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The Ombudsman Column

Ombudsman's Mailbag

Welcome to another Ombudsman's Mailbag, a regular sampling of viewer comments and observations about PBS programs, and of reactions to the ombudsman's column.

This week's mail was dominated by a continuing and rather heavy flow of e-mail from viewers reacting to the decision earlier this month by the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer not to report the news, on the Aug. 8 broadcast, of the public confession that day of an extra-marital affair by former presidential candidate John Edwards, and to last week's ombudsman column on that subject. The letters are posted below.

But first, the NewsHour also took some heat this week from some viewers who felt that the substitute commentators — Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post and Rich Lowry of the National Review — who stood in for regulars Mark Shields and David Brooks last Friday, Aug. 15, both gave Republican presidential candidate John McCain a pretty good ride in their commentary at the expense of Democratic candidate Barack Obama.

As a viewer, I had the same impression but I don't fault the panelists. The subject was reaction by the candidates to the sudden outbreak of armed conflict in Georgia and the movement of Russian troops and tanks into that small neighboring country. They were hardly alone in concluding that McCain had come out better and more forceful in the initial round of reactions, and that this type of foreign policy crisis plays to his perceived strengths. Yet both guests offered cautions and Marcus, on a couple of occasions, also pointed out the risks in McCain's position and questioned whether Americans share McCain's view that "we are all Georgians now."

I would make two other points:

One is to repeat the caution I raised in last week's column about the early coverage of the fighting in the region. Every discussion beyond just soundbites needs to remind viewers of the confusing events that precipitated this crisis, and what is known about the actions of political leaders and military forces on both sides that fueled this conflict. This is especially vital if Americans are going to make informed judgments about such events and about the reactions of the White House and the two candidates who seek to occupy it next year.

The other goes to a theme that is contained in some of the following letters; the pairing of journalists or commentators on television public affairs or news programs. It is an issue that has been raised occasionally by other viewers and it seems to me to be worth mentioning. I'm not talking here about politicians or policy specialists who turn out to be in agreement on something, or who are so diametrically opposed that they leave viewers with their heads spinning. Rather, it is about people who are in the news business.

This is a vague point that I'm raising here, and it is about television generally and not so much about the NewsHour. But my sense — and it is only that, I can't cite specifics — is that these pairings of news analysts on television more frequently involve what could be broadly described as center-right combinations than more clearly left-right combinations. If there is anything to that, it is interesting in terms of whether the full spectrum of views is being presented. The NewsHour, it seems to me, generally does well in this area through the commentary of regulars Shields and Brooks.

Although Marcus was a former colleague of mine at the Post, I have no idea of her politics as a commentator. But the Post, despite how some of its critics portray it, is an independent, centrist newspaper, while the National Review is clearly conservative. So, without endorsing the letters below, they may have hit on a broader topic that producers and viewers should think about.

Here Are the Letters

I am extremely disappointed with Jim Lehrer and the round table discussion of Friday, August 15, 2008. Ruth Marcus and Rich Lowry obviously are for McCain. Their biased responses to the questions on leadership were right out of the Repub's playbook. McCain is not POTUS yet, so why is he speaking before Bush. Jim Lehrer seemed to open the door for negative nonsense spewed by these two.

Vernon Chandler, Washington, DC

Tonight on the NewsHour PBS offered Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post and Rich Lowry of the National Review. Center-Right and Extreme Right isn't balance. The Nation and the National Review would be balance. I don't watch PBS for the Republican point of view — I can get all I want of that in the rest of the media.

Carol Marsh, Missoula, MT

Witnessed another front-loaded exchange on the Lehrer NewsHour on Aug. 15. We saw a Wash Post reporter vs. Rich Lowry of Nat. Review! Why can't you have an LA Times commentator vs a Nation reporter?? You people really speak power to truth!

S. Larson, Arcata, CA

(Ombudsman's Note: Marcus is a columnist not a reporter.)

The Friday NewsHour included a bit from McCain that "nations don't invade other nations" in the 21st century. How in the devil could PBS air that comment without some mention of McCain's everlasting support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq? Surely someone should have asked McCain or his campaign for an explanation and included their response. Otherwise, it's just bad reporting.

This complaint is part of a larger concern that the NewsHour spends too much time reporting exactly what the candidates say, without much thought about whether they make any sense and without challenging statements that are questionable or worse. This is a very important campaign, and it really requires all news media to question all the usual nonsense from the candidates and their hatchet spokespersons.

Steve Kerstetter, Vancouver, BC

I was somewhat dismayed yesterday watching NewsHour to see how the two commentators (National Review and Washington Post) were advocating how John McCain has clearly won the political contest of responding to the Georgia conflict. McCain has overstepped his responsibilities in a way that make me uncomfortable and frankly if Obama had done anything close to it he would have been branded as pretending he was being president. Honestly, he is meddling in US policy and he should be called out for that.

It came out somewhat inadvertently that the commentator from the National Review was a good friend of Randy Scheunemann. I can't help but wonder, how we found ourselves in this conflict: the timing of it, the rapidity of the McCain response to it, the close connection of R. Scheunemann to the President of Georgia and his role in the McCain campaign, the actions of C. Rice and K. Rove in the months leading up to this conflict and the overall US approach to Russia in this region. I think there is a lot more to this story and it would be helpful to explore the political angle of it, but perhaps with people who have no political bias to pursue and have the regional expertise to comment.

Also, there was a discussion about the unification efforts in the Democratic party and the on-going loyalty of Clinton supporters to Obama's candidacy. In the future when the program posits that there is an issue, I think it should substantiate it with data that supports the point of view. Otherwise the discussion comes across as simply the continuation of a favorite media story line. While I expect that on corporate media outlets, I watch PBS so I can hear fact-based reporting.

D. Tillett, Thousand Oaks, CA

More on the Edwards Confession Story

The NewsHour would have received criticism on how and what they reported vis-à-vis John Edwards and his private (sex) life no matter what they had done. I am one who believes that they have done well. I am interested in this but The National Enquirer is much better equipped to report this story and if I am interested I will get the dirt from them. It is always nice however to return to and be returned to reality by The NewsHour.

The lack of current accurate information regarding the Russia/Georgia conflict is inexcusable and needs to be remedied immediately.

Mike Knight, Tampa, FL

I agree with both of your issues this week.

The NewHour failed miserably in not reporting on John Edwards' statement/confession. As usual, his explanation answered some questions but raised others, and confirmed that he apparently is not contrite about his lying.

The NewsHour also failed miserably in not reporting on the actions of Georgia in the 'disputed' areas. While it was a priori suspect of Russia to militarily cross the Georgian border, from what I have been able to infer, Russia was already providing some form of monitoring or protection to Russian citizens in the disputed areas inside Georgia's borders when Georgian troops 'attacked' albeit within their borders. I frankly would like to know the facts, and I'm pretty sure I haven't seen them on the NewHour.

Michael Freed, Sylmar, CA

I saw no value in spreading Edwards' infidelity all over the news — PBS or MSM print. NYTimes put it on the front page. WHY? He's not in office and not running for office. His infidelity is a subject he and Elizabeth need to discuss between themselves especially in terms of her terminal cancer and the well-being of their twins. NO ONE ELSE!! Many of his reasons don't even make sense like the fact that Elizabeth's cancer was in remission when he did it. How is that a justification for going astray?? We have many other subjects we as a country need to be learning about and discussing — domestic and foreign. Keep with these latter topics, not a civilian's infidelity.

Patricia Wilson, San Jose, CA

I appreciate the Ombudsman's article about the NewsHour and the Edwards scandal. Thank you for informing us of the reason NewHour did not go with the confession in the first place. I wish I had heard that during the on air discussion of why the reporters had not followed up the rumors, etc. At the time, I was so annoyed with the whole business that I would have preferred that NewsHour had said nothing. Now I wish I could hear that discussion again, because I missed hearing everything that was said, and probably missed the whole point of having a discussion of the activities of news reporters.

Thank you for your thoughtful article about the activities of NewsHour. I have a lot of respect for the people who present that show and I would not like losing it over a mess like the Edwards scandal.

Austin, TX

It seems crass and impersonal to say "if it bleeds, it leads," but that's exactly what people want to know about, even if it's just 30 seconds of Jim Lehrer's reporting of the news of the day. The Edwards infidelity was blood in the water. How a news organization reports a story often indicates how they feel about the story and/or the people in the story, but that should have no bearing on whether it gets reported. You censor a story because you don't like somebody or some circumstance, or worse still you don't think it's politically correct — that's bias that is intolerable, *especially* for an outfit such as the NewsHour.

Here is the reason that was given for censoring the news: "It was decided not to report the story in our news summary [or anywhere else in the hour] on the grounds that Edwards is not a candidate for public office, and not on any short list for vice president or any other public office, so it struck us as a problem for him and his family, not the American public."

Am I living in an alternate universe? Someone please tell me now. Was it really a unanimous decision, or was it a decision by a few, or a decision by Linda Winslow alone using the royal "we" in her statement? It's not a problem for the American public that Edwards has disgraced the party and everyone who votes Democratic, his incredible wife and their family, and most of all himself with this??? It's not a problem that his message about looking out for and helping up the poor and left behind in America will now be overshadowed and forgotten by his gross indiscretions??? It's not a problem that any advisory role or help that he might have provided to Obama in the campaign for the presidency has become void, including his endorsement??? It's not a problem for the American public that John Edwards has added his name to Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, and Eliot Spitzer among several others as a talented political figure whose career was ruined because of yet another sex scandal??? Not for even half a minute? And to miss the opportunity to explore these ramifications with Shields and Brooks is just unconscionable, *especially* with Obama and McCain now trying to attract the religious vote.

It seems, Mr. Getler, you should find out what the real reason was for the decision to show absolutely nothing at all about the Edwards infidelity in the Friday NewsHour broadcast, and find out specifically who were responsible for pushing this decision through, because the reason given is not credible and the decision itself is ludicrous on its face.

Someone might make the argument that the story was big enough that a large majority of people would have found out about it the same day regardless, but this does not excuse what is, at its core, censorship. The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is highly touted as an independent voice in media. It does not hand off its responsibilities for reportage to other news outfits. It does the job. That's why I watch it, why other people watch it, and why we give money to PBS. You need to do more than what you've reported here, Mr. Getler.

Hy A., Forest Hills, NY

(Ombudsman's Note: The real reason is the one stated by Winslow, executive producer of The NewsHour, in last week's column. She and Lehrer make the final decisions on this program and it was decided not to include it in the summary of the day's news. It might have come up during the weekly discussion with commentators Shields and Brooks, but it didn't and Lehrer, who conducts that session, didn't raise it, presumably because of the same reason it wasn't in the news summary.)

'Bravo' for the NewsHour

Regarding the NewsHour non-coverage of the Edwards confession, I say bravo for the NewsHour! Who gives a damn about John Edwards' infidelities?

Hugh Caley, Albany, CA

While Edwards is not running for president, we don't know that Obama, if elected President, wouldn't have nominated Edwards for Attorney General. Perhaps that's what mainstream newspapers wanted and they just hoped this story would "go away." Certainly that's not doing what newspapers are supposed to do.

Gerald Deutsch, Glen Head, NY

No one in any position or of any title has any obligation to tell the press anything about his or her personal life. Get over it! There is no need for PBS or NPR to ape the ignorant. Item #2: I found it confounding that I could not get a full report from either NewsHour or NPR on what caused Russia to invade Georgia.

Dwight Bobson, Washington, DC

Regarding the Edwards infidelity, if The NewsHour wishes to report on that, please also report on McCain's infidelity before he remarried. I view ripping into candidates' personal lives and poor taste, destructive & almost completely irrelevant. I would prefer to see (which I don't) forcing answers of difficult core campaign issues — medical insurance, effect of lobbyists vs democracy, loss of American jobs & neoliberalism, the stock market & neoliberalism, reasons for the demise of the middle class and neoliberalism, taxes and the true cost of our military, ending the Iraq invasion, etc.

Portland, ME

I am disappointed that you would sink to the level of some tittle tattle Enquirer with the Edwards interview. Next it will be Paris Hilton. Is there nowhere on TV we can go and get news and not gossip? It's not as though Edwards is very relevant at this point in time.

Santa Rosa, CA

This 'Must Be Reported'

The John Edwards issue is one which MUST be reported. He was seeking the highest office in U.S. Government — that of President. First, he lied, and if he cannot be trusted in his personal life, that sets the standard for no accountability in public office. Perhaps the media trusted what he was saying and felt no obligation to really look for the facts. Unfortunately, his behavior sends the message that "politicians" cannot be trusted. I know we cannot lump them all into one category. But each day seems to reveal one more that does not meet admirable standards.

As a voter, I had read his books and done research into his background when he was running for office. It seemed his values and goals for the future would serve America well — obviously he was "all talk", unwilling to back up his "talk" with action. The media has great responsibility to keep the public informed and I am so glad this story did come to light. I am confident there is more to come. It is my hope the media is following the money trail, because my guess would be campaign funds were misused in ways we can only imagine.

Does his Campaign think it looks more admirable for another staff worker to admit being the father of this child? In trying to deflect the guilt from Edwards they are only saying "the other woman" was "doing" everyone on staff!!! Thank you for the opportunity to express my view and please continue to research and report to the public the true facts in all issues.

Beverly Whiteley, Boise, ID

I applaud PBS Nightly News and how they handled the John Edwards matter. There is enough "no news" on all news broadcasts in this country. It is refreshing to find a news program that reports the real news.

Naomi Lerner, Placentia, CA

When you spend NewsHour time on such irrelevant topics as John Edwards' affair, PBS becomes as irrelevant as Fox News and other major media. You do not need to go to their level to get watchers.

Inge Leonardos, Eureka, CA

I completely agree with your comments concerning the John Edwards affair. I was an Edwards supporter until he dropped out of the presidential race because he seemed to speak for those who had no voice. He was frequently in New Orleans or other places where public awareness was needed to draw attention to those without hope.

I find his affair deplorable, particularly when he seemed to be so concerned about his wife's condition. To repeatedly lie about it is simply unforgivable. To think he could have been Vice President, or even, God forbid, the 2008 Democratic Presidential candidate boggles the mind. What was he thinking? That he wouldn't be found out? This man is certainly intelligent. His hubris is astonishing . . . and led, as it always does, to his downfall. Too bad. He could have continued to speak for the voiceless. Now his comments will be discounted by so many. A tragedy comparable to anything Shakespeare wrote.

John Steele, Glendale, CA

The Edwards story, too titillating for NewsHour or not, is a terribly important story because had it been reported sooner, we most likely would be looking at Hillary Clinton as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee since Edwards attracted far more potential supporters from her campaign than from Barack Obama's.

Alan Sperber, New York, NY

Sadly, viewers who want real news that is fit to print relevant have no where to go. The fine art of gossip column news has replaced serious information about very serious issues. John Edwards' Confession should go on daytime Soap Opera or Oprah. There are plenty of fluff shows. How one can escape Edwards' Confession and find out what is going on in Afghanistan is a real challenge. To find out anything but opinion almost impossible. It shoots by with two University professors and 10 minutes of analysis then we get back to the politician, punditry, spin and salacious tidbits of irrelevant scandal.

Jill G., Phoenix, AZ

And a Final Point from a Viewer

I can't believe the program [Wide Angle: Iraqi Exodus] I watched last night about the Iraqi Refugees. Why doesn't someone do a show or documentary about the economic crisis right here in The United States? What about the sons and fathers from here who have given their lives for an ineffectual war we're fighting there. What about their families? All our jobs are leaving the U.S. China and Mexico are bringing this country to its knees without firing a shot!! I'm a 57 year old male. I'm living on beans, potatoes and rice because I cannot find employment. I can't afford my medication. I can't afford $4.00 a gallon gasoline. I am losing everything I own. Why is it, all the Mexicans have jobs but, I can't find one? I even went to vocational school for 2 years. That diploma hasn't done me a bit of good cause there are no jobs in the immediate area. They've all gone to Mexico or China. We need to clean up our own backyard and stay out of every other country's business!

W.J. Harrison, Celina, TN