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The Ombudsman Column

On 'Acts,' 'Race' and 'Choice'

As you can imagine, the ombudsman's mailbox has been filled of late with comments about politics from people who may be viewers and some who may simply not like PBS or want to see that portion of its revenue that comes from taxpayer funds be removed. I mention that because expressions to that effect show up on many of the critical comments I've been receiving lately.

The headline above refers to three PBS programs that aired recently during this last phase of a very intense campaign for the presidency. Tonight's final presidential debate will probably overtake everything else so I wanted to get reactions to these earlier programs posted beforehand.

The first reference above is to the highly contentious and now much-discussed face-off between President Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney in their Oct. 16 debate about whether the administration accurately described what had happened in the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. I'm not going to go back over this whole story. Rather what is of interest to me, and what generated some critical e-mail and calls from viewers, was a follow-up segment on the PBS NewsHour on Oct. 17 by correspondent Ray Suarez that was billed as "Fact-Checking on Debate Claims."

Suarez presented some context, showed debate clips of the charges and denials by both men, included the role of moderator Candy Crowley of CNN who invoked a transcript of a White House Rose Garden statement on Sept. 12 by the president that she said backed up Obama's version of what he had stated at the time. Then Suarez moved on to the debate over energy policy.

On a personal level, I thought the president's meaning in his statement of Sept. 12 was pretty clear and that Crowley was right to intervene in the interest of accuracy and of viewers.

Even in Fact-Checks, Ambiguity Should Have a Place

But, in hindsight, which is where everyone was coming from since it took a while for facts about the attack to emerge, there was some slight semantic ambiguity in that initial presidential statement and in my opinion any segment billed as a fact-check should have pointed that out since it was central to the confrontation that unfolded on stage.

In the debate, Romney called attention to what the president had just said on stage, "which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said this was an act of terror." The president answered: "That's what I said." Then Obama added, "Get the transcript" and then Crowley said, he "called it an act of terror."

Actually, the president, in his statement in the Rose Garden, didn't call "it" an act of terror. He said: "No acts [plural] of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation . . ." That remark did not solely or specifically refer to the Benghazi attack and came after he had referred, two paragraphs earlier, to the memory of 9/11 and others who had made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In my mind, the meaning of the president's initial Rose Garden statement seemed clear because the whole point of the Rose Garden appearance was to condemn the attack that had just taken place, and in the earlier paragraph in which he refers to 9/11 and the two wars, he concludes by saying, "And then last night we learned the news of this attack in Benghazi."

Furthermore, in Colorado the next day, Sept. 13, specifically talking about the Libya attack, Obama said: "So what I want all of you to know is that we are going to bring those who killed our fellow Americans to justice. I want people around the world to hear me: To all those who would do us harm, no act of terror will go unpunished. It will not dim the light of the values that we proudly present to the rest of the world. No act of violence shakes the resolve of the United States of America."

So Romney, in the debate, appeared to me to be attempting sort of a "gotcha" moment and, while in this case it probably backfired, I felt it was worthwhile for the NewsHour to note that the actual language used by the president and in the transcript is slightly different.

On 'Race,' Not THE Race

On the same night as the second debate, Oct. 16, an hour-long program called "Race 2012" also was broadcast as a PBS election special. It was billed as "a provocative conversation about race and politics that documents the changing face of America, and how that change may affect the country's political future . . . The program spotlights today's racially-charged and politically divisive debate over the integration of racial minorities into what has been America's dominant white culture." It is also billed as "fast-moving and non-partisan."

The film was produced by 323 Projects, LLC, and is a presentation of Latino Public Broadcasting with major funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Phillip Rodriguez is the producer and director.

This is, as the producer's blurb says, a "provocative" film. It will, or should, produce conversations and provoke thought and debate. It is, in my view, important and well-worth watching. It is hard-hitting and puts forward some uncomfortable statistics and truths about race, minorities, demographics and political parties within an ever more diversified America that we all need to know more about yet is rarely displayed and discussed in this kind of depth on network or even public television.

The film, I suspected, would energize a lot of people and produce a lot of mail. I don't know if it caused much upset but it did not produce much mail. Perhaps not many people watched it. Of the handful of comments sent to me, all were critical. Here is a typical example from a viewer in Eureka, Mo.:

"So, I'm waiting for the Presidential debate to start and I come across your PBS program 'Race 2012.' My feelings of frustration and disbelief that this program has inspired can't pass without noting. Your characterization of Republicans as institutionally mean and hard-hearted and white society in general as insular and selfish was insulting and just wrong. Biased programing that perpetuates negative and erroneous stereotypes helps no one. I find it particularly revealing that you ran this program immediately before the presidential debate where millions of Americans are trying to make a very important decision. All Americans deserve a pathway to success. Everyone agrees to that. The question is, 'what's the best way to get there?' That's what this election is all about. So, to me the bottom line is, PBS receives significant funding from all taxpayers regardless of background or political persuasion and I'm not sure how such biased one- sided programing can be justified."

The program also drew some much sharper criticism from John Ziegler, a documentary filmmaker, who is white and who was interviewed for the production but is unhappy with how much of his remarks were not used and with the final product.

Here's the heart of Ziegler's criticism from his blog, not from the film: "The film is done almost completely from the perspective of liberal people of color. It perpetuates and justifies a grievance mentality among minorities. It claims without evidence that the Romney campaign is using coded language to denigrate minorities. It actively enables every ugly stereotype about whites and conservatives without even coming close to being an equal opportunity offender."

As I said, as a viewer, I was grateful for this thought-provoking and important film. I don't agree with Ziegler's harsh critique because the film struck me as more complex, candid and balanced than he gives it credit.

On the other hand, I was left with a feeling that something was indeed missing from a discussion of this crucial subject. It is hard for me to define precisely but it does involve the need for more of a "white" voice in the production. There are some, such as author Tim Wise and National Journal editorial director Ron Bronstein, who provide excellent context and analysis.

But what seemed absent was at least some visual/vocal presence reflecting the millions of whites in this country that do not live in gated, white enclaves and who have not fled the cities and who are okay with and absorb the country's growing diversity. In other words, millions who live among, work among — and, in some cases, for — people of different races and ethnicities; who go to school with, play sports with, are friends with, and sometimes marry. It seems incomplete to experience the enormous diversity in America and not acknowledge that whatever prejudices and retreat-into-comfort-groups exist — and it is not just whites who do this — there are millions, including people of all political persuasions and certainly the younger generations, for whom a huge and natural transition has taken or is taking place.

'The Choice 2012'

Since the presidential election campaign of 1988, PBS's premier documentary series, Frontline, has produced a quadrennial personalized portrait of the two candidates roughly a month before the vote. This year's effort, a two-hour affair that was a year in the making, debuted on Oct. 9. It produced a lot of mail. A majority of the mail was critical from those who felt the program was biased against Romney. A lesser number, although not by much, felt it was the president who was treated unfairly. A smaller number thought it was excellent. A sampling of the letters is posted below.

"The Choice" is not about issues and platforms but rather portraits of two very different men from extraordinarily different backgrounds running for the nation's highest office. If you have followed the politics of the last few years closely, there are no big surprises but many little ones. So the presentation seemed to me to have great value and richness — far beyond the caricatures and mean, partisan distortions that we are incessantly bombarded with on daily television — in looking more closely at how they got where they are now and the influences on their lives. I'm among those who viewed this as a big plus; definitely worth two hours if you missed it earlier this month.

As good as it was, I did feel the program fell short in one or two ways. I thought that some focus, for example, was needed on the role of religion in Obama's earlier years — as it was focused on for Romney — and the impact of his association with Rev. Wright, which was a huge controversy that led to an important campaign speech, and other associations which may have influenced him. As for Romney, as one viewer notes, why was that collegiate "hair-cutting" episode not a revealing note, while Obama's early "pot-smoking" was?

Here Are the Letters

I wish to let you know that, despite my conservative leanings, I applaud PBS and Frontline for the relative lack of bias you showed in the examination of the two candidates. Of all the erosions in society I mourn, I most lament the loss of impartiality in news and journalism, and I attribute many of our social problems and divisiveness to the propagandizing of the media. However, PBS has proved its mettle tonight, and restored some of my faith in American journalism. Thank you, and please continue to fairly, honestly and courageously show BOTH sides of issues, and continually eradicate personal and corporate bias in the name of ethics. If you do that, you will win back my loyalty, and serve a much greater cause than partisanship in the end.

Richardson, TX

~ ~ ~

Frontline special "choice 2012" was so excellently done. An in-depth look at both candidates. Problem is now I like them both so much it will be harder to make a decision. Great show!!

Lori Focoso, Ventnor, NJ


Tilted Against Romney

I was disappointed in the evenness of "The Choice 2012." It talked about Romney's connection with Bain Capital and how he made his money, but never dealt with the subject of how Obama made his millions. It also followed at length Romney's religious background, but never was Obama's religious background or his relationship with the Reverend Wright brought up. Frontline and PBS may well have crossed the line into political partisanship. I think the public deserves an apology and another show that treats both candidates equally.

George DeWitte, Mesa, AZ

~ ~ ~

I'm wondering if the Frontline piece was funded by a democratic superfund. Lines like "this time Romney would sell himself as the turnaround specialist" and many other obvious shots at his character. This is the worst kind of shameless editorializing ever. By the way you spent an hour talking about Mormons and not one time mentioned Obama's religious background in Reverend Wright's church. Guess you just didn't have time.

Grass Valley, CA

~ ~ ~

The program contrasted the candidates in a partisan way that bothered me. I consider myself an independent voter and love watching various programs on PBS. However, on that particular program Obama was portrayed as a decent man who stumbled into politics and tried to do his best but was stymied by Republicans at almost every step. Romney was portrayed as a person who changes policy to accomplish his goals and is totally goal focused. PBS has alot of government funding and should be above swaying voters in such ways. Please be fair in the future and fire those working there who will not be.

Houston, TX

~ ~ ~

I was hopeful as I watched that it would be balanced. As the program ended it became more of a political statement and less of a biography. You conveniently left out, while deeply sympathizing with Barack and constantly mentioning bi-partisanship, that he was the one who negotiated Obamacare behind closed doors. That he was the one who lied about giving everyone three days to read the bill before voting. That Speaker Pelosi was the one who said they had to vote for the bill to find out what was in it. So much for Obama working with the Republicans. You conveniently left out his appointing 40 czars without congress approval or his fascist friends and background. Then you continued to mention that Gov. Romney had changed his mind on the issues. I would rather have someone thinking through the issues than blatantly misrepresenting his socialistic plan for America while running for president as Obama has done. This is typical PBS reporting and why we don't support it.

Memphis, TN

~ ~ ~

I doubt I have to explain to you why, as a conservative American, I was especially dismayed with this production. To think I was actually expecting some sort of bias free presentation of the two candidates lives! The show came across as a most clever propaganda piece against Mitt Romney. It was the type of bias that bothers me the most; namely the kind that is subtle and claims to be "objective" while issuing slander. I take it you've seen the piece? If this is the case and you have no problems with the presentation of Romney I suggest you watch it again. Maybe this time you will catch the fact that the Democratic Party's unfounded talking points about Mitt Romney's motivations in life and political career are subtly represented under the guise of an "objective documentary" while still remaining unfounded.

Lafayette, LA

~ ~ ~

I have NEVER written a comment before to any organization, but after watching your FRONTLINE report on the two presidential candidates, which I though was very informative, you have helped me make my decision. Knowing the past of both of the candidates, I cannot believe you used Mitt Romney's religion to try to scare people, while avoiding Barack Obama's altogether. You ignored the president's past associations with radical people. You insult the intelligence of the American people. You are using taxpayer money to do to push your own agenda and I resent it. I look forward to voting for Mitt Romney and hope he does defund this station.

Buffalo, NY


Tilted Against Obama

The Frontline episode comparing the 2 presidential candidates' rise to power was the most biased, one-sided piece of lousy journalism I have ever seen on PBS, maybe anywhere else, including Fox. Every cherry-picked piece of video/soundbite portrayed Obama as washed up/foolish/cynical/petulant/pot smoking/lost, in short a failure, whereas Mitt Romney is the white knight ordained by god to ride in and "turn America around". He could do no wrong according to the folks interviewed by the Frontline team, everything he touched was a smashing success and all the well-documented instances of his ruthless tenure at Bain, his prep school years as the cheerleading bully who tormented gay students and disabled teachers were glossed over or not even mentioned. Sorry, but if you are going to harp on Obama's pot smoking days, you should have mentioned Mitt's haircutting posse, too.

Melanie Padgett, Pukalani, HI

~ ~ ~

I was very concerned by the bias, subtle and otherwise. At every opportunity Romney was shown as shining, bright, a great businessman, religious, funny, kind, and as a great achiever with compassion. Obama was shown as dark, not only in complexion, a pot smoker, isolated and defeated with no track record from his administration except Obamacare modeled on Romney care, and an excessive use of drones. What happened to fairness? It was practically a Romney campaign ad, including a remark that Obama is now bad-tempered.

Millicent Dillon, Palo Alto, CA

~ ~ ~

What a Republican partisan piece! Lip service to Obama's achievements: saving auto industry, re-balancing economy, ending 2 wars, and many other BIG changes. The LIE that the GOP's vetoing of Democrat's bills BEGAN with Obamacare, is a JOKE of the first order! Look at the previous 8 years! Look at the lack of transparency of the previous 8 years! To focus on personal past, yet not portray Obama as a person who did not work across the aisle is twisted untruthful approach to reality. Who paid for this stuuupid, "white knight" garbage?

Lexington, MA

~ ~ ~

I was quite disappointed by the Frontline story comparing Romney and Obama. How much did Romney pay to influence Frontline to produce this hit piece and label it journalism? So much for PBS being impartial. You have done a disservice to our country by promoting this propaganda piece. I hope your editorial board will take a harder look at these political pieces in the future.

Eagle Creek, OR