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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: On Puppets and Pols

While I was away for the past two weeks, two subjects got most of the incoming mail. One dealt with fictional characters, one with real people. Both attracted a fair amount of press coverage for a few days.

The fictional focus landed on Sesame Street, PBS's enduring, iconic, witty and frequently edgy children's program produced by Sesame Workshop. Specifically, it landed on two of the show's Muppet characters, Bert and Ernie. The fuss began when an activist website, Change.org, posted a petition online proposing that the roommates get married on the air to teach young viewers that it is okay to have different sexual orientations, and to have tolerance toward those that do.

Bert_Ernie_cute.jpg

The petition, which as of this writing has close to 10,000 signatures, got a lot of press attention, and commentary in this country and abroad — too much to link to here — and produced several e-mails to me, such as this one from a viewer in Rogers, Ark.:

"I have seen several items lately, regarding the upcoming 'marriage' of Bert and Ernie. Why on earth would you do something like this? Have there been 'marriages' of other heterosexual characters on the show? Or, is this another case of 'special treatment' for select groups? I hope that I am entirely wrong, and these are nothing but rumors."

As the petition and the coverage grew, Sesame Workshop producers took to Facebook and posted a statement: "Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation."

Onward.

Paul and Paucity

As I've mentioned in many previous columns, PBS's flagship weekday evening news program, the PBS NewsHour, is necessarily a dollar short and a day (or two) late when big news happens on the weekends. So it was Monday, Aug. 15, when the NewsHour carried its report on Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) winning the Iowa Republican straw poll the previous Saturday.

The 15-minute segment had most of the big news of the weekend: Bachmann won, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty dropped out after coming in a distant third and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who didn't compete in the straw poll, announced his presidential candidacy earlier that Saturday.

Only once — and only in the briefest possible way — in the lengthy segment was Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) mentioned when moderator Gwen Ifill was describing how Pawlenty came in third, "far behind Bachmann and Texas Congressman Ron Paul."

Actually, of the 16,892 Republican votes cast, Bachmann got 4,823 and Paul got 4,671, a difference of just 152 votes and less than one percent. She got 28.6 percent. He got 27.7 percent. No one else was even close.

Lots of supporters of Rep. Paul emailed, wrote and called me afterward, and many more contacted the NewsHour. A sampling of the emails to me is posted below. They make a good and a fair point.

Certainly, some news judgment on the part of the NewsHour was involved here. Rep. Paul is widely viewed among electoral pundits and news editors as having virtually no chance to win the Republican presidential nomination. And a number of news organizations did not pay much attention to Paul's showing in Iowa. Furthermore, the NewsHour segment two days after the straw poll had more to cover, including Pawlenty's exit and Perry's entrance.

Nevertheless, the NewsHour report was essentially dismissive of what seemed to me to be a big part of the straw poll story, namely that Paul came very, very close to defeating the favored Bachmann, who, nonetheless, successfully used her narrow victory to jump-start her presidential campaign with the media despite getting less than a third of the votes cast. So Paul is not going to win, but his showing in Iowa seemed to me as quite worthy, on several levels, of more attention, perspective and analysis than it got.

Here Are Some Letters

The results of the Iowa Straw Poll were 4,823 votes for Bachmann and 4,671 for Ron Paul, a STATISTICAL TIE FOR FIRST PLACE, yet Jim Lehrer's PBS NewsHour made NO mention of that significant newsworthy fact. I am GREATLY disappointed in them for not doing an unbiased reporting job on which they say they pride themselves. Apology on the air from them to Ron Paul would be MOST gracious.

Ann Graham, Wichita, KS

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I watch the NewsHour every night, and I'm generally pleased with the reporting. However, I have been less satisfied with coverage of the GOP race. Ron Paul placed second in Iowa just behind the winner. His name was not mentioned once on Monday's NewsHour. I appreciate giving due respect to those deserving. A second place finish is worthy of discussion.

Austin, TX

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Did I really just watch a 15 minute segment at the top of the hour (on the NewsHour) that never mentioned Ron Paul? Maybe I missed it, please let me know if so. Romney was on, Pawlenty was on, Huckabee was even on for 10 seconds or so playing bass guitar! and was interviewed. Bachmann was shown over and over, Perry was shown a number of times. And no mention of Ron Paul taking second place just barely behind Bachmann? And with basically no press coverage? That seems like quite a feat to me; and his name didn't even get mentioned.

Bloomington, IN


Praise for Paul Solman's Series on Economic Inequality in America

I was very happily surprised and pleased with last night's [Tuesday, Aug. 16, on the NewsHour] special report from Paul Solman regarding wealth inequality in the USA. I am very much looking forward to his follow-up piece. An article like that had the effect of a terrific Frontline report. I hope PBS can do similar critical articles like that in the future. Thank you PBS.

E. Rivers, Portland, ME

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Thank you so much for the news series on income inequality in the US. This is one of the many taboo subjects for the corporate media.

Gerald Thomason, Austin, TX

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While it is gratifying to at last see PBS focus on the huge income inequality that exists in this country, you need to investigate WHY this has existed for so long unreported with a (so-called) free press. The answer is media personalities with their book deals and access to insiders are part of the 1% who raked off 80% of the disposable personal income GROWTH from 1980 to 2007 while middle class income stagnated and working class income declined. Most Americans have a 1 in 22 chance of becoming a millionaire. Members of Congress have a 1 in 2 chance. Time for PBS to take off the gloves and expose Congress for what they really do: line their own pockets at the country's expense. Thanks for your continuing efforts at objectivity.

Greenwich, CT


How Do You Finance a Free-for-All, Online Election?

On Monday night, Aug. 22, The NewsHour's Judy Woodruff presented a segment on a new group called "Americans Elect" that is attempting to crack the traditional two-party system via an Internet-based process that its founders believe will present participants with an independent, third choice in the presidential campaign.

As a viewer, I was grateful for the segment because I didn't know much about this movement, although New York Times columnist Tom Friedman gave it a big plug last month and others have written more questioning pieces earlier.

Viewers reacted quickly to the segment and felt, uniformly, that more intense probing, especially of the funding for the new group, was in order. Woodruff did indeed question the group's Chief Operating Officer, Elliot Ackerman, about "some suspicions out there that this is a stalking horse for a particular candidate" and that there is "criticism" that "you have not yet revealed who your funders are." But the answers, and the emails below, make clear there is room for a lot more reporting on this.

On the 'Americans Elect' Segment

On the NewsHour, Judy Woodruff reported on the Americans Elect organization. She did a horrible attempt at investigative reporting regarding its funding. Secondly, and most surprisingly, she did not mention Elliot Ackerman's relation to the Conservative Organization — The CATO Institute. Elliot is the founder's son. How on earth can she be considered a member of "the watchdog press"? The NewsHour should do a follow-up on this organization to help clarify its true purposes.

E. Rivers, Portland, ME

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Concerning Americans Elect: After simple inquiry, and after viewing NewsHour, I found these unmentioned facts concerning Americans Elect. AE on its website acknowledges thirty million [dollars] thus far in contributions. AE also sought small donations from those visiting their site. Wider inquiry revealed that AE sought to draft Mayor Bloomberg as their candidate. Is not any extra party candidacy in 2012 a poorly veiled effort to unseat President Obama? Somehow your moderator only mentioned that their donors are undisclosed. I ask what organization has the deep pockets and an avowed goal to unseat President Obama other than the GOP or its ilk? I ask further why your due diligence did not consider this possibility?

Donald Barnes, Davenport, FL

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I just saw your piece on Americans Elect and wondered where the funding comes from for this group that can finance a room full of phone operators and computers, (as shown in the news piece), as well as the spokesmen represented? This seems like the most logical question to ask of the guests, but was not even hinted at. I went online and found this article but would appreciate it if you would not promote these fringe groups unless you reveal their funding sources in the commentary.

Santa Fe, NM


The NewsHour Responds:

Judy Woodruff inquired about the funding for the effort to hold an online nominating convention in hopes of producing an alternative ticket on the ballots in all 50 states to the two major party nominees. She also inquired as to why the group does not disclose its funding. Since the group is not required to disclose its donors, Judy asked the guests about why they don't choose to do it voluntarily and her follow up question is about whether urging their donors to disclose their identities is something the group plans to do going forward.

There are a few investigative print pieces that have been written about possible sources of the group's funding, but the discussion on the NewsHour was a larger discussion than simply the money behind the group. Judy asked the pertinent questions about the funding of the group and moved on to other areas of inquiry.


Cook's Tour of PBS and Climate Change

I have just read an article by Russell Cook, titled "PBS and Global Warming Skeptics' Lockout." I am disappointed in the paucity of response from PBS on this issue. Evidence that man made climate change data is error-ridden or worse accumulates daily, reaching more and more of your viewers. I'm concerned that PBS's obstinate advocacy of an issue that may well turn out to be a hoax of epic proportion will serve to discredit PBS, an otherwise creditable institution.

Wilfred Ruffian, New York, NY

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What is the reason that PBS refuses to cover the entire story of the theory of man-made global warming? There are over a thousand peer-reviewed documents and published papers refuting the entire silly idea that carbon dioxide from man is affecting this planet. Why does not PBS report this? The journalistic integrity of PBS is being destroyed by benign neglect.

West End, NC

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I'm curious as to which executive decided that PBS (NewsHour) will no longer offer both sides on serious issues? For example, there is now substantial science showing that many of the positions of the climate change alarmists are not merely exaggerated but outright fraud. I understand you're trying to pacify your political base but . . . Show some integrity — please.

Mike Durcan, Denver, CO


My Thoughts

Cook has been a frequent critic of the NewsHour's coverage — or more specifically, in his view, its non-coverage of the views of skeptics of global warming and climate change. I have posted his critiques, NewsHour responses, and some of my own thoughts on a number of occasions.

There are actually two battles going on here. One is between Cook and the NewsHour and the other is among scientists. I have made the point before that I thought the NewsHour did not do an especially good job in the past on individual, controversial developments about global warming, and I don't think they did a particularly good job in answering the challenges raised by Cook.

On the other hand, as a layman, I am personally very much influenced and persuaded that global warming is real and that man has contributed to this because that consensus view is supported by the National Academy of Science, the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA and national science academies of China, the United Kingdom, India, Japan, Russia, France and Brazil. As I wrote in December 2009, "It is worth covering the other side, but there is also the danger of establishing a false equivalence. That's where another aspect of news judgment comes into play."

Ironically, this would seem to be an excellent time for an in-depth revisiting of this issue. For one thing, we are approaching an election year and some leading Republican candidates are strong climate skeptics. The stakes in this debate are huge, both in potential damage to our planet, if the majority of scientific opinion is correct, and the impact on our economy. And, it appears that while that great majority of scientific opinion hasn't changed much, public opinion now appears to be less convinced about the science and the issue than in the past. How does one explain that: politics, media reporting and opinion, the slumping economy, science?