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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag

Note: This column contains a correction posted on April 6.

Viewer response to two programs dominated the mailbag this week. Most of the mail and certainly the strongest sentiments - all of them critical - focused on last Friday's (March 27) broadcast on NOW about "one of the most controversial figures in the illegal immigration debate," Joe Arpaio, the Sheriff of Arizona's huge Maricopa County, roughly 100 miles north of the border with Mexico.*

Sheriff Joe, as he is called is both controversial and very popular. He's been the county's chief law enforcement officer for more than 16 years. He takes a hard line on enforcement of immigration laws and is vocal in defending himself and his actions against his critics. But has the sheriff, as NOW asks at the start of the program, "crossed the line when it comes to serving and protecting his community? Some critics have accused him of racial profiling."

The program opens with a segment contributed by NOW's colleagues at "Expose: America's Investigative Reports," a PBS documentary series featuring high-impact investigative journalism. In this case it was based upon a five-part series, originally published in July, 2008, by a team of reporters at the local East Valley Tribune, near Phoenix, that took a look at what Sheriff Arpaio was doing in the name of law enforcement.

Easy to Argue Over This One

Illegal immigration is a huge and emotional topic, doubly so for those communities that live with it close-up and feel the full range of its impact. So it is not surprising that emotions run high. The Expose segment, however, was well-reported and well-documented, in my view; solid journalism with all sides represented and no punches pulled. The NOW program also noted that the newspaper, in November 2008, reported that three Federal agencies - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI and the Government Accountability Office - were also examining the sheriff department's immigration enforcement practices. Investigations are just that; investigations, not findings. So this story isn't over and some follow-up for NOW viewers would seem necessary.

Much of the criticism of the program that came to me alleged bias and a one-sided approach, and much of that seemed focused on the segment following the Expose portion. That segment involved an interview with Arpaio by NOW Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa, who followed up and homed-in on the newspaper's findings. This was one of the more intense interview segments I've seen on public television. Hinojosa is clearly of Latino heritage. As I listened to the program, twice, I found the questioning to be challenging, at times aggressive, yet proper, considering that this is a tough subject and a tough sheriff. My sense was that those same questions would have been asked in the same manner by an interviewer on CBS's "60 Minutes."

And she was persistent, which was definitely required, especially in getting at one of the pivotal points raised in the Expose segment: that of 669 people arrested by the Sheriff's special units, 665 of them were Latinos, most stopped for traffic violations. Yet there were no records to be found or seen of other people stopped for traffic violations.

When I asked NOW senior producer John Siceloff if the program was going to respond to the criticism, he said that the e-mails that had been received by the program thus far "have not challenged the factual content of the broadcast. They are opinions, often fiercely expressed, about immigration, legal and illegal." The NOW online home page for this program does have a very large number of reactions from viewers on all sides of this issue and is well worth reading.

When I asked if NOW has done, or is planning to do, a program on the impact of illegal immigration on these border communities, Siceloff cited these earlier programs: Attacking Affirmative Action (August 29, 2008), The Border Fence (August 15, 2008), Immigration on Main Street (October 19, 2007), Alien Nation (September 29, 2006), Be Our Guest (May 26, 2006), and Latinos Today: A National Conversation (May 12, 2006), and added that: "We are planning a program on the intersection of immigration with the economic recession and jobs."

What follows, first, are the viewer comments on NOW's "The People's Sheriff." Then come letters about Frontline's "Sick in America" broadcast, followed by a response from Frontline to the viewer comments.

Here Are the Letters

I viewed your documentary/interview with Joe Arpaio this evening. First let me say I disliked immensely the interviewer, Ms. Chavez. It was clear to viewers in general that perhaps her ethnic origin gave way to her nasty look and disposition towards Joe and the side of the fence she obviously is aligned on are racist against those of us that have had it with illegal immigrants feeling they are entitled to our American benefits and freedoms. Enforcing our laws regarding the illegal aliens has dropped our crime rates and the statistics she gave are old statistics and do not reflect the drastic reduction in crimes and the opening job markets to our citizens. Joe Arpaio gets more votes than any politician running and is in the 80 percentage area. Get your ideals back on the side and support of our laws here and we all may live a better future here. I know my kids will if every one had a just Sheriff like Joe.

Richard Schultz, Surprise, AZ

Again PBS with the show NOW shows its contempt for The United States of America, from which it requests donations. The Sheriff enforces the law on illegal immigration and guess what, all white people are racists. Your "journalist" asked the Sheriff about statistics and response times to crimes, and insinuated it was racism. Of course no statistics were presented by her on who was committing the crimes: ethnically. Her whole point was racism but no stats on who commits crimes. I wonder if Sheriff did not have to respond to illegal alien law enforcement if response time to other crimes would improve. Ms. Hinojosa is obviously an ethnocentrist to her own race, she always take pride in pointing out others racism but never observes herself. If she were an American rather than a Latino as she likes to say, maybe she could see things better. Americans are American in the USA no matter what race or ethnicity. PBS can't see that. You know if a lot of "latinos" are arrested on our southern border that is because Mexico is not Sweden. That is geography not racism. I do not pledge to PBS because it always hates the USA. We have done more, for the most, at greatest cost than any nation in history, yet PBS just hates America which created and supports it.

Thonotosassa, FL

Your coverage of Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, AZ, was totally unfair to Mr. Arpaio. Particularly the interview by Maria who obviously is one of the supporters of illegals in this country. The reality in our Texas cities, as in other states, is that illegals are draining our taxpayer resources while undercutting our standard of living. This is not a "racist" statement as grant-funded screechers keep repeating in their hysterics. It is a fact. No amount of data manipulation by anyone can change that reality. PBS needs to be more objective lest you lose your credibility.

Rodolfo Quijano, San Antonio, TX

I just watched a segment on a Sheriff in Arizona. The subject matter was very intriguing, which is why I watched it. However, early into the show it was very apparent that the reporting and the media were biased and had an agenda. Obviously!!! I strongly disagree with this being able to be aired. I feel it should have been pre-viewed and then rejected because it was biased and lacked a balanced view.

Chris Rutter, Eureka, CA

I just watched the PBS interview "The People's Sheriff" of Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa interviewing Joe Arpaio. I must say I was really disappointed in her biased questioning. She should watch the old McNeil/Lehrer hour news shows and see how interviewing should be done. However it was very apparent which side of the issue she was taking. I commend Joe for not loosing his cool. Maria you're not a reporter you're an activist.

Mekoots Yasim, Sacramento, CA

I think Chief Arpaio should head up our border patrol and be allowed to do it as he has proven he is capable of. We can't keep hiding the problem, drugs and illegals. Your reporter believes the press and not honesty.

Latrobe, PA

The story about Sheriff Joe was very one-sided. Every incident in history can be construed in various ways if you bend facts as was this case. We need more people like Joe or our country will fall into ruin, and be the playground of the very far left idiots.

Winnemucca, NV

I just watched your NOW show on Sheriff Joe. It was ridiculously one-sided, as usual. You might have mentioned that since he was re-elected, maybe what he is doing, enforcing the laws on the books, is what his constituents want him to do. I don't think PBS is a constituent. Also, you never mentioned what percentage of the population, illegal and legal, are Hispanic. You guys never want to look at the reality of the situation. The illegals are coming in and committing crimes in these border areas. That is why they are arrested. Why don't you focus on trying to get a good bill passed to handle the problems that already exist here?. I suggest you might want to interview George Bush. I happen to agree with what he wants to do about immigration. But, I also believe we need to enforce our laws about immigration that are on the books now, and about drug users and sellers. How can you be so biased and oh ...never mind. You aren't listening anyway.

Joan Secrest, Sanibel, FL

A Viewer's Experience

I question the approach of PBS with respect to Sheriff Joe in AZ. I was in AZ in early February 2009 for one week. To say out of 669 people, 665 were Latino and were illegal is misleading. What would you expect on the Mexican/US Border? Driving from Mesa AZ to Tucson, and I-19 you often see groups of people under small trees along I-10/I-19. Without knowing too much, I would think these are the persons who were not picked up by INS/or Border Patrol and are illegal. I was stopped on Country Club Road in Mesa because my rental car had no license plate. I did not get a ticket, and had to show my rental agreement and NYS Drivers license. What is wrong with this? If someone has no license, defective lights at night, and is illegal why not get arrested!

Kenneth Weissman, NYC, NY

I just finished watching "Border Control" spotlighting the activities of Sheriff Joe Arpaio from Maricopa County, AZ. I live in NJ and I applaud his efforts. However, I must admit this show was so biased against the Sheriff I have a had time believing it wasn't funded by La Raza. I thought PBS had higher standards in what they air. Obviously, I'm wrong on that issue. However, I firmly believe people who enter our country illegally should be hunted down and locked up. The show failed to mention how many crimes are committed in that county by illegals. So what if the vast majority have Hispanic names. It's not profiling, it's a statement of fact. Arizona is located in our southern border, not northern. Which ethic group do you think is coming across illegally the most at that location? Unbelievable! It's hard to believe the Tribune, described as a local paper, could not report/find one good thing to say about the Sheriff. I wonder why that is? They failed to mention any discussions about or investigation into the Sheriff's staff retention records. If the Sheriff was making his deputies break the law as the Tribune would want you to believe, why didn't they investigate the officers or determine the turn over ratio as compared to other departments. Like I said in the beginning - a very biased reporting job and it didn't belong on PBS.

John Laudenslager, Sewell, NJ

Shame on PBS! How dare you shield illegal behavior? American cities need more sheriffs like Joe Arpaio who is a loyal and responsible American.

D. Linker, Brooklyn, NY

On Frontline's 'Sick in America'

I saw the Frontline program, "Sick in America" last night and was disgusted. Not one mention of the concept of "single payer." I would like to know from the producer why the very concept wasn't even discussed. I'd suggest he talk with the California Nurses Association or bring up HR 676 with Congressman Conyers.

E. Rivers, Portland, ME

Just watched Frontline's "Sick in America." What a misleading portrayal of the healthcare alternatives. References to other country's healthcare made it sound like they require each individual to buy health insurance. There was no, NO, mention of the only viable health coverage alternative-- SINGLE PAYER-- that is, indeed, the coverage those others countries provide at a cost through taxes much less than are totally inadequate coverage in USA. I am very disappointed. Frontline usually presents a very hard hitting look at its subject matter. This one was basically saying yes things are bad but let the insurance companies fix them and make the actual providers and recipients of health care be the scapegoats.

Stephen Vernon, Albany, CA

I just watched with interest your program on healthcare in America. I am appalled that the program failed to represent the only real solution to affordable health care for all: the single-payer system. Only when this country removes the insurance companies, who siphon 30% off healthcare dollars for their profits, and whose interests are served by denying care, will we achieve a workable universal system. Government run healthcare is more efficient and cost effective and has proven successful throughout the developed world.

Judith Gardner, Durham, NH

I just viewed Sick in America on Frontline. There was serious misinformation presented re: the coverage people in other countries receive and a serious omission re: the remedy for the high administrative costs of health insurers in the USA. In other countries, health care is publicly funded, directly out of tax revenues and all citizens are covered that way as in Gt. Britain or France. The program states that all citizens in other countries are mandated to have coverage. It is their governments in the name of their people who mandate coverage for all and pay for it so no one goes without coverage. There may be private insurers but the mandate is PUBLIC.

That leads to the program's serious omission of the difference in administrative costs even with the high health care costs this country demonstrates. The Medicare program has administrative costs of 3 percent compared to the private insurers, 15 per cent or more. Those numbers were NEVER cited. Nor was the broad based support by our citizens for a single payer, publicly administered universal health plan as proposed in HR 676. Medicare for All. Just the way Obama left this out of his health care summit (until forced by citizens' protests to include it), Frontline failed to include single payer in the discussion of reform.

Nancy Goldner, Brooklyn, NY

The Frontline program "Sick in America" failed to inform in a fundamental way that most of the industrial world provides universal health insurance and comprehensive medical care for their citizens. The single payer model that eliminates the insurance industry is a viable solution that has been widely supported in polls of the public done in the US and by many experts and numerous political leaders. The program provided the usual banal recital of individual troubles without exploring the real political questions of power, corporate interest, and industry lobbying the have prevented any needed changes in the US. It was a sorry and shameful betrayal of the Frontline tradition of audacious journalism. I had looked forward to the program. I regret that it proved to be an incredible waste of public television funds as well as my time!

Schenectady, NY

Frontline Responds

Here's a response to viewers offered by Frontline Story Editor Catherine Wright:

"We have heard from a number of viewers who found fault with the program for not discussing the solutions to the healthcare crisis in this country, and in particular the single payer system. It's an important part of any examination of the healthcare system and how it can be improved; it perhaps merits a program all its own. Alas, even in an hour on television, we cannot cover in detail or enough depth every part of such a large and important story. We would like to point out that we did examine how the single payer system works in many European countries in our program last season, "Sick Around the World," and how other countries have managed to establish universal healthcare for their citizens (though struggle even now to control the costs of healthcare). You can view this program on our web site here.

"We believe that our report this week, "Sick Around America," was equally of value in focusing on our current private health insurance system and showing how many Americans are only one or two events away from financial disaster or total ruin because they can't afford this insurance, or because it offers inadequate coverage, or because it suddenly can be rescinded by the insurer for alleged omissions or errors. We also felt it important in this report to look at another major problem with the private insurance system: America's for-profit medical system means that insurers have a fiscal duty to avoid risk and make profits for investors. Thus, insuring people who already have serious, chronic illnesses works against the interests of stockholders. The healthcare system in this country is a broad and important subject, and one we will likely return to in the future."

*Correction: The original version of this column described Maricopa County as bordering Mexico.