By Michael Getler
March 25, 2010
The viewers and the ombudsman have written a lot more than PBS has in the past few months about the forthcoming end of the road for two of the most well-known weekly programs in public broadcasting — the hour-long "Bill Moyers Journal" and the half-hour "NOW on PBS," with host David Brancaccio.
Both of these major public affairs programs end their runs on Friday, April 30, and on the following Friday, May 7, a new, hour-long program called "Need To Know" will make its debut at 8:30. The new program will be co-hosted by Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek (who will also continue in his magazine job) and Alison Stewart, formerly of NPR and MSNBC.
This is the fourth ombudsman column or mailbag — the earlier ones were on Nov. 23, Dec. 4 and March 18 — that I've posted about these old programs and the new one since PBS first began announcing these changes back in November. Last week, when PBS signed up Meacham to join Stewart as hosts of "Need To Know," PBS and WNET.ORG had a lot to say about the new program. But PBS hasn't said much about Moyers' departure and even less about why NOW is ending its eight-year run. Moyers, who is 75, has said, "I feel it's time." Back in November, PBS talked generally about "our review and reinvention of the News & Public Affairs genre on PBS" and about its initiative "to revitalize public media."
I don't want to go over all this a fourth time — and this is already a very long mailbag — but the combination of these two programs concluding and a new one forming has generated many thousands of e-mails from viewers since late last year. Most recently, a good chunk of this seemed to have been generated by the progressive media watchdog organization FAIR, and that campaign and some comments of mine were the subject of last week's column. Several of the letters below are in response to that column. Much of the critical mail has been targeted, unfairly in my opinion, at the choice of Meacham as co-host.
I'm quite willing to wait for the new program and let the viewers and critics have their say. But what seems clear even at this point is that this is a pretty big gamble for PBS because the outpouring of letters, just to me, about the loss of Moyers and Brancaccio and their shows — which goes well beyond the FAIR campaign — is quite powerful, as is the sense or fear, as expressed by many viewers in recent months, that PBS may be pulling in its horns and shying away from controversy.
Here Are the Letters
I am a loyal viewer of Bill Moyers Journal. Only this week I emailed him that I will miss his program very much. I am writing this to let you know that regardless of your interpretation of the emails you received about his replacement, I am going to evaluate Mr. Meacham seriously, and if I find him one to be of the run of the mill journalists and not of Moyers' caliber I will stop tuning in to this program.
Aliza Keddem, Portland, OR
Two points arising from your March 18 column. First, about the Bill Moyers & NOW cancellations. Nobody can begrudge Bill Moyers his well earned retirement, especially bearing in mind that he explicitly decided to stick around after being attacked so viciously by Kenneth Tomlinson, the political hack who was chairman of CPB. As for NOW: regardless of the merits of Need To Know, at 60 minutes' duration it will fill only the time slot vacated by Bill Moyers, leaving PBS the freedom to reverse its decision and renew NOW, which should be done forthwith. If I remember correctly, it was the continuation of Bill Moyers' previous show and as such has been equally hard-hitting where it needed to be. Had Howard Zinn lived into the new PBS programming regime, I somehow doubt that his passing would have even been noted.
I hope that Need To Know will prove me wrong, but I have the distinct impression that PBS is moving towards kinder, gentler documentary programming so as to avoid offending the powerful and upsetting the political right. (What's next for the chop, Frontline?) That's the last thing we need when religious fundamentalists and climate change deniers try to discredit science, and the Texas Board of Education draws up school curricula that rewrite history to suit their prejudices, in the best tradition of the Soviet Union. Shame on PBS.
Secondly, I don't mourn the loss of WorldFocus, which was nothing more than an imitation of CNN News on one of CNN's better days. That was OK except that it didn't provide the outside perspective that's available on the BBC News, which too many stations bumped to make room for it. To the stations that did so: bring BBC News back right where it used to be.
I received the action alert from FAIR and was among those letters you received about PBS using Jon Meacham to replace Moyers. I think that overall PBS has been trying to present a more conservative viewpoint of national issues over the last 8 or 9 years and Jon Meacham is in keeping with this tendency. Recently I let my subscription to Newsweek lapse in part because of Mr. Meacham's right of center stance on world events. There are people who would have made excellent replacements for Mr. Moyers who have his same curiosity to ask the hard questions that might put a big shot politician on the spot. Mr. Meacham will bore viewers to death. Does PBS want to eliminate one of the last shows on TV that is a throwback to 1970's style of journalism?
The issue of replacing Bill Moyers' Journal and Now is just that — a REPLACEMENT issue. It's true, they're both hard acts to follow, but that's no excuse for not even trying. As described, the new show with Meacham makes no claim that even comes close to trying. I'd like to hear it clearly stated that that's the goal. Short of that, PBS viewers can be pretty sure, it's not going to happen. Intention determines results.
Sherry Noland, Henderson, NV
A Job for Nader?
Jon Meacham is more than a poor choice to replace Bill Moyers Journal. Meacham is the antithesis of Moyer. If you are looking for . . . a champion of the middle class then why not give serious consideration to the guy that is super qualified and has been doing that thankless job for the last three decades and the only person truly dependable, Ralph Nader?
Evan Cundiff, Homer, AK
Please consider keeping Bill Moyers program right where it is on PBS. His is a voice of true fairness. We have so few places left on TV that carries a message which is free of Corporate America's fingerprints. This is the only program which continually presents unique guests, guests which are not allowed on Fox and other Corporate-run, right-wing influenced reporting. There is plenty of room for Meacham on Fox affiliates. Please leave one of the best things about PBS alone!
Susan Augeri, Staten Island, NY
The powers that be at PBS seem intent on driving away their viewers. Putting a pompous conservative figure like Jon Meacham in the time slot where Bill Moyers and NOW were is simply an insult. It was Meacham who peddled the "center-right country" line that attempted to deny the results of the November 2008 elections and the massive turnout by young people, especially college students. That is a demographic group I would think you'd want to cultivate. Meacham's right-of-center views (to put it mildly) are clear. Or does PBS believe you have to be Glenn Beck, Michele Bachmann or Tea Party loonies before you can count as "right of center"?
Mark Cook, New York, NY
The issue was not that NOW and Bill Moyers were "controversial", which you repeated several times, it was that they were on target. That's why so many of us doubt that replacing these shows with someone from Newsweek could ever begin to match the quality of either Bill Moyers and NOW. I don't need more "nice" news. I need more accurate, and responsible, news that reflects the people rather than the corporations. It only raises my concern that you are completely, possibly intentionally, missing the mark.
Jeffrey Fried, San Carlos, CA
Taking Our Breath Away?
Please add one more to the count of viewers who object to losing their weekly breath of fresh air provided by Bill Moyers and "NOW" in the current stagnant and often poisonous media atmosphere consisting almost entirely of corporate and conservative viewpoints. If PBS chooses merely to add to the torrent of "mainstream" timidity and sycophancy, then PBS has no purpose beyond a short-sighted attempt at self-perpetuation. I nominate Amy Goodman to replace Bill Moyers.
I appreciated your thoughtful response on the Jon Meacham business, but I feel a little unfairly characterized as in some way influenced by FAIR in writing to criticize PBS's selection of Meacham for the Moyers time slot. Frankly, I've watched Meacham innumerable times on the Charlie Rose program, and have gotten a full load of his smug, complacent, and yes, right-wing-leaning tendencies. There's no intellectual daring with Meacham, no willingness to stand up to the forces that have dragged this country into swamplands of incivility, religious fundamentalism, bigotry, rule by corporate elites, and so forth (quite the contrary, actually, in Meacham's case); if PBS' desire was to rid itself of inconvenience and controversy, the Meacham choice is certainly wise, but your viewers deserve better.
By the way, since you mention that Meacham isn't intended as a replacement for Moyers, then may I ask who IS? Is PBS at all interested in programming that takes on conventional wisdom and the comfortable, complacent view of mainstream elites (Jon Meacham being one of the most visible)? Or is PBS content instead to encourage loyal Moyers viewers to turn off their TVs, and go read a good book?
Doug Ramsdell, New York, NY
As a supporter of PBS, I think it's only fair that there is an explanation given for the cancellation of NOW. It is hard to imagine why one of the best journalist programs on air would be given the ax. Perhaps if viewers were informed it would lessen the blow. Otherwise it just feels like one of those, "not above board" decisions.
Mary Dolch, Albuquerque, NM
We can not find in your column any good reason for the ending of World Focus and NOW. There is nothing that makes what you write an intelligent explanation of what PBS has cooked up. These are two of the best news and public affairs offerings PBS has. "If it ain't broke don't fix it." PBS loses and the audience loses with these cancellations. We suspect that old fashion internal politics is in play. Somebody wants to leave his thumb print on PBS for all to see. Let him appear on our screen and tell us to our faces why two fine programs are being taken away. We are entitled to see and hear the reasons first hand! We are as mad as hell.
Herbert and Ruth Syrop, Yonkers, NY
Lehrer in the Crosshairs: The Sen. Kyl Interview
I am really unhappy that Jim Lehrer [Tuesday, March 23] let that Republican get away with claiming the American People did not want the healthcare bill. Did he read the many thousands of emails and consider the many thousands of calls begging the representatives to pass the healthcare bill. He is wrong. Way more people were wanting the President and Speaker Pelosi and all to push hard for the bill!!!
Elizabeth Wiley, Pawleys Island, SC
I cannot believe how much time you have used with the male Republican's view of this important day, with Jim Lehrer! Let the Democrats get the credit they deserve. It wasn't Republicans who wanted Social Security or Medicare or Civil Rights!! Why do we kiss up to this rich, mostly white, hateful group of Americans today when the good won out????? Thank you for reading this.
Janet Crouse, Baton Rouge, LA
(Ombudsman's Note: Lehrer conducted a lengthy interview with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the following evening.)
In tonight's NewsHour [March 23], Jim Lehrer interviewed Sen. Jon Kyl, who stated that the American people were opposed to the health care reform "by 60-40 based on polls of just two days ago." All well and good, but according to polls from ONE day ago, the numbers had flipped to roughly 50-40 in favor. Yet Mr. Lehrer didn't call him on it. It seems to me that Mr. Lehrer is no better than the rest of the media that doesn't do their job to report accurately. I expect this laziness from the networks — even CNN, and especially FOX. But PBS is supposed to be better — you claim to be better. Apparently not.
S. Fenton, New York, NY
I rely on PBS for the sort of complete, honest reporting and analysis that is so lacking in commercial broadcasting. Often, I get it. But why, why do your reporters so often allow politicians and commentators to get away with lies and misrepresentations? Jim Lehrer just interviewed Republican Senator Jon Kyl on the NewsHour. Among many other things, Kyl said that the new health care bill would result in "rationed care", and that it would "insert bureaucrats between doctors and patients". The obvious points to be made are that care is and has always been "rationed" in this country (mostly by excluding care for millions of uninsured); and that insurance company bureaucrats are always inserted between doctors and patients. Lehrer let these and other comments simply pass without questioning Kyl at all.
Thomas Hardy, New York, NY
Last night on the PBS News Hour, Jim Lehrer interviewed Sen. Kyl (R-AZ). The Senator, in the course of criticizing the health reform legislation, said that he thought it was wrong that government bureaucrats would be getting between doctors and patients. Mr. Lehrer let this go by without pointing out that insurance company bureaucrats routinely do that today. Of course your interviewers should be unbiased, but that does not mean letting baloney go unquestioned. I spend a fair bit of time in the UK where it's a pleasure to see and hear BBC interviewers politely but firmly challenge politicians when they try to blow smoke.
Paul Clermont, Menlo Park, CA
On tonight's PBS NewsHour, Jim Lehrer interviewed Senator Jon Kyl. Mr. Lehrer prefaced a question by stating that Republicans had opposed civil rights and Medicare legislation. Senator Kyl immediately corrected him by pointing out that it was Southern Democrats who opposed civil rights legislation and that Republicans were responsible for the recent Medicare D changes. Mr. Lehrer weakly tried to cover his mistake by responding that Barry Goldwater had opposed the Medicare legislation.
Civil rights history reveals that the activist Chief Justice Earl Warren was a Republican appointed by a Republican President, Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower was willing to use the military to enforce the Supreme Court decisions and Eisenhower desegregated the Washington DC school system that had remained segregated during the preceding 20 years of Democratic rule. Many of the lower court federal judges who subsequently ruled against segregation were also Eisenhower appointees.
A Democrat, Harry Truman, issued the executive order that desegregated the military, but did nothing to bring it about and it was still segregated when he left office. Republican Dwight Eisenhower deserves the credit for actually desegregating the military. Certainly, a Democratic President, Lyndon Johnson, deserves credit for getting the Civil Rights Act passed against the wishes of his Democratic Party and after years of Democratic filibusters.
A reading of the vote counts for Medicare and Medicaid laws reveals overwhelming bipartisan support for those laws. Can Mr. Lehrer be that ignorant of history that he is unaware of any of this? Or . . . is this an example of the prejudice that is so often spoken of in the major media? Or both?
Thomas Reynolds, Newfield, NY
(Ombudsman's Note: When I asked program executives about this they said that Lehrer felt Sen. Kyl corrected the record on the air and allowed Lehrer to restate the question he had intended to ask.)
Viewers Complain, Again, About Dr. Amen and Denver's KBDI
I love PBS and my local station, KCPT. Therefore I am alarmed when Dr. Daniel G. Amen harms the credibility of your programming. I watched his special and it smelled of quackery to me. I then consulted several sources and learn that PBS is aware of concerns raised about his non-peer-reviewed claims. Have you responded to such concerns? If so, how may I find your response? And how can you present his program without acknowledging the disputes about his work and claims?
Vern Barnet, Kansas City, MO
(Ombudsman's Note: Other viewers have called attention, in the past, to Dr. Amen's program, which is used during pledge drives by several PBS member stations but is not distributed by PBS, which has nothing to do with its content. Rather, it is distributed by Executive Program Services in cooperation with the National Educational Telecommunications Association. I've written about this issue a couple of times. The most pertinent column includes a response from Dr. Amen.)
I discovered my local PBS station airing the program "Chang Your Brain, Change Your Body". I am horrified at the degradation of the quality and standards I have come to expect from public broadcasting. Since when has PBS turned into the infomercial channel? Dr. Amen's views are not shared by the vast majority of the scientific community. Indeed, his charts and diagrams lack labels, number, and/or citations, the hallmark of misinformation.
According to the PBS mission statement, "by guaranteeing our programs treat complex social issues with journalistic integrity and compassion, our audiences know they can rely on us to provide accurate, impartial information." Not only is PBS airing his pseudo-science, but they are pushing his product using the same "interview" technique used by late-night infomercials. This is a blatant violation of journalistic integrity and impartiality. I cannot support PBS so long as they fail to live up to their own standards. Have informational media standards in America finally gone low enough to drag down PBS?
Alan Wilkinson, Lexington Park, MD
During this week's pledge period KBDI (Denver) aired a program titled America: Freedom to Fascism, a program filled with innuendo, half-truths and some downright lies. Slanted toward the extreme right, it panned organizations such as the ADL, SCLC, etc. As one who has researched rightwing groups involved in the formation of militias, many of the people appearing on this program are known to me as amongst those who foment civic unrest. The kind of civic unrest that was the stimulus for the Oklahoma bombing and that encourages all citizens to arm themselves to war against our government. While I respect the need to honor our First Amendment, airing this program is akin to shouting Fire! in a theatre. When no immediate alternative response is offered, programs of this ilk are dangerous in and of themselves. Yes, we support PBS and in fact recently donated our used vehicle in support of Channel 6 Rocky Mountain PBS Denver. We suggest that, since we have channel 6 offering such fine programming, KBDI be removed from your network. Thank you for the opportunity to be heard.
Roger and Lois Kaness, Denver, CO
(Ombudsman's Note: KBDI has used these films before as part of pledge drives. They were the object of viewer complaints and an ombudsman's column last September.)