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PBS Ombudsman

The Snowbag

Like a lot of other people and places, the ombudsman and his office were snowed in for much of the past week. E-mail, however, is pretty much weather-proof so the correspondence has continued and here is a sampling of what landed in our electronic inbox. The first batch of letters refer to some comments in last week's ombudsman's mailbag. Some of the longer letters refer to two recent documentaries — an American Experience film on "The Bombing of Germany" during World War II and Frontline's "Flying Cheap," about the deadly connector airliner crash outside Buffalo a year ago.

Here Are the Letters

The reason you are receiving less complaints might be due to the fact of [PBS] not airing or presenting your viewpoints without the whole truth. Why not run Muslims against Jihad? Why don't you have experts talk about their fields of expertise rather than career politicians? You have joined others to bring about the destruction of what a lot of people believe in. Stick with Sesame Street, it is the only good thing going for PBS.

Houston, TX

I can proffer another reason as to why your mailbag is less full these days. My state's [Georgia] Public TV network seems to devote entire swaths of programming almost every weekend and some weeknights to raising money. Therefore the preponderance of shows we get is either one more of those self-help gurus or another tired salute to music of a not so bygone era. The result is also that anything that could be REMOTELY controversial is preempted, like Bill Moyers and NOW. They show those on Sunday afternoons and I have given up tuning in to see if THEY are really being shown.

Happened to be at a locale last week that didn't have cable, but had a digital converter box, and wonder of wonders, there were 3 public channels, one of which was the "Knowledge" channel and I caught Mr. Moyers' show with his coverage of the recent SC decision. To all those who think Moyers is liberally biased, he played Devil's advocate with the 2 female guests who were bemoaning the anticipated effects of the decision. He also had a salute to Howard Zinn and I was most impressed by his interview with the AFL-CIO head who was a very reasonable, rational, and informed guest. Belies the stereotype most folks have of a Union boss.

By all means pass these comments along to GPB. I have made these same comments in the past with little impact and have been a consistent donor. However, there is no way that I can offset the Republican controlled legislature's continuing budget cuts to Public TV and radio. Unfortunately, GPB runs scared of the Republicans and has shifted most intelligent and thoughtful programming to the .3 digital channel (or the dead space of early Sunday afternoons) which isn't seen by the great majority of viewers in the state.

D. Williams, Macon, GA

Please advise [NewsHour Executive Producer] Linda Winslow that I do not believe the correct incorrect word that she used [in last week's Mailbag] in response to Eric V. Tait, Jr., New York City, NY is infotainment. I believe the word that she should have used is edutainment. As the Chief Engineer of the television studio of a large online degree provider I am qualified to make this judgment. In the past sixteen years I have witnessed myriad somnificient educational lectures all of them "needing to be more exciting." I am always excited by new knowledge of which I am untutored. That is not enough today we need some sizzle.

Mike Knight, Tampa, FL

It seems the conservative politicians and commentators come loaded with vicious talking points. They do not seem interested is open discussion. Perhaps the media should re-educate them. They should be advised in advance of the format and tone of the program. If they do not agree to comply they should not be invited. If they are invited and fail to comply they should not be invited again. The public is getting sick of these one-way diatribes. We are smart enough to know that issues are complicated and deserve in-depth analysis. That requires thoughtful questions by the interviewer and thoughtful, responsive replies by the guest.

Barbara McAtee, Overland Park, KS

'The Bombing of Germany'

Unfortunately this film falls far short of expectations. The treatment is superficial and incomplete, apologist and idealized, and much time is spent on ancillary details rather than telling the broader story. The underlying problem of collateral damage is undiscussed, making it seem as if such damage only occurred with obscurity of the site. On the contrary, bombing from the air was highly inaccurate under the best of circumstances. "Precision bombing," however aspirational, was a fiction, unknown in fact before the Iraq war. Civilian casualties began long before the cited attacks, and were an accepted cost of warfare as long as there was any military value to the adjacent targets. The moral line was crossed from the very beginning, and knowingly.

The most notorious bombing of all was the Dresden affair, hardly mentioned and omitted from operations detail. This was the most important raid of all, and not even a picture is shown. 100,000 civilians were killed, in this film reduced to a fly-by utterance. There is no mention of U-13, the incendiary used in Dresden and Tokyo, now known as napalm. Its only purpose was to set vast fires to wooden structures and incinerate populations. The weapon was a deliberate instrument of genocide.

There is no mention of the formalization of the concept of "terror bombing" (as it was officially called by the US command that practiced it), as it was applied explicitly in the Pacific theatre, at the same time as it was being practiced in the European theatre. The notion that America held out nobly in defense of innocent civilians is false. American commanders in general did not want to waste ordnance on targets of no military industrial value. Moral considerations were limited by the need to prevail.

The nationalistic fervor incited in England by the bombing of London showed how nations were brought together internally by the victimization of civilian targeting. The point is poorly made that civilian bombing did not work as a demoralizing force, until the final exception of use of the atom bomb in Japan. Limitation of the discussion to Germany only limits the effectiveness of seeing what the overall policy was and what its results were.

The notion that the US crossed a moral divide at a certain point is revisionist hindsight, given the behavior of enemies in total war. Who is to judge? This point is made just barely by the film. The film should be re-written, expanded to cover the major bombing raids, with the greatest detail for the most destructive raids, and edited after peer historical review. The "Bombing of Germany and Japan" would create a more consistent and complete record.

David Searles, Milford, NH

Here's a Response from American Experience

We read Mr. Searles' email about "The Bombing of Germany" with interest, and respectfully disagree with his assessment of the film and its underlying ideas. Producer Zvi Dor-Ner's film explores important differences between British and American military doctrine concerning the aerial bombardment of Germany during the Second World War, and is well-supported by mainstream historical scholarship. While his one-hour film is hardly the last word on the Allied bombing in the European theater, we believe it makes a valuable contribution to public understanding of a complex and controversial subject. The film makes the case that the while the British embraced terror bombing of cities and civilians — not merely out of "nationalistic fervor," as Searles suggests, but also because British efforts at precision bombing proved too costly in men and material — the Americans emphasized the bombing of Germany military targets. The Dresden raids, mentioned but not emphasized in the film, actually demonstrate the underlying thesis on the program, inasmuch as it was British aircraft that attacked the city, while American bombers took aim at transportation hubs. Contrary to Searles' assertion, the program does not argue that "America held out nobly in defense of innocent civilians," but notes instead that the American decision was made primarily for military and operational reasons. While the film does not address "the underlying problem of collateral damage" to Searles' satisfaction, it does explicitly acknowledge that the American effort to hit only military targets was unsuccessful, and that civilians died as a result. We respect Mr. Searles' opinion and thank him for taking the time to share it, but we stand behind Dor-Ner's film.

Paul Taylor, Senior Editor, American Experience

Last evening [Feb. 8] I watched 'Bombing of Germany'. I get more than a little annoyed with these latter-day experts who analyse, with great objectivity, and 20/20 hindsight. I found the sanctimonious woman particular irritating. I am a great grandmother, widow of a veteran, survivor of the blitz, and the buzz bombs and V2's. My husband, who I met when he was serving in the Canadian Army in England, was born in Holland. His grand parents died in Rotterdam, one of first German attacks on civilians. I was a schoolgirl during the Blitz, we spent every night in the air raid shelter, while the bombers droned overhead, and we heard the scream of the bombs. We did not know where they would land and neither did the Germans. When some of these 'experts' have gone to school in the morning, looking at the new bomb damage on the way, to hear that 3 schoolmates and their mother have been killed, then they can comment. Till then don't judge. The RAF saved us and the world from Hitler in the Battle of Britain. They went night after night into the hostile skies over Germany, many never to return. When the US finally put in an appearance in 1942, we had seen our cities obliterated, 30,000 dead, countless homes destroyed (one member of my family was bombed out twice), and if the RAF was giving them some of their own back then more power to them.

If we Brits had not had the guts to take all that Hitler could dish out, and had folded like the French, there would have been no war for the US to 'win single handedly' as the movies and documentaries so often tell us.

Joan Reichardt, Nelson, BC, Canada

'Flying Cheap'

I just want to say that being a regional airline pilot for almost 4 years was a very eye-opening experience for me. I want to thank Miles O'Brien and the team he worked with for putting this story together. PBS sometimes feels like the last bastion of genuine, reliable news reporting left in the US. This story really needed to be told and I think you did a fantastic job doing it, I just hope that it airs more than once though. Great job guys!

Seattle, WA

Frontline's Flying Cheap was excellent and chilling and a great example of the way PBS serves the public interest. I hope last night's show lights a fire under the asses of the FAA to make some real changes. I just flew to Wisconsin and back last week on Delta Connection (Com-Air) and although everything went smoothly there is always cause for concern with these small regional carriers. Job well done, keep it up!

Howard Grossman, New York, NY

I just tuned out of the Frontline piece on the Colgan Air crash. It strikes me as being a pack of crudely sensationalized distortion. The crash revealed plenty of real problems which could have been dealt with honestly and accurately. First, My qualifications to comment: I hold commercial pilot ratings for single and multi-engine airplanes, instrument airplane, commercial helicopter, and a DC-3 type rating. For ten years, I was a flight instructor in single and multiengine airplanes and an instrument flight instructor.

Now into the morass . . . Near the beginning of the piece is a shot from inside a control tower, but the background audio is departure control, a function not handled in an airport tower cab. O'Brien referred to the stick shaker as a "wheel shaker" and referred to the control yoke as a "wheel. No pilot would use such junk terminology. Yet you show him appearing to fly to Manassas solo in a single-engine airplane. Is he a pilot who is willing to read such ill-scripted twaddle or is he just an actor pretending to fly an airplane?

The piece says the captain of the fatal flight became a captain with just 600+ hours. That is true, but distorts the unmentioned fact that he had more than three thousand hours in that type of airplane — far more than enough to be thoroughly competent. His record and his apparent condition on the night of the crash were not good, but that does not justify hyping it up by putting his experience in the worst possible light. Let his record speak clearly and accurately for itself.

The NTSB investigation revealed plenty of problems which could have been presented accurately and still have gotten your main points across. However, you chose to spend a lot of time on tearful survivors and Congressional staffers with no obvious qualifications to comment.

I expect far more from PBS, especially an ostensibly reputable program such as "Frontline". You could have done a great deal to educate the public on both the NTSB process and its specific findings in this case. You could have made a powerful appeal to public sentiment to push the FAA into following up on the NTSB recommendations, but you sank to the level of the competition for the sale of sensationalism.

Ray Tackett, Philadelphia, PA

Dr. Amen and Other Matters

Why does PBS permit programs like Dr. Amen on its member stations? Your standards need to be strengthened to be credible and to require ethical practices of local stations. It is very sad that PBS member stations regularly prostitutes themselves with informercials that prey on vulnerable viewers. Dr Amen is just a bait and switch artist selling $3,000+ scans in his clinics. The dialogue between Dr Amen and the station host comes across strongly as a PBS endorsement of Dr Amen and his approaches.

Kenneth Bancroft, Timonium, MD

(Ombudsman's Note: Here's a link to a previous column on this subject.)

The Merrill Lynch ad tonite, 2/7/10, dismayed me, to say the least. I'd sooner entrust my money to the PLO or GM. Bad choice. And don't give me that stuff about it being an "institutional ad," that doesn't fly. I'm disappointed that PBS would accept it.

John Leach, Sarasota, FL

I can't imagine why some producer decided not to include the Howard University choir singing the spiritual "Lord, I Done Done" to open up the Civil Rights Program at the White House [Feb. 11]. Shame on all of you for such ham handed editing, and ignorant choices.

Martha Armes, New York, NY

I just saw 2 programs by PBS, the 1st on India was very well done, with a journalistic integrity that was wonderfully neutral and demonstrated the clear beauty and fascinating culture that is India. Second was the program on Iran . . . that could be subtitled "A white American's pollyannish view on what is fascinating and wrong with Iran" . . . the narrator/travel guide clearly had patriotism (USA), arrogance and scorn accompanied with a naivete that infected the production. It was the decided non-neutral presentation that made this production so much less than it could have been. A neutral presentation of this fascinating culture and its people could have served the public and the world greatly to bring about understanding that is sorely needed between Iran and the West. To his credit he did mention that the democratically-elected Shah was thrown out by a CIA-backed coup that objected to the Nationalization of Iran's oil reserves. Iran has had advanced civilizations long before the US was a gleam in Columbus' eye and continues to be a modern sophisticated society. His chastising of Iran was a real turn off . . . please keep your pollyanna opinions to your self Mr. Tourguide.

Steven Robertson, Aptos, CO

Tonight [Feb. 4], when watching the NewsHour, it was reported that there were very corrupt governments in Haiti. Your analyst, however, failed to mention that the United States is responsible for placing those governments, through use of force, in Haiti. The presidential election in Haiti in 1990 is often cited as the first democratic election in the country's history. It was won by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was sworn in as President of Haiti on 7 February 1991; he was deposed in a CIA-backed coup d'etat just eight months later, during the Clinton years . . . Haiti's only problem has been to have caught the eye of the American corporations as a place to outsource American jobs at slave wages. Thus, Haiti cannot help itself since the US has been interfering with it for decades and the French for years.

Joan Slezak Fritz, Oak Park, IL

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