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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: The Good, the Bad but Not the Ugly

The headline above is the slightly reworded title of a truly wild western back in 1966 produced by Europeans and starring, coincidentally, Clint Eastwood. Since Eastwood was featured at the recent Republican National Convention, I thought I'd borrow the title to describe this last and latest sampling of viewer emails about PBS convention coverage that landed in the ombudsman's mailbox after the Democratic National Convention. Fortunately, there wasn't much that was "ugly" and whatever did fit that category isn't posted.

In case you missed them and can't wait to catch-up, these two previous columns dealt with the earlier convention coverage mail, related events and ombudsman commentary.

First, the Good

Re: your office receiving lots of mail critical of the coverage PBS gave both the Republican and Democratic conventions. I watched both on PBS and the coverage was superb! It was right down the line of non-partisan for both conventions. Sure, commentators will have differing views but Shields and Brooks and the presidential historians gave brilliant insights. I'm an independent voter in a deeply red state, if that helps you assess my comments.

Salt Lake City, UT

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I started out with the intent of writing on a different (but related topic) but then got drawn in to reading people's comments about the convention coverage. Republicans think Gwen is biased (to the left), and Democrats think Judy is biased (to the right). That probably means pretty well in the center (as is probably true of most Americans). Shields and Brooks? One is slightly right of center and the other slightly left. They sometimes even agree with each other! Too bad our Congress can't be equally intelligent and reasonable. I always look forward to hearing their observations and comments.

I think PBS did an amazing job of coverage, given the task at hand. To those who thought that talking over the playing of the Star Spangled Banner was disrespectful, I'd say that most renditions of the Star Spangled Banner are disrespectful, particularly at sporting events. Someone else complained that Gwen and Judy aren't "impassive" enough. They should be more robotic and completely neutral in their delivery. I disagree! For me, that neutral, impassive delivery quickly becomes boring and my attention wanders.

Mary Ann Stewart, Portland, OR

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I just have to put in my two cents. In my family's opinion, the NewsHour coverage was hands down the best of all the networks covering the conventions. We did not watch that much of either convention. In fact, we watched none of the RNC and mostly tuned in Wednesday of the DNC to hear Bill Clinton. But we channel surfed and were amazed at how much more professional PBS was. When I saw the letter from the ombudsman on my home page this morning, I felt I had to write and agree with everything he wrote. I detest the shouting heads of other networks and truly enjoy the back and forth of Shields and Brooks. Ms. Ifill and Ms. Woodruff were very thoughtful in their coverage. Ray Suarez is always a favorite. In short, keep up the good work. I at least feel as though PBS tries to be more objective and that is way more than can be said about anyone else. I want the NEWS reported, not false accusations and hearsay.

Linda Ohlmann, Louisville, KY

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Just great! Thanks for the conventions coverage enduring what must have been quite an arduous chore. You all did (and have done daily) a great service to the country and to its citizens like me. Be encouraged and recoup your energies — you will need it over the next 2 months.

Carl DiVito, Clearwater, FL

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Deja Vu all over again. When my husband worked for the early Today Show in the '50s, he noticed that when they had Republicans interviewed by then Dave Garroway, the call-ins were rare, and both positive and negative. However, any time a Democrat was on camera, the phones rang off the hook with protests about how 'liberal' NBC was. Thin skinned? Paranoid?

Kamuela, HI

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Privilege to see such wisdom as this . . .

Paul L., Sebastopol, CA

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PBS's coverage of both conventions was well balanced, educational, objective and displayed the kind of professional journalism not seen since the Walter Cronkite years. Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill did an outstanding job as mediators along with their special commentator guests. Superb work!

Marc Bazell, Redlands, CA

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I'd like to thank you and your broadcast people for the thoughtful and thorough coverage of both conventions. I enjoyed the commentators with whom I agreed and found those I disagreed with provocative in the best ways. I watched a bit of the commercial networks and found their coverage spotty and biased w/ comments that reflected the commentator's preconceived notions. Getting a chance to hear complete speeches live was a treat. Thanks.

Davidson, NC

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THANK YOU! For your excellent coverage of both conventions, for Judy, Gwen, Mark, David and the entire 'team.' Your coverage of the conventions reminded me of the real days of network news with the likes of Ed Morrow, Huntley&Brinkley and John Charles Daly.

Ivan White, Las Cruces, NM

Nothing To Be Ashamed About

(Ombudsman's Note: There were several letters, some of which are posted below, complaining about an interview conducted with the Republican Governor of Virginia, Robert McDonnell, in the midst of the Democratic convention. But the NewsHour had also asked Democrat Dick Durbin, the senior Senator from Illinois, to comment during the Republican convention. So I think it was fair and reasonable.)

Just wondered why we were subjected to the Virginia Republican's [Gov. McDonnell] comments during the DNC coverage? The RNC had their convention. We didn't need Hari's [Sreenivasan] interview with this Republican who only repeated the same tired themes. It droned on and on while we were missing what was taking place on the floor. This had no place during the last night of the DNC.

Brian B., Morrison, IL

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Why would you interview Gov. McDonald in front of a background of "Obama isn't working"? Is this not prejudiced coverage at best? We love PBS but if this is the way you choose to proceed we will send our donations to Amy Goodman & Democracy Now instead.

Marianne Obrien, Afton, VA

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Shame on you PBS, for at the 9:00 hour you had a segment with the republican governor of Virginia, commenting negatively about the democrats and practically our President, Barack Obama, when all the other channels were showing a tribute to the Veterans of our country from the convention floor. I am a Veteran, serving MY Country, not like the Republican challenger; furthermore, I have been a loyal contributor of PBS, well, like the republicans say they are going to do, so I also will not contribute one more dollar to support PBS!

Arthur Bonagura, White Plains, NY

Commentators Take the Heat

Admittedly, Democratic blood runs in my veins, and we have chosen PBS to view the Democratic convention in hopes of hearing objective comments by anchors versus biased remarks. Nonetheless, we find that David Brooks has perhaps outworn his usefulness. He is not a good mix for the interviews, and quite honestly, we would rather watch the speakers — even if they are "Joe/Josie Blow" from Anytown, USA — than to have the speeches torn to shreds by the commentators. Having written that, Brooks gives the impression that he has the "goods" on every topic. If he gets a complete answer, then he poker/prods the guest about something else . . . as if he is trying to set a trap. As you read this, you are probably thinking that is why we choose him. Just think his political views are way too pronounced to be a good commentator on PBS.

Adams Run, SC

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So your right-wingers didn't like the commentary. Well, now I can write I didn't like the commentary from David Brooks et al at the Democratic convention. These were honest people who told the truth (finally), especially President Clinton's wonderful speech. He said it all, hit all the important points. I will no longer support PBS because your commentary from folks are really totally right-wing and worse. We can hear all that from many other channels. I always supported you because you were giving the other, more centrist or liberal facts and points of view. And you ought to give Paul Krugman some real air time. I thought you were an alternate voice — but you no longer are. So goodbye, PBS. No more funding from me. And close down that expensive office in Lincoln Center. They also took money from the Koch creeps — even naming the theater after them. Manage your programming without taking from multimillionaire corporations and make do with less. You have lost your way.

Judith Kurland, Pomona, NY

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I reserved any criticism from the RNC coverage until I saw how you covered the DNC. I was dismayed to see the same liberal columnists covering the DNC as the RNC. It is very disappointing. From reading this column and your defense of your "journalists," it seems clear that news reporting is dead at PBS.

Martin M., Greenwood, IN

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Your coverage of the democratic convention is appalling. You have long interviews with David Brooks and Mark Shields whose opinions are well known. In the meantime we can hear the crown going wild over the speeches being given, but they don't interrupt their discussions to cut to the floor. This is terrible journalism.

Judith Daar, Berkeley, CA

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It is MADDENING to have to listen to commentators when we're anxious to HEAR/SEE the CONVENTION!! Please get over the idea that the commentators are more important than the presenters.

Pat Martin, Merritt Island, FL

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I am sick to death of ALL of the "talking heads". I really don't give a hoot what commentators have to say. I'm quite capable of interpreting and evaluating speeches on my own. And, I certainly don't need to have people invent two sides to an issue just to provide a "balanced" discussion.

Baltimore, MD

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I usually love to read/hear David Brook's reasonable and "big picture," thoughtful comments. On the DNC convention, he comes off as whiny and closed-minded and pitiful. My take is that this immediate response to what is happening — is not at all his strength.

Patricia Buttolph, Elmira, NY

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I am disappointed. Your convention coverage was less than insightful. You run a NEWS show, not a TALK show. Your responsibility is to provide US with information, insights, truth . . . NOT just to be polite to your "guests" and reassure us that we heard nothing of interest from the convention stage. You let the Republicans in the booth say anything and didn't call them on any of it. You made no intelligent, cogent comment on any speech. If you intend to offer nothing, why are you even there? Last night, again, you spent a huge amount of time with ignorant, clueless "voters" who clearly have not been paying attention. I don't see how anyone could be "undecided" at this point. Then, you said both conventions were content-free. Were you watching? Both conventions painted a VERY clear picture of what each side is and represents.

I expected more from Shields and Brooks too. Mark Shields is the only one who spoke up to defend the concept of the EPA — and I assume he was smacked down for having done so because nothing anything like that was ever heard again. You seem to have forgotten one of Jim Lehrer's most important rules: "I am not in the entertainment business."

Alan Woods, Concord, CA

Some Corrections

Judy W. just made an inaccurate and unfair comment about Eric Shinseki that he had gotten into trouble with the Bush '43 administration because he "had complained" about the Iraq war. This is NOT what happened. I earnestly request a clarification, urgently.

Art Hughes, Bethesda, MD

(Ombudsman's Note: Woodruff responds: "By trying to condense events of 2002, I did speak in error. When I was told I had time to comment after Secretary Shinseki's speech, I tried to quickly summarize his history in the Bush administration, which involved his testifying before Congress about the number of troops that would be needed to successfully execute the Iraq war. That number was larger than what then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others had projected, and they publicly rejected his statement. My mistake was in trying to say this in shorthand, in just the few seconds between the end of his speech and the start of the next one — and in so doing, misrepresenting what happened.")

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Judy Woodruff just used the term "pro-life" in an interview with Julio Castro. This is an unprofessional and inaccurate term? Who isn't pro-life except terrorists? The correct term is "abortion opponent" and by using the term "pro-life," Judy injected an opinion into the discussion. Are the rest of us who donate generously to charities, do volunteer work, refrain from eating animal products and support programs for children and the poor, against life? Please remind your reporters and anchors that "pro-life" is a journalistically unprofessional term that should not be used and is against PBS' standards.

New York, NY

(Ombudsman's Note: Woodruff responds: "I spoke in error in using the term 'pro-life' in the interview with Mayor Castro. NewsHour editorial policy calls for us to use the term 'anti-abortion' for those who oppose abortion rights and I momentarily slipped, in a hasty effort not to suggest those who are for abortion rights are 'pro abortion.' But of course the term 'pro-life' is equally unfair, as you point out.)
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Judy Woodruff just said that Mitt Romney is taking back women's rights. I am appalled by this biased and untrue statement. Judy's comments are immediately following Nancy Keenan's speech. I am a professional woman who not for one moment feel that my rights will be revoked. I watched this team's coverage at the RNC and now the DNC. You must address this obvious lack of professional journalism. Come on folks.

Clare Bennett, Tampa, FL

*(Ombudsman's Note: Several viewers wrote about this. Woodruff responds: "We at the NewsHour have listened to our narration of the Democratic convention after the speeches by NARAL President Nancy Keenan, and Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards. As it turns out, in my brief summary of what Keenan had just said on the evening of September 4th, I stated, 'making it very clear where the Democratic Party stands when it comes to reproductive rights, referring to the recent very controversial statement from the Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin about rape. She mentioned that, and had very tough words about Mitt Romney, saying he would take women back, take away women's rights.' So I did not say myself that Governor Romney would take away women's rights, but I characterized Ms. Keenan as saying he would 'take away women's rights.' I did inadvertently leave out the word 'reproductive' but I absolutely intended to include it, as it was in the context of her speech about reproductive rights that I attempted to describe what she had said. I regret the mistake, of course. I will point out that this was done in a very condensed time frame — a matter of a few seconds. I also hope that viewers understood, given the larger context of who Ms. Keenan is, and the thrust of her remarks, that my words were a reference to 'reproductive rights'.")

More Bad, but Not Ugly, Stuff

Watching the Democratic Convention just now, Nancy Pelosi spoke, then was followed by a number of women who are Democratic members of Congress. Just as we were beginning to enjoy their speeches PBS cut away to Jesse Jackson in the booth. He is fine to hear but NOT at that moment. How incredibly disrespectful to the viewers and to these women! All of us watching here were really angry. That was a very poor decision on the part of someone who should hear how we feel about it!

John Strickland, Amherst, MA

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Why, during the Democratic National Convention do you NOT take out the background convention noise when your people are interviewing, ie, Pelosi? Makes no sense and does not help the listener stay tuned.

Daniel Horn, Spring Hill, FL

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I have been watching the Democratic Convention on C-Span with great pleasure. Why? Because that's all that's on the screen and the soundtrack: just the Democratic Convention. Then I had to run an errand and turned on my local listener-sponsored station, KQED, to avoid missing anything and all I could hear was the PBS reporters talking to each other the background of screaming crowds at the convention. Why were the reporters there? They could have talked to each other in New York or wherever their headquarters is. Why were you keeping me from hearing the voices of the people?

Claudia Reed, El Sobrante, CA

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Your severe critics come from their gut. I recall the bitter, vituperous hatred for FDR in the late 30's and early 40's from successful small business owners (my dad & grandfather). They were afraid they would lose what they had been lucky enough to achieve by being in the right place/time, and to their credit, their own hard work. Those were the days when the middle class got its boost, when my friends UAW Dads earned enough to let them get through high school, and some to college. I understand their fear. My allegiance is to opportunity for the least who need not the most, but a fair chance. PBS can't win. You are still too timid in fact checking and pointing out lies and distortions. Both parties. Pay your money and take your choice.

Wib Smith, Lewisburg, TN

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During the Democratic National Convention, you have interviewed several partisan people who have repeated statements that have been reported not to be accurately based on facts by many credible sources. That is very surprising and does not feel like public broadcasting content.

Ron Klein, Aventura, FL

The Time of the Fact-Checkers

In the aftermath of the Republican convention, fact-checkers at newspapers and organizations devoted to the pursuit of facts got a lot of attention. Here are some links to how The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Associated Press, FactCheck.org and PolitiFact sized up the Democrats' devotion to the whole truth.

* This mailbag was updated at 6:09 p.m.