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PBS Ombudsman

NOW on the Frontlines

Among the other things that unfolded within or on PBS during the time I was away earlier this month were two provocative and hard-hitting reports on the weekly public affairs program NOW on PBS — one asking the question: "Are some anti-abortion attacks domestic terrorism?" and the other dealing with the massive debts incurred by millions of college students titled: "Student Loan Sinkhole?"

A column earlier this week sought to catch up on the PBS Board decision on June 16 that banned "new or additional sectarian broadcasting," which means advocacy of a particular religion or religious point of view, on channels clearly "branded as PBS or that feature PBS content." But the Board also allowed five member stations that have been airing such programs for years to continue what they have been doing. It also allows sectarian content to be broadcast on other digital channels now operated by many member stations as long as these other channels or platforms do not carry the PBS label or branded content.

So what follows is a second serving of catch-up, on my part, with viewer reaction to what has been happening.

Is There a Link Between Language and Violence?

Both of the NOW broadcasts have produced spirited and contentious debate among hundreds of viewers on the program's Web site and that makes good reading. But it was the June 12 airing of the program questioning the link between some anti-abortion attacks and a form of domestic terrorism that produced, by far, the most mail to me. A sampling of those e-mails, pro and con, is printed below.

I should state at the outset that while both of these programs are vulnerable to some criticism, they were both, in my view, important presentations of big, timely and controversial issues that are absolutely in the public interest and that more than likely would not find their way, in any in-depth fashion, onto network television. So the dominant reaction I had, personally, was that these were a big plus for viewers.

That they were presented as well as they were in half-hour programs, that means only 23-25 minutes for the actual segments, seemed to enhance the focus on the subject matter even more. At the same time, both programs could have used at least some more comprehensive balancing segments on the air. As is very common now, television programming routinely tells viewers if they want to know more, go to our Web site. I have always doubted that many people actually do this and that the critical impact of these programs is what you see on the screen when you see it. Web material that provides some of the balance and background missing on the screen doesn't quite do it for me.

The most explosive and controversial of the two programs was the one dealing with abortion. It aired soon after the shooting death on May 31 in Wichita, Kan., of Dr. George Tiller, who performed late-term abortions. The program noted at the start that groups that both oppose and support abortion condemned the shooting, but host David Brancaccio then asked the audience to "consider this: if terrorism uses violence to change behavior, was Tiller's killing an act of domestic terrorism? And viewed through that gruesome prism, did it succeed?"

The program also noted that another physician, Dr. David Gunn, was shot in the back three times in 1993 at his Florida clinic; and that there were six more murders of abortion providers, including that of Dr. Barnett Slepian outside Buffalo, N.Y., in 1998. He was shot by a sniper through his kitchen window in front of his wife and son.

Living Your Life as a Target

Senior correspondent Maria Hinojosa said as the program began, "We wanted to know what it's like to live your life as a target on the frontlines of the abortion battle. And we wanted to find out what the violence directed at abortion providers means for medical doctors, for free speech and for our society."

The program featured in-depth interviews with two doctors who perform abortions — Dr. Leroy Carhart, who worked with Dr. Tiller, and Dr. Warren Hern, also a friend of Tiller's who works in Colorado. Both men said they live under siege, are daily targets of threats, and never know what to expect. Hern told how one day he found the city of Boulder, where he lives, plastered with his photo on a poster saying "a baby killer lives in your neighborhood." The doctor said: "It's terrifying. And it's infuriating. There's no excuse for this. It is hate speech. It's part of the message that it's okay to kill a doctor who does abortions. That's the message. 'That's what we want to happen.' That's what happened to Dr. Tiller."

Later in the program, Hinojosa said, "Anti-abortion groups portray doctors who perform late abortions as murderers and there are lots of examples." Then the program puts together a string of on-the-air comments from Bill O'Reilly, host of the popular "O'Reilly Factor" television talk show that appears five days a week on the Fox News Channel. From 2005 until his death, Hinojosa reported, "George Tiller's name was brought up on 27 episodes of the O'Reilly Factor."

Abortion is, of course, one of the most emotional and controversial issues in America, and there are millions of people with strong and sincere positions on all sides. But that string of quotes from O'Reilly is definitely jarring. Whether you agree with O'Reilly or not, this segment leaves a searing, hard-to-forget reminder, if one is necessary these days, of the kind of very tough talk that is uttered daily on some cable television and radio programs.

The O'Reilly Factor?

This is from the O'Reilly clips: "In the state of Kansas, there is a doctor, George Tiller who will execute babies for $5,000", "Dr. Tiller has blood on his hands", "You want to kill a baby you hire Tiller, you gotta pay him $5,000 up front and he'll kill the baby", "I wanted George Tiller, Tiller the baby killer going ehhh, I can make more money killing babies now", "Tiller the baby killer, as some call him", "Dr. George Tiller, known as Tiller the baby killer", "Tiller the baby killer", "I wouldn't want to be these people if there is a judgment day."

Dr. Hern responded, "As far as I'm concerned, Bill O'Reilly calling Dr. Tiller 'Tiller the Killer' is hate speech. It's offensive, it's vulgar, it's grotesque, it's a Fascist speech that's designed to get Dr. Tiller killed, and it worked."

And when people say, Hinojosa asked, "Dr. Hern, we have free speech in this country," the physician said, "Yeah, there's a limit to free speech, and it stops when it hurts other people."

To its credit, NOW also used a clip of O'Reilly, who went on the air the day after Tiller's murder, to respond to that sort of criticism. "Now, when I heard about Tiller's murder I knew pro-abortion zealots and Fox News haters would attempt to blame us for the crime and that is exactly what has happened. Every single thing we said about Tiller was true and my analysis was based on those facts."

I don't want to review this entire program, but I thought it was a timely, powerful and necessary exploration of the extremes to which this issue carries people and the effects, especially on the doctors who legally carry out these services and their families. I would like to have seen the program actually make it clearer that abortion is legal. It is mentioned, but only in passing. Maybe everyone knows that but it seemed to me it needed to be emphasized to keep the actions against doctors, patients and clinics more in context.

I also thought the program suffered by not having an on-camera interview, even a brief one, with a representative of the pro-life movement who could keep the movement itself, and its arguments, separate from the most extreme, violent elements. The theme was to put the dark side of this issue on display, and that was proper, I thought, and successful. But some dose of additional perspective and balance would, in my opinion, have added a broader value to the program.

Another Ombudsman Weighs In

Ken Bode, the ombudsman for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — the private, non-profit group that, among other things, channels federally appropriated funds to public television and radio — published a very strong endorsement of this program and of the overall reporting quality of NOW, on June 12, immediately after the broadcast.

Bode, in his column, made different suggestions for others that could have been on the program. "I also would have liked to see a different point of view from the pro-life movement," he wrote, "one where the consequences of the 'free speech' they exercise are acknowledged and accepted." He quotes Frank Schaeffer, an author who formerly was a long time anti-abortion activist, who wrote, "Words are spoken that lead directly to violence by the unhinged or the truly committed."

Here Are the Letters

I was stunned by the poor journalism in NOW's program featuring Drs. Carhart and Hern. Aside from a seconds-long disclaimer, the entire program equated the Tiller murderer and his few sick supporters with the pro-life movement in general. Would PBS have reduced the Abolition Movement to the murderous John Brown?

Given the apparently large numbers of Neo-Nazi groups, and the recent (apparently) Islamic extremist-inspired killing of a U.S. military recruiter, I can't imagine why the entire program on domestic terrorism should have been spent on allegations against the pro-life movement, especially in the absence of evidence that any significant numbers of people are behind the violence or the websites referenced.

The program failed to even mention the violence of abortion, but only presented abortion as an unquestioned good, needed and required by women. My confidence in PBS as a source of truth is deeply shaken.

Rosemary Anton, Phoenix, AZ

The program on Tiller's death was very poorly done because it was one sided. As a woman who not only had an abortion in the 70's and deeply regretted it as have thousands of others, and as a person who has helped pregnant women for 10 years, I know of what I speak. (I personally tried to talk to one of Tiller's patients here in CA and she told me she wanted to get rid of her almost 9 month old unborn child just because. Her friend was frantic and said she'd adopt the child but the woman's heart was cold. There was no medical reason for the late term abortion).Tiller did indeed do abortions for frivolous reasons. If so many Americans are upset over these deaths, why not find out why instead of calling them terrorists or spewers of hate speech. Have you looked at pictures of aborted late term babies or considered they get no anesthesia when they are burned to death or torn apart? I like pbs usually, but I was deeply disappointed of your coverage because it was just shoddy reporting which promotes only more division. Thank you for listening.

Santa Cruz, CA

Maria Hinojosa did women (and men) a service with her program about late-term abortion. She should not be penalized for her good work, no matter how much the anti-abortion forces rail against her. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1.21 million abortions were performed in 2005 (latest date for which they have posted figures. Each year, about 2% of women 15-44 have an abortion. Half of all American women will experience an unintended pregnancy by age 45 and current rates, about one-third will have had an abortion. It is fully appropriate for PBS to cover the topic of abortion in a factual manner. I hope PBS will support its own courageous staff member, Ms. Hinojosa.

Katherine Forrest, Portola Valley, CA

I wanted to send a note of thank you and support to Maria Hinojosa for her excellent PBS NOW segment on Dr. Tiller's killing. I thought it was candid and interesting.

Lori Freedman, Oakland, CA

Please thank Maria Hinojosa for exploring the experiences of abortion providers living under siege. I think it is important for us, as a nation, to question why we are so complacent about ongoing harassment, hate speech, and violence directed against people seeking and providing abortion care.

Kira Foster, Oakland, CA

The accusation that Bill O'Reilly is promoting domestic terrorism was the last straw. Apparently PBS has become the judge and jury. I will never again donate to PBS fund drives and will actively encourage others to severe their ties to PBS.

Dave Moore, Big Timber, MT

I can't believe PBS accused Bill O'Reilly of being guilty of promoting domestic terrorism. Was there a court room trial on this, or is it just their opinion? My opinion is that they are helping to see the truth and the corruption that is going on in the White House. I used to enjoy PBS but I will no longer support your stations with any of my donations!

Mark P., Vista, CA

The Student Loan Issue

The second program on NOW while I was away dealt with another big, festering sore within the nation's broader economic troubles — millions of college graduates who owe very large amounts of money, are paying very high interest rates under student loan plans and are now defaulting on those loans in record numbers.

"Student Loan Sinkhole?" aired on June 19.

Unlike the program on abortion, the student loan program didn't produce any e-mail to me, with one big exception. That was a letter, and a detailed critique of the NOW program, from Martha Holler, vice president and spokesperson for Sallie Mae, the nation's leading provider of student loans, including both federal and private loans for undergraduate and graduate students and their parents. Originally created in 1972 as a government-sponsored organization, a transition to privatize its operations was completed in 2004.

Holler said the program included "a range of errors and omissions about student loan debt, default aversion and forbearance" and raised concerns about the "double standard in PBS reporting and the credibility of its sources." She claimed that in a number of instances, the program had "ignored" contradictory information that the company had sent. She also said the company had "made clear to PBS and its production company concerns and information about the credibility of PBS' sources, in particular Mr. Michael Zahara."

Holler then sent along a line-by-line critique of statements on the program and responses from Sallie Mae. I passed this along to NOW Executive Producer John Siceloff who now has offered the program's response.

Here's a Link to the Charges and Counter Arguments

This back-and-forth is quite extensive — seven full pages — and rather than reproducing it in full in this column, you can read the Sallie Mae critique and NOW on PBS response here.

I managed to catch up with this program before all the detailed criticism between Sallie Mae and NOW began to unfold. As a viewer, I felt this was a smart, well told and important story that was a good choice to highlight at a time when still more financial landmines are lurking out there that either will blow-up in our faces or be defused.

I also think that NOW's Siceloff offers some good responses to some of Holler's points. But there was something about this program that bothered me at the time I first watched it, and there are two things that bother me now after this back and forth.

It is hard to capture this fully without going through a summary of the whole program, but the first thing that bothered me unfolded on-screen about halfway through the program. Viewers have been engaged from the start with the sad story of Gina Moss, a well-spoken, single mom from Baltimore who NOW uses to illustrate the plight of many people who are at the heart "of a colossal controversy" in America today — 70 million people who owe a collective $700 billion in student loans.

Then program host David Brancaccio guides her into describing her Federal Family Education Loan Program, or FFELP, loans and she says collectors from these loans talked her into paying them before her rent. She is about to be evicted.

Then Brancaccio asks: "Is it really true that collectors for 'FFELP' loans are pressuring student debtors like this way? To find answers, we looked into the collection practices of a leader in the student loan industry, Sallie Mae. While Gina's FFELP loans came from other companies, Sallie Mae is the largest FFELP lender. It's the company many of us think as the old government sponsored lender, but in fact, it was reorganized as a private company in 1997 and it purchased the name 'Sallie Mae' for $5 million."

Sallie Mae's Holler, in her critique, asks: "Why wouldn't PBS speak with Ms. Moss' lender, instead of Sallie Mae, about its collection practices? PBS stated that Ms. Moss' loans were not with Sallie Mae, still asked Sallie Mae to respond to the rent/student loan payment accusation and then did not include any of the following response that Sallie Mae provided . . ."

Here's What Bothered Me

The post-program back and forth between Sallie Mae and NOW that we link to above gets into this, but based on what was on the screen at the time, it seems to me that Holler asks a good question. That's what bothered me: there was a noticeable disconnect on screen, a segue into Sallie Mae when the woman's loans clearly came from another lender who was not identified and not interviewed. It left an impression with me. Sallie Mae is an easy target, and maybe it should be a target. But this looked like a questionable way to shift focus.

The second thing that bothered me happened immediately afterward but I didn't fully realize it until several days later, after the charges started flying from Sallie Mae.

Without breaking stride, Brancaccio continued: "Most Sallie Mae employees are bound by confidentiality agreements, and don't talk to the media, but we found one man willing to break ranks. Mike Zahara, a former Sallie Mae debt collector, was so angered by what he saw happen at his branch in 2005 that he decided to speak with us."

Zahara is the central character in the basic indictment of Sallie Mae conveyed by this program. He is at the core of what one comes away thinking about this. As I watched, I thought he came across as a confident and compelling witness on the program, laying out what he said he had heard within Sallie Mae and what he had done.

Brancaccio, to his and the program's credit, then lets the viewer in on another side of this story. He says: "After he complained to the government about the practice, he was fired. The termination letter stated Zahara had violated the company policy that 'we expect our employees to safeguard confidential information.' Why should anyone believe a debt collector fired by Sallie Mae? His allegations are supported both by a lawsuit filed last year by Sallie Mae's own shareholders and in company emails and documents from a lawsuit Zahara once filed against the company. We requested an interview with Sallie Mae . . . and the company responded with an email denying Mike Zahara's allegations. A faxed statement from Sallie Mae said Zahara 'demonstrated a pattern of accusing others of wrongdoing, regardless of merit.' And the company said that 'forbearance is used as an option of last resort.'"

Zahara comes across as the classic whistle-blower, a character we come to depend on when there is no other way to get at some important allegations of malpractice. I have no idea if what Zahara claims is true or not, but the subsequent claims and counter-claims about him are substantial. He seems to have been at the center of a number of controversies. Much of this is summarized in Statement #7 of the document we have linked to.

After going through this, I'm left with doubts, wondering whether to believe him or not, wondering how it was "that he decided to speak with us," as Brancaccio said on the program, and who contacted whom? I wondered whether there wasn't a better way, or better person, to get at and assess Sallie Mae's role in what is, indeed, a huge problem for millions of young Americans and is a worthy subject for a hard look on television.

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