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The Ombudsman Column

Ombudsman's Mailbag

Last week's column about a segment on the NewsHour moderated by Margaret Warner with guests Max Boot and Lawrence Korb — informal campaign advisers, respectively, to Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama — included several letters that were sharply critical of the way this discussion was handled and Boot's domination of the time and talking points.

The dispute continues in this week's Mailbag, with viewers offering different perspectives on that segment, taking issue with some of my assessments, and expressing a point that is actually heard rather frequently: the frustration of listening to representatives of opposing political candidates in the same segment.

And, a Program Note: I expect to be away from the office for a while early in August. But please keep the e-mails and phone calls coming. They will be read, listened to and acted upon.

Here Are the Letters

I would like to second and expand on the comment by George Lusk in your July 28th column. Mr. Lusk requests that the NH not invite representatives of the candidates on together. I agree. Further, in my opinion, the least valuable segments of the NH are those where guests on the opposite sides of an issue square off to spare whether they are politicians or otherwise. I much prefer either one-on-one interviews or genuine exchanges of opinion. There is a limit to even the NH's able moderators can do to achieve a balanced discussion.

Tom Morgan, Arlington Heights, IL

Margaret Warner made a heroic effort to control the Max Boot/Lawrence Korb exchange, but I have come to the conclusion that the NewsHour should stay away from segments where representatives of each campaign presume to discuss issues. These exchanges are never illuminating. Instead, please stick to guests who are analysts, rather than cheerleaders. And while the political correspondents (Shields/Brooks) are expected to come from a particular point of view, they don't interrupt each other and shout. We do not need any more shouters on TV. Thanks.

Lois Jeffrey, Bend, OR

The PBS Ombudsman should be more ashamed of capitulating to some squawking liberals who don't like seeing their ideas argued against. What is more noteworthy is that no one seems to have a problem with the rude and disrespectful behavior of Mr. Korb, who tersely and argumentatively interrupted Mr. Boot. Mr. Korb made a factually inaccurate and bizarre statement, which Mr. Boot correctly pointed out. Accept it. Learn from it. Move forward.

J. C., Los Angeles, CA

Those who are soooo upset that Max Boot gave long answers in the interview might bear in mind that getting to the actual truth sometimes takes longer than if all you are trying to do is promote a transparent spin. Too bad that Obama is all fluff, no substance, and has little grasp of the facts — that seems to be all the Left can find nowadays — and the Right ain't all that much better!

R. P., Indianapolis, IN

Get used to it — there's going to be 100 more days of this kind of brown-collar bullying, with similar deer-in-the-headlights responses from moderators who've forgotten the Boer Right's antics during the Florida recount.

Steven Mikulan, Los Angeles, CA

Max Boot is "well-informed"? Good grief. How can you say such a thing about an inveterate liar and apologist for all things Bush and Cheney going back to the fraudulent WMD pretext for war, the "successes" of the war, the threat of Iran, ad infinitum. It remains astonishing and dismaying to me that op-ed pages still carry this right wing [expletive deleted] belligerent and wrongheaded polemics. And that would go for the NewsHour as well. Under the shield of "balance" you give airtime to a proven dissembler. This enlightens no one and helps explain why the majority of the public apparently thought Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks.

I'm sure it would be considered bad manners at oh-so-polite PBS, but I wish someone would ask the war-mongering Mr. Boot if he feels any moral responsibility for the thousands of lives lost and mangled and destroyed in a hideous debacle he cheered from the outset. That's the least Warner could have done after allowing such a scoundrel on television in the first place.

Sean Mitchell, South Pasadena, CA

Re: Max Boot punking Lawrence Korb and Margaret Warner. I saw Tim Russert let Bill O'Reilly of all people berate fellow guest Paul Krugman without making any particular point and Russert didn't do a thing about it. In fact, he seemed gleeful like he did talking about football or something innocuous. One upshot of this is that Max Boot probably won't be back on PBS and will be shunted to Fox Noise with all the other "big opinion, little fact" blowhards. So he wasn't as smart as you might think.

Seattle, WA

Bible Bashing?

Scores of e-mails arrived this past week from people who said they had "heard" or they had come to "understand" that PBS was going to broadcast a program this fall called "The Bible's Buried Secrets" and they were certain they were not going to like it. Here's a typical letter:

"I understand that you plan to air, on November 18th, a program that says the Old Testament is a bunch of made-up stories that never happened. It (The Bible's Buried Secrets) even says the Bible is not true.

"I have also been informed that the producer, Paula Apsell, said, ' . . . It's designed for intelligent people who are willing to change their mind. . . . it will give intelligent people who want to read the Bible in a modern way a chance. If we insist on reading the Bible literally, in 25 years, nobody will read it any longer.'

"Congress gives PBS hundreds of millions of tax dollars to help support the network. Over the years I have highly recommended your station to my students in the public school where I teach. No longer will I do this. I now I believe that 'The Bible's Buried Secrets' is a perfect reason Congress should stop supporting PBS with our tax dollars."

Jerry Fischer, Stevenson Ranch, CA

Apparently many of these letters were inspired by an "Action Alert" message sent out by Donald E. Wildmon, the founder and chairman of the American Family Association. The "alert" asks recipients to sign "a petition urging Congress to stop using tax dollars to fund PBS" and also to "consider making a small tax-deductible contribution to help us continue."

Here's Wildmon's message:

"The Public Broadcasting System (PBS), probably the most liberal network in America, will present a program this fall that says the Old Testament is a bunch of made-up stories that never happened. 'The Bible's Buried Secrets' says the Bible is not true. It is scheduled to air on November 18.

"Producer Paula Apsell said: ' . . . It's (The Bible's Buried Secrets) designed for intelligent people who are willing to change their mind. . . . it will give intelligent people who want to read the Bible in a modern way a chance. If we insist on reading the Bible literally, in 25 years, nobody will read it any longer.'

"Among highlights of 'The Bible's Buried Secrets':
— The Old Testament was written in the sixth century BC and hundreds of authors contributed.
— Abraham, Sarah and their offspring didn't exist.
— There is no archaeological evidence of the Exodus.
— Monotheism was a process that took hundreds of years.
— The Israelites were actually Canaanites.
— The Israelites believed that God had a wife.

"I have often said that PBS should not receive tax dollars. 'The Bible's Buried Secrets' is simply one more reason Congress should stop supporting PBS with our tax dollars. Congress gives PBS hundreds of millions of tax dollars to help support the network."

A Couple of Points in Response

I see PBS programs the same way that viewers see them: when they are broadcast. I don't write about them before they air, and when I do it is based on observations by viewers who have actually seen the program. "The Bible's Buried Secrets" is scheduled to air nationally on Nov. 18 as part of the NOVA science series, which has been on the air for more than 30 years and is widely and highly regarded. The program was produced for PBS by the science unit at Boston's WGBH. I'm not sure how Wildmon knows, at this point, what's in the film, although an article in the Orlando Sentinel on July 21, based on a clip of the film and a panel discussion afterwards at the annual summer tour of the Television Critics Association in Los Angeles, provides a list of points similar to that used in the AFA's alert.

As for the quote in the AFA statement and petition attributed to NOVA's senior executive producer, Paula Apsell, program officials say Apsell never said that and that the quote was wrongly attributed to her. "The comments came from a response to a press conference question by Dr. William Dever, a biblical scholar who participated in the film," according to NOVA officials. The press conference was associated with the annual critics "press tour" in Los Angeles.

Here's How Apsell Describes the Forthcoming Program

"'The Bible's Buried Secrets' is a comprehensive archeological and literary investigation that traces the origins of the ancient Israelites, explores the evolution of their belief in one God, and reveals how the manifestation of their faith, the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament, was written. The two-hour film features in-depth discussions with leading biblical scholars and archeologists along with historic works of art, ancient artifacts, animations of biblical passages and scenes, and dramatic recreations of extraordinary events. Together they help tell the story of the ancient Israelites and how they found their one God — the God not only of modern Judaism, but also of Christianity and Islam.

"This two-hour special has been in production for more than four years. As with all NOVA projects in our 34-year history of documentary filmmaking, we take painstaking measures to research the topic and find experts in the field in order to provide audiences with the most up-to-date scientific information. We want viewers to have thoughtful discussions about our programs and encourage people to share their views and opinions on any film that we produce. 'The Bible's Buried Secrets' represents mainstream archeological and biblical scholarly thinking about the Hebrew Bible. Our hope is that the film will enrich the experience of reading the Bible for generations to come."