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PBS Ombudsman

All You 'Need To Know,' for Now

This is a pretty long edition of the ombudsman's mailbag, but it is still only a shadow of the real thing. During the past week, my office has received about 3,000 e-mails from people, most of whom seemed to be subscribers to FAIR — the media watchdog group that describes itself as "progressive" and stands for "Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting" — and were spurred on by an online "action alert" on March 10.

What got the juices running at FAIR's headquarters was a New York Times story the day before reporting that the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, and editor of Newsweek, Jon Meacham, was in final talks to be co-host of a new prime-time PBS Friday night public affairs series called "Need To Know." The other host of the new hour-long program, which will debut May 7 at 8:30 p.m., is Alison Stewart, formerly of NPR and MSNBC.

But it is at Meacham, who has now, indeed, been signed up for "Need To Know," (and who will retain his Newsweek post) that FAIR launched its preemptive strike, and in doing so they took some very hard shots at a widely respected author, editor and commentator. Meacham, FAIR said, among other things, "is a fixture on commercial pundit shows in addition to his Newsweek duties. In these venues, he is a consummate purveyor of middle-of-the-road conventional wisdom with a conservative slant." The reason FAIR is so exercised about this is that the new "Need To Know" program will fill part of the time slot on Friday evenings that has been occupied for many years by Bill Moyers Journal and NOW on PBS, hosted by David Brancaccio. PBS announced in November that both of those shows will be ending their runs on April 30.

Part of a 'Revitalization'

PBS said back in November that the conclusion of these programs was part of its effort to "revitalize public media." Moyers, at the time, told the New York Times that he was 75 and "so I feel it's time." There was no detailed explanation for why NOW was ending its eight-year run.

Both Moyers and NOW are thought-provoking, leading-edge public affairs programs on PBS, often controversial but with a devoted following, and FAIR told its subscribers to tell PBS "that choosing Jon Meacham to host 'Need To Know' would mean that public television still needs to find suitable replacements for the hard-hitting, independent journalism of NOW and Bill Moyers Journal."

PBS didn't take FAIR's advice about Meacham and today, Neal Shapiro, president and CEO of WNET.ORG, officially announced the new hires. The program will be a production of Creative News Group for WNET.ORG, which is the parent company of New York public broadcast outlets THIRTEEN and WLIW21.

Shapiro said, "I can't think of two better anchors for 'Need To Know' than Alison and Jon. They bring years of journalistic experience in a variety of media, which makes them perfect for the program's innovative approach to news. I'm personally excited to see them on air and on-line together and I think PBS viewers will embrace them." The program was described as "a cross-media initiative built around a wide community of journalists and producers, with input from a savvy engaged audience" that "will cover five primary beats: the economy, the environment and energy, health, national security and culture."

Not Exactly 'Replacing' Moyers

Part of the problem in writing about what is happening here is that FAIR and others see the new program as "replacing" Moyers and NOW. That is true in one sense because it will fill 60 minutes of what was 90 minutes (60 for Moyers and 30 for NOW) every Friday night. But "Need To Know" is, indeed, billed as a different program and Moyers, especially, is not exactly replaceable. Whether one loves or hates his program, he is a television icon that occupies a unique place in American broadcasting. The removal of these two programs also produced hundreds of protesting e-mails well before the new program concept or Jon Meacham's name ever surfaced publicly.

As I wrote in the Dec. 4 column, "One can easily understand how the combination of these two particular programs being taken off the air simultaneously could be seen, certainly by many dedicated viewers, as signaling a move away from hard-hitting, controversial programs."

My view is to wait until this new program airs before making any judgments about its content, and to give it time to find its voice and pace. I can understand the anxiety of those viewers who feel, rightly in my view, that both Moyers, especially in his interviews, and NOW through its choice of subjects, frequently go after issues and personalities that simply don't get aired elsewhere on commercial networks.

Two other things come to mind. I'm an old guy, a dinosaur when it comes to the new digital world of news that is surrounding us. As an older viewer, and there are still a lot of us, I would hope that the new program does not sacrifice reportorial depth and fearlessness to technology in terms of where effort and resources are placed. And I wish the hosts well, especially Meacham, who I do not know but who is clearly a brainy, broad intellect. I would think that being the editor of Newsweek is a full-time job, as is the co-host, and driving force, behind a public affairs television program that millions of people will want to depend on. There are, of course, lots of people who can do more than one thing well. I hope he is one of them.

And There's More . . .

While we are on the subject of cancellations, there was a fair amount of mail this week also about WNET.org canceling "Worldfocus," its half-hour, weeknight international news program that gathered a number of awards in its brief 18-month run, but not enough financing. There is a sample letter farther down in this column and a response from PBS. But a more informative response is contained in a New York Times story of March 8. The last broadcast of Worldfocus is April 2.

Also below are several letters commenting on a segment of the PBS NewsHour on March 10 moderated by senior correspondent Jeffrey Brown dealing with climate change. The letters are critical of the segment and especially the appearance of a guest from the Cato Institute who challenges the conclusions of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). I thought this was a good segment that caught up with some criticisms, in previous columns, of the IPCC report that the NewsHour had not reported while at the same time presenting the view that acknowledges the embarrassing errors but still supports the broader scientific conclusions.

And to start things off, here are a couple of letters about my last column that dealt, in part with Tavis Smiley and an agenda that has nothing to do with PBS.

Smiley's Not the Problem

I just read some of the letters you received in response to the conference Smiley is hosting in Chicago. I am disgusted and ashamed at the racist responses PBS is receiving. I am Caucasian and welcome opportunities to be more educated about the "agendas" of the people I live with in this beautiful country. PBS should be applauded for including professionals who are involved in events that open up dialogue and seek to make this even a better place to live.

S. Vargas, Scottsdale, AZ

Tavis Smiley's shows are original, witty and thoroughly enjoyable. Those who object to his forum on Blacks in America should read more closely. The title of the forum is "We Count! The Black Agenda is the American Agenda" — a reinforcement and an appreciation of the fact that America has a diverse and multi-layered population which has more in common with each other than it has as differences.

The title indicates not that Smiley is going to force a sinister Black Agenda on a hapless and naive populous, but that we are all in this thing together and that diversity is to be celebrated, not painted as sinister. Read, People, Read!! Realize that language has nuance. Everything done by minorities — black, brown, red, yellow — is not a threat to the white race. King's dream is what Tavis Smiley is all about, not some evil agenda that would infringe on anyone's rights.

John Masterson, Jonesboro, AR

More on Climate Change

Regarding the 3/10 NewsHour segment titled "Criticism of Climate Change Science Heats Up", please correct me if I am wrong — Pat Michaels is only the second skeptic of human-caused global warming to be given more than a few seconds of face time on the NewsHour since George Taylor appeared in 2007. But, like Taylor's, this was not an in-studio opportunity for him to directly rebut statements made in support of human-caused global warming.

I'll paraphrase the same general question I've submitted numerous times to the NewsHour and to you (including the one you put online at the Ombudsman page Dec 17. 2009): It appears the NewsHour has deliberately chosen not to have skeptic scientists as in-studio guests to rebut IPCC scientists, starting back around 1988. What prompted that decision? Such two-sided discussions are a NewsHour trademark, but — correct me if I am wrong — this has never happened concerning the underlying science of global warming. Why?

Russell Cook, Phoenix, AZ

(Ombudsman's Note: I've asked the NewsHour's senior producer for science and environmental matters, Murrey Jacobson, for a response to Mr. Cook's questions but have not received one as of this posting.)

You ran a story about Climate Change Science on Wednesday March 10, 2010 with a lot of time given to George Mason University in Virginia and the Cato Institute. I believe you will find that this school and Institute has been in the lead of climate skeptics. Also, that they have been funded by Exxon. You should not treat them as bona fide scientists without asking them if they are funded by Exxon and have an Oil Company ax to grind. You should check out any Climate Warming Skeptic that you feature or quote first, and ask them if they are connected to Exxon funding or other Oil/Coal company funding. Start with George Mason University and the Cato Institute.

Richard Harman, Virginia Beach, VA

The NewsHour correctly identified mistakes in the IPCC Climate Change reports as coming from the World Wildlife Fund — an organization that most people would identity as being "Liberal." But then the NewsHour interviews Patrick Michaels of the Cato Institute — identifying him as an "expert" — and fails to mention that the Cato Institute is an arch-conservative "Libertarian" political organization. How can the failure in the second case to disclose this equal source of bias represent "Balanced" reporting???

James Adcock, Bellevue, WA

It is really important that the media support the work of climate scientists. Think of them as doctors who study the atmosphere. If you were having trouble breathing, and five different doctors diagnosed you as having a disease needing immediate treatment, would you keep looking for a doctor who would say you don't need treatment?

The Earth has already warmed over a degree and a half Fahrenheit and at the rate we are adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the Earth's temperature will go up between 4 and 9 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. If it were your body, that much heat would be deadly, so, likewise for most plants and animals. The insistence of media in presenting climate science as a debate has been a major obstacle to development of clean energy, as lack of public understanding pushes Congress to continue to subsidize fossil fuels.

Whoever made the decision to invite Patrick Michaels to talk should be aware that his presentation of the 'other side' is a fringe opinion. If he is allowed to make the accusation that the thousands of most reputable climate scientists in the world were reaching 'precooked conclusions', then he should be asked how much has been paid by oil and coal mining associations and why he refused to reveal his client list when he was testifying about emission standards on behalf of auto manufacturers in 2007? (Check out Kate Sheppard's article 'Most Credible Climate Skeptic Not So Credible After All' in Mother Jones Feb. 26, 2010)

Louise Stonington, Seattle, WA

I have watched the NewsHour for five years now but today's segment on Climate Change was the lowest I have seen the NewsHour fall to. Undercutting the actual and factual scientific consensus with two minor mistakes in a report, a crusader and the ever ignorant public opinion has nothing to do with journalism.

If you want to know if we can trust the science on Climate Change, why not ask the scientists? The real question here is not how many American's are ignorant and have been fooled by the spin but how many scientists doubt Climate Change? In 2 min. online I found credible sources stating between 75 - 97% of scientists believe humans are contributing to Climate Change. The more specialized in the area of Climate Change the higher the consensus among scientists and besides a few skeptical individuals there is no debate on this issue any longer within the scientific community. This is as far from journalism as you can get, and I ask you to do something about this spin dressing up as real journalism and save the NewsHour before it's too late.

Rene H. Jorgensen, Joliette

Out of Focus

Although everyone is aware of the need for public funding of PBS, I cannot imagine why anyone there would have decided to cancel WorldFocus. What a terrific news program. No wonder it hasn't gotten more viewers, with a viewing time at midnight. Come on. You can do better. This is the most interesting, professional and intellectual news program I have ever seen. Put it against the other newsy programs on prime time and see how it soars!

Marilyn Kerstjens, Webster, New York

PBS Response:

WORLDFOCUS is not a PBS program. Unlike the commercial television networks, which provide their local affiliates with a set program menu, PBS provides its member stations with programs from which they choose and schedule independently. Stations can also select programs from independent distributors. This is the case with WORLDFOCUS, which is distributed by American Public Television (APT) in conjunction with WNET. More information is available online through the APT Web site. Since all final program scheduling decisions are determined locally by each of our member stations, we suggest you contact your local station.

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