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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag

The volume of mail landing in the ombudsman's mailbox seems to have slowed in the last several months. Maybe that's good news for PBS and means that viewers are finding less to complain about. Or maybe it's just the winter blahs. Or maybe, aside from the usual suspects — Frontline, Bill Moyers Journal, NOW and various segments of the NewsHour — there haven't been other PBS programs in quite a while on subjects that provoke viewers and stir things up. Aside from the always engaging public affairs programs mentioned above, the last thing that seemed to stir viewer passions (at least conservatives) was an older segment of Sesame Street, repeated in October, about "Pox News."

Whatever the reason, it means the PBS NewsHour has been getting probably a disproportionate amount of the mail because it is out there broadcasting five nights a week and reporting about the controversial issues that concern most people. So, this edition of the ombudsman's mailbag focuses mostly on viewer reactions to a few NewsHour segments, and omissions in coverage, during the last two weeks. These segments did not provoke a great deal of mail, but they are interesting.

For context, I should also note, as I've done before, that, in my opinion, the overwhelming majority of NewsHour segments are valuable, informative and go well beyond the depth of coverage on specific issues available elsewhere on television. Indeed, there is material on every night that is routinely first-rate. Last night's program (Feb. 3), for example, continued the excellent reporting from Haiti by senior correspondent Ray Suarez and included a fascinating segment by senior correspondent Jeffrey Brown on the military's use of ancient Greek drama to help soldiers and Marines understand the timeless quality of pain and mental anguish brought on by warfare.

Now, back to the ombudsman's role. Two of the segments that attracted recent viewer attention deal with appearances by Republican politicians as guests, one with Rep. Scott Garrett of New Jersey on Jan. 21 and the other with Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas on Jan. 29. A sampling of critical viewer e-mails (there were also telephone calls about both of these interviews) is printed below, along with a detailed NewsHour response to questions about the Hensarling interview, in particular. Both of those interviews also grabbed my attention as I watched them unfold.

The Garret interview, by senior correspondent Judy Woodruff, followed a separate interview with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Garrett, as Woodruff pointed out, is the leading Republican on the House Financial Services Committee and helped draft many of his party's recommendations for financial regulatory reform. Her first question to Garrett was about President Obama's new, just-presented regulatory proposals. "Tell us, overall, your take on the president's proposals today," she asked.

But rather than do that, Garrett proceeded to attack what Geithner had said in the preceding interview and, as it appeared to me, essentially rolled over Woodruff and rather skillfully and forcefully ran away with the interview. Woodruff struggled to bring Garrett and the interview back to the president's proposals and did succeed in bringing some focus to it. But watching this, I felt for Woodruff, who is very professional, because I think that kind of sharp partisan attack right out of the box at the start of an interview — on a guest who is not there to respond — strikes me as hard to anticipate and hard to recover from quickly on live television. On the other hand, the audience can judge for itself what is happening.

The Jan. 29 segment also involved an interview by Woodruff, this time with Texas Congressman Hensarling. The interview came in the aftermath of the unusual, fascinating and televised appearance of President Obama with House Republican lawmakers earlier in the day. The issue here for me, however, is not the quality of the interview, in which Woodruff did point out what the president had said on several points, but rather why the NewsHour chose to present a fairly lengthy, solo interview with a Republican who was at the meeting in the aftermath of a long session between Obama and Republican questioners. In fact, Hensarling had asked the president a question about the budget at the Republican meeting that Obama had answered at some length. The NewsHour and correspondent Woodruff also came in for some rough handling on this interview by Trudy Lieberman writing in the Columbia Journalism Review.

So, in both of these cases, you have rather long opportunities for Republican politicians at important moments to lay out their cases with some, but not much, challenge.

Here Are Some of the Letters

My husband and I are accustomed to seeing guests on NewsHour sharing their views in a calm and reasoned manner — not attacking previous guests, as was the case with Scott Garrett. I'm not a fan of Tim Geithner, but Garrett was the most clearly partisan guest I can recall seeing on your show. We can get partisan attacks on other stations. We expect better from PBS.

Debbie Denton, Clarksville, TN

I just watched the PBS NewsHour on the new suggested banking regulations proposed by the President. Why did you have Rep. Scott Garrett on? Why not have an economist instead of a political person? I wanted to understand what was proposed and its impact on me and banks/economy. I did not want partisan talk. I am so tired of talking heads. I would prefer some reports where a reporter looks into both sides of an issue. Just asking questions gets boring, especially if they have an agenda to push. I could have done without Secretary Geithner too since he did not answer the questions. What a waste of my time. After this segment I hardly know more. Get more non-partisan people to discuss or explain things. Not just questions but a talk explaining things. Robert Krulwich does a nice clear explanation of things.

Silver Spring, MD

On the Rep. Hensarling Interview

I was very irritated by a segment on Friday, January 29, on the NewsHour. The lead-in piece discussed President Obama's unusual televised question and answer session with the Republicans earlier in the day. Both the Republican viewpoint, as expressed in the questions asked, and the President's views, as expressed in the answers, were reported. This is legitimate and interesting news.

The report was, however, followed by Judy Woodruff's long and superfluous interview with Republican Jeb Hensarling — an uninterrupted attempt to "spin" the news already presented. I had heard the questions and the answers. I did not need to hear a Republican reinterpretation to conclude the story. The interview amounted to a Republican ad — brought to us via Public Television.

The impression left in the mind of at least this viewer was not one of impartiality on the part of your reporter, Judy Woodruff. Allowing the imposition of her bias (in this case, not so subtle) in the presentation of your news broadcast does not reflect well on the journalistic integrity of a program long regarded as the hallmark of news reporting professionalism.

Washington, DC

I have never complained about Judy Woodruff before, but she has been increasingly bothering me, and tonight, when she didn't even question a Republican after he said Obama had sought to "nationalize health care" that was too much. If only he had! Gwen Ifill's cynicism is getting to me, too. The only person I really respect is Bill Moyers. No one on the right is watching you anyway.

P.S. I did find helpful David Brooks' comment about the parties not knowing what each other think or say. More of that kind of info and less of journalists interviewing each other and vying to be more "moderate" and tolerant of Republican obstructionism. Thank you, too, to Jim Lehrer for calling Shields on Richmond as the Confederacy. As a transplanted Southerner, I get sick of the idea that Southerners are all racists and Northerners are not racist.

New York, NY

An Exchange of Thoughts

What prompted this letter (after months of shaking my head and muttering over your NewsHour's attempts at "even-handed balanced coverage") was your Friday, January 29th Lead Story. I watched the show twice to make sure my first impression was not a false one.

With Judy Woodruff's intro included, President Obama and his exchange with the House Republicans ran for approximately 8-and-a-half to 9 minutes. Per your edited piece, the Republican House Members couched their questions in quite lengthy Party-friendly terms that made their Party's position quite clear even as they tried to put the President "on the spot." The President answered the questions, briefly or at length, without seeming to dissemble or duck any of them. As edited and aired, it was a basic, straight-forward, quite serviceable report of an interesting and newsworthy exchange between the President and those Republican House Members. Republican viewers probably thought the House Members came out ahead, Democrats probably thought the President did. Good Lead Story, handled fairly and honestly.

Done? Move on to the next story or to your In-house analysts, Shields and Brooks? Logical, but — did not happen.

[NewsHour Executive Producer] Linda Winslow — via Judy Woodruff — opted to give a Republican House Member from Texas a 7-minute platform to expound on his ("un-rebutted" by Ms. Woodruff) Republican Party talking points to, in essence, "re-butt" the answers the President had already given to the House Republican Members in the earlier exchange. Repeat. Exchange-give-and-take: both sides giving/taking. Why then an additional 7 minutes to the Republicans? Totally uncalled-for and unnecessary. That's not covering the news, that's basically pandering to the Republicans. It was unprofessional, patently dishonest and unfair-to your viewers, and to the President.

Speaking of unprofessional, why would Judy Woodruff ask this House Member if he "believed" the President when Mr. Obama said he was not an Ideologue? Did she think the President was lying?

There are some seriously questionable judgment (or lack of judgment) calls being made at the NewsHour that are very troublesome to me and I'm sure many others. Moreover, the "lets get some 'Expert' from both sides (right/left, republican/democrat, liberal/conservative) and let them expound on the topic at hand" approach, without any checks/balances or serious challenges by your On-Air Talent may seem even-handed, balanced coverage to some of your viewers. It's really disingenuous, and a disservice to all your viewers. Occasionally, please, have your people make some independent assessments, and share these informed judgments with your viewers — it's called "reporting."

It's fine to help clarify how difficult a problem is and how polarized the opposing factions are, but the viewer also needs some help on the rightness/wrongness of the arguments being propagated, and sometimes, maybe what other folks with no "axe to grind" might be advocating as possible solutions. That's Reporting. We sometimes get coverage like that from you, but not enough, or often enough.

Eric V. Tait, Jr., New York City, NY

Here's Linda Winslow's Response

Dear Mr. Tait, thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful and thought-provoking note. I appreciate the constructive nature of your criticism. I think you have done an excellent job of summarizing the content of the program in general, and the lead segment in particular. I was as disappointed in the interview with Rep. Hensarling as you were, but for a different reason. We invited him to give us his reaction to the meeting, which his party's leadership had just used words like "unprecedented" and "extraordinary" and "first ever" to describe. For that reason, we had invited those GOP leaders to talk to us after the meeting but they had schedule conflicts and suggested Congressman Hensarling instead.

Our goal was to explore the questions the President raised about the need for more dialogue with each other and more attention to governing the country — together. We were interested in learning whether the President's appearance had had any impact on the attitudes of the GOP members in the room. As you correctly note, the Congressman did not seem interested in answering those questions; he chose to stick to his talking points. And yes, Judy did not scold him for doing that. I think she thought the audience would see what was happening but judging by your reaction, it clearly wasn't that obvious.

As for all the other occasions that made you mutter at your television set, I can only say I'm sorry you think we're losing our edge. Lots of people share your opinion — especially in this 24/7 era when many people have come to expect more energetic slap-downs from reporters and correspondents. It may be that we are indeed out of step with the times. Or it may be that those who find us a bastion of reason in a loud and rude universe filled with odd bits of infotainment will help keep us going. Whatever . . .

Sincerely, Linda Winslow

On Those 'Melting' Glaciers

I know it is hard to admit error, or having been fooled, but shouldn't PBS get out in front and do a hard-hitting story on the many revelations issuing from Climategate? The claim, now retracted by the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] themselves, that the Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2035. (followed by the quiet removal of the claim by NASA from their Web page, with no explanation). The reliance on the World Wildlife Fund for about 20 non-peer-reviewed references in the 4th report of the IPCC. The quiet removal of the last 20 years of tree-ring data when they showed the opposite relation with temperature that had been relied on for extending the temperature records back to centuries without thermometers. The mysterious claims that the Urban Heat Island had almost no effect on temperature records, when hundreds of volunteers took photographs of the thousand or so US sites showing that only about 11% met the siting criteria. Presumably you know about all this, but in case you don't you could check on the winners for Best Science Blogs in the last two years — climateaudit and wattsupwiththat. This will be extremely hard for you, but the story now has legs and if you want to retain (or regain) the trust of your listeners it would be better to get out ahead of it.

Lance Wallace, Reston, VA

(Ombudsman's Note: The NewsHour carried a report on Dec. 15 about evidence of the "alarming" glacial melting in the Himalayas but has not carried any news thus far about reports, first published in Britain's Sunday Times late in January, that the IPCC had made significant errors in its major 2007 report on the impact of global warning, including a claim that there was a strong likelihood that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035. The IPCC, soon after the newspaper report, acknowledged that this timeline was a "poorly substantiated" claim. This is a significant story and correction, but it has not yet been reported on the NewsHour. When asked about that, senior producer Murrey Jacobson says they hope to get back to this subject soon. The NewsHour is not alone in doing rather little with this story. The U.S. press, in general, has come in for some criticism.)

Missing Howard Zinn

I was disappointed with the lack of coverage by the PBS NewsHour on the death of Howard Zinn. Unfortunately, I feel this is symptomatic of the quality of the NewsHour, which has become bland and is less informative then it should be. Thankfully our local PBS station (WSKG) provides the BBC World News program, which is somewhat of an improvement.

Newark Valley, NY

On tonight's PBS NewsHour (January 28), I saw no mention of the death of Howard Zinn. In my view, he was equally important as J. D. Salinger. Why no mention of his passing? Not to diminish or belittle Salinger, by any means. But Howard Zinn spoke for the disaffected and marginalized of our society, just as Salinger did.

Paul Whiting, Billings, MT

Wow! PBS really showed its colors in its reaction to the death of Howard Zinn!

Geoff Gall, Seattle, WA

(Ombudsman's Note: There was nothing on the NewsHour's broadcasts about Zinn — an American historian, author and civil liberties and anti-war activist — but there was an online reference in the Art Beat blog that included a link to a 2003 interview on the NewsHour. National Public Radio did pull together a timely, four-minute radio piece on Zinn on the All Things Considered program the night after he died. That segment included some praise from supporters of the controversial activist but also some harsh words about the departed by one of his critics. That, in turn, kicked off lots of mail from listeners and an interesting column by NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard.)

'Toyota Recall, You Know'

I just watched [Jan. 27] a NewsHour, you know, interview with, you know, Jessica Caldwell, you know, from Edmonds.com, you know on PBS, you know, about the Toyota, you know, recall, you know. It was not very, you know, enlightening, you know, but took a lot of, you know air time, you know.

NO, I don't know. I have opinions but look to you for expertise. you know??? How about finding commentators with a, you know, a vocabulary. America's viewers deserve better.

Edd Roggenkamp, Versailles, KY

On the NewsHour this evening [Feb. 2], Paul Solman interviewed the CEO of TD-Mellon bank. In the banker's comments, he explained that "they invested in securities rated AAA that turned out to be worthless." This problem jumped out to me at the beginning of the meltdown. The rating firms, Moody. Standard and Poor, Fitch, all received fees for rating securities. It was their responsibility to investigate the viability of the companies involved. They failed in that responsibility in a criminal manner yet I have not heard a word about their being investigated and held responsible for their malfeasance, if that is the word. Can Mr. Solman do a piece on that subject to shine a light on the matter? If not, why? Thank you for taking my question.

Don Boink, O.D., Brewster, MA