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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag

Here's the last ombudsman's mailbag of 2009, along with my very best wishes for a happy New Year and, let's go for it, a happy new decade, for all.

Despite the holiday season, the mail has remained steady, with viewers commenting on a wide range of PBS programs, even one that has not yet been aired and is not being distributed by PBS but which may well be broadcast by many PBS member stations. So this is a fairly long mailbag.

Posted below is a representative sampling of viewer comments. Some deal with continued reaction to the posting on this site earlier this month of NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer's journalistic rules, and my commentary on them.

Others are from viewers upset, especially, with one of the relatively new corporate sponsors (Monsanto) of the NewsHour. This sponsorship issue has come up many times before, involving other programs and several different companies that certain viewers disapprove of. I wrote about this most recently in a segment of the Sept. 25 mailbag in which PBS explained its guidelines and I added my view that Chevron, which was the target on that occasion, also had a First Amendment right to advertise, or sponsor, as a form of free speech.

Frontline's Fanning on Commercialism

As is well known, many newspapers and television networks are in serious financial troubles these days due to the loss of advertising revenue. So PBS struggles along with them when it comes to corporate sponsorships. In an ideal world, or if you live in the U.K. and pay a television licensing fee that helps support the BBC, there would be no need for commercial intrusions on the financing of public television. That's not the case here, however.

On the other hand, there is a powerful case to be made for the purity of the broad mission of public broadcasting, unfettered by commercial funding considerations, that was meant to bring strong, important and at times controversial public affairs programming to American viewers. It was laid out most candidly and fervently last month in a speech by David Fanning, the founding executive producer and guiding hand of PBS's Frontline, the best documentary series anywhere on television by far, in my opinion.

Another Case of 'It's on PBS, but It's Not PBS'

A couple of the e-mails below come from viewers who say they are disturbed, as one person put it, "that PBS is collaborating with the conservative George W. Bush Institute on a public affairs program" called Ideas for Action. This is a reference to a new weekly series that will premier in February. There actually were quite a few letters about this and it has been fairly widely reported that the series will be shown on "public television."

Public television, however, does not always mean PBS and this particular collaboration and broadcast has nothing to do with PBS and is not being distributed by PBS, according to officials at both PBS and at Executive Program Services (EPS), which is the distributor.

EPS bills itself as "a major supplier of quality programming to Public Television Stations across the nation" and is run by two former PBS programming executives. PBS officials explain that EPS, like the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA) and American Public Television (APT) and others are also sources of programming for public television stations. All 350-plus PBS-member stations are independent and can air whatever they choose.

I have made the point many times in these columns that viewers are very often, and understandably, confused by these usually invisible distinctions between PBS and other providers and that when they see something on a PBS-member station, they assume it's a PBS program, unless it is a local program. I have also argued (in that same Sept. 25 column linked to above) that PBS and its affiliates ought to figure out some way to flag viewers on the screen about programs that are not developed, approved and distributed by PBS. I am also certain that when this series makes its debut and is shown by many member stations that PBS, and the ombudsman, will get lots more letters asking why PBS co-produced and distributed a series with what is perceived as a political entity.

Here Are the Letters

The ombudsman writes [in the Dec. 11 column]: "For example, 'Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am. Assume the same about all people on whom I report.' Really? Bernard Madoff? Osama bin Laden?"

Why not? Do you suppose that certain people just deserve universal scorn regardless of the context? Even in a setting where the journalist is meant to be as impartial as possible?

You write: "John Edwards, issued a public statement and went on ABC Television to acknowledge that he had had an extra-marital affair with a woman who had been hired by his political action committee to make films for his campaign. That's news."

In what sense is that news? Why should I care about the sex life of a politician? Does having an affair with your campaign film-maker represent a conflict of interest somehow? In what way does this impact on the general public?

B. Slivka, Denver, CO

I agree with Jim's principles, even though some news will inevitably be filtered out. Edwards' affair? Not in any way a concern of mine. Until that is, he runs for office again. Then report it. Build up to the Iraq war? You're telling me no one, absolutely no one, who actually knew something helpful felt strongly enough about it to attach their name? This is something that would undoubtedly result in thousands of lives lost, and no one had something they felt like saying, if their name was attributed to it? What Lehrer is saying, is that you needed to look harder.

Santa Ana, CA

Interesting comment, Michael, on Lehrer's Rules. Thanks. However, Lehrer's last rule left me with an uneasy feeling, esp. since his name is no longer part of the newscast's title; hopefully, this is not his way of giving us some kind of advance warning for what may come.

Doreen Iannuzzi, Ontario, Canada

A quibble about your Quibbles. One of your quibbles is this: "For example, "Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am. Assume the same about all people on whom I report." Really? Bernard Madoff? Osama bin Laden?"

I think, when Mr. Lehrer said, "Assume the viewer . . . Assume the same about the people on whom I report." He intended to make clear that unless he knows otherwise, as I'm sure he does in the cases of Madoff and bin Laden, to give people the benefit of the doubt. The key word is, "assume." That Mr. Lehrer is willing to withhold judgment until a judgment can be made is what makes him respectful and honorable as a news reporter. I don't believe he has any intent to soften the images of people like Madoff and bin Laden, only to judge people on what he knows, not what might be.

Mike Burnard, Tualatin, OR

Gee whiz, Michael. So Tiger turned out to be what I thought he was all along. I agree that it is a commentary on our society that people are so fascinated by super stars in whatever field they work in. I just don't like arrogance and I really don't care much about golf. You might guess that I felt the same way I about the singer who died not too long ago and was the talk of everyone on TV. I guess gossip trumps all.

Olive Lohrengel, Buda, TX

I think it's important to note that a slavish devotion to this rule, "Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story," can wind up giving airtime to absolute drivel presented as if equal in weight to far more legitimate positions. Remember, though there are (at least) two sides to every story, there is often only one credible side. Failure to recognize this is what leads to groups like the "Birthers" dominating the airways and crowding out informed discussion.

D K, Newfane, VT

On Monsanto

I have been commenting regularly about specific topics, but will speak to something more general that jumped out at me in another comment [in the Dec. 17 mailbag]. That is, the sponsorship of NewsHour. Not only have the number of sponsors seemed to increase, but they are increasingly corporate — and Monsanto especially bothers me — as did ADM and the oil behemoths. It is hard to believe that NewsHour can operate as a public watchdog when corporations who spend millions silencing dissent and influencing government oversight (rather, gutting it), will sponsor news coverage that would in any way threaten their stranglehold in their respective industries. Lack of public (tax dollars) support is the great tragedy of PBS. No corporate sponsorship should be allowed and is the main reason I do not own a television, although I do follow Moyers and others online. This issue is also the reason I get my news mostly from the BBC — and print sources (mostly ad-free) of course.

Janet Camp, Milwaukee, WI

I am writing you this email to express my utter disgust and disdain that a Network that I have loved so much and give so much credibility and credence to would accept any amount of money or funding from the Monsanto Corporation. This company is monopolizing and undermining global agriculture, suing multitudes of farmers for outrageous claims and ruining people's lives around the world. Monsanto was and still is a chemical company that during the Vietnam era developed agent orange, aspartame not to mention that they currently produce unmentionable quantities of pesticides that can only be used with their copy-written seed and are currently in the process of single handedly destroying any farmer that opts to save and produce their own seed which is rapidly diminishing agricultural genetic diversity and creating an agricultural monoculture.

Jesse Parker, Nashville, TN

On 'Collaborating' with the Bush Institute

It is disturbing that PBS is collaborating with the conservative George W. Bush Institute on a public affairs program, Ideas for Action. To protect its integrity, PBS should not be collaborating with partisan think tanks on the right or the left. Use your own money to support such public affairs programming. If you can't afford them, don't do them. Stay clean.

Richard Hughes, Simpsonville, SC

The George W. Bush Institute — the "action-oriented think tank" that is part of Bush's Presidential Center — will co-produce a public television show hosted by its executive director, Ambassador James Glassman, in a rare convergence of public broadcasting and a partisan research organization. Really, PBS is going to allow the George W. Bush Institute to produce a television show for you? Are they also going to allow the Clinton Administration to produce a show for you?

I plan to start a petition to see that those of us who gave to public television, assuming it was non-partisan, get our money back. We do not support this move and I hope to hit you in the pocket book until you drop this partisan shilling. What are you thinking? Where is your integrity? How much did they pay you for this? Shame, shame, shame.

Noreen Bloch, Tygh Valley, OR

Other Stuff

Starting in the Fall of 2010, I think PBS should "bite the bullet" and do the live feed of "NewsHour" from 8 to 9 P.M. EST/EDT, and try to convince as many member stations in the Eastern and Central time zones to run it live in that timeslot. The United States is one of the few countries where there is no national newscast on over-the-air television during prime-time. In Canada, CBC's national newscast airs at 10 P.M. Eastern time, and in the UK, both BBC-1 and ITV broadcast their main network newscasts at 10 P.M. British time. It is time for PBS to give America a weeknight prime-time nightly newscast on broadcast television.

Joseph, Norwood, MA

I do not understand why you [The NewsHour] keep reporting about D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee's failure in the D.C. school district. You never ask the proper questions. How did someone with no principal experience get that job? Which millionaire or political group got her the job? Did she ever teach in an elementary, middle or high school, and for how long? When money was sent from Albany or Washington for the schools, which politicians intercepted those funds, and used them for their own purposes? How were the teachers able to teach and meet the standards when something like that happened? You never interview experienced principals about what being a principal is like or show any of the problems, that an ordinary principal faces on a given day. I realize you can't ask any of the principals in New York department of education, because of the retaliation that would ensue against that principal by the Bloomberg Administration, but you could if you really tried, talk to a retired principal, who had nothing to fear from reprisals. If you are really interested in investigative reporting why don't you interview some current tenured teachers, blot out their faces and let them explain exactly what this form of inquisition is really doing to the morale of the teachers. Most current educators don't see Michelle Rhee as an innovator. They see her as a political henchman, sent in to break the Teachers Union.

Yonkers, NY

I just watched Anatomy of a Pandemic. I never thought that I would see such poor reporting on PBS! It was more fear provoking than thought provoking. Having huge flocks of birds fly at the viewer while being told about the next possible bird flu outbreak, was unbelievable! I was hoping for some actual, real analysis on the H1N1 virus. How about a real debate by scientists on the safety of the vaccine? Nope!

Australia was mentioned as having an outbreak, however we were not told what happened there. How many people became ill? How many seriously ill? How does this compare with their usual flu season? Nothing. Over and over again there were more images and little tidbits than actual information.

C L, Needham, MA

Thank you for representing PBS-devotees like myself. At age 39, I have been a longtime Frontline fan and have watched every episode either on TV, the web or DVD. My love of Frontline is in large part due to its objective and comprehensive coverage. That being said, I am extremely disappointed at the recent program, The Card Game, because it is almost completely one-sided to the point of calling into question adherence with Frontline's Fairness policy. While no fan of the banking/credit card industry in particular, I found this program completely irrelevant to me because it is obvious that Mr. Bergman's agenda was only to vilify them. Mr. Bergman's coverage of opposing viewpoints, such as consumer responsibility, was so minimal and shallow as to clearly only "check the block". If you read the web comments, even Frontline's largely liberal viewer base have come out mixed on who is responsible (i.e., companies vis-a-vis consumers) although Mr. Bergman included almost nothing on consumer responsibility in the program! This should be a red flag to WGBH editors.

Kevin P. Cleary, Johns Creek, GA

I came online to PBS specifically to search for the next airing of one of Dr. Amen's programs. I have read several of his books, listen to his hypnosis CDs, and have watched several of his programs. I was surprised by the negative feedback PBS has received regarding his work. I enjoy the programs, and have experienced first-hand improvement by following his recommendations. He doesn't recommend anything that is unsafe or exceptionally bizarre. Doctors seem to be the worst group of criticizers, particularly when they have nothing better to offer. I hope PBS continues to air Dr. Amen's programs. Incidentally, I had already read his book, "Change Your Brain" before I saw the show. Any intelligent person knows that no medical advice is perfect for everyone, and they need to do their own homework before following any advice, particularly something seen on TV. The shows give people other ideas and options. We each need to decide for ourselves. That's why it's a free country. The letters of objection all seem to prefer censorship and not allowing new ideas. Let viewers see more, and decide for themselves.

Susan Hartwell, Vancouver, BC

Cool on Warming

I read your response to the letter expressing concern about the poor coverage of the unauthorized release of emails and computer code from the CRU. In my opinion it suffers from an inaccurate portrayal of the serious "skeptic" as one who denies that the globe is warming and that CO2 contributes to this warming. The key issue is the extent to which CO2 is contributing. A first order calculation, in agreement with the IPCC, is that a doubling of CO2 concentration results in an increase of about 1 degree Celsius. The disagreement stems from IPCC's claim that second order effects (so-called positive feedbacks) enhance this increase in temperature by as much as a factor of five. What concerns the "skeptics" is a strong suggestion from the emails and computer codes that both the thermometer and paleo temperature records produced by CRU are biased, thus weakening (or eliminating) the claim that we are experiencing unprecedented warming (from paleo data) and calling into question the parameterization of the climate models (from thermometer data) which predict this feedback. These data sets are pretty much the same ones used by NASA and NOAA. Why wouldn't the fourth estate be interested in analyzing this investigative windfall given the huge public policy implications?

Los Angeles, CA

Frontline's 'From Jesus to Christ'

It was so very difficult to watch a recent program about my Christian faith, the historical Jesus on Frontline. A parade of liberal theologians portraying Jesus Christ not as God, but as an interesting religious and political leader.

The kind of Christianity these people relate is absolutely rejected by evangelical, bible believing Christians and it would be better to stop harassing people about God and Jesus altogether than to tell people about the miserable gospel they present. Devoid of the miracles of scripture, we end up with a dead Jesus and a good religious book to help guide our lives until we become so much fertilizer. This means that for every injustice, the genocides and on an on, there is only our pitiful attempts at getting the world right to look forward to. How sad.

If you must have this type of program just before Christmas for goodness sakes, at least present the evangelical perspective. That Jesus Christ is God incarnate, He redeemed humanity on the Cross at an enormous price, and that He lives and reigns with God as our Advocate until He resurrects us to be with Him in glory for eternity.

Has PBS been duped by these liberal theologians who contradict the supernatural theme of the bible or is it the policy of PBS to support this dead hopeless message from John Crossan et al. Would you be willing to have Frontline produce a program from the perspective of evangelical Christians? There are many scholars who believe in the miraculous biblical record as it is written.

Gordon Nicolson, Manitoba, Canada

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