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Tuesday, September 23, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: On Martin-Zimmerman Portrayals, and 'Roots'

In last week's mailbag, I mentioned that there had also been mail about the beginnings of a new 10-part series called "Finding Your Roots," presented by Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., and that we would present them in the next mailbag. They are posted below, along with a response I also received last week from PBS member station WNET in New York.

But first come some new emails about what was the central focus of the ombudsman's April 12 mailbag: continuing coverage of the controversial shooting in Florida of an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Below those are also a couple of emails about other subjects.

On the Shooting in Florida

I appreciate you posting the letters of complaint about Ms. Ifill's appalling, and I think, intentionally incorrect description of Mr. Zimmerman as being white. But I think you gloss it over just a little too easy. What she did was not professional in any sense. A professional would know exactly what they were saying and would not make such an egregious mistake. Ms. Ifill knew what she was saying, and that begs the question: why? And the answer to that is not pretty, is it? You also say she is not a racist. Well, I would say common sense tells you that a supposedly professional journalist who knowingly incorrectly describes a man as white who is not white has some kind of problem with race.

John Frei, Washington, DC

~ ~ ~

When reporting on the Martin-Zimmerman case on 4/12 Judy Woodruff said "despite [a] dispatcher's warning, Zimmerman followed Martin . . ." How does Woodruff and The NewsHour know Zimmerman followed Martin? Where is the evidence, the proof? The prosecutor alleges Zimmerman followed Martin, but that is not what Woodruff reported. She stated it as a fact!

Chattanooga, TN

~ ~ ~

Question - why does PBS keep showing photos of Zimmerman and Martin that are years old and make Zimmerman look like a thug and Martin like a little child? This is NOT honest reporting. My wish is that Zimmerman would "fall on his sword" and admit his guilt and the whole mess would be over. But with the biased reporting and photos this is creating racial tension that should not be there.

Vacaville, CA

~ ~ ~

I will be happier if I could see in-depth coverage of a possibly troubled youth, Trayvon Martin (i.e. suspended from school), who might have had some typical teenage anger problems (though many mothers seem to insist that their son is perfect and deny anything to the contrary). It would also be nice to see an in-depth comparison of the physical characteristics (age, height, weight, etc) as well as the past year training (varsity football position and stats) for Trayvon Martin.

Dale Veerhusen, Madison, WI

~ ~ ~

This program [NewsHour, April 9] carried an interview with Daniel Webster of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Center for Gun Policy and Research. This gentleman was interviewed and presented as the sole "expert" on the current controversy regarding the so-called "stand your ground" laws, based on the task force "investigating" the circumstances surrounding the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

In this interview, Mr. Webster portrays the National Rifle Association as "aggressive" in its sponsorship of these laws and cites these laws as potentially dangerous to society in general, based primarily on his "personal observations." Once again, the anti-gun lobby is using the absolute tragedy of this young man's death as a platform for the reprehensible attack on a Constitutional right to "bear arms" under the Second Amendment. At issue is the irresponsible behavior of a member of a Neighborhood Watch during the altercation (or lack of one) with young Martin. No law on earth could have protected that young man from a moron with any form of weapon.

I would expect PBS to cover this issue with at least a balanced form of reporting that followed both tracks of argument regarding the so-called legal ramifications of this shooting. Perhaps invite the NRA to "defend" what it believes in contrast and comparison to what Mr. Webster has "observed." As if such a debate might bring young Martin back or protect other persons from idiots. Your attention to this request would be appreciated; unless of course PBS has already determined that Mr. Webster speaks for us all.

Paul Hirdler, Sacramento, CA


Some Roots Are Very High Above Ground

I was trying to find a contact for the H.L. Gates show on Finding Your Roots but found none, so I am writing to you since this is shown on PBS. I am wondering why, in the last couple of episodes I've seen, where the guests have one Jewish parent, the history of that Jewish parent is ignored in the "finding" of the guests "roots." I'm curious about that. If it is because some of the records are missing, that should be stated. But other than either announcing the Jewish parent's existence at the outset (Kyra Sedgwick) or ignoring the Jewish parent altogether (Harry Connick Jr.'s mother) there is no search into that side of the family. You are welcome to forward my question on to someone directly at that show. This doesn't have to be posted but if it is, that's fine. I just noticed this pattern so am curious as to why it is.

This follows my earlier email. I see now in Finding your Roots that about three minutes (or less) were spent at the end on mentioning that K. Sedgwick's genes trace back to Ashkenazi Jewry, which is okay, but what is still missing is the look back at the people. That's what carries the show for an hour. I also must say that I think the bagel comment by Gates was unnecessary. I guess it would be as if she had some African roots and he said something about, she could eat chitlins now. Not a good thing to find pat stereotypes and run with them on public television.

Washington, DC

~ ~ ~

I NEVER thought I would be writing to complain about PBS programming, but now, I feel I must. Although I thoroughly enjoy and agree with the concept of "Finding Your Roots" with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., I believe PBS has missed the mark with the execution of such a great idea.

The central focus of this program seems to be centered around the ancestry of celebrities, the majority of whom are black. While this may be interesting to some, I feel PBS has sunken to the level of the "reality" shows, rather than airing what the average viewer can identify with. Who cares about Oprah and Harry Connick, Jr.? Who wants PBS dollars spent on providing more publicity for celebrities who can certainly afford to research their ancestors on their own? Barbara Walters...... are you KIDDING me???

If this is a program that you do not want to be confused with the trash on the major networks, get with it. Find a wheat farmer in Montana, a fisherman in Alaska, a mechanic in North Carolina, a construction worker in New Jersey, and tell THEIR story!!!! Come on.... tell the REAL story of the people of this country, not the high profile celebs that no one can relate to.

Keith Wokal, Vancouver, WA

~ ~ ~

I was appalled by the Finding Your Roots segment featuring Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon. How a show titled Finding Your Roots could turn into a show about slavery is beyond me. I'm a writer, and it seems to me that the title of the show should reflect what the show is about. I'll be skipping this show in the future.

New York, NY


PBS's WNET Responds:

It's true that, so far, we have only pursued one guest's Jewish roots in detail onscreen (Barbara Walters), even though we have featured two other guests (Kyra Sedgwick and Harry Connick, Jr.) with Jewish ancestry. Although in upcoming episodes we explore the Jewish roots of Rabbi Angela Buchdahl (in episode 5) and actors Robert Downey, Jr. and Maggie Gyllenhaal (in episode 6).

We start by tracing both sides of our guests' family trees. We then identify the strongest stories that allow us to evoke compelling historical topics. Yet in the editing, we must make very hard choices in order to weave these stories together with the other guest (or guests) in each 52-minute episode. Sometimes, this means that we have to leave out quite a few stories that are fascinating and important! Throughout the process we try to remain mindful of the series as a whole — and luckily, in this case we knew that we would get the chance to investigate Jewish immigration and roots in greater depth in other episodes. We hope that you will tune in to episodes 5 and 6, and let us know what you think.

Some other viewers have also asked — about both this series and Gates' previous mini-series (African American Lives 1 and 2, and Faces of America): Why feature celebrities? Why not portray the ancestry of ordinary people? Indeed, almost every American can find stories in their family tree which reveal surprising truths about our country and who we are. Yet in order to pique more people's interest in this history, it can help to start with guests about whom our audience is already curious. We hope that by seeing what we've found in the backgrounds of these well-known people, our viewers will be inspired to learn about their own families — and about our shared history as Americans.


What Art Thou Doing?

I thought you did not do enough about the visual arts but after your "Art in the 21st Century," it would be best if you did nothing.

Mark Oxman, Amherst, MA
Professor, Art Dept., American University DC


And Viewing?

I have never questioned the integrity or ethics of PBS nor have I complained before. As I am now watching all my PBS programming online, including many past shows that I missed, my complaint is that I must watch commercials to be able to see the videos. Though I am not very happy about that, I know times are tough, and I'd rather keep the programming. But not through sponsorship from the advertiser, Goldman-Sachs. They represent the greed and transfer of wealth from the middle class and poor to the rich during most of the first decade of the new century. I wince each time I am compelled to watch their sugar-coated sales job of who they want us to think they are. I resent and am surprised that PBS would accept their sponsorship.

Richard Anderson, Santa Barbara, CA


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