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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag

* (Ombudsman's Note: This mailbag has been updated to include additional information from the producers of "The Vaccine War" that arrived late on Thursday, after this column had been posted.)

Frontline has become a firing line lately, as hundreds of e-mails continue to arrive from those unhappy with "Obama's Deal," the episode about the health-care reform bill that aired April 13 and was the subject of last week's ombudsman's column. Then came critical comments, although only a handful, about the April 20 broadcast of "The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan." And this week brought another very heavy flow of mail commenting, mostly critically, on the April 27 airing of "The Vaccine War." A representative sampling of letters about all of these programs follows, and a response from the producers of the vaccine film.

But first, our inbox also included a continuation, which I find fascinating, of the controversy about the American Experience production of "The Bombing of Germany" that aired early in February and was the subject of the April 15 ombudsman's column. The first letter is from Sam Halpert, who was a navigator aboard one of the bombers taking part in the Feb. 3, 1945, raid on Berlin, and was interviewed on the program but takes strong exception to its thrust.

American Experience Drops a Bomb but Misses, Says Halpert

Thank you for your report of my issues with PBS regarding the telecast, "The Bombing of Germany". Its message seemed to be that though our 8th Air Force missions aimed for military or industrial targets, somehow this all changed on the Feb3 '45 Berlin mission and all following missions [used] a new tactic of bombing civilians to destroy their morale. Six historians and an author stated opinions that such was the case, using mangled quotations such as:

Conrad Crane, Historian: The Thunderclap raid is important in that it can clearly identify where the American Air Force says, "Yeah, we're going to destroy a city."

Donald L. Miller, Author, Masters of the Air: "With this raid, the 8th Air Force crosses a moral threshold. And that moral threshold is, we will not deliberately bomb civilians."

The program opens with: Narrator: "On September 1, 1939, the first day of the war in Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an urgent appeal. He called on all combatants to 'under no circumstances undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations.' By the time Hitler was finally defeated six years later, Allied bombs had killed thousands of civilians. And both enemy cities and America's lofty ideals were in ruins."

These statements and many more were not actual quotes, but opinion delivered with no attribution. It should be noted that I, the only active witness to the Berlin mission on the program, was not queried regarding the events of that day. It is absurd to believe that at the 50 briefings at 8th AF bases that morning, 5,000 crewmen were told that there would be no target today other than randomly bombing civilians in Berlin, crossing the moral threshold with the intention of destroying their morale. Furthermore that was to be continued to the end of the war. There are still thousands of us still vertical, and none can remember any such directive. I can provide evidence of our target that day, and all mission targets that followed to the end of the war.

There is also the matter of adopting new procedures and tactics if we were to bomb civilians rather than targets. No tight formations, no bombsights, no dangerous bomb runs providing a stable platform for the bombardiers, etc. I can provide much more evidence and logic, but please take in account this event —

24April45: Radio messages were sent all day by the 8th Air Force to the laborers of [the German city of] Pilsen advising them not to go to work next day as Skoda (the largest armament factory in Europe) was to be the next day's target. Informing the enemy in advance was unprecedented.

25April45: The 8th attacked Skoda at Pilsen. Heavy flak was encountered as the forewarned Germans brought in every available cannon and pointed it upwards. Many thousands of civilian lives were saved as most of the laborers were absent from the factory. So much for the slander that our purpose was to bomb civilians.

I believe the 8th Air Force was wrongfully accused by people who should have known better. I have sought a meeting many times with people from PBS to discuss this matter, but none even return my calls. I have received two letters, but they consist of compliments for my service, and assurances that they had performed proper research. Well, I am not interested in compliments, and I know darn well they flubbed their research. I know the truth will come to light. A shame that it won't be from PBS.

Sam Halpert, Gainesville, FL

A Second Wave

I was a navigator on the same February 3, 1945 raid over Berlin as Sam Halpert, though my squadron's 'target' was the rail yards around Tempelhof airport. He is correct that our lead bomber aimed its bombs at the target, but the rest of our squadron dropped their bombs only when they saw the bombs falling from the lead plane. Which meant that our bombs would hit in a mile-square area around the target. That is what 'precision bombing' meant in practice.

My plane was severely damaged on the bomb run that day and limped back home to crash in the North Sea. My poem about the experience is available in my latest book 'After the Fall, Poems Old and New' (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007) and has been reprinted many times, notably in the Library of America's anthology of WWII literature.

Edward Field, New York, NY

From another navigator: I flew 16 1/2 missions with the 91st Bomb Group, 8th AF — I had to abandon a burning airplane over Merseburg on the 17th mission on Nov. 2, 1944. For every mission we had a legitimate military target. We knew that when we tried to hit the marshalling yards in a medium-sized city, there were bound to be civilian casualties — but we aimed for the railroads.

Frank Farr, Jamestown, NM

I will limit my comment to [Producer] Herr Zvi Dor-Ner's statement that precision bombing was not precise.

I was stationed in Ulm/Donau in 1958/59 and personally observed the results of US precision bombing where, with the Norden bombsight, we had been able to destroy every stick of the military/industrial part of the city, including the Magueris Deutsch tank factory, southern regional Gestapo headquarters, etc., right up to the base of the 14th Century Ulm Muenster, without so much as scratching a stone of the church itself and, by the same token, leaving untouched all of the medieval sections of the city. I was very proud of what my USAF predecessors had accomplished, and I was repeatedly thanked by local citizens for American forbearance. My own status during my tour of duty was appreciably enhanced by how my predecessors had acted. Ulm was a place where there was no social disadvantage to going into town in uniform.

A/2C John E McDaniel, Knoxville, TN
616th AC&W Squadron
501st Tactical Control Wing
USAF, 1957-1960

I was born in 1929, so my view of WWII is different from that of the Vietnam era and later. When I hear someone berating the US for the atom bomb, etc., I am deeply annoyed and question the loyalty of the person who so enjoys downgrading Americans. Revisionism seems to be the delight of people who were not alive when we fought one nation that vowed to die rather than surrender and another who wrought havoc and destruction on the British Isles, our friends and allies.

I did not see the program and prefer not to view war stories of any kind. I did read everything you presented here and I am glad I did not view the program in question. My conclusion: take the word of the man who was there.

Olive Lohrengel, Buda, TX

More on 'Obama's Deal' and Last Week's Column

I just read your reply to complaints about Obama's Deal, and it was good to offer an explanation. But I really think there's need for a do-over. Maybe it doesn't have to come from Frontline. But this country still has serious problems with our health system and the year of health reform was a bad year of information pollution; a year of misleading information.

It's unfortunate that PBS or Frontline, or whichever of you, fell out with T.R. Reid [the reporter on Frontline's earlier "Sick Around the World"]. One of his important contributions is about how single-payer is just one of a few different approaches. The US could have followed the German/French/Dutch/Swiss styles of multi-payer systems. But we had no debate in this country. Instead we had a stifled public shout-out dominated by special interests and crazy talk. PBS could have been a tremendous part of the solution. Obama might be finished with health reform but the problem is not solved.

M. Murphy, Philadelphia, PA

Thank you for recommending a discussion of health-care reform that would include all the proposals, especially single-payer, which, as you point out, was supported by a substantial percentage of Americans. However, you fail to point out that Frontline not only ignored single-payer proposals, but it actually misrepresented the views of its proponents. And I wonder what the point of having an ombud is, when your comments last year apparently made no impression at all on Frontline's producers.

Linda Sleffel, Columbus, OH

"Obama's Deal" included a segment that featured single-payer advocates arrested in the Senate Finance Committee protesting the exclusion of single-payer witnesses from the proceedings. While the show exposed some of the sordid deals struck by congressional lawmakers and the White House with the health insurance industry and Big Pharma, it left out any mention of single payer health care.

While Frontline extensively interviewed Dr. Margaret Flowers of PNHP, they neglected to broadcast the very reason that she and others risked arrest: to get a single payer advocate to testify in the Senate Finance Committee hearings on health care. Frontline, rather, depicted these advocates as President Obama's "liberal base" leaving out any discussion about why nurses, doctors, and every-day Americans would risk being arrested by Federal police.

So far, Frontline is claiming that their purpose was to describe how Obama achieved the new health law. Of course, the decision to leave out single payer was made by Obama and Democratic leaders early in the process. That was a significant strategic decision — especially since single payer is the most popular reform among Americans, doctors and nurses. Why didn't Frontline examine that decision? Why didn't they explain that Obama decided to remove the approach most Americans wanted? Isn't it misleading to not mention the exclusion of single payer? Obama's purposeful exclusion of single-payer showed that right from the outset he had made a deal with the health insurance, drug, and hospital industries.

Kenmore, WA

I am mightily disappointed in Frontline based upon their portrayal of the health care bill story. I am shocked that they excluded any coverage of the single-payer plan and advocates. This greatly changes my regard for the whole series. If they made this egregious decision in the health care bill story, where else have they misled me? I used to be a stalwart and apparently naive fan of Frontline's but now I must take turn a wary and sad eye toward their shows and decide if they are really worth what I thought they were.

I read your comments about their behavior regard the topic of health care politics. Thank you for taking a stand from within "the belly of the beast". I wish that you had more power within the organization.

Ralph Chaney

Correction, Anyone?

For the most part I thought you gave a fair critique of Frontline's failure to even mention single-payer in "Obama's Deal." I regret that Frontline didn't see fit to concede that this omission was an error that will be corrected in future airings of the program in the same way that it has undertaken to do in response to Sen. Ben Nelson's complaint.

However, given the importance of the topic, it's regrettable that nobody involved in Frontline considered it worthy of mention. Not all the dealing took place in front of cameras, and keeping single-payer off the table of Sen. Baucus' committee was just as huge a deal as any others that were made, publicly or in back rooms. It should have been an integral part of reconstructing, in your words, "how something important, for better or worse, actually happened." Apparently, if the politicians don't want something, it doesn't count, even when there's much public support behind it. It's hard to avoid the suspicion that the insurance industry's fingerprints were all over this. Perhaps this edition of Frontline needed an investigative as well as a narrative component to do the subject justice. Evidently, time was a problem. Easy — this should have been run as a two-part series.

That said, with Bill Moyers' retirement and NOW's defenestration, Frontline is, however imperfect, one of the few jewels remaining in Public Broadcasting's crown. Long may it continue and prosper. The very rarity of such programming in our media is a national scandal.

Rochester, NY

Thank you for, again, voicing support for maintaining journalistic integrity as a priority over time constraints and other considerations. I also found Mr. Dornstein's response to Dr. Flowers inadequate and offensive.

From his first sentence on, Mr. Dornstein was as condescending and arrogant as any politician. Claiming to "understand the frustration of Dr. Flowers" while simultaneously implying that the movement she represents doesn't even exist (" . . . in what she calls the 'single-payer movement'") indicates he is being disingenuous.

Defending first-rate journalism in the face of unfair criticism is admirable. Imperviousness to legitimate criticism is not. The fact that this is the second time Frontline has shut out a widely-supported idea for health care reform gives credence to Dr. Flowers' complaint that this is deliberate. Dismissing her concerns about being inaccurately labeled a leftist when she represents a non-partisan organization, and failing to identify her as a single payer advocate (or even mention the term), despite her bringing it to the producer's attention, is repugnant. She and other single payer advocates didn't go to jail for the public option.

Stephanie Remington

Ken Dornstein's explanation of why single payer was left out of "Obama's Deal" is unsatisfactory. The producers missed the whole point of the exercise, which should have been to show what was deliberately left out of the health care debate. Otherwise you are showing a skewed picture of what really happened. You did not "focus on the real options and debate."

The real debate at the start of the process was whether the Administration would consider entertaining a true nationalized health care program to cover everyone, or whether they would pander to corporate interests, which is what they ended up doing. This was the real story you should have told. You left out the entire first half of the story. You failed to show why President Obama eliminated single payer from discussion, even though he said more than once before he became President that he knows it would have been the best plan for health care reform.

You are also perpetuating the mistake of not giving single payer its deserved place in this program, along with much of the rest of the media. These things that the Government is refusing to tackle are the very things the media should address. As a public service media outlet, you should be uncovering these kinds of things that other media outlets are not. To fail to do this is not serving the public interest.

It is good to hear that the Ombudsman knows that the producers made a mistake by omitting single payer from programming more than once. But an apology is not enough. You need to go back and tell "the REST of the story." It deserves much more than an added 30 seconds.

Spring, TX

Don't you think that the coverage demanded a look at WHY he would not consider single payer given his YouTube videos that reveals he is for it prior to election. Isn't that a clue to his deal? The point is that he made a deal to NOT include single payer. Isn't that a significant part of "Obama's Deal?" Yes, there was a deal, and that deal included excluding single payer. That should have been THE POINT of the broadcast, not the major exclusion from it. Your credibility and that of PBS is not registering on the radar screen. Less than zero, sir.

Chico, CA

As FAIR concludes: We're thankful that Getler has once again taken this view and encouraged a more inclusive discussion of healthcare on PBS. However, his criticism misses the critical journalistic fact that single-payer advocates were not only marginalized by Frontline — they were misrepresented. I concur. Frankly, I'm shocked & disappointed. Please correct this misrepresentation.

Daniel Harris

Boy, Oh Boy

I have been disappointed with the lack of real meat in much of Frontline's starchy programs of late. However, the poor taste and timing of this latest installment is beyond the pale for PBS. If Frontline goes to Afghanistan today only to return with a story about dancing boys, it's time to kick Frontline to the curb, or, more appropriately in this example, the gutter. The airing of that piece was wrong on so many levels. All that funding and fancy production to bring us fetish porn from around the world.

Whitethorn, CA

Frontline is one of the crucial shows that you guys have on PBS. I usually look forward to it, but lately I get the feeling that they are missing the big stories, or, worse, we get a 2-year-old re-run of an old show. Last night, for example, it was about 'Boy Play' the Afghani pervs and their hapless playmates . . . jeeze!! Gimmee a new Lowell Bergman story . . . maybe you have one?? aging and withering, twisting in the wind back there that your producers can't get aired because of the threats from the right wing to your pocketbooks at frontline. Well, all I got to say to that is, THAT'S A STORY we need to hear about.

Oklahoma City, OK

The PBS program which aired showing the sales and prostitution of young boys in Afghanistan reveals much about the hypocrisy of religion and the fallacy of laws that aren't enforced. No wonder women are wearing veils to prevent becoming the victims that are the only alternative. Perhaps the Catholic Church might be consulted on this problem since it seems universal in most heathen countries. If anyone needed an excuse to demonize men for their lustful appetites and the lengths they will go to satisfy them, this documentary provides that justification. The most heinous perspective is that men will do whatever it takes to exploit the least vulnerable humans to do their bidding, and that is a sad commentary upon men as worthy of social respect. Without coercion, they have little recourse, and few desires for civility. That they dress their little boys as girls shows the dangers to children from women having to don veils for protection. This is a gross exhibition of sexual transference that is rarely seen so clearly in its debasement.

Boston, MA

This May Hurt a Little

This first brief letter on Frontline's "The Vaccine War" comes from Dr. Jay Gordon, a pediatrician who was interviewed for the program but whose comments did not appear. He posted a long piece Wednesday on Huffington Post summing up his criticism of both the way he was handled and the points he feels were poorly handled in the program.

Your "Frontline" show was disgraceful.

Jay Gordon, Santa Monica, CA

Here's the Response to Dr. Gordon from the Producers:

"Many thanks for your feedback on the program. FRONTLINE went to considerable lengths to include a wide range of viewpoints, even in the face of very strong scientific evidence against the hypothesized autism link to MMR and thimerosal. Despite the consistent negative epidemiology and the definitive verdict of the federal vaccine court, we included views from people who wanted more and different studies. The program also gave a great deal of time to the arguments of vaccine hesitant parents who think the CDC schedule is bloated. The companion FRONTLINE website contains full interviews with different stakeholders, including Dr. Robert Sears, who promotes an alternative spread out vaccine schedule. The website also hosts a robust public conversation where a full range of viewpoints are being aired and engaged.

"When making long form documentaries like FRONTLINE, it often happens that some interviews don't make it into the finished program. Several interviews failed to make the final cut of 'The Vaccine War' — not just yours but also interviews with contributors who support the CDC vaccine schedule."

* The Producers Respond to Other Questions

(Ombudsman's Note: Aside from a response to Dr. Gordon's article, I had also asked Frontline producers, as had many viewers, why an interview with Dr. Robert Sears had been cut, why there had been no discussion about the impact of the large number of vaccines given in a short time, and asking if it was fair to refer to Ms. McCarthy as a former playmate. The following Frontline response deals with those issues and arrived after my initial posting on Thursday. Since I frequently post on Friday, this was not Frontline's fault.)

Frontline's Response

Our earlier answer to Dr. Gordon has since been posted on our web site. We've posted the transcript of our interview with Dr. Sears on our web site.

In response to criticism that the film shortchanged the vaccine-hesitant camp by not including Dr. Sears and others alongside the concerned mothers, it's important to note that this was in no way an attempt to deny the mothers' credibility. We'd also note that Dr. Sears himself is a vaccine supporter, and that he makes clear that his alternative vaccine schedule is based more on "common sense" and "logic" than on science or safety studies: "I think it's an approach that parents feel safer about," Dr. Sears tells us, "and I would like to see the CDC do some safety research that compares a staggered, spread-out vaccine schedule and compares the rates of reactions and severe side effects to the current CDC schedule."

Clearly, the film would have been richer if we'd been able to fully engage Dr. Sears' views, but we felt it also opened up a number of important journalistic questions about what's known (and not known) about the potential harms of the various vaccine schedules — and this, unfortunately, fell outside the scope of this film.

In short, we believe we repeatedly raised — and allowed others to raise — concerns about the bloated vaccine schedule (up to 35 inoculations) on a tiny infant. And we did this despite the fact that established science has found that the number of antigens is negligible compared to the germs that a baby is naturally exposed to. As Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told us, "If you compare [vaccines] with the enormous bombardment that that little infant gets from the moment that they're born . . . it's like a drop in the bucket."

In terms of Jenny McCarthy: We came to the conclusion that her fame largely followed her selection as Playboy Playmate of the Year 1994, so this seemed the clearest way to establish the source of the celebrity which she has been using to raise awareness for her cause. We'd add that, after making a minor study of the question, we found that NPR, the New York Times, ABC News and other major news outlets also reference McCarthy's Playmate status in recent pieces about her role in the vaccine debate.

More Letters

Shame on you for such skewed reporting!! Where were all the doctors (Dr. Jay Gordon, Dr. Robert Sears, Dr. Stephanie Cave,) that do agree that vaccines may be causing autism? You also did not mention that there is NO study done on the cumulative affects of 36 vaccines on a little body. None!!! I looked and there is none. If you are such a great reporter, please help me find this study. Please help calm mine and the millions of parents frustrated by the lack of science and the BIG question as to why 1 out 110 kids are coming down with Autism. Why 1 out of 65 boys are coming down with Autism? None of those doctors you had could answer that question therefore parents will continue to question. Each year they keep adding more vaccines to the schedule and the numbers of autism goes up. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Jacky Witherspoon, Greenwood, SC

I wanted to thank PBS for airing the recent FRONTLINE episode, "The Vaccine Wars." It was reassuring to see an even handed treatment of the topic. There is so much misinformation out there on vaccines and I feel that this show went a long way in correcting this.

Kansas City, MO

Tonight I watched the Frontline story on vaccines. As usual, the many thousands of injured children were represented by the stupid moms, including former bunny Jenny, and the incredibly smart and caring gov't was represented once again by Dr. Offit, who is so incredibly smart & ethical that it doesn't matter how much money he made by vaccines and it doesn't matter that he is not an autism expert and does not even treat people with autism. It's my understanding that the doctors who were interviewed about the possible link between autism and vaccines were left on the cutting room floor. This story would be funny, if it weren't so predictable and if it probably hadn't convinced lots of people to participate in a very flawed, poorly researched program that has tragically affected so many people in America and around the world. I had hoped that Frontline would have come through with a more balanced story.

Casselberry, FL

Why Describe Her as a Former Playboy 'Playmate'?

Why did Jenny McCarthy's former status as Playboy playmate rate a mention by PBS, but not the bioethicist's connection to GlaxoSmithKline?

Here's what else was conspicuously absent from Autism Wars: Jenny McCarthy's doctor (who informed us on the evil internet that he was interviewed with her for over 2 hours, but was cut out of the show) or ANY doctor currently recovering autistic children.

Desiree Jennings' doctor who recovered her was not interviewed, nor was the Johns Hopkins doctor who diagnosed her. Worse, PBS implied her illness was a hoax with no evidence other than speculation by one local news station.

Also missing were: scientists responsible for the large body of research showing harm associated with vaccines and vaccine ingredients. Public health officials who are not backing the CDC party line, such as former NIH Director Dr. Bernadine Healy. Rebuttals to the studies cited by Offit, or mention of their pharma funding. These studies were presented as FACT with no flaws. Proof of safety of thimerosal and proof of safety of administration of multiple vaccines.

The show implied both thimerosal and multiple vaccines were safe when neither has ever been proven safe by the FDA. No mention of the former CDC Director Julie Gerberding becoming president of Merck vaccine division as quickly as law allowed (one year). No mention that Paul Offit voted himself rich on the CDC's vaccine advisory committee. No mention that pharmaceutical companies and pediatricians are shielded from lawsuits for vaccine adverse effects or death. No mention that the number of vaccines in the schedule began to skyrocket immediately after vaccine makers were indemnified against lawsuits.

Greenwich, CT

THANK YOU for presenting the facts in the vaccine debate. PLEASE do your best to ignore the naysayers and people who claim Frontline was biased. Bias in favor of the truth is always welcome and sorely needed in this country.

Wickenburg, AZ