By Michael Getler
December 17, 2009
The mail this week was focused mainly on comments from viewers about aspects of the new PBS NewsHour that made its debut Dec. 7 and was the subject of last week's ombudsman's column. A sampling of the letters is posted below. There are comments from me in the form of ombudsman's notes on a few of the letters, including one toward the bottom dealing with coverage of issues surrounding the global warming debate. There is also a NewsHour response on this subject. Hence, a rather lengthy mailbag this week.
Here Are the Letters
I disagree with you about personal information like the John Edwards misdeeds being news worth being reported on The Lehrer NewsHour. You probably think all the blab about the golfing "great" is worth being repeated on a serious program presenting news. Since everyone and his comic on the air has done nothing but blather on and on ad nauseam about things like that, I see no reason serious news journalists should add to the cacophony. Otherwise, I am glad you printed Mr. Lehrer's rules for journalistic conduct. Thank you.
Olive Lohrengel, Buda, TX
(Ombudsman's Note: As a matter of fact, I do think that the Tiger Woods story is big news that fascinates millions of people around the world. He is probably the most famous, richest and well-known athlete in the world and he has suddenly been revealed as someone other than what we imagined. I think it says a lot about our celebrity culture, society, imagery, corporate endorsements and many other things that are not voyeuristic but rather worth thinking about and talking about. As a viewer, I would have liked to see the NewsHour explore more of this.)
Your characterizing the case for WMD in Iraq as 'bogus' is extremely biased for an 'Ombudsman' who is supposed to remain impartial. The intelligence evaluation that there were WMD in Iraq was "wrong" but it was not "bogus," by which I assume you mean that it was fake or fraudulent. We and our allies came to that conclusion on the basis of evidence, and intelligence is sometimes just wrong.
Michael Freed, Sylmar, CA
(Ombudsman's Note: Bogus is, indeed, a strong word, but taking the country to war is a strong action. There actually was no hard evidence beyond the infamous aluminum tubes and there were dissenters about this and other matters within the Departments of State and Energy, the nuclear laboratories, the Air Force and the CIA. But the administration did not present its case as we "think" Saddam has WMD, or we "believe" he has them. Rather, it made its case repeatedly with what turned out to be a false sense of certainty. "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us," Vice President Cheney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Aug. 26, 2002. The Center for Public Integrity last year catalogued "at least 935 false statements" by the administration in the two years after 9/11.)
Having watched the new NewsHour format so far, I am pleased with the changes. There seems to be a new briskness with your moderators. I also appreciate the brief summary given by your new reporter that summarizes the daily news which I have felt for a long time was missing from the newscast. Although the format is new it holds promise for better coverage. Thank you.
Phyllis Koch, Portland, OR
Jim Lehrer does rule. He is the one who made the NewsHour popular and a valuable broadcast to many news loving Americans. The new PBS format diminishes public attraction to the NewsHour. It comes across as a canned program with news casters reciting the news like all the other mainstream media programs. The PBS management, and who they answer to, did a disservice to their news program and the viewers. Your ratings will probably go down. You should have stayed with a winner in Jim Lehrer leading the broadcast.
Alan Klaus, Santa Fe, NM
The PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer was a news program that I highly valued. As a journalist, it was one of the few remaining American news outlets that I felt served a vital purpose in informing people about world and national events.
Of late, I have noticed a change in your format to one that is highly self serving. Do we really care about the German's minimal involvement in Afghanistan — or did Margaret [Warner] just happen to be in Berlin and come up with this poor idea for a story — or Ray's [Suarez] "feelings" about the economy and "patchwork" America? And, by the way, it's more about people than some supposed "theme" (who came up with that?!!) of "patchwork," or the opinions of all the experts you interview that, now, happen to be not experts at all, but other journalists.
I am saddened to see the remarkable lack of news content in your program. It was important. Of all that disappoints me in your unfortunate but successful movement toward McNews, I am mostly saddened by your reliance on other journalists (New York Times, etc.) to serve as your experts. You are journalists. Not subject matter experts. What part of "credible sources" in journalism 101 have you forgotten?
Maggi Aitkens, St. Paul, MN
(Ombudsman's Note: I liked Warner's piece from Germany and applaud the NewsHour for doing it. Reporting from other major countries — other than those where we are at war — has essentially disappeared from television and is greatly reduced even in newspapers and this provided a welcome insight into German attitudes, which are always important to be aware of. I also think the NewsHour makes very good use of journalists around the country in interviews on subjects where independent, rather than self-interested, views are the key to understanding. I thought Suarez did okay in summing up his "Patchwork Nation" reporting last Friday evening. He was responding to Lehrer's questions. Yet it seemed a little too matter-of-fact to me, as though a chance had been missed, after a big investment in reporting, to convey some larger thoughts about a country with certainly millions of despairing citizens.)
'Do What You Are Supposed to Do'
One of Lehrer's guidelines is "Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story." What happened on 12/9 when the "other side" in the debate on the latest Senate version of the health care bill in which there is a new version of public option was absent from the "debate?" This is not the first time that the "unbiased" NewsHour showed its bias. Spare us the hypocrisy and braggadocio and do what you are supposed to do and what you claim with a straight face you actually do.
Ira Charak, Willowbrook, IL
I like the tweaking of NewsHour, but the best news I can find still comes from the BBC — now widely available online. Those newsreaders know how to interview! They don't allow newsreaders to become "personalities" — another thing I like. I also disagree that there is always "another side to the story." In matters of settled science, I see no point in giving the "other side" valuable air time. Report on their views, but to present them as equals on panels only contributes to the scientific illiteracy of the country.
I would also like to see NewsHour be more transparent about the organizations some of their guests represent. It's often something like "Americans for Freedom" or some such nebulous phrase. There's little point in simply having one on the right and one on the left quibbling at each other. More in-depth fact-finding and reporting would be more helpful.
Janet Camp, Milwaukee, WI
Thanks, Michael, for printing Jim Lehrer's guidelines. After watching the program for 35+ years I believe I could have guessed at least some of his fine values. What an exceptional program this is, particularly in light of the opinionated theatrical news on most networks. I want to welcome Hari [Sreenivasan] as a presenter but as a slight bit of constructive criticism could you please ask him — for the benefit of us old timers — to pause just a little between topics. His skillful spoken word is ultra smooth, almost to the point of sounding like a big network announcer, and a little too fast. I'm sure he will be excellent and will become to be seen as a family member — which is the way that some of us long timers view the entire truly exceptional crew. And, thank you for your good Ombudsman work.
David Nardinger, Helena, MT
About Those Interviews
First, thank you for doing what you guys are doing, very much appreciated. On the Monday, December 14, PBS NewsHour, Judy [Woodruff] interviewed Steve Bartlett. Why did she choose such soft questions to ask him? It appeared to be a nice-nice conversation between the two of them. We need strong and probing questions to be asked to the people who are holding the financial power. Many people think the banks, Wall Street, corporations are the cause and problem of what's going on. Maybe you guys don't see it, there is a real financial problem out here. When there is an opportunity to find truth and work for the greater good, please be relentless! Judy also mentioned that the Bank of America is one of the PBS NewsHour sponsors, is that the reason for the soft questions?
W. Cotter, Makawao, HI
What we need from the NewsHour is another interview by Judy Woodruff with a lobbyist, this time for the banking industry — Steve Bartlett, Really! Do you think this is what we expect from this program?
C. Carlson, Portland, OR
The PBS NewsHour last night — Dec 14 — interviewing David Warsh on Paul Samuelson's death: I had a difficult time with this interview. Dr. Warsh was asked three or four times, each time a different way, what was characteristic of Paul Samuelson and how did he differ from other prominent U.S. economists. Dr. Warsh either did not understand the questions or he simply evaded them (which I doubt), but what we got were thumbnail biographies of Samuelson and the others, and not one word that I can recall of substance about what Samuelson and the others did or thought in their professional capacities. Born in Gary, Indiana? So what? The others were born where and when? So what? Please, tell us something about each man's unique contributions, singly and/or in comparison with the others. All we had were a few minutes and they were simply lost; wasted in irrelevant biographical details, like what the father did, etc. Bah. No disrespect to Dr. Warsh, who I will stipulate is brilliant, but how about talking directly to a subject instead of what came across here, rambling roundabout non-answers, confirming the dark suspicions of some of us that economists are essentially unable to deliver their conceptual thinking to anyone other than themselves?
Alan Kligerman, Egg Harbor Twp, NJ
I would just like to register my concern that the NewsHour, which I have been watching since the late '70s, is allowing Monsanto to be a sponsor of the program. That company is perpetrating some horrible policies in the agriculture business with respect to the "patenting" of seeds and with the revolving door between the federal government and Monsanto. It just shows a lack of propriety to allow such a company to be one of your sponsors. Please reconsider or else I'll be forced to discontinue viewing your program.
Christopher Walker, San Francisco, CA
Re: pop-up ad sponsor Wells Fargo Advisors. Damn your Web developers to allow such insult to my core emotion. WFC makes my blood boil and PBS lets the insult multiply. Bill Moyers, NOW . . . then pop-up Wells Fargo. Are you sick?
There seems to be fear in the African American Community about receiving the H1N1 Vaccination. My sources say that less than 1% of the Black population wants to get the flu shot. I hope that the information on "Anatomy of a Pandemic" will address this sideline issue. Many African Americans have had a fear of immunizations since the Tuskegee Syphilis Project. The government experiment of sterilizing Black males still today leaves many people of color afraid of widespread immunizations. I would like to see a PBS show that informs the community of the accountability of vaccinations today which would inspire confidence and belief that it is for the good of the people.
Hot About Warming
Regarding guidelines for MacNeil/Lehrer journalism that Jim Lehrer recited on 12/4, one in particular — "Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story" — appears to have been contradicted for years, considering the NewsHour's consistent lack of skeptic scientists as guests to rebut IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] scientists. Lehrer also said of his NewsHour staff, "They will be doing what they do best, reporting and analyzing the top stories of the day." Contrast that with the NewsHour not mentioning the CRU [the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit, one of the world's leading climate science centers] Scientist Email Scandal until a week after the news broke, nor offering more than one other cursory mention of it since then, despite the firestorm of the issue elsewhere. Contrast that further with significant news items casting doubt on scientific conclusions about human-caused global warming that were never reported on the NewsHour over a span of years.
These are contradictions that go to the heart of the NewsHour's journalistic integrity. When it appears they are not covering one side of a major issue, questions arise about why this situation exists, and whether it is a result of an overt bias, sheer ignorance, or honest misconceptions based on reliance on faulty research of others outside of the NewsHour.
Russell Cook, Phoenix, AZ
The NewsHour Responds
Here's a response on the global warming coverage issue from Murrey Jacobson, a senior producer:
"Throughout our years of covering climate change, we have always worked to strike the right balance of covering the news surrounding this story and the long debate on different views about global warming. I think we have largely succeeded at doing that, but I realize there are views on both sides that will take issue with our coverage. There is a reason many of our stories in the last couple of years have been more focused on developments about what to do about climate change — instead of the debate about the science behind it. The story of what should — or should not — be done is the primary concern of many lawmakers, global leaders, scientists and CEOs now."
Jacobson goes on to list many of the developments covered by the NewsHour in recent years including, for example, "President Bush's shift of tone about climate change during his second term when he said: 'It's now recognized that the surface of the earth is warmer, and that an increase in greenhouse gases caused by humans is contributing to the problem.'"
"In each instance, there are different points of view on WHAT should be done about the problem; those are the points of view we have attempted to cover fairly when we are covering what is essentially a political debate. We have done stories about the science behind climate change as well. And when we have done so, we have generally tried to take note of more skeptical views of that science. These days, some of that debate is focused on whether natural phenomena account for some of the changes that scientists are measuring. And there are also debates about the timing and urgency of the problem. We have taken note of these ideas and will continue to do so. But we have also tried to make sure that our coverage reflects this fact: The majority of leading scientists here and abroad say that evidence is pointing to a warming planet; that the problem is getting worse; and that human activity contributes to that problem."
(Ombudsman's Note: I'm going to come to the aid of both the viewer and the NewsHour in a more specific attempt to respond to Mr. Cook. I agree that the NewsHour has not done a good job on this latest development concerning the unauthorized but fascinating release by computer hackers on Nov. 17 of more than 1,000 internal e-mails from the CRU. The NewsHour has touched on it briefly four times, as far as I can tell, on the Nov. 26, Dec. 3, 7 and 9 broadcasts, but very lightly and well after the fact. This is not what you'd call a made-for-television story and the major networks have not done much with it either, but it does seem more newsworthy than the NewsHour treatment suggests. How much more it is worth is another question. I'm not a scientist or an expert, just an interested lay person but one who reads a good deal, and I'm one who believes that the overwhelming evidence and analysis is on the side of the overwhelming portion of the scientific community that says global warming is real, will have real and bad consequences, and that human/corporate/governmental behavior around the world are very important culprits. It is worth covering the other side, but there is also the danger of establishing a false equivalence. That's where another aspect of news judgment comes into play. Among the most thorough and convincing articles I've seen in the aftermath of the hacker episode is this from the respected FactCheck.org, this from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Columbia Journalism Review.)
I have been a viewer of the NewsHour for over twenty years. I depend on it to round out my perspective on national and world events. I am somewhat conservative in my worldview but have enjoyed and respected the NewsHour. I don't want to go to Fox or others for my news but recently issues I find interesting and, yes, provocative are not being reported on or, if so, covered in a way that seems lacking. Two recent examples are the Ft. Hood tragedy and the hacked climate research emails. The Fort Hood reporting seemed preoccupied with the effect on the Muslim community and less on our nation and military's security. I haven't been able to find anything on the NewsHour site or program about the East Anglia incident. I truly hope I have not searched hard enough or just missed the programming. There is a great need for all perspectives to have a reliable source of news we can depend on.
Joe Silino, Syracuse, NY
I am really disappointed with the NewsHour this evening, 12/15. In coverage of the Climate Conference in Copenhagen, the only interview was of Bjorn Lomborg, whose views are totally at odds with the climate science community, and who is not even a climate scientist. Not one climate scientist was interviewed. Why? You are smarter than this. I can only conclude that it has to do with the great appreciation of Lomborg's views by the oil companies whose "ads" are appearing with the NewsHour lately.
I also want to comment on the interview of George Shultz, of the Hoover Institution. He talked about how no institution is too big to fail and criticized recent bailouts. But he totally ignored the savings and loan bailout during the Reagan administration and the interviewer did not even raise the question. I really wonder if I can continue the trust that I have long had of the NewsHour. Tonight was a big disappointment, and I will be watching to see if this represents a new "standard." If so, you have lost me.
Ronald Taylor, Barnegat, NJ
Why do you insist on referring to "Democratic moderates" who really are "conservative"? Joe Lieberman is not a moderate. He is a conservative . . . but then he's not even a Democrat.
James Bourque, Holden, MA
I am disappointed in the new PBS NewsHour which is becoming a magazine style news program instead of a newshour. Now I hear that Bill Moyer's Journal and NOW are being cancelled — These have been my favorite TV programs and I watch all of them faithfully. Don't give up daring to be different — if public television and cable and commercial TV all offer the same content, we all lose!!!
Sedro Woolley, WA