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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: Chicken and the First Amendment

As I was saying a few days ago, most of the mail that accumulated while I was away for a couple of weeks in July had to do with comedian-actor Fred Willard who was arrested on suspicion of a lewd act in an adult theater in Hollywood, the Tiki, just as a new PBS series he was narrating made its debut.

What follows is a (long) catch-up mailbag — along with some responses and commentary — about other stuff that landed in the ombudsman's box recently.

Like the Willard episode, some of this is not your typical PBS fare. For example, there is also a flap over whether PBS should allow program sponsorships by the big and popular, Georgia-based fast-food franchise Chick-fil-A, whose corporate culture is heavily reflective of the personal religious beliefs — including strong opposition to gay marriage — of the firm's founder, Truett Cathy, and current president, Dan Cathy.

It seems strange — with a presidential election closing in and an economy that is an overriding issue — to be writing about adult theaters and chicken sandwiches that some believe come with a side of attitude. Yet both, in completely different ways, involve choices individuals and companies, including Chick-fil-A and PBS, make and their right to make them. And both have received a fair amount of public attention.

In the case of Willard, I felt PBS had the right to terminate his contract because Willard, as I saw it, made the decision that ran the risk of taking PBS's reputation, along with the new series, with him into that theater.

Taking Out Chick-fil-A

As for the Chick-fil-A case, the last time I checked it was okay for people, even corporate executives, to voice their personal opinions without fear of being sanctioned or censored, and it was also okay to advertise their legal businesses and hence, okay for PBS to accept them as corporate underwriters for, in this case, a popular children's program known as "Martha Speaks."

The Chick-fil-A episode has provoked an intense backlash from gay rights organizations and even mayors in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco have called for a ban on new construction by the chain. But my vote goes to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a strong supporter of gay rights, who said on Friday that the fast-food chain has the same rights to its views, or its owner's views, on same-sex marriage as does the Catholic Church. It's not the government's place, he said, to "look at somebody's political views and decide whether or not they can live in a city, or operate a business in the city, or work for somebody in the city."

When I asked PBS and WGBH in Boston, producers of the program, whether the company's political stance will figure in whether PBS keeps them as an underwriter, here's the answer I got:

WGBH Responds

"Chick-fil-A currently sponsors our children's literacy series Martha Speaks, and prior to that sponsored another of our children's literacy series, Between the Lions, from 2003-2010. As you know, we have a strong firewall between our content and all underwriters to ensure that no funder exercises any editorial control over any content. PBS has underwriting guidelines and restrictions that have been in place for over 40 years. These guidelines focus on the core product or service of a company. In addition, PBS will not accept programs partially or fully underwritten by entities engaged in the manufacture or marketing of cigarettes or distilled spirits," says a WGBH spokesperson.

First, here are a couple of representative letters on the Chick-fil-A matter.

Some Letters

I am deeply concerned about PBS accepting donations from the fast food chain, Chick-Fil-A. Considering that company's public stance against the gay/LBGT community I don't think that PBS should be accepting money or promoting their business on family shows like Sesame Street. Please let me know how PBS has decided to handle this situation.

Chris Flaherty, Washington, DC

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Chick-fil-A. It's all over the kid's morning cartoons. You guys gonna make a stance on this one?

Rachel Fisher, Neenah, WI

(Ombudsman's Note: The online NewsHour reported on this controversy on Aug. 1 and Correspondent Hari Sreenivasan, in the interest of full disclosure, said he was a vegetarian. But he did not point out that Chick-fil-A is among the corporate underwriters for the popular PBS Kids program "Martha Speaks." I'm not coming down hard on Sreenivasan on this because I doubt there are many people within PBS who know who all the sponsors are on programs other than their own. But PBS is rather late in coming to this strange yet big and fascinating socio-political story that began to unfold three weeks ago and has made it onto lots of print, TV and online columns, late-night TV talk shows and generated a huge amount of traffic on social media.)

Other Stuff: Where's Ms. Jamieson?

I feel that the quality of the NewsHour has gone down since Mr. Lehrer retired. For instance, during the presidential election periods in the past, we regularly heard Kathleen Hall Jamieson discuss dishonesty in the political ads. This is beneficial to voters, because they can get good information about the ads. Now, we have discussions about how many people are going to the social media and counting up who are accessed. This has no benefit for the voter. It is trivia! It's a waste of time. I like only serious news.

Enid F. Rocourt, Tucson, AZ

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I always watch Frontline. I almost did not watch it on 7/17 when I saw it was not about a "pressing issue," but about school kids from the inner city. However, the program was wonderful! It showed the kind of thing that needs to be shown and highlighted the dedicated people who can make a major difference in a young person's life. Please pass on my comment to those responsible for the program and those who did so much for the kids. In retrospect, I was one of the kids from inner city Philadelphia who got an MS in Physics an MD from Stanford and became a medical school professor all because of the teachers who gave me the same type of assistance given to the kids in this show. Thanks to you -and to them!

Sacramento, CA

An Exchange with Kwame Holman

On yesterday's [July 17] NewsHour [Political Correspondent] Kwame Holman repeated without explanation Romney's claim that Pres. Obama said that business owners did not build their business. In fact, that one sentence was taken out of context and did not mean what Romney, and Kwame, claimed. In the course of a discussion of how businessmen depend for their success on public goods and infrastructure, like roads and bridges, Obama said businessmen did not build "that," referring to roads and bridges. By letting Romney's false spin of Pres. Obama's statement go unchallenged, Holman enabled the kind of shallow, soundbite-driven "gotcha" politics that has so debased our political discourse. We expect more from PBS. I am very disappointed.

Susan Murnane, Bay Village, OH

(Here's Holman's "explanation of the judgment that went into the writing of the news summary report of the President's quotation. We recognized — and wanted to communicate — that the quote, a direct one, would be controversial even though its syntactical misapplication was fairly obvious. We had reported a similar unintentional use of words by Mr. Romney that became political fodder just days before. If, in this case, the Obama campaign had made an immediate clarifying statement — as of course they would many times in the days that followed — we would have reported it. Absent that, we reported the item and tried to signal both its likely unintentional nature and the fact — now proven — that it would be revisited many times going forward. As you can see in the partial show script, that notion was underscored by our reporting of the 'misstatement' of a prominent GOP official in the next line. In that case the official did put out a clarifying statement immediately, which of course we reported. Finally, you should know we received many emails expressing the same sentiment as yours. They will figure in the writing decisions we make hereafter.")

And with Ray Suarez

On the June 28th broadcast of the "PBS NewsHour" the introduction for Dr. Donald Palmisano did not include that he helped found and is listed as a current spokesperson for The Coalition to Protect Patients' Rights, an "astroturf" anti-health reform group. Instead senior correspondent Ray Suarez introduced Palmisano as, " . . . who's both a physician and an attorney. He's a general and vascular surgeon who teaches at Tulane Medical School."

The program did not mention his affiliation with The Coalition to Protect Patients' Rights, which is interesting since the day after that interview aired, Palmisano was interviewed by the Altoona Herald Index (affiliated with the Des Moines Register newspaper) with the following excerpt, "Donald Palmisano stumped against the controversial law Friday in Des Moines on behalf of the Coalition to Protect Patient Rights, a self-described nonpartisan group with conservative ties." Another except from the Altoona Herald Index June 29th article, "Palmisano's appearance was part of a nationwide speaking tour the coalition has conducted since 2009, when it was founded with more than $1.8 million in seed money from the similarly named Center to Protect Patient Rights."

A May 18th article published by the OpenSecrets blog reported that in 2010 The Coalition to Protect Patients' Rights received $205,000 from the Center to Protect Patients' Rights, an alleged Koch-funded group.

Gillian Hearst, Stayton, OR

(Senior Correspondent Ray Suarez responds to the viewer: "You make a good point. I would say by way of explanation that even a 54-minute news broadcast has time pressures. When introducing four guests it may become necessary to get through the intros as quickly as possible. We were very aware that Dr. Palmisano had been working hard to defeat the Affordable Care Act, that's why he was chosen for the panel discussion. Without getting into the specifics of the name of the group begun for the purpose of opposing the ACA, we thought it would be self-evident that he was arguing against it . . . just as it was self-evident that the other guests (also briefly introduced) were arguing pro and con. It's something we are constantly arguing back and forth here at the NewsHour. That's how we decided on the day of that particular program.")

More Stuff

Today [July 24] Margaret Warner interviewed both the President and Mr. Romney's foreign policy advisors, and after looking and seeing her slant to the "Right" in not following up to make the Republican advisor answer the question she asked; I realized that you folks at PBS are afraid of the Republican party because you always let them get away without answering the questions you are asking. They tell you something entirely different from the question and you folks let it pass as good journalism.

Furthermore, you allowed Mr. Romney's foreign affairs advisor disrespect the President by calling him "Obama" instead of Mr. President (that should have been an easy one to correct and you Margaret did not even try to correct him). Disgusting and Disturbing!!!!! I used to be an avid PBS contributor/subscriber for more than forty years. I have now stop contributing since I noticed that you folks now have a right-wing slant in reporting. YOU NEVER CORRECT THE REPUBLICIANS WHEN YOU QUESTION THEM OR BRING THEM ON THE PBS PROGRAMS!!!

L. Purcell, San Diego, CA

(Ombudsman's Note: I disagree with this assessment. This struck me as a good and even-handed pair of interviews by Warner. Romney's advisor, Rich Williamson, did refer to President Obama in his first two mentions and used Obama toward the close when talking about a possible re-election. I didn't view it as disrespectful. It is normal for news organizations to use a president's title as a first reference and the last name only in subsequent references.)

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Bill Moyer is the only thing on PBS worth a damn. You did a craptastic attempt at replacing him but it is mediocre and pedestrian. Moyers puts the subjects of his critiques to the wall. So now that this man is in his 70's what are you doing to replace him? What are you going to do for investigative journalism? Please don't cite "Frontline" which I like to call "Hindsight".

Tim Ryan, San Jose, CA

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Again, for some unexplained reason, the local PBS station has replaced the airing of another controversial Frontline with something else without explaining why. Tonight, they replaced the 11 p.m. airing with another repeat of the Queen of England. Even the TV guide that displays on the screen shows "Frontline," yet another show is playing. The last time this happened was when Frontline released its show on the Rupert Murdock scandal. Here in Sterling Heights, PBS, without explanation, replaced the show without any warning with something else as if it never was supposed to be shown. As an objective critic, I feel you should be aware of this and this has happened more than once in the Sterling Heights area. I am curious to know if this happening in other areas of the U.S. The pattern is only when the show has a message that is in direct conflict with the political far right. Once can be just a coincidence, but I have seen this happen at least a half dozen times going back some five years and I refuse to live in a country that censors free speech without speaking up in defense of what America is supposed to be based on.

Sterling Heights, MI

A Tip of the Hat

Your program never ceases to amaze me. I take my hat off to your journalism and drive for the truth in all your documentaries. I am a new subscriber and will go out of my way to support your programming financially moving forward. Nice job. You should be proud.

Scott Broughton, Portsmouth, NH

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I am watching NewsHour with Mark Shields, Judy Woodruff and David Brooks. This is such a one sided "yeah Barack O and Boo Mitt Romney." You folks are a part of the problem and I'm supporting you through taxes. I'm furious. Get out of politics if you can't be fair. Some day you folks will be held responsible for the countries demise.

Amherst, VA

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We object to what we see as heavy support for Romney lately on the NewsHour. We have been long time viewers of the Lehrer/NewsHour and appreciated the balanced presentations but lately we have seen blatant support of Romney.1) showing his political ad (did he pay for it?). 2) Plans to show his visit to Israel Monday, July 30. We will not be watching that night and not many other nights. Someone needs to talk to Judy Woodruff. It seems she is showing her great support for Romney daily. We have been with PBS a long time and hate to see it falling into the bad habits of most other stations. Our money may have to go elsewhere.

Gerald & Helen Haines, La Mirada, CA

(Ombudsman's Note: The trip to Israel is news everywhere, not just on PBS, and his political advertisements, as is the case with the president's, are also part of the news on television generally, aside from those that are paid political advertising.)

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I just finished watching Masterpiece — Inspector Lewis: Fearful Symmetry — on line. The commercials were objectionable enough, but the forced redirection of my browser to FaceBook (and the page of the advertiser) was WAY over the line! I have no other way to watch PBS, except online, since off-air reception where I live is impossible. Have you gone the way of every other greedy corporation in the US? I realize you people have to get money somehow, but you will no longer get it from me with these practices. Annoying donors is not nice and crap of this kind is self-defeating for PBS.

Nordland, WA

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My wife and I just watched Need To Know today, 7-29, about the guy and his wife struggling financially in Newark, NJ. After a few minutes we surmised the subject had to be related to the "Affordable Living Wage." First of all, it was simple to identify the obvious poor financial decisions made. They drive a vehicle that is NOT in their ability to maintain. My wife and I make twice as much as they do and WE cannot afford that vehicle. And the bed. Was that the Queen's bed? At any rate how about showing the other point of view and show what conservative Americans are doing?

John Hash, Palo Cedro, CA

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I was disappointed to see that PBS is now accepting funding from the extremely radical and politically active David Koch. Unfortunately, as long as he is a sponsor, I find I can't support PBS morally or financially. I hope you reconsider your financial sourcing to reflect a less skewed and more unbiased stance.

Shayan Ghajar, Fort Collins, CO

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Every now and then I see a program — usually a documentary — that contains censored images. This even includes classical works of art or photos of art. I remember this one documentary on the spread of AIDS in Africa. They showed a school class being told about the benefits of condoms. There was a plastic model used to show the students the proper way to put one on. Even that plastic model was censored. At least I think that's what it was — it was so heavily pixilated I can't be sure. That's ridiculous. I understand KQED (and PBS) has to worry about the FCC and the legal aspects of such matters, and I sympathize. However, it seems clear to me that if classic art and medical issues are censored, it has gone too far. I imagine the prudes among us would be all too quick to complain about even something as innocent as the above examples. Well, this is an attempt to provide some balance.

Gary Mitchell, San Jose, CA

It's Not for Nothing that the Stomach Knots

My stomach knots every time I see more greenwashing on PBS touting the social responsibilities being attended to by the fossil fuel industries . . . every evening with the NewsHour in particular. These people are poisoning the planet, but because they have deep pockets, PBS helps them cover up their complicity in our destruction. So my question is this: how much would all of the INDIVIDUAL donors to PBS have to multiply our current donation levels by to allow PBS to cut off the fossil fuel industries' nightly lie-fest? How about showing some social responsibility of your own?

Stuart Anderson, Otego, NY

(Ombudsman's Note: Unless I missed something, there are no fossil fuel industries that are current sponsors of the NewsHour. Chevron was a sponsor last year but that has ended.)

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There is a man named Ramesh Ponnuru who occasionally substitutes for David Brooks on the PBS NewsHour. I object to his presence, given that he was involved in disclosing information about the ongoing deliberations and work of the Supreme Court on the Obama healthcare case. He disclosed this information at a Princeton reunion panel, prior to the release of the decision of the Supreme Court. I believe what Ponnuru did is tantamount to subversive activity. You should have a news feature about Ponnuru's disclosure, but in my opinion, he is unfit to be a commentator on the NewsHour.

New York, NY