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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: What Ever Happened to Tote Bags?

Here's a brief mailbag about some new takes on old subjects.

As you know, if you contribute to your local PBS member station, you are likely to get a small thank you gift. In recent years, free subscriptions to Newsweek magazine have been among the gifts. But Newsweek, formerly part of The Washington Post Company, has been under new ownership since late 2010 and in its new life it has gotten very controversial. In case you missed it, this week's cover features a picture of the president and a headline that reads: "Hit the Road, Barack; Why We Need a New President" over an opinion article by Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson. Well, it will come as no surprise that some people would have preferred a PBS tote bag. Some of their letters are below.

This is also pledge season and it will also come as no surprise that along with the multiple seasons of giving come complaints about special fund-drive programs on many member stations that represent what might be called the Psychiatric, Body and Soul (PBS) network, featuring brain doctor Daniel Amen, the lose weight with nutrients doctor Joel Fuhrman, and New Age spiritual doc (Ph.D.) Wayne Dyer.

The letters below are similar to ones I get every pledge season, but one difference this time is that Dr. Amen was featured as the cover story in The Washington Post Magazine two weeks ago.

The article was headlined: "The Outrage Over Psychiatrist Daniel Amen: Pioneer? Profiteer?" It reported that so far this year his latest program has aired 2,300 times on PBS outlets around the country and that Maryland Public Television alone, for example, raised about $400,000 in donations from viewers who clearly liked what they saw and heard.

Finally, there are letters from viewers upset about the description of the predicament surrounding WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has taken refuge in the embassy of Ecuador in London for the past two months to avoid extradition to Sweden where "he's accused of rape and sexual assault on two former WikiLeaks supporters." That is the way reporter Jonathan Miller of Britain's Independent Television News described Assange's situation in an Aug. 16 NewsHour segment.

But in introducing the brief segment with Miller, the NewsHour's Judy Woodruff had put it differently. She said, "He's been charged with sexual assault in Sweden." This accused vs. charged usage is complicated in this case, involving distinctions in courts in the U.K and Sweden and common understandings in the U.S.

Miller clearly chose the more cautious, and accurate, language that also helps viewers in understanding what the issue is. Those who wrote to me felt that Woodruff should have taken that same course. I agree.

The Swedish authorities put out a European Arrest Warrant for Assange because he is wanted for questioning there on suspicion of rape, unlawful coercion and two cases of sexual molestation in 2010. But he has not been formally or legally charged with a crime by a Swedish court. I checked this with officials in the Swedish Embassy. Woodruff is hardly alone among journalists who have used the words "charged" or "charges" as opposed to accusations or allegations in accounts of this case. But the fact is that Assange has not been charged, denies the allegations and claims the sex was consensual and the accusations are politically motivated.

One viewer also didn't like the references at the end of the segment to other well-known people who have sought asylum, believing that it set up unfair comparisons.

Here Are the Letters: First, on Newsweek

I am concerned that PBS has been compromised with its gift of Newsweek Magazine to subscribers. We would never have ordered Newsweek on our own. We are socially liberal and fiscally conservative, but we found it interesting at first. Recently with the Ferguson article, it is obvious to us that we cannot support the magazine, nor the stations that give it away. It is an insidious way to get horrible journalism into our homes. I am withdrawing support for PBS (I have been giving since my teens). Please think about the honor of the PBS brand. These are hard times, we used to think that anything that came from PBS was trustworthy . . . now Koch runs Nova and PBS gives away Newsweek and sends this content to my coffee table. It makes PBS part of the lies.

Jeannie Scown, Geneva, IL

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Please disassociate PBS from Newsweek — you're known by the company you keep.

Vohny Moehling, St. Charles, IL

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It is my belief that when a donation is made to a non-profit organization that the donor does not really need to receive a gift in return. Not everyone agrees with my belief so I have remained silent and simply decline the gift. However, when the gift offered is one that so clearly undermines democracy, the gift needs to be challenged by me. Please do not offer Newsweek as a promo for gift subscriptions.

Geneva, IL

The Docs — as in Amen, Fuhrman and Dyer — Are Back

I am shocked that PBS would give its validity to such a program as Daniel Amen show on the brain. It is not supported by scientific evidence and sounds like a medicine man's sideshow.

Edward W Sachs, MD, St. Marys, GA

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We have subscribed to RMPBS for many years, watching primarily the Lehrer News Hour, Rick Steves, and various nature programs. Tonight during the pledge drive I was subjected to a long program by "Dr." Joel Fuhrman, someone considered by many to be a self-promoting quack. I believe this sort of program reflects badly on RMPBS. I understand the necessity to seek funds but it seems that the quality of your programs has been suffering lately.

Bill Fairchild, Longmont, CO

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During this current pledge drive, WTTW in Chicago has devoted exceedingly large portions of their programming time to promoters of pseudoscience and suspect medical treatment such as Daniel Amen and Joel Fuhrman, among others. This seems odd, considering that they also air quality PBS programming such as Nova and Nature. I have to wonder if they or you have ever looked into the supposed medical and scientific qualifications of these hucksters or the efficacy of the "treatments" that they advocate. It seems contradictory that a station — and network — that is devoted to educational and news programming would allow people to broadcast glorified infomercials promoting what can be safely termed quackery merely because that station feels the need to attract attention to your fundraising efforts regardless of the message conveyed. Such a strategy seems defeatist, especially considering what your stated purpose as a public television station is.

Chris Krolczyk, Chicago, IL

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I'm concerned about the time KRMA is giving to Dr. Joel Furhman. I see two shows this week, one today and one Saturday. I know enough science to know that he is not representing actual medical science but trying to sell people on ideas that go against the current science on health and are not proven scientifically. At best this is misleading and at worse it could be life threatening. I expect more commitment to accuracy in PBS program and as a lifetime support of KRMA I'm disappointed that they have given a modern snake oil salesman programming time at all and especially prime time space.

Frank Haskett, Parker, CO

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I found your column whilst doing a Google search to see whether I could find anyone who feels as I do, that Dr. Dyer has changed his message, and mentions the name 'God', much too often. He must have said the word a dozen times, just as I read your opinion. He also spoke of Lourdes and the healing that took place there, etc. I understand that he got a very serious diagnoses, some time ago, and I am sure that is the reason he has gone from talking of 'source' to God. I am an agnostic, and just feel that this God emphasis has been in a way, smuggled in to a show that I otherwise enjoyed, and from which I took away positive messages. Thank you for reading my thoughts.

I have one more comment, to go along with my opinion of Dr. Dyers latest show, and that is that I was shocked to hear that he is talking about John of God, the Brazilian 'healer'. From what I know, he is a charlatan, pretending to do psychic surgeries, or whatever he calls them. That is over the top, in my opinion.

Judith Davies, Milford, CT

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It appears anything that appears "spiritual" will bring out atheists trying to act neutral. Our Constitution protects free speech and PBS is a forum of free speech. What harm is there in believing in a "higher power"? PBS is "public" and much of that public does believe in a "higher power". If you don't believe in the tooth fairy why would it bother you if I believe? But don't try to silent my opinion of the tooth fairy so only your voice of denial remains. Let the listener decide for themselves. That is the purpose of allowing free speech.

C McDonald, Tampa, FL

Is Assange 'Charged'?

Shame on your NewsHour editorial staff for making the gross misstatement tonight [Aug. 16] that "Julian Assange is awaiting extradition to Sweden to face sex abuse charges." NOT TRUE AT ALL. Mr. Assange is only wanted for QUESTIONING by Swedish authorities. HE HAS NOT BEEN CHARGED WITH ANYTHING! The misinformation campaign against Mr. Assange by major media is despicable. Why would you add your voice to this assault? IT IS YOUR JOB TO BE ACCURATE TO THE UTMOST DEGREE, SO AT LEAST 5% OF THE AMERICAN POPULACE HAS A CHANCE TO KNOW WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON IN THIS COMPLEX, CRAZY, "ALICE-IN-WONDERLAND" JOURNALISM WORLD. If Mr. Assange is eventually extradited to America, tried and executed (as more than one congressman has called for), THE BLOOD WILL BE ON YOUR HANDS. SHAME ON YOU!

Sevierville, TN

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During the report on Julian Assange that was on NewsHour last night, Judy Woodruff stated that he had been charged with rape. That is a blatant lie! He is only wanted for questioning, even though he was questioned for many hours and was told that there would be no charges. He was also told that he was free to leave the country. I would expect such shoddy reporting from Fox, but I was shocked to see such trash on PBS. I expect more from you.

Arlington, TX

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Dear News Hour, I am a long-time follower of your program. I consider it to be one of the premiere sources of news in the United States. You have a reputation in my mind for presenting the important events of the day with careful analysis and no bias. In today's media landscape your work is greatly appreciated. This is why I was so heart-broken and shocked after watching your story on the asylum request of Julian Assange. On 8-16-2012, NewsHour ran a short segment on Julian Assange. Your coverage of the issue missed the entire point. Your coverage failed to mention that Assange argues he will be extradited from Sweden to the United States where he will be prosecuted for violating the Espionage Act. He and his legal team fear the US will abuse him, torture him, leave him without due process rights, or convict him and execute him. Rather than dissect the US's record and likely action, your coverage focused solely on Assange's request to gain asylum in Ecuador. Whether or not his fears are credible, I do not know. The legal issues involved are technical and beyond my knowledge. I look to programs like the NewsHour to help me make sense of the world, to help me make sense of situations like this. However, it appears that when the criticism is pointed directly at the rights of someone who claims to shed light on the institutions of the United States, NewsHour's analysis and reflection on the issue are sadly lacking.

Montevideo, MN

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On the Thursday PBS NewsHour, the show equated Mr. Polanski with other asylum seekers, including the Wiki Leaks "founder" Julian Assange. Mr. Assange has not been convicted of anything. Mr. Polanski sure has. Though Mr. Polanski's victim might seek to let him off the hook, the US law does not. Equating Mr. Assange with Mr. Polanski does not seem right or correct. From the PBS NewsHour web site: "French-Polish film director Roman Polanski fled to France in February 1978, after pleading guilty to the charge of 'unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.'" Any thoughts?

Newbury, MA

(Ombudsman's Note: The closing line of the segment was: "And if you're curious about other famous asylum-seekers, you can watch a slide show that includes Roman Polanski, Sitting Bull and others on our website." I didn't take this as equating Assange and Polanski but the Sitting Bull reference intrigued me so I went to the site where I was reminded that the famous chief fled to Canada after the attack on Little Big Horn in 1876. The others were political philosopher Hannah Arendt and Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng.)