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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag

What follows is a sampling of the mail that landed here while I was away last week. There are lots of subjects covered so this gets pretty long.

First come some follow-ups to the July 29 column that dealt with reactions to a Bill Moyers Journal segment on some of the extreme rhetoric on the nation's airwaves, especially from some right-wing commentators.

Then there is a cluster of e-mail from viewers objecting to a role reportedly played by the host of PBS's popular Charlie Rose Show in getting top executives of General Electric (the parent company of MSNBC) and News Corporation (the parent of the Fox News Channel) to help bring an end to the long-running, fever-pitched, on-air feud between MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Fox's Bill O'Reilly. This struck me as a strange story. The New York Times broke this story on Aug. 1 and put it on the front page.

The newspaper reported, prominently and near the top of the story, that "it took a fellow television personality with a neutral perspective to help bring it to at least a temporary end. At an off-the-record summit meeting for chief executives sponsored by Microsoft in mid-May, the PBS interviewer Charlie Rose asked Jeffrey Immelt, chairman of G.E., and his counterpart at the News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch, about the feud." That's all the story says about Rose. There are no details to suggest he did anything other than ask about the feud. Asking a question is one thing. Intervening in a dispute that seeks to limit what people say on television is another. The viewers who wrote assume, perhaps properly, it is the latter and they are angry about it. That is indeed what the story seemed to suggest but there is no evidence of that presented.

The national debate — if that what you want to call it — over health care is angry and confusing and so it is not surprising that efforts to cover it in the calm and reasonable fashion of the nightly NewsHour with Jim Lehrer will not please viewers on all sides of this. A group of e-mail below attests to this.

Back to the Future: A Postcard Campaign

There was also a quaint, old-fashioned touch to last week's mail. I got more than 50 postcards from around the country objecting to the airing on July 14 on PBS's POV, or point of view, documentary series, of a program titled "The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court." Although it was nice to receive something other than e-mail for a change, all these postcards said exactly the same thing and were supplied by an organization known as Accuracy in Media, a conservative organization that, in this case, felt the program had a definite bias in support of the International Criminal Court, and that PBS should air a film opposed to the ICC. More than 100 countries are members of the court but the U.S., China and Russia, among others, have not joined.

Here's what the postcards said:

"Dear Mr. Getler: PBS on July 14 aired a 'Point of View' program, 'Reckoning,' about the need for an International Criminal Court (ICC). We understand that this film was designed to be biased. However, PBS should air a film that will make the case AGAINST the ICC. As you know, critics of the ICC say that its application to American citizens would violate the U.S. Constitution because it would not respect the right to trial by jury of one's peers and could eliminate the right to face one's accuser. Plus, foreign judges could imprison Americans in foreign jails. On such a controversial issue of public importance, PBS should present both sides."

I asked POV Executive Director Simon Kilmurry about this and he replied:

"While the ICC and the court's first Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo are the film's primary subjects, there is also significant air time given to opponents of the court such as former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton. In addition, the POV website provides many other resources including an extended interview with Ambassador Bolton, and a wide range of opinions regarding the ICC, its mission and its effectiveness. The information in the film and on the website accurately clarifies much of the misinformation about the ICC including many of the claims that are made in the postcard mailings you have been receiving . . . Should other filmmakers wish to produce films that present a different point-of-view, then we shall be happy to consider them on their own merits as we do with all film submissions."

This, in my view, is a long and slow-moving film that nevertheless documents an array of slow-moving horrors that have afflicted many regions of the world, especially Africa, in recent years and some of which continue. It is sympathetic to the role of the ICC but there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with that considering that it is the only organization seeking to bring justice to those committing crimes against humanity who are allowed to act with impunity and escape punishment.

There are legitimate legal issues to be debated about preserving national sovereignty over citizens, and the film includes the U.S. case against membership as outlined by former Ambassador Bolton. Should the U.S. ever move to join, there is no question that this will produce massive amounts of coverage and much more debate. In the meanwhile, this seemed to me to be an informative film that focused overwhelmingly on the human tragedy and was well worth presenting.

And this being pledge season, there are continuing complaints from some viewers about some of the programs used by stations to attract contributions from viewers like you, plus complaints and comments about other matters.

Here are the letters.

More on Moyers

The response to Bill Moyers' last program is simply unbelievable. People who support conservative right-wing radio personalities who attack autistic children ought to be ashamed of themselves, yet I know they aren't. I am not a religious person, but the pastor in Knoxville Tennessee who had his church violated by a crazed gunman out to kill liberals made so much sense that I admire his candidness.

Right-wingers contend that liberals are the ones ruining this country, but I've yet to hear about a liberal walking into a church or abortion clinic and shooting the people inside. I just don't understand how they believe they can justify violence by being patriotic. "Patriotism — the last refuge of a scoundrel" I wish I had said that.

Michael Cindrich, Kansas City, MO

Well, I can't say I am at all surprised to read all the diatribes against Bill Moyers and the broadcast of his expressing the attitude of many of us about the potential problems of stirring up trouble with hate speak. A few years ago, when I was driving home from work, I would try to listen to the pompous windbag that everyone knows makes his living by going over the top. I wondered how any sensible person could listen to him. Just for the record, I voted for neither Bush nor Obama. I just wish we could get some sensible people in the U.S. Congress who could think for themselves instead of being lead by the nose by big business. Yes, we are a capitalistic nation, but we also should be a nation that can express compassion. Whatever happened to the folks who got together when someone's barn burned down to help him build a new one?

Olive Lohrengel, Austin, TX

I am currently watching a program on WTTW Prime (Bill Moyers Journal) about a man who open fired in a church. I am very displeased about what I am seeing. This is incredibly one-sided. As a conservative woman I am astounded that your program is sweeping this man's unspeakable crimes in with mainline conservatives. This program played several minutes of Michael Savage, a man who does NOT speak for the majority of conservatives, and then the program went on to lump several other talk radio hosts in with Savage's hateful comments. Glenn Beck, one of Moyers' examples, is NOTHING like Michael Savage, and it is completely wrong to paint Beck and the others with the same brush. Public programming is tax-payer funded and should represent a broader spectrum of public opinion. Presenting programs with such a bias against conservatives, programs which directly connect a murderer to conservative media, is offensive.

Palatine, IL

Charlie the Neutral Peacemaker, or Was He?

I am deeply disturbed that PBS journalist Charlie Rose tarnished his own and, by association PBS's, reputation by intervening in the MSBNC-FOX NEWS dispute. For someone so closely associated with PBS to intervene on the behalf of big corporations to shut down criticism of each other's news commentary is appalling. This type of self censorship is extremely bad for journalism, PBS, and most importantly our democracy.

A healthy democracy depends on free, objective, substantive journalism to survive. To silence criticism in the name of corporate profits is chilling. For someone from our non-profit public broadcasting corporation to orchestrate this Faustian bargain is beyond appalling. Whether Rose was motivated by a misguided respect for civility over free speech or by corporate interests, he is not fit to have a show on PBS. I hope PBS has the courage to put the public's interest over that of big corporations and cover this story.

Dora O'Shaughnessy, Charlotte, NC

As written in the NY Times, it seems Charlie Rose has been meddling in the affairs of MSNBC and Fox, and has mediated a deal to "stop the feuding" between Olbermann and O'Reilly. This is tantamount to CENSORSHIP of Olbermann and reflects extremely poorly on PBS!!! Just thought that you should know how many of us in the liberal "net- roots" community feel about this travesty, and how we blame in a large part Charlie Rose for it. This blame will take the form of withholding of further membership dues from PBS. For that you can be certain!!!

K. R. Searle

I'm deeply disturbed by the participation of Mr. Rose in hashing journalistic independence for the interest of corporations. This reflects badly on Mr. Rose's professionalism and makes PBS look bad.

Chicago, IL

Heated Up About Health Care

The coverage on 08/07/09 healthcare protest by Ms. Bowser was tepid in my opinion; and I am being generous. When NBC is voice of truth, something is wrong at PBS. Chuck Todd and Brian Williams called out on those behind these "protests" against health-care reform, which included airing a sample of Rush Limbaugh's radio message. If PBS would at least read Media Matters or watch Rachel Maddow's show, they would find names and organizations behind the protests. I am guessing that since PBS receives money from corporations, the hand of Insurance Industries rendered the reporting of this story in such an inadequate manner. The uncivil behavior displayed by those against health-care reforms needs to be covered by the PBS of old. I use to think of the PBS NewsHour as the last frontier of truth. PBS's poor coverage of this story is disheartening to say the least.

Anne Davis

Judy Woodruff's interview with Sen. Grassley on the NewsHour Wednesday, Aug. 5, was a prime example of the "lack of journalism integrity." Ms. Woodruff let Sen. Grassley cite the Lewin Group study without noting that the CBO disagrees on the number of people who would convert to a public option. In addition, Lewin Group VP John Sheils was quoted in a Washington Post story dated July 21, 2009, as saying people would not be forced into a government run program and "they might very well be better off." Maybe Ms. Woodruff was trying to avoid putting Sen. Grassley on the spot, but isn't that her job?

Maynard Chapman, Santa Fe, NM

I was appalled at the interview with Sen. Grassley shown on the local PBS broadcast of the NewsHour on Aug 5th. I have never heard such biased garbage parroting the insurance company and medical services industry bias. This interview sounded more like a free paid political announcement. Shouldn't those people be making some hefty donations to PBS during the current membership drive? It begs the question of how much those interests contributed to his reelection campaign. You can probably look it up. Grassley used every possible buzzword favored by the (mostly) Republican stooges who resort to carefully orchestrated and rehearsed spurious arguments whose sole purpose is to scare the American public into believing a government takeover of healthcare is imminent. Egads, we just might get healthcare which is not only affordable but also available to all. All of this misinformation and hyperbole went largely unchallenged by the NewsHour reporter. Would it have been too impolite to react when a view point is as grossly biased as Sen. Grassley's was? On topics as important as healthcare reform it is crucial that time be allotted for opposing views to be presented. Some viewers may actually believe this drivel. I have noticed a lack of cross examination on several occasions on the Lehrer NewsHour recently. Once in an interview by Mr. Lehrer himself. I realize PBS must at least attempt to be impartial in its reporting although anyone can see that it has a decidedly liberal tilt. In spite of that I imagine that most everybody except those involved in the healthcare industry (what? maybe 80% of the voters) would favor just about anything over the terribly broken system we now have. Unfortunately I don't think Sen. Grassley's most ardent supporters have any such plans.

Bradford J. Turner, Tucson, AZ

(Ombudsman's Note: Judy Woodruff introduced her interview with Sen. Grassley with the following important point: "Since in the past two weeks, we've heard both the president and the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, make the case here on the NewsHour for reform from the Democrats' point of view, tonight we get the views of the senior Republican sitting in those sessions, Charles Grassley of Iowa.")

On the evening of August 11, I sat through a disappointing NewsHour discussion of health care involving 4 newspaper editors, spinning their wheels "debating" trivial and irrelevant sidebars. More like Fox News then PBS. Focusing on angry mobs organized to divert our attention, just diverts our attention. Serious issues of health care demand serious discussions. In my view you are on the whole failing us and this was one more example. Going forward let me suggest you require all those speaking of health care to be knowledgeable AND have no agenda, only the health of the American people.

Lawrence Willson, Birmingham, AL

Last night (Aug. 11) on the NewsHour, during the discussion on health care reform, Cynthia Tucker referred to the fact that many of the people criticizing health care reform appear to be folks who are on Medicare, a public health care program for seniors 65 or older who are Social Security eligible. As if on cue (I expected it), the gentleman from the Detroit Free Press referred to this as a failed public/government health care program. I would like the NewsHour to set the record straight on this issue. Is Medicare a failed program? Or just one with problems — flawed funding stream, a caseload consisting of that part of the population with the greatest healthcare demand — the elderly.

When I hear the health care reform discussion, I get livid at what I hear. Senator Grassley is against the public option because, to hear him say it, that would be the preferred choice of people, this would crowd-out private insurance, and we would wind-up with a system like the Canadian one. Does he listen to himself. Does anybody listen and see the flaw in this argument — "everybody will prefer the public option, even though it's not a good option." Gimme a break.

Joseph Costa, Baltimore, MD

The 'Quack' Watch

PBS's reputation for honesty will cause many thousands of people to be misled by Dr. Perricone. I am amazed that his unsubstantiated quackery is used for fundraising. What a scam backed by PBS. Dr. Perricone lacks credibility and PBS' support of him causes PBS to lack credibility. He should NOT be featured and his "research" should not be touted by credible journalists. Most of his claims are sheer snake oil at high prices. Another example of the absence of investigative reporting in our country today.

Pine Mountain, GA

Re: The Brain in Love — This show appears to be a drug commercial and I find it impossible accept the integrity of what is being presented. I have to turn it off. The portion I just watched has the doctor (Dr. Amen) suggests a drug for every possible brain activity. How can I take this seriously, much less actually donate??

Granby, MA

I was about to complain about the blatant infomercial called Qi Gong and Weight Loss, stating that a station that purports to have some degree of intellectual integrity ought not be in the business of quackery, but then I read the ombudsman's column re: Lehrer and Moyers and realized that my assumption that intelligence resides at your station is a myth. Moyers is one of the few voices that dare raise the issues he addresses, and yet the ombudsman seeks some kind of balance. Move on to Fox, where you will find exactly what you are seeking.

James Dunne, Mendocino, CA

I just contacted my local PBS station and protested the airing of Dr. Wayne Dyer's programs. I, and many others, consider Dr. Dyer a fraud. Years ago I tried to listen to him and realized that he was saying nothing but recycled garbage. PBS programming is generally excellent. I enjoy science, drama, nature and art programs every week. But putting on such an obvious sham such as Dr. Dyer is really an insult to PBS viewers. Dr. Dyer is milking his audiences courtesy of PBS. I do not like the idea of my donations subsidizing this nonsense.

Edward Sledge, Austin, TX

On Jackson, Suspenders and Religious Music

I'll begin by stating that I have the utmost respect for PBS. I've only had one complaint in the over 40 yrs that I've been watching, though I don't have time to watch as often as I'd like.

My concern here is due to a comment, during your fund-raising, that I find indignant & unnecessary. It is also out of character for the PBS I know & love. The comment alludes to priorities in newscasting by your competitors; example given that PBS is better viewing because it doesn't spend too much time on Michael Jackson. Well, I agree that too much time has been spent on speculation concerning Michael (may Walter Cronkite RIP). Meanwhile, not enough time has been spent with mention of losing Michael Jackson humanitarian.

First of all, PBS stoops to the level of other stations as disrespectful to Michael. He hasn't even been buried. I realize that it is unusual for someone to not be buried for well over a month yet, the fact that he hasn't, remains. I would imagine that his family would like his brain tissue buried with his body & toxicology reports are supposedly not yet completed.

PBS need not use someone's name in vain to make a point. I don't recall that it ever has. Why Michael? I know that I am not alone in adoring Michael Jackson who gave so much. Not only is he in The Guinness Book of World Records for his astounding creative expression a few times over, he's in this book for giving more millions than any other artist/performer in history. Furthermore, it's that he actually visited countless children in hospitals & orphanages, our veterans, Ethiopia & so many other places that matters. He lived what he sang & danced & wrote about. He was true to his words as a young boy, "I only sing what I believe." As far as the question of drug use, this doesn't change all he accomplished. As far as that horrid trial that almost killed him a few yrs ago, he was acquitted for good reason as stated in international best-seller "Michael Jackson Conspiracy" by Aphrodite Jones which is a book of facts. I am hoping that PBS does a special about Michael's humanitarianism. He was honored by 2 former US presidents, was recently granted a global award in Austria, We Are the World, & so much more. What an interesting documentary PBS could do! Please, I ask PBS not to feed into any comments of Michael that are not out of respect & unconditional love.

Elizabeth Olney, Dover, NJ

I am a member and will continue to be; but will you please yank Neal Shapiro [president and CEO of WNET.org in New York]. Aside from the fact that his suspenders create the image of Gordon Gecko (I wear suspenders), his standard line that PBS, unlike commercial TV, has no commercial influences makes me nuts. If you believe those "statements" by Mobil and Archer Daniels Midland (your "supporters") aren't commercials, you insult our intelligence. The latter is the great rapist of the small farmer and Mobil, the less said the better. I don't expect PBS to be activist; in fact I disapprove of such a role. Run contributors in a list at the end of a program unless non-profits but don't broadcast their PR.

Frank Soriano, Morristown, NJ

On August 9, 2009 at 3:30 pm, WPBS-TV broadcast "River-Lations", a 30-minute show that, according to the description on their web site, "A scenic tour of the Thousand Islands set to inspirational music performed by Patty Mondore." What it turned out to be was poor, non-broadcast quality video and bible quotes over overtly "Christian" music. It had no educational or public service purpose whatsoever. I was led to believe that PBS no longer allowed this kind of blatantly religious programming on its stations. Does WPBS-TV have some sort of exemption for this kind of show?

Watertown, NY

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