By Michael Getler
April 23, 2009
This week's mailbag centers on responses and reactions to the last two ombudsman's columns. One of them was last week dealing with a report on FOX News about the use of material from the Al Jazeera English news network by the "Worldfocus" program on public broadcasting. The other was the column two weeks ago dealing with "The Back Story at Frontline" concerning the program "Sick Around America."
But first, there was something else of interest that unfolded this week: Two of the stories that were awarded Pulitzer Prizes on Monday — one for Local Reporting and another for Investigative Reporting — had also been the focus of ombudsman columns.
One of two Pulitzers awarded for best local reporting went to Ryan Gabrielson and Paul Giblin of the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Ariz., for a series last year that took an in-depth look at the activities of the popular sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio, who takes a tough line on illegal immigration. That newspaper series became the basis for a report by PBS's investigative documentary program "Expose: America's Investigative Reports" that, in turn, figured prominently in a broadcast just last month (March 27) on NOW, the weekly public affairs program. Sheriff Joe has lots of supporters, and critics as well, and many of each turned up in the Ombudsman's Mailbag on April 2 along with an assessment (positive) of the program from my perspective.
The Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting went to David Barstow of The New York Times for a pair of stories detailing the circumstances surrounding the appearance on television of many retired, high-ranking military officers as "military analysts," especially during the run-up to the Iraq War and beyond. The first article, published on April 20, 2008, was the crucial one; a lengthy, in-depth, front-page story that profiled the background and, in several cases, business and Pentagon connections, of 17 retired officers who have appeared, sometimes quite frequently, on CNN, FOX, NBC, CBS, ABC and, in one case, NPR. Although PBS was not mentioned in the Times article, I wrote about it at the time because four of those officers had also appeared occasionally on PBS.
PBS, as it turned out, did rather well because the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, as usual, paired these officers with others who took an opposing view. The NewsHour also did better than others at reporting the various connections. One of the things I noted in that column was that, despite the power and front-page prominence of the Times story, "as far as I can tell, none of the major networks followed up on the story even though it went right to the heart of how they operate on a significant issue."
I mention this because I happened to be watching the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams on Monday evening (I watch the NewsHour earlier) after the Pulitzers were announced, and there was, again, no mention of the award to Barstow, even though it is among the most prestigious of the awards and many of those analysts have appeared on NBC. Williams did take note that Eugene Robinson, a Washington Post columnist and frequent guest on NBC's sister cable-channel MSNBC, was awarded the Pulitzer for commentary. If there were an ombudsman at NBC, or any of the other major television news channels for that matter, a good question to have asked of management would have been: Why no mention of the Pulitzer to Barstow? The NewsHour did mention the investigative award briefly on Monday evening as an introduction to a longer segment on what was happening to investigative reporting in the midst of the crisis in the newspaper business.
According to Salon's Glenn Greenwald, NBC was not alone on Monday evening. He said that as far as he could tell "no other major television news outlet implicated by Barstow's story mentioned his award."
Now, back to the letters.
On Last Week's Letter from Boston
The writer from Boston [quoted at length in last week's ombudsman's column] seems to be spouting a bit of his own propaganda. What are such people afraid of? He certainly is not capable of seeing the all important "two sides of the argument" that is so touted these days. I'm sure that mantra serves to educate, especially in the case of the uneducated, but it is certainly what journalists strive for.
I've been watching World Focus and noted the coverage from Al Jazeera with interest as I had read about the AJ English when it started up. I specifically subscribe to Direct TV so that I can get Link TV, which includes Mosaic. I think the best way to be informed, short of travel to these areas, is to watch other countries' news programs presented in English. I often watch the DW news and am an old friend of the BBC from whom I subscribe to a number of daily and weekly podcasts.
The person from Boston has his own agenda just as surely as does Fox News, and neither is "fair" or "balanced" by common journalistic standards. Boston has political views that are negative to the Arab world and that is known as bias. So it seems to be a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
Thank you for making the distinction about the World Focus program not being produced by PBS and how it is obtained. I didn't realize that. This came up with the fundraising infomercials as well. I hope you can see that people tend to think that anything on PBS is from, well, PBS. Having said that I don't think the fact that PBS doesn't produce a program means that they can be absolved from criticism of a program. I guess that's why they have you!
As usual, Fox has made "much ado about nothing" and I think you are being very fair to give the Boston reader as much time and space as you did — very fair. I, for one, would like to see more Al Jazeera and will have a look at the website; but then I once furtively checked out Mein Kampf from the library — not because I admire Hitler or because I felt I needed "both sides of the argument" on genocide, but because I simply wanted to read a primary source of such delusional thinking. I suppose Boston reader would reprimand the library for having this book on the shelf — or burn it!
Janet Camp, Milwaukee, WI
And More on Al Jazeera
I read the Fox News trash about WorldFocus airing Al Jazeera English stories and want to let you know that as a loyal viewer of the program I completely support them using these reports on their broadcasts. The stories that I have seen by AJE are top-notch and it's important that WorldFocus continue to carry content from this partner since most cable operators in the United States do not carry the channel. This censorship by the large cable companies should be the object of a protest by the general public.
I appreciate you standing by WorldFocus and supporting their attempts to broaden Americans' horizons by airing world news from a variety of perspectives.
Charlie Remy, Gorham, ME
I read Al Jazeera on-line and watch Al-Jazeera English nightly. While I do not agree with the views of some of the people they interview concerning extremism and other Middle East topics, the same can be said of any US network I might watch as well. I have found the network to be very balanced and present true, neutral reporting on issues. The network's recent documentary on the Israeli-Egyptian Camp David Peace Accords, "A Cold Peace," was excellent. Al Jazeera English is doing something the news entertainment folks in the US are not: keeping themselves out of their stories. That's professional journalism.
Dave M., Tampa, FL
While I am not a fan of censorship and I defend your right to broadcast propaganda like Al Jazeera, I don't think public funding should support it. I don't appreciate my tax dollars going to support an anti-American agent of disinformation. And the fact that President Obama chose to give them an interview doesn't speak well for him or elevate Al Jazeera in my esteem.
Joanne Jones, New York, NY
(Ombudsman's Note: According to Marc Rosenwasser, executive producer of Worldfocus, "So far, the show is being paid for exclusively through private funding.")
Are you kidding me? PBS is using Al Jazeera as a news source? What are you people thinking??? Even if extremist ideology is not always spewed, we do not need a sympathetic view of those hate-filled, terrorist supporting people! I am offended and will no longer be a PBS supporter. Where is your love of country . . . our country?
Robin L., Saginaw, TX
With what you say about Al Jazeera I can concur. I just wish I could receive it daily as e-mail as I do 4-5 other newspapers that are both on paper or online or only the latter. I don't read it regularly mostly because I forget to access it or I am out of time. What I have read there has been no more slanted than what I find on PBS or New York Times. At least there I get some details of what is going on in the Middle East without Israel getting all out of shape if it's not favorable to them. I also find the Palestine Chronicle to do a good job of covering all the Islamic countries and their attitudes toward what we/US are or should be or not be doing. Al Jazeera is no more propagandistic than our major papers. More of your viewers and readers of this and PBS should take a few minutes and access Al Jazeera online. They even let you sign in to access it more easily the next time.
Patricia Wilson, San Jose, CA
I have watched al Jazeera on the web a number of times and think that most Americans should have the opportunity to learn about as many points of view as they can find in order to understand what is going on throughout the world. Being limited to only US sources will lead to simplistic (and erroneous) views of the world. Don't Americans trust themselves any longer to hear all points of view before making a decision?
Tillie Krieger, Eugene, OR
Your choice to incorporate Al Jazeera as a news source/partner is a troublesome matter. Islam is notorious in its use of disinformation in its 1400 year campaign against non-Moslems and Al Jazeera is but one branch of this practice. May I suggest you send independent teams from the US to the Moslem world to get a less biased perspective on the views of people in those areas. Al Jazeera is no less politicized than Fox, probably more so. It is inappropriate and unnecessary to say the least that our tax dollars should be spent on incorporating the Islamic-sympathetic viewpoint of a vehicle such as Al Jazeera.
D. Hannon, Los Angeles, CA
I am glad that PBS was able to include Al Jazeera footage or audio to expand the reporting they do or are able to include through various shows and programs. I wish there was MORE variety in the information presented on PBS more of the time. As far as information from Al Jazeera goes, I find it has more factual reporting included than most of the mainstream media channels available in the U.S. And I have to say it definitely has no more propaganda, and possibly less, than one sees on U.S. channels that are commonly available. So: please continue to expand the sources of information you access to help U.S. citizens and residents be able to accurately and knowledgeably relate to, and engage with, the rest of the world. That's what PBS and NPR are there to do, I hope.
About 'Sick Around America'
I read with great interest your response concerning what has transpired vis-à-vis "Sick Around America". Thank you for clarifying what occurred surrounding the film and subsequent on-line discussions, etc. I do have one question for PBS: Since you interviewed Karen Ignagni in the film, why did you not interview individuals representing other perspectives such as someone from Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP)? There are other proposals for improving our health care insurance system that should, in all fairness, be included in this type of film. I, personally, am an advocate of a single-payer type of system, but I really wonder why it is that we have traditionally taken an idea or ideas from varying sources and created an improved "product," yet we do not seem to be able to do so with our health care insurance system. To answer my own question: because we (the USA) have a for-profit system for health care coverage, and those companies (health insurance and pharmaceutical, for example) that stand to loose their profits don't want to kill their "golden goose." One other thing, why is it that a medication developed and produced here in the USA can be purchased more cheaply from Canada? (At least that is my understanding of this situation.) Is it because the Canadian government subsidizes its pharmacies?
Again, thank you for what you do for PBS and the American public.
Chuck Killingsworth, Pittsburg, KS
Thank you for your excellent critique of the feedback from the public and Frontline's response to the program "Sick Around America". Is there a way that the issues raised around this program can be publicly aired, either by editorializing in a major publication or by pressuring Frontline to do another program on the subject that looks more directly at the political and economic interests at play in this mess? It is good to know PBS has an ombudsman!
Nancy Galland, Stockton Springs, ME
"But there is then a tricky line that requires reporters not to become advocates." So very true, and a line so often stepped across in today's 24-hour news cycle media. In 55 years as a reporter/editor, it was a line — no, a wall — I insisted on vigilantly protecting. Another excellent report. Thank you.
Dennis Anderson, McMinnville, OR