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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: Holiday Hot-Buttons — Cuba and the Lee Legacy

Two PBS offerings during the holiday season produced most of the mail in the Ombudsman's inbox. Each dealt with a subject that is certain to stir historical and/or ideological juices among some people. I say "people" rather than PBS viewers because, in the case of the Cuba series, I'm not sure how many of those who wrote to me actually saw the programs. I'll explain farther down.

The first of the offerings was a three-part series of reports from Cuba by PBS NewsHour senior correspondent Ray Suarez that aired on Dec. 20, 21 and 22. As described by the NewsHour, it dealt with "signs of possible economic change, the debate over the country's health system and its achievements, as well as Cuba's medical diplomacy program."

The other was a documentary on Jan. 3 about Robert E. Lee, the leading Confederate general of the American Civil War. "He is celebrated by handsome equestrian statues in countless cities and towns across the American South, and two postage stamps issued by the government he fought against during the four bloodiest years in American history," says the online description of the film by its producers. "Nearly a century and a half after his death," it says, Lee "remains a source of fascination and, for some, veneration. This [90-minute] film from AMERICAN EXPERIENCE examines the life and reputation of the Confederacy's pre-eminent general, whose military successes made him the scourge of the Union and the hero of the Confederacy during the Civil War, and who was elevated to almost god-like status by his admirers after his death."

Yankee Si, Cuba No

I received almost two dozen e-mails, all of them sharply critical, about Suarez's reporting from Cuba. All of those e-mails arrived around Dec. 27 or 28, about a week after Suarez's first report and five days after the series concluded. The mail followed a highly critical opinion column in the Wall Street Journal headlined, "A Cuban Fairy Tale From PBS," on Dec. 27 by Mary Anastasia O'Grady, a member of the newspaper's editorial board. That commentary was picked up that same day by NewsBusters, a popular conservative website dedicated to "exposing and combating liberal media bias."

Suarez, in turn, posted a lengthy rebuttal to O'Grady's column on Dec. 29 on the NewsHour's website.

Here are the links to Part One, Part Two and Part Three of the Suarez series, so you can watch it if you missed it and then evaluate the O'Grady column and Suarez response. I have posted a sampling of the letters below.

Personally, I thought the Suarez reports, in their entirety, provided a valuable, informative and timely update on economic and medical affairs in Cuba and the role Cuban medical care plays in its foreign policy. Suarez is an experienced correspondent, who did, I thought, excellent work in Haiti during 2010, and I felt the Cuba programs were presented with a balanced perspective and could be absorbed by an American audience that, over many decades, has accumulated some general knowledge about Cuba under Castro. There is very little American reporting out of Cuba and, as a viewer, I was grateful for this material.

On the other hand, Cuba remains one of the most repressive countries in the world when it comes to press freedom and access and I thought the series should have included some segment that, even briefly, described for viewers how this series and access came about and what, if any, conditions were placed on the reporting. Given the contentiousness of attitudes toward Cuba in this country, that issue was certain to arise.

Here Are Some of the Letters

Is there one person who we taxpayers are paying there at PBS, who isn't a totally leftist? The recent program that sang the praises of the Cuban Health Care program is just the most recent example. It's been proven time and time again, that Cuba isn't a worker's paradise with wonderful Health Care. They even prevented your kindred soul, Moore's latest false documentary showing how wonderful their system was for fear it would give false expectations. But none of that matters. It's all about you people using the taxpayer's money to push a leftist dogma.

Tim Estes, Phoenix, AZ

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It is not frequent that I agree with any Wall Street Journal opinion pieces but today's criticism of Ray Suarez's coverage of health care in Cuba matched my own sentiments. I was particularly disturbed by what I considered a distortion in the Dec. 21 broadcast in which Mr. Suarez implied that the Cuban physician defector's motivation for leaving Cuba to practice medicine was all about money whereas the physician working in Cuba was motivated by "philosophical" issues. Clearly the defector, although he spoke of money, was expressing his desire for a free life and he was willing to do anything to achieve that life even if it meant working as a bellhop and not being able to practice medicine for 16 years. I can't remember having a negative reaction to a NewsHour segment, and I watch it almost daily, but I felt Mr. Suarez's reporting verged on propaganda.

Edvige Barrie, Clinton, NY

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Your recent report about Cuban doctors by Ray Suarez differs violently with a recent report in the Wall Street Journal. Just offhand the Journal story seems more creditable??????

George Spencer, Longwood, FL

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Ray Suarez should go to Cuba for his health care. Wait they don't want any journalists in their police state. Credibility is lacking. What was his source? The Cuban government?

Carl Guckelberger, Kent, OH

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I cannot believe Ray Suarez report on Cuba as he denied the truth what is happening in this repressive country. I would suggest Mr. Suarez move and live there. It is a horrific place to live. PBS truly is no longer that organization that it once was and instead is more like a state sponsored medium spilling out propaganda for their corrupt leaders.

Diane Kyle, Newport Beach, CA

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Ray Suarez's series on Cuba on the NewsHour was biased, misleading and inaccurate. I'm a long time viewer, but no more. To state my case see Mary O'Grady's article in the Wall Street Journal of December 27.

Edgar Noel, Newport News, VA

An Extraordinary General

The American Experience presentation on Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee is part of broader coverage on PBS and in other media marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War that tore this country apart from 1861 to 1865. An American Experience documentary on Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, which was originally broadcast in May 2002, will be re-aired this Monday, Jan. 10.

Like the NewsHour segment on Cuba, the dozen or so e-mails that came to me were sharply critical, most claiming essentially that the portrait presented diminished and defamed the general officer who is among the most revered in American history. One viewer, on the other hand, felt the documentary did not go far enough in debunking "myths" about Lee.

A sampling of the letters follows. There is also a response from the producers to one of the letters I forwarded to them that deals with some specific challenges to the documentary.

As for me, maybe the holidays softened me up but, as in the case of the Cuba series, I found this presentation to be definitely informative and worthwhile. It was tough-minded, I thought, in capturing the complexity of this extraordinary person and leader, and focused, importantly in my view, not just on his military leadership prowess but on his relationship to Virginia, to slave-owning at the time and to his wrenching decision to put aside his West Point oath that "I, Robert Edward Lee, do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States . . . I do solemnly swear to bear true allegiance to the United States of America and to serve them honestly . . ."

The program, at the beginning and at the end, does not let the viewer forget that oath, and all that followed as a result of this brilliant officer casting his lot instead with his beloved Virginia, which was the largest slave-holding state in the country at the time and the most important in the Confederacy. So in one sense, the program comes across, it seemed to me, as having a view about Lee that is more complicated than the conventional iconic standard. It is perhaps more negative in some ways than a general audience might expect but always, I felt, in context with the times and with the special talents and burdens that this one man carried. It is also generally well documented, with the exception, in my view, of some points raised by a Maryland viewer that are addressed farther down in the mailbag.

Here Are Some of the Letters

My family and I watched with great anticipation you program on General Robert E. Lee, only to be crushed and disappointed in the way the program portrayed this great man. I have never seen a more inaccurate biography of the general. The producers went all the way possible to destroy the life of him. They insulted his character, his faith in God, his ability to lead an army, his relationship with his wife, children, his superiors, his friends and to his country. I strongly suggest that this piece of work be thrown into the incinerator. God Bless the memory of General Lee.

Lisa Thomas, Maryville, TN

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What a slanderous misrepresentation of a military genius and intelligent Christian man. You either intended to blatantly misrepresent or were grossly misinformed. I can no longer support or view programming by PBS!

Adelle Whitlock, Meridian, MS

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The American Experience program on Robert E. Lee aired on 1-3-11 was one of the most absurd, biased programs I have ever seen on your network. A network that has suffered monumental damage to its reputation in the last 2 years. The so called "historians "were unknowns, except for one and this program was obviously biased and slanted. Our history group of 64 members were all incensed and 6 were supporters of PBS but vow to stop any further support. This one will cost you.

Joel Foster, Roebuck, SC

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This is a message about your bad, bad program about Robert E. Lee. How can you, as a public station present such a biased pro-Lee program about this guy who took an oath for the US and turned against us? "His soul is bland and clean" is one of the comments by all the Lee groupies. When the term "Superior Moral Ground" is used for a general who a) fought for to protect and preserve the enslavement of a people, b) violated an oath he made to the US and, c) perpetuated the war that resulted in thousands of needless deaths when the end was inevitable. This constant myth preservation of General Lee as a great moral general and a man who had to preserve the South is just crap. Your program on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War just perpetuates myths about the great cause, blah blah blah, I have studied him for 20 years, visited and reviewed all his major battles including 7 days, Chancellorsville, Antietam, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Courthouse, North Anna, etc. But for the lousy generals in the Union army at Antietam and Gettysburg this guy would be toast. PBS in this 150th year should be brave enough to pierce this myth of the noble lost cause and report objectively about the heinous objective of the South which was to protect and preserve the enslavement of an innocent people.

Joe Bob Hugh, Washington, DC

Some Specific Challenges

I was watching the American Experience show on Robert E. Lee and am tremendously disappointed. If the producers and I simply had different opinions, I would not bother you, as everyone is entitled to their own. However, I have serious doubts about the facts as this broadcast presented them. First, a Pulitzer Prize winning biographer as esteemed as Douglas Southall Freeman made it a point to state that he could tell you where Lee was and what he was doing at any time in the war. However, he could at no time tell you what Lee was thinking. Many speakers on this show apparently felt they knew exactly what Lee was thinking and couldn't wait to enlighten us. Finally, I must say I have read anything and everything I could get my hands on about Lee for my entire 58 years and you will have to furnish me with sources for such statements as "many at West Point thought him over the top as far as behaving well was concerned," urging someone to "beat a female slave harder," "being totally unable to apologize," and tended to "blame others for his own mistakes". Frankly, what I have encountered in my lifetime of Lee study leads me to believe adequate documentation to support such outrageous statements does not exist. I would like to know the sources for these remarks.

Bill Holland, Greenbelt, MD

American Experience Senior Editor Paul Taylor Responds:

We regret your disappointment with the Lee program from AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, but believe that there is in fact "adequate documentation" to substantiate each of the "outrageous statements" you mention. Let me address the statements one at a time.

* "Your letter quotes the film as asserting that 'Many at West Point thought [Lee] over the top as far as behaving well was concerned.'"

The actual quotation, from an on-camera interview with Professor Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia, is as follows:

"I think Lee's peers at West Point had mixed feelings about him. I think that many of them admired him but it would be hard not to admire someone who did so well; did so well in his class work; did so well in terms of behaving according to the Academy's rules. But I think others saw him as perhaps a little bit over-the-top in that regard. They called him the marble model, some of them did. And I don't think that's an entirely flattering epithet."

Professor Gallagher presents the evidence for his opinion, and gives the audience the reasons he reached it.

(Ombudsman's Note: I don't see at all how this answers the viewer's challenge. There is no evidence or documentation presented for these assessments. This quote from Prof. Gallagher stopped me as well because it contains five sentences, four of which begin with "I think . . ." That is not the kind of documentation one expects from a historian.)

* The film asserts that Lee "[urged] someone to beat a slave harder."

The actual film narration says, "Lee paid to have runaways captured and whipped. An eyewitness recalled Lee urging a county constable who was lashing a female slave to 'lay it on well.'"

The eyewitness who recalled this story was Wesley Norris, one of the slaves being whipped. Another slave being whipped at the same time was Norris's sister. While many people who were not on the scene doubted that the story was true, Lee never denied it. In her recent book on Lee, Reading the Man, Elizabeth Brown Pryor found corroboration for the story, including documentation of payments to the constable in question.

* The film characterizes Lee as "being totally unable to apologize," and as someone who tended to "blame others for his own mistakes."

In the film, Elizabeth Brown Pryor says the following: "He's not particularly easy to work with. He sometimes blames his staff for things he has done wrong, mistakes he has made and then he can't apologize, he has trouble apologizing."

This view of Lee is well substantiated in the historical record, notably in the letter and memories of two of Lee's staff members, Porter Alexander and Walter Taylor. (Taylor, Lee's longtime adjutant, wrote to his fiancée of his superior, "He is so unreasonable and provoking at times; I might serve under him for ten years to come and couldn't love him at the end of that period.")

Again, we regret your disappointment, but all of the statements you dispute are well substantiated. We stand by the assertions in the film.