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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: Are Hosts Having Too Much Fun?

The mail was a little light this week but here's a sampling of comments from viewers who were stirred by an assortment of performances and programs. There is also a detailed challenge from a reader of a posting on the PBS NewsHour's website and a response from editors there.

Here's the Mail

Making Stuff [Nova] is one of the very best programs I have ever seen on any network. Besides interesting, organized, informative and enlightening, it is encouraging. I recommend it often. However, David Pogue is a total clown and I don't get it. His narrative is great but on camera he is embarrassing, unprofessional and totally foolish around some of the greatest people you could possibly have on your program. What do they think after he acts like a little kid around some of the greatest things that are going on anywhere? Did you somehow think that the subjects themselves weren't interesting enough to stand on their own without a comedian?

Jim Clare, Minneapolis, MN

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I am writing to comment on the demeanor of Miles O'Brien in the NewsHour segment on dirty bombs [Feb. 8]. It seemed to me that his manner was cavalier, even jovial. I think this is inappropriate for the gravity of the topic. The story also emphasized economic results over human harm.

Santa Cruz, CA

Green and Greely

I watched a couple of shows on PBS earlier this week on Green Technology (sorry, I don't recall the titles). The research and building practices they described were very informative and well presented. My problem is that occasionally during the shows someone would spout off that the purpose is to reduce CO2 emissions and prevent global warming. I take exception with this because it is a politicized issue and a theory and should be separated from the topic. I would prefer PBS at least add a disclaimer stating that this is the opinion of the people interviewed. The presentation of the green initiatives can stand on their own merit, which is excellent I might add. The goal of continually improving our technology for the purpose of reducing energy use and impact on our environment is everyone's goal.

Patrick Haley, Dayton, OH

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Regarding the Jan 31 American Experience "The Greely Expedition," it was a marvelous show, offering us a full range of details, including an even-handed account of the way society treated the survivors. But then the program tossed out this whopper: "Michael Robinson, Historian: We are now using Greely's data to understand how global warming happens, to understand how the climate has changed over the last hundred years. The irony is that the data is of interest today but not because it offers the key to an understanding of nature, but because it offers a key to how human beings have changed nature."

Am I off base to interpret a historian is essentially telling us we have an opportunity to understand how global warming happens as a result of the way humans have changed nature? If the program wanted to maintain its even-handedness, wouldn't it have been better to have an IPCC scientist like Michael Oppenheimer (a 7-time guest on PBS NewsHour) make that statement, followed by one from skeptic scientist Dr. S Fred Singer (who has never appeared on the NewsHour)?

Which brings me to a larger question: with so many other similar statements creeping into PBS nature programs, such as the Wolverine program (at the 39:14 mark) and the continued lack skeptic scientists offering lengthy analysis at the NewsHour, how does PBS avoid perception of outright bias on the issue? With additions like Miles O'Brien at the NewsHour, isn't this perception increased, considering O'Brien's decidedly anti-skeptic CNN presentation in 2005 called "Melting Point," where anti-skeptic book author Ross Gelbspan — who turns out NOT to be a Pulitzer winner despite widespread descriptions to the contrary — was allowed to make unsupported accusations against skeptic scientists, the basis of which were unquestioned by O'Brien?

Russell Cook, Phoenix, AZ

An Online Challenge

I've come across this article on the PBS site. I can only come to two conclusions, the author is purposely being deceitful or incompetent. The specific issue is the second paragraph:

"Only 25 percent of people polled now support repealing the health care law, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll out Monday, compared to 46 percent on Jan. 7, one day before Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in a violent attack in Tuscon [sic], Ariz."

For your own reference the 25 percent poll being cited can be found here, note it was taken on the 5th of January, I do not know when it was published.

Firstly I'd like to address this part of the sentence, "Only 25 percent of people polled now support repealing the health care law." That is not what the poll asked. The question was "What would you prefer Congress do with the new health care law:" where you could answer positively for one of four things. One of them was "Repeal it completely" which 26 percent picked, complete opposite of that is another answer where 19 percent picked "Leave it as is".

The second part is even more misleading; "compared to 46 percent on Jan. 7, one day before Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in a violent attack in Tuscon [sic], Ariz." As I already mentioned the poll that is being cited for the 25 percent was taken on January 5th. The previous result for this same question taken in early November was 31 percent picking "Repeal it completely." There is no mention anywhere of anything related to repeal with 46 percent. My only guess would be that is citation from different poll and source and certainly would not be anything comparable to this question with four possible answers to choose from.

As I said, purposely deceitful or incompetent.

Richard Chervenitski, Harding, PA

The NewsHour Responds

We understand Mr. Chervenitski's point. In all likelihood, the post probably could have been clearer in spelling out the various dimensions of how the public has responded recently to the idea of repealing the law. But we would also suggest that by and large, the post reflected in a general way what a number of polls have shown: While the public is interested in repealing some provisions in the health reform law, polls do not show that an overwhelming majority of Americans wants to repeal the whole law. A number of experts and pollsters have characterized a large part of the public reaction as something along the lines of: We're open to fixing it, changing part of it, but reluctant to get drawn into a move to repeal the whole thing currently. Yes, it's true that a significant portion of Americans would like to see a wholesale repeal, but several polls show that it's not a majority.

Regarding the issues Mr. Chervenitski raised about the post's second paragraph, that section could indeed be misleading for readers. The Associated Press-GfK poll mentioned was released on Monday, Jan. 17, after being conducted Jan. 5-10, which spanned the time of the attack in Tucson. Also, 26 percent of respondents, not 25 percent, responded that they wanted a complete repeal of the law. Regarding the 46 percent figure mentioned, that refers to a Gallup poll, which was not named or linked, that was conducted Jan. 4-5 and released Jan. 7 (the day before the Tucson attack). Briefly summarized, Gallup's question asked whether respondents would want their member of Congress to vote to repeal health reform, and 46 percent said they would urge repeal.

We regret that we were not clearer in our piece about the specific questions in the polls and the different polls we were comparing. In retrospect, we should have caught these distinctions in our editing process. We will be more careful to do so in the future. We want to assure Mr. Chervenitski and other readers and viewers that there was no hidden agenda or intention to mislead. We simply should have done better.

Murrey Jacobson, Senior Editor for National Affairs, and Dave Gustafson, Online News and Planning Editor

Nancy and Ron

I wouldn't watch it [last week's airing of "Nancy Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime"] if it were on opposite a rerun of "My Mother the Car". Who cares about this vapid woman? Surely, those who do have read her biography by now. I am glad you set the record straight on this spurious claim.

Janet Camp, Milwaukee, WI

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Good for you, ombuds. Anyone who didn't know every fact you mentioned deserves to be laughed at, ridiculed, etc.

Olive Lohrengel, Buda, TX

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Judy Woodruff spoke tonight (Feb 4) on the NewsHour about the network's upcoming role in celebrating Ronald Reagan. In my opinion, the participation of PBS in anything like this celebration raises the deepest possible questions about the integrity of the network. Ms. Woodruff passed over the question of who is organizing the year-long Reagan celebration. Is this a mandatory government-sponsored event? A year-long party held by fans of Mr. Reagan? Or is it simply yet another well-organized effort by conservative individuals and corporations to keep the image of Mr. Reagan high afloat in the air of our national consciousness?

There is no shortage of proof that Mr. Reagan was one of the worst presidents in our history. There is proof that he was the greatest since Washington as well. But the point is that he is by no means appreciated, or celebrated as the savior, by every living American. It is not your role, as broadcasters, to participate in making Mr. Reagan larger than life. It is, in fact, your role to examine the motives of the people and institutions who have dreamed up the celebration and put it on the national agenda.

Harry Dean Brown, West Lebanon, NH

(Ombudsman's Note: My sense is that Woodruff was referring to the widespread national and media observance in various ways of the 100th year of Ronald Reagan's birth, rather than a year-long PBS observance. There are no such PBS plans. What she said in introducing a segment of the Feb. 4 NewsHour broadcast was: "And finally tonight, Sunday is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan and the beginning of a yearlong observance of his life and legacy. The NewsHour marks the occasion with a look at the political instincts that made Mr. Reagan such an effective presidential candidate in 1980." On the anniversary of his birth, PBS aired a documentary about Nancy Reagan, and on the following night, PBS aired the first of a two-part documentary on President Reagan that is part of the "American Experience" series and which was originally broadcast in 1998. Whether one is a fan or critic of Ronald Reagan, he was an important president and there have been probably hundreds of Reagan remembrances in the media in recent weeks, including a new HBO film.)

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Since part of us DO remember History and we do NOT think Ronald Reagan was a friend of the ordinary person, we do not believe we should have to listen to the lengthy, multiple stories about him. Just one person on PBS over this recent weekend commented truthfully concerning his opinions of Reagan, telling the story of how Reagan would act like a Grandfather figure in front of visiting students, then, after they left, yell at people to get to work. We remember the history also of Reagan's dishonest sale of arms to questionable countries (don't remember exact ones) to provide help for the Contras. Reagan was not and still is not a saint, he did not like the ordinary person and hurt the middle class to give welfare tax breaks to the wealthy. His "trickle down" did not work, and he didn't care what happened to most of us. College grants were taken away from students so the wealthy could have tax cuts. You must tell the truth about Reagan without sainting him or discontinue the stories. We're SICK of Reagan and Republicans, so please consider our pain and give us a break from them. Never before have we felt that we needed to turn away from PBS.

Stratford, WI

Give Bush Credit, and Other Matters

I find it strange that in the Egypt crisis no press has picked up the connection with former President Bush. I was just watching "Need to Know" and the program linked President Obama's speech with the Egypt uprising. It just should be noted that former President Bush saw the vision of democracy in the Middle East. He said that people would see the good in Iraq and make changes within their own government. It truly was visionary considering what is going on right now. I am still waiting for the first reference or "credit" given to former President Bush about what is going on in the Middle East. I have no idea what President Obama has done in this region. Just a thought. Thanks for your time.

Matthew Lee, Kenmore, NY

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PBS had Al Jazeera English in the "World Focus" program with Martin Savage. I never agreed with PBS discontinuing World Focus and I always took it as something fishy. Now that the world realizes anew how creditable Al Jazeera English is PBS might come clean and bring back World Focus with Martin Savage. I came to PBS for news, information and British comedy; Nova, This Old House; let the Antique Road Show and on-canvas people demonstrate their support while featuring the former two programs during fund-raising drives as was done with Are You Being Served. Mr. Getler, argue for and/or intensify your argument for, World Focus with Al Jazeera English.

Alfred R. Sheppard, Philadelphia, PA

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Just read the comments for ombudsman for the first time. My advice: tell all these "cowboys" to go back to Fox "News" and stop trying to pretend that they are critical thinkers. The NRA must have promoted this "mail in." Most PBS viewers are much more intelligent and thoughtful. Ignore these "comments" from gun lovers.

San Antonio, TX

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