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The Ombudsman Column

Pox or Fox? We Report. You Decide.

One of the most interesting aspects of this peculiar job is that you hear from viewers about lots of things that surprise you. I expect to hear regularly about The NewsHour, Frontline, Bill Moyers Journal, NOW, Tavis Smiley or Washington Week and all the high-profile documentaries. But every once in a while there is a National Memorial Day Concert from the Capitol lawn that turns out to have a fascinating back story or a timely episode of Sid the Science Kid about flu vaccinations that stirs up at least some parents, as happened just last week.

Now, the venerable Sesame Street is suddenly and surprisingly (for me) in the crosshairs. The question is this: Did this icon of public broadcasting and gold standard for high quality educational broadcasting for children for 40 years stoop to take a camouflaged shot at Fox News?

The letters from complaining viewers are printed below. There are not many of them, but as is often the case, even a single viewer can make an important observation worthy of reporting and discussing. My eagle-eyed assistant, Marcia Apperson, reminds me that we have received the occasional complaint about this particular episode before. It aired for the first time two years ago and a couple of times in 2008 and this year. But I confess that this is the first time it caught my eye and the first time we heard from a number of viewers.

The episode, which aired Oct. 29, involves one of Sesame Street's scores of colorful creations, the Grouch News Network, in which muppet Oscar the Grouch is the host, pursuing GNN's dedication to "all grouchy, all disgustin', all yucky" news. But another character feels that the Grouch is not grouchy enough and threatens to switch to "Pox News, now there's a trashy news show," she says.

Everybody who wrote to me heard this as "Fox News," and I can't really blame them. When I went and watched the tape for the first time, I thought I heard "Fox" as well, perhaps because of the association one assumes when you hear "news" right after the word. However, when I watched and listened more carefully a second time, it was clear that the character said "Pox" and not "Fox" and the closed captioning that runs across the bottom of the screen when the sound is muted also stated "Pox News."

Now, on one level, Pox News as an alternative and competitor to the Grouch News Network would seem to be a clever and appropriate title. But you would have to be anesthetized as a producer not to assume that many parents will hear this, or assume this, to be a clever shot at Fox News. It's a parody, a play on words, and has a timely feel to it at this time, especially, because of the battle now going on publicly between Fox and the White House. So it's probably not surprising that last week's showing got more people's attention.

I don't know what was in the head of the producers, but my guess is that this was one of those parodies that was too good to resist. But it should have been resisted. Broadcasters can tell parents whatever they think of Fox or any other network, but you shouldn't do it through the kids.

Here are the letters, followed by a sampling of mail from viewers about other recent ombudsman columns on Sid the Science Kid and on Frontline's "The Warning."

What Did I Just Hear?

I just wanted to write and let you know that I was both surprised and extremely disappointed in PBS this morning. My children were watching Sesame Street and Oscar the Grouch had his own TV news show. There was another grouch character that kept threatening to turn off grouch's show. In the end she finally states that she will turn off grouch's show and switch to Fox News "because that is a real trash news station!" I was shocked that PBS would enter into this type of ridiculous behavior especially on a children's television program. You state that you depend greatly on public support for your broadcasting, with this these type of statements made on children's programming I know that I can no longer support PBS in good faith.

Christine B., Albuquerque, NM

You may not be the proper person to direct this complaint to, but I was very disturbed at the reference to Fox News as "trashy" in an episode of Sesame Street that recently aired. The show is for teaching children their letters and numbers, not the producers' political view and biases. As a taxpayer, I am deeply concerned about PBS allowing such nonsense on a children's show.

Parkersburg, WV

I was incredibly disappointed in PBS and the Sesame Street episode aired on October 29, 2009. The parody of Oscar acting as an obvious Fox reporter was truly a new low. Even more shocking was the mention of Fox News as "trashy." I will never watch Sesame Street again and find it pathetic that you would use it as a platform for pushing the White House message and apparent conflict with Fox. I am a Fox News watcher and PBS children's show watcher. Some things should not mix. I refuse to let children's programming brainwash my child into certain political views. It is not right and should be addressed. Having conservative views is not a bad thing and I plan to raise my children to think for themselves and not listen to radical liberal thought. It is not right. Save it for the NewsHour and not Sesame Street.

Andrea Tarr, New Boston, NH

Hello: Where is the editorial integrity? My husband & I are grandparents who help take care of our 20-month-old granddaughter while her parents work. We have Sesame Street on the tv — there was a comment (channel 15 8:15am) — the characters said "Fox news, now that's trash or trashy (couldn't hear that well) tv". Why is it necessary for such a wonderful learning experience for very young children to be corrupted by the political leanings of the production staff. I love pbs's children's programming, British mysteries, McLaughlin report, etc. but keep the political brainwashing away from my children.

Linda & Pasquale D'Aguanno, Palm Coast, FL

More on Vaccinations

It is clear from the anti-vaccine lunatic letters that even more science programs than you usually provide are needed. Hang in there and keep on providing good science programs.

Hattiesburg, MS

As the friend of someone who was paralyzed by Guillain-Barré after a swine flu shot in the 70's (not sure of the year) I can understand the hesitations that people are having. They said then that the vaccine was 'perfectly safe' but one may be forgiven for having doubts. The first family children have gotten their shots, so we can only pray that indeed, this time the vaccine IS perfectly safe.

Karin H., Kona, HI

I understand that 20% of Americans have gone bonkers and are dedicated adherents to the Faux Noise network and its loony on-air "entertainers." I also understand that the rest of us in the 80% should not have to put up with the insanity cultured by the far right for profit-making purposes. Kids' science shows should be off limits to parental misguidance and should remain in the hands of the obviously responsible. Do occasional bad things sometimes happen as a result of generally good things? Yes. Everyone is sorry about that, except maybe trial lawyers, but let's not inject the carefully cultured craziness currently infecting some in the U.S. to color the quality production values of PBS programming.

Dwight Bobson, Washington, DC

I am appalled that pbs chose to weigh in on the vaccination debate this week with a special program targeting preschoolers. Sid the Science guy was more than scientific in his study of vaccines. The message was also strongly motivational, implying a response: go get vaccinated. Parents not preschoolers should have been the recipients of this message. Going forward I regret that I am not able to completely rely on and stand behind pbs' children's programming.

Jamie M. Chicago, IL

All of those who protested the vaccine-oriented children's program are "anti-vaxers". They are science illiterate and get their science information from the University of Google. Vaccines are NOT "controversial" including H1N1 in the view of anyone credible in the science/medical community. If parents "choose" to not vaccinate, it threatens to destroy what is known a herd immunity, so their decision affects more than their own children. If the "choice" is based on ignorance or pseudo-science and defies reason, I don't see why this is held sacrosanct as a parental privilege.

People are free to "believe" (in the religious sense) that there is a vaccine-autism link, but science is right to advise us of their belief (evidence based) that this is not true. PBS should not be cowed into offering unscientific views in the interest of "balance". Criticism in the form of personal anecdote (my baby and I were injured . . .) is hardly a reason to curtail information that will inform young minds.

Janet Camp, Milwaukee, WI

I just watched Sid the Science Kid with my son yesterday. Normally, I love this show. It's fun and educational. But this particular episode was about the flu shot and I found it quite concerning. It was very one-sided and didn't present the fact that there are side effects for every vaccination. It also didn't mention that they don't know the long-term effects of this vaccination or that many flu vaccines still contain thimerosal (which contains mercury) and other potentially harmful chemicals. They also didn't mention that many times the flu vaccine doesn't even protect against the flu because scientists who formulate the vaccine have to make educated guesses about the particular strains coming out each year.

All that was presented was that we all need to get our flu shots to stay healthy. And then they danced around and the worst anyone had to worry about was the little prick of the needle. They did mention hand-washing and coughing into your arm. However, they didn't mention that eating healthy diets, getting plenty of rest and exercise and vitamin D are other more natural ways of boosting our immune systems. I think the natural methods are preferable to injecting our children with dangerous chemicals with questionable effectiveness. If they are going to deal with controversial topics, they need to at least present both sides. I was very disappointed with this episode. I trust PBS to give my child educational, unbiased, intelligent programming or I used to. I'm not so sure anymore.

Cheryl Johnson, Sellersburg, IN

I was watching Inside Washington. I tape it every week and I was so upset at the true spin and lies being spewed, that I've deleted that show from my programming. Specifically, the intro claims that people are "upset because there's no swine flu vaccine". Everyone I speak to have no plans on getting the shot or letting their children get it.

I'm shocked at the brainwashing, convince everyone there's a shortage of something that could leave them with lifelong debilitating effects that hasn't been tested . . . only for efficacy . . . and not for side-effects. What makes this even worse is that your own reply to the "Sid" episode outrage means that you know that most Americans aren't going to get the shot . . . yet the spin was that "people want it but can't get it". Most of us have learned not to trust our Gov't anymore and when it comes to vaccines, the veil of deception is coming off.

Gerri L. Bunnell, Blasdell, NY

And More on 'The Warning'

The Frontline WARNING was not just excellent journalism but the 1st time in a year that I learned the real story. I hope you will rebroadcast this so I can tape it. Thank you.

Cornelia Cree, Farmers Branch, TX

I'm the Sunday Business editor at The New York Times. I was also interviewed extensively for "The Warning," the Frontline piece you examined on your site today, and I appeared in the documentary as well. I also assigned and edited many of the pieces in the Times' series last year on the financial crisis, "The Reckoning." A couple of thoughts:

1) Frontline did a wonderful job with the program and none of us at the Times have any great concerns with how they marketed the program (i.e., unearthing the "secret history" of the financial crisis, etc.).

2) You credit The Washington Post with actually unearthing the tale of Brooksley Born and the roots of the crisis in a piece they published on October 15, 2008, titled what went wrong. The Post piece was strong and smart but . . .

3) The Times published two lengthy pieces, both of which I edited, on the cover of our Sunday Business section on April 27, 2008 and on our front page on October 9, 2008, that detailed, among other things, Ms. Born's failed efforts to regulate derivatives. And . . .

4) The Wall Street Journal wrote a long cover story, on an even earlier date that I can't recall off the top of my head, about Ms. Born's travails in Washington.

So I don't think that the Post was, indeed, the first to "unearth" the Born episode.

Tim O'Brien, New York, NY

(Ombudsman's Note: Here was my response to Mr. O'Brien: I hope the following doesn't sound too defensive, but I did say that I thought the Post, "and maybe others that I'm not aware of," was way ahead and deserved some mention somewhere in the script. The two NYT stories you refer to were fine pieces but they are both quite long and don't even mention Born until what looks like a couple of thousand words into them. The Post piece stood out because it focused on her at the center of the drama and, when you take a second look at it, is absolutely the closest thing to a template for the Frontline program. It is also the only piece referred to in the "essential background" section of the program's Web site. I didn't credit the Post with actually unearthing the secret history. I know that she has been written about even in the late '90s. The point of the piece was to call Frontline on their promotion, which is widely distributed and quoted and clearly suggests that Kirk unearthed this. I thought it was worth doing that, even though the program, as I said, was excellent.)

Mr. Getler, I enjoyed "the Warning," but I was deeply disappointed by the distorted impression it gave that the financial crisis was caused by OTC derivatives. Frontline either didn't understand the role derivatives played (and didn't play) in the financial crisis or was intent on forcing the facts into a pre-set storyline in which the noble Brooksley Born took on a trio of obtuse curmudgeons who were, for some inexplicable reason given their differing political affiliations and backgrounds, united by a blind obedience to Wall Street.

True, some types of (but not all) OTC derivatives exacerbated Wall St. risk-taking in the mortgage market by providing a false hedge against losses. In this respect, Born accurately foresaw the danger of allowing the swaps market to continue growing without imposing some transparency. The $85B bailout of AIG is a testament to that danger. But the swaps market was neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause of the financial crisis, which was rooted in a housing bubble fed by cheap credit, lax mortgage underwriting, a boom in securitization, and rating agency failures, among other things.

Moreover, Frontline utterly failed to explain WHY Greenspan, et al. were opposed to regulation of OTC derivatives. Right or wrong, their reasons were defensible: it wasn't clear the CFTC had the legal authority to regulate private contracts (as all OTC derivatives are) and tossing around the idea of doing so without adequately defining what form the regulation would take was casting a pall on the enforceability of existing contracts. It's not farfetched to suppose that if Born had pushed forward without first getting buy-in from other regulators and market participants, she might have precipitated a major market dislocation in the process.

Frontline also did a major disservice to Greenspan by portraying him as a dupe of a dead pseudo-philosopher (Ayn Rand). I laughed at the ominous music that played toward the end of the piece as Greenspan sits before a Congressional committee purportedly confessing his sins. If Frontline had bothered to read his remarks, they would have known that the errors in judgment Greenspan refers to involve banking regulation, not his spat with Born, which was a pretty peripheral event in a long and significant career as an economic policymaker. In short, I consider Frontline first-rate broadcast journalism, but in this instance, the program fell victim to the shortcomings that afflict much of TV today, namely a myopic focus on personalities and lessons writ large. Such an approach, while it may be entertaining, inhibits informed public discourse on important and complicated issues. PBS viewers expect and deserve better.

Brett D., Yonkers, NY

A couple of qualms about Michael Kirk's film, The Warning. First, the piece strongly inferred that Brooksley Born endured resistance from the WH Working Group because of her gender. But no evidence was presented to support that disparaging idea. Greenspan, Summers, and Geithner are sexists? Really? How exactly does Kirk know this?

At the beginning of the film, Greenspan is described as a protégé and admirer of a woman, Ayn Rand, who is one of the preeminent thinkers in modern economics. Summers and Geithner, viewers are told, are also followers of Rand's free-market philosophy. That seems strange indeed for gentlemen who are supposedly hostile to economic ideas that come from women.

Also, there didn't seem to be any voices in the story that spoke to the virtues of free-market economics. Sure, Greenspan and the others declined — but could no one be found to advocate for the ideas of the free-market philosophy? Are viewers to assume that there is total consensus that Brooksley Born was entirely correct and that her approach is without consequences or risks of its own?

Jim McCarthy, New York City, NY