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The Ombudsman Column

'Out of the Closet' and Out of the Transcript

As so often happens when even small mistakes or missteps are made, the cover-up turns out to be worse than the crime. It can be even more perplexing when it is not clear that a crime actually was committed.

This episode begins with the regular airing on Friday evening, June 20, of PBS's venerable public affairs program "Washington Week" with moderator Gwen Ifill. This program has been going for more than 40 years and consists of a moderator and a regular panel of journalists who are informative and about as down-the-middle as you can find. So it is a program meant to summarize and illuminate and not one that stirs much controversy.

About half-way through this particular program, Ifill shifted the discussion to the then-recent endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama by former Vice-President Al Gore.

In doing so, Ifill said: "A couple other developments that are worth remarking even though they happened at the beginning of the week and it now seems like a long time ago. Al Gore came out of the closet here and endorsed — we don't know where he's been exactly."

At that point, John Harwood, a regular panelist from CNBC and the New York Times looked at Ifill, seemed to smile a bit, and said: "Careful." To which Ifill immediately replied: "Come on. He came out and he endorsed Barack Obama. He's a big Democrat. He was the nominee of the party in 2000. What took him so long and does it make a difference?"

I was listening to the program, having dinner at the time, when the words "out of the closet" caused me to look up. I thought the brief exchange was one of those slightly surprising, and therefore attention-getting, moments on the normally staid and straight-shooting (no pun intended) "Washington Week," when perhaps a touch of political incorrectness crept in. Or was it that at all? On one hand, it struck me that Ifill responded so quickly and reasonably that no slur had been intended nor had one simply slipped out. I thought she explained herself well. Al Gore is not gay, as far as we know. On the other hand, many years of ombudsmanship have taught me that such phrasing will not go unnoticed and some viewers will take offense.

Actually, only one viewer wrote to me to say she was "appalled, affronted and angry" about Ifill's remarks and saw it as further evidence of the moderator's "conservative bent."

The Gotcha Moment

The plot thickened, however, when Tony Peyser, a blogger whose work appears at BuzzFlash, reported that he, too, heard something — the "closet" phraseology — on that program that "stops me in my tracks."

Peyser, for openers, said that he also thought he heard "rumblings in the crowd of dismay and disapproval" over Ifill's "out of the closet" remark but that this audience reaction wasn't reflected in the transcript of the program. An associate producer of the program, Katie Lynch, wrote back to Peyser explaining that there "could not have been any rumblings in the crowd" because this show was not broadcast in front of an audience. That turned out to be wrong. The show was taped before a live audience in Atlanta, Ga.

But Peyser took this further and disclosed that the transcript for the program, which is normally posted online the following Monday, was not posted until a few days later and more importantly, the transcript edited out the controversial remark entirely. The transcript, as posted, had Ifill saying only this: "A couple other developments that are worth remarking even though they happened at the beginning and it now seems like a long time ago. Al Gore endorsed."

Now, altering a transcript to remove a controversial or embarrassing statement is a very bad and fundamental journalistic sin, and also professionally stupid because someone will always catch it. And someone did, in the person of Peyser.

The posted transcript, which also has the words "of the week" left out in Ifill's introduction, has since been fixed to include the original "out of the closet" language. But the version of the transcript that I saw and that is still posted online is confusing because it also still includes the version that erases that comment. So anybody clicking on it will read Ifill saying what she really said on the air, and another edited version just above it with the controversial language left out.

Washington Week Responds

I asked Chris Guarino, senior producer of the program, about this strange sequence of events. "Here's how it appears things unfolded," he wrote in an e-mail to me. "Our program on June 20 was indeed taped before a live audience in Atlanta. And in fact, Gwen made an innocuous remark leading into a discussion of Al Gore's endorsement of Barack Obama.

"Mr. Tony Peyser contacted us on Wednesday, June 25, asking for a transcript of the broadcast. Because of some technical problems, the transcript, which usually is posted the Monday after broadcast, was not available to post until Wednesday that week. We contacted Mr. Peyser via e-mail to let him know when it was available.

"Mr. Peyser contacted us a second time asking why there wasn't mention in the transcript of audience reaction to Gwen's comment and that of one panelist. Our Associate Producer, thinking Mr. Peyser might have been offended, and in an attempt to be sensitive, made the decision on her own to edit the transcript. Mr. Peyser took issue with that. After a discussion with Gwen, the transcript was restored as originally posted. Gwen also contacted Mr. Peyser to explain her position. As Gwen noted, the transcript should not have been changed and, rest assured, we will see that it doesn't happen again."

Let's hope so.

Commercial-Free PBS?

I'm writing to express my dismay over the growing number of corporate advertisements I'm seeing on PBS television programs. For example, "Charlie Rose" is now followed by an advertisement for Coca Cola Company. "American Experience" is followed by an advertisement for Liberty Mutual. These corporate ads are followed by traditional PBS written acknowledgements of their other sponsors.

The corporate ads are subtle and, for the moment, blessedly short. They mimic the tone and style PBS uses to promote itself and its upcoming specials. They're so cleverly produced as to lull me, for a few seconds, into believing these corporations actually care about "PBS values" and share PBS values. But, if these corporations truly cared to promote PBS in its own right, wouldn't they — like the majority of individuals and groups donating money to PBS — donate without advertising their own product?

I've never read a PBS "vision statement," but it's always been my understanding that paid advertising is completely contrary to the basic philosophy of public broadcasting. I've been a fan of PBS for years. I contribute to PBS yearly. I watch PBS more than any other station. I'm very distressed to see corporate advertising on PBS, no matter how skillfully it's produced. PBS is allowing "the thin end of the wedge" to be inserted into its domain — a domain which to me is sacrosanct for the very reason it does NOT contain corporate advertising.

I'd be grateful if someone at PBS could explain why this happening. I'm a loyal PBS viewer and I'm begging you not to cave in to paid advertisements! Your station is for the people and by the people. Over the years your excellent programming has given me hope that there is at least one place I can hear thoughtful, truthful, creative and accurate information about our world . . . without being subjected to advertisements.

Carol Elliott, Port Aransas, TX

Here is a PBS response to Ms. Elliott from Jan McNamara, director of corporate communications:

"Public television is made possible by a remarkable public-private partnership involving individuals, businesses, state and federal governments, foundations, and educational institutions. We are grateful to our underwriters for their generous support of our unique program service, which is used each week by more than 73 million Americans.

"Federal statutes require that program funders be disclosed on the air at the time of a broadcast and PBS has developed strict guidelines to which national underwriters must adhere. The PBS underwriting guidelines can be found online at www.pbs.org/producers/guidelines. They govern not only who is an acceptable funder, but also spell out many of the creative restrictions that apply to corporate funding acknowledgments. For example, all underwriting credits must be free of such promotional conventions as direct comparison with other companies, price information, superlative description or qualitative claims, calls to action, inducements to buy and demonstrations of consumer satisfaction and credits may never interrupt a program. Accordingly, while the messages you describe in your letter are more than name-only acknowledgments, they follow PBS guidelines and comply with other regulatory requirements for 'enhanced' underwriting messages.

"Our underwriting credits announcements consume a fraction of the time the networks dedicate to commercial television. Over a full hour, PBS runs only about 5 minutes of underwriting announcements and promotion, while the networks run as much as 17 minutes or more of non-programming content. Beyond our guidelines for underwriting credits, our non-commercial mission is seen in our content, which is chosen for its quality, rather than its commercial appeal to advertisers."

War of the World, Part 1

The following letters refer to a three-part documentary series titled "The War of the World: A New History of the 20th Century" by Scottish-born historian Niall Ferguson. The first installment aired last Monday, June 30, and the next two follow on consecutive Mondays, usually at 10 p.m., on PBS. The series, based on his book of the same name, takes a lively, scholarly but contrarian, some say "revisionist," view of the violence that marked the 20th century. I watch these programs as they air, so I haven't seen the whole series and will no doubt have some comments and many more viewer reactions at its conclusion.

I did have a couple of brief, initial reactions to this first episode. One was that it did not talk down to the audience. This program requires some understanding of the history of the past 100 years — and not just American history — to grasp, or argue with, Ferguson's interpretations. It is perhaps too fast-moving, with a lot of historical short-hand. You have to listen carefully. I found many of his assessments to be provocative and some too far-reaching, but that's based on just this first hour. I also found his approach — taking these 100 years as essentially a continuum of one long conflict of ethnic and racial tensions and collapsing empires extending well beyond the two World Wars we focus on — to be very thought-provoking, opening connections and a historic flow that I hadn't thought much about.

The letters below are from viewers who actually watched the program. Before that, we received dozens of e-mails from people who had not seen it but didn't like what they heard about it and attacked PBS for showing it. I, personally, do not like that preemptive approach to serious work. It is a sure thing that this series will upset a fair number of viewers and Ferguson is without doubt a controversial interpreter of history. But he is also a scholar and widely-acclaimed author and, the last I heard, it was healthy for the public to see, hear, absorb, accept or reject provocative yet serious insights about world history, even if you don't want to hear them. You are not apt to see such challenging views elsewhere on American television.

Here Are the Letters

Please do your job. Last night's (June 30) War of the World does not meet PBS' own standards of journalistic integrity. It uses "history" as a vehicle to broadcast a huge socialist payload of self-loathing and Western guilt (or "Western decline"). This is a misuse of PBS' mission and purpose. War of the World represents the latest "on-message" theme from the global left, but dressed up to appear as scholarly history. Your continued failure to firmly oppose such bias and messaging within PBS programming belies your position as an "independent" ombudsman.

History is already badly marginalized in our nation's schools. War of the World makes this situation worse. Again, please do your job. It exists for a reason. Do not let historical fact be replaced by political stereotyping, even if it is slickly produced.

Jon T., Chicago, IL

Regarding the program, War of the World, I believe this is an example of revising history and attempting to discredit what the Allies did during World War II. It came across to me as quite superficial and out of context too many times. The video used was not always true to what the narrator was saying. To say that the Allies used totalitarian tactics to win the war is completely absurd. It is such an ignorant statement that it further reduces the credibility of the program. War is never a good thing and never perfect. Sometimes it has to be the option for stopping evil. Evil does not play by any rules. If you have never experienced evil, you cannot possibly understand how bad it is.

Ferguson does not impress me as much of an historian as he does a propagandist seeking attention for outlandish statements.

PBS again takes it on the chin for funding something that is not credible and is revisionist in nature. PBS should have dusted off the old series called "World at War" as that was authentic with authentic video. It was done to inform, not propagandize. It told and showed war how it really was and did not pull any punches.

John Betrozoff, Redmond, WA

Please rebroadcast or provide the web location where we can download video of The War of the World program, seen Monday at 9 pm. Very shocking and depressing but fascinating discussion of the 20th century and its conflicts; particularly interesting how western leaders and western historians repeatedly, by focusing on ideological conflicts and national power struggles, discounted the ethnic divisions that ended up underlining the many brutal conflicts that followed the century's initial conflicts. Sadly, it appears, we see these mistakes repeating themselves in recent global conflicts.

Tom Winter, Westwood, KS

Other Stuff

I have been concerned over the past several seasons about a religious bias that seems to be appearing in PBS programming. Repeatedly shown specials about the Mormon Church and then tonight (June 30) History Detectives doing a bit on a book about which they could not actually find any facts supported by any evidence. But they decided in that absence and by checking with a Mormon authority and others that determined that it was a book of fiction. Sloppy work. They didn't even identify the period of publication by the proper historical terminology.

I am a past Mormon and graduated with a minor in religious history. They developed at a time very much like it is today — rife with religious bigotry and fear. Suffered greatly for their religion long before polygamy. However, there are verified histories of mistreatment of women in polygamous marriages and the strict subjugation of women under various church stakes. This has been totally dismissed in every story you have done.

I also do not find equal coverage of the thousands of other old American churches in your programming. How about spreading it around a bit. I question the reason for this unbalanced coverage. The Church is extremely wealthy — perhaps the most wealth in the world today. I wonder about contributions and the diversity of board membership. PBS needs to stay bias free, it's all we have. After the next Presidential election I will actively lobby for reinstatement of government grants to public television and hopefully you can reduce if not eliminate commercialization of PBS.

Peggy Ryan, Medford, OR

This morning I discovered your work when I went online to research a program now playing on my local PBS station (in the midst of one of its many beg-a-thons.) I was drawn, instead, to an article focused on the practice of non-PBS produced programming. I found it fascinating and at the same time, disturbing. I won't bore you with my trance-like mental WOW! Instead, I want to know how one gets to do what you do.

Huntingdon Valley, PA

Thanks Mr. Getler, you perform an invaluable service. I do agree with several of your writers that not showing "controversial" investigative news shows at a regular time each week amounts to a kind of censorship, and of the kind that no free press should be enabling.

Just as with the avowed reasons for going to war against Iraq in the fall of 02 and winter of 03, the rationales for not showing these shows simply don't hold water. We knew in 03 that something was afoot and it wasn't WMD's, and we know it now with both the Moyers and NOW shows, less so with Frontline, at least with my public TV. They at least show Frontline on the same night but later.

Mind you the stations in Georgia don't show Moyers Journal and NOW on Friday nights, they show them in the middle of Sunday afternoon. I queried them about that move over a year ago, and received a reply that Sunday afternoons were devoted to public interest shows. There are 2 state business/political shows also shown on Sunday afternoon. I don't know of many who watch Public TV on Sunday afternoon, do you?

The fact is that since the Bush administration assumed power, anything the least CONTROVERSIAL is either not shown, shown at 2 a.m. or, in our case on Sunday afternoon. That is how one caves to political pressure. We all deserve a CPB and a PBS and a GPB that is entirely free from political pressure no matter who is in office. We deserve a public broadcasting hierarchy that is unafraid of political pressure and puts the interests of the public first.

D. Williams, Macon, GA

I respect PBS's record of excellence in journalism, and covering real news stories, not just the crime/scandal of the day. That said, I am concerned about more time of a program's hour or half-hour going to list sponsors and make pitches for contributions. You tackle complicated issues — I hate to see programs shortened with the instruction to "get more info on this topic on our Web site". I want to see the whole show broadcast, especially as I have a dial-up connection to the Internet and it is impractical for me to watch videos on the 'Net.

Sally G., Woodcliff Lake, NJ