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PBS Ombudsman

From the NewsHour, News That Is Not Routine

Yesterday, Thursday, July 21, 2011, was what one might describe as a day of mostly incremental news: the latest update on the continuing struggle over the debt ceiling and deficit, the Murdoch press scandal in Britain, protests in Syria, and the heat wave scorching much of the United States.

The PBS NewsHour, as it does every weekday evening, reported all these stories, and several others. Some are just headlines and a few sentences. Others occupy longer segments. The program, for many years known as the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, is the flagship, along with the weekly investigative series Frontline, of PBS's public affairs broadcasting.

As I've pointed out in many previous columns, people write to the ombudsman, mostly, to complain. And the columns I write deal, mostly, with those viewer complaints. The NewsHour, because it is on five nights a week and deals with the often controversial issues of the day, gets its share of challenges, and a fair number of compliments as well.

So far, nobody has written to me about last night's broadcast, perhaps because it seemed so routine. But it really wasn't, at least in my opinion as a viewer, and it struck me as worth trying to explain why.

Three Reasons

The reasons, for me, reside in three extended segments last night dealing with stories about developments elsewhere in the world.

One was the last of four excellent reports this week from Indonesia by NewsHour Senior Correspondent Ray Suarez. This one dealt with the impact of soaring food prices that push millions of people, especially children, into severe poverty, hunger and malnutrition.

Another segment presented an excerpt from a powerful, independently-produced documentary film titled "Mugabe and the White African," part of the Film Project of The Economist weekly newsmagazine that is aired in partnership with the NewsHour. The documentary follows a white farmer and his family as they challenge, in an international lawsuit, the sometimes violent "land reform" policies of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

And another dealt with a lively interview by Senior Correspondent Margaret Warner with journalist/author Robin Wright whose new book, "Rock the Casbah," deals with the cultural and social forces behind the recent revolts in several Arab countries and the attempt, especially by young people in the Muslim world, to define a different future for themselves and their countries.

My Thoughts

Here's what was running through my head as I watched the program last night.

It was, as I said, in one sense a routine evening's dose of national and world affairs. The program normally pays a fair amount of attention to events around the world. The night before, for example, a lengthy segment was devoted to the seemingly endless ravages inflicted on Somalia, this time by drought and famine.

But in another sense, this kind of news presentation is not at all routine. In fact, it is less and less available, especially elsewhere on television, to American news consumers who are interested in world affairs beyond the obligatory war and scandal coverage. Not so many years ago, there was still robust coverage of global news, and room for the longer feature stories about less familiar countries and customs, in American newspapers and even at times on television. With the exception of a few newspapers and news organizations, a lot of that is gone now.

So I'm grateful to the NewsHour for seeking to remain comprehensive in its nightly report. But I also wondered, is anybody watching this, or sticking with it? A four-part series on Indonesia? The plight of white farm families in Zimbabwe?

I hope so. Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world, some 240 million people, and has the largest Muslim population of any country, and President Obama spent part of his youth there. Yet most Americans know little about it. The decade-long story of what is called land reform in Zimbabwe under President Mugabe is a fierce and extraordinary human drama, well worth knowing about, as is Robin Wright's take on what is emerging in the aftermath of revolution in parts of the Arab world.

There are not many places to watch and listen to such stories these days. So, no angry e-mails or lengthy responses this week, just an unprovoked tip of the ombudsman's hat to the NewsHour for its devotion to routine.

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