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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag

This week's mailbag found viewers taking some pretty clear stands on three recent programs or segments.

Last week's column featured an assault on the host of the weekly Bill Moyers Journal by conservative commentator Brent Bozell. It included some lengthy responses by Moyers and my thoughts on aspects of the situation that Bozell was criticizing. Judging from my inbox this week, Moyers easily wins the hearts and minds of most who wrote to me.

One of the two other major presentations that attracted viewer criticism this week involved a segment on the debate over health care broadcast on July 21 and hosted by Judy Woodruff, senior correspondent for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. The other was a 18-plus minute interview by Lehrer with President Obama the day before.

Those viewers who wrote to me were unanimous about these two offerings: they didn't like them.

I agree with those who felt that the health care panel was unbalanced, in favor of the administration's critics. But I don't agree with the criticism aimed at correspondent Judy Woodruff, and the segment itself didn't seem to me to be one of those obviously one-sided affairs that everyone recognizes immediately as it unfolds on screen.

The guests did included two Democrats and two Republicans, so the scorecard going-in looked balanced. But one of the Democrats, Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, is one of the so-called "Blue Dog" Democrats who generally are more fiscally conservative than the party mainstream. Nevertheless, I thought this turned out to be an informative discussion that benefited from Cooper's presence, and also from Woodruff's good questioning. I thought the biggest reason the segment left people feeling it was unbalanced was that the leading Democratic defender of the administration's effort, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, seemed ineffective; trying to stuff every single talking point into every answer, no matter the question. Woodruff, right at the outset, tried to bring him back to answering the question she asked.

As for the Lehrer interview with President Obama, this will not go down as one of those memorable Dan Rather or Sam Donaldson "with all due respect, sir" kind of challenges. That's not Lehrer's style. But here, too, the result was informative, I thought. It even made some news, including a front-page reference in the next day's New York Times. What was weird, however, was that ear-to-ear smile that the President seemed to slap on at the conclusion of the interview. Has that become an involuntary reflex or staged ending to all such appearances?

Here Are the Letters, and some replies by PBS.

Moyers vs. Bozell

Bill Moyers's article about health care & his interview with Wendell Potter was excellent. I can only wish that more of the American electorate would watch that particular show; maybe then corporate interests would be replaced by public interests.

E. Rivers, Portland, ME

Mr. Getler, thanks for this and thanks for providing Mr. Moyers the opportunity to respond to Mr. Bozell. I do find Bozell's complaints about perceived conflicts of interest on Mr. Moyers part to be typical of conservative attack and smear attempts. The damage they have done to civil discourse and to PBS over the last 2 decades is so great that GPB here in Georgia mostly shows pablum rather than provide any real prime time space to shows, other than Frontline, which just might facilitate a public conversation about issues that matter. NOW and Bill Moyers Journal are shown, if at all, on Sunday afternoons, when, if people are watching TV, they are watching a sports event. Two to three times a month those shows get bumped. Can't convince me, a long time supporter of public TV, that there aren't political forces at work here. I do wish that public broadcasting could operate without government funding altogether.

By the way, Moyers' closing commentary on this week's program (July 17), which I saw yesterday afternoon, framed one of the best arguments for what is wrong with our healthcare delivery system by first focusing on the new Surgeon General (she did part of her training here in Macon) and her commitment, at significant personal cost, to treating the lesser among us on Alabama's Gulf Coast and contrasting her actions with the 2008 pay for Cigna, Aetna, and McKesson CEO's. Cigna also laid off 1100 workers at the beginning of the year and then posted a 208 million dollar profit in the first quarter. Capitalistic excesses abound, but they are certainly more egregious when done on the backs of sick people and everyday common folks who pay out of sight premiums for health care insurance.

D. Williams, Macon, GA.

I love it. As a conservative who does not like the Bill Moyers' program I have a simple solution. I don't watch it. And, I have reduced my support of Rocky Mountain PBS to reflect my distaste for the program. Question: Why doesn't PBS at least offer a competing point of view program; maybe to alternate with Moyers? Finally, it would take someone a lot more interested than me to read all you had to write about Moyers' recent program.

Michael Hayes

Bill Moyers is just about the only voice of the people out there and he is only heard on PBS which has only a tiny audience compared to the cable babble (right and left--I like Keith and Rachel, but it isn't really journalism).

I find his rebuttals and explanations more than adequate and am happy to know these details about TomPaine.com, one of my favorite websites (I had no idea that a Moyers founded it, but that knowledge elevates my esteem for the site even more). I know it's your job to do this, but for the life of me, I can see no conflict here--just a damn good journalist trying to make a difference. If the Bozell's of the world have their way, you will be the first to be looking for a job, so it's commendable that you would even seem to be defending him and his ilk.

The PBS I knew and loved is mostly gutted and reduced to nearly monthly begging and souvenir-peddling thanks to the right who seem to be very threatened by alternative views. I don't agree with everything Moyers says (he is weirdly religious, for one), but I look very forward to his work in its various forms.

Janet Camp, Milwaukee, WI

Thank you for the extensive publishing of Bill Moyers response to your comments and other criticisms. I am pleased to know that he works hard to be free to say what he thinks and to present people on his program who do the same without truthful charges of being bought. The right wing highly conservative people have put out so much propaganda that we need to have someone who will inform us about other views that would otherwise be hidden. I must admit that some of Mr. Moyers guests have sometimes caused me to gasp. Long live PBS and thank God for a journalist like Bill Moyers. I can count on Bill to ask questions because he wants his guests to give us their answers.

Olive Lohrengel, Buda, TX

I want to laud PBS and Bill Moyers. Thank God there are voices of integrity in this country particularly at this time of readjustment. Reading, watching and listening to Moyers (especially the piece I just read about a few choice words for "The Select Few") give me faith that at least there are some true voices left. Not everyone in public life has sold out.

Janel Beeman, Jemez Springs, NM

I support PBS because you have excellent children's programming. However, I am questioning my support for a station that fails to investigate the moral and ethical concerns I, and many others, have regarding Bill Moyers. I do not want to support a station that allows a commentator to interview guests/experts in whom he has personal financial interests. I am not going to mention the specific instance; I would encourage an in-depth review of Bill Moyer's ENTIRE program with respect to potential conflicts of interest and misleading reporting.

Matthew Olson, Centennial, CO

All Thumbs Down on that Health Care Panel

I was very disappointed in the Judy Woodruff piece on health care on Tuesday night. The choice of participants was very one sided. Paul Ryan is a right-wing lackey of the health care industry {he is supposed to be representing my Congressional district here in Wisconsin}.You had a right-leaning Democrat from the south and another southern Republican Senator. The only real advocate was Senator Dodd and he had little to no help from any of the others. How about an advocate of REAL health care reform like Senator Finegold, I find PBS more and more right wing oriented and I don't like it.

Bill Moyers is the only fresh air in PBS. It is too bad that he cannot be aired more often and during more prime time.

William Curtis, Milton, WI

Judy Woodruff's interview with Senators and Rep's on health care reform (7/21/09) was disgustingly imbalanced. If the News Hour is going to invite Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, then they need to have an equally robust representative on the other side such as Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich. Inviting Senator Lamar Alexander, who refused to answer Judy's questions but instead made up his own, to obfuscate and ignore serious issues was just pathetic. At least Senator Dodd caught him admitting that a "heroic" effort was made to include Republican input. Why can't Woodruff underline that point? PBS has got to get beyond Fox logic of allowing obstructionists to act like they have some higher goals when they've stated publicly that their intention is to make healthcare "Obama's Waterloo." How much money have each of those guys received from the health insurance industry?? More than 70% of the citizens of this nation want a public plan. Anyone who has suffered the consequences of making a claim against their insurance company knows the game is rigged. Get a grip PBS. You are supposed to be serving this nation but you are allowing extremists to blather nonsense and hijack the airwaves. I am bitterly disappointed in the manner in which this deadly serious issue was handled.

D. Cooke, Ashland, OR

I just watched Judy Woodruff's discussion concerning healthcare. This was a terrible piece of reporting. First, Woodruff stacked the deck by including three persons (two hard-core republicans and one blue-dog democrat) with stances opposed to current reform efforts and only one person (the Democrat Chris Dodd) in favor of current efforts. Why even bother to try to inform people when 75% of the comments are known before hand to be oppositional? This is an extremely biased form of journalism.

Second, Woodruff allowed the three oppositional guests to distort and lie repeatedly. The most blatant example was the Republican Ryan, who twice claimed that current efforts involve a "government takeover" of healthcare. This tired republican talking point is clearly dishonest, as the presence of a public option (which wasn't even discussed) does not come remotely close to a government takeover.

Third, while the discussion topic was supposed to be "how to pay" for the reforms, Woodruff didn't even bring up what appears to be the primary approach: increasing taxes on the rich. In addition, none of the alternatives brought up by the three opponents was described in any where near enough detail to be understandable. They were quite incoherent, and it was of course impossible for Chris Dodd, with no support from Woodruff, to try to clarify their positions.

Doug Derryberry, Philomath, OR

I was outraged by the unbalanced panel interviewed tonight (July 21) by Judy Woodruff on the News Hour. Basically, you had Chris Dodd supporting the Obama Health Reform plan, and three members of Congress (including one conservative Democrat) opposing it. I request that you revisit this issue with a more balanced panel. My respect for the News Hour has plummeted.

Jacqueline Steiner, Norwalk, CT

What are you passing off as a real debate on healthcare? I just watched the News Hour "debate" with four white males who all owe their souls to the insurance industry. There is no one who represents what is the ONLY real solution which is single payer. Also, I might add, the choice of most Americans who are informed of the options. Of course you do not contribute to informing people you sell out also

Eloise O'Shea-Wyatt, Providence, RI

Senior Correspondent Judy Woodruff Sends This Reply:

"We began our Tuesday morning planning meeting deciding to aim for a discussion with four Members of Congress to try to capture where the debate over health care reform stands at this moment. Coming on the heels of Jim Lehrer's interview with President Obama on Monday, and with the administration's own acknowledgement of how this is getting harder by the day, we wanted to get four different perspectives: a Democrat supporting the Administration; a "blue dog" (conservative-leaning) Democrat still undecided; a conservative Republican; and a moderate Republican who favors expanding coverage, but through a different formula from what the President has called for.

"Our staff made many dozens of phone calls throughout the day, trying to line up as ideologically balanced a foursome as we could. I believe we ended up with an illuminating conversation - hearing four of the many different perspectives that are emerging on Capitol Hill, and illustrating just how hard the President's task is. Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) is one of the two leading Democrats in the Senate on this; Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) brought the skeptical but supportive voice of moderate to conservative Democrats in the House; Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) supports universal coverage, unlike many other Republicans; and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) spoke for the conservative Republicans who prefer a private sector solution.

"As for the description of 'Blue Dog' Democrats as conservative or moderate, they describe themselves on their website as "fiscally conservative," or "fiscally conscious." Broadly, they define themselves as seeking the center of the issue spectrum. And FYI, Cooper has a 70% rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action; 77% from the ACLU, and 40% from the American Conservative Union."

More on Health Care

I watch the NewsHour religiously, and appreciate the quality. This evening's (Fri 7/12) section on Health Care legislation was disappointing since Dennis Kucinich successfully amended the House version to allow each state to choose the Single Payer option, yet the news show acceded to the administration's attempt to keep this option off the table. This was a great opportunity to educate the public on the most financially feasible option.

David Matteson, Crete, IL

The budget office's conclusion that the current health care bills will result in more federal spending is correct. However, that does not equate to the statements made by reporters on NewsHour that the bills will result in an increase in medical costs. It is a fact that Medicare provides lower cost health care than any private insurer. The federal government cost might go up, but the cost for medical care will be less overall, particularly if there was a public option. We either pay the government or we pay an insurance company.

C.W., San Francisco, CA

I am a consistent viewer of the NewsHour, a generally excellent news/opinion program. However, I have been troubled for a long time by what I regard as a transparency problem. There are many segments devoted to talking heads which purport to represent different viewpoints of the organizations they are associated with. It is impossible to tell most of the time how expert the experts really are and what their organization stands for and who funds it. This lack of date makes it hard to assess the value of the expert information/opinion. It appears the NewsHour strives for balance and currency but there is a gap in knowing how reliable some of the so-called experts are. Please provide more identification for viewers. The NewsHour and its principal journalists are solid.

James Gillespie, St. Petersburg, FL

Regarding the ongoing debate about health care, isn't it time to just use the plan all Congressmen and women agree on, which is of course the plan they receive. Since they all agree that is a good plan just implement that for the rest of the country. Why doesn't the News Hour pose that question to ALL the politicians they interview and get their on-air response for the rest of the country to hear? If it is too expensive for the country why isn't too expensive for them?

Frank Reickert, Leesburg, FL

Last night's (July 17) NewsHour with Jim Lehrer reported on health issues as a partnership with a foundation. Who says ANY foundation is neutral? The record is that foundations are not immune from political agendas. News reporting and analysis, especially in an issue as sensitive as health care reform, needs to be independent. Risking conflict of interest reflects poorly on the story's objectivity and the station's integrity.

Second, twice in the health report, "Blue Dog" Democrats were referred to as "moderates". Where did that come from? Who anointed Blue Dogs "moderates"? Does this mean that "regular" Democrats are left-wingers? Socialists? Liberals? Why not label Blue Dogs "conservative"? It didn't happen once, but twice before I shut off the TV. I don't need to be propagandized by Jim Lehrer! So here are my two points: Linking news coverage with a foundation skews objective coverage, and labeling Blue Dogs as moderates is inaccurate.

William Duncan, Woodbourne, NY

Les Crystal, President of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, Replies:

"The NewsHour receives two types of funding from non-profit foundations - (1) institutional, where the monies are applied to the entire program and (2) targeted, where the funds support particular areas of coverage. In this case, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supports coverage of health issues.

"There is an explicit agreement between the NewsHour and all our funders that they have no input or control whatsoever over the selection of stories, their production or the scripting. The Foundation sees the story for the first time when it is broadcast on the program. Since we do not secure enough funding from public television to meet our budget needs, we fill the gap with corporate and foundation underwriting."

And Same with the Obama Interview

The interview with President Obama conducted by Jim Lehrer yesterday (July 20) has to be one of the most pathetic interviews since I have been watching him on PBS for many years. The interview was so soft and biased that the only thing missing was for Jim to get up and hug the President and confess how much he admires him. Mr. Obama's smile at the end betrayed the fact that he had just finished manipulating one more fawning journalist and supposedly one of the tougher ones. Many of us want President Obama to succeed but we want him to succeed over vigorous debate and serious challenges to his goals and positions.

Henry Palacio, Hillsborough, NC

Leherer looks infatuated when interviewing Obama. He fawns over the President and you seem to allow it in the tradition of PC. When is the media going to get real again?

Clint Johnson, Cape Vincent, NY

I watched Lehrer's interview with Obama last night. What is the matter with you people, don't you read the newspapers? 1. Obama said he didn't agree with the Bush stimulus package, but he did agree that something had to be done. The Bush Administration ran their proposed stimulus package past President-elect Obama before they implemented it because they knew he was going to have to deal with the economy in just a few short weeks. He APPROVED the package. I read it in the ST.PETERSBURG TIMES, hardly a right-wing organ. 2. He said that the insurance companies were making billions of dollars off of Medicare Advantage Plans, which were just the same thing as Medicare. Medicare Advantage Plans pay for far more than Medicare, including excellent drug benefits. Millions of seniors pay monthly premiums two or three times the Medicare premiums because it's worth it. They are not the same, by any stretch of the imagination. And I'll bet you people have relatives on Medicare Advantage Plans and know that.

Obama looked Lehrer right in the face and told him these lies, Obama KNOWING Lehrer KNEW they were lies. Are you so in love with him, or so fearful of him, that you can't do your job and call him on his lies? These were not little "fibs", these were brazen, bald-faced lies. What the heck to you have 1st Amendment protections for if not to call the government on lies it uses to affect public policy?

I had to wait to write until this morning because this is civil compared to what I was ready to write last night.

Patrick Seery, Tampa, FL