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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag

Here's a brief collection of observations from viewers that landed in our inbox this past week or so. The mail focused on two main issues: 1) further commentary on the two-part series broadcast on Masterpiece Classic in February of the Charles Dickens' novel "Oliver Twist" and reaction to last week's ombudsman's column on that subject; and 2) concern among some viewers about Republican opposition views getting too much airtime and too little challenge on the NewsHour.

I'll be away from the office from March 10th through the 18th but please keep your e-mails and calls coming. My associate, Marcia Apperson, will be here to deal with some of them and I'll read them all as well when I return.

Here are the letters.

A Nanny for Viewers Like You

Your title should be Nanny not Ombudsman. I'm only half-kidding. These people (Jewish or otherwise) need to grow up. It's a FICTIONAL story. There are good guys and bad guys of all ethnicities and there are other Semitic peoples than those who practice Judaism. These people took Moyers' [Jan. 9] comments out of context and now they're taking Fagin out of context. This sort of attitude does not help stop anti-Semitism; in fact, it encourages the whiney stereotype. This story was shown a couple of years ago — was there a ruckus then? Jewish people know the story and if they don't want to see stereotyped characters, they shouldn't watch to begin with. Perhaps some discussion of this could have occurred if PBS still had the Alistair Cooke type of introduction.

Janet Camp, Milwaukee, WI

Although I am Jewish, I dislike the prettifying that goes under the name of 'bringing up-to-date' those things that are not current. I don't like re-writing history, or what an author wrote or thought. I accept that Dickens was a writer of the 19th century and I prefer to read him than to see (or be subjected) to a re-write. I also accept Mark Twain as a man of the 19th century and prefer to read him as he wrote and thought and not try to edit, or read what he might have written if writing in the 21st century.

Tillie Krieger, Eugene, OR

Your [Masterpiece official's] excuse regarding Fagin and the PBS production of Oliver Twist was pretty lame. I did not see the production and am only discussing the weak argument you employed. You make it sound as if you were discussing Rod Steiger's sympathetic portrayal of a Jew in the Pawnbroker. You mention Dickens and his second thoughts on how he portrayed the character. But based on what you write, you rationalize why Fagin needed a more cutting edge as a nasty Jew. So, what you are saying is your production company could not follow the simple instructions of the author's wishes, based on documentation he left behind.

Ken Orsholm, Houston, TX

Overreaction is what I'd call the angry letters about Dickens' portrayal of Fagin. After all, it wasn't what PBS tries to convey; it was Dickens, a writer who's been dead for years. I watched the shows, and felt Fagin was almost a nice guy, considering what they might have done. I never gave a minute's thought that the portrayal might have been anti-Semitic.

Michael S., New York, NY

The scene that generated so much reaction near the end of Oliver Twist calls attention to the problem of audiences writing too much into what they see. The critics did not see two individuals, the judge and Fagin, instead they see two representatives of particular religions. Just because the judge is Christian, and I assume by context he is Protestant Christian Church of England, does not mean that he automatically speaks for all Christianity. The judge did not even get his own religious beliefs correct when he implied that Fagin's God and his own were different. They are in fact the same and both religions share much of the same "Old Testament" verses. Actually he may have gotten his "own" beliefs correct, but not the doctrinally correct position of his "Church;" which brings up the point that the judge can address legal matters, but he is not within his jurisdiction to speak to doctrinal issues. This is a district magistrate speaking not for the Pope or even the Queen of England.

Reprehensible characters can profess any religion. Are we to be restricted from giving characters certain religious backgrounds because of oversensitivity to negative portrayals? There are good people and bad people in all religions and more accurately complicated individuals everywhere. Stereotypes take root when the individuality of the character is rejected.

Patrick Stinson, Annandale, VA

(Ombudsman's Note: The letter below refers to a point about Cromwell made in an article in a British newspaper that was quoted in last week's Ombudsman's Column.)

Please allow me a minor correction or two. Oliver Cromwell did not, himself, accomplish the return of the Jews back to England in 1664, centuries after their expulsion in 1290. That would have been difficult for him that year since he died in 1658. Though Cromwell most definitely wanted to "invite" the Jews back to his Avalon, which is widely known. While that movement began under his watch, he never actually put this intention into effect. That was formally accomplished after the restoration of the crown in 1660, under the restored King Charles II, as I understand it.

Nevertheless, the curious affinity of 17th c. Puritans, overcoming centuries of Euro-Anti-Semitism, is fascinating to consider here. Some few English Puritans are even known to have converted to Judaism during Cromwell's time. Cromwell's Puritans were attempting to "purify" their faith in order to get back to its most basic roots. For some few Puritans this process even included conversion to Judaism. Interestingly, New Haven & Guilford, Connecticut, were themselves founded in the late 1630's by ardent Puritans who set-up their government solely on the basis of so-called "Mosaic Law."

Stephen Squires, Storrs, CT

Too Many Republican Talking Points?

I've been a devoted NewsHour watcher for many years. I am furious with the recent coverage of the Republican Party's obstructionist tactics and efforts to push the United States into economic and political meltdown. Why does PBS give these extremist ideologues so much undeserved coverage? They offer no workable solutions to our country's problems, yet PBS continues to cover their every vile declaration as though they were actually relevant. This coverage should stop until and unless Republicans put forth some solutions more realistic than simply continuing those policies which have been proven failures for the past eight years and longer.

I'm especially disappointed that the NewsHour devoted almost a third of their program tonight (March 3) to Republican infighting without any progressive reaction or response. Why would you do that? Why would you give them so much free time on the NewsHour? These people have essentially destroyed the middle class and have put the future of the United States at severe risk — why are you empowering them by giving them so much coverage?

Please give intellectual progressives more time on PBS. Please stop empowering that small percentage of neocon ideologues who plan to use obstructionist tactics to cause the failure of progressive policies.

New Orleans, LA

In the interest of appearing "fair," it seems that things are going overboard at PBS with respect to presenting the Republican Party/Conservative talk radio point of view regarding the Obama economic recovery program and related issues. These viewpoints are receiving inordinate and unproductive coverage, and have had 8 years of political play that produced national and international disaster on an unprecedented scale. Please make the coverage more congruent with reality, and stop inviting ideologues of the "opposition" who have no credibility. This is "reverse political correctness," and is actually more inappropriate than its namesake. The losers lost, so please do not portray them in the media as the most important purveyors of political responsibility and guidance.

Bill Kinlaw, Hanover, NH

Judy Woodruff's interview of Budget Director Peter Orszag on the NewsHour Thursday, Feb. 26, was dreadful to watch. Your interviewer appeared to have an actual list in front of her of all possible objections to the Obama budget and to be simply reading them off, one by one, without attention to Orszag's answers. In short, it was not 'an interview,' which implies some sense of dialogue, at all, but rather Ms. Woodruff seemed to be presenting what someone had decided was the conservative complaint list — a rant, as it were — without caring at all what Mr. Orszag's responses might be. I expect much more from NewsHour and from PBS.

Highland Park, IL

Tonight on the NewsHour, Judy Woodruff had a disapproving tone throughout her interview with Orszag. She needs to be objective. Woodruff was using Republican spin and harassing questions, e.g. "taking from the rich & giving to the poor" and "redistributing wealth". The way she said it conveyed a bias and an assumption that to stop the super-rich from continuing to abuse their power to redistribute wealth upward is not a good thing to do. Since the topic was "Orszag Outlines Policy & Priorities in Budget Blueprint" Woodruff should have designed her questions to convey an understanding to viewers of just that. I don't think it is her job to amplify & give validity to political attackers such as Senator Judd Gregg.

C N, Colfax, CA

I found her interview with Peter Orszag more of an inquisition than an interview.

Christopher Johnson, Berkeley, CA

I was pleased to hear Judy Woodruff's interview of Secretary Janet Napolitano, especially regarding activities along our border with Mexico, and in particular her comments about the fence. That is no policy, it is a fiasco. Feet on the ground are always more effective. I look forward to an improvement in how our government handles the border situation. I just have to comment on what a pleasure it is to listen to Judy Woodruff's calm, intelligent work.

Olive Lohrengel, Austin, TX

. . . Or Not Enough?

How could PBS not know about the CPAC convention last weekend (Feb. 26-28) in Washington, attended by 8,000 people representing a significant portion of the American people? We are forced to find alternative sources of information to hear about issues we deeply care about.

E & R Shannon, Check, VA

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