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PBS Ombudsman

Ombudsman's Mailbag

Last week's long mailbag was centered on viewer reaction to PBS coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Denver. There was a lot of mail, and much of it was complimentary to the coverage by Jim Lehrer and the staff of the NewsHour, and to the decision of PBS to devote all of its prime time hours to reporting all four days of that gathering. PBS was the only broadcast network or service, as opposed to cable networks, to devote all of those hours to fulltime, live coverage. This week, PBS and the NewsHour did the same thing with the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul and that, too, produced a great deal of mail to me from viewers. In contrast to last week's activities, however, the great majority of reactions directed my way were critical.

As was the case last week, a sizeable representative sampling of the letters is printed below. Many of them express reactions to the proceedings Wednesday evening with the introduction and speech, watched by a huge national television audience, of the surprise vice-presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. The letters are offered without comment with a couple of exceptions.

Some of the letters contain personal attacks on the performance of NewsHour senior correspondent Gwen Ifill and regular commentator Mark Shields. I don't agree with these assessments. Reporters are there to ask questions and report. That's what they do. That's how we, as consumers of news, find out things. Shields is there, along with David Brooks, to analyze as they see things.

Some of the comments about Ifill deal with how she appeared on screen when asked by Lehrer to sum up the reaction on the convention floor after the powerful speech delivered by Palin. I don't know whether Ifill was tired after a long night, or simply trying to talk over very loud noise and music in the background, or struggling to hold her earpiece in place the whole time. But she clearly reported that delegates "exploded with excitement" over Palin's speech and that they "couldn't have been happier." Apparently, that's not enough for some viewers. You have to smile and reflect enthusiasm in order to avoid being painted as biased.

Ifill, who played a solid, in my view, and central role in PBS coverage of both conventions, will be the moderator of the vice-presidential debate on Oct. 2 which now promises to be one of the most heavily watched events of this long campaign season. The Washington Post published this article about her on Thursday.

On the other hand, there are a handful of other letters in this mailbag criticizing a segment Ifill moderated Thursday evening in which three Republicans were asked about their reactions to the speech of Palin the night before. As a panel, this was totally predictable and next to useless. It would clearly have benefited from some Democratic or independent participant. I have no idea who ordered this up and picked the participants, but it wasn't surprising that it drew some criticism. There was also an Ifill-run panel during the Democratic convention with two Democrats who know Sen. Joe Biden well and were assessing his role as he was about to accept the vice-presidential nomination. This was before his speech and was mostly about his career, and Ifill asked challenging questions.

As for Shields, he was sharply criticized by some for analyzing the tensions that must have accompanied Palin's decision to accept Sen. John McCain's offer knowing, before it was made public, that her unwed, teenage daughter would be thrust into the spotlight because of her pregnancy. I thought Shields actually handled his point of view quite well, with context and compassion but with a clear understanding that there was no way in the world that this development was not going to be a major front-page story in practically every newspaper in the country. Palin, herself, has used her family effectively in telling her story. So if you can point out that your son and nephew joined the Army and the son is headed to Iraq, you can't expect that the unmarried daughter's newly revealed pregnancy is somehow not to be reported on by the press and commented upon.

Another interesting point in some of the letters is the lack of some independent, timely fact-checking mechanism for speeches at both conventions. There might have been some of that and I might have missed it, but if it was there it didn't seem to register.

Here Are the Letters

Following the speeches on Wednesday evening, when the perspective shifted to Gwen Ifill on the convention floor, her disgust with the proceedings was barely concealed and her comments clearly defined her bias towards Obama and the Democrats. If a professional news person cannot maintain at least a surface level of objectivity then perhaps she should seek employment at CNN or MSNBC who make no pretense at being unbiased. Public Television should represent the American public, no matter what their political position is, and public TV more than any other outlet should be unbiased and objective. Very disappointing.

Christopher Spilker, Royal Oak, MI

I was appalled by Gwen Ifill's commentary directly following Gov. Sarah Palin's speech. Her attitude was dismissive and the look on her face was one of disgust. Clearly, she was agitated by what most critics view as a well-delivered speech. It is quite obvious that Ms. Ifill supports Obama as she struggled to say anything redemptive about Gov. Palin's performance. I am disappointed in Ms. Ifill's complete disregard for journalistic objectivity. I have come to expect more from PBS.

Brian Meyers, Granby, CT

PBS's coverage this week of the RNC has been a continued decline, and clearly biased view from those within PBS who most definitely want to "convince" the public that the RNC has nothing to say. The absolute horrible comments and appearance from Gwen Ifill after Sarah Palin's speech last night should be an embarrassment for PBS. She looked clearly disappointed, she appeared bothered and could not come up with one positive or objective comment.

Pittsburgh, PA

I am shocked at questioning by Gwen Ifill on the MacNeil/Lehrer Report about whether Sarah Palin can be both a VP and a mother. That question is so far out of line it's in the stratosphere. Gwen Ifill attempted to justify the question by saying Palin said she was a hockey mom. Lame, and she knows it. AND your viewers know it.

Questions about Palin's experience are obviously OK, but whether she should run as VP with a family? Was Barack asked that question? I think not! I expect that line of questioning from NBC, but not PBS. I have been a MacNeil/Lehrer viewer for years and until this evening always thought the program's staff were professionals. Now I'm not so sure. That line of questioning should never have happened. Once it did, it should have been on the floor of the cutting room. I understand you want to elect Obama, but interviews like that lose votes for Obama. You all could use a week off for ethics training.

Dennis Hughes, St. Petersburg, FL

And About That Like-Minded Panel . . .

Why did Gwen Ifill have NO Democratic representatives on her interview this evening (Thursday) regarding Palin. She had 3 Republicans on???????? Is this "balanced"?????

Albany, CA

The guests for last night's discussion of Sarah Palin were, as Gwen Ifill described them: "Linda Lingle, the governor of Hawaii, who introduced Palin last night, Michael Gerson, who was chief speechwriter for President Bush, and Barbara Comstock, who served as a senior adviser to Mitt Romney during his presidential campaign."

Not one detached observer. Why? Not a single critic? Why? No one to mention Palin's falsehoods/lies? Why? Is this journalism? After Obama picked Biden, did the NewsHour allow him to be assessed only by his fans and/or party hacks (I don't know — but more shame on the NewsHour if the answer is yes)? Or am I missing something in all of this?

Morton Mintz, Washington, DC

Tonight Gwen Ifill failed us once again. We were treated to an Academy Award interview. Three Republicans celebrated Palin's performance. I would hope that not even Ifill was surprised that they loved Plain's speech and settled the question of qualification once and for all. Journalism endorsed partisan view by providing a forum and silently endorsed their conclusions. You may have had a similar self congratulatory panel at the Democratic convention. I don't member one. That would not justify this one, it would underscore failing the American public.

You appear to be cowed by Republicans threatening accusations of sexism or classism if Palin is criticized at all. We have to accept as truth that all experience is equal. We have to distort our fundamental belief in the equality of humans to transpose it to read all experience is equal. We are asked to accept that "red meat" one-liners are equivalent to statesmanship. Take back your responsibility to probe deeper. It is not sufficient to accept the standards set by the political parties, and assess whether they have lived up to their own standards. You have to challenge the validity of their standards. You have to make them reach for more.

Peter Pufall, Northampton, MA

Just what is the "Public" to get from interviewing Republican delegates about Palin? Please, be a little objective and insightful.

Endicott, NY

Checking for 'Errors,' Faces in the Crowd, and Teleprompters

PBS's reporters and analysts made some serious errors of omission following Sarah Palin's speech Wednesday night. First, she distorted much of what Obama and Biden have been saying, especially about tax and energy policies. Second, she asserted that Al Qaeda operatives were still intent on inflicting damage on the United States but Obama was more worried about reading them their rights. I find it truly frightening that a potential President would disparage someone for upholding due process and the Constitution, and, as a journalist, I am dismayed that seemingly no one in the press called attention to the issue.

Richard Knee, San Francisco, CA

I am shocked that none of the media outlets I've viewed today (short of NPR) have fact-checked Palin's speech. There were so many misrepresentations it's stunning, and to have no one other than NPR challenge them makes me wonder if the "sexism" label is cowing other media.

St. Paul, MN

Thank you for unbiased commentary on both the Republican & Democratic Nominating Conventions. Between your program and Charlie Rose, I was able to hear clear, concise commentary about the speakers and direction of the candidates. What was missing from your coverage: Yelling, belittling interviewees, and several pundits talking at the same time. Keep up the good work.

April Azary Thomas, Ashland, OR

Please, during your coverage of the Republican Convention, stop picking out the handful of African American and Asian American attendees and showing them on television. This practice is condescending and, frankly, racist. I could not help but notice that during Rudy Giuliani's speech, you showed the same six black people and the same two Asians several times. What could possibly justify such condescension? Shame on your pandering.

Jim Salvucci, Baltimore, MD

Very poor shots of the audience for the Republican convention. You are not picking the best to show the Nation (or picking the worst for some reason???).

Eau Claire, WI

My wife and I have been watching the RNC convention and, repeatedly, the PBS cameramen have been showing Gov. Palin's notes on the teleprompter. We have never seen this before in any speech given by a political candidate. We believe this is unfair and possibly deliberately undermining of Gov. Palin's speech, giving the impression that Gov. Palin is having her speech given to her buy others instead of her own words. We have never seen this kind of bias on PBS — PBS is our ONLY source of news, we have no cable, because we trust the reporting of PBS, but this is really an unfair and unethical error on the part of PBS. This did not occur with Gov. Huckabee, Mayor Giuliani, or any other speaker of the evening. Why with Gov. Palin alone? We are deeply distressed and disappointed and expect an explanation from PBS.

Carl & Jennifer Findley, Chicago, IL

Shields on Palin and Her Daughter

While I have known that my tax dollars supported a "liberal network" most of my life, I was shocked and dismayed by Mark Shields' comment last night about Gov. Palin. Michael, your network likes to speak of journalistic integrity. Please explain to me where is the integrity in Shields' comment below:

" . . . There is another question though which essentially I've heard expressed here many times today and from calls elsewhere, and that is the decision made by Sarah Palin herself, when knowing her daughter's condition, by accepting John McCain's offer she guaranteed that her daughter would be known globally as the best known 17-year-old, pregnant, unwed teenager in the world, and that decision many people question. And that was a decision that many people questioned. I mean, Republicans, it's not a partisan question. It's just a question of whether in fact family values, and whether family values collide in this case. All candidates — David and I have talked about this — have healthy if not overly healthy ambitions. But there had to be some tension here between the ambition of going on a national ticket, and her love and consideration of her daughter, being known once and for all as 'Aren't you the daughter who was pregnant of the vice presidential candidate in 2008? . . ."

I will not state that I won't ever watch PBS again nor delve into a childish rant, but I assure you that I will not ever watch another news broadcast or coverage of special event like the GOP Convention, if Mr. Shields takes part in the coverage.

Harriman, NY

Mark Shields rebuked the Governor of Alaska, Ms. Palin, for accepting the Republican nomination for VP, stating that, "this guaranteed that her 17 year old daughter's unwed pregnancy would become known world wide." Firstly, Ms. Palin's children are none of Mr. Shields' business. Secondly, how Ms. Palin raises her children are none of his business, and finally his commentary concerning these issues is an invasion of the daughter's privacy, Ms. Palin's privacy, and the kind of smear merchant drivel that has become Mr. Shields' forte.

Toledo, OH

I gave up telling you how biased I think your general coverage is, but with the GOP convention coverage and Gov. Palin's coverage you have HIT A NEW HIGH!!!! FAIRNESS in your programming.

Shirley Martin, Maryland Heights, MO

As ombudsman of PBS could you tell the folks at the NewsHour that they are not supposed to be a substitute for the National Enquirer, CNN or MSNBC. The idea behind PBS, in part, is to be independent and not part of the media herd. Their indulgence in mindless "he said she said" on the vetting "issue" and the pregnancy of the Vice-Presidential nominee's daughter is best left to the commercial networks, they are simply better at it. The NewsHour performance before the Bush speech was well below the low expectations I normally have for "The NewsHour".

Roger Noyes, Rensselaer, NY


W. Mulligan, Owensboro, KY

I am writing in regard to Mark Shields' comments on Palin "choosing ambition over her daughter" as well as his other sexist remarks. I don't see him questioning Obama being able to raise his children and be a father. I didn't see anyone questioning Biden on being able to be a single father and Congressman while he stood next to the hospital bed of his two sons after the automobile accident that injured the sons and killed his wife and daughter.

Nashville, TN

No Coverage of Amy Goodman Arrest

Yesterday (Monday), police in St. Paul arrested several journalists, including Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman and an AP photographer as they were covering protests of the Republican National Convention. Amy Goodman and others were released last night, but the story is not over. Why are we not hearing about this on PBS? Information and analysis of is going on outside the Republican convention (especially when it is an assault on freedom of the press) is every bit as important as covering the speeches inside.

Peggy Meinholtz, Missoula, MT

I usually watch PBS for current election issues. Reason — it is the only broadcaster where I cannot guess the political affiliations of the anchors or the commentators. On all other stations their affiliations, and their bias, are transparent. However, what is very transparent even at PBS is the difference between how males and females are treated. In case of Sarah Palin, there is this obsession throughout with the daughter being pregnant, can she do her mothering as a Vice President, her family etc. I interpret that as laziness. It is too much work to dig up her political history and integrity and what her views can do to our country. Why do the hard work? follow the strategy of People magazine, which sells very well. I expect more from PBS. I am waiting for the real news about Sarah.

Easton, PA

We are two professors who watch Lehrer report every night. We tape it, watch it later and focus on our interests. We have, traditionally, really enjoyed watching Shields and Brooks. This weekend we read an article Brooks wrote in the NYT and we thought he was kind of "losing" it. The story was fragmented, very disjointed, very much unlike him. Last night, after Palin, he described the speech as a real winner, "higher than his expectations". Now that, coming from what we believed was a bright man, was a shock. Is he unable to hear and see that it was a Sarah Barracuda speech and not much more? Something has happened to his judgment recently.

Linda Levine, Santa Monica, CA

I feel PBS's reputation as being an objective source of news has been greatly sullied by the coverage of the Republican National Convention. This culminated for me with the repeated camera shots of an anti-McCain protestor in the audience. Once, I could understand. Twice, you're pushing it. Three times (which is what I saw during the coverage of John McCain's speech) and you've become a PR rep for Obama/Biden.

I would love to see you explain this in the light of the advertisements PBS has been running about how seriously PBS takes covering a political convention. As a former journalism student, there is no legitimate reason to have done this, but I will let you make that call and explain it to us.

Thomas Lindaman, Des Moines, IA

(Ombudsman's Note: When a protester, or protesters, show up inside a convention hall and get forcibly escorted out, it is a small bit of news and the cameras are going to follow. That is just how it is and always has been; doesn't matter which party. For one thing, the crowd reacts, and McCain also reacted, and viewers need to know why. These were very minor distractions and, in my view, had no impact on the message of McCain's speech.)

Is PBS 'Outstanding' or 'Biased'?

I have found the PBS coverage of both conventions to be outstanding — thorough, great analysis with a combination of presidential historians, fabulous anchors, and of course, Shields and Brooks, my personal favorites. The fact that you cover 3 hours a day plus a look forward with the NewsHour makes this the station I rely on for my coverage. I consistently come to PBS for my news coverage as I believe it to be the most in-depth and the least biased. Thank you for your continued excellence in covering and discussing the news!

Diane Davidson, Pleasanton, CA

I appreciate your coverage of the RNC in its entirety, but the Shields and Brooks segments sometimes get hard to take. In particular, Mark Shields is no longer a useful addition to any discussion having to do with Republicans. His personal opinion is too far left to be remotely considered "analysis", and, like most liberals, he just can't stop talking. I suggest you send him on over to NBC where he would be a real asset. By the way, there are Republicans who watch PBS and who would appreciate less liberal leanings in your reporting — or doesn't our viewership count?

Cumming, GA

I would have expected more objectivity from PBS and its associates of the DEM & GOP conventions. However, during the DEM convention it was all accolades for the speakers and Obama, but during the GOP convention it's hard to find anyone with anything good to say about McCain and Palin. Looks like PBS has aligned with the mainstream media to elect Obama. Seems PBS has lost its journalistic integrity.

Bill Johnson, Las Vegas, NV

The PBS coverage of the conventions has been extensive and I compliment you on carrying all the speeches, not just prime time. The reporters however are distinctly biased in favor of the Democratic Party in my opinion. Their questions are softball to Democrats and display an agenda when interviewing Republicans.

Baltimore, MD

It is so very obvious that this station is biased. They rudely talked over some of the most moving moments of the Republican Convention, although the Democratic Convention received full coverage of every moment no matter how insignificant. That is disgusting. How unjust . . . how despicable to show such contempt for what you don't agree with.

Ellen Cole, Pompano Beach, FL

I am a conservative who believes the media leans left in the most obvious fashion. After channel flipping during the RNC Convention, I must say that PBS truly does seem to want to offer the facts and let me decide. Having said that, I must admit, I've always thought of public television as just as liberal. Apparently I was wrong.

Valrico, FL

Your coverage of the RNC and DNC is absolutely superior to any other broadcast. Thanks for the good work!

Donna Walters, Chicago, IL

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