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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: Hacking the Omb, Dramatizing a 'Concert,' Interrupting the Interruption, and More on WikiLeaks vs. WikiSecrets

A lot has been going on this past week or so, which means the ombudsman's mailbag is pretty full and that, in turn, means that this is a pretty long posting with lots of explanations and viewer letters.

Here's a guide to what follows so you can decide whether to hang in there.

The big news, of course, was the hacking over the long holiday weekend of two busy PBS websites — the PBS NewsHour and the weekly investigative series Frontline — as well as some internal sites, by a group that identified itself on Twitter as LulzSec or The Lulz Boat, according to the New York Times. They were apparently motivated by anger over a Frontline program on May 24 called "WikiSecrets" and its treatment of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, currently the object of a grand jury investigation, and Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is in an Army prison and suspected of leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents.

The hacking, which resulted in a bogus news story inserted on the NewsHour site, also affected the ombudsman's site, which is still not available as of this writing. None of the ombudsman's pages — such as the archives and feedback form — are accessible, so links to previous columns will be added to this mailbag when the site is back in service.

I have written about Frontline's coverage of this topic on two occasions, the first in March when shorter segments of Frontline's reporting on Manning and WikiLeaks appeared, and then last week after the full Frontline hour-long broadcast.

In my last column, I applauded Frontline's efforts to take on the challenge of pulling together for viewers an important, complicated and still-unfolding story that has been difficult to tell on television and has not, in fact, had much if any in-depth coverage on network television. And, while I still have some questions about some aspects of the programs, I wrote that I also felt that as a viewer Frontline's questioning was "tough but proper," that for the general public there was new information and new faces presented and that the complexity of Assange came through on camera.

But as a regular reader of my column informed me as she tried to click on my latest offering earlier this week, instead of my column was a headline placed by a hacker that read: "FREE BRADLEY MANNING. FUCK FRONTLINE!"

Two Responses

In the aftermath of the hacking, Anne Bentley, PBS vice president for communications, issued a press statement that said: "Yesterday (Monday) there was an intrusion to PBS' servers. The erroneous information posted early yesterday morning on the PBS NewsHour site was corrected. The intruders also posted login information to an outdated version of PBS PressRoom and an internal communications website for stations. We have notified stations and affected parties to advise them of the situation. As the hackers continued their attacks Tuesday, the Frontline and PBS NewsHour sites were redirected to video.pbs.org. The websites have since been restored."

As far as I can tell, PBS has had nothing substantive to say about the actual act of hacking into the public broadcasting service.

David Fanning, the executive producer and driving force behind Frontline since its start in 1983, was less constrained. He told the Associated Press: "From our point of view, we just see it as a disappointing and irresponsible act, especially since we have been very open to publishing criticism of this film . . . and the film included other points of view. This kind of action is irresponsible and chilling."

Aside from the actual intrusion into PBS websites, there was a lot of continuing debate about the Frontline program and reactions to it. A sampling of that is posted at the end of this mailbag. Now, on to other matters.

About that Memorial Day 'Concert'

For more than two decades, PBS's 90-minute telecast of the National Memorial Day Concert from the Capitol lawn in Washington has remained very popular. But each year it also generates some mail to the ombudsman from people who feel slighted or left out. Honoring our country's war dead, veterans and those who serve in today's armed forces pushes powerful buttons. This year, it was those who remember America's "Forgotten War," the one in Korea, who complained most. Last year, it was Vietnam vets who felt they were not properly recognized.

Something else struck me, as a viewer, as I've watched this program evolve in recent years. It now seems to me that this is more of a dramatic presentation than a concert. The music seems to make up a smaller and smaller portion of the event; much of it is just faintly heard background accompaniment to stories of valor and loss. What dominates this program in time and character are dramatizations, using professional actors, of individual stories of veterans and families, plus speeches by guests. The stories are all powerful and there is nothing wrong with presenting them. It's just that this is hardly a concert. A viewer from California makes a similar observation in one of the letters posted below.

And finally, about those "experiments" using breaks within PBS programs.

Pardon the Interruption

On May 12, I wrote about experiments now under way in which PBS is inserting brief sponsorship messages by commercial companies into its online videos of major national programs once or twice during a typical hour-long show.

A few days later, at the broadcasting service's annual meeting in Florida, it was reported that PBS is also planning to experiment with breaking into the actual television broadcast of some of its major programs, up to four times an hour, with various promotional and underwriting spots. I wasn't at the meeting, but there were extensive reports on this and other developments at the gathering in Current, the trade print and online newspaper for public media.

I didn't write about it at the time because the experiments had not actually started, unlike the online operation. But the Current articles provoked a lot of interest and follow-up articles, especially in the New York Times and many other news outlets. And people who were very upset with this break in PBS's much-loved tradition of not having any interruptions in the flow of a program started writing to me.

Those letters are below.

Among the strongest and most important critics, writing in Current, was Lou Wiley, the widely respected and now retired executive editor of Frontline.

PBS officials, of course, are mindful of this and understand the risks, but explain that this possible new format is an experiment and is, they say, actually meant to try and preserve its viewing audience by moving promotional material into very short breaks, rather than all at the end and beginning of programs. The idea is to avoid audience fall-off at the end of a program, which can be very large, and to make the transition from one PBS program to the next one much quicker, reducing the chance that people will change the channel because they don't know, or aren't sure they're interested in, what comes next on PBS.

PBS's Chief Operating Officer Michael Jones told me later that what started out as an internal discussion had led to some "miscommunications and misperceptions." He said, "The whole idea of trying to put commercials in shows is not what we are after." Rather, he said, PBS officials were looking at some breaks in shows "to see if you can put content against content" and create "a better viewing experience for viewers" who otherwise might leave because of long breaks at the end of a program.

Whether this is a good idea and whether it would be acceptable to viewers remains to be seen. There was, indeed, a PBS flow chart presented as a draft at the annual meeting that showed two places where messages by national and local funders could be inserted, most clearly toward the end of a program but before the actual program content was completed.

But on May 31, PBS CEO Paula Kerger, in response to the Times article, issued a memo, which was published by Current, to the 350 or so PBS member stations that sought to "clarify where we are with this proposed project." She said, "It's clear that we need a more thorough and deliberative process to assure ourselves whether we can proceed safely and effectively with this idea." She also said: "The format includes breaks in the body of the program consisting only of programming or stations promotions . . . but no underwriting."

Here are the letters on all the subjects:

Was It a 'Concert,' and Does Anyone Remember Korea?

I always look forward to the Memorial Day Concert because I love the patriotic music. I was very disappointed in last night's program. I don't have a problem with what was presented — I'm as patriotic as anyone else — but I tuned in expecting a concert, not a tribute. You should have marketed it for what it was.

Chris Geffre, Susanville, CA

~ ~ ~

The Korean War is always just mentioned. The forgotten war except to those who have served or lost family members.

Lake Sherwood, MO

~ ~ ~

Once again, during the Memorial Day Concert in Washington, DC, two groups were ignored for the service they have rendered to this great nation. I'm talking about the Korean War veterans who lost their lives in a WAR that nobody wants to accept. Other than a brief mention of there being such, between WW2 and Vietnam, there was nothing! What a DIS-HONOR to those who gave their lives in this very unpopular war. The producers of this program should be ashamed of themselves.

The other group that was left out, were the men and women of the United States Public Health Corps. They are Commissioned Officers who serve many of our armed forces. They are recognized as veterans by our government and the VA. Yet, they continue to be left out. What is more disturbing, is that this issue has been brought up at many of the past concerts, yet NOTHING has been done. The producers need to make an apology to our Korean War Veterans and their families, as well as to those of the USPHS Corps.

James Lloyd, Martinsburg, WV

~ ~ ~

Tonight I watched the PBS Memorial Day Service. I thought it was great, but you didn't show anything about the Korean War, Vets from Korea, MIA's from Korea. You went from World War II then mentioned that Korea followed 5 years later. You then went right on to Vietnam. Have you forgotten the 50,000-Plus men killed in Korea in 3 Years? The many wounded, and about 1,500 never accounted for? I feel that PBS has committed disservice to our Korean War (Police Action?) veterans. We still have approximately 38,000 American GI's serving in Korea. I can't understand this!!!

Phillip Sullivan, Walpole, MA

~ ~ ~

I have just finished watching PBS's Memorial Day Concert for 2011. I wish to compliment on a job well done overall. However, I am disappointed that some time was not allocated for the Korean War Veterans. Korea is known as "The Forgotten War", but there are men and women who gave their lives fighting at and below the 38th Parallel. I also would have like to see some history behind Memorial Day; when it started, when it became a national holiday, etc.

Kimberly Augustson, Chicago, IL


. . . And the Merchant Marine?

As I watch yearly the Memorial Day celebration from DC, I cannot help but feel that you fail to honor the bravest of the brave, the WWII men of the U.S. Merchant Marine. All volunteers! If you manned a merchant ship during the war the chances of being killed were higher than if you served in the traditional armed forces. That's fact . . . 800 ships were sunk . . . There are only a handful of us left. I'm sure that the academy at Kings Point would be pleased to send a color guard for any celebration.

Robert Fein, Boynton Beach, FL

~ ~ ~

Great Memorial Day Program! My father was in the Merchant Marine. They brought the troops and supplies to the front lines, unarmed. Submarines, planes, ships were all gunning for them. Many perished. They are still not recognized as veterans or heroes of our country. I will always honor my dad's service. Hopefully someday the country will too. Thank you.

El Cajon, CA

~ ~ ~
The Memorial Day broadcast had an error in the Marine's Hymn. This is the oldest military song, and it is a shame that someone didn't do their homework. It was supposed to be this: "First to fight for right and freedom . . ." instead of this: "WE WILL fight for right and freedom." In the future please make sure that it is accurate.

Kelly Clester, Aberdeen, MD

~ ~ ~

Thank you so much, for the beautiful Memorial Day concert I watched tonight. It was just beautiful, and touched just the right issues — I cried my way through it. I am a Gold Star Mother. My son, SGT Robert Eppich, died December 19, 2006. He would have been 30 today, and it was a beautiful way to remember him (as I have been all day) and honor his sacrifice, and the sacrifices of all of our HEROES — those who died, and those whose sacrifice is still ongoing. Thank you for airing and supporting this special program.

Lea Eppich, Mesa, AZ


Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

I read today that PBS will be showing commercials in many of its programs starting in the Fall. I have one thing to say about that — Goodbye. Several years ago, PBS shortened programs to fit in more ads at the end of the show. Then the number of original episodes in a season decreased. Lately, the quality of the programming has also declined. Commercials during the show eliminate the last remaining difference between PBS and the rest of the broadcast TV world. Commercials are very annoying. They ruin most shows.

Philip Gribosky, Norwalk, CT

~ ~ ~

I want to note with regret hearing about PBS' plan to incorporate promotional messages within programming. If it means the continued existence of PBS, I have no right to complain. It is what you must do. In an era of DVRs, we'll skip right over the promotional messages as we do with commercials on other channels. Our children's first training with the TiVo remote was the fast forward button. We do not need to have our content spoon fed in small chunks to dull the mind and encourage attention deficit disorder.

Giuseppe Cimmino, Takoma Park, MD

~ ~ ~

I have supported PBS since its inception in 1970. Since the beginning I said to myself that nothing would keep me from supporting PBS other than breaking programs with commercials. Now PBS is considering crossing the line and doing exactly that. I implore PBS to do anything else other than that. I am willing to increase my contribution beyond what I can comfortably afford, but as soon as I see NOVA or any other program I am watching interrupted by a commercial or message of any kind, that is when I will finally give up on the PBS experiment and stop contributing. Then the only hope for artistic integrity will lie with companies like HBO, which produces very good quality programs only for those willing to pay for them. Perhaps that is the only model that can be successful in our society today.

William Duxler, Woodland Hills, CA

~ ~ ~

Adding commercials to PBS programing in the fall undermines PBS's ability to provide unbiased information to voters in this democracy. This was one of the original reasons PBS was created and with the addition of commercials that is completely lost. The interests of large corporations shape the content of news across the corporate media spectrum as is. Even though PBS has shifted way too far to the right after repeatedly having their funding attacked by Republicans, adding commercials kills the integrity.

John Adams, Eugene, OR


More on 'WikiSecrets'

I have to say, normally being a fan of Frontline, that I was surprised when I started picking up on what seemed to be a biased viewpoint in the reporting on this story. I thought the story spent far too much time, for example, on the details of Pfc. Manning's sexual orientation and his personal problems, and too little time seeking out alternate viewpoints on the larger story . . . It's not necessary to have "taken sides" in this issue to realize that the U.S. government and the military have been far from honest or transparent throughout this episode. I was really disappointed. We've witnessed so much journalistic hackery since the start of the "War on Terror" that it gets my hackles up when I see any news organization — especially PBS and Frontline — acting as agents to spread government misinformation. Not knowing more about what went into this story, I hesitate to charge that Frontline is part of a smear campaign or a hatchet job. But the story did seem biased to me, and I can only wonder why more probing of government/military malfeasance wasn't done. It would have made it a much better and more complete story, in my opinion.

Robert Green, Cupertino, CA

~ ~ ~

We must praise not denigrate our whistle blowers. Manning appears to have taken steps he felt were necessary to alert the public to the way our nation has been pushed into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The issue is full of lies, deliberate misrepresentations of the facts. WikiLeaks is providing a much needed service to this country. Demonstrations against the wars by citizens and war veterans and the tremendous mental health toll these wars have taken on our troops have not been covered in the press. The people need to know what is going on.

Lois Durso, Philadelphia, PA

~ ~ ~

I have not kept up with this event, so I'm restricted to what little I gathered from Frontline. I must admit, I am in agreement with the people who have written in and wondered why all the attention to the mental condition and homosexuality of the man who leaked the info. Was this supposed to be some kind of excuse for what he did? Wrong is wrong and right is right. No, the young man should not be abused in military prison, but he should not be excused for what he did. As for WikiLeaks, don't they know when they are going too far?

Olive Lohrengel, Buda, TX

~ ~ ~

Persons who write to criticize PBS programs frequently end by announcing they will no longer contribute to PBS, a pronouncement I find juvenile ("take your marbles and . . ."). Where else in this media will they find programming which provides the kinds of subject matter seen (at times) on PBS? Yes, I thought Frontline's attention to Brad Manning's homosexuality was irrelevant and excessive but I will not stop supporting PBS for this lapse.

Detroit, MI

~ ~ ~

I expect the major reason you received little criticism about this program is that others, like I, have largely given up on getting either journalism of a certain standard (high) or adequate redress from PBS on shows like that of Frontline on WikiLeaks.

Clearwater, FL


The Meaning of Hacker

I am writing regarding the Frontline piece entitled "WikiSecrets." Currently, "hacker" is used in two main conflicting ways, one pejorative and one complimentary. [...] However, since network news use of the term pertained primarily to the criminal activities despite this attempt by the technical community to preserve and distinguish the original meaning, the mainstream media and general public continue to describe computer criminals with all levels of technical sophistication as "hackers" and does not generally make use of the word in any of its non-criminal connotations.'

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hacker_definition_controversy#Hacker_definition_controversy.

At 9:30, there is the repeated use of the word "hackers" without any context or explanation. At 18:00, it is stated by the voice-of-god narrator that Brad is "mingling among hackers". At 23:34, the narrator says Lamo had been "arrested for hacking the New York Times," finally indicating which definition of the word Frontline is using. This is also made clear at 52:30, where Lamo is referred to as "former hacker Adrian Lamo," as it is shown that Lamo is currently doing legal computer security work, the inference that a "former hacker" is equivalent to someone who is a "former criminal" is clear. Does Frontline actually have records that at least two people (they used the plural, so apparently they know there is more than one) at the BUilds makerspace open house shown at 18:00 have been convicted of committing a computer crime? If not, how is this not libelous defamation of a group of people Frontline actually knows almost nothing about? I am one of the people in the video; at the time of the video, I was an employee of the Free Software Foundation, an organization whose strict adherence to and use of the law to achieve ethical aims is well known within the computing community. Everyone else I knew in the room was either a college student studying some variety of science or engineering, or a computer professional with a full time job. To my knowledge, no one in the room had ever been convicted of any crime.

Daniel J. Clark, Cambridge, MA

~ ~ ~

I have watched Frontline for years and loved every minute of it. Often I saw controversial issues covered and people arguing both sides saying Frontline was unfair or fair. It was always plain to me that Frontline was very fair, and really looked forward to 'WikiSecrets'. I'm now one of those people that say your view was unfair, with me being very familiar with the topic. Martin Smith comes across as a sociopath in the 'leaked' interview by WikiLeaks. It's clear he doesn't give a toss about Julian Assange's viewpoints, and is interested only in getting sound bytes to conform to his story. In this regard it is very poor reporting.

Liz Rex, New Westminster

~ ~ ~

Since when does not sending in a criticism of a program denote approval of it?

J. Taylor, Corvallis, OR

~ ~ ~

The PBS Frontline report "WikiSecrets" struck me as an uncharacteristically biased piece undeserving of the label journalism. It seems your production staff assumed — probably correctly — that the majority of the show's audience was all but completely uninformed about WikiLeaks in general and the Bradley Manning case specifically. As one of the minority of Americans who has followed the case closely, I was appalled by the quality of PBS's reportage. My immediate reaction was to label the piece U.S. Government propaganda produced gratis by PBS. Giving PBS the benefit of the doubt, I can see my way to believing that the producers of "WikiSecrets" are merely unprofessional and lazy.

I will not go into the endless list of omissions, unfair juxtapositions, closed-end questions designed to elicit desired responses and the interviewer's pointless focus on Bradley Manning's homosexuality, because, if you care to, you can read about all of this and much more with a simple Google search. But I will mention one thing no more or less important than the aforementioned: How can PBS justify interviewing P. J. Crowley on a program devoted to "understanding" Bradley Manning and omit Mr. Crowley's courageous, unequivocal and repeated condemnations of the abuse and torture of Bradley Manning at the hands of U.S. Marines in Quantico, VA? Shameful. "PBS's flagship investigative series", indeed.

James Harker, Brooklyn, NY