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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag

Lots of mail this past week, a good deal of it in response to last week's brief column about viewer, and ombudsman, reaction to "Sharpe's Challenge," the first of a two-part Masterpiece Classic presentation based on the novels of British author Bernard Cornwell and his swashbuckling, fictional character of the early 1800s, Col. Richard Sharpe. This week, viewers weighed in with a broader range of views and several of their letters are printed toward the end of this column.

Perhaps fittingly for this time of year, there was also a heavy flow of mail about religious topics, but mostly it was not about the usual suspects.

This turned out to be a rather long mailbag, and it starts with the themes that have to do with religion. But there are some other items of interest farther down as well — a link to a concluding essay by the executive producer of the popular but soon-to-be-gone NOW on PBS program, and a question about why PBS did not show or link to some powerful, newly leaked footage of a controversial 2007 air attack in Iraq.

A Close Call, but 'the Sacred Texts' Give It to Nepal

On Wednesday evening, April 7, PBS aired a two-hour documentary titled, simply, "The Buddha," about the young man once known as Siddhartha Gautama who, some 2,500 years ago, left his privileged surroundings and upbringing to seek enlightenment and awakening in a real world much more painful than what he had known. In so doing, he gave birth to one of the world's great religions — one that has also grown in the United States in recent decades.

The film was produced by David Grubin, an acclaimed documentarian whose previous portraits of historic figures have been a frequent presence on PBS. "The Buddha" has attracted a good bit of attention in part because Buddhism has, indeed, attracted "a large Western fan base," as the New York Times reviewer put it. Another rather contemporary way to review this program and look at the figure at the heart of this ancient religion can be found on Slate.

The rather heavy, and heated, mail that came my way, however, was sent before the program aired and it came from viewers who had seen advance comments or clips on the Web or on video trailers or heard things from friends about the program. All the e-mails focused on the birthplace of the Buddha. Here's a typical one from Roshani Adhikary of Ann Arbor, Mich.:

"A friend of mine just told me about a special concerning Buddha that's to be aired on April 7th. Apparently the special is making claims that Buddha was born in India. Being Nepali-American, Nepal is understandably close to my heart. However, even if I weren't in any way tied to Nepal, I think it would be pretty clear that Buddha was born in Lumbini which is located coincidentally in Nepal. Am I wrong? Every time I visit Nepal, the city/town of Lumbini is always hosting events to honor Buddha. Some clarification would be wonderful!"

What It Says

Actually, the documentary does not say that Siddhartha was born in India, although the PBS pre-broadcast trailer and Web site may well have contributed to some of the confusion. There are only two specific references to the birth location of Siddhartha in the film.

The first one, which is not specific and was also used in the pre-broadcast trailer and which may have raised the blood pressure of many Nepalese, says: "Twenty-five hundred years ago, nestled in a fertile valley along the border between India and Nepal, a child was born who was to become the Buddha. The stories say that before his birth, his mother, the queen of a small Indian kingdom, had a dream."

But the film goes on to state: "In Southern Nepal, at the foot of the Himalayas, is one of the world's holiest places, Lumbini, where, according to the sacred tales, the Buddha was born."

Grubin, in seeking to summarize this issue and the work of the scholars that he contacted, points out that "the place where the Buddha grew up has been hotly debated. I didn't intend to enter into this debate. There was no Nepal in the Buddha's day, no India. In any case, the film is not a search for 'the historical Buddha.' In the 19th century, scholars went in search of the historical Buddha and came up empty-handed. I establish in the very beginning of the film that there is nothing in the way of what we would call historical evidence that confirm the details of the life of the Buddha. The film is about the Buddha's message and his teaching as told through the stories that have passed down to us about his life. But the film is clear that, according to the sacred tales, he was born in Lumbini," which is in present-day Nepal.

The Mormons Get a Second Viewing

Early this week, PBS also re-broadcast a major two-part, four-hour documentary by Frontline and American Experience on "The Mormons," The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This originally aired in May 2007 and generated hundreds of e-mails to my office. I wrote about it then and on other occasions, including a big dispute that broke out following comments by a guest on The McLaughlin Group a few months later in December 2007.

At the time of its first airing, I wrote that, as a viewer, I found it "informative and fair in capturing a complex faith" and that it came across to me, someone without a detailed understanding of the church, as "a serious and honest attempt to inform" a general audience. Lots of people wrote to disagree with the program and my assessment, and the mail after this most recent repeat viewing is also uniformly critical of the program. Having written about this before, I'm not going to go through the program again or publish all the e-mails, but here is one from Jesse Galinski of Panama City Beach, Fla., that is reasonably reflective of all of them:

"Wow! I am appalled at how erroneous and untrue your recent broadcast on Mormonism was. I simply cannot believe that a broadcasting station such as PBS, or any other station for that matter, can run a show completely founded in, at best, unproven myth and urban legend and run it under the premise of an accurate documentary. PBS needs to re-evaluate those of its employees in editorial/journalistic capacities because these people are telling flat out lies."

And Then There Were the Catholics

Finally, as Easter week was concluding, several viewers wrote to criticize a segment on the PBS NewsHour on Monday, April 5, in which Senior Correspondent Margaret Warner took "a closer look at how the pope and the Vatican are responding to the recent revelations and allegations" about child abuse scandals. Her guests were the Very Reverend David O'Connell, president of Catholic University, and Scott Appleby, the author of several books about the church and Catholicism. He's a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

The following letters are all critical of PBS for essentially having two defenders of the pope as guests rather than at least one person more critical of the church leadership's role and stance. I think that is a fair criticism.

On the other hand, it seemed to me that, faced with this situation, Warner did a good job in questioning the two clergymen, bringing in opposing views and ending by pointing out, "There are those who disagree with you, Professor Appleby, but thank you very much for your views." Also, the interviews were only one part of a two-part segment by Warner on the issue. In the first part, Warner lays out all the allegations swirling around Pope Benedict that he didn't address in his Easter Mass in Saint Peter's Square. On balance, I thought this gave viewers a useful exposure to the arguments at a specific point in time; really just a snapshot because this story is not going away and will undoubtedly have many more segments devoted to it.

Here Are the Letters

Margaret Warner uses two guests to comment upon the Pope's problems with his actions or inactions surrounding the sexual abuse cases, both owe their livelihood to Catholic Institutions. Professor of History Scott Appleby from Notre Dame and the Very Reverend David O' Connell from Catholic University both defended the Pope in typical fashion for this show which frequently brings such punditry from one-sided presentations on many topics. Both of these pundits could hardly be considered independent yet their views are touted as worthy of news time. In this case there is little attempt to even present the new warped view of "Journalism" which pretends to show both sides to an issue without any real depth or nuance. My particular thrust in presenting this is to once again underline how PBS fails to fulfill its intended use of presenting in-depth reporting/information that rises above that of the commercial sources.

Steve Horn, Blair, NE

Prof. Appleby, Notre Dame & a Catholic U. priest (O'Connell) interview on the RCC child sex abuse. This was a "fair & balanced" interview? For shame, News Hour! This wasn't up to your usual high standard of opposing views. These two were peas in a pod! Was that the deal to get either to appear? No direct opposing view present to challenge them? Where was the disclaimer for this either before or after, even if denied? This became advocacy PR at its slickest. Both even got the shot in that the press was the problem & shares blame for abuse issue. The press didn't molest children, let alone deaf children, in a confessional!

M B, Wilmington, DE

I was very disappointed with the guests you had on re: Catholic child abuse scandal. They both worked for the church. Why don't you have someone on that is defending the rights of the children? Both these guests you had were apologists for the despicable actions of the church. Having a completely different point of view would have been enlightening. As it was, it didn't get to the issue . . . which is why were these priests protected? Why haven't any been sent to jail? Why haven't they all been defrocked? It's outrageous and your story did not contribute to the answer to the legal and moral questions of the day.

Cayucos, CA

Two More Items

Now, before we conclude with the new letters about "Sharpe's Challenge," here are two quick points.

As I've mentioned in several columns in recent months, thousands of e-mails have landed in my inbox from viewers who say they are angry and upset about the demise of Bill Moyers Journal and NOW on PBS at the end of this month (last broadcast for both is Friday evening, April 30). There will be more to say, I'm sure, at that time, and also when the new public affairs program, "Need To Know," makes its debut on May 7 in a portion of that Friday evening time slot. Nobody from PBS has said much officially about the demise of NOW, in particular, but on Tuesday of this week, the executive producer of NOW for its entire eight-year run, John Siceloff, published this essay reflecting on the end of the road for the program.

What Are News Web Sites For?

And a viewer — Carl Reynolds of Sherwood, Ore. — wrote on Tuesday saying he had searched the PBS NewsHour and its Web site for coverage of the disclosure, a day earlier, of a video of an attack in Iraq in July 2007 carried out by US Apache helicopter gunships that killed a dozen people, including a Reuters photographer and his driver.

This was a big event at the time and Reuters has pressed for years to get the gun-camera style video and voice recordings from the helicopters released. Then on Monday, the Web site WikiLeaks.org released it, claiming it had acquired it from whistle-blowers in the military. The New York Times posted a story about this on April 5 and that story contained a link to the videos released by WikiLeaks.org, one a full 38 minutes and the other an edited 17-minute version.

The NewsHour did in fact mention this briefly the following evening at the end of a segment hosted by Senior Correspondent Gwen Ifill dealing with renewed suicide bombings and other violence in Iraq and featuring NYT correspondent Rod Nordland.

But there was no more information on PBS, nobody telling viewers that they could go to the NewsHour on PBS.org to see the film or learn more about it as one can do on so many other stories. I thought this was what Web sites of news organizations were for — places where you could tell stories in more depth and detail than television normally allows and link to other relevant sites. There is no doubt that these combat films are authentic. That is not contested. They are extremely powerful, and complicated, as are many things dealing with death in Iraq. They don't absolutely prove anybody's case but they are absolutely riveting. If the Times can link to them, I don't see why PBS.org failed to do so.

Now, back to fiction.

Some Do, Some Don't Challenge Sharpe

I concur with others who expected more from Masterpiece Theater in regard to the Sharpe's series. In the initial episode aired March 28, I was shocked at a particular scene containing a rather explicit sexual discussion between two characters. Although the discussion was largely innuendos, the point they were making was quite explicit. I was quite disappointed with Masterpiece Theater for airing this series.

Little Rock, AR

I have read every Sharpe's book, and have relished watching the BBC productions on PBS over the years. In fact, they led me to the books. I was solidly disappointed in the broadcast of "Challenge" and "Peril" for the exact opposite reasons of your prevailing feedback. I found the partial nudity editing to be offensive, as PBS has traditionally offered European productions their creative license without American prudish intrusion. The Bush years, and the conservative stewardship of PBS destroyed any participatory interest by me in PBS's financing. PBS's independence from the pervasive small minded, provincial voices that narrow our freedom to choose, on a daily basis, was a hallmark of the experiment. The sophomoric blurring of female anatomy is just another nail in the coffin of an independent PBS. I watch, do not support, and am sorry to witness the inexorable demise of what was once a good idea. Extinction is so predictably a reality of caving in to mediocrity, narrow minds and expectations. Some would conclude that I hastened the demise by my own (in) actions . . . but PBS' irrelevance in an alternative media environment makes concern unnecessary.

Rick Farrell, Tacoma, WA

Cornwell's Sharpe novels are good yarns. The TV presentation is hopeless. All those fair damsels roaming around India with no hats on and wearing English country dresses. (Only the Indians are smart enough to wear hats!). Sharpe was raised in the slums of London but now speaks like Yorkshireman!

Michael Whitehead, Poway, CA

I used to be an avid viewer of Masterpiece Theater until modern changes like Masterpiece Contemporary and Mystery combinations tainted the program. The rushed airing of Sharpe's Challenge was not a true representation of the series or Cornwell's novels. Not only is Challenge actually a longer two part series that was edited and cut down rather than given full artistic representation, but the follow Peril has also been treated with the same disrespect.

Audiences claim Sharpe is inappropriate for Masterpiece, but it has aired here previously in the 90s. Remember when there was a host with books, and conversation and discussion. I like Laura Linney, but her standing in front of a red screen saying 'Masterpiece Classic!' is not my idea of an upscale program like Theater used to be either . . . Some of us have been waiting for several years for Sharpe to return to PBS. Not only did not all networks carry the program, but the film was butchered with more violence than any that was seen onscreen.

Kristin Snouffer, Mount Laurel, NJ

The Sharpe's Challenge that was shown on PBS was poorly edited for one thing. It also was part of a series that has not been shown or explained on PBS. The stories do involve WAR, but there is more to them. I have seen all 16 Sharpe films and enjoyed them. I was looking forward to PBS showing Sharpe's Challenge and doing it justice; unfortunately that did not happen.

A W, Baton Rouge, LA

About the Sharp affairs, I cannot imagine telling a story like that one without some gore and blue language. I appreciate the suggestions about prior warnings, but at once a viewer determines he's offended, nothing stops him from turning off the set or changing channels. And if children were present, this might be a great time to discuss with them the reasons why Viewer feels this material is objectionable.

New York, NY

A Series about Merit and Loyalty

I was surprised to read your comments about the Sharpe television series on PBS. Sharpe is a larger-than-life hero, a hero from a "picaresque" novel, who rescues damsels in distress and is indeed a bit of a rogue, but very human. It is also a series about merit, how a man from the lowest parts of society can rise through the ranks at a time when that was not the norm, and a series about friendship and loyalty among the men caught up in a terrible war.

I've been a fan of Masterpiece Theater since the "Upstairs/Downstairs" days. I first discovered and became a fan of the Sharpe series because PBS showed some of the episodes in the 90's. I was thrilled when PBS and Masterpiece Classic acquired the two new episodes, Sharpe's Challenge and Peril. The series is much loved in the UK, and throughout the world, as are the books by Bernard Cornwell. I would recommend that everyone read the Sharpe novels before judging Mr. Cornwell's work. The series is about war, and war is about violence and death, so that should not be an unexpected part of this series for anyone that is planning on tuning in to watch Sharpe's Peril April 4. I hope PBS viewers will tune in to Sharpe's Peril Sunday and make up their own minds about this wonderful series.

Myr L., Alexandria, VA

After reading every episode in the Sharpe series, I am very pleased to see the characters of my readings come to life. I noticed that the main complaint about the series is excessive violence. If these complainers had read the books, they would have seen the TV rendition mild by comparison. Sometimes, I think some people live to complain. Thank you for airing this excellent series.

Michael Cindrich, Kansas City, MO

I have read many of the Sharpe novels and they are intelligent entertainment. But Cornwell does like gratuitous violence and I have no trouble imagining an over enthusiastic director going way too far. Best let books be books and films find their own inspiration. I've never seen a book improved by filming.

Harry Allan, Hackensack, NJ

I just read the comments on your recent "Sharpe's Challenge" broadcast, and am beginning to feel like some morally deficient person. I was not horrified by either the violence or the language since the story was, from the beginning, clearly about war and soldiers. Soldiers, especially when under pressure, can use rather impure language and violence is not unheard-of during wartime. I enjoy Masterpiece's usual fare but I enjoyed this presentation as well. It is interesting to see Masterpiece trying new directions rather than endlessly re-re-re-making "Pride and Prejudice."

Marie LaCroix, New Britain, CT

Not Alone

I thought I was alone in feeling that Masterpiece Theatre's "Sharpe's Challenge" was startling grisly and that the acting was a little stilted. However, everyone deserves a second chance and I'm confident that Masterpiece Theatre will make a swift return to the impeccable quality that we've all come to expect and appreciate. I am looking forward to future programming!

O'Fallon, MO

OMG . . . what a bunch if whiners. I watched the program and immediately was struck by the, as you say, comic book character — DC Comics on film? Yes, the language and violence were graphic [sort of] . . . neither Sam Peckinpah nor Martin Scorsese were present but the point was made. After all, military life of this period was not priss and prim and to sanitize this fictional account would be a tragedy. This is not the first time PBS has aired material of a violent and/or sexual nature. I well-remember many years ago during a fund drive Daniel Defoe's "Moll Flanders" was aired and people went berserk complaining of the partial nudity. And what about Peter O'Toole and David Tennant in the PBS production of "Casanova"? Does one really expect PBS to ban nudity/violence. Isn't this situational? Warnings were posted.

David Petersen, Kansas City, MO

My, the sensitive sensibilities of your poor viewers who just couldn't stomach "Sharpe's Challenge" and I'm sure "Sharpe's Peril" as well. What did they expect? They are stories about a soldier and war. Get a grip. It's a part of life and history. I am a fan of the original Sharpe series from the 90s and was glad to see the two newest episodes finally make it to American TV. Thanks PBS for bringing these shows from across the pond.

Forrest Clinard, Atlanta, GA

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