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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag

What follows is a catch-up with mail that arrived just before and during the long July 4th holiday weekend. The letters focus, mainly, on two programs — the annual "A Capitol Fourth" concert and fireworks display from the nation's capital, and the still quite new "Need to Know" weekly public affairs program that airs for an hour on Friday evenings.

The concert is always among the most popular broadcasts on PBS. This year marked the 30th anniversary of this event and, as a viewer, I thought it was one of the best. But it is interesting that some aspect of these programs, and the equally popular Memorial Day concerts from the National Mall in front of the Capitol, almost always generate some controversy among some viewers. Sometimes, such as last year's Memorial Day concert, a rather large controversy develops, like the dramatization of a mother's role in caring for her badly brain-injured soldier-son.

This year, a handful of people wrote to complain about the choice of one of the songs performed by the popular country music star Reba McEntire. The song is called "Fancy," and it is one of many "signature" hits by McEntire. The song depicts an impoverished and abandoned mother who buys her daughter a red dancin' dress and tells her, "Just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy, and they'll be nice to you."

It is, in my view, a powerful and memorable song, an enduring hit since McEntire recorded it 20 years ago. But it did seem an odd choice for a July 4th concert, and it was hard to catch the words in an outdoor setting with a huge crowd. I remember thinking as I was watching that I was going to get mail about this.

The flow of mail about the new Need to Know program has slowed since its debut in early May. It is still largely critical, although my personal view is that the program has improved rather steadily from its shaky start and has turned out a number of good segments in recent weeks.

The program replaces, in its time slot though not in the hearts of many viewers, the now cancelled Bill Moyers Journal and NOW on PBS programs and it may be that devoted fans of those two programs will never warm to what occupies most of that Friday evening position. And they have a point.

Bill Moyers and David Brancaccio, the host of NOW, produced programs that often were truly thought-provoking. Need to Know, I feel, is definitely worth watching. It seems more likely to approach the kind of news focus previously found on the half-hour NOW program rather than the longer form interviews of Moyers. But those two programs often left one with lingering thoughts, viewpoints and insights about the issues of our time, whether one agreed or not. That's a powerful and all too rare aftereffect on television and one that's hard to replicate.

On the Choice of Songs and Wars

I found the choice of songs by Reba McEntire for the July 4th capital concert to be inappropriate for our National Birthday. To sing a song about a young girl who uses sexual favors to rise out of poverty and obtain wealth and position is not in keeping with our national tradition and aspirations.

Bruce Burn, Powder Springs, GA

This may not be a matter of journalistic content, but I was very concerned about the choice of music on the Washington Concert last night. The song sung by Reba McEntire may be a great song . . . I have seen her perform it several times in a concert venue, but it was NOT a good selection for a family hour show. The song . . . FANCY . . . tells the story of a young woman sent out in the world by her mother to make a living being a hooker, paramour, call girl . . . call it what you wish but it is the same thing and delivers a horrible message to young women. Please make sure someone sees this message . . . the producer, the stations, and don't let this happen again!

Edwina Murray, Berea, OH

I was truly amazed Reba sang the song about a daughter prostituted, on the national capital fourth TV special. I watch it every year, being prior service, but that song really made me wonder who chooses the songs sung on the special. Otherwise, I enjoyed it, as always. Keep up the great work!

Bridgeport, PA

We watched the Capitol 4th last night and enjoyed it immensely as we usually do. Can you please ask why Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture is continually played during the fireworks display? It's hardly a patriotic American piece and since when do honor the defeat of Napoleon at the gates of Moscow on our nation's birthday? Ok, the canons and church bells are a nice touch, but really! I've wondered about this for some time.

Steven Goldstein, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA

[Ombudsman's Note: Executive Producer Jerry Colbert explains, "In 1976, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture was performed by the Boston Pops conducted by Arthur Fiedler as part of the United States Bicentennial Celebrations. The performance secured the work's place in the nation's patriotic canon. Since then, it has been an annual tradition for orchestras around the country to play the piece on Independence Day."]

More on 'Need to Know'

My concern is about the political shift at PBS characterized by the simultaneous cancellation of NOW and Bill Moyers Journal. Need to Know seems to me less incisive than NOW and much more insular than Bill Moyers Journal. The overall impression from my POV after several weeks of reflection is that investigative journalism and frank discussion are being sacrificed because PBS management consensus is that these things diminish contributions. What about the mission to educate and inform?

Bill Moyers' explanation that he needed to retire would have been plausible had he been properly replaced and we had not lost the services of strong journalists like Maria Hinojosa. Need to Know is re-hash of the lite fare I hear on The Takeaway (NPR) with Celeste Headlee and good old John Hockenberry. Michael, I wonder if you could let myself and others know why this shift is occurring. It totally undercut any inclination I had to support PBS financially, and I'm sure many others feel likewise. In the long run failure to nurture an informed electorate, and audience, is suicidal.

Jack W. Martin, Stanley, NC

PBS's replacement of "Now" and" Bill Moyers Journal" with the likes of Newsweek's editor Jon Meacham and Alison Stewart on the new program "Need to Know" is absurd. This program is definitely no substitute for those two shows. Mr. Meacham with his middle of the road conventional wisdom with a conservative slant is no substitute for "Now" or "Bill Moyers Journal". Those two shows are both examples of hard-hitting independent journalism with which "Need to Know" cannot compete. As a Progressive American there are less and less programs on PBS for me to watch. I hope in the near future you will find some suitable programming to replace those two excellent shows.

MaryAnn Preston, New York, NY

I'm sorry, but PBS made a serious error in removing Bill Moyers & Now. The new show is scattered and lacks depth in the subjects it tries to cover. Not everyone likes the MTV-like presentation, fast and shallow.

Lees Summit, MO

My husband and I have been devoted fans and supporters of PBS for many years and up until recently have rarely watched any other channel. We have been very upset over the changes in your Friday night programming. It used to be the highlight of the week for us, starting with Lehrer NewsHour through 10 PM and then again for Charlie Rose.

We recognize that the loss of Bill Moyers was unavoidable. Every person is entitled to decide his own time of retirement. But WHAT HAPPENED TO MR. BRANCACCIO? His was a unique program and frequently covered topics that were not covered in any other medium.

The worst of the loss of these two programs is the program you chose to substitute "Need to Know." There is nothing covered in that program that we haven't been hearing about or seeing all week long. It is just plain BORING, and contributes to the "dumbing down" of your programming.

Wantagh, NY

Thank you for your continued excellence in broadcasting the news. (NEED TO KNOW) surpasses anything you have ever done that I have seen. Please keep it up and keep it going. I watch and I continually marvel at what I learn from NEED TO KNOW and the intelligence of those who put it together and present it to us. I am 78, a liberal, and have dementia problems (says my daughter) I still recognize excellence when I see it. Bless you and thank you for the rich humanity out which you work.

Randy Collinson, Tulsa, OK

Last night's broadcast wasn't any better than last week. I don't think they know who they want to be. I am a big fan of Jon Meacham and he doesn't belong in such a confusing format of a show. Let him do substantive and meaningful interviews, that is what he does best. And the 2 anchor model (male and female) is so dead. I hope you rethink the whole format.

Redding, DE

Just to Prove Yourself, Upset Corporate America

So far, Need To Know seems to be doing a decent job since taking over NOW. However, if they really want to prove to the PBS loyal viewers that they are independent of corporate influence, they need to produce an in-depth (1 to 2 hours in length) investigative report that upsets and angers corporate America, similar to Food Inc., which PBS actually had the guts to broadcast and really upset the corporate food industry.

For example, perhaps an in-depth investigation could be produced into the relaxed regulation of the oil industry in the last 10 years (mostly by the Bush administration) that may have led to the BP spill. This would be a good balance to the corporate media's campaign to blame Obama for the spill.

Brian Woodland, Roseville, CA

What? Another bleak Friday evening, NOW that David Brancaccio and Bill Moyers are silenced. What a tepid replacement, Need to Know. I know that Bill Moyers has a well-deserved retirement, but where is a voice+vision to replace his depth and breadth? With the PBS equivalent of USA Today? Come-on! At least bring back NOW.

Edgar Meyer, Taos, NM

Need to Know compares very unfavorably to NOW and Bill Moyers Journal. PBS's standard for investigative journalism and in-depth interviews has gone downhill with the cancellation of Now and Bill Moyers Journal. Need to Know is a light-weight.

Ketchikan, AK

Just what America needs: another third rate magazine show. What's happening to NOW is just like what happened to another excellent issues oriented show — Nightline. From the sublime to the inane. It's hard to say what is the worst part of the show. Next week's news? No, I think it is the light-weight Alison Stewart whose cutesiness and constant snickering are intolerable. I think I've given this show all the chance I can tolerate.

Baltimore, MD

Free the Scientists

Thank you Need to Know for interviewing the TED folks [This refers to a segment on the July 2 broadcast dealing with the Gulf oil spill and three presenters at a conference sponsored by the non-profit TED organization]. BUT the fact that it was stuck between two other news items trivializes it! Devote an entire hour to this! Give full voice to the scientists, an hour of their voice not 15 minutes, and not your opinion, full scientific fact. Do the right thing. Don't place an important subject such as this in between spy stories and female Viagra. Don't mix Obama's health care issue with this and don't spend 15 min promoting yourselves — or joking about Russian spies.

New York City, NY

I waited to see what PBS would come up with to fill the Moyers/Brancaccio vacuum, and I don't see anything that begins to compensate for the loss. Am I imagining things, or has Frontline been pulling in its horns to some extent as well? Should we expect NOVA to be on the chopping block — to be replaced by quacks — as antiscience sentiment continues to grow in the country?

Kelly Pomeroy, Kamuela, HI

On the Korean War, as Seen from Arizona

What I thought to be a good doc on the Korean War ["Unforgettable: The Korean War"] turned out to be more about promoting non-nationals, and/or those with accents who had fought (and very well) in the war. I find it odd that your bias even pours thru on such significant history as the Korean conflict.

FACTS: that is what journalism is about! 92% of Korean War veterans were your typical white American. 3% were of "Hispanic" origin. Yet, you cover two heavily accented Mexican stories from the war, along with a heavily accented Brit (Irish?) from the war, and one white guy . . . thru the doc's length. And, I might add, there is no doubt that you weighed heaviest on the two Mexican vets. Keep your liberal politics out of your journalism and you would keep (and obtain) many more viewers. Thanks for the twist, of history.

Longmont, CO

Here's a response from Arizona Public Media:

Arizona Public Media produced this program about the reminiscences and individual experiences of several Korean War veterans. All of the 17 veterans interviewed in the program are American citizens. There was one of African American decent, two were Hispanic, one Tohono O'odham (Native American), and the remainder white. The two Hispanic veterans had the most combat experience and took part in critical elements of the war, the Inchon landing and the battle of the Chosin Reservoir. It is important to note that this program does not purport to be a definitive history of the Korean War. This program documents how vets from Southern Arizona who fought in the conflict, remember their experiences.

Jack Gibson
Director & General Manager