By Michael Getler
July 28, 2010
PBS says it is lots of things. But, with the exception of some pledge-drive humor specials, funny isn't usually one of them. Yet in recent days, humor, or attempts at humor, figured in a lot of the mail coming my way. One involved Sarah Palin's creation of a new "word," and the other involved a Paul McCartney one-liner at the White House.
Lots of late-night comics and early-morning commentators had some fun earlier this month with Palin's creation of "refudiate" during a Fox News program. It's not really a new word, at least not yet. Palin seemed to take the follow-on pot-shots in stride, or made matters worse depending on your point of view, by pointing out that "Shakespeare liked to coin new words, too."
But when Andy Borowitz, the regular comic that closes out "Need to Know" on Friday evenings, had some fun with "Palinese," several people wrote to say they took offense.
When I asked Shelley Lewis, NTK's executive producer, about this, she sent a copy of what she had posted on the program's website in response to early feedback: "Is a little joking about Ms. Palin's penchant for malaprops really such a big deal? Last week editorial cartoonist Steve Brodner was pretty tough on President Obama, and we heard plenty from Obama fans about how unfair we were, how rightwing we were, etc. We do try to have some fun at both sides' expense..."
I agree with Lewis on this one. Palin's new word was all over the media and fair game. In last week's column, I disagreed with her defense of Brodner's earlier sequence depicting President Obama. I thought, as did some who wrote to me, that the drawings in combination with some of the dialogue had a racial tone, although I can't imagine that it was intentional. No politics here on my part. These are very different situations.
The Singer and the Zinger
As for McCartney, his stab at humor came just after the musical portion of his concert in the East Room of the White House that was held on June 2. The performance was taped by PBS and will air as a planned 90-minute special tonight. The former Beatle was the recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, which was presented by President Obama as part of the festivities.
The Associated Press and The Washington Post reported the next day that McCartney took a shot at former President George W. Bush, saying: "After the last eight years, it's great to have a president that knows what a library is." The comment got around fast and created a lot of buzz. On July 14, The Post reported that it would not be included in the PBS special.
Mary Stewart, vice-president for external affairs from producing station WETA in Washington, told me, as she has others, that McCartney's comment came after the concert had ended and after the president had left the room. The cameras, however, were still rolling and caught it and obviously those among the 200 or so guests still in the room heard it.
This was the first time this Library of Congress event was held at the White House and as WETA producers saw it, the special ended when the concert ended and the president was gone. What happened later "was not part of what we were there to celebrate," Stewart said, and "was not germane to what happened that night." She said she was not aware of any debate among producers as to whether to include the McCartney comment and that "there was no editorial brouhaha over it at all."
I thought McCartney's shot at the former president was clearly worthy of being reported. And indeed it was, by many news organizations (not PBS as far as I can tell) weeks before the television special of the concert was scheduled to be broadcast. It produced demands by House Republican leader John Boehner that the musician apologize.
I have trouble with the idea that this episode was not known to be the subject of any pre-broadcast debate among producers because it should have been. It is cutting something controversial out of a filming, even if the main event was over. Still, this is tricky. I don't fault the PBS special for not including the comment made after the main event was over. This was a focus on McCartney's musical legacy, not his politics. But it was a revealing remark, nevertheless, and I'd feel better about it if WETA had found some way to acknowledge what many people already knew had taken place.
Here are the letters.
The Need to Know broadcast shown about Sarah Palin was horrible for a public-owned system. No value to ridicule to discredit. No joke to me. Issues are the only way to voice a credible opposing view.
Herb Myers, Byran, OH
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As I watched, I saw the show turn into a "discredit Sarah Palin" act under the guise of "poor" humor. Not much has changed, I see, from PBS. Clearly, this was a character assassination not unlike Saturday Night Live, NBC, and etc. Congratulations, you are now on the level of SNL. So much for an "unbiased" station . . . I haven't noticed you "joking about Obama". You did point out one polling fact. If Sarah Palin were running against Obama today, she would defeat him. She must have more going for her than you give her credit. I guess if I read between the lines long enough, I may see glimmers of truth through the slightly veiled "liberal" slantedness, but frankly I don't have time to waste on that.
Morgan Phillips, Tucson, AZ
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I like Borowitz and am on his email list. His July 23 segment was funny. I worry, however, that conservatives will have a good argument that the show is 'liberal' and biased. This is a good show, and I would hate to see it attacked by Republican congressmen who might call for reduced PBS funding. Perhaps Borowitz could be offset by a conservative comedian (if such exists), to achieve a more level field such as that provided by The News Hour.
Walter Hurley, Tucson, AZ
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Come on PBS, how can you accept my tax dollars and let this happen? I would relish the day that any liberal/progressive is shown in the same light as Gov. Palin.
Laurie B., Parkville, MD
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The "What would Sarah Palin do as president?" on "Need to Know" is the last straw. Not funny.
Wm. C., Chesapeake, VA
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The comments — if that's what they were — about Sarah Palin were dim and dumb.
An Encore That Didn't Get Seen
I think your decision to cut Paul McCartney's comment about our former President not visiting a library to be abhorrent. If he had ever visited one, or even supported one, I could see doing so.
Woodland Hills, CA
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A muzzle on Sir Paul? How much money has that Beatle generated for the US? Plenty. What you are planning for the special — lame. The library comment should be left in. I remember when PBS was an antidote, now it's a symptom of the disease. Sad.
Big Rapids, MI
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PBS will air Paul McCarty's performance at the White House when given the Gershwin award. He made a very nasty statement . . . a terrible thing to say about President Bush!! Please delete his comment when broadcasting the program, McCartney was being honored and it was not his place to demean anyone in our country, he's not even an American.
Judy Wegner, Blaine, WA
That Unnamed Mr. Breitbart
Re: Lehrer Newshour not mentioning Andrew Breitbart, I agree with the ombudsman that not mentioning Mr. Breitbart was a serious omission. The Newshour rep said Mr. Breitbart wasn't a household name, but after all, how do you get to be a household name if the media won't say your name?
Hugh Caley, Albany, CA
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Linda Winslow's explanation for not naming Andrew Breitbart in the Newshour's Sherrod coverage is one of those lame examples of over-rationalization for the reasons cited in your critique.
Bruce Drake, Washington, DC
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I completely agree with, and thank you for, your comments on the remarks of Linda Winslow. Since when is being a "household name" a requirement of any kind for a news story? Her excuse was pathetic in the extreme. There has been a trend for some years now for Newshour to fall all over itself trying not to offend the right — much like the reaction of the administration and media that they were reporting on in this instance.
Janet Camp, Milwaukee, WI
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I was incredulous that Breitbart's name and his role were not mentioned. Fox News' role also should have been mentioned, instead of which Jim Lehrer and David Chalian almost light-heartedly referred generically to cable news and the frantic nature of 24/7 news. (Lehrer was equally casual in Friday's Shields and Brooks segment by allowing the topic all of about the last 10 seconds.) Linda Winslow's explanation tells me that she failed to put herself in the viewers' shoes, which is her job. I'm sure that I'm like most viewers who are familiar with the way ACORN was smeared out of existence; we remember Breitbart rather than the name of some website as the culprit. Ms. Winslow writes "the Vilsack apology to Ms. Sherrod, and her reaction to it, had advanced the story well beyond the Breitbart behavior that started the whole thing".
No, Ms. Winslow; to this viewer it had not, and it still has not. Long after the current fuss dies down and Ms. Sherrod's life (one hopes) gets back to normal, Breitbart and other character assassins like him will still be around to pick on other targets who may be more intimidated than Ms. Sherrod into not fighting back. There has, incidentally, been scant attention in the mainstream media, including PBS, to the rehabilitation of ACORN's name. ACORN was targeted by conservatives and their media allies for one reason only: it helped — legally — register poor people to vote and was therefore a threat. As far as Fox is concerned, the network uniquely has a symbiotic relationship with conservative groups and websites, including Breitbart's . . . It's time to stop indulging Fox as if it were just another member of the same club. There is a point at which evenhandedness becomes so absurd as to be untenable.
More on 'Turmoil'
When PBS decides to air a program, there is little doubt that corporate and big money sponsors can put their thumb on the scale. Viewers who object may follow FAIR's directives and pass complaints along to a very thoughtful, ethical and polite ombudsman such as Michael Getler, but in reality, the public's opinion carries minimal weight. Consultation using Mr. Getler's criteria should have taken place before the contract was signed. PBS does not get "off the hook" by simply offering post-program arbitration. Sponsors who have the financial clout simply shrug and say, "What me worry? — just do it."
Harriette Seiler, Louisville, KY
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I find the quality and content of this program astonishingly insufficient and inappropriate for PBS airing. After viewing the program, I read your column and the responses from the director. You and others wrote on funding for the program and conflict of interest, and whether people writing were truly aware of and reflecting the actual program content. You and others have also written about FAIR's comments. I am writing about a totally inappropriate program regardless of who funded it or who is a Republican, Democrat or whatever. Independent of conflict of interests in funding, this program should never have made it to the air — it's simply over the top from any perspective. What gives with PBS? This is not a close or difficult call.
Oak Ride, TN
I've found that it's too painful to watch "Need To Know." I try, but I have to turn it off after a few minutes. I certainly understand Moyers need to retire, but I cannot fathom why CPB or PBS decided to replace such a powerful and thoughtful program with a lightweight news magazine. My initial fears of dumbing down news for the PBS viewer seem pretty well founded at this point. If anything, there seems to be an effort not to confront the right wing or the powers that be, hardly the case for Moyers. Do I really need to know about "Mad Men"? I'd rather know about what's really going on in Honduras, perhaps a 50 minute examination of the many deaths of journalists, how the School of the Americas is aligned with the current leaders, is it linked with American business interests, is there gross repression? Don't give me shallow tidbits of news, especially about television shows. I'd like to hear from CPB or PBS why they think I'd prefer to be marginally informed about many things rather than have my world opened up about one critical thing. Perhaps Shelley Lewis is taking a page from Forrest Gump, "Stupid is as stupid does".
E. Rivers, Portland, OR