technological and sociological changes since 1970 have moved some groups up the income ladder and pushed others down. Winners include seniors (ages 65 and older), blacks, native-born Hispanics and married adults. The income status of all of these groups improved from 1970 to 2006. Losers include young adults (ages 18 to 29), the never-married, foreign-born Hispanics and people with a high school diploma or less. All of these groups have seen their relative income positions decline."

At another point it says: "Nonetheless, these downbeat appraisals — both of personal progress and of middle class well-being in general — are not the public's only perspectives on this matter. Despite their short-term sense of stagnation, most Americans see in the sweep of their lives a long arc of progress. Nearly two-thirds (65%) say they have already exceeded the standard of living that their parents had at the age they are now. Most expect to face some belt-tightening — or worse — in the coming year, but a majority is confident that their quality of life in five years will be significantly better than it is now. And, gazing into a more distant future, most expect their children's standard of living to be better than their own.

"In short, the public is beleaguered but unbowed. And its positive long-term perspective, like its negative short-term assessment, is in line with underlying economic realities. Despite the downturn of the current decade, median household income increased by 41% from 1970 to 2006 (the last year for which such data are available), after adjusting for inflation and changes in household size. To be sure, the rising tide favored some boats over others. The income gains over this period were greater for upper income adults than for middle or low income adults, and the wealth gains were much greater in the top income tiers than in the middle or at the bottom. So for those in the middle peering upward, absolute progress has gone hand in hand with relative decline.

"All of these economics trends — stagnation in the short term, rising prosperity and rising inequality in the long term — provide a context for the nuances of public opinion on the subject of the 'squeeze.' When survey respondents say they haven't moved forward in recent years, the economic data say they're right. When respondents say they're doing better than their parents, the economic data say they're right. When respondents say it has become more difficult to maintain a middle class standard of living, the data once again say they're right — if what they mean is that it has become harder for people in the middle to keep pace with those above them."

My Point

I would argue that some of that kind of "balance" one finds in the Pew Report belongs in a program like "Bill Moyers Journal," and that it would strengthen it, add context, and make it even more useful to even more viewers.

A few days after the Moyers program aired, The Washington Post front-paged a story by Business staff writer Neil Irwin headlined: "Why We're Gloomier Than The Economy." Here's how it began:

"Ask Americans how the economy is doing, and their answer is stark: It is not just bad, it is run-for-the-hills terrible. Consumer confidence is at its lowest level in almost 30 years. Only 12 percent of Americans think the economy is in good shape. On the Internet, comparisons to the Great Depression are widespread.

"But the reality is different. According to most broad measures of how the economy is doing, it's not all that grim.

"Soft? You betcha. In recession? Quite possibly. And a crisis in the financial markets has rattled nerves for months now. But so far, the economy is holding up better than it did during the last two recessions in 1990 and 2001. Employers haven't shed as many jobs, the unemployment rate is still relatively low, and gross domestic product has kept rising. Things are nowhere near as bad as they were in the Great Depression, or even during the severe recession of 1982-83. The last time consumers were this miserable, in May 1980, the jobless rate was 7.5 percent and inflation was 14.4 percent. Now those numbers are 5.5 percent and 4.2 percent respectively.

"This paradox has created a unique challenge for those guiding the economy, who worry that Americans' pessimistic views will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Two-thirds of the economy is consumer spending. So if people's negative outlook leads them to cut their spending, a steeper downturn could happen.

"This has left economists trying to figure out why Americans' perceptions are so much more negative than the data analysts use to measure how things are going."