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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag

Welcome to another — very long — Mailbag filled with a sampling of viewer commentaries on lots of programs and presentations. Aside from the letters below, there were several hundred more letters from viewers sharply critical of the Bill Moyers Journal program of Jan. 9, which was the subject of last week's column.

Here Are the Letters

Is it not a huge conflict of interest that Jose Andres show "Made in Spain" is partially sponsored by SLS Hotel Beverly Hills which features "The Bazaar [restaurant] by Jose Andres?"

Michael Rigney, West Hollywood, CA

(Ombudsman's Note: I think this viewer raises a valid point. The "Made in Spain" series is actually a quite entertaining and informative cooking show, and Chef Jose Andres is a gregarious and talented host. But the program is basically a promotion for Spain and is sponsored, in part, by Tour Espania, the Spanish Institute of Foreign Trade and by the SLS Hotel chain. The Spanish sponsorships are all up front and clear. What isn't clear from the funding credits is that the SLS in Beverly Hills features one of the host's restaurants. So, if you are familiar with that, it can feed the perception that there is some more direct connection between the funder and the program. PBS guidelines on such matters cover lots of ground and you might be able to argue this from both sides. But I would say that this would fail what PBS calls "The Perception Test." PBS responded to my inquiry about this just as this mailbag was posted.)

Here's the PBS response:

"We understood there was a relationship between the hotel funder (a minor funder in the mix of other funding) and the program host when we accepted this funding, but we did not realize the full extent of it . . . Our original thinking considered these factors in applying our guidelines: First, the primary emphasis of the program is not on this or any other hotel . . . Second, the program was on our air for a time before this funding was added . . . And third, we understood that the program demonstrates cooking with recipes and techniques in Jose's home kitchen, not in any restaurant or hotel . . . Nevertheless, the question from a viewer is a valid one and we appreciate the feedback. We will look into this to examine whether we missed something, or whether things have evolved since we made our decision and distributed the programs."

On an episode of Antiques Roadshow I happened to be enjoying the other night, a lady had brought in a number of ribbons from Confederate soldiers' reunions and a letter from Nathan Bedford Forrest confirming that this lady's ancestor had ridden with General Forrest during the conflict, making the artifacts very valuable and historic.

PBS felt the need to insert a box message on the screen directing the viewer to a PBS link associating General Forrest with the KKK, not missing the opportunity to once again link the general to an organization he not only helped to organize but disbanded when it morphed into something other than it set out to be.

There is a matter of perspective where the original purpose of the Klan is concerned. People in the South felt as though they had been invaded by an occupational force, commonly referred to as "Reconstruction". Southern citizens saw their property being seized and redistributed to former slaves, Northerners and Union sympathisers under the pretense of avoiding the possibility of a "resurrection of the insurrection". Southerners felt the need to organize a resistance movement to this invasion which was the Klan.

When the focus shifted to the Klan being little more than a hate group whose targets were primarily black and relatively harmless, General Forrest no longer supported or found honor in the cause that was being represented and ordered the organization disbanded.

What I take exception to is PBS feeling the need to take the opportunity to malign the General by reminding the viewers that he was an "evil" man apparently for no other reason than an attempt was being made to speak of him in something other than a negative context.

Bill Fowler, Southaven, MS

(Ombudsman's Note: As I read the online article, I found it informative, balanced and succinct, capturing the complexity of one of the most important and controversial figures in the Civil War and post-war periods. Perhaps I missed it, but I didn't see a reference to him as an "evil" man.)

I have long been only slightly concerned over the content and implied message of the PBS series entitled NOVA. Its glorification of expensive gee-whiz technology applied to the realization of dubious objectives (e.g., is there life on Mars?) is usually only mildly offensive, even though it may warp the perspective of impressionable students.

However, the current NOVA program, "The Big Energy Gamble," is an outrageous misrepresentation of Global Warming issues, shamelessly catering to the self-serving interests of its sponsors — Exxon-Mobil and David H. (King Coal) Koch. It poses the problem as a pocket-book issue, rather than as a climate crisis issue. It claims that "we cannot know the outcome of global warming," which, while true in a narrowly defined sense (no one can predict the future with absolute certainty), is outrageously disingenuous in the light of compelling scientific evidence. It advocates burning up the rest of the earth's fossil energy as the cheapest and therefore best solution, and further advocates development of nuclear power without regard to (or even mention of) risk.

At minimum, PBS should include a disclaimer when broadcasting this episode, and should be careful to air opposing perspectives so the public is well informed on this issue critical to the survival of civilization as we know it.

Richard Kreis, La Palma, CA

On India, Ifill, and Other Things

Only rarely do I feel compelled to contact the media about content of material presented, but this is one of those occasions. I have become enthralled by the Michael Woods' series entitled "The Story of India" . . . As an amateur historian, I am reminded of our almost shameful Eurocentric world view as I am continually enlightened and fascinated by this superb series.

Don & Kathy Hill, Charleston, SC

I see the book publishers for Gwen Ifill threw a party for her book. They served cookies with Obama's face on them, I saw the pictures. She also trashed conservative bloggers. How can you even say this woman is not biased? . . . What is the role of the PBS Ombudsman? This needs to be addressed.

Minneapolis, MN

(Ombudsman's Note: Ifill's book has been widely reviewed. The review in USA TODAY says, "Her critics assumed Ifill, moderator of Washington Week on public TV, had to be in the Obama camp and would tilt the debate. She didn't, by nearly all accounts. Ifill's book, published on Inauguration Day, mentions the debate flap only in passing: 'I was a hard target to resist — an African-American journalist writing about race could not possibly be capable of thinking bigger thoughts, could she?'" The debate issue was discussed in the Ombudsman's Column posted Oct. 2.)

I just watched a wonderful commentary [NewsHour, Jan. 20] by your reporter, Richard Rodriguez, on "Farewells." It was beautifully done and certainly thought provoking. Thank you.

Linda Guernsey, Carson City, NV

I recently reviewed the topics and contents of your PBS series, "Scientific American Frontiers". I must say, I would have had to search long and hard to find a series of television programs more fervently biased in favor of an exclusively pharmaceutical medical paradigm — while being cloaked in the appearance of 'scientific objectivity'. It is no surprise to find "Scientific American" associated with these one-sided presentations, given their long history of touting the medical "party line". However, I am disappointed to find Mr. Alan Alda — an actor whom I greatly respect — as the spokesperson who is giving credence to these tainted views.

Dr. Ce Moore, Fairfield, IA

The Charlie Rose show does NOT reflect the PBS integrity value of diversity. Tomorrow, we will have a new African-American president. Yet, night after night, Mr. Rose has as his guests white men only. With rare exceptions, count them please, the only appearances of white women or any people of color on the show are as artists or athletes! Can it be that Mr. Rose does not believe that any women or men or color do not have the intellectual substance to be valuable guests on the show? Would Mr. Obama's intellectual depth been sufficient for Mr. Rose if he had not run for President? This show really disappoints me in PBS.

Marian Feinberg, Bronx, NY

(Ombudsman's Note: A quick scan through the Rose guest list does show an overwhelming number of white male faces.)

As our multiracial family sat down to watch the inauguration on our local PBS station, which we are members of, we were quickly very offended and turned the channel. The first guest to comment spoke about the US liking new beginnings and that indeed the US had begun on virgin soil — what a lie! There were huge cities, complex political organizations (which lent new concepts to the founding fathers in their work to build a new nation), villages, millions of families, people, hundreds of languages. How ignorant and what a slap in the face to Native Americans whose contributions (political and otherwise) to the United States have gone greatly unnoticed.

Rapid City, SD

On the ITN Reports

Subject: NewsHour's ITN report from Gaza — 1/19/09. While I appreciate your intent may be to balance your coverage of the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, your featured ITN correspondent — Jonathan Miller — failed miserably in this regard.

His detailed portrayal and interviews of suffering Gazan children at the UN facility are a valid part of the story, however missing was any balanced in-person interviews of the sufferings of Israeli children subjected to over 10,000 rocket attacks these past 8 years. 3,000 alone in 2008 alone. The only weak nod at balance in the interview was Mr. Miller's questioning if any Hamas fighter's were present at the UN facility and firing at Israelis. Of course the interviewees denied this — despite its common practice. Are we to actually believe that even if these individuals had seen Hamas rocket squads that they would either be willing or safely able to tell the truth? Hamas has been eliminating Fatah party members during the conflict. Other "collaborators" would surely not fair well.

Andrew Warren, Boston, MA

As a Brit based in the US, I have been watching with interest your news coverage of the Gaza conflict. Not one of your reports has investigated the human shield tactics of Hamas, but you have done a series of detailed reports on Israeli shelling. Your report this evening (Jan. 19) did engage the topic of human shields when your [ITN] reporter asked an unidentified person if human shields were being used. His answer in the negative was taken by your reporter at face value. This disregard for the basic norms of information gathering is patent and sad. I strive for objectivity in my opinions. I rely on news reporting to provide detailed information and probing investigation. The news report I listened to this evening provided neither.

Gary Marks, Chapel Hill, NC

More on Moyers and Me

Thank you for speaking with me today. It was helpful to me to be able to express myself to someone in person, a rare occurrence in this day and age. I have now read your full column and appreciate your dissent with Moyers, though I believe you really used kid gloves in doing so ultimately failing to take Moyers to task. In any case, my premise still stands. I will not provide any further support to PBS unless I note Moyers is held accountable for using innuendo as fact and for his not too subtle bias in ignoring historical and present day fact as perspective on the current conflict.

To me, he is almost as Jimmy Carter is, a pathetic shill who is too grandiose to either recognize or admit when his own biases distort truth. While I agree with Proust that truth can be a point of view, there are also many truths about this conflict that are ignored by Moyers and others as they express their umbrage that violence is met with violence.

Robert Shulman, Vernon Hills, IL

PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, states in his comments on Bill Moyers' recent controversial comments on the war in Gaza, "It is a legitimate question, as I said earlier, as to whether Israeli military actions in this more than two-week-old offensive are disproportionate — in their dimensions and toll — to the Hamas rocket firings. In my opinion, they are disproportionate. I felt the same way about the Israeli response to provocations from Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006."

Mr. Getler's statement shows a complete lack of understanding of the concept of proportionality as it exists in international law and is a repeat of the propaganda spread by Hamas and its supporters. And it is more than a little odd that no one hears this argument made against any other nation fighting an aggressor, certainly not against the US.

There is no legal equivalence between the deliberate killing of innocent civilians and the deliberate killings of combatants. Under the laws of war, any number of combatants can be killed to prevent the killing of even a single innocent civilian. And it is only Hamas terrorists that Israel is targeting. I challenge anyone to show even a single incident in which Israel purposefully targeted civilians. Indeed, as video released by the Israel Defense Forces has shown, Israeli pilots have re-directed already released ordinance to purposefully miss their targets when civilians have entered the target area after the bomb has been released.

Second, proportionality is not measured by the number of civilians actually killed, but rather by the risk posed. And Hamas rockets pose an enormous risk. It is only by sheer luck that hundreds, even thousands of Israelis haven't been killed. Surely that is Hamas' intent. And international law holds that those who launch attacks from civilian areas are responsible for the deaths of civilians in a reprisal attack.

It is quite a victory for terrorists that they have successfully created a new concept, one that doesn't exist in international law, as a way to pressure Israel to stop their defensive war against those sworn to its destruction. And the readiness of commentators and the media, and even those charged as their watchdogs, to accept this without question is more than a little troubling.

Evan Winer, Chicago, IL

Great reply . . . many thanks . . . however, as a long term fan of PBS I wonder how such situations can be dealt with in some a priori fashion? Yes, Moyers has a right to say what he likes in his column, but isn't there some sort of editorial review that would have allowed for some discussion in-house BEFORE publication? I would think Moyers would welcome such review.

Stony Brook, NY

Good of you to mention Bill Moyers Journal again in your column. Not good though [for him] to, also, mention the Viet Nam War, the current conflict between Israel and Hamas, the 'oldest family quarrel on record' and Bible verses, on the same page, without exposing that one age-old instigator of all that brutal conflict, and its mother; extremism, and religion. If the American experience teaches humanity anything, it should be how differing beliefs, practices and a nation can flourish, temporarily at least, when religion takes a back seat to law, order, reason and tolerance. If existing conditions teach humanity anything, it should be how quickly a secular State can break down, with religion at the wheel and extremism riding shotgun.

Charles Shaver, Westfield, WI

Isn't it possible that Moyers's "genetically encoded" comment was a poetic flourish and not meant to be taken literally?

Walden Lechner, Auburn, AL

Thank you for expressing concern over Bill Moyer's piece, but please help me to understand your own statement and position: "It is a legitimate question, as I said earlier, as to whether Israeli military actions in this more than two-week-old offensive are disproportionate — in their dimensions and toll — to the Hamas rocket firings. In my opinion, they are disproportionate."

When dealing with Hamas, what exactly would be a proportionate response? If they kill people on a Jerusalem bus or in a pizza parlor, are the Israelis supposed to do the same — purposely kill innocent Palestinians on a bus or in a pizza parlor. When Hamas sends thousands of missiles at civilian targets, does this mean that Israel should "proportionately" send an equal number of missiles at Palestinian civilian targets?

What would you want your government to do to protect you and your children if you were constantly under attack and threat of annihilation by a nearby enemy? Is this a way for anyone to live? How come you (and Mr. Moyers) don't focus the blame on the Hamas leadership that has created this situation? Why don't you call for the Palestinian people to reject the very leadership they voted into office on a platform of destroying Israel? If Palestinians are tired of being humiliated and blockaded, maybe it's time they give up terrorism — why didn't you suggest this as an "alternative" to their violence that only gets more violence?

Valley Cottage, NY

(Ombudsman's Note: There have been numerous articles written questioning whether Israel's response has been proper or disproportionate. In my view, it is a matter of judgment based on what has been observable and reported. I do not minimize the tactics used by Hamas in firing rockets toward Israeli cities or in firing from urban areas, nor do I minimize Israel's use of "smart" weapons and stated efforts not to cause unnecessary civilian casualties. Nevertheless, my judgment is that it has been disproportionate in terms of an excessive amount of heavy bombing and shelling in densely populated areas from which civilians may be unable to flee or hide.)

I have reviewed the links and letters re: Bill Moyers commentary on Gaza and genocide of the Palestinian people. I'm personally fed up with our country being held hostage to Israel's behavior in the Middle East. Ever since I can remember (50 years) this small group of people have been in the news on a weekly if not daily basis at war or in conflict with their neighbors. Now we are to look the other way while the Israeli's massacre women and children under the convenient canard that they're defending themselves! (12 Israelis dead vs. over 1,000 Palestinians most of them women and children) Gaza IS now the new Warsaw Ghetto . . . except it has lasted for decades not months. In a perverse twist on history the State of Israel is treating the Palestinians as they were treated by the Nazi's. It's mind bending to watch . . .

Israel doesn't seem to care what the world thinks about their behavior in Gaza, or Islamic fundamentalists of their suicide bombers, or radical Christians and their Inquisitions. All three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have some End Times prophesies . . . does it make sense for the rest of us . . . to let religious radicals in all three of these religions drag the world into their own Apocalyptic and messianic vision of the Future? This is the warning Bill Moyers is giving . . . will the rest of us listen to him or continue to let the radicals attack the messenger when he speaks the truth?

J. F., Durango, CO

Thank you for the letters you published related to the 1/9/2009 Moyers opinion blast. I was both amazed and stunned at Mr. Moyers' reasoning. I would imagine quite a few people will now have a hard time listening to anything Mr. Moyers broadcasts. Too bad, because the 1/16/09 Friday night broadcast was both interesting and encouraging. As citizens of the United States of America, we have a wonderful history to learn from and draw on. As individuals, we certainly have a need to dig deep into our psyche and come up with a nation that is even better than before.

Olive Lohrengel, Buda, TX

Just because Moyers angers some American Jews, why make such a fuss? Obviously the angry people are the ones who write the most. I suggest to the woman who got off her couch and cringed in pain that she go visit some sick children who are REALLY in pain and quit her ridiculous histrionics. Moyers has every right to state his views and the genetic reference was not MEANT LITERALLY for heaven's sake. Get a grip people. There's no excuse for killing so many innocent children; what else has been tried by the Israelis? They have a right wing government that makes little effort to really make peace. I am hopeful that our new president and secretary of state and others can begin to make some inroads into this mess.

Janet Camp

Conflicting Views

What is happening to the Palestinians is their Guernica. It has become the testing grounds for American made arms just as Spain was the testing grounds for German arms. America must stop funding wars. The Israelis have been lied to. This is genocide. They have been pushing the Palestinians off their lands, destroying their homes and their fields confining them in gulags, taking away their dignity and expecting them to be happy. This is how terrorism is born. President Carter told the truth.

Anita Brandariz, Brooklyn, NY

Moyers' views on Israel's actions must be defended on the basis of our constitutional freedoms — although they are doubly offensive to me by virtue of comment and the absence of an opposing view. What cannot be defended is his painting the Jewish People with universal slander and repetition of anti-Semitic slurs echoed through the ages. Genetically coded indeed! That alone is a re-play of the racist's battle cry. May I request some opportunity for some esteemed person with known opposing views to debate these issues with Moyer or at least present them on one of your programs. You choose the individual.

Bernard Kessler, Long Beach, CA

You present Bill Moyers' uninterrupted one-sided anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli, bigoted trash, and then when you want money, you present a Jewish history show and interrupt it every ten minutes for donations from Jews. And why should you get public tax money for fomenting this type of blatant bigotry? I will contact my congressmen.

Aventura, FL

So many pundits criticize Israel due to its "disproportionate" use of force. There is no such thing as "disproportionate" when one is defending one's self. During WWII, the Allies bombed many German cities, killing "indiscriminately" many innocent civilians. We, the USA, topped it all off with two A-bombs, which did, in fact, kill indiscriminately many innocent civilians; however, it saved many Allied lives and forced the end of the conflict. Revisionists now say that the A-bombs were not justified and horrendous, but at the time, few in America criticized the need to end the War as quickly and painlessly (for us) as possible. Israel was attacked, and had been attacked for six years, and she need not measure her response so that it was not "disproportionate." She has a right to take any and all means possible to prevent the attacks. She has taken all means possible to prevent the deaths of innocent civilians, but with Hamas operating from civilian homes, hospitals, mosques, etc., it is impossible to prevent collateral damage.

Irving Rosenfeld, Charleston, SC

After viewing the Bill Moyers' Journal broadcast and his closing comments that have provoked so much reaction, I still consider Bill Moyers to be a courageous and rigorous journalist who maintains a deep sense of morality at the core of his life work. I support and applaud PBS for continuing to air the most important current events broadcast and editorial available on television. The "killing indiscriminately" comment by Bill Moyers reflects his understanding that explaining away so called collateral damage resulting from technical errors misses the point — killing innocent people so that you can make sure you kill the military enemy is a morally outrageous action. It's repugnant to me to discuss it as a technical error and apologize for it. Bill Moyers also understands what Chairman Mao taught his troops during the revolution in China — make the Imperial Army overreact to small, guerrilla strikes and they will be seen as committing (figuratively and literally) overkill. Israel and the U.S. under the Bush administration have failed to understand this, and the same tactic is drawing the stronger military into the same, dumbed-down reaction. Again, the lessons of history fall on deaf ears, and so many officials seem to be filing to become morally bankrupt.

Dana Burns, Richmond, IN

On that Cheney Interview

On Jim Lehrer's news maker interview with the VP on Wednesday night (Jan. 14) the questions were so soft that the listener had no idea that the VP had made any mistakes in foreign policy and that the country is going through an economic crisis. I don't expect Jim Lehrer to be rude but I do expect honest inquiry and not cronyism. News maker interviews should have some substance. When Edward R. Murrow interviewed a political figure he tried to get to the truth. As far as Dick Cheney is concerned he was the best VP in the history of the United States. Jim Lehrer didn't challenge him or his ideas at all. I don't notice any newspapers reporting the interview!

Franklin Stein, Madison, WI

Next time the NewsHour has a lame interview with Lehrer throwing softballs to a liar like Cheney would you please broadcast it at 6:30 so I can watch something more enlightening like "Wheel of Fortune."

Leo Dohogne, Evanston, IL

Mr. Lehrer's interview of Vice President Cheney is unfortunately a vivid indication of how PBS is no different from any other media in respect to presenting balanced news. The camera work was impressive. It showed the enormous surprise on Mr. Lehrer's face whenever the Vice President presented the administration's position on an issue and did not admit of the "mistakes" Mr. Lehrer seemed to be seeking. It was an exaggerated look of disbelief as if, in another age, Mr. Cheney were denying that the world was flat. This viewer could only sadly surmise that Mr. Lehrer was trying to satisfy viewers on one side of the political spectrum.

Richard Rieder, Corrales, NM