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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: Year-End Odds and Ends

Here's a brief, final ombudsman's mailbag for 2011. Most of the mail is about various NewsHour segments, which has been the case now for quite a while since not much else on PBS seems to be stirring up controversy. But, as they say, "wait till next year." Meanwhile, a Happy and Healthy New Year to all.

Here's a sampling of the letters and, in several cases, responses from the NewsHour:

For 15 minutes you [Dec. 27 NewsHour] let the Iowa Republican party spokesman blather on without rebuttal while your local Iowa radio station rep kissed his ass. Did any of you stop to consider that this was a political ad for the Republican Party? There was no rebuttal to this Republican ... assertions about President Obama. Once again Judy Woodruff and PBS confirm their spineless 'wimptude' when asked to be the bag-people for the Republican Party message. Do you even review what you say on the air?

Tim Ryan, San Jose, CA

(Ombudsman's Note: I can understand the chagrin of this viewer and one or two others who complained about this segment. The NewsHour, over time, generally exhibits enviable balance in political interviews. But Matthew Strawn, Iowa Republican Party Chairman, delivered a basically uninterrupted, unpaid anti-Obama commercial that struck me as embarrassing — for the program — because it was so blatant.)

What I witnessed tonight, December 20, on the PBS NewsHour was nothing short of attempt to subvert the democratic process. Smug pundits intimated that if Iowa voters allowed Ron Paul to win the caucuses they would be viewed as irrelevant in future elections. None of the mainstream news outlets has provided fair coverage of Congressperson Paul's campaign but this crosses a line. To attempt to discredit the voters of an entire state is beyond the pale. You owe your viewers, the Iowa electorate and the entire country an apology for this travesty. The glibness with which this blatant propaganda was delivered only exacerbates the injury. We the people of the United States are tired of letting the media pick our Presidents through innuendo and self-reinforcing poll results. We have been told for months, if not years, that Ron Paul is not 'electable' and now that he is on the verge of winning in Iowa your guests would try to fault the voters themselves. This is a monumental disgrace and you should be truly ashamed. It is especially disgusting that this subversion of journalistic integrity would take place on PBS.

David Gondek, Fox Lake, WI


On Washington Week on Friday evening, Dec. 12, Gwen Ifill, in asking a question of one of the panel members, referred to President Obama as "a weak president" in reference to the president vis-a-vis an obstructionist congress. Her characterization was wildly out of place, and as a moderator, she had no business editorializing in such a manner. Characterizing his predicament with congress as a struggle is certainly true. Labeling him as weak is harmful and irresponsible, and I believe she owes the President a retraction. Comments such as that become grist for the anti-Obama mill, and I would hope that PBS, as a matter of policy, would steer clear of contributing to that destructive chatter.

Rochester, NY

Gwen Ifill replies: "I understand your concern that by characterizing the President as weak, I was making an editorial judgment. That is certainly not what I intended. Instead, I was attempting to place the President's challenges — a weak economy and overwhelming cynicism toward Washington — in some political context. In my defense, I offer you two items — this Gallup poll historical analysis of the President's status in historical terms: http://www.gallup.com/poll/151106/Obama-November-Approval-Weak-Historical-Perspective.aspx And this column I wrote for the Washington Week and PBS NewsHour websites: http://www.pbs.org/weta/washingtonweek/blog/hate-washington-join-club Taken together, I think you will see I was attempting to explain why the President's reelection is not a slam dunk — that Republicans see a real opportunity to unseat him. Even though his approval rating, at 47%, has recently crept higher than his disapproval-rating, he was at 70 percent approval when his term started. In a political sense, that is weakness. The White House does take this seriously. So in my mind, it is not a matter of personal weakness, but political disadvantage."


Who is watching the NewsHour? You just had a story [Dec. 21] about a 320 million dollar fine against Bank of America (countrywide) involving minorities. Your report said minorities paid $1,200 a month more than whites did and this involved 200,000 people. Do the math: $1,200 times 200,000 equals a month and half of overcharging. The reporter didn't bring it up and they're going to give back the people a whopping $2,000 AND NOT LOWER the payments. Hire me. You are asleep at the switch.

Rob Petey, Redington Beach, GA

The NewsHour explained: The quote you referenced came from Attorney General Eric Holder, not from one of the NewsHour correspondents. It was excerpted from Holder's comments at a news conference that day, and Holder used it as an example of the systematic discrimination, not as a complete explanation of the extent of the problem. I have included the text of the quote: ERIC HOLDER, U.S. attorney general: "Now, these allegations represent alarming conduct by one of the largest mortgage lenders in the country during the height of the housing market boom. For example, in 2007, a qualified African-American customer in Los Angeles borrowing $200,000 paid an average of roughly $1,200 more in fees than a similarly qualified white borrower."

Quite often, what is NOT said (or left out) is as important as what IS said. I think that is the case in the recent Republican legislative effort to extend the payroll tax cut. No mention was made in the NewsHour's reporting about the inclusion in the bill for 1) drug testing for unemployment applicants (and who will pay for that?), 2) pushing the State Department for approval of the Keystone pipeline, 3) limiting the EPA's authority to regulate pollutants, 4) lowering the length of time unemployment benefits are paid, and several other reprehensible add-ons as well.

Additionally, I have seen no in-depth coverage of the Keystone pipeline project. Inflated claims of "thousands of jobs" have been bandied around but as far as I can determine, only a few thousand temporary construction jobs results, along with less than a hundred permanent jobs. Who benefits from this project? What is the real risk to the water supply for America's heartland? Why does the pipeline need to go to Texas? PBS NewsHour is one of the few places where trustworthy news is still available in the USA. Don't let us down. Give us the WHOLE picture.

Ed Newman, Alamogordo, NM

The NewsHour's National Affairs Editor, Murrey Jacobson, sent the following reply: "I wanted to alert you to our record of covering the Keystone story repeatedly on our program. While I certainly recognize that most viewers don't have time to see all of the reporting we do, we have chronicled the developments on the story repeatedly on our program and have had no reluctance to do so. I also recognize that we may not have answered every question you listed. But we have worked hard to cover many dimensions of this story — the economic questions, the environmental concerns, the political considerations that have played into it as well.

"Our recent coverage began this summer with an extensive tape piece on July 8 reported by Tom Bearden on the battle over the pipeline in Nebraska and the potential risks it could pose to the aquifer. On August 28th, we had a studio debate pitting environmentalist Bill McKibben (one of the leading opponents against the pipeline) against Robert Bryce. On November 10th, we updated the story with Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post when the Administration deferred a decision on the pipeline. And then we referred to the pipeline provision at least four times during the battle over the payroll tax bill extension. By my count, the program reported on that issue and its role in the legislative debate either briefly or at some length on December 13, 15, 16 and 22. To your comment about the battle over payroll tax debate: We did repeatedly make reference to the potential impact it would have on unemployment benefits."


We are long-time contributors to PBS, and we're troubled by what we see as a noticeable lack of coverage on the NewsHour of the tar sands project in Alberta, Canada. A few weeks ago you ran a story that graphically showed the destruction of the rainforest in Peru due to poor gold mining practices, and we applaud you for that story. The boreal forests just north of our border in Canada, however, are being destroyed at a far greater rate than are the forests of Peru, yet the NewsHour seems conspicuously silent on this topic, especially given that the tar sands are such a timely topic as Canada and the Republican Party here in the U.S. continue to push for construction of the Keystone XL pipeline into our Midwest. We believe the American public would be shocked if they were to SEE the magnitude of environmental destruction in Alberta, if video of the pollution and the decimated forests and muskeg ponds of the area were actually shown to your audience. Therefore, we continually ask ourselves "why doesn't the NewsHour run a story with video from the tar sands?" One answer we come up with again and again is that Chevron is an underwriter of your program, and this connection may well interfere with your ability to run a blatantly honest video that exposes the tremendous environmental destruction from this project. Or, maybe you've already shown footage from the north and we just missed it. If that is the case, would you please tell us when you ran that story so we can watch it? If not, will you run one in the future?

Lynn and Vince Murray, Moscow, Idaho

Murrey Jacobsen of the NewsHour explains: "We decided to report the Keystone/TransCanada story this summer to produce one piece to air in late June or early July. A key consideration was finding a place where the debate was being joined and where we would see the environmental and economic impact in a U.S. community. Working in a short time frame — with limited resources to travel — we chose Nebraska. I believe that decision was wise, given that the Obama Administration has cited Nebraska's aquifer as a reason for deferring their decision on the pipeline. We simply had to make a choice on how to approach the story. Having said that, we will watch developments in the coming months and look for ways to cover the tar sands story in Canada. We must work within budget and time constraints, plus this is a busy campaign season. Our correspondents and producers will be hopscotching with the candidates, so it's unclear when or how soon we can get them to Canada in the near future. But please know the story is very much on our radar."

And Now, a Change of Pace: Back to the Headhunters

The letters below are a sampling of those in response to last week's column.

I'm sorry someone found the program so disturbing, but the news of the war and the violence in the Middle East are quite graphic, more so than the head hunters! The news, many of the programs, especially those dealing with crime, both real and imagined are also violent, and the wrestling and boxing programs are bloody. Many ads are offensive. All I can think is why watch TV at all, because there is not always, or often a warning given?

Tillie Krieger, Eugene, OR


You didn't emphasize this, but if in three years of airing, The Airmen and the Headhunters, only generated one complaint to you, I think that says more about the complainer than the show.

Michael Freed, Sylmar, CA


Not reading your latest posting until after most things Christmas, yesterday morning, I must agree with you that, in context, it is untimely. Beyond that, I must agree with that viewer, about the lack of appropriate advance notice of disturbing graphic images, especially if it's severed human heads in prime-time when breast-feeding mothers and vulnerable children might be watching, but not the bare breasts of native women of that same era and culture. What weird sets of editorial guidelines and moral values the FCC and PBS have adopted to educate and enlighten current and future generations of Americans.

Satire and sarcasm aside, it is quite obvious that PBS is increasingly promoting the arbitrary, contrived, frivolous and trivial agendas and cultures of greedy elitists of little self-worth, and insatiably profit hungry corporations. Otherwise, programming would be more oriented toward the real needs and values of the vast majority of the public, the downtrodden poor and working-classes, and news, commentary and documentaries would be informing viewers of what is really wrong in America and exactly who is to blame, especially during election years. How absurd for PBS, too, to glorify the so-called 'Royal Wedding' some two hundred plus years after a bloody war for independence, and a continuing failure to inform and remind the public that Israel is nothing but 'an establishment of religion' that the U.S. Congress 'shall make no law respecting' (not specified to apply only to domestic establishments).

Perhaps if PBS didn't waste so much of its limited resources on preserving and promoting fanciful elitist culture, false corporate images, unproved deities and defective foreign entities and policies, and rattling the sabers of the King's Army, it wouldn't be doing so much begging for support these days.

Charles Shaver, Westfield, WI

A Piece of a Master?

I am a supporting fan; however, as much as I enjoy Downton Abbey (again), I am sorry to see PBS airing a program with blatant plagiarism as part of the script content. Mr. Fellowes should have excluded the flower contest segment or you should have made sure that the writer for Mrs. Miniver was given credit for this portion of the script. The lack of originality (putting it mildly) was evident to many watching the program.

Austin, TX

Steven Ashley of Masterpiece replies: "Thank you for your note about the scene from "Downton Abbey" and its comparison to a similar scene from the film "Mrs Miniver." The question came up during the series' run in the UK last Fall (2010). At that time, screenwriter Julian Fellowes said publicly that it is a matter of opinion whether people think the scene resembles one from the film. He said that he last watched the film about 40 years ago and one cannot say either way if that particular scene was buried in his subconscious and then sprang forth. If so, he wasn't conscious of it."

Other Stuff

I have always respected PBS, but I would like to know the reason for the dishonest and misleading coverage of developments in Nigeria. Last Ramadan, Christians attacked a[nd] murdered Muslims and this was ignored. Now that Muslims have attacked Christians, it is world news and the attack on Muslims is forgotten. This is promoting hatred toward Islam. I firmly believe it is fair to ask PBS to put this two-sided dispute in context.

Delaware, OH


Good grief!!! Why is it so difficult to give positive feedback!!! You (PBS IT department) talk too much and need to listen. I've been wanting to say Suzie Gharib is terriffic. An English major with business savvy.... not at all surprising. English majors can be smart as hell. But Suzie is also beautiful, kind and courteous, and very SMART. Her interviews are probing. She holds up beautifully next to the men who need to heed her. If she is "Arabic" we should know that as well... she is a role model of a fine professional and human being.

Dr. C. King Stephens, Milwaukee, WI


PBS is excellent! Commercial stations put animated bugs to circumvent folks who "tivo" past commercials and promos. With the excellent videography of Nature, Nova and other fine programs, the "bug" is a major distraction and "commercial." I can see why you want to promote a program, but possibly you would consider eliminating the crass commercial marketing ploy. Thank goodness NATURE is running now and there's not one bug. Keep up all your excellent efforts. PS — The Nightly Business Report is tending towards some weak segment icons — strange segment titles — almost childish — and people "floating" on digital blue sets in front of huge stock charts. Not sure what it's all for. It feels like Cramer's Mad Money set is slowly sneaking into the background.

Erie, PA

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