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Monday, July 28, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: What to Include and Who to Leave Out?

The mail was a little light this week but, as usual, viewers raised some interesting points and challenges. Here's a sampling:

Re the Ft. Hood suicides this week: I find it unbelievable that PBS NewsHour devoted ten minutes of air time [Friday, Oct. 1] to the suicide of a privileged white teen-aged male at Rutgers and not one second to the four decorated combat veterans who took their own lives (one with his wife) this week at Ft. Hood, Texas. If this isn't a national tragedy, I don't know what is. Unless we see the human cost of these "wars of choice," they'll never end. Perhaps this is the end game after all. A "Forever War."

Ronald Dodson, Lakewood, OH

(Ombudsman's Note: Haven't heard back from the NewsHour on this one, but I agree, in part, with the viewer. The suicide of the Rutgers student was an important story and definitely worthy of NewsHour coverage considering the circumstances surrounding his death. But the suicide of four soldiers during that week at Fort Hood, Texas, which has had a sad history with many returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, is a powerful, newsworthy story about the costs of combat that are largely unseen and that demands recording. The NewsHour has devoted several segments in the past to the problems of returning veterans, so this omission surprised me. The New York Times posted a story about it on Sept. 29 and The Washington Post did a fuller but later story on Oct. 1.)


Extra Innings

"The 10th Inning" was totally biased towards the Yankees and the Red Sox. It was their history, not the other teams across the nation. The shame of this is PBS airs what is really just a regional feel good show, not a national view of our national pastime. Ken Burns has no credibility. In 2004 the Cardinals had the best record in baseball. The team had won more World Series in history next to the Yankees, and the Cards were only referred to as "formidable" by Burns. Come on, be fair. An umpire would have called him out.

Mike Ragen, Springfield, IL


Here's a Response from Producers/Directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

"We are sorry to have disappointed a devoted St. Louis Cardinals fan by our decision to focus extensively on the Red Sox' remarkable comeback in the 2004 ALCS. We found that story compelling because of both Boston's eventually ending a 86-year World Series drought, and the fact that theirs was the greatest comeback in the history of baseball. After the extraordinarily dramatic ALCS, it felt anticlimactic to examine the World Series (which was settled in four games) in much depth and as a result we did not celebrate that great Cardinals team as much as the viewer would have liked.

"Neither The Tenth Inning nor the original Baseball series was intended to be encyclopedic. We never set out to cover every great team or player, and many have necessarily been left out so that we could focus on a small number of compelling stories and characters. As it turns out, though, we did devote a great deal of screen time to the Cardinals both in the Tenth Inning and the first nine episodes of the series. Among the many Cardinals moments and players that are included (in no particular order): the Gas House Gang; Dizzy and Daffy Dean; Rogers Hornsby; Stan Musial; Bob Gibson; and of course Mark McGwire's 1998 season, which is covered at great length."


Other Voices?

I cannot believe that Ken Burns chose to interview Mike Barnicle for Tenth Inning. Barnicle is the disgraced former [Boston] Globe columnist who invented several stories and was fired. He has no credibility, so why would Burns choose to gather information from him about the Red Sox? Barnicle relayed touching stories about his family's affinity for the Sox, but how do we know they are true? Now that Burns has chosen a questionable source for this documentary, I must now call into question his previous work. How sad. A real disappointment.

Sandwich, MA

~ ~ ~

I was watching 'The Tenth Evening' tonight and enjoyed the program, but I found it curious that the two primary people interviewed for the segment on the Boston Red Sox were both confirmed plagiarizers (Mike Barnicle and Doris Kearns Goodwin). I expect interviews with people of more integrity from PBS.

Burlington, MA

(Ombudsman's Note: Burns and Novick say, as a matter of principle, that they don't respond to unsigned letters, as is the case with the two e-mails printed above. That's a fair stance to take. They offer to write letters to these viewers if provided with a home address. Readers of this column should know that both e-mails were, indeed, signed, so we know who the writers are. But their messages contain the option chosen by some viewers that says, "You may post this without my name." We always write back asking them to reconsider. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't, and then we make a decision about using the letter. In this case, we felt the viewers raised legitimate points that should be posted and addressed.)


Watch the full episode. See more Ken Burns.



My Thoughts

This, like a lot of challenges viewers raise, is a tough question. Both Doris Kearns Goodwin and Mike Barnicle are smart, articulate and very compelling commentators about a sport they love and the culture surrounding it. I've read, and enjoyed, most of Goodwin's books and, having grown up in New York City in the 1940s and '50s, that includes "Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir" about the city's three great teams of that era and her then-heartthrob, the Brooklyn Dodgers. She was also in the earlier Burns series on baseball. Aside from his written commentary, Barnicle's voice also is now commonplace on cable television, and his devotion to the Boston Red Sox is well known.

As the viewers point out, however, both Goodwin and Barnicle, aside from being ardent Red Sox fans, have been involved in literary controversy in earlier years. Barnicle lost his job as a Boston Globe columnist in 1998 after two charges of plagiarism, and Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer, also faced charges of plagiarism in 2002.

We all, of course, make mistakes, and most of us, I think, believe in redemption and second chances. And when it comes to capturing, on the air, the sheer grip of baseball on the devoted fan, families and entire communities, it is hard to beat Barnicle and Goodwin. So you can understand Burns' artistic choice and this is, after all, baseball we are talking about. So as a viewer, the use of these two among many others didn't bother me. But the likelihood that it would bother some, and the fact that there are other very expressive potential interviewees out there, is important because it is the body of work itself that is most important rather than personal ties and choices.

Burns has become the most well known American documentarian and is certainly among the most widely respected. He, along with Novick, has become the keeper of popular Americana, producers of several iconic perspectives on everything from jazz and the national parks to the Civil War and World War II, and a lot more. So it is the work that is central and the need to protect it. Does the use of Barnicle and Goodwin distract? Could others have been chosen? Should a director's choice be influenced by some would-be criticism? Those are hard calls. I have no idea if they were considered by Burns and Novick but they should have been.

Missing Links?

One of the more incisive critiques I read about "The Tenth Inning" was by Joan Walsh, the editor-in-chief at Salon. There's a lot to enjoy in this documentary, she writes, but among the points she raises was one that I was not aware of and that adds to the questioning of the choice of Barnicle, in particular.

"Barnicle's professional troubles are never mentioned" in the four-hour, two-part documentary, she writes, "but more remarkably, to my knowledge no media report has made the connection between Barnicle's star turn and the role of his wife, Anne Finucane, the Bank of America chief marketing officer credited with the B of A's sponsorship of 'Tenth Inning.' Finucane's role is no secret; she's been quoted about the bank's Burns partnership and photographed at gala events with the filmmaker. But it's undisclosed within the project, and given Barnicle's (to me questionable) centrality to 'Tenth Inning,' something there feels off."

Walsh also makes the point that there are, once again, "too many white male intellectuals talking about a game with a working-class heart," and not enough women. She said she loved the role of Doris Kearns Goodwin, although Walsh mentions nothing about Goodwin's previous troubles.

I asked the producers about Walsh's points and also whether the role of Barnicle's spouse at Bank of America came up as a possible conflict of interest and whether this might have been considered for disclosure in the film or supporting material.

Here's the response from Burns and Novick:

"Ken Burns and Florentine Films have known Mike Barnicle for many, many years, long before Bank of American started supporting our productions (in 2007). In The Tenth Inning, we wanted the story of the Red Sox' loss in 2003 and victory in 2004 to be seen through the eyes of a die hard fan with deep roots in New England, someone who could speak about how his or her family had waited so long for a championship. From Ken's many conversations with Barnicle over the years, (he is well known as a passionate Red Sox fan) we knew that he would be extremely eloquent about that subject on a personal level. We did not see this decision in any way as a conflict with Bank of America providing corporate support for this and our other films."

And There's This . . .

In an era in which our country is self-destructing in criminal imperialist wars while Miley Cyrus represents a role-model for young women, PBS — America's Education Station — broadcasts another mindless baseball documentary by Ken Burns. With Bill Moyers in retirement, you offer virtually no programs that exercise pointed and insightful criticism of this society-in-decline.

A couple of questions in light of the above: How much financial assistance does Burns receive from those of us who support PBS? Why do you not feature the work of such critically incisive film-makers as Michael Moore or Frederick Wiseman (whom you used to showcase)? I shall continue my support of PBS but must express disappointment with its lack of imagination and integrity in its programming choices.

Rodney Taylor, Kirksville, MO

(Ombudsman's Note: PBS officials say that Burns is a very effective fundraiser on his own and that about 70 percent of the funding for The Tenth Inning, for example, comes from outside private sources such as foundations and corporations, and that by far the majority of underwriting for his documentaries generally comes from such private sources. Officials also say that PBS does feature the work of Frederick Wiseman on occasion. Michael Moore's film "Roger and Me" was on PBS several years ago but, officials say, Moore is more focused these days on other forms of distribution and on theatrical releases.)


Oh, Pah-ki-stahn, Ahf-gah-ni-stahn . . .

Hari Sreenivasan, who gives the "hard news" on the News Hour, drives me nuts with his pronunciation of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I am a retired linguistics and languages instructor, so the last thing about which I would complain is a nod to a foreign language. But nobody speaking American English, giving an expository news report, in the middle of a sentence delivered in standard American English, pronounces Paris as "Pah-REE." Yet that is what Mr. Sreenivasan does (or vaguely attempts to do) this night after night with his pretentious-sounding (and wholly incorrect) injections of Ahf-gah-ni-stahn and Pah-ki-stahn into an otherwise perfectly normal-sounding American-English sentence. I am fluent in German and several other languages, and when speaking German would certainly pronounce Berlin as "Bayr-LEEN," but if injected that pronunciation into an otherwise American-English sentence it would sound both jarring and incorrect. Please get Mr. Sreenivasan to drop this pretentious and incorrect "Ahf-ghan-is-stahn" and "Pah-ki-stahn."

Robb Quint, Thousand Oaks, CA

~ ~ ~

The changes in the PBS Newshour show the influence of the corporate power of your sponsors creeping into what once was the most fair unbiased news report in the country. Judy Woodruff's adversarial interview tonight [Sept. 30] with Speaker Nancy Pelosi raised my hackles. She touted the republican mantra that they are going to regain the House just too many times. She had no interest in doing anything but negating everything the speaker has done or had to say. This is just one of many slanted ways I see the program going. Another was airing a Honda car dealer's objection to the spending of stimulus funds on rural busing as legitimate, when the government has just bailed out the auto industry, and continues to subsidize highways & the airlines is laughable. I have made this show my main source of news almost each evening for many, many years but now I find myself being offended at least once each broadcast by a decidedly one-sided viewpoint. My loyalty and allegiance to PBS and KQED is being put in jeopardy!

David Wood, San Francisco, CA


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