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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: Guns and Rose

* This Mailbag was updated on Jan. 25 to include a response to a viewer from Frontline.

If you talk about guns on television, you are going to get mail. Usually, it contains some pretty strong sentiments. That happened this week after a segment last Friday evening, Jan. 14, on PBS's weekly public affairs program Need To Know. The segment included a section in which supporters and opponents of gun control were interviewed and filmed. So far so good.

But it also included an essay on the subject by the program's co-host, Jon Meacham, that asked "why America has so miserably failed to enact even common-sense gun legislation." Meacham frequently contributes essays or commentary, always labeled as part of the "In Perspective" feature of the program. But this is the first one that drew critical, and in some cases, angry responses.

The letters follow, along with a response from Stephen Segaller, vice-president of content at WNET.org. There is also a response by Meacham posted on the program's website.

Commentary, especially solo commentary, on a PBS program is always going to cause controversy. Bill Moyers and his weekly Journal always produced a raft of letters, pro and con, when he was a fixture on PBS. On a personal level, I found Meacham's comments thought-provoking, timely and worth hearing no matter what side you are on. The segment itself presented both sides of the argument and I thought it was helpful to be reminded, as he did, that in 1994 Congress had banned expanded ammunition clips, such as the one used in the recent killings in Arizona, and assault weapons, only to have these bans not renewed by Congress in 2004.

And This Just In . . .

Farther down in the column, a writer from the media watch group FAIR questions the absence of some questioning by Charlie Rose on his hour-long interview with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on Jan. 19 about U.S.-China relations. I'm awaiting a response from the program on this challenge, but I have to say I agree that there should have been questions asked, in fairness to viewers, about Kissinger's business relationships with China.

This was an interesting and useful interview, I thought, but viewers needed to understand that the former secretary, who has made some 80 trips to China over the years, and his consulting firm have long and perhaps lucrative associations with China. Perhaps that didn't impact on the discussion but better to have made it clear so viewers can at least understand a portion of the relationship and make their own judgments.

Here Are the Letters

I'm sick & fed up with PBS' leftist BS. The bodies aren't even in the ground & Need To Know is ranting about gun control & assault weapons bans. Jon Meacham wouldn't know an assault weapon from a hole in the ground. Actual assault weapons have been heavily regulated by the feds since 1934. The ban that expired in 2004 made perfectly legal & safe semi-auto guns illegal. This nation has actually gotten safer since the '94 ban expired. Just check the DOJ stats. We need to start properly treating the mentally ill instead of pawning them off on law enforcement & health care providers not trained in treating mental illness. Ever since One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest was released our mental institutions didn't improve they just slowly went out of business.

John Roberts, York, PA

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I would like to file a complaint against your news reporter Jon Meacham and staff . . . This is not News or even a fair opinion for discussion on the recent AZ tragedy but more of a one-sided opinion and an anti-gun agenda. I am saddened at the lack of professionalism in today's report. If you want my support then this kind of garbage needs to be prevented from PBS. Jon Meacham's anti-gun opinions should never have been allowed to air in this type of format.

Furthermore my service to this country protects the freedoms of the American public and I continue to put my life on the line year after year with great sacrifice from my family as well. Not to mention the many military friends I have lost doing just that. To be home and see this garbage in response to a terrible tragedy is out right Wrong and Un-American! Jon Meacham's approach for creditability and as a subject matter expert is out right wrong as well. My family has been here since before this country became the USA and we grew up with guns too, but we do not agree with his view points. I am not a member of any gun clubs, NRA or the like. I am not a supporter or get involved with such matters. However, I do believe in the right to bear arms and the freedoms we have and that our laws do work. So I hope you can see my creditability for speaking on this matter.

IMHO, Meacham and those involved should all be reprimanded, removed from further reporting, and then PBS make an on air formal apology to the American public. Why are they not reporting and investigating the officer who failed to do his job in the first place? Or the many failures that led up to this tragedy? Furthermore, as an expert I can confirm that a 6 round pistol clip used by an amateur could still have had the same outcome. The use of a 20+ round clip is pointless. If there was another armed citizen at the scene that would have made a difference. More laws will not stop mad men. If these viewpoints are to be made, they need to be done professionally with an unbiased host and discussions with multiple viewpoints.

Dave B. Franklin, Hartford, CT

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I was really disappointed to see the recent show on PBS Sunday the 16th. The show was decidedly antigun and pro-Brady bill. It was a show favoring gun bans and bills in violation of the 2nd amendment. I will no longer support PBS. Anytime a show becomes propagandic and antigun I am through with it. I am telling my friends about your Brady view show. I used to love PBS but those days are over. Every state with concealed carry the crime rate dropped 30%. If PBS starts running propaganda it will go down hill. Keep your views to yourself and uphold the quality of your travel shows and you might survive. Get politically involved in broadcasting your views and the show is toast. I am so ashamed of the view of PBS!!!!

Jack Eich, Morrison, IL

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I recently watched a program on PBS called Need to Know, and saw a piece on gun control by Jon Meacham. His commentary was heavily biased, and reflected a distinct political viewpoint that I feel is unbecoming of PBS. If Jon Meacham wants to express his personal views on political issues, he should become a politician or an independent news producer, not a host of a nationally syndicated news program funded in part by public money. I'm sure there's more than enough room on MSNBC for his type of political commentary, but it's certainly not what I want to see on PBS. I hope you will avoid this type of heavily biased "journalism" in the future, and inform the producers of Need to Know that heavily biased viewpoints like these can be expected of some guests, but should not be expressed by the hosts and interviewers themselves. Thank you.

Brian Adams, Vermillion, SD

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I'm disappointed with your new show, 'Need to Know'. I feel that it failed to fully examine the issues fairly and without bias. The high speed rail article showed a clip stating, who doesn't take $840 million? $840 million this nation doesn't have, that it would have to borrow, so that a few rich people can commute via rail instead of car. High speed rail to vacation destinations, between large population cities, thereby generating full rail cars, that makes sense. Between Milwaukee and Madison, no. Because those rail cars would be just as empty as the ones showed in your piece. Your piece also failed to compare high to rail to all the alternatives, including telecommuting. Remember all the buzz about that word? Because of size and population densities, rail works great in Europe or Japan or even our own east coast, that doesn't mean it works everywhere, at any cost.

As for the gun piece, again, it fails to compare. Guns and accessories should be limited, why not liquor sales, since drunk drivers kill more then guns? Why make cars and motorcycles that can go 100+ mph? They can't be driven on any public highway. Why should police be allowed more bullets in their guns? Why not demand cell phone manufactures make cell phones that won't work while someone is driving? Who will decide the restrictions for public safety and when will they say the job is done. I believe this show is more about agenda then unbiased reporting. I will not watch this show again, and if this kind of programming is expanded, I will no longer support PBS with my donations.

Milwaukee, WI

Stephen Segaller of WNET Responds:

Thanks for sharing the viewer comments with us. We'd like to explain that from time to time our co-host, Jon Meacham, does commentaries on the program, on a wide range of topics. They are all labeled as such — "In Perspective" — and his commentary on guns was no exception.

Mr. Meacham expressed his opinion that the assault weapons ban should be reinstated. He said at the beginning of the essay that he was a gun owner whose family has always owned guns for hunting and sporting purposes, and that he had no interest in banning guns. He believed that guns like the one used by the alleged killer Jared Loughner should not be legal and easily acquired.

The essay was preceded by a segment in which anti-gun control activists were given a forum to express their reasons for opposing gun legislation. One of the principals in the piece told us afterward he thought it was fair. We fully expected the essay, and the topic in general, would elicit strong response, and it certainly did.

If the viewer was unable to tell that Mr. Meacham's essay was meant to be a commentary, despite its being identified as such, we're sorry for the confusion.

Henry and Charlie

I wanted to direct you to a short piece regarding Henry Kissinger's recent appearance on the Charlie Rose show to talk about China policy.

Kissinger's conflicts of interest have been a matter of public record for some years — and caused him some public embarrassment when he defended the Tiananmen crackdown. But much of Kissinger's corporate work seems to require some degree of confidentiality, so the details remain sketchy. Nonetheless, PBS viewers are left unaware that such conflicts exist, and given the lack of transparency it might even be difficult to determine precisely what those conflicts are if one were to ask Kissinger directly. I know one story from 2006 in New York magazine reported that Kissinger was paid "enormous fees to help AIG gain access to China."

Obviously these material conflicts should be explained to PBS viewers. Or, perhaps, the Charlie Rose show should find another guest to speak about China, human rights and economic development.

Peter Hart, FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting)

About Frontline and the NewsHour

How can Dana Priest allow Governor O'Malley to sound like a critic of his own policies? You allowed O'Malley to sound like a displeased critic of the "cowboy" culture that he sounds like he despises and which has allowed the government paranoia of benign suspicious activities you document. Yet Governor O'Malley is the single executive in Maryland who allows his state's police force to use cameras, made for the war Iraq, to eavesdrop on Americans. Furthermore, O'Malley has put signs over I-95 that read "REPORT SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY." I expect better from Frontline.

Second, your MRO report criticizes, rightfully, the contracting of repair work by airlines. But by having Miles O'Brien and Dana Priest report for Frontline, is not your program — which until tonight I considered the gold standard of investigative journalism — doing precisely the same to your industry? You contracted out your reports to outsiders, and have suffered in quality and reputation as a result.

Tom Smith, Washington, DC

* Frontline's Ken Dornstein Responds:

O'Malley was mayor of Baltimore at the time of the Maryland State Police investigations, not the governor. So there he bore no responsibility for the "cowboy culture" he criticized. O'Malley has, in fact, had the former MD Attorney General investigate the MSP and has been very open about the mistakes made in the past. At the same time, O'Malley has presided over a number of more recent aggressive actions which you mention that we can agree should be at the center of the discussion about how far we are willing to go in regards to the balance between security and civil rights.

In terms of "contracting out" our reports: We've always worked with independent producers and reporters, and the series always maintains strong editorial control over everything that we broadcast.

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I understand it is a little late to chime in on your latest column, but as been well noted by others, PBS isn't a "network" in the conventional sense of the word. If it really had a news department, it still couldn't "break-in" to local programming. The NewsHour isn't given anything like the funding it needs for a weekend edition, or to maintain real bureaus to cover the nation (you might start in NY!), or to allow it to reject all those specialized "grants" which require coverage of specific subjects as a condition for the funding. If PBS is to be a real alternative to the junk news found elsewhere, it needs to be serious about it.

Bill Muppet, Houston, TX

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