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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag

I mentioned in a Mailbag a few weeks ago that viewers, at least those who write to me, haven't seemed very stirred-up in recent months about many PBS offerings, and that leaves the PBS NewsHour as the program that is now getting a disproportionate share of the mail since it is out there five nights a week reporting on and discussing the issues of the day. So this week's Mailbag, again, is heavily about recent NewsHour segments.

The first group of emails continues a discussion about a Feb. 15 segment dealing with a network of sobriety checkpoints on California highways that snares more unlicensed drivers than drunk drivers and that has an especially big impact on illegal immigrants. I wrote about that in my column of Feb. 19 and some of the mail deals with reaction to the column as well.

Another group of letters deals with a Feb. 23 discussion, in part, about the administration's plans to move ahead with repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" in favor of allowing gays to serve openly. But it also included a "wider look" and broader discussion with "experts on gay rights issues" examining not only the shifting politics of sexual orientation in the armed forces, but beyond that to where the overall situation regarding gay rights in the country seems to stand these days.

In the aftermath of that broadcast, a sharp critique of the discussion and of the performance of segment host, senior correspondent Judy Woodruff, appeared on the conservative Web site NewsBusters.org written by Tim Graham, Director of Media Analysis at the Media Research Center. Graham's article clearly drove some letters toward my mailbox. Graham argued that there really was no debate but that "PBS booked three gay-promoting liberal academics and pollster Andrew Kohut to talk about 'American attitudes evolving.'"

Graham has a point in that there were no voices of opposition on the panel to some or all of the gay rights issues, and that seemed obvious to me, as well, considering the degree to which this is still a divisive issue. He also argued that there was no rebuttal, for example, to Yale professor George Chauncey who talked about the "Christian right and its allies" who "have continued to demonize gay people, to compare them to the most despicable things . . ."

On the other hand, this was not billed as a "debate" by the NewsHour but rather as a "wider look" at the issue, and I thought in general it turned out to be a useful discussion of how some things are changing yet how "attitudes across the country cannot be homogenized," as Chauncey put it. Indeed, Woodruff asked Chauncey about "those who feel passionately that this is wrong, what are their prospects — that greater acknowledgment and acceptance of gays is wrong — what are their prospects for making their views more widely accepted?"

And the presence on the panel of Andrew Kohut, president and director of the Pew Research Center, added considerable balance and complexity, through statistics, to the broader picture. I thought without Kohut's presence, this segment, and its absence of opposition voices, would have been more vulnerable to criticism.

Kohut made clear that Pew polling showed "pretty broad based support" for allowing gays to serve openly in the armed forces (61 percent, a sharp change from a much more divided public in the early 1990s). "But when we ask people should homosexuality be an acceptable — an accepted way of life," Kohut continued, "you get still a pretty close division of opinion, not that much change — some change over the years. When we ask, is homosexuality morally wrong, you still find about 49 percent of the public saying it's morally wrong. So, there is a lot of movement with respect to rights, [but] very small, modest movement, mostly generationally-based, with respect to the acceptance, broader acceptance of homosexuality in American society."

On the Road Again (in California)

The writer [ombudsman] states: "I'm sympathetic to those who feel that reporting about immigration issues too often fails to take into account the views of those who suffer in various ways from the inflow of persons who enter this country illegally, or who object to this form of immigration simply because it breaks the law."

Illegal aliens impact every aspect of American society except the weather. According to a report by Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, member of the California Budget Committee, it costs Californians $10.5 Billion a year to educate medicate and incarcerate illegal aliens. Illegals don't pay income tax and if they do, they report such low wages that they get money back, California has a deficit of $20 Billion, per Gov. Schwarzenegger.

U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), reported that an average of 12 Americans are killed daily by DUI illegal aliens. That's more than the American war casualties in Afghanistan. Giving illegal aliens driver's licenses will not stop them from drinking. Moreover, they want driver's licenses to use as legal ID documents. They can always leave them home and claim they don't have one to avoid losing them. Illegal aliens have contempt for our laws.

Illegal aliens buy old clunker cars that are easily replaced. We should not do anything to make life easier for illegal aliens. They are in the U.S. illegally. By the way, I am an American citizen of Hispanic heritage and I am against illegal immigration.

West Hills, CA

When you say, "I'm sympathetic to those . . . who object to this form of immigration SIMPLY because it breaks the law." And refer to the immigration system as "broken" then it does not read as if you are sympathetic.

You are referring to someone who already broke the law by coming into the US illegally. One either breaks the law or doesn't. It is even less "simple" if one is deliberately committing the crime. The world is full of people who would like to be in the US. The system is not broken. People from all over the world come into the US legally every year. Doing so illegally deserves nothing less than deportation. And the last thing that is deserved is a job, a car and the ability to more easily kill US citizens and to kill themselves while manning a ton steel at high speed. To pour salt on the illegal immigration wound, the illegal worker is sending his non-taxed billions back to another country and so deprives the US of those resources, and taxes US social services while illegally squatting in the US. And you wonder why people are angry and flying planes into US government buildings where innocent Americans are just trying to do their job collecting legitimate taxes.

Dwight Bobson, Washington, DC

I didn't see the PBS story (I don't even have a TV), but I read the New York Times article by Ryan Gabrielson that must be regarded as a companion to the video story.

Here's what I think is the crucial question: Would the NYT article (and the PBS story) have even been reported without the suffering-illegal-aliens angle? You can tell from my question that I don't think so. In the Times article, we read "in 2009, impoundments at checkpoints generated an estimated $40 million in towing fees and police fines statewide." As far as governmental money flows in the Golden State go, this is sub-chickenfeed.

Also, in his article, Gabrielson wrote, "Law enforcement officials say demographics play no role in determining where the police establish checkpoints. But records show that cities where Hispanics make up a majority of the population are seizing cars at three times the rate of cities with small minority populations." As I communicated to Gabrielson via email, there's a powerful lot of editorializing in his word "But."

Paul Nachman, Bozeman, MT

A very important aspect that has not been mentioned is that illegal aliens/undocumented immigrants, besides driving without operators licenses, are also driving without mandatory insurance. All states, including California, require insurance on a vehicle. Why should illegals get a pass on this? It decreases the safety and drives up the cost of insurance for the law-abiding portion of the public. The solution to this situation lies with Congress which either needs to create a "guest worker" program, or make the funds available and insist that ICE deport every illegal, or find some workable solution in between. Congress has apparently decided the problem is "too tough to work" and is ignoring it. This present situation where the politicians will not take a stance and come up with a solution does not do people in this country any favors.

F. Wilson, Tempe, AZ

The whole subject of illegal immigration, particularly in the Southwest, is further complicated by the history that most Americans dismiss as an outdated footnote while the Hispanic community often views it as a current issue very much alive. That is the fact that before the territory was annexed by force of arms many "Anglo" Americans arrived "illegally" under the existing laws of Mexico or Spain and justified it with "manifest destiny" and "might makes right."

We need to get a handle on this cultural memory before we can come up with a lasting solution to the problem that is fair and just for all parties concerned. Indeed, in the current global society the issue may need to be addressed on a hemisphere-wide basis involving Canada and the Central American countries as well. When the need for leaving the home country is alleviated the impetus for immigration will diminish. Except for the need of American farmers who need the migrants to pick the crops that we all depend on and wish to buy in the grocery store at the lowest possible price.

Patrick Stinson, Annandale, VA

Some of those [comments from last week] earlier seem to have forgotten that 30% of the Hispanics in CA were born in the States and in 5 years 50% of all the population will be of immigrant families in CA. BUT that doesn't make them illegal or alien. That just makes them first or second-generation American citizens. If one looked up my street one would find 75% or more are of another country and not white. The DUI's should not be determined by the nationality or skin color but the fact that they are DUI's. Whites drink too much alcohol, too, and they as much as anyone else must be stopped and fined. My neighbor's brother from Guatemala was deported for DUI — on the third time, not the first. We may be better off following the rules for everyone.

Patricia Wilson, San Jose, CA

Viewers Tell About 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

On Tuesday night [Feb. 23], the PBS NewsHour discussed the debate over gays in the military, but that didn't mean there was a debate on the show. Instead, PBS booked three gay-promoting liberal academics and pollster Andrew Kohut to talk about "American attitudes evolving." The liberal hope and dream of suppressing religious speech against homosexuality was blatantly expressed by Georgetown history professor Michael Kazin.

Ms. Walters [Suzanna Walters, professor of gender studies at the University of Indiana], at the end of the discussion [talked about] "achieving a deeper sense of integration." We, too, would like to see further "integration" of a conservative in PBS and the NewsHour. And an honest conservative, not a David Brooks one. From now on, this is what is to be called "diversity". Not skin color diversity, but diversity of ideas or views.

Bill Rickords, Wichita, KS

I am very interested in the conservative right getting their chance to talk about homosexuality on PBS. Specifically, I would like to hear the evidence — not Biblical quotations or religious positions — but real, tangible, statistical, evidence that gays are a danger to the nation and especially to committed heterosexual marriage. Where is the evidence, as opposed to the demonization and dehumanization, which history shows are preludes to violence, indeed state-sanctioned violence and discrimination?

Lincoln, NE

My taxes go to PBS and all I get is a liberal viewpoint on gays everywhere? Where am I represented? Why isn't the viewpoint that gay promotion hurts society not presented? Where is the viewpoint that biblical speech would be outlawed as a hate crime like in Europe not debated? Shame on PBS. Just because Woodruff and Co. speak in hushed tones doesn't mean they're not speaking in bigoted anti-tradition inflammatory rhetoric.

T. Roberson, San Leandro, CA

It is offensive to have a social agenda promoted as "news" as was the case in the one-sided extolling "progress" of the gay lifestyle. Historically the NewsHour is known for balanced reporting your producers missed that standard.

Batavia, IL

As a longtime viewer of the NewsHour and someone who appreciates its "long-form" journalism and generally objective POV, I was dismayed by the "Gay Rights" segment aired on Tuesday evening. Without any pretense of objectivity, the NewsHour gave voice to three liberal academics and one pollster who proceeded to attack and vilify Christian and conservative positions on this controversial subject. Unless I am mistaken, it is a core principle of journalistic ethics to seek comments from BOTH sides of any issue worthy of debate. The NewsHour's failure to include even one "alternative" viewpoint on its "diverse" panel of guests AND the softball questions from the interviewer (Judy Woodruff) was, at best, lazy journalism and, at worst, biased reporting (which, by the way, compromised the whole premise of the segment — who's to say middle America is any more receptive to the Pro-Gay Agenda today than a decade ago? A liberal pollster?)

New York, NY

Decisions, Decisions

I want to commend Gwen Ifill for calling Erich Pica [President of Friends of the Earth] to task during an interview earlier this week [Feb. 17]. He said something she knew to be untrue and she told him so, politely, but firmly. I wish all journalists were as savvy and conscientious. It is about time that responsible journalists quit allowing lies, exaggerations, and misrepresentations to go unchallenged. If politicians and partisan opinionators knew their so-called "facts" would be scrutinized, and that they might be embarrassed on live TV by journalists who contradict them, they might become more careful. Too many lies, too much hyperbole, and too much inflammatory rhetoric are in large part to blame for the inability of government to make any legislative progress on the many problems plaguing this country. Responsible journalists seem to be hard to find these days. Thank you, Ms. Ifill, for your fair, diligent, and informed interview style.

Barbara McAtee, Overland Park, KS

My husband and I depend almost exclusively on PBS to get fair, unbiased news. You have very skilled journalists asking questions and leading the discussion, as a rule. That's why I was shocked when Gwen Ifill just disagreed with someone she was interviewing. The discussion was about nuclear power and the environmental guest expressed his displeasure about President Obama not making the tough decisions about the problems with nuclear power. Her comment to him was something like, "He is making decisions, they just aren't the ones you like." If I were a guest, I don't think I'd appreciate "attacks" from the journalist interviewing me. Are the journalist not supposed to be objective?

Jean Paddock, Atlanta, GA

(Ombudsman's Note: Here's the transcript of the segment that both of the letters above refer to. I thought Ifill, in the context of the questions and answers, made a valid point.)

Other Matters

It sounds like all Toyota all the time on PBS. Why the piling on? I don't remember any wall-to-wall coverage of the larger big three recalls of the past. It is not front page in the NYT (Business Section, yes); why is it so often the lead on PBS?

John Castellano, S. Fla, FL

I just finished watching the Frontline episode "Flying Cheap" over the internet. I was really impressed with the journalistic zeal shown by Miles O'Brien. I hope to see more of Mr. O'Brien in the future. The second point I would like to raise is with regards to the respect that I have for the Frontline series. I have been watching Frontline long enough to know that the show tackles issues that are on the precipice of a disaster. Frontline is one of the only shows that leave me feeling that things will get better.

James Considine, Baltimore, MD

The lack of coverage, and biased coverage by PBS of the great global warming fraud that in unfolding worldwide tells me that PBS is merely a propaganda outlet . . . and no, I am not a Republican, a Conservative, paid by an oil or tobacco company, or any of the other pejoratives hurled at anyone who speaks out against this gigantic fraud. I design ecologically sound, small footprint homes. I believe that PBS needs to be investigated for conflict of interest after the BBC was found to be an active promoter of the global warming fraud — because they heavily invested their 8bn pension fund in warming related stock.

Mark Randa, Two Rivers, WI

(Ombudsman's Note: Britain's Daily Express newspaper recently reported on this.)

You fail to provide adequate coverage of the scientific case against AGW. For example, here is a report which directly contradicts Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth"! The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) issued a stunning statement in a recent report. Roger Pielke Jr. has the details on his blog.

James Papsdorf, Whimore Lake, MI

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