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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: Self-Inflicted Wounds

A brief but strong gust of criticism blew into the ombudsman's inbox Wednesday evening. It was over almost as quickly as it began, but it sticks in my head as one more case of serious news organizations that occasionally shoot themselves in the foot for what I hope is no apparent reason.

Just a few days ago, I wrote about a segment of the venerable PBS NewsHour on Dec. 9 in which economics correspondent Paul Solman used the Occupy DC encampment in a park in the nation's capital to represent "liberals" in a report assessing whether conservatives — represented by young professionals interviewed at a well-known Washington think-tank — were happier than the liberals in the park. This visual comparison was seen as unworthy and unfair by those liberals who complained.

Then this week, on Tuesday the 13th, the NewsHour ran another segment, hosted by senior correspondent Jeffrey Brown, reporting on an imaginative and widely praised effort called the News Literacy Project that uses experienced journalists and top news organizations to educate middle school and high school students around the country about how to sort fact from fiction within the blizzard of news and information that comes their way these days. The project was started by former Los Angeles Times investigative reporter, and Pulitzer Prize winner, Alan Miller.

But once again, the visual presentation used by the NewsHour to accompany the classroom interviews and the one with Miller in his office is what caught the eye, and the ire, of several viewers. Specifically, during an interview with Miller, and just as he says, "There is so much potential here for misinformation, for propaganda, for spin, all of the myriad sources that are out there," a quick but unmistakable TV screenshot of Bill O'Reilly, the host of the popular show on FOX News, appears.

Watch News Literacy Project Trains Young People to Be Skeptical Media Consumers on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

That is red meat and a guaranteed red flag for some viewers and so the e-mails began arriving, a sampling of which is posted below.

When I asked the NewsHour why they did this, I got the following response from Anne Bell, the public relations manager for the program.

"Last night the PBS NEWSHOUR ran a nearly 7 minute segment on the News Literacy Project — an educational program that strives to teach young people how to be better consumers of news and information. As the piece showed, the project recognizes that students get their information from a myriad of sources — email, social media, cell phone texts, radio, newspapers, television, podcasts and websites — and it encourages students to get their information from a wide range of sources, but stresses they need to be critical consumers of that information.

"Throughout the segment, several examples of a wide range of media outlets and sources are flashed on the screen — including, MSNBC, BBC, YouTube, Facebook, The Daily Mail, email, cellphone text and FOX News. FOX and MSNBC were selected as examples of cable television outlets. At no point does the NewsHour pass judgment on the quality of any outlet shown, rather the point of the segment is that consumers should take the time to carefully scrutinize all of the information they receive."

Well, that may be what the NewsHour thinks it was showing and doing, but unless you were a cryptographer with laser-vision the only recognizable image was that of O'Reilly. The website of the Daily Mail, a British tabloid, was clear because a wrong and inflammatory story on that site was being used as an example in class. But you would be hard pressed to recognize anything or anyone else beyond O'Reilly.

Miller, who had nothing to do with editing the segment or what was chosen to illustrate it, and Brown are both excellent and highly-regarded journalists. But the picture of O'Reilly used by segment producers in the presentation distracted from the otherwise excellent content, and that almost always diminishes, needlessly in my opinion, the broader impact of these stories.

When I pressed for further details about how it happened that O'Reilly was the only recognizable figure illustrating that segment and whether that had occurred to anyone, a revised explanation was offered.

I was told that at the time when the segment was produced "no one raised a flag, however . . . others here agree that in retrospect the problem is more clear. The shot of Mr. O'Reilly lasted 2 seconds and covered the words '. . . sources that are out there.' Mr. O'Reilly charges that its position in this sentence visually suggests he engages in 'spin.' Since he is the only recognizable newsperson in the sequence, he has a point. The NewsHour apologizes for the unintended implication."

Here Are Some of the Letters

News literacy project piece: "There is so much potential here for misinformation, for propaganda, for spin and all of the myriad sources of more and more the onus is shifting to the consumer . . . etc."

To my horror I saw a clip of Bill O'Reilly's program over the above quote (I am sure you are aware The O'Reilly Factor is the number one rated news program in America at over 3.2 million viewers nightly) and that was clearly a reckless, stupid, and incendiary jibe not so much at O'Reilly but at his audience. My Fear is with all of the Federal budget cutbacks that these types of oversights are steak tartar for right-wing dogs snarling to pull funding! I don't watch O'Reilly but the people who help to pay your salary do, unless you want to rely completely on Goldman Sachs et al to pick up the tab. I realize that may be a bitter pill but that is the reality.

Please reprimand the producers of these pieces and demand retractions. It is your duty to protect and preserve the neutrality, excellence, integrity and survival of what I consider to be a national treasure: The News Hour.

John Johnston, Canoga Park, CA

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I have a problem with the PBS NewsHour on Dec.13. In that broadcast they were showing a picture of Bill O'Reilly while they were talking about propaganda and misinformation. That was wrong and very deceptive. That is no way to attack a person. I expect much more than this from PBS. I know they are supposed to be neutral but we all know about NPR. This was a cheap shot. I also noticed the "Topic" Bill was discussing on the clip was "The Occupiers." Tell the editors their little message was noticed. I feel sure this won't be the only message you get about this. KEEP IT HONEST . . . AND UNBIASED.

Cathy Powell, Roswell, GA

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PBS is not holding to any standards of editorial integrity when they do a shabby, dishonest piece about unfair broadcasting and showed a picture of Bill O'Reilly. Bill O'Reilly and Fox News are both fair and balanced. This PBS NewsHour was unfair. You do not deserve to get ANY federal money for this politically-motivated broadcasting. APOLOGY to Bill O'Reilly and edit this piece.

Anne Fredrickson, Pleasanton, CA

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I am appalled and incensed that PBS has shown a picture of Bill O'Reilly when indicting news organizations for "misinformation" and other negative comments. PBS is given tax money, and as such, does not have the right to lean one way or the other politically or socially. If congress had a backbone, they would have cut off this tax money years ago, but alas, they do not. I would appreciate it if you would police yourself and hold yourself to a higher standard. Otherwise, your integrity is not only in question, it is non-existent.

Ernestine S. Bonicelli, Millington, TN

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