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Thursday, October 23, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: Letters From and About Viewers

Here's a brief catch-all, catch-up mailbag about a couple of programs that seem to linger in the minds of some viewers. As frequently happens, some of the mail is about the views of viewers who responded to earlier ombudsman postings. The letters at the top are, once again, about the recent Niall Ferguson series on "Civilization," followed by a comment about Frontline's response to critiques of its recent program on forensic evidence, "The Real CSI."

Dr. Daniel Amen is also back in the mailbag. He's the brain doctor whose programs are frequently used as part of member-station pledge drives. Those programs are controversial and have been the subject of several previous ombudsman columns.

There are other things as well, including a letter about the wisdom of featuring an interview with Melinda Gates, of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to kick off a NewsHour series about education and teaching. The Foundation is one of the funders of the NewsHour. This was also the subject of a recent critique by the media watch group FAIR. Jeffrey Brown of the NewsHour responded earlier to a viewer who forwarded the FAIR critique, and I've included Brown's response.

Here are the letters:

More About 'Civilization' and the Responders

Re Niall Ferguson's Civilization series: I am hugely disappointed with viewer responses, which in large measure are nothing more than emotional outbursts and name calling. To sum up a Harvard professor's work as "right wing" says a lot more about the viewer than the professor. Ferguson's program was enormously stimulating and thought provoking — and well argued for the most part, although I'd like to see more evidence for his religion "app" at least as it applies to China today. If you're going to critique Ferguson, do it with facts rather than talking points. This was a refreshing counterpoint to more usual PBS fare.

T. Silver, Morristown, NJ

~ ~ ~

Sir: I found the writers narrow and prejudiced. No one ever said an historian had to conform to a particular point of view, many read and see the same news and events and interpret based on their backgrounds. I don't expect them to be "right" or "correct." I expect each to have their own point of view. What I appreciate is having diverse points of view and to make up my own mind based on my own history and views. I enjoy hearing views that I might never have thought about and find that I might incorporate another's point of view into mine, or at least find me thinking about why I think as I do.

What I miss in most programs of this kind are the views of diverse groups, all of whom have different arguments to offer, and to have these individuals on the same program arguing with each other and being challenged by each other. The readers you listed seem bound and determined that only their views have legitimacy and I'm sorry for that.

Tillie Krieger, Eugene, OR

~ ~ ~

I was enraged at watching Civilization: The West and the Rest with Niall Ferguson — a pile of steaming heresy masquerading as objective history-telling when it's nothing but a twisted, prejudiced view of both history and humanity itself. Didn't take me much searching to find out that he's a right-wing zealot married to none other than Ayan Hirsi Ali, the anti-Muslim crusader.

What a shame that PBS would endorse such a misleading pseudo-intellectual pundit. The program is riddled with inaccuracies, convenient omissions, and sometimes blatant resentment toward other world cultures, all unsuccessfully covered by Niall's verbal acrobatics and animated speech. Seriously — Did PBS do any research on this guy before airing his "program"?

H. H., Burnsville, MN


And About Frontline's Response to 'The Real CSI' Comments

So, in other words . . . They knew about all this other stuff that real experts think is absolutely critical, but as reporters, chose to leave it out and think they covered it fairly. Got it.

Eric R., Phoenix, AZ


About Dr. Amen, Again

Re the Amen seminar on brain health, it had the feel of non-scientific hype, and I wondered whether PBS feels any responsibility for vetting such material. A lot of people trust PBS and might feel this (rather commercial) message was valid because it appeared on PBS.

Richard Frenkiel, Manalapan, NJ

~ ~ ~

I watched Moyers and Company with great interest, and was astonished when directly after the donation pitch, a snake-oil salesman came on who promised that if I changed my ways, I could avoid senile dementia and all other ills of aging. Do you really think this is less appalling than the deception of campaign advertising? I would love to donate again to CH 13 [in New York City], but cannot in good conscience while you run these dumb 'blame-the-victim' shows like Wayne Dwyer, Suze Orman, and this lame brain whose name eludes me. Maybe I should blame my husband's Alzheimer disease on bad diet and unproductive thinking? Get a grip, CH 13.

Janet Van Sickle, Montauk, NY


Is Ms. Gates an Expert?

One's worth in the United States' system of capitalism is predominantly measured by how much money a person has amassed. That is particularly clear when we see Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation touted as "expert" on education on the NewsHour. Ms. Gates has no expertise other than the enormous sums of money her foundation have contributed to educational systems she and her husband support. The Gates Foundation is a sponsor of the NewsHour. There is simply no honesty in this kind of a series.

Jenise Porter, Tucson, AZ


Jeffrey Brown Responds:

Regarding the interview with Melinda Gates, I don't see how it can be argued that the Gates Foundation is not an important player in education policy today. And so we thought it was important to hear from Ms. Gates. And, yes, we disclosed our funding from CPB and Gates to ensure transparency — that was of course the right thing to do. At the same time, there are most certainly other important players and views. And it is not the case that our reporting on education has lined up with the foundation's goals. I'd invite you to explore all that we've done in this area. More directly, I hope you had a chance to watch last night [June 5] for part two of our current series. Diane Ravitch is, yes, one of the nation's preeminent education historians. She also happens to be a very strong critic of the Gates approach and impact on education today and she said so quite bluntly in her interview with my colleague Ray Suarez. You can watch or read here: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/american-graduate/jan-june12/amgrad_06-05.html.


Other Stuff

If you're a PUBLIC broadcasting network, should you not be fair and balanced? I was just watching the PBS NewsHour and you definitely are not. I would like to see both sides of issues addressed or change your name from Public broadcasting to something more fitting. Last night [June 12] in speaking about Mr. Holder, it was so blatantly one sided. The Republicans were just on a witch hunt from the beginning . . . blah, blah, blah. Mr. Holder has not helped solve the gun running problem which killed one of OUR border agents. He did not do anything about voter intimidation by the Black Panthers . . . which was RECORDED!!!, yet he's involved in the Florida issue on checking to make sure 'voter's rights' are protected. So let's not play the blame game . . . let's report the facts!

Carbondale, IL

~ ~ ~

Hello. I am frustrated. Yesterday [June 7] the PBS NewsHour aired a segment with Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Romney Campaign co-chair, which attacked the President without providing any on-air time to the President's Reelection Campaign. In addition Gov. Pawlenty made several nonfactual comments which were not challenged. Mention was made that viewers could go online to see other information. But not all viewers are able to do so and offline interviews do not have the same effect as the immediately available interviews that are part of a newscast. I expect fairness and balance from public broadcasting. It's what makes you my favorite news source. In this case I was disappointed and concerned. Please be extra careful in the coming months.

St. Paul, MN

~ ~ ~

I'm someone who has been watching the NewsHour and Washington Week for years and advocate others watch over cable news. But I've been very disappointed that PBS news seems to be following the other network/cable news channels in what they report when it comes to politics. It's always about who is raising the most money and who's ahead in polls. This is important, but to have an entire show dedicated to discussing these two topics is getting old and is not informative for the viewers.

To really service the public, more time should be spent on analyzing the stances put forth by the candidates so the public has a better understanding of the pros and cons of each approach. In addition, I find it disheartening that PBS does not give more attention to third party candidates and their positions on the issues, thereby giving the public more information about their choices. Why isn't anyone addressing the corruption in our current system? Isn't that really the big issue as to why we can't seem to resolve anything? At least the third party candidates are talking about this.

Mesa, AZ

~ ~ ~

I am startled at how different the BBC original versions of Sherlock are from PBS's. I'm aware that the cuts are made by the producers of Sherlock, but they are made *only* to meet PBS' requirements. These edits aren't harmless cuts — they impact the subtexts, the emotional arcs, etc. of the whole series. Alan Cumming's introductions, on the other hand, are pure filler and offer nothing of interest to the program. Please broadcast Sherlock as it was meant to be seen.

Ithaca, NY

~ ~ ~

After watching Masterpiece since the Six Wives of Henry Vlll I think I will have to call it a day because of these exploding commercials that were interspersed throughout the presentation of Edwin Drood. Does no one appreciate the irony and incompatibility of these with "public" television? They destroy continuity and break the mood. It would be preferable to see honest commercials every 30 minutes. Can't you see how wrong this is?

Vinton E. Heuck, Lancaster, CA

~ ~ ~

I thought that you would like to know that one of your affiliates had the audacity to blur out the breasts on a painting in this week's Poirot (Wednesday, June 13th, at 9:00 pm in Utah). The guilty party is KBYU. This is a new low from our big brother to the south. And they are allegedly sponsored by a "major" university: That's a laugh.

Don Hartman, Salt Lake City, UT


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