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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag

Welcome to a quick, year-end mailbag; a sampling of reactions to some recent ombudsman's columns and some letters from earlier in the month that I didn't have a chance to post.

Here are the letters:

Regarding that NOW poll back in September, asking whether Sarah Palin was qualified:
Is PBS [NOW] going to run the same poll and ask if people think Caroline Kennedy is qualified? I kept thinking where is Katie Couric and Tina Fey when you NEED them? Of course, Caroline is not qualified, she hasn't even been the mayor of Wasilla!

Judi, Alexander, ND

I just finished watching the "Now" program (Dec. 26) on the credit rating agencies role in the recent financial situation. I was puzzled that they did not address the potential role of credit default swaps in this area. I am not a financial professional, but it seems to me that these may have played a significant part in the complacency of the credit rating agencies.They also seem to be an enormous overhang on the markets, although this is seldom mentioned in the media. I think it would be very interesting to see "Now" examine this issue.

Pete Greenman, Kalispell, MT

Thank you for your year end round up. My only comment is: Leave NewsHour alone. I have no desire to see it jazzed up. It is one of the few, maybe only, programs that goes at a pace and does what old fashioned reporting does best, which is to tell me all about it. That probably identifies me as an old fogy, but in my opinion, the local newspaper, Austin American Statesman, has become so downright silly that I only use contributed copies for the cat's box clean up. I figure that the kids from the University of Texas have taken over and run hog wild. That is what the news programs of the networks have become, as far as I am concerned.

Again, thanks for your year end column and all those that came through the year. Happy New Year to you.

Olive Lohrengel, Buda, TX

I read Mr Getler's December 22 column about The NewsHour with care because I regularly watch the program. My only complaint about it is that the people who discuss the issues of the day sometimes do so at too great length. I personally prefer a longer news summary at the beginning of the program and less protracted treatment of issues under discussion. Friends of mine have made similar observations.

Dr. M. A. Wimsatt, Columbia, SC

Michael, it's the one place in television news that takes the time to explore issues, some of them hot-button, in a manner that's both informative and civilized. No matter the host on a given night or segment, clearly it's Lehrer who sets that tone, a good one; and while there may be a particular segment that doesn't hold my interest, there's a sense even then that the problem is mine, not the segment's — and a certainty that others find it legitimately relevant and intriguing.

Occasionally, but rarely, it does slip into boilerplate "dueling advocates." More often, as with the Brooks — Shields exchanges, we have honest differences in approach, experience and perception and little of the rigid pandering to (or knee-jerk clinging to) ideology that infects most other news-discussion programming on all the networks, cable in particular.

We won't have this group — Lehrer, Suarez, Brooks, Shields, Ifill et al. — intact forever. It is a treasure, an island of thoughtfulness in a sea of increasing bombast. What I'm trying to say: Change is inevitable, but we have something special here. Leave it be.

Alan Solomon, Chicago, IL

1) I'm in Los Angeles and we saw the NYPhil Korea Concert. In fact, it's still sitting on my DVR.

2) I would criticize The NewsHour for its heavy reliance on interviewing reporters. I'm really not interested in that method of reporting. Have them give a report or have the anchor read the info. Interviewing them just makes looking at a boring map of the area that much longer. Also, please stay away from New York Times' reporters who always have the same predictable left opinion.

Michael Freed, Sylmar, CA

I hope you will find as much time to cover the Senate Armed Services Committee report on Detainees/Torture as you have the Blagoyevitch scandal and the Rick Warren invocation.

Hock Tjoa, Penn Valley, CA

I have been a PBS watcher since its very beginning but not so much the news segments. I have always been a fan of your Nature series and all the other great animal shows, history shows and on and on. I always enjoy the great musical specials such as Celtic Women, Irish dancers and the Great Tenors. However, as to your news shows, I sometimes find them too long for my patiences. That is not to say they are not informative. They are far better than NBC, ABC, CBS, which all have a bias toward the liberal segment of our new majority. I am by parental training, many years ago, a conservative moderate, I like to think. Whatever, I thought to write this to you only to commend your excellent comments in this month's column. I only discovered your column sometime earlier this year and now read it each issue. So far, this is your best yet in my opinion.

G.F. Helmstetter, Sun City Center, FL

Merci beaucoup - thank you so much for the integrity of journalistic standards at PBS. As a retired professor living on disability, I do not have cable or any luxury. I watch PBS all the time, grew up watching it, never much caring for commercial TV. I just wanted to let someone there know how much you mean to people out here — even those of us who cannot afford to support you with dollars. But I am on my Unitarian church Social Action Committee, and we donate as a congregation to PBS. Your articles are excellent. I would not want to live in a world without PBS.

New Orleans, LA

Re: Bill Moyers' Journal, Dec 26, "Beyond our Differences." I enjoyed the perspective and content. However, I was dismayed that the producer/writers did not give equal time to the U.S. in terms of our role in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was ample footage of the Taliban and the "extremists" in the Middle East: Where was the footage of the bombings of Baghdad, the presence of the American soldier in the towns and villages of Iraq and the — even if by error — the bombings of buildings in Afghanistan and the deaths of children and other civilians. Was it simply not digestible material for we Americans and our government? Leaving out such footage lessened the value of the film as it diminished its truth and the integrity of the film maker.

Mary-Anne Sennett, West Fork, AR

When sending my renewal pledge to our local PBS station I increased it more than two-fold just because of programs such as Moyers, Frontline, POV, Independent Lens and others that provide the kind of viewing not available anywhere else. I listen to the ubiquitous syndicated radio fare which is reliably right wing in its bias here in the heartland. One of the overriding "crusades" one hears is aimed at ridding the country of PBS and most of the main stream broadcast and print media. Sadly it seems to be having an impact. I hear of more and more people who declare they listen only to FOX (as an example) for their information. I dread the possibility that the information and quality of such programs as the Expose segments on Moyer's journal might be lost to the public due to this unrelenting tirade. I can tolerate and indeed learn a lot from opposing opinions but believe our democracy would truly be in peril if we lose the caliber of programming provided by PBS.

K.L. Moore, Hutchinson, KS

More on the 'Genocide' Issue

Thank you for your column "It's back." I want to make a few points about the "controversial" Armenian Genocide. If you read Ambassador Morgenthau's memoirs or read the articles that the New York Times published in the period 1895-1922, I can't see how you can conclude that what happened to the Armenians was anything but Genocide. There is ample scholarly research that proves that the Ottoman government, during 1915-1918, planned the extermination of the Armenian race.

What is so difficult for us Armenians to accept is that the US media and the US government applies double standards when it comes to the Genocide. They acknowledge the Genocides of the Jews, the Bosnians, the Rwandans . . . Yet they are silent about the Armenian Genocide.

Harry Aintablian, Los Angeles, CA

I don't see anything wrong with educating the public concerning past historical events. I think that it's wonderful that PBS allows both sides of an issue to be heard on some subjects. I just wish that PBS would allow a more diverse group of commentators to be heard on all subjects. PBS seems to have its "usual subjects" commentators give their same opinions on important issues, when, if you go back to what those same people were saying years ago while we were digging ourselves into the deep holes we find ourselves in today, those same people were many times advocating the very same policies that have since been shown to have gotten us into trouble. Why not go back into your video archives and find who the people were that were warning us not to adopt certain policies that have ultimately proven harmful and ask them for their solutions. In other words, quit airing the comments of so called "experts" whose opinions have gotten us into the fiascos we face today. There are many smart people who foresaw the consequences of those prior actions. It would be nice to hear their opinions on PBS.

Jeff Hunziker, Peoria, IL

Although I did not respond to your comments on the Goldberg film about the Armenian Genocide, two years ago, permit me to respond to your comments on the family-in-search-of-its family film, also on PBS, since you make some of the same statements in both.

The overwhelming number of historians who have stated a view, declare the events of 1915 as a Genocide. Those historians who don't are or have been directly or indirectly in the pay of the Turkish Government. That the Goldberg film may have had a huge number of Armenians (individuals or groups) as funding it does not negate the message. I dare say that you would not be so bold to make the same criticism if a film about the Sho'ah has a large number of Jews (individuals or groups) involved in the funding of the film. As I have been told many times, the Turks are objective, the Armenians are biased. This, I assume, is your view.

The next time you comment on anything Armenian — or, on the Armenian Genocide — perhaps you would be kind enough to give your expert and unbiased advice on how such a film (for instance) should be made and by whom with whose funding to meet your exacting standards of fairness and objectivity. As far as I have been able to understand, it is only in matters-Armenian that the "other" side must be given. All other genocides are black-and-white. No film, for instance, on the Sho'ah will have to have David Irving's view prominently aired to be "unbiased."

Andrew Kevorkian, Philadelphia, PA

Write About Other Issues

Re: Column of December 18, 2008. Where's the relevance? The unconstitutional and costly occupation of Iraq continues; the federal government continues to impoverish and enslave future generations of U.S. taxpayers with incredible bailouts of financial giants, while concurrently threatening millions more American jobs by practicing union busting with the U.S. auto makers and workers; the in-depth reporting of news on Jim Lehrer's NewsHour and Washington Week has digressed into in-depth news trivia conversation; Bill Moyers Journal has surged to the forefront of broadcast news shows, with guests like Glenn Greenwald telling it like it is and you are busy commenting on two year old and twelve minute documentaries on the Armenian tragedy. No wonder history tends to repeat itself, with commentary that ignores important facts and trends and focuses on mere emotional responses. Is that integrity or is that PBS joining the big three American broadcast news makers (as opposed to reporters) in seeking to successfully conclude having some three hundred million Americans be very rudely awakened from their particular American dreams?

I hope you have a wonderful holiday season, and return to the business at hand in the new year.

Charles Shaver, Westfield, WI

Unfortunately this debate will happen again and again, especially in the coming year when Armenians in the US will hope and expect the future president Obama to officially recognise the events of 1915 as Genocide.

I would like to thank PBS for having the courage to air such documentaries in the face of intense lobbying from both sides of the issue — but then that is proper journalism. I would like to say why I personally was not against a discussion group, but against that particular discussion setup: the majority of historians agree with the assertion of Genocide, only a handful say it was not, yet the fact only two historians on each side of the debate were allowed to dispute the issue giving equal weighting to each side of the issue — had the number of historians in the debate been proportional to the global historians' views i.e. more historians should have been representing the pro Genocide side than the denialist side, by having two historians/academics on each side automatically implied that that there was equal number of historians worldwide who believed either version of events. Revisionists.com have the names of over 60 Jewish Holocaust denialist historians — but one would never expect to see a discussion panel of equal proportions, yet with regard to the Armenian Genocide it seems a handful of historians have equal weighting with thousands of historians including the institute of Genocide Scholars, Raphael Lemkin, International center for Transitional Justice etc. etc.

Again thank you for having the integrity for not backing down and airing such programmes.

Vahe Manuelian, London, England

As the quality of television programming descends steadily, many of us look to PBS to hold up the torch and standard of programming that is not influenced and manipulated by vested interests. But it is precisely in this arena that PBS has failed, in my view, in its coverage of this Armenian issue. To state that "some may dispute" the "official estimates" of Armenian dead shows an unpardonable lack of due diligence on the part of PBS. The numbers of dead have been obviously inflated by the Armenian side, there's no doubt about it. But everyone agrees that the numbers are in the hundreds of thousands so really, the count is not the issue here. The issue is that the Turks argue that they are being falsely accused. And when one looks impartially at the evidence there are repeated incidents of falsification of "evidence" by the Armenian side to support the claim of a Nazi-like Genocide; a government program of deliberate extermination. PBS has clearly come down on the Armenian side in this controversy so their statement that "We await future opportunities to tell more stories — from all possible angles and viewpoints — that help us reckon with this difficult history." cannot be taken seriously. The Armenian side is accusing the Turkish side of being "Genocide Deniers" and instead of looking into the issue impartially, PBS has swallowed the bait hook, line, and sinker. If PBS really wants to "tell the story from all possible angles and viewpoints" they need to give the Turkish side an opportunity to tell its side of the story just as they have given the Armenian side so much unbalanced airtime.

P. Connolly, Seattle, WA

Too Much Gloom and Doom

I just finished watching the NewsHour (12/19/08) and I believe that the segment on the economy was unbalanced. After listening to that segment, I was sure that at least half of the employable persons were unemployed and probably about the same number were behind on their mortgage payments or were in foreclosure. The segment was 100% gloom and doom. Why don't you, and the rest of the media once in a while mention that over 90% of people are employed and the same percentage of homeowners are not behind in their payments or in foreclosure. We all know that confidence is critical to a recovery. You and the rest of the media are doing an excellent job of destroying confidence. Unfairly. I have watched the NewsHour for many years because I feel that Jim Lehrer is more balanced than the networks but this was an unbalanced . . . and biased segment.

Gordon Dennis, Cincinnati, OH

You vetting of guests is suspect. It appears rather than credibility or problem-solving your criteria is blindly asking one side to send someone then next day asking another to send someone. Hardly journalism but simply providing a bulletin board service. This congressman you gave 10 minutes of air time (Fri 12-19 on evening news) obviously had an ideological bias. You allowed him to talk about high costs of government and unions in middle of serious context of current economic crises. Anyone doing any vetting would easily find he is not a problem solver. Why not ask him about paying for the war? Why not ask him about paying for tax cuts? Why not ask him about wages of banking? Asking these questions as part of vetting process before he gets on a PUBLIC station using standard propaganda. And to do it at these times of such great importance for problem solving and not ideological politics cries out for comment.

Blindly giving time to one side then another seems to be a prevailing trend with NPR and Public TV. There are so many other outlets already with such agendas. The Public air waves most get to be the one if not only place of proper guests talking in problem solving tone and methodologies.

Cliff Cahill, Grove City, OH

Mr. (Charlie) Rose's interview with Sec. Gates (Dec. 17) was a bust. He seemed to be offering a platform instead of asking hard questions. For example, when Mr. Gates mentioned that WE were building roads in Afghanistan, Mr. Rose let slide. Why are WE building roads in Afghanistan, when ours are falling apart? Could it be that OIL transportation is more important that the dangers Americans face on our roads?

Why should we be trying to install "Democracy" in a Muslim Nation that only offers us resistance to finding the monster of 9/11? Where is bin Laden? Why is he still at large and why are we in Iraq? Saddam was OUR monster. WE supplied with him armament EVEN after the first conflict with that Nation? Too many questions remain about Iraq, and the powers that be in this Country do not want to ask. The perpetrators of this monstrous crime will walk away. Crime pays!

Fernando Feliciano, Brisbane, CA

An article in the New York Times mentioned Charlie Rose's comments on staff layoffs among his and other PBS program producers. My question is whether PBS has ever contemplated scrapping Charlie Rose's appearances? I have hardly any friends or acquaintances — and they are many, practically all of them regular viewers of PBS programming — who really appreciate the smug and self-aggrandizing ways of Mr. Rose. PBS has so many superb interviewers other than this gentleman.

Gerrit Roosendaal, New York, NY

About Those Auto Industry 'Experts'

Over the past few weeks, in PBS's coverage of the troubles of the domestic automotive industry, it has broadcast the emotion laden opinions of countless "experts," and the out right propaganda of politicians with an agenda (Southern Republicans), without bothering to check if what they are saying is correct. Two themes constantly underlie these stories; the Detroit 3 are in trouble because they have mismanaged their businesses, and "they don't make vehicles people want to buy." Both themes are false.

The Detroit 3, like the rest of the global automotive industry, is in trouble because Wall Street tanked the economy and evaporated credit. At the current selling rates no company can make money — it has nothing to do with what the companies have or have not done. Toyota will soon announce that it expects to lose over $1 billion in its second fiscal half (ending March 2009) — a massive profitability reversal. Fiat and PSA (Peugeot) are talking about a merger in order to survive. And every automotive company around the world is asking for government help. Yet your viewers understand none of this because this context is not covered, and because PBS has allowed those it interviews to set the agenda. No wonder the public thinks the Detroit 3 are run by a bunch of idiots.

Then there is the assertion that "no one wants to buy their cars." The automotive industry over the past three decades has moved from a set of insulated national markets to a global market. In that transition it is natural that national champions will lose market share in their home markets. It has happened around the world. It is not a negative to see the Detroit 3 holding roughly half of their home market; it is just the outcome of globalization. Half of the market is hardly nobody. There is no doubt that the Detroit 3 have made mistakes in the past, but failing to build vehicles people want has not been one of them. If anything, they have been too fixated on building vehicles people wanted.

The challenge from the foreign companies has caused the Detroit 3 to change. None of the massive restructuring that those companies have done over the past five years has been brought to the attention of the public in PBS's coverage. Because of the cost and scale of what is involved, those changes take time to be seen, but by early in the next decade at least Ford and GM will be highly competitive. They will have right-sized their capacity, bringing capacity utilization up to very profitable levels. They will have installed flexible assembly systems that will enhance their ability to respond to market shifts, and reduce program capital costs. And, they will have adjusted their labor costs to equivalent levels of the foreign plants. By the way, labor is only about 10% of the cost of a vehicle, the Southern Republicans have blow that cost way out of proportion in their on-going propaganda campaign against Detroit.

I think PBS owes the public more balance in its coverage of this important story. Check the facts with people who really know, and not just the "experts" on the East and West Coasts who are either misinformed, uninformed, talking about facts from over a decade ago, or pushing some type of agenda.

Mark Sullivan, Rochester, MI

And Those Newspaper Industry 'Experts'

I am a former staff reporter for four decades for The Hartford Courant, a paper owned by The Tribune Corp. I just viewed The NewsHour segment (Dec. 8) on the Chapter 11 Bankruptcy filing by The Chicago Tribune. What the newsman and the three experts failed to mention is the incredible risk and mismanagement of The Tribune both before and after Sam Zell took over as the so called owner over a year ago. I say so called because he accumulated so much debt in the purchase that you could not say the paper really was his. A huge part of that debt was the Employee Stock Ownership Plan which somehow became a vehicle of Mr. Zell's purchase. Now, not only will more employees possibly lose their jobs, but they will lose the value of their stock under that forced ESOP. How does this happen?! How can employees be put in this position? On top of that, Mr. Zell is not an experienced newspaper man. He is a real estate tycoon. His handling of one of the biggest newspaper and media chains in the country showed his lack of experience and his lack of concern. All his management did was to cut, cut, cut staff. They, like the predecessor management added no resources, so no surprise the readers saw this and began losing even more interest than they had say a decade or more back when news resources were added instead of subtracted. The sad part of these developments is that investigative reporting to put corruption in government, corporations and the society in check is disappearing! That in depth news culture cannot be recreated by blogs and the Internet for many, many years, if at all. Hardly anyone on the Internet pays for good investigative reporting like newspapers did. In fact, a huge segment of that declining reporting is still being supplied by newspapers. When it goes, as it seems it is, God help the public. Where will they find out that government, corporations and other segments of society are going wrong?!

Thomas "Dennie" Williams, Litchfield, CT

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