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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: On Covering Heaven and Earth

Two PBS television experiences dominated the mail this week — coverage by the NewsHour of the extraordinary rescue of those 33 Chilean miners trapped nearly half-a-mile below the surface for 69 days, and a six-hour series on "God in America" co-produced by American Experience and Frontline.

Although far apart in almost every respect — one a dramatic, breaking news story watched by millions around the world, and the other a thoughtful but slow-moving retrospective on the 400-year intersection of religion and public life in America — both deal with the idea of God.

God in Chile

In the NewsHour coverage, which has drawn high marks from those viewers who wrote to me or called, the most dramatic coverage, naturally, came on Oct. 13 as the rescue was underway. Special correspondent Jonathan Miller, who works for Britain's Independent Television News, provided an excellent report, including an interview with the most boisterous and jubilant of the miners, Mario Antonio Sepulveda (aka "Super Mario"), who described how he "was with God" in the mine, as did other miners. In his closing comments, Miller said: "This incredible rescue has been the work of man, but, here in Chile, it's seen as nothing short of a miracle from God."

One aspect that, for sure, was the work of man was a special drill bit designed and built by Center Rock, a small company in Berlin, Pa. It was the essential tool in the ultimately successful Plan B approach to reach and retrieve the miners. The NewsHour did a good deal on the overall technology but some viewers said this crucial role of an American company should have been specifically noted. The next night, Oct. 14, in a well-done follow-up on the details of the rescue, the NewsHour did indeed point out the central role of some small, but unnamed, U.S. companies.

God in America

This was an ambitious and very timely, I thought, collaboration between two flagship producers for PBS to get at one of the ever-present tensions in our society. Most of the reviews I saw were positive in terms of a historical attempt to deal with such a large and emotional aspect of American life.

Here is how The Washington Post's Hank Stuever started his review on Oct. 11:

"'God in America,' a three-night joint production from 'Frontline' and 'American Experience' that begins Monday night, blends two subjects that most folks avoid in polite company — religion and politics. It compellingly presents an American history that has been alternately ruined and elevated by faith.

"Even though the title suggests a subject that is far too broad, the series is commendably evenhanded and sober, as one would expect. If there were urgent-care centers for people who've flipped their lids watching too much Fox News or MSNBC, the nurses there would strap these frantic citizens to gurneys and administer 'God in America' via a nice, slow IV drip, like a powerful PBS antibiotic."

On the other hand, most of the viewers that wrote to me expressed disappointment.

Here Are the Letters

I watched the first episode of God in America last night. Great stuff with lots of new info. to absorb . . . but couldn't you have gone a bit easier on us viewers and spaced it out a bit with say a one hour segment each week? Two hours straight with so much info is tough for us poor working stiffs! I could take Jane Austen for two hours but not John Winthrop.

Alton Frabetti, Medford, MA

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The series, "God in America" seems very one-sided and dishonest to me. There was too little voice given to those who would criticize the role of religion in the public square. The support that religion gave to slavery, the poison religion injected into politics, and the nonsense religion has worked very hard to promote in the science classroom were glossed over. The role of nonbelievers in American history and their struggle against the harm that religion has done was barely mentioned at all. I'm disappointed in PBS for promoting such an intellectually dishonest production. This "documentary" belongs on CBN, not PBS.

Austin, TX

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My heartfelt gratitude for your efforts on GOD IN AMERICA. As I write this, I await tonight, part 3. The uniquely human quest for spiritual clarity is so American in character of law, and the ever current state of unnecessary human suffering so dire, that our national conscience is in tumult. It is unique to each of us as Americans, but also as humans. Our care for each other will save us. Haven't we learned by now that hate will not? We have been at war over GOD since the dawn of history, and for as long as we have spilled blood in His name, we have misunderstood Him. The inevitable is obvious in hindsight. We could have had it much better as a species long ago, had we been obedient students. Cooperation seems wise. Our potential promise stands ahead. As for What wisdom may Be, please guide.

Thomas Muth, Towson, MD

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I watched the first program of "God in America" last night. It had nothing to with god and was completely about religions and religious thoughts and beliefs. It should be titled "Religion in America." Any time any journalist, news person or producer uses "God" in the way you did, it further fosters the assumption that something of that sort has been shown to exist. Recent polls have shown that most Americans would support for public office most any member of any religion, culture, race, ethnicity, sex, gender preference before they would support an agnostic or atheist. Using "God" as a probable reality reinforces and supports that kind of bigotry. There is no substantiating evidence anywhere to support one god, multiple gods, collective gods or any other kind other than individuals' contradictory beliefs and hoped for wishes. We use "alleged, believed to be, suspected, hoped for, etc." in other similar situations. It is lacking in journalistic integrity to not write in a similar manner when talking about a wished for or believed in without substantiation god.

Randy Knauff, Loveland, CO

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I was wondering, after seeing "God in America," if PBS stations have done collaborations like "American Experience" and "Frontline" did with "God in America." The only bad thing I saw in the piece was the pro-Christian message, and its hate of others including Atheists. I think now in the 21st Century religious and the non-religious are more respectful of each other. Loved the mention of "Church and State" separation. The other beef: the huge Underwriting Section of the program at the beginning, almost turned me away.

Tim Dillenberger, Bloomington, MN

The Disappointed

I was extremely disappointed in the presentation of John Winthrop and Anne Hutchinson in your "God in America" program. The men who assessed the trial missed the point that clearly comes out in the transcripts. Hutchinson was gossiping against her minister and several other ministers. She accused them of not having the "seal of the spirit" and being "unfit" to be ministers SHE was sitting in judgment on THEM, declaring them unsaved. No man or woman has that right. SHE is an example of extreme intolerance — if you don't say what I want to hear, you must not be saved. Even the minister she endorsed was embarrassed by her support. I hope in the future, you can find scholars who have a better understanding of Puritan theology, and Mass. Bay's attempt at theocracy, and who don't cherry-pick bits and pieces of a trial transcript to appeal to the popular interpretation of the Puritans as a bunch of mean people.

Sharon Seidel, Huntsville, AL

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I must say, I was rather disappointed in the miniseries, "God in America". I know it is a lot to expect even a token nod to atheists, but when a show rewrites history to advance an agenda, well that is beyond the pale. The most egregious parts being the total misrepresentation of Thomas Jefferson. It is shows like this and the pushing of utter nonsense during pledge drives (Dr. Dwyer, Deepak Chopra, et al) that I do not donate money to your stations.

Patrick Knight, Concord, CA

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Completely and utterly disappointed in the new special documentary, if you can call it that. I think Christian propaganda better describes the film. It is discouraging that PBS would allow such biased factually inaccurate information to be played on what has always been such a great network. A quick view of the news and you will find that above all sects of Christianity, Atheists/Agnostics and Freethinkers have more knowledge on these subjects. Is it possible PBS didn't know this, is it possible they thought this would go under the radar with the millions of atheist Americans who tune to PBS for unbiased and educational programming? David Belton's work leaves much to be desired and I truly hope PBS will forgo airing the remaining episodes of this blatantly dishonest work.

Cedar Key, FL

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I am appalled at the inaccuracies and distortions in the God in America series. Do equal time with Chris Rodda: www.liarsforjesus.com and the Freedom From Religion Foundation: www.ffrf.org. It is wrong to assume there is a god. At best such a program should be titled "Belief in God in America" and it should not credit changes to religion that were clearly lead by freethinkers over clergy objections. It's no wonder our country lags behind in science!

Ruth Walker, Cedar Falls, IA

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God in America? The 3 religions? What about the other religions? The Republican influence is pouring out. You can tell it's election time. Why not "Walk the Bible" to the religious channels? The right wing influence has poisoned the programming. Sad.

Robert Savage, Euclid, OH

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In the recent series "God in America" there is almost entirely a neglect of competing religious voices in the American Landscape. There is only a brief mention of Native American spirituality and no mention of how this spirituality informed such events as Pontiacs Rebellion and the Ghost Dance rebellion of the American West. In addition there is absolutely no mention of the presence in America of Islam from the very beginning due to the presence of Islamic believers in the American slave community. If i had not studied religious history I would come away from this series with the belief that only 2 faith communities existed in America — Christianity and Judaism. This has never been true and is becoming even less true with each passing day. I am deeply disappointed and disgusted by this failure mention and discuss other visions of what "God in America" really looks like.

Shawn Travis, Alexandria, VA

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Your religious programming (God in America is the latest example) is the reason I no longer financially support PBS.

Philip Thomas, Clarksburg, MD

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I just read an article on Dailykos that points out some glaring errors in your program on religion in America. I would like to suggest you read the critique and if they are valid you might want to make some corrections at the end of the program. I agree with the article's assessment of Article 3 of the Constitution mention of religious freedoms. Your program says that no mention was made and seems to me to be an error in need of correction. Thank you for your consideration.

Pendleton, IN

Michael Sullivan, Executive Producer of 'God in America,' Responds:

Frederick Clarkson's critique in the Daily Kos (PBS Gets It Wrong on Constitution and Religion) of God in America's portrayal of the debate about whether the original US Constitution, without a Bill of Rights, guaranteed religious liberty, seems to rest on his argument that the provisions of Article VI barring of any religious test for office was, in fact, a guarantee of religious liberty. But barring a religious test for federal office did not guarantee the right to practice one's faith without governmental interference. This was a disappointment for those who looked for a clear written guarantee, including Thomas Jefferson and the Baptists who were concerned about freedom of conscience. Absence of a written guarantee kept some members of the Constitutional Convention, including George Mason, from signing the original document. The twin principles contained in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, the establishment clause and the free exercise clause, made the guarantee. This is the story that God in America aimed to tell and we stand by our portrayal of the Constitution and the debate over religious liberty.

Coverage of Those Extraordinary Miners

I thought last night's coverage [Oct. 13] of the rescue of Chilean miners was superb! The drama of the events themselves was already intense, but Jonathan Miller's powerful narrative made it very special indeed. To top it off, Jonathan Franklin had a great line in his piece about Pinochet being left in the mine — a trenchant observation.

Greg Thielmann, Arlington, VA

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Thanks to PBS NewsHour for excellent coverage of the Chilean mine workers' rescue. You provided context, more than was available on CNN and more images and voices. The coverage 10/13 was valuable. We plan to drop our membership with KCET when they terminate PBS programming. The NewsHour is our main source of televised news. We depend on its consistent excellence.

Pat Hoffman, Pasadena, CA

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RE CHILEAN MINERS RESCUE COVERAGE — The story about the small American company that sent a super drill down to speed the rescue was covered here in the Wall St. Journal and on NPR. Why not on News Hour?

Roger Strelow, Bonita Springs, DC