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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag

'The Moderator, Not the Judge'

The headline on this column is from an answer I got from Linda Winslow, the executive producer of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. In the mailbag this week, not surprisingly, were a number of e-mails from viewers who were upset over some of the statements and questioning on a segment of The NewsHour on Aug. 13 that dealt with the heated debate over health care reform and that featured former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey as one of the guests.

Moderator Judy Woodruff pointed out at the start that Armey was also the leader of FreedomWorks, a conservative group that has rallied protestors at health care town hall meetings. The other guest was Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager of the liberal advocacy group Health Care for America Now.

I sent a couple of those viewer e-mails to Winslow seeking a response. Those e-mails, some of which are printed below, focused especially on two things that Armey said: "If you're over 65 years old in America today, you have no choice but to be in Medicare. Even if you want out of Medicare, you have to forfeit your Social Security to get out of it . . . That's pretty heavy-handed, and people fear that."

Those who wrote said Armey was not speaking the truth, and frankly I thought it sounded strange as well and so I sent them along to Winslow seeking a response. Because The NewsHour presents a full hour of news five nights a week it, naturally, provokes a lot of commentary from viewers. In my experience, Winslow has always been a solid responder — candid and tough-minded. But this time she sent only a terse note, along with a link to the transcript that readers can check:

"Here's the transcript of last night's discussion. Seems to me the guests were asked to rebut one another. Judy was the moderator, not the judge. Check out http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/health/july-dec09/health_08-13.html."

Woodruff did, indeed, turn to her other guest and ask, "What about this charge?" But Kirsch responded in a way that didn't answer those specific assertions raised by Armey and the discussion moved on to other points. So Armey's points about Medicare and Social Security benefits were left hanging out there, viewers wrote to challenge them and The NewsHour wasn't going to clear the air. Armey made much the same charge on NBC's Meet the Press program last Sunday and it also went largely unchallenged.

Was He Right? How Do We Find Out?

There are two issues here for me: One is the accuracy of what Armey said. The other is the question of whether moderators, if not serving as judges, need to at least challenge guests more forcefully, especially on subjects such as health care where the degree of falsehoods and fear-mongering has reached very high levels, so that the viewer has a better chance of getting at least close to the truth.

On this point, the focus here is not on Woodruff, personally, who did seek to get a rebuttal or challenge on these points. Rather it is on the broader need for journalists to question and challenge points that they know, or suspect, to be factually wrong.

The NewsHour, for example, did a good job on Aug. 10 in dealing with Medicare misinformation, including what former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin described as Obama's "death panels." The points Armey was raising and that were focused on by viewers in the e-mails below are harder to challenge off the top of one's head unless you are an expert in the arcana of Social Security and Medicare. Nevertheless, The NewsHour occupies a unique spot on the TV dial for many people in that one can get a nightly, extended, courteous, in-depth report and discussion of the issues. But when it falls short on tough questioning — not behaving like a judge issuing a verdict but asking pointed questions that illuminate a fuller or more complex picture for the public — then viewers are going to be disappointed and, in many cases, angry, and rightly so.

As for Armey's assertions, from what I can gather he is both wrong — you can choose not to be in Medicare and you can get out without penalty under certain conditions — and right about losing Social Security benefits if you've signed up for them. These are actually very complicated issues and precise answers depend upon specific circumstances of each individual. When I asked the Social Security Administration's press office about Armey's statements, they explained that:

"Medicare is a voluntary program. Medicare Part A helps pay for in-patient care in a hospital or skilled nursing facility following a hospital stay and is free for most people age 65 or older who are citizens or permanent residents of the United States. If you sign up for Medicare Part A but do not sign up for Social Security monthly benefits, then you can withdraw from Medicare Part A at a later time if you choose. However, if you sign up for Social Security monthly benefits and also sign up for Medicare Part A, you cannot then withdraw from Medicare Part A without losing your Social Security benefits. To withdraw from Medicare Part A, a beneficiary must submit a written request for withdrawal and must refund any Medicare Part A benefits paid on his or her behalf."

Here are the letters.

Challenging Armey

On Aug. 13, Dick Armey and Richard Kirsch were discussing Health Care. Armey made statements that were incorrect, and as a former congressman, knew it. The most obvious was that seniors have no choice except traditional Medicare for health insurance. Seniors can choose an HMO (private insurance) and have the premium paid by the government. In fact, this costs the government about 13% more per individual than the government spends on traditional Medicare coverage. Either Kirsch or the moderator should have corrected this false statement! Maybe a correction should be broadcast on the NewsHour.

Martin Raphael, East Hills, NY

On 8/13/09, Judy Woodruff was interviewing Dick Armey. Mr. Armey stated "that you cannot decline to have Medicare, and have other health insurance." That is not a true statement. He also stated that if you do not take Medicare, you will lose your Social Security. That is also not true. Ms. Woodruff allowed Mr. Armey to lie about these very important facts concerning the subject of health care.

Mary Ahrendt

Re: 8/13/09 newscast; Judy Woodruff. Once again I feel very frustrated by the misinformation & outright dishonesty of individuals interviewed on the newscast. In this case it was Dick Armey re: proposed health care legislation. Case in point: he states he had no choice when he turned 65 but to sign up for Medicare. That simply is not true. When I turned 65 I had private health insurance. No one told me that I "had" to sign up for Medicare when I signed up for Social Security, I was told it would be a good idea. I did so by choice while I retained my private health care. Shortly after signing up I had major surgery resulting in a $60,000 bill. My private insurance paid the bulk of the bill & Medicare paid as a supplemental insurance. I had no deductible to pay & in fact I did not have to pay anything out of pocket. Mr. Armey seems to be very enthusiastic to distort, lie, or whatever to scare people re: a new health care plan. This and other distortions from individuals such as Mr. Armey without any attempt to point out these distortions by PBS is (for me) very distressful and does make me question the accuracy of other reports given by PBS. I understand that individuals that appear on the program have a right to their own opinion but that does not give them the right to lie and certainly does not give PBS carte blanche to accept everything they say as factually correct. I believe PBS does have a responsibility to fact check what is said on air and make corrections on air as is appropriate.

Phyllis Koch, Portland, OR

Former [Rep.] Dick Armey was with Judy Woodruff on Health Care debate representing Insurance Co, Why did she not ask him about his insurance? Does he not retain his wonderful benefits as a former senator or did he give them up for the wonderful insurance freedom he seems to support? She missed a real opportunity in my estimation.

Joseph Carlomagno, McLean, VA

How dare the NewsHour interview that anti-American Dick Armey who is behind the Screaming Thugs in the Town Hall Meetings. He is the bought and paid for prostitute for the Filthy Rich Private FOR PROFIT Insurance Companies which have taken America's good health care to the same level as Slovenia and Cuba, all due to the Republicans — in fact Richard Nixon. He has used their huge amounts of lobbying money to organize, pass around outright lies, fear and what amounts to paid thugs to derail the democratic process. You should better spend time investigating how Dick Armey has disrupted the democratic process, who pays him and HOW MUCH, and what he has personally done to spread lies for his masters.

John Bowen, Edmond, OK

In More Ways Than One

Today [Aug. 14], Richard Armey announced his resignation from the Washington, DC, law firm DLA Piper, citing as the reason the negative reaction to his association with FreedomWorks, the conservative activist group that is involved in orchestrating protests against health care reform being considered by the Obama administration and Congress.

Armey's resignation immediately reminded us of the Lehrer NewsHour interview that Judy Woodruff conducted with Armey and another guest last evening, August 13, about the health-care reform debate. During the interview we were appalled at the soft-ball questions that Woodruff lobbed at Armey. Although she mentioned his role with FreedomWorks, at no point did she press him about the orchestrated "astroturf" campaign being sponsored by Freedom Works and other groups, which are disseminating misinformation about "death panels," the "socialist" takeover of our government, and universal health care as the first step toward a "Nazi regime" in this country.

Woodruff mentioned none of these facts, even though FreedomWorks' involvement has been reported for weeks. We've known about it, as have millions of other Americans, and now Armey finally has to leave a reputable law firm because of the taint of FreedomWorks. Yet not so much as a peep was heard from Judy Woodruff, who is right there in Washington!

Jon and Peggy Saari, Yellow Springs, OH

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

A Good Closing Point

This letter refers to a viewer comment published in last week's Ombudsman's Mailbag and an Ombudsman's Note that I had appended to it.

A letter to you concerning Judy Woodruff's interview [Aug. 5] with Sen. Grassley on Healthcare complaining that Ms. Woodruff did not challenge Sen. Grassley's inaccurate and misleading comments drew the following quote from you, as somewhat of a defense for Ms. Woodruff:

(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.")

There thus arises an important question on the role of an interviewer on public television; to wit, is this role only to allow interviewees a platform to state whatever they want to state, regardless of the truth or validity or accuracy of their statements? My own opinion is no, but rather, the interviewer must make an effort to ensure that the truth/untruth of statements be measured or acknowledged in some way. Especially statements involving gross errors, as in the case of Sen. Grassley. For this, the interviewer must know her stuff. Anything less is a reflection of incompetence as an interviewer, and an act of collusion to people spreading deceitful propaganda.

Tom Tonon, Princeton Junction, NJ

(New Ombudsman's Note: Mr. Tonon raises a point with which I agree. The reason I put that note under that particular letter last week was only because one of the things the viewer said was, "On topics as important as healthcare reform it is crucial that time be allotted for opposing views to be presented.")