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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: Viewers Revealed to Be Not Pleased

Here's a sampling of viewer commentary that landed in the ombudsman's mailbag in the past week or so. The observations cover lots of ground and several programs but the fire is most concentrated, again, on the recent "America Revealed" series that was the subject of last week's column.

First, a Two-fer

I am a great admirer of PBS but feel that its quality is deteriorating. The fact that on your NY Arts program you interviewed the person who wrote "Goon Squad" certainly doesn't promote the impression of integrity considering how heavily the Goon play advertises. The woman, who seems to be a little rich girl, was embarrassing. And the guy with the European name and a fake accent (which wasn't there during the interview) was so pandering toward the author that I had to turn off the program (which I often enjoy.)

One of the worst things is the program that supposedly shows what America is like. It's a great idea if you did it with integrity. But every piece I've seen, such as the one about American manufacturing (which was absolutely ridiculous) just fawns about how great the U.S. is and contains nothing that is intellectually stimulating. It is clear that PBS, in an apparent attempt to raise money, is severely lowering its standards and becoming not so different than commercial TV, perhaps a lot worse.

Robert Bennett, New York, NY

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Please send Mr. Yul Kwon back to "Survivor" or whatever network television organization he came from. I watched either two or three episodes of "America Revealed." Unfortunately I did not realize what a programmed moron I had become until the manufacturing episode premiered. I've been reading "Time to Start Thinking" by Edward Luce [Washington columnist and commentator for the Financial Times]. While watching the [PBS] program I noticed no engineers of any of the manufacturing companies were foreign born and educated/graduated by our top educational institutions. Mr. Kwon appeared to be no more than a cheerleader waving pom-poms. At the conclusion of this sorry episode I came to realize the sponsor was Dow Chemical and I recognized what a piece of . . . PBS allowed to foul its reputation. Please excuse the language but I never imagined PBS would stoop to such deception. Enough said. Although I cannot afford to donate to the greatest broadcasting organization the world has ever produced (I'm longtime unemployed), I plead you take my opinion into consideration. I encourage you to promote the work of Mr. Luce rather than a reality TV "star" promoted by a questionable corporate client!

Peter Van Dyk, Las Vegas, NV

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I note in your Flunking the Perception Test" comments that one question not asked in the exchange is WHO PAID FOR THE ORIGINAL PRODUCTION? WGBH says "Dow did not become an underwriter of AMERICA REVEALED until after the series was completed and had no editorial involvement in the production." It appeared to be a very expensive production — more so than most PBS shows. Where did the risk money come from?

Al Perlmutter, New York, NY

(Ombudsman's Note: PBS officials say the series was funded by PBS and CPB [the Corporation for Public Broadcasting].)

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I want to express my concurrence with FAIR's position on Dow's underwriting of America Revealed, and with your conclusion, "the points raised by FAIR were fair ones, in my view . . ."

Indeed, this viewer very definitely might "perceive that the underwriter has exercised editorial control." It is dismaying to witness PBS's disregard of its own guidelines and unwillingness to critique and if necessary challenge an underwriter's implicit or explicit motivation, intent or agenda.

In this era of Citizens United, PBS has an additional responsibility to ask and consider a critical question regarding its editorial and funding policies: Is there so little corporate input into every aspect of our culture, economy and politics that one of the few public entities charged with guarding the common, public good, can justifiably relax its standards when it comes to corporate influence over content?

Jack Keith, New York, NY

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I agree with you: PBS has flunked the perception test in your series America Revealed sponsored by Dow. Since you are aware of the problem, it would be appropriate if you could try to correct it by presenting balanced information instead of corporate advertising.

L. B., New York, NY

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I read your explanations/rationalizations about "America Revealed." Merely more rationalization and deterioration of "objective" information and news. Seriously, you no longer deserve the "P" in PBS. Heretofore to be known as BS and BS.com.

Hugo, MN

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I do not know if the content of the America Revealed program concerning manufacturing was a result of naiveté or an intentional act to create propaganda. The information you presented and the conclusions presented were so far removed from reality that it is difficult to know where to begin a review of the inaccuracies.

I have worked as an engineer engaged in manufacturing automation for 35 years. I have been a business owner of a company engaged in implementation of manufacturing automation. I am familiar with most of the companies you reviewed and intimately familiar with nearly all of the manufacturing processes and technologies. Manufacturing has continued to decline in this country for over 35 years. Manufacturing has not kept pace with inflation and the growth of the U.S. population. Manufacturing has diminished as a percentage of world output. The trade deficit of manufactured goods increases every year.

Your program celebrated the development of automotive assembly lines within our country, owned by foreign manufacturers. Your program ignored the fact that the profits from the vehicles produced are collected by the foreign companies that own these manufacturing facilities, further depleting the financial resources in the U.S.

Most misleading [is] your presentation of the software and services provided by companies such as Facebook, Google, and EBay. These companies do not manufacture any goods. They provide services. They produce nothing of tangible value. They produce nothing of permanence. Until the world considers wealth to consist of the number of Facebook friends, the number of tweets received per day, the number of bids that they can place on a product, these companies can be considered to manufacture nothing . . . I would argue that Facebook, primarily an advertising and entertainment medium, is causing lower productivity in the U.S. due to the distraction provided by their SERVICE. You failed to mention that Apple produces most of their products goods using components of foreign manufacture, and assembly labor in China. Apple performs engineering in the U.S. [but] Apple cannot be considered to be a significant U.S manufacturer.

Pittsburgh, PA

Face Time

I cannot believe that PBS is quoting people from this anti-science, climate change denier group called The Heartland Institute. Don't you agree it is a disinformation society with a hidden vested agenda? PBS is helping make a bad future for us all by including these clowns. I can see giving both sides of a story but not when they have no credibility.

Have you seen their latest insulting billboard campaign? Billboards in Chicago paid for by The Heartland Institute point out that some of the world's most notorious criminals say they "still believe in global warming" — and ask viewers if they do, too. The billboard series features Ted Kaczynski, the infamous Unabomber; Charles Manson, a mass murderer; and Fidel Castro, a tyrant. These rogues and villains were chosen because they made public statements about how man-made global warming is a crisis and how mankind must take immediate and drastic actions to stop it.

Why did Heartland choose to feature these people on its billboards? Because what these murderers and madmen have said differs very little from what spokespersons for the United Nations, journalists for the "mainstream" media, and liberal politicians say about global warming.

Larry Cosgrave, North Wiltshire, Canada

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Judy Woodruff [May 3] just responded to the statement from a guest that 95% of Australians vote because they were required to — with the mistaken information that 50% vote in the USA. The sad truth is that only 50% of eligible voters are even registered and then only 50% of them actually vote. An honest comparison would be 95% to not quite 25%. IT'S WORSE THAN YOU THINK!! I think this was the name of the book he was promoting. People don't understand this fact, and we need to let them know the truth. Please ask that this misstatement be corrected in such a way as to actually make this point.

Richard Saxe, Aromas, CA

New Blood?

I would like to see some new blood on the Friday evening political recap for the week. I have no axe to grind with Shields and Brooks, but they been a staple for too many years. There are other voices out there. Please venture beyond the current pundits. I know it's less work and cheaper to keep these two coming back every Friday, but it is a disservice to the public.

Byron R., Olympia, WA

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American media as a whole has been very unbalanced in favor of Israel. PBS NewsHour should be better. But once again last night we were reminded of the Holocaust, while no mention was made of current mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners held without charges for long periods, and desperately refusing to eat in the hope of bringing attention to this hidden atrocity. I hope you will start to balance the two sides of this story.

Dennis Hannon, Chandler, AZ

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Please ask the PBS producers to resist from advertising during the show. PBS was the last hold- out and I adored them for it. When watching Masterpiece Theatre (Birdsong) it felt so disrespectful for a very distracting advertisement for PBS pop up. Please, please consider this opinion because I know others are of like mind.

Mary Coman, Tulsa, OK

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I was happily watching episodes from the series Downton Abbey last night with my young girls, and was horrified to suddenly be accosted with viewing a homosexual make out scene. Choosing to depict this in this manner was a poor decision. I wish that Downton Abbey was a family friendly viewing option, but upon further investigation, I have found that there is a rape scene and several other unsavory events, which I do not wish to introduce to my family, or myself for that matter. Please re-think future scenes. I would love to hear that you are cleaning up the raciness and making it less offensive, so that more of us can enjoy the show. Thank you for your consideration.

A. Welburn, Nampa, ID

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Last night I watched an episode of Globe Trekker, the focus of which was on Israel and the Palestinian territories. The tour of the country was marvelous and the two commentators certainly were charismatic.

Is it the policy of Globe Trekker to insert editorial content in what is essentially a travel show? In the section dealing with the territories, the commentator made a number of highly charged comments. He had the cameraman focus on the portion of Israel's security barrier that is a wall. Yet, only 5% of the barrier is cement wall — the rest is fence. He made a snide comment about how the barrier fences in people in the territories, but did not mention the reason (terrorist bombings during the last decade) that Israel decided to erect the fence.

Interestingly, the Israeli section of the broadcast was apolitical. If Globe Trekker is going to be a travelogue, it should stick to such without the political commentary.

Connie Hinitz, Cincinnati, OH

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My problem with Wayne Dyer is that his orations are completely obtuse. I cannot follow his line of thinking although I have made concerted efforts to do so. I do not think I am unintelligent. I understand words. But listening to him put words together fails to transmit any integrated message. Rather, his sentences although complete in themselves when strung together do not add up to anything making a sensible impression. As I listen to him, I have a sense that I am in a state of induced aphasia, wanting somehow to understand but falling short of understanding. What is equally worrisome to me is that when the camera pans around the faces of the audience during his recitals, I see people who appear to have a deep understanding (or at least pretend to) of what he is saying. This display of the smitten is highly disturbing and leaves me with the unsettling conclusion that people who evidently come from the so-called educated, well-scrubbed, well-dressed classes are utterly suggestible.

Dr. Dyer is also an example of the kind of people you use to fund-raise. They all seem to appeal to the suggestible and they are all deeply middle-brow. Their production techniques are to me similar to those employed by makers of infomercials. I cannot look at them and the local PBS station, WHYY, seems to have them on all the time now. At least on weekends, when I tend to tune in. Largely for this reason, I have ceased watching WHYY. Sorry. I feel as though I am being subtly insulted when I watch that station.

Neil Botel, Media, PA

More on 'Roots'

I have been watching the PBS Sunday evening program, "Finding Your Roots." I've noticed that your series pays very little attention to the roots of "white" Americans unless they are Jewish, also. Is this decision by design? Your series emphasizes the story of "immigrants" and relatively recent immigration while ignoring family lines that tie to the earlier pioneering Americans who make up the majority of the American population. Your program focuses on "elite," "celebrity" Americans rather than common and representative Americans. Is your intention to exclude and ignore the stories of Americans who are of English, French, German, and Scottish background but who are not Jewish?

Bert James, Lynn, MA

WNET Responds:

Thank you for taking the time to contact us regarding Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr., and expressing your concerns that the show does not trace ancestry for non-Jewish Americans of European background.

The goal of Finding Your Roots is to show all Americans how closely we share common histories and, in many cases, common ancestors — despite the racial, cultural, religious, political, and economic differences that appear to separate us. Our guests intentionally include people with the broadest possible range of backgrounds, ethnicities, and familiarity to contemporary audiences. The series seeks to inspire all people, celebrities or not, to discover who they are and where they come from.

When Professor Gates and his research teams begin their quests to find each guest's roots, they don't know where the paths will lead them. Many Finding Your Roots guests have been surprised by what they learn about their ancestry, and that includes learning about a Jewish heritage. Interestingly, it was another viewer of Gates' previous PBS series, Faces of America, who prompted him to create the more inclusive format of Finding Your Roots. That viewer, a Russian Jewish woman, pressed Gates to offer a program that was more diverse, featuring guests of multiple cultures and ethnicities.

We hope you saw the recent episode that highlighted the ancestry of two well-known Americans of European descent: Maggie Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. In earlier episodes, we traced the roots of Kevin Bacon and Rick Warren, who are not Jewish and examined the non-Jewish lines of Kyra Sedgwick and Harry Connick, Jr.'s family. For Martha Stewart, who is featured in an upcoming episode, we traced her family line to Poland.

In answer to why feature celebrities, we hope that by sharing what we've found in the backgrounds of well-known individuals will pique interest to watch the series and inspire viewers to learn about their own families. As a public television station, WNET relies on feedback from viewers like you to enable us to continue presenting thought-provoking programming that enlightens, educates and entertains and we truly appreciate your input. Please know that your comments will be shared with Gates and his production team.