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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: Smiley, Cheney and Many (others)

The ombudsman's mailbag was filled in the past week with lots of messages on lots of subjects.

Some viewers took issue with comments made by PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley, even though they were made on MSNBC and NBC. Others thought the PBS NewsHour was too soft in questioning former Vice President Dick Cheney in an interview and, in another segment, should have explained that "attack" on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo earlier in September more accurately. There were those who didn't want to see promotions about Ken Burns' forthcoming series parade across their screens while they were watching another program. And I received some reactions to a couple of recent ombudsman columns.

A sampling of the letters is posted below, along with links to programs or previous columns, and my thoughts about some of the viewer observations.

On Smiley

The following two letters refer to statements made by PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley during an interview with MSNBC that aired on Sept. 15. Portions of it also appeared on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams during an extended segment on that program about President Obama and the very high levels of unemployment (16.7 percent) and poverty (27.4 percent) among African Americans. Both the MSNBC interview and the NBC segment can be seen on the link above. They are, in my view, well worth watching.

Here are the letters:

The following statement by Travis Smiley is outrageous: "Whatever happened to that notion that to the victor goes the spoils? If anybody ought to be looked out for, it ought to be the persons who represent the most significant and the most loyal part of the base. That would be African-Americans." This man is a racist, plain and simple, and ought not to be on PBS.

Francestown, NH

~ ~ ~

As an American, I find Tavis Smiley's latest comments about "the spoils going to the victors" (i.e. blacks supported Obama so they should get some sort of special treatment from the government) to be extremely offensive. If a white person said that after an election of a white president they would be immediately cast as a bigot. Where is the integrity and balance of your PBS executives? This man should be off the publicly-funded airways. If he wants to make a jackass out of himself and his fellow "victors" he should get into a privately-funded medium. Shame on your organization for giving this toxic individual a weekly forum to spout his divisive rhetoric. Note: In the current political environment it would be foolish to allow posting this with my name on it—sad state of affairs indeed.

North Attleboro, MA
~ ~ ~

(Ombudsman's Note: I've written about Tavis Smiley in this space many times over the years, including one column just a few months ago when the subject also was race and the forum was also an MSNBC interview. The viewers who wrote are understandably upset and they know that while these remarks were made during an interview with MSNBC, that Smiley is a high-profile broadcaster heavily identified publicly with PBS. In my previous comments about Smiley, I have made the point that Smiley is a unique force: broadcaster, author of several books, interviewer, businessman, foundation head, promoter (self and otherwise) and a relentless advocate for what he calls the "Black Agenda." His program is produced by his own company in association with WNET in New York. Major funding comes from Walmart and Nationwide Insurance. According to PBS and WNET, Smiley is an independent producer and he doesn't speak for them. Smiley has told me that: "PBS is not my employer" and "as long as I meet PBS standards on PBS," that's what's important. So, Smiley's answers on MSNBC last week were controversial, but I found the MSNBC interview important and very much worth listening to, along with what I thought was also an excellent segment on The Nightly News; that combination was actually better than I've seen on PBS.)

On Cheney

I was disappointed that the Dick Cheney interview and panel discussion never once mentioned Halliburton. As though it were a minor topic in his career and the fact that he was not receiving active pay put it to rest. Cheney mentions the need to cut entitlements but is never asked the question about military contracting expenses (e.g. Halliburton and Blackwater) that he was instrumental in increasing. Well, when Boeing et. al. are major contributors, I should be smart enough to realize that a corporate lens now permeates the culture of PBS. I miss the old one!

Madison, WI

~ ~ ~

A totally lame interview by Judy Woodruff with Dick Cheney. She allowed him to talk about the deficit on and on, yet didn't ask about the surplus they inherited in 2001. Allowed Cheney to say three times-- we need to cut entitlements. Didn't asked why they started two wars and no way to pay for them? Why they passed prescription drug bill and no way to pay for-- all the time cutting taxes on the wealthy. Judy Woodruff threw softballs to a low regarded vice president who championed torture.

Richard Roth, Tubac, AZ

~ ~ ~

Dick Cheney was just on public television pushing his book, which should be called "In Your Face." He and Mr. Bush should be in prison for war crimes. This piker, liar now thinks deficits do matter. Well no wonder, those we face are because of you!

Mark Hanson, Payson, AZ

~ ~ ~

Has the NewsHour slipped in their standards? To allow Dick Cheney to promote his book and repeat his lies about the Iraq war without challenge is a disservice to your audience. The only news about this is that Cheney wrote a self-serving book and is out promoting it. You could do better with your time. As a long-time fan and supporter of Public Broadcasting, I am very disappointed.

Jerry Bloomer, Hot Springs, SD

(Ombudsman's Note: NewsHour producers said that since it was at the end of Cheney's cycle of book interviews, they decided to talk about more than his book. The current deficit problems seemed pretty germane, producers said, given that they began on his administration's watch. They said they couldn't exactly ignore his book, but also asked questions about Iraq and other things, and pointed out that the interview was immediately followed by the regular Friday commentary by David Brooks and Ruth Marcus who, they said, did a good job of putting the former V.P. in context. Beyond that, they added, there will always be people who don't like the NewsHour's style. I would add that there are also lots of people who dislike Cheney and so the odds are against many interviewers. But I'm also among those who haven't liked the program's approach at times when it came to interviewing Cheney and thought a lengthy interview with him by Jim Lehrer five years ago, at the peak of the war in Iraq, should have been far more challenging. I'm not, however, among the critics of Judy Woodruff on this, much shorter interview. I thought she raised several key questions.)

On that 'Attack' in Cairo

Tonight I heard Ray Suarez and Margaret Warner discussing Egyptian affairs as if they knew any more than I do and it all sounded quite preposterous. However, worst part was Margaret Warner twice referring to "the attack on the Israeli Embassy," on two very serious counts, as words and context do matter. By using the word 'attack', she left the impression that there had taken place some armed attack, creating the image of armed people, explosions, and likely deaths. It should have been further qualified as to what had actually occurred.

But even more important was that Warner gave no reason whatsoever for that 'attack', as if there was no background to it. She should have (and could have, in few words) said that the Israeli military had recently killed several Egyptian paramilitaries in Egyptian territory. As the 'report' went, viewers were left with the distinct idea that those who perpetrated the actions had simply 'attacked' for no reason at all (which is not unusual in depiction of actions by Muslims or Arabs in the mainstream media).

C. Coimbra

(Ombudsman's Note: The report of the "attack" on the Israeli Embassy involved one sentence in an otherwise solid and lengthy segment on current conditions, especially economic, in Egypt. But I agree that it was presented in too off-hand a manner and was misleading. As the viewer suggests, "assault" would have been a better description. According to the New York Times, the event occurred during a protest reiterating demands of the revolution, when a mob headed toward the embassy to tear down a protective wall. They then stormed the building, tore down the flag and entered at least one room.)

Heeerrrre's Kenny

I want to register a serious complaint about the in-telecast promotion of other PBS shows via an on-screen announcement that interferes with the viewing of the program I'm watching. During Sunday night's Masterpiece Mystery, that announcement of Ken Burns' next documentary danced over the lower part of my TV screen several times during "Inspector Lewis," providing an unpleasant distraction from that engrossing program which requires serious attention to follow the plot and dialogue. Please stop this distracting practice. PBS viewers are intelligent enough to know what programs are available, and when they will be presented (and your announcements may not be accurate because of local stations scheduling of a national program).

Stanley Gottlieb, Chico, CA

~ ~ ~

It is very unprofessional to run ads for KB's "Prohibition" on Masterpiece Theater. When you go to a live theater nobody walks across the stage with an ad for another show; it detracts seriously from viewer engagement with the plot; it's just bad manners anyway. It's a trick stolen from gimmicky channels of doubtful integrity. In fact the whole Ken Burns thing bugs me anyway. He is constantly being endorsed by his own channel (if it's PBS). Let his work stand on its own merits. The appearance is that someone has a financial or personal interest in inflating his image.

Paul Hunt, Belize City and Houston, TX

On Recent Columns

While considering the accuracy of Chevron's obviously misleading statements on earnings and spending, why not explore an even greater and problematic public deception; business and corporate income tax. Businesses, large and small, may file tax forms and forward funds to the IRS and state agencies (e.g., sales taxes) but, ultimately, those additional costs are included in the final prices of their products and services or, to maintain a desired profit margin at the same prices, reduced availability and/or quality of those products and services. In consideration of the number of businesses that file quarterly taxes, that charade is an extremely costly waste of man-hours and materials to a nation in financial crisis. That, alone, would justify a competent Congress and President reforming the income tax code.

Charles Shaver, Westfield, WI

~ ~ ~

Regarding the Chevron protest letters you must be receiving, I'd be willing to bet they imply Chevron's sponsorship of the NewsHour is what's preventing the program from connecting global warming to extreme weather. As I pointed out in my comment at one NewsHour segment, a quick examination of Chevron's web site shows they side with the idea of man-caused global warming: Such viewers see pro-skeptic bias where none exists, yet the NewsHour's anti-skeptic bias appearance remains unexplained in the face of evidence proving it in their own broadcast archives. Any idea of when this will be resolved?

Russell Cook, Phoenix, AZ

~ ~ ~

As anyone in your business knows by now, attacks on public broadcasting by the right wing media have little regard for factual information but much hypocrisy and pretentiousness when it comes to thinking they can accuse a labeled lefty organization of a "gotcha." Why anyone with a brain pays any attention to them is beyond me. They could care less that they wrongly accuse if they think they can stick it to you.

Dwight Bobson, Washington, DC

~ ~ ~

I agree wholeheartedly with the comments from Michael Carano of Tallmadge, OH. The PBS Newshour has always been my favorite news source. I thought I could rely on PBS to deliver complete, as well as reliable and unbiased information. That changed greatly in July when the Center for Media and Democracy released the documents informing of the activities of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council).

I had not realized prior to then how selective and whitewashed PBS had become due to the Koch brothers philanthropic largesse to your organization. There has been no coverage of ALEC and the profound influence the right wing has had in controlling information and destroying democracy. The public needs to hear of the cozy corporate/legislative alliance to understand what is happening to us. The story surrounding ALEC and the Koch family and their buddies was eliminated by all mainstream media, but I was sure PBS would cover it fully.

Christine Auburn, Red Wing, MN

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