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PBS Ombudsman

Ombudsman's Mailbag

Pledging, Polling and Palin

Alaska Governor and Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin was the focus of a lot of the messages in the Ombudsman's Mailbag this week, but not because of anything she had said or done. Rather, it was about an unscripted, political wisecrack about her made during a live PBS fund-raising pledge program, and an online poll about her on the weekly public affairs program NOW.

One was a mistake and the other perfectly reasonable, in my view. Aside from a sampling of letters printed below about both episodes, program officials also offer their responses.

Political wisecracking is pretty widespread these days, and it has always been part of our open culture. But doing so on a PBS pledge drive program aimed at gathering financial support from the citizenry for public broadcasting is just plain stupid, and contradictory to the purpose and credibility of PBS.

According to Joseph Campbell, vice president of fundraising programs, here's what happened:

"During the broadcast of 'The 60s Live!: My Generation, My Music,' a special featuring Eric Burdon (of the Animals), the Mamas and the Papas, Roger McGuinn (of the Byrds) and others, celebrity host Mike Farrell made an unscripted remark regarding the presidency of the United States. Mr. Farrell's spontaneous comment was entirely unplanned and does not represent the views of PBS, its employees or its member stations."

Campbell explained that, aside from performance clips by many stars of the 60s and pledge breaks featuring station-produced testimonials, a number of celebrities appeared live, including Farrell. "He made the comment live and gave us no indication of his intentions. Immediately after he went off the air he was confronted about his comments and promised that he would stay 'on script' for the remainder of the telecast, and did."

The exact exchange is as follows:

While Farrell is introducing Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and Papas, Phillips says: "People may even know us as boyfriend and girlfriend from (the TV show) 'Providence.'" Then Farrell says: "'Providence' that's right. Now I've been thinking about the fact that with all your qualities and the fact that you don't know anything about economics or foreign policy that you could be in line for the Presidency!"

Here Are Some of the Letters

You guys have a funny way of asking for people to donate to public television by having Mike Farrell make bad jokes about Sarah Palin during fund raiser Sunday night. Bad move.

David Mackey, Livonia, MI

On Sunday, the 14th, in the afternoon, you had a pledge drive hosted by Mike Farrell. He made a rude and vicious comment regarding Gov. Sarah Palin. Because of that I will not be donating to PBS this year. I would appreciate it if PBS would apologize for his comment and please keep him off of your pledge drives from now on.

Jose Narof, Glendale, CA

Having Mike Farrell supporting PBS fund raising is very appropriate. Having him take a political shot at one of the candidates during that fund raising is NOT.

Tony Bruno, Spring City, PA

I like the 60's music telethon. I thought about donating, then I heard Mike Farrell. When he apologizes about the comment geared toward Gov. Palin then I may donate. This should not be for political issues. This is for the love of the music.

Union Springs, AL

I love some of the programming you put on the air and would donate but when I hear Mike Farrell making jokes about Sarah Palin I don't feel like sending my money to your station.

Sean Breslin, Anaheim, CA

I was recently watching the fund raiser on our local PBS station here in Phoenix. While the liberal bent of PBS is quite obvious, one would think that, at least for the fund raising activities, they might try to look non-partisan. No such luck.

Scottsdale, AZ

About that Poll

The poll question first appeared two weeks ago (Sept. 5) on NOW on PBS' Web site and asked: "Do you think Sarah Palin is qualified to serve as Vice President of the United States?" Scores of viewers wrote to me to criticize this, seeing it as liberal bias on the part of PBS and NOW and also asking why the program didn't also ask if Sen. Barack Obama was qualified to be president of the United States.

A lengthy response follows from John Siceloff, executive producer of NOW, along with a sampling of letters from critical viewers.

But first, I'm with Siceloff on this one. NOW does lots of online polling and I think the questions stand the test of breadth and fairness. In this case, it seems to me to be a reasonable question to ask. Gov. Palin clearly was largely unknown to the vast majority of Americans at the time of the Republican National Convention. She has now been on the national scene for a matter of weeks, has been largely shielded from questioning by the press with the exception of one major broadcast TV interview aired thus far, and is indeed a heartbeat away from becoming president should she be elected and something happens to Sen. John McCain, who, at 72, would be the oldest person ever elected to the presidency.

As for Obama, he announced his candidacy in February 2007, received more than 17 million votes during the primary campaign, won 18 states in those primaries and 13 others where there were caucuses, and has been in scores of candidate debates and press interviews. So a large number of people have already stated that they think he is qualified, but we will only know on Election Day if that is more or less than think McCain is better qualified.

Here Are the Letters

I am once again aghast and stunned that the PBS would be so involved in politics that they actually circulated the "is Sarah Palin qualified to be Vice President" poll. How dare you use federally subsidized taxpayer platform for your own political ambitions: have you know shame?

You code of ethics mentions a "neutral platform" and that means you do not have the right to back a candidate. The poll regarding the qualifications of Sarah Palin would only be put out by a biased, liberal attack apparatus: Everybody else knows that she is well enough qualified to be President, far far more than Obama. It is a moot point and undebateable fact that Obama is not qualified by experience, background or character to be President; yet you have the audacity to question whether the sitting governor of the State of Alaska is qualified.

The mere asking of the question is an unethical violation of your own "neutrality" status. As for me; Every night I pray to God that Obama does not reside at the White House.

James Steven Slater, Fort Worth, TX

If you are going to do a poll asking if Sarah Palin is qualified to be vp, why are you not giving Joe Biden the same equal treatment? If the country really knew the truth about Biden, he would be thrown off the ticket.

Paul Hamby, Maysville, MO

Perhaps I missed the poll asking whether Barack Obama is qualified to be President of the United States! I am absolutely disgusted that you, once again, show your blatant liberal bias and ask if Governor Palin is qualified to be Vice President, ignoring the fact that she has more executive experience than all three other nominees. Because you are supported, in part, by U.S tax dollars, you should be ashamed that you do not fairly represent both sides of the aisle in either you're programming or, obviously tainted, polling! Shame on you and you're network, be fully aware that was the last straw and I will forever resist any temptation to financially support you're liberal agenda.

Gary Buck, Woodstock, GA

I voted in the poll asking is Sarah Palin ready to be vice-president, I have not seen a poll asking if Obama is ready to be President.

Patricia Evans, Stockbridge, GA

I firmly object to your poll question regarding whether Sarah Palin is qualified to run for Vice-President. If you want to know what people think about this issue, in all fairness, you should also ask whether Barack Obama is qualified to run for President. When you have a one-sided poll like this, it shows bias.

Carol Stockstell, Yucca Valley, CA

If PBS is going to poll the populous on Ms Palin's qualifications as Vice President, it seems to me you ought to have a poll on Mr Obama's qualifications as President. His qualifications are no more impressive than hers.

Lawrence LeMieux, Clayton, OH

This is in reference to a PBS Pole that asks, "Do you think Sarah Palin is qualified to serve as Vice President of the United States?" I get the idea for the pole, but . . . aren't you asking the wrong question? Since the qualifications according to the Constitution state, "But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice President of the United States.

Therefore, the Vice-President must be constitutionally eligible for the Presidency. These requirements are that they must be a natural born citizen of the United States, that they be no less than thirty five years old, and that they have been a resident of the United States for at least fourteen years."

Is PBS requesting its viewers to vote on whether or not Mrs. Palin's meets these qualifications? Anyone that meets the above requirements is 'qualified' to be the Vice President. So, therefore the pole should be 100% yes, unless anyone can prove otherwise. Isn't the real question, Do you think Sarah Palin will make a good Vice President of the United States? I'm voting 'yes' — I think Sarah Palin is qualified to be the Vice President of the United States. Hey . . . I'm qualified too, but I don't think I would be as good a VP as Sarah Palin.

Huntersville, NC

I found today's poll question "Is Sarah Palin qualified to be vice-president?" very interesting in that I have seen no poll in the same vane regarding Senators Obama and Biden's quals for their bids. I realize that the subject is subjective, at best, however, viewing it from an objective standpoint, her qualifications as a governmental executive far exceed Sen. Biden's total lack of experience. Legislative does not equal executive.

Fran Marcoux, Seeley Lake, MT

NOW's John Siceloff Responds

"I'm writing in response to questions raised about a poll on NOW on PBS' website which asks the question, 'Do you think Sarah Palin is qualified to serve as Vice President of the United States?' The poll has generated enormous interest. In fact today (Thursday, Sept. 18), the poll is 'the most visited site' in the PBS universe. As of this morning, there have been over 1.5 million votes." Of those who have participated, 40% voted yes, 52% voted no, and 6% voted not sure.

"I want to address the issue of bias, and also provide information about other election materials that we have on our website. We use online polls frequently. They are part of the 'lean-forward' experience that we seek to engender on the NOW website. The polls are connected to the news, and solicit opinion from our web users about what they think. This poll appeared the week of the Republican National Convention, when Sarah Palin was nominated, and it was designed to ask a major question that emerged from the events of the RNC. Even a number of conservatives raised the issue of Palin's qualifications, for example the New York Times' David Brooks.

"It's essential to note that at the same time we posted our own exclusive interview with Sarah Palin. Maria Hinojosa had interviewed her in December 2007 as part of our investigation into corruption in Alaskan politics. So, when Palin was nominated, we pulled out the Palin portions of that piece and posted it online as 'Meet Sarah Palin.' You'll see that it provides a very balanced portrait of this person whom most Americans had never heard of.

"We have used polls on our website since spring 2006. Each poll consists of a single question. Each week we ask about something that is in the news, and being discussed and debated around the country. In this election year, most of the questions have to do with politics. The poll questions are often tied to our broadcast story. We ask questions about Democrats, about Republicans, about third party candidates, and about social issues. We take care to make sure that the wording of the question is not leading or biased. Our choices are based on what we see as newsworthy each week. In the case of the Palin poll, that was a question that arose during the Republican convention. Our question during the Democratic convention was not, 'Is Obama qualified to be president?' (Democratic primary voters had been answering that question for months). It was: 'Did the Democratic Convention succeed in unifying the party?' because that was, in our view, a major issue during the convention. But we have indeed asked searching questions about Senator Obama — earlier this year, we asked about one of the most difficult issues he faced during the primary fight: 'How would you rate Obama's handling of the Rev. Wright controversy?' Our goal is overall balance, across many pieces of content online and on broadcast. I want to point out that the NOW Palin poll has attracted huge interest from both liberal and conservative blogs."

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