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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: It Would Have Been More Fun at NBC

Not much mail this past week or so but, as always, PBS viewers find interesting points to challenge. And, not surprisingly, almost all the mail focused on one segment or another of the weekday night PBS NewsHour. It's probably because there is so much important news these days and people are so exercised about politics, or perhaps because nothing else on PBS has stirred up much controversy lately.

It would have been more fun to be an ombudsman at NBC for these past two weeks. If you will excuse a brief detour on my part, it would have been interesting to point out, as Paul Farhi did in The Washington Post that the "NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams," the network's flagship news program, did not find the time to report on a front-page New York Times story on March 25 that General Electric — a company that owns a big chunk of NBC — "earned $14.2 billion in worldwide profits last year, including $5.1 billion in the United States — and paid exactly zero dollars in federal taxes."

I watch "Nightly News" rather regularly and read the Times daily and was astounded that they did not mention it. My sense is that the program usually pays a lot of attention to major Times articles. The story was big news immediately, including on other networks such as CBS and Fox. NBC did not get around to mentioning it until six days later when they did so by interviewing GE's chief executive, Jeffrey Immelt.

Williams introduced that interview by saying: "The news is still reverberating this week after last week's Page 1 story in the New York Times." Now that, as the media watchdog group FAIR reported the next day, "is a weird way to describe something you've never told your viewers."

Then a few days ago, as James Poniewozik pointed out on April 7 in Time magazine online, "Donald Trump's appearance on the [NBC] Today Show this morning was a trifecta of self-promotion for NBC Universal. It gave a platform to the star of Celebrity Apprentice, one of NBC's few minor hits. It gave Today a buzzed about interview. And it helped publicize a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that shows Trump tied for second as a hypothetical GOP presidential candidate."

Now, back to the more sedate, less controversial ways of the PBS NewsHour, and a sampling of recent letters.

Here Are the Letters

In the piece [Mon., April 4] on problems with the Boeing-737, one of the "problem" planes was a JetBlue Airways plane . . . only trouble is that Jet Blue doesn't fly any 737s. One wonders why they were picked for the lead-in video instead of bigger airlines that use large numbers of 737 aircraft. I love PBS, but you need to be accurate!!!

Sunny Isles Beach, FL

(Ombudsman's Note: Good catch. The lengthy segment on the NewsHour conducted by correspondent Judy Woodruff did focus on Southwest and used video showing Southwest aircraft. But an introductory film clip at the beginning of the news program showed other airlines as well, and one was a glimpse at a JetBlue aircraft.)

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Would you please ask those you interview who use the phrase "the American People" as if they are speaking for me, who are they talking about, because in too many instances they are not speaking for me. I am listening to the conversation [NewsHour, March 31] between [Democratic Senator Ben] Cardin and [Republican Representative Mike] Pence (who continues to say that he is speaking for me . . . and he is not!). Each should have to define who the "American People" are.

D. Bailiff, Florence, OR

(Ombudsman's Note: That might eat up too much time because a lot of politicians of both parties use that phrase, but I agree with the point this viewer is making. In the March 4 ombudsman's mailbag, for example, I noted that a freshman Republican representative from Florida, Allen West, invoked "the American people" seven times in about three minutes during a NewsHour interview.)

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I watch this show [the NewsHour] every weeknight and depend on your accuracy. I would like to call your attention to a mistake that has been repeated many times, most recently by [Wall Street Journal reporter] Naftali Bendavid on this evening's show [April 7], when he referred to "abortion funding" for Planned Parenthood. Federal funds do not pay for abortions and have not for many years. The amount from the government for Planned Parenthood is used only for well-woman care, preventive care, and contraception. Abortion is available, but it is only a small percentage of Planned Parenthood activity. Perhaps someone would also point out that other provisions in the budget will eliminate other gynecologic health care support for poor women, so they will have no options for their care or for contraceptives if Planned Parenthood funding is eliminated. Just thought I should alert you to the error.

Susan Glick, York, ME

(Ombudsman's Note: I thought Bendavid did a good job but he did mention "abortion restrictions" and "abortion" three times within a minute or two. Questions about federal funding of Planned Parenthood have indeed been at the center of some arguments over the overall federal budget impasse but the linkage between federal funds and Planned Parenthood are, in my experience, usually not very well explained in many news accounts about this battle, and not just on the NewsHour. I'm not going to go into the details here but 1) abortions are legal in this country; 2) Planned Parenthood is already prevented by federal law from using any federal funds for abortions except in special cases of rape, incest or when the life of the woman is threatened; 3) Republican critics argue that the federal money frees up other funds for the group to use for abortions and that states should distribute funds to health groups.)

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We watched the NewsHour tonight [March 31] — who would have ever guessed that only 200 people were at the Tea Party 'rally' at the Capitol today??? And so the Tea Party members of congress are holding us all hostage — the PBS presentation made it sound as if there were thousands of people there. We are very, very disappointed in the NewsHour which we have come to watch nightly. Not much different from the other stations. Not much integrity here.

Williamsburg, VA

(Ombudsman's Note: I thought the NewsHour presentation worked fine, and it seemed there were probably more than 200 people there, plus Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). It was used to provide interviews of Tea Party members who are expressing views that clearly are part of the debate in Congress.)

To Challenge or Not to Challenge

I was upset because the reporter who interviewed Congressman Chris Van Hollen didn't challenge him at all tonight [NewsHour, April 6]. She just let him pile up lie after lie after lie without asking a serious question. No wonder the Republicans want to abolish all public radio and television funding.

Howard James, North Port, FL

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The NewsHour did it again! They refused to require a liberal Democrat to answer questions! Gwen Ifill talked to Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, about the state of a budget stalemate. He accused the TEA Party for the stalemate (finger pointing). When Gwen Ifill asked why the Democrats didn't pass a budget when they were in charge, he said he didn't want to get involved in finger pointing. What he obviously meant was no finger pointing at the Democrats. Ifill did not pick up on this point even though the REST of his "answers" was finger pointing at the Republicans/TEA Party! Several times during the interview, Ifill asked specific questions about what the Democrats proposed. Every time he avoided the question and went back to finger pointing. Ifill did NOT ask him to answer the question asked!!!! Someone at the NewsHour needs to step up and require BALANCE!!!!!

Ed Kertz, Ballwin, MO

(Ombudsman's Note: Correspondent Gwen Ifill's segment with Democrat Chris Van Hollen of Maryland was the second of two parts on the budget debate. The night before, Judy Woodruff interviewed Republican budget spokesman, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Ifill introduced her segment by saying, "Now, for the Democrats' side of the budget argument . . .")

On Wisconsin

Though a dyed-in-the-wool defender of public broadcasting, I have become accustomed to its deficiencies, one of which is an almost total disregard of labor — contrast the extensive coverage of business with the absence of any reporters or programming dedicated to labor issues.

That said, I am dumbfounded that tonight's PBS NewsHour (April 6) featured neither a correspondent's report nor even a one-line news item on the judicial election in Wisconsin. The election was considered a referendum on Gov. Walker's attack on labor rights; a Walker ally, who was a 10-year incumbent on the bench, and who normally would have been considered a heavy favorite, was narrowly defeated. However this race is resolved after a recount, I would have thought that it would rank at least as the second most significant domestic story of the day, after the threatened government shutdown. I cannot help feeling that had the election featured a tea-party candidate defeating a liberal incumbent, NewsHour would have been all over it.

Make no mistake, this story has national significance, because Wisconsin is just one of several Republican-governed states — not to mention the US House of Representatives — where the livelihoods and services available to the working and middle class are being attacked in order to enrich the already wealthy. If nothing else, it was a warning shot that ordinary people are beginning to push back. I question NewsHour's judgment in omitting this story. Are the producers/editors so out-of-touch that they didn't even consider it a candidate for coverage? Or are they intimidated by fear of being considered too "liberal"?

Rochester, NY

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