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The Ombudsman Column

Complaints Welcomed, but So Are the Programs

Normally, this column is filled with observations from viewers, and from me, that are for the most part critical of one thing or another that has appeared on PBS. As I've noted many times, people generally write to an ombudsman when they have something to complain about. And hearing from viewers is one of the things that keeps any organization focused on living up to its own standards.

But this brief commentary is meant to take a step back, at least for a moment, from the business of criticism and to acknowledge, in my opinion, good work and service to the public on the part of PBS in its approach and commitment to coverage of the 2012 presidential election campaign, especially in these last few critical months.

It started with the political conventions of both parties in late August and early September, with the PBS NewsHour devoting some 18 hours over three days to full coverage of each convention, far more than any other television network.

It has been widely noted by The New York Times, the Columbia Journalism Review and others that the high-stakes subject of climate change has essentially been absent from the campaign — with neither President Obama or former Gov. Mitt Romney discussing it — and also absent from the now concluded series of presidential debates.

This past Tuesday, Oct. 23, PBS's top investigative series, Frontline, aired an hour-long look, called "Climate of Doubt," into how it has transpired that an issue that demanded and got serious attention from the public and from candidates Obama and McCain in 2008 and from Romney as governor of Massachusetts, has essentially disappeared from political discourse. This program is now a focus of criticism from those who claim that the threat to the planet from global warming and man's contribution to that is way overstated. But the point here is that only Frontline has addressed this critical issue in-depth for television viewers.

Similarly, there has not been much discussion about immigration and race by and between the candidates. But a PBS-distributed documentary on Oct. 16 titled "Race 2012" took a hard-hitting and thought-provoking look at today's "racially-charged and politically divisive debate over the integration of racial minorities into what has been America's dominant white culture." Again, this stirred up some controversy but the point is that PBS put this issue out there for viewers in a serious way that you are not likely to see anywhere else on television.

A few weeks earlier, Frontline produced a new, 90-minute edition of its quadrennial portrait of both presidential candidates that goes well beyond, as I also wrote on Oct. 22, "the caricatures and mean, partisan distortions that we are incessantly bombarded with on daily television."

Next Tuesday, Oct. 30, Frontline will broadcast "Big Sky, Big Money," a look at how one state, Montana, wrestles with the financial and legal impact of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision on political campaigns, another big issue that rarely gets treated in-depth elsewhere in television.

There have been lots of other programs and segments that take viewers beyond sound-bite coverage: several engaging late-night political and policy discussions on the Charlie Rose Show, a NewsHour series on housing — something also not discussed much by the candidates — and another on health-care, and a useful segment on Need To Know about the fiscal cliff that the country will face at year's end no matter who wins in November.

Again, all of these programs and segments have drawn criticism from some viewers, and at times from me, about one aspect or another. That is both healthy and, in an intense election campaign, not at all surprising. But the larger point is that these programs go to issues that are big, important and often avoided during a campaign, and they engage with them. That's a good thing and, too often, a thing that is missing elsewhere on American television.