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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag

Not About 'The Parks'

The sweeping, six-part, 12-hour documentary series by Ken Burns, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," is still running at the time of this posting, so I'm going to save some of this week's mail commenting on the project until it's over and then pull it all together. On the other hand, most of the mail about the series received in my mailbag so far deals with two issues that have more to do with PBS and nothing to do with the substance of the Burns film.

One involves the decision to debut the highly publicized and promoted series last Sunday evening, Sept. 27, which is also the beginning, at sundown, of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

The other is the decision to flash what is called in TV lingo a "bug" on the lower left side of the screen every 15 minutes or so, throughout the entire series. Actually, it's more than a bug. First, the standard, glowing PBS logo appears, which qualifies as a bug. Then, a line appears that says: "Presents a Film by Ken Burns." Then the title, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," is presented. It winds up with a second PBS logo just for good measure.

I'll come back to these two issues in a moment, but first a brief guide to two other subjects that are included in this week's rather long Mailbag.

Not About PBS

One involves viewer response to a half-hour documentary titled "Autism: We Thought You'd Never Ask." All of the mail I got was critical but this was not a PBS program — no logo at all on this one. I haven't seen this film and have no real idea how many member stations have used it. As I've reported many times in this column, PBS's 350 or so member stations are all independent and can broadcast whatever they choose. This film was produced by a company in Boulder, Colo., called Landlocked Films and was distributed by the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA), which is also a membership organization, much smaller (93 members) than PBS, that also serves public broadcasting license holders. I passed along these complaints to NETA, and a representative sampling of the letters and a response from NETA appear below.

The largest flow of e-mail to me this week was aimed at me, specifically for what I said in my column last week about a film titled "9/11: Blueprint for Truth" that also was not a PBS project but that was used by a member station, KBDI, in Denver, Colo., as part of a fund-raising pledge drive. The film, the official description says, "offers evidence that all three World Trade Center high-rises were destroyed not by fire and damage, per the official story, but by explosive-controlled demolitions on September 11, 2001."

The mail I received was all critical. A sampling appears below along with a brief synopsis of my view.

On Yom Kippur and Logos

Now, back to "The National Parks." When I asked PBS about the two complaints mentioned at the top of this column, I was told that they were answering viewers this way:

On the issue of timing: "Since Yom Kippur begins at sundown on September 27, episode one of NATIONAL PARKS, 'The Scripture of Nature,' will air multiple times throughout its premiere day, beginning as early as noon in some areas, including New York, Los Angeles, Orlando, Cleveland, Phoenix, Minneapolis and many others. Please check your local listings.

"In addition, PBS will stage marathon viewings on the weekend following the film's debut, and the series will be rebroadcast on PBS World Channel following the original broadcast. A Web page dedicated to the series has been launched at www.pbs.org/nationalparks, and each episode will begin streaming the day after its broadcast premiere through the week following the broadcast of the final episode broadcast, October 2. PBS will rebroadcast the full-six part series in early 2010."

Here's how they are answering viewers who don't like the on-screen displays: "We are sorry you disliked the title and PBS logo 'bugs' in the lower left screen. These on-screen markers are included to let viewers know what they are watching and on which network. We do our best not to be intrusive and appreciate your thoughts on the matter."

My View

I find both situations regrettable and maybe avoidable, although the latter is easy for me to say. PBS officials told me that the date was nobody's first choice and nobody was happy about it. They say that several factors were involved including a late falling Labor Day, the need for on-air promotion time after Labor Day, the Emmy Awards broadcast on another network on Sunday the 20th, and even the baseball playoffs in early October. I also don't know how clear it was to viewers in those cities that this program would air before sundown, or how many are not in the habit of watching during daylight hours. I am sure that anyone who wants to catch up with part one can easily do so. Still, it seems like a strange decision; to pick this one out of all the Sunday nights in the fall to start this extraordinary series.

As for the "bug" explanation, I will share a laugh with all the e-mailers and callers who voiced their annoyance with this tactic. The explanation is actually more annoying than the repetitious on-screen display. Is there any TV viewer on this planet that doesn't know, and hasn't been told dozens of times on every conceivable platform, that Ken Burns produced "The National Parks" for PBS? I, personally, did not find the displays very intrusive, at first, and I guess there is a case to be made that some person isolated in a cabin for the last six months and surfing the screen would come across this and not know what he or she was watching. But after a while, it does get annoying, especially on big screens. It seems like endless promotion. We get it. PBS-Burns-Parks. We know what we are watching.

Here Are Some of the Letters

I am writing to complain about the complete lack of sensitivity by PBS to the most important Jewish Holiday when a decision was made to schedule the first segment of the upcoming Ken Burns National Park documentary. The first 2-hour segment of this exciting program is due to be broadcast the night of Yom Kippur, September 27.

I am a National Park Service employee and I was eagerly looking forward to watching this important series about the agency that I have been working for my whole career. Unfortunately, I won't be able to watch the introductory segment because I'll be participating in the evening service at my synagogue (I don't have the capability of taping the program) and will need to find someone who did record it.

I realize that PBS can't take into account all religious holidays when programming, but I dare say, no one at PBS would ever have considered starting such an important series on Easter or Christmas Eve. Overlooking the start of this important Jewish holiday is so very surprising from such a broad-minded media organization. I am truly very disappointed in the lack of consideration by PBS.

Bar Harbor, ME

Just a note that I am seriously disappointed that you decided to schedule the first episode of Ken Burns' National Parks series on the evening of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. It is probably the one day when the majority of Jews are in a synagogue.
I am curious why the series' launch could not have been delayed by one week?

El Cerrito, CA

I want to express my concern with the scheduling of the National Park series commencing this Sunday night. This Sunday night is a very holy days for those of Jewish faith. This would be equivalent to scheduling on Christmas Eve. The lack of sensitivity is indeed disappointing.

Fredric Meyer, Rochester, MN

PBS Pop-Ups

You are currently running these magnificent films of our national parks by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan and every fifteen minutes up pops your PBS logo with the announcement that this is "A film by Ken Burns," right in the middle of some of the most gorgeous scenery in America, scenery that these films are mostly about and should not be spoiled by this kind of interfering, crass commercialism.

Joe Carder, Tucson, AZ

I am thoroughly enjoying the latest Ken Burns effort. The images are wonderful and the story is engaging. I am thoroughly disgusted with the constant interruption of the images and story with station icons, with PBS icons and with Ken Burns icons. They destroy the magic of the program with "Hey! Look at Me, Look at Me!" I know I am watching PBS, I know I am watching Channel 21, I know I am watching Ken Burns' The National Parks! I tuned into this channel, I desired to see his documentary and I took the steps necessary to do it. I know where I am and what I am doing. I don't need the constant reminders, they distract from any consistent flow in enjoyment. I can't imagine that Mr Burns wants these distractions in his work. Certainly tell us who made the documentary, who supported the documentary and who is broadcasting the documentary at the beginning and at the end. Allow the artists to present their work as they created it! I can't tell you how annoying this is. If you would like I could get a list of 40 to 50 people I know who feel the same way.

Michael Brockmeyer, Madison, WI

The first episode of Ken Burns' National Park series was as wonderful as we have come to expect. But why, oh why, must we see, every 10 minutes or so, a flashing sign in the bottom left of our screen informing us that we are watching Ken Burns' America's Best Idea on PBS. For heaven's sake, we know that! And the constant intrusion of that irritating gaudiness on the beautiful park scenery is all too reminiscent of the commercial attempts to take over the parks being documented in the series. Begone with this!

Don Bishoff, Eugene, OR

Awed and amazed, I've just watched the first segment of Ken Burns's National Parks series. Magnificent work. However, the program and my appreciation of Burns's intent were marred by jarring graffiti scrawled periodically across the glorious imagery. Incomprehensibly, PBS has decided to follow the lead of "artists" of city gangs by "tagging" the spectacular scenery, previously pristine, with its logo and other text. I finally lost it when — in a dark blue-black scene of mountain and river serenely lit by a full moon — a glaring PBS logo, whirling and turning garishly, popped up superimposed over the perfect quiet monochrome beauty of Burns's scene.

W. Balk, Beaufort, SC

The Autism Film: Letters and a NETA/Producer Response

I'm writing in response to the documentary that PBS aired this weekend titled, "WE THOUGHT YOU'D NEVER ASK: Voices of People With Autism." I was disturbed to see a documentary about Facilitated Communication that did not include the facts. As early as 1994, the American Psychological Association put out a resolution on Facilitated Communication due to the mountains of scientific research showing that the facilitator controls the disabled person's response and does so without necessarily realizing it. In their resolution, the APA notes, "Consequently, specific activities contribute immediate threats to the individual civil and human rights of the person with autism or severe mental retardation." The resolution concludes with, "THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that APA adopts the position that facilitated communication is a controversial and unproved communicative procedure with no scientifically demonstrated support for its efficacy."

I have been working with youth with autism since 1994 and have been aware of the research on Facilitated Communication (FC) since then. It's extremely concerning that these documentaries continue to be shown, given the abundance of scientific evidence discrediting FC. The greatest risk of touting treatments like FC is that concerned caregivers may pursue FC at the expense of other, evidence-based treatments, wasting their own and their child's valuable time and resources.

Marla Saltzman, Sherman Oaks, CA

I am the founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation. We are devoted to opposing pseudoscience, flummery, and deception. Your program on the "Facilitated Communication" farce is an example of what we oppose. This notion of "FC" has been thoroughly disproven scientifically — even on a Frontline program on PBS! — and is draining federal and state funds, as well as private support, devoted to this nonsense. FC SIMPLY DOES NOT WORK, and though we have offered any and all "practitioners" of the practice, our million-dollar prize if they will simply demonstrate its validity, they have all declined to accept the challenge. Will you issue these opposing comments to those who viewed this very erroneous material? I am not alone in being offended, dismayed, and angered by the misinformation PBS chose to promote, and the parents of the children involved have been deceived and lied to.

James Randi, Fort Lauderdale, FL

I work with children who have Autism and I know the difficulties of teaching them communication skills. I understand the strain that is put on the families of the children as well as the children themselves. Once I saw that the children in your program were using Facilitated Communication (FC) it broke my heart. FC has done such a disservice to families all over the world. Not only does it give the families a false hope, it delays the process of teaching these children skills through interventions that are scientifically researched and based on empirical evidence. I understand that your show wanted to bring to light that people are trying to help these children, but unfortunately you picked those that are actually harming these children. My worry is that some families may see this program and invest their hard earned money to seek FC and be in the same place they are now years later.

Mike Berlin, Simi Valley, CA

In Response

Here's the joint response from NETA and the film's producers: "'AUTISM: WE THOUGHT YOU'D NEVER ASK' features several adults with autism speaking candidly about living with the disability. Each communicates in the fashion best for him or her. No treatments or therapies are discussed or advocated. This documentary is about what these individuals say, not how they say it."

The Ombudsman 'Should Resign'

The following letters are a sampling of those I got in response to a segment in last week's column dealing with the use of a film called "9/11: Blueprint for Truth" by KBDI, a PBS-member station in Denver, as part of a pledge drive to raise funds. My column can be read via the link at the beginning of this Mailbag, but let me reiterate a couple of points. The thrust of the column was about incidents in which PBS, as a television service, and its programs were not involved, but stations or individuals were. PBS had nothing to do with the 9/11 film. Also, I did view the film. I don't write film reviews but rather write about editorial issues raised by viewers about programs. I said KBDI had an obvious right to show the film, and I added that "on a personal level I find the idea embedded in 'Blueprint' of a government conspiracy to blow up those buildings to be preposterous and simply beyond belief and I fault the station for promoting this as part of a pledge drive and presenting it without an accompanying on-the-air program in which critics have their say."

Here are the letters:

Michael Getler should resign as ombudsman effective immediately. His personal emotions are obviously getting in the way of his doing his job, which in this case would involve reviewing the film Blueprint for Truth with an open mind. In fact, virtually every architect or engineer who sees Richard Gage's presentation of the material in the film is convinced that the three World Trade Center skyscrapers were obviously destroyed by deceptive controlled demolitions, which were then covered up by FEMA and NIST, which report directly to the President. If the supremely important historical fact of these demolitions is too much for Getler to handle, perhaps he should find a less stressful job, one that doesn't require him to face current political reality.

Kevin Barrett, Madison, WI

You folks are pathetic 'gate keepers' putting out hit pieces about 9/11 truth that some of us have put more than 8 years into. You lost a viewer for life and you should be ashamed for parroting the treasonous lies of the Bush son's and daughters of bitch's who mass murdered Americans on Sept. 11, 2001 in a huge 'false flag' attack blamed on others who had nothing to do with it.

Dennis Cimino, Silverdale, WA

9/11 was an inside job. Listen closely . . . active thermate in the dust. Do your job and look at our side . . . we are called Truthers for a reason. Get on the right side of history Mike.

Poote Genous, Deland, FL

I have just finished viewing 9/11 Blueprint for Truth, the film you refused to watch yet managed to review, even as far as laying out the "message" of the film. Your words regarding the message of the film: "In other words, someone wired these buildings with explosives intending to bring them down in this attack, and this has been covered up by the government, the 9/11 Commission and the mainstream media. That's the message."

I watched the film along with 400 others on Friday night at an independent theatre in NYC. I must tell you, the audience response was astoundingly unified with regards to the message of the film, and it had nothing to do with the Government wiring the towers with explosives, or any Conspiracy theory at all. The film was a straight forward analysis of the collapses of three skyscrapers from a perspective reliant on the laws of physics. The overwhelming message of the film was that there needs to be a new investigation. It couldn't have been any clearer. This was confirmed when I managed to see a poll taken after the film, and out of 300 people who answered the question, Do we need a new investigation? All 300 responses were YES.

I have read your work before and have been satisfied with your sensibilities and recommendations, but I am dumbfounded as to how you have come up with such radical conclusions from a film which you have not even seen. I would love to hear your explanation of this.

Brian Michels, New York City, NY

I just finished reading your article "PBS, Yes or No" and was somewhat stunned that you would comment on the quality of the evidence presented in a film like "9/11 Blueprint for Truth" without actually viewing it. This kind of attitude is exactly the one shown by so many people who rail against public broadcasting without actually viewing any of the content. For a person who plays an important role in the public broadcasting, I would think that the very thought of doing this would make you cringe. I will have to say however that as much as I feel like I want to express further discontent with what you've written, I do have to remind myself of the time when I thought such ideas were ludicrous and impossible. I urge you to cast aside your a priori assumptions and take a small amount of time to research the matter which you right now are obviously filing in the kooky/crazy category. "9/11 Blueprint for Truth" is actually a great place to start.

Mark Michel, Gulfport, FL