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PBS Ombudsman

Beauty and the Beasts

(Ombudsman's Note: I'll be away from the office until Aug. 10 but my assistant, Marcia Apperson, will be here and you can continue to contact us at ombudsman@pbs.org or by phone at 703-739-5290.)

Two PBS programs in recent days struck me as capturing the range of public discourse in present-day America.

One took place on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on three consecutive evenings starting Monday, July 27. There was Lehrer on a stage in Kansas City, Mo., with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. As moderator, he was questioning the Fed chief. But so were local citizens in the audience and others participating on the Web. The one-hour interview with Bernanke actually took place the day before, on Sunday, but was shown, in segments, on The NewsHour beginning the following day.

The questioning was polite but serious and, at times, challenging. People are worried, and skeptical. The Fed remains a mystery to many Americans. Many believe it was at the center of what went wrong and crucial to making things right. The interview received a great deal of press coverage, even though it didn't make a lot of news. Yet it was explanatory and informative, both substantively, in terms of providing a more candid glimpse inside the thinking and emotions of the Fed chairman, and also simply watching him react to concerns put to him directly by citizens. Fed chairmen traditionally have appeared as detached, sort of secretive officials, used to providing their carefully crafted views in congressional testimony, speeches and the very occasional press interview. But last Sunday's appearance by Bernanke at a town hall-type forum was historic, Lehrer reported; the first time a Fed chairman had taken questions from the public.

Bernanke, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, may have just been campaigning to be reappointed to his job in January by President Obama. Or the Fed may be trying to be more open with the public at a time when the sense of economic peril is greater than most people can remember. Whatever, this was a good and useful discourse, one that was worth watching as well as listening to, and a smart undertaking by Bernanke, PBS and The NewsHour.

On the Other Hand . . .

At the other end of the discourse spectrum, as I see it, was the concluding segment of last Friday's (July 24) presentation of Bill Moyers Journal. The program was about health care but the closing segment segued into a strong editorial assault by Moyers against the type of often vicious rhetoric that can be found on television, radio and public podiums and that can "poison the air all of us breathe."

Moyers led into his attack by showing clips of a speech last week by Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, warning about what will happen if health care reform includes coverage for abortion services. From there, Moyers went on to the murder, two months ago, of Dr. George Tiller, a performer of late-term abortions. Moyers replayed tapes of Fox News talk show host Bill O'Reilly repeatedly referring, before the murder, to "Tiller the baby killer." The NOW on PBS program last month also focused on this. Moyers then replayed a lengthy segment of his program from last fall when a gunman showed up and shot up a church in Knoxville, Tenn., at least in part because he said he hated "the liberal movement."

But then Moyers goes on to include clips from other right-wing commentators, particularly Michael Savage and Neal Boortz, but also some from Glenn Beck, Michael Reagan, and Jim Quinn.

Moyers then says: "Do I think any conservative commentator wished for what happened in Knoxville last year, or to Doctor George Tiller in Wichita two months ago? Not for a minute. The killer who pulled the trigger is the guilty party. But do I wish the vendors of venom, and their sponsors, would think harder about how angry words become accomplices of foul deeds? Yes, I do . . . God only knows the price we pay when we turn political opponents to be debated, into mortal enemies to be eliminated."

And he closes this way: " . . . the First Amendment protection of a free press extends to 'The Savage Nation,' [a reference to the Michael Savage talk show] as surely as it does to The Nation Magazine [a liberal publication]. Anyway, you can't coerce taste; fairness is not a doctrine to be enforced, but a choice to be made, a responsibility to be honored."

And That's the Way It Is

As any ombudsman can tell you, indeed as anyone can who writes or says anything publicly nowadays that can be commented upon, there is plenty of anger and venom out there and it comes from both right and left, conservative and liberal. I see and hear a lot of it and it is one of the things that disturb me most when I wonder about the country trying to find enough common ground these days to cope with a huge array of big-time problems. Fierce debate is one thing; it's good and natural because the stakes in all these issues are very high. But some of this stuff seems to me to be really off-the-rails, vicious and dangerous.

My personal sense is that a lot more of the really rough stuff is coming from the far right than from the left, and it is conservative talk show hosts that, in particular, dominate the radio airways and the ratings and have the biggest audiences by far.

Moyers' views and leanings are easily discernible to anyone who watches his program, and he attracts a lot of criticism from conservatives who say, rightly, that there is nothing remotely comparable to him and his views on PBS. Last week's program, as is usual, attracted lots of e-mail, mostly from people who are enraged by him. Some of it is printed below. Lehrer's three-segment program with Bernanke has provoked no mail to the ombudsman so far.

Moyers would have served his viewers better, in my view, to also acknowledge and cite at least some of the fiery rhetoric that has come from the left as well, because it surely has, especially during the Bush administration. But the point of this column is not to take-on Moyers uniqueness on PBS or the question of balance in this specific program. Rather, in this case, it is to say that, whatever your politics, Moyers makes an important point about the extreme level of tough talk that is routinely aired publicly in this country, that does come, it seems to me, predominantly from the far right, and that tens of millions of people hear. When you string it together in clips, as Moyers and NOW have done recently, it is very jarring and makes you aware, for those that don't listen or haven't been paying attention, of what is being said. In my view, that's very important, even if the list isn't complete or two-sided and if you don't like the messenger.

It is a subject that is also getting more and broader attention recently. Here are two smart, I thought, recent op-ed pieces by Arnaud de Borchgrave and David Brooks, respectively, in two very different publications, The Washington Times and The New York Times.

Here Are Some Letters

I watched Bill Moyers the other night about the conservatives being hate mongers. It's people like him that get us so uptight, only telling one side of things. Liberals have bashed our president for the last eight years, stirring up liberals. Code Pink, Michael Moore. Jon Stewart. Sat. Night Live, just to name a few, we're tired of all of them. We listen to Hannity and Beck and Rush because they say what we are feeling. Not the other way around. Moyers doesn't get us. We are ready for a revolution. Liberals ARE destroying capitalism! Oh, by the way I'm just a peace loving, country loving homemaker, but DON'T TREAD ON ME!

Slidell, LA

Moyers' diatribe on Rush Limbaugh was absolutely idiotic and insane. What happened to the 1st Amendment Mr Moyers? Rush Limbaugh and whatever stations that wish to carry his program have the right under our Constitution to do just that, without the government or Mr. Moyers deciding who will present an opposing viewpoint. Maybe if he had ONE HUNDREDTH of the audience that Rush Limbaugh has he could be more of a factor in today's media. But he runs his little dog-and-pony show over there on PBS, a publicly-funded network that doesn't have to have ratings OR listeners in order to succeed. The difference between Mr. Limbaugh's show and Mr. Moyers' is that he has to draw listeners. And he does that by speaking THEIR minds, not his own. As a faithful listener of his program, I am mind-boggled by how much he speaks for me, the little guy. Unlike Mr. Moyers, he presents the other side of the story, the Conservative counterpoint to the "state-run media" drivel that outlets such as your network spew every day. I talk to people every day who are fed up with the constant drumbeat of pro-Obama, pro-Democrat, anti-Bush, anti-America, and anti-common sensical news coverage that they get from the mainstream media. In regard to Mr Moyers' comment "if they were required to be fair, they would soon be penniless, out on the street, cup in-hand," the radio stations who were required to be fair would be penniless only because they'd have to carry shows like Mr. Moyers' yawnfest, and they soon would all be broke.

Jerry R., Metairie, LA

I was so disappointed by Bill Moyers' piece on health care that I had to write. I am not a journalist but I understand the need to strive for objectivity. I consider myself a centrist and am always looking for bias in news. Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill and Ray Suarez are simply incredible! Their objectivity and journalistic integrity is beyond reproach. And then we come to Bill Moyers. His ultra-liberal slant on everything he covers does a huge disservice to the three aforementioned journalists and PBS in general. How Mr. Moyers retains his job when he exhibits such an utter lack of professionalism escapes me.

JD McAdams, McLoud, OK

A Blue Dog with the Blues

I am a blue dog Democrat in California. I happened across Bill Moyers' show on health care and his hit piece (resurrected) on conservatives against liberals. On the health care part, I was shocked at the woman who believes the health care problem rests with insurance companies and their profit motive. Her solution? Scrap it and start over with a single-payer system as long as there are private insurers.

I'm keeping this brief, so I will say that the country I was born in is a capitalistic one, you know, for a profit motive. To call for scrapping the system in favor of a government run non-profit bureaucracy is really a call to overthrow capitalism in a Marxist revolution. Think of government-run VA hospitals. Think of FEMA. The last thing that I need is a two-weeks-out-of-actuarial school graduate in a government bureaucracy between me and my doctor. She, and PBS, have a 1st amendment right to such an opinion, but it would have been nice if there had been an iota of balance; I saw none.

As for the hit piece against conservatives, I agree there were some conservatives who said unfortunate and regrettable things. I regret that they did. They may even have been offensive if their context had been shown. But, I read and watch both sides of the so called "news" and I can site plenty of liberals such as Olbermann and Matthews who have gone way over the top in their ravings against conservatives, and I can cite blogs such as the Daily Kos and the Huffington Post that regularly carries hate speech against Bush, Cheney, Palin, and any evangelical. Liberal calls for assassination of Bush, liberal sadness that Cheney was not assassinated, and very crass, cruel, and personal attacks against Palin. It would have been nice to see that mentioned instead of the one-sided presentation presented by a smarmy and smug Moyers.

Since PBS is publicly funded, in part, and partly funded by those evil corporations, I would have thought PBS would show some class, restraint, and even handedness to rail against hate speech from the left as well as from the right. I was wrong.

I noted that Moyers went out of his way to say that he is not calling for the return of the fairness doctrine. I have no doubt of that because his show was so far left that PBS would be hard pressed to find a troglodyte to balance him. This may come as a shock to someone like Moyers, but many of us can actually reach opinions on our own without being steered by him. In calling this show "Bill Moyers Journal" one might believe that the "journal" part was somehow related to journalism. But, that would be wrong if journalism means reporting facts accurately and impartially.

William Rowe, Chico, CA

Just watched about ten minutes of one of Bill Moyers smarmy "hit pieces" on Talk radio . . . Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Neil Boortz . . . all the "usual suspects" targeted by Liberals as evil demons, diminishing the level of "public discourse . . . I never listen to NPR or watch PBS and stopped supporting them with money back in the 90s when they were almost as much in love with the Clintons as they are with President Obama. Bill Moyers thinks he is such an intellectual and because he speaks in that soft voice and leans into the table, trying to look like someone's trusted Grandpa, that people are buying his radical Left propaganda.

It has been written that Satan will come and approach as an "angel of light" and is the master of lies and deceit. If that is true, Bill Moyers is Satan's brother! We all knew that the attack on Talk radio, freedom of speech was coming through the never-ending fight to get the fairness doctrine, or some phony name for it on a bill passed. PBS, ABC, NBC, MSNBC cannot compete in ratings, on either radio or Cable TV, so they use the Obama technique of trying to wipe out the competition through legislation or a trumped-up technicality. It isn't enough that the Radical Liberal Left has almost complete control of the Print media and those major newspapers are going bankrupt. It isn't enough that CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and NBC are propaganda and PR arms of the Democratic Party. They want it all. But it isn't going to happen. There are millions of us who love and listen/watch every day to the Conservative views presented by those you are attempting to vilify, including Sarah Palin.

The real disgrace is that PBS is supported by taxpayer dollars, federally funded by "the Public" but ignores one whole segment of the public in their broadcasting. It's a national disgrace, and any one on PBS, especially Bill Moyers, who call themselves journalists are a joke. Journalists are objective and report facts. PBS is all propaganda, even in their scientific shows; for instance re: Global Warming, there is only one version of reality and it's the one that is designed to bring down and destroy our economy and our country as it was founded and remake it into a Socialistic copy of failing Western Europe . . . they even like the idea of our having a King, when is Obama going to be crowned by PBS?

Bonnie Usrey, Anthem, AZ

Why in the world is the media not insisting on broad debate on heath care reform? This is a huge issue, once again being co-opted by corporate interests. I consider PBS the standard bearer. What gives? I get tired of seeing Bill Moyers being the only voice of sanity while the insanity of politics and policy just continues to take us down.

Wally Doggett, Austin, TX

I want to add my voice in support of Bill Moyers. I always find his show interesting and informative, but I do find his religiosity annoying at times. I also want to add my voice to the criticism of The NewsHour's coverage of health care reform. I understand Judy Woodruff's defense of what they were going for, but it was obviously not effective. But the issue is that the reportage has been (from my perspective) almost overwhelmingly negative. The health care issue as well as the Honduran Coup has caused my respect for The NewsHour to decline. The only thing I look forward to is their infrequent arts coverage.

James Holder, Waco, TX

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