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The Ombudsman Column

Big Bird: Fair or Fowl Play?

* Ombudsman's Note: This posting was updated on Friday, Oct. 12, to include a response to this column from Linda Winslow, executive producer of the PBS NewsHour, and Boisfeuillet "Bo" Jones, president and CEO of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions.

Two icons of public broadcasting — Big Bird and Jim Lehrer, or Jim Lehrer and Big Bird, if you prefer — have been much in the news lately. Both have been revered symbols of PBS for decades. Both are now at the center of controversies. But PBS actually had nothing to do with either controversy.

So, in one sense, these are not issues for the ombudsman. But both controversies seem worthy of note because: many hundreds of people wrote to me about them, both of these iconic figures are associated in the public mind with PBS, both are linked to that Oct. 3 debate and, as in many situations, the explanations never seem to catch up with the accusations.

First, some basic explanations.

Big Bird appeared in a political campaign advertisement for President Obama that Sesame Street and PBS had nothing to do with and which the Sesame Street Workshop — which produces the program and is a separate entity from PBS, which distributes the program — asked the campaign to take off the air. So far, the Obama campaign hasn't done so.

Lehrer, who stepped aside as anchor of the PBS NewsHour more than a year ago, moderated the Oct. 3 debate between the president and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney when he was invited to do so by the bi-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates. PBS had nothing to do with the selection, debate or with Lehrer's role and covered it just as other television networks did.

Big Shift Produces Big Bird

No matter who wins the presidency on Nov. 6, the Denver debate will almost certainly be remembered as one of the most historically significant since these televised face-offs began in 1960. It has already produced a dramatic shift in most public opinion polls, erasing, in many cases, sizeable leads that President Obama had built up nationally and in key states.

Yet it has also produced one of the most extraordinary absurdities — or brilliant political moves, depending on how you look at it — in the history of these debates: a loveable 8-foot, 2-inch yellow canary puppet named Big Bird is casting a shadow over the aftermath of a debate in which pundits and polls, rather broadly though not unanimously, declared Romney (along with Big Bird) the winner and Obama and Lehrer the losers.

Although it is starting to fade, Big Bird must rank as one of the all-time great press and public phenomenon to ever flow out of these debates. It has produced hundreds of news stories, including front page displays in major newspapers, scores of television accounts on major networks and late-night comedy routines, countless online outlets, and a boom in the sale of Big Bird costumes for Halloween.

Romney started it all by volunteering in the debate that, as one example of what he would do to cut the deficit, he was "going to stop the subsidy to PBS . . . I like PBS. I love Big Bird. Actually, I like you, too" he said to Lehrer. "But I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for."

Although President Obama didn't seem to jump on much of what Gov. Romney had to say in the debate, he jumped on the Big Bird reference in a couple of speeches soon after the debate. And then on Tuesday, Oct. 9, his campaign seemed to adopt Big Bird as a mascot and released a television advertisement using images of Big Bird and real-life convicted Wall Street villains to mock Romney's debate points, saying "Mitt Romney knows it's not Wall Street you have to worry about, it's 'Sesame Street.'"


How Dare They

That didn't go down well at the Sesame Workshop and they issued a statement that said: "Sesame Workshop is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and we do not endorse candidates or participate in political campaigns. We have approved no campaign ads, and as is our general practice, have requested that the ad be taken down."

Then the Republican National Committee, as USA Today reported, responded by releasing a graphic featuring another Sesame Street character, the vampire known as The Count, designed to show the president's "complete lack of positive message or vision coming out of Wednesday's debate." That caused Sesame Street to broaden its statement to say we "have requested that both campaigns remove Sesame Street characters and trademarks from their campaign materials."

Obama campaign spokesperson Jen Psaki at first said the Sesame Street request to pull the ad was "being reviewed" but then on Wednesday, a top adviser to President Obama's reelection effort, Robert Gibbs, said on NBC's "Today Show" that the campaign had no plans to stop using Big Bird in its campaign ads. "I find it hard to believe I'm asking this question here this morning, but will the campaign take Big Bird out of its ads?" asked host Matt Lauer. "I don't know of any plans to change that," Gibbs said.

When I asked Sesame Workshop what they were doing to follow-up their request to kill the Obama campaign ad, corporate communications vice-president Ellen Lewis said, "We sent a letter to their legal counsel and we received a letter back and our lawyers are reviewing it." I have no idea what's in that letter but some analysts have suggested that the Obama campaign might well argue that they have a First Amendment right to use Big Bird in a parody as well as under the "fair use" provisions of copyright law.

On Wednesday, Sesame Workshop CEO Melvin Ming said about the Obama campaign ad: "As a nonprofit organization, we are nonpolitical . . . we do not commit our assets" to any political campaign. "It was a violation of our ethics. They did not have our permission. Our goal is to reach every child in America. We don't contaminate that with anything."

Bye Bye Birdie

My own sense of this is that it will be gone as an issue within hours of this posting when the vice-presidential debate becomes the overwhelming focus of the people, the press, the pollsters and the pundits. I do think Romney made a mistake in using Big Bird, and even Jim Lehrer, (although he said he only "liked" Lehrer but felt "love" for Big Bird) as an example of what he would cut to control the deficit. It is truly miniscule. And the campaign ad is clever.

On the other hand, Romney undoubtedly scored some points claiming that "you have to scratch your head when the President spends last week talking about Big Bird." But the president, obviously, was not the only one talking about Big Bird, and my guess — and that's all it is — is that the folks at Sesame Workshop knew this and may not have pressed too, too hard to stop this Big Bird mania from playing out fully.

'The Master of Moderation'

That sub-headline above is the title of a lengthy and, I thought, well done portrait of the moderator posted on Politico about a week before the debate between two presidential candidates who would be alone on a stage in Denver "save for the company of a 78-year-old man named Jim Lehrer."


Amazingly, Lehrer has moderated 11 of the last 17 televised presidential debates (and one vice-presidential), making him "by far the most experienced such moderator in modern history — a task for which Lehrer, more than any other journalist, is uniquely suited, according to his contemporaries," Politico reported.

Here are some other excerpts:

"Jim's reputation is unassailable. He reeks integrity," Tom Brokaw, the veteran "NBC Nightly News" anchor, told Politico. "He knows that his role there is to make this about the two candidates, not about him."

"Jim is the best person for the job, the straightest guy in this profession, and absolutely trustworthy," said Robert MacNeil, Lehrer's longtime co-host on the "MacNeil/Lehrer Report." "His idea of fairness is fiercer than anyone's — he has an almost religious respect for being fair. He stays so far out of the political swamps that he doesn't even vote."

And this:

"But at a time when the electorate is as divided as ever, and when media scrutiny is more intense than ever, his is a task that carries unprecedented responsibility. Lehrer, colleagues and campaign strategists say, must ask tough, substantive questions and yet maintain total impartiality. He must shepherd the candidates through a range of topics while allowing them to drive the debate. And he must push Obama and Romney for genuine responses without injecting himself into the conversation.

"If anyone can walk that tightrope, it's Lehrer, whose commitment to fairness, sense of modesty and professional experience — developed over more than five decades in newspaper then television journalism — have earned him the respect of political strategists across the ideological spectrum."

Later in the article, it reports:

"If there is a concern in regard to Lehrer's style, it is that his fairness might make him cautious. By wanting to avoid any appearance of partisanship, he might avoid asking the hard-hitting questions that would yield genuine responses from two of the most scripted debaters in the history of modern politics. MacNeil called that notion 'nonsense.'"

But of the almost 300 emails and phone calls I received, many of them — as did a number of press commentaries — accused Lehrer of just that flaw, and of also not controlling the debate, failure to enforce time limits and getting steamrolled by the candidates, especially Romney, as Politico reported afterwards.

On the other hand, about 10 percent of the messages were strongly supportive of Lehrer's conduct. Here's one, for example, from Jane Toliver in Killeen, Texas: "Sir: I have watched many presidential debates over my 63 years and in light of the criticism of Jim Lehrer, I must say I think he did the best job I've EVER seen. Yes, he kept a casual hand on the time, but we need to hear what these candidates think. This is much more important than to hear "Oops! Out of time!" from some moderator in a candidate's midsentence. These are important times, and Jim served us well."

My Thoughts

I've known Lehrer for 30 years or so, not as a close friend but as a journalistic colleague. He is truly an important and iconic figure in American journalism and what has given it credibility over these last several decades. But I, too, was among those watching the debate who were pained because it appeared he was indeed being steamrolled and was not asking the tough questions. I was also pained by the sometimes brutal abuse being heaped upon him afterward.

On the other hand, I had to agree that this turned out to be a unique and fascinating debate that was totally dominated by the two candidates who revealed themselves, for better or worse, more than in previous encounters. I thought that at least some of the criticism of Lehrer was because the president, as widely commented upon, failed to challenge Romney on many points and Lehrer felt it was not his duty to do what the president wasn't doing. Also, when you go back and look at the transcript, the questioning looks better than it seemed at the time.

My own purely personal sense of why this debate unfolded as it did journalistically is based on two thoughts. I have great respect for Lehrer and his journalistic standards. I differ when him, however, on his view that it is best for moderators "to get out of the way" whenever you can. I understand that but my sense is that we have been living for many years now in sort of a post-truth era in politics and that it is incumbent on journalists to challenge more when factual errors or unsupported claims are presented. I think in an era when we are confronted with a blizzard of assertions and exploding news and opinion outlets, a public searching for the closest we can come to truth is more and more dependent on journalists asking tough questions. With 70 million people watching, it is not enough in my view, whether it is Lehrer or someone else, to "get out of the way," even though I think this debate succeeded in other important ways.

I also think — and this is strictly pop-psychology on my part — the Commission on Presidential Debates is at fault here as well. Lehrer had said he wasn't going to do these debates anymore and the Commission coaxed him to do it. He said when you get a request like that it is like "a draft notice" and you do it.

The pop-psy aspect of this on my part is that Lehrer had left the anchor spot in June 2011 and, while he retains the title of executive editor and I'm sure has remained active behind the scenes, he was no longer a visible part of the NewsHour and was also probably doing other things. My point is that presidential debate moderator is a brutal assignment to try to come back into.

His last book was called "Tension City" and it described the strain of doing these debates. This one had to have more at stake than most others. My experience tells me that you need experienced reporters or editors from major news organizations who are engaged totally in the daily swirl of news to do these jobs, who at least have a shot at a piercing, surprising, revealing question or questions because they've been covering this stuff all the time for years and right up until the time the stage lights go on.

* The NewsHour and MacNeil/Lehrer Productions Respond

You are definitely entitled to your opinion as to why the first Presidential debate was a frustrating experience for so many people, and we appreciate the effort you made to be fair to Jim Lehrer. You disagree with Jim's view that it is best for the moderator to "get out of way", and you found the new debate rules "confusing." Yet you acknowledge that Jim was implementing the new format created by the Commission on Presidential Debates — not by Jim. As Janet Brown, Executive Director of the Commission, said after the first debate:

"The Commission's goal in selecting this format was to have a serious discussion of the major domestic and foreign policy issues with minimal interference by the moderator or timing signals. Jim Lehrer implemented the format exactly as it was designed by the CPD and announced in July."

However, beyond criticizing the format, you offer admittedly "pop psychology" about Jim. We take exception to your suggestion that Jim, having retired from NewsHour anchor duties at the end of 2011, was rusty or somehow not prepared for the assignment. We know that Jim continues to stay abreast of current news developments in the course of his work for MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, which includes — in addition to his Executive Editor responsibilities for the NewsHour — frequent news-related lectures and other moderating assignments. As his producer, I (Linda) can assure you that his questions for the candidates — both asked and unasked — were sharp and well-informed. He showed us all how to stimulate a genuine debate.

Linda Winslow, Executive Producer, PBS NewsHour

Bo Jones, President & CEO, MacNeil/Lehrer Productions