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Friday, November 28, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

Scanning the Source

On the PBS NewsHour Wednesday evening, correspondent Ray Suarez presented an informative segment on the latest in efforts to improve the safety of air travel, focusing especially on new body-scan screening machines at airports to guard against terrorist attacks such as the one attempted aboard Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day.

The segment was also timely because earlier yesterday, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate committee that she believes the new machines and techniques will play a key role in the overall strategy to halt terrorism.

Among those interviewed on camera by Suarez was the former DHS chief under President Bush, Michael Chertoff. Here's the exchange between Suarez and Chertoff:

RAY SUAREZ: Former Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff, who is a consultant for one company that manufactures body scanners, says that, given the capability and intent of terrorists, we may have to trade some privacy for security.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: So, now you have to ask yourself this question. Once we have the privacy protections in place, are you prepared to accept a certain amount of discomfort in someone looking at what may you have concealed on your body, in return for knowing that you're not going to have a plane detonate in midair?

And I think I know, speaking for myself, and, you know, I imagine most people, most people I have spoken to would rather make sure they get to their destination safely, even if it means adjusting their privacy expectations.

RAY SUAREZ: When all is said and done, could body scanning machines have prevented the Christmas Day attack? Chertoff thinks so.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Are they perfect? No. But do they take us very much further down the road to security against this kind of device? The answer to that is yes.

RAY SUAREZ: During the last debate over body imaging, the opponents won the argument. After the Christmas Day bomb attempt, even if controversies continue, Americans can expect to see more body scanners when they fly.

A viewer in Apple Valley, Calif., Robert Young, writes to ask: "What are you doing? I just watched the piece on the NewsHour about body scanners and Mr. Chertoff was giving his opinion about the efficacy of the scanners. Chertoff is employed by or is part owner of one of the body scanner manufacturers. How can we accept his opinion as impartial?"

Suarez did the right thing in that when he introduced Chertoff, he said the former DHS chief now "is a consultant for one company that manufacturers body scanners."

But my question is, why use Chertoff at all on this issue because the point raised by the viewer is a natural one? There are lots of people who can discuss this controversial topic who do not have a clear self-interest or financial interest and who will not leave viewers suspicious.

Chertoff has actually had a fair amount of publicity lately on this issue.

The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Chertoff opposite the editorial page on Jan. 1 arguing for whole-body imaging. At the bottom of the op-ed, Chertoff was identified this way: "The writer was secretary of homeland security from 2005 to 2009 and is co-founder of the Chertoff Group, a security and risk-management firm whose clients include a manufacturer of body-imaging screening machines."

Then on Jan. 16, the public editor of the New York Times, Clark Hoyt, called attention to an interview with Chertoff in the Times about airport security in which he advocated deployment of body scanners and in which the reporters failed to ask the former official about his new relationships and Chertoff didn't volunteer such information.

Again, Suarez did the right thing in introducing him. My beef is why use him, or anybody with a potential financial interest, to begin with? Linda Winslow, executive producer of the NewsHour, says: "We said he is a paid consultant. He is the former head of Homeland Security so he does have some knowledge of the issues raised. AND there were other voices in the piece who offered very different opinions."

Bye-bye Bill and David, Hello 'Need to Know'

The vast majority of the mail this past week, as in the past several weeks, comes from viewers who are angry over the forthcoming end, on April 30, of two of PBS's flagship public affairs programs, NOW on PBS with David Brancaccio and the Bill Moyers Journal. Moyers is 75, so an end to his run isn't surprising, although he doesn't seem tired on television. Cancellation of NOW has been more surprising. To be sure, there are some viewers who say they are happy to see these programs go. But that is a distinct minority of those who wrote to me.

Here's a typical message received this week. It is from Philippa Solomon of Edison, N.J.:

"I am writing to plead for the retention of your programs 'Now' and 'Bill Moyers' Journal,' both of which bring to light stories that go otherwise untold, and maintain high journalistic standards. 'Now's' heartbreaking program about the plight of brain-injured veterans and the efforts of their families to care for them shed new light on the costs of the wars in the Middle East that will be with us for many years. In light of the current decline in newspaper circulation that has weakened the state of investigative journalism, these two fine programs are needed now more than ever. I urge you to do all in your power to make sure that these programs continue to be produced and aired."

I've written about this twice and have been critical of PBS's lack of a detailed explanation about why NOW, in particular, was being cancelled. I was at a conference out of town last week when PBS, on Jan. 13, during the annual television press tour in Los Angeles, did announce some new information about the replacement project, and I wanted to make it also available to readers of this column. The new, hour-long program will be called "Need to Know," which strikes me as a good title, if it actually lives up to the promise to tell viewers what they need to know — and, I would add, have a right to know — about the important topics of our times.

The press release is actually quite long but not terribly detailed, and its length and self-affirming nature slightly diminish my personal hopes that spring from the title. But please read it and form your own preliminary sense about what it is that will debut Friday evening, May 7, at 8:30 on PBS television and online at PBS.org.


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