By Michael Getler
July 18, 2008
The mail from viewers this week focused on the new, the old and the continuing. The majority of comments dealt with a new program. They had less to do with typical ombudsman's issues of journalistic standards or editorial integrity. Rather, they dealt with a comparison that didn't quite live up to the original, as many viewers saw it.
The subject was PBS's new, animated, made-for-television (prime time) version of National Public Radio's enormously popular weekly radio show "Car Talk" with the Magliozzi brothers, Tom and Ray, mechanics and wisecrackers extraordinaire who work out of their small auto repair shop in Cambridge, Mass. "Car Talk" has become a radio classic; it's been on the air for 20 years, is broadcast on more than 600 radio stations and averages 4.3 million listeners.
The cartoon version for television, which debuted Wednesday evening, July 9, is called "Click & Clack's As the Wrench Turns." The program got what one might call mixed reviews in newspapers around the country, at least the ones that I saw. Even a follow-up commentary in The New York Times on July 16 ends up attempting to capture at least some of the ambivalence surrounding the new series. "'As the Wrench Turns,' with its 'Schoolhouse Rock! Graphics,'" writes Ginia Bellafante, "is indisputably adorable. But it lacks the magic of the Magliozzis unplugged."
That is kinder than the assessments of those viewers who wrote to me and apparently want to . . .
Give the Hook to the 'Wrench.'
Here are a few of the letters:
"Click and Clack?" Surely, you jest! That you who preach journalistic integrity would subject your viewership to such dribble on such a class act station is almost beyond repair. With the addition of this nonsense to your lineup, you now place yourself in the same category as other networks who have stooped to "show anything now." I am extremely disappointed with this mess and the sooner you remove that drabble from PBS, the better.
Mary Sykes, Raleigh, NC
Having seen the first two episodes of the new PBS program, Click and Clack, I must say that I found them, in a word, disappointing. This program just doesn't measure up to the typical PBS standards — especially for late-evening viewing. I vote to cancel the series. These guys should stick to what they do best: NPR radio Car Talk!
Ron Guidotti, Minden, NV
My, oh my, I chanced a preview of the animated "As the Wrench Turns" starring the ever popular Tappet Brothers, Click and Clack [Tom and Ray Magliozzi]. THUMBS DOWN. What an amateurish attempt at animation [looks like the old Mr. McGoo drawings] and a sophomoric script [save PBS and their show?]. Best that they ply their talents in front of the microphone at NPR.
David Petersen, Kansas City, MO
Click & Clack was not listed under Producers so I am sending this to you. I anxiously waited for the TV version of Click and Clack. I love your radio program and read the Click & Clack column in our Sunday paper. The TV program however is an abortion. It is absolutely, the worst "adult" program on PBS. I cannot believe that Tom and Ray signed off on this stupid cartoon. What on earth were they and PBS thinking? It is totally inconsistent with, and damaging to, their image that has been developed on radio and print media. Here in Maine Click & Clack ran opposite Wife Swap on ABC and The Baby Boomers on NBC. Next week I will watch one of those inane programs rather than taint my fondness for Click & Clack and PBS. Please pass this on to Tom and Ray and to whomever is appropriate at PBS. Thank you.
Alvar Laiho, Cornville, ME
"As the Wrench Turns" was such a bitter disappointment. We had such high hopes for our 2 favorite "wackos" that we turned down 2 social invitations for July 9, so we could see the premier. 1. What was the point of the very slanted 1st "chapter"? If we want political info, we go to another type program. 2. The real program was nothing like the radio version — that is, clever, unpredictable, self-effacing, wacko and amusing. It was boring and inane. Shame!!! on PBS, on Click and Clack and on the producers for such poor taste, judgment and estimation of the viewer's intelligence.
Lydia Rives, Georgetown, TX
The producers of Click and Clack, in its supposedly funny show about outsourcing to India aired on PBS demonstrated a marked bias against India. It showed jobs lost by outsourcing, but didn't remark that Indians and Chinese are buying huge number of commercial Boeing aircraft jets, Hollywood made movies, and are visiting and spending hundreds of millions of tourist dollars in America. Besides, America is exporting computers, telecomm equipment, McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises to these growing markets. Will the producers have the integrity to quote the American jobs and profits created in these market segments? Near its conclusion, the show ended with a cartoon on importing a fictional unhealthy drink from India. Will the producer have the guts to talk about the lard, transfats and sugar in the fried chicken, burgers and soda sold by certain SuperSized brands abroad? This reader is requesting balance — wonder whether PBS has broad shoulders provide that balance. (I couldn't find the email for the producers of Click and Clack).
Los Angeles, CA
I don't know if you have any control over the content of the new Click and Clack TV series, but I wanted to tell you that I found the content extremely offensive. The portrayal of Indians and Indian-Americans was appalling, serving to reinforce stereotypes about the country and about the community. I thought that it was a programming "low blow" to play on nativist fears of outsourcing for laughs and ratings. It was ignorant and cheap humor from start to finish. And I LIKE Click and Clack on the radio. Where's the integrity?
The cartoon show of Click and Clack is AWFUL!!!! Please pass this along to the right department. It is terrible. Don't ruin a good thing!!
Vicki DeKay, Sacramento, CA
Have just finished watching Click and Clack. GREAT show: FUN. Also well written. Keep up the good work!
Sam Sibley, Evanston, IL
The 'Old' Issue
"The McLaughlin Group" is one of television's most durable talk shows. John McLaughlin has been in the host's chair for some 25 years and he and his regular panelists and guests generate one of the most free-swinging, opinionated and raucous half-hours on television. I say this is an "old" issue because I have written about this show before; twice this year (May 15 and Jan. 4), in fact, based on viewer complaints, usually about disparaging or insulting language.
In each of those columns, I have explained that PBS actually has nothing to do with the production or content of that show. It is produced and distributed by Oliver Productions of Washington, D.C., and now airs on CBS affiliates in Washington, New York and elsewhere, having recently ended a quarter-century relationship with the NBC affiliate in Washington.
However, and it is a big however, "The McLaughlin Group" airs on about 315 PBS-affiliated stations around the country. This is, in part, because of a long-standing agreement with the Chicago PBS-affiliate, WTTW. This is all legal and proper because all PBS stations are independent and can air whatever they want to, and because access to the Public Television Satellite Interconnection System by individual affiliates is all spelled out in official public broadcasting regulations. So, while PBS can, and does, say basically: "this is not our show and, besides, it is an opinion program," you can't blame viewers of PBS stations for not understanding that it isn't a PBS program, and there is at least a satellite facilitation link with WTTW.
Late last year, a guest on McLaughlin's program used some very strong language to describe a revered prophet of the Mormon Church. That caused an avalanche of mail to me, and I assume to many stations. I explained that this was not a PBS program but felt obliged to deal with it because there was so much mail and people did see it on PBS stations.
This time, the issue involves McLaughlin himself and the program that aired Friday night, July 11, during which he used the word "Oreo" in a reference to Sen. Barack Obama. The group was discussing the relationship between Obama and the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the aftermath of Jackson's disparaging remarks about the senator that were recorded a few days earlier in another setting when Jackson thought the microphones were off.
The remark drew criticism, and, in one response, a representative for McLaughlin told FOXNews.com the following Monday that the "television talk show host wasn't using a racist expression — 'Oreo' — to describe Barack Obama during the episode that aired this past weekend, but was merely summing up what he believed to be the view of Jackson." McLaughlin spokeswoman Becca Baker told Fox News that "the transcript shows that McLaughlin was not expressing his own point of view, but Jackson's view of Obama. 'It's clear from both text and context that John McLaughlin is speculating why Jesse Jackson said what he said about Barack Obama. It's Jackson's view of Obama, not McLaughlin's,' she said."
But that's not what the transcript shows as I read it. "Does it frost Jackson, Jesse Jackson, that someone like Obama, who fits the stereotype blacks once labeled as an 'Oreo' — a black on the outside, a white on the inside — that an 'Oreo' should be the beneficiary of the long civil rights struggle, which Jesse Jackson spent his lifetime fighting for?" McLaughlin asked, according to the transcript.
As the following sampling of letters shows, viewers associate this program, and therefore its content, with PBS. It's technically accurate to say "it ain't our show, and it's an opinion program," and one does not want to impinge on the freedom of speech that goes with anyone's program. But it would seem to me that the public broadcasting system cannot just walk away from responding to viewers when substantive challenges are made to a program that airs on more than 300 of its affiliated stations every week.
Hey, It's NOT Our Program
I am deeply disappointed in PBS for continuing to air McLaughlin's program. His racism is becoming rather obvious, considering his on air rants about Warren G Harding being a "negro" (which is not only offensive but completely wrong) and the recent "Obama is an Oreo" comments. Shameful, just shameful.
Chris Wieland, Germantown, TN
I am writing regarding The McLaughlin Group. I just found out about John McLaughlin's latest disparaging remarks about Barack Obama, referring to him as an "Oreo". I have already given up on watching his show any more because he is obviously so prejudiced. But this remark goes over the top and needs to be addressed.
Pat Hayes, Highlands Ranch, CO
My message to John McLaughlin. I hope he is censured for this insanely racist comment.
"Your characterization of Barack Obama as an "Oreo" is about as racially offensive a comment as I have heard in quite some time, even with all of the vitriol that is common on the 24 hour news networks today. It is certainly below the standard of your show. You owe Barack Obama, as well as all well-spoken and productive black citizens — who refused to be called "Oreos" because we are black, well-spoken, and successful — an apology. You have lost a faithful viewer in the interim, and I can only hope that thousands more will follow suit and that Public Television will sanction you considerably."
William Broussard, Natchitoches, LA
I was appalled and astonished to hear Mr. McLaughlin's comments labeling Barack Obama with the term "Oreo." Although I am not African-American the term "Oreo" has also been used to impugn members of the Indian-American community. Moreover I find it an affront to all minorities. I have already sent a comment in to Mr. McLaughlin's website. However, I urge PBS management to take a strong stand opposing Mr. McLaughlin's comments and demanding an immediate retraction and apology. Furthermore I would request that his television program be pulled from all PBS stations until he complies.
Kaushik Mukherjee, Nashville, TN
This weekend, John McLaughlin asked his panel whether Jesse Jackson might be offended that someone like Sen. Obama, "who fits the stereotype blacks once labeled as an 'Oreo' — a black on the outside, a white on the inside," benefits from the struggles of the Civil Rights struggle. Leaving aside the strange revivification of the pre-primary "is he Black enough?" meme (and leaving aside the instances throughout the campaign, like the Rev Wright kerfuffle, in which his "Blackness" was construed as a detriment to his campaign), McLaughlin's "Oreo" comments are patently offensive.
Why should we be surprised when, just last month, Mr. McLaughlin asserted that Warren G. Harding "was a Negro"? It is disappointing that PBS seems unconcerned with Mr. McLaughlin's repeated, retrograde stereotyping.
Tisha H., Los Angeles, CA
Very simply, one doesn't refer to the presumptive Democratic nominee for President — who just happens to be African-American — as an "Oreo." Considering the context of Mr. McLaughlin's comments this weekend on The McLaughlin Group, it makes anything someone such as Don Imus has uttered on-air pale in comparison. After careful consideration of this matter by PBS' senior management — I'm thinking a good 10 to 20 seconds — I would both hope and expect that PBS will remove John McLaughlin from the airwaves permanently.
Robert Swern, South Salem, NY
Challenging the NewsHour's Guests
I have just finished viewing your interview with two sources, a U of Missouri professor and a business reporter, on The Tribune Corporation cut backs. PBS used two very limited informational sources on the subject. Why didn't you include a true journalist concerned about news content? Neither of your interviewees got the point. Sam Zell, the Tribune's owner, is exploiting and manipulating finances. He has absolutely no concern for journalists or their readership. He wants to audit the production of reporters by seeing how many stories or inches of stories they write in a given time period. But he does not care what the stories are about or whether they have substance. So he would eliminate and is eliminating reporters who take time to create marvelous features, in depth and investigative news stories. His formula would create essentially scandal sheet stories, crime and fire stories and little else. As well, he cares not about the advertising employees who he wants to take off salary and put on a commission basis. And remember that he created the Tribune as an Employee Stock Ownership plan and used the device to buy the paper. So when the stock plummets, the employees suffer and lose guarantees of real benefits. In the meantime, officers and owners and stockholders have the freedom, not held by employees, to stop their losses and sell at any time. The employees must sell when they retire or after a proscribed period. None of this was discussed by PBS's two guests! These issues are key to what is happening at The Tribune!
Thomas "Dennie" Williams, Litchfield, CT
Former Hartford Courant staff reporter of 40 years experience (The Courant is a Tribune newspaper)
How do you expect your viewers or even yourselves to learn anything about the current financial crisis by having guests who are "don't rock the boat yes men?"
Tonight I saw a couple of guests speaking less realistically and less critically than [Federal reserve Chairman] Mr. Bernanke. Bernanke knows there is a real crisis ongoing but he and the Administration are unable to do anything about it. Your guests sounded like Bush trying to make a stinkweed into a rose or a lemon into lemonade.
I just read a column by Nouriel Roubini who is the Stern Professor of Economics at NYU. I'm sure he is available for an interview as a guest. I see him often on the financial web sites like Bloomberg and the Financial Times which are pretty mainstream. Yet they welcome his views along with others of a different stripe. You should do the same. You are supposed to be public television and are not doing as good a job as those private TV producers.
If your viewers listened to Roubini it might shake them up because they would not be listening to a complacent commentator who is trying to calm them down and lull them into a state of inertness. Your guests ignored the state of urgency that Roubini would bring. His words are measured but cut to the quick on the issues. We are in a dire situation that goes far beyond sub-prime mortgages and housing. Investors seem to know it which explains why stock markets are falling everywhere. Neither of your guests pointed out that federal actions to bail out sick institutions would be to privatize profits and socialize debts. Do we need privileged socialism for the rich?
Bill Goldman, Annapolis, MD
Here's a response from Kathleen McCleery, deputy executive producer of "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer:"
"We take great care in crafting our segments, often pre-interviewing many people before selecting the ones you see on the air. We talked with many bank analysts about last night's discussion. The vast majority took the position you heard on the air: that IndyMac Bank failure in California is an aberration, and that most banks are not in big trouble. Having said that, there are skeptics out there, and I take your point that we could have presented that view better. Please know that we will do many more discussions on the current economic situation (including one tonight and one in the works for tomorrow). I hope we are able to address your concerns in those. Finally, we do not ever choose guests or segments based on our sponsors. That would contradict everything we stand for."
(Ombudsman's Note: I confess that, after watching this segment, I also wondered if these chosen guests were the only two optimists in America at the time.)
I was dismayed last evening (Monday, July 14) by Ray Suarez's failure to rein in Barney Frank, who repeatedly interrupted and talked over the other guest in a display of arrogance and rudeness that was truly reprehensible. If you feel the need to provide a forum for Congressman Frank again, the ground rules of civilized discourse should be made clear to him and the moderator assigned to that segment of the program should ensure that those rules are observed.
Santa Barbara, CA
Here, again, is Kathleen McCleery's response from The NewsHour:
"I appreciate your frustration watching guests who interrupt one another. Unfortunately, that has become the norm for many television news programs. As a result, some guests think that's what's expected in a television discussion. However, it is not our goal, ever, and yes, we do make that clear to potential participants. We do, though, get caught occasionally with guests who simply don't get it. That happened the other night on the segment about the problems at Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Here's our dilemma: interrupting a guest makes us look rude (especially interrupting a member of Congress) and when that happens, we get email complaining about that. It's a delicate balance. We don't want one guest to dominate, and we strive to avoid that. We don't always succeed, but we'll keep trying."