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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: Grover, Sonia, the Cliff and the Download

The mailbag has been a little light lately, but here are some emails that arrived in the past week or so that suggest that viewer grumpiness — the lifeblood of ombudsmen — is still alive and still tuned in to the issues of the moment. A couple of them reminded me of that great scene from the 1976 movie "Network" when anchorman Howard Beale tells his viewers to open the window and shout, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" That's way, way too dramatic for what we are dealing with in the mailbag, but here are some examples:

Personally, I am so bored with the over reporting of the "fiscal cliff" (slope, speed bump, whatever), that when the reporting begins during the evening news, the mute button goes on in not less than 2 seconds. I prefer my news to be relevant, not just a story which amounts to not much more than perpetually bickering drunks. In this case power drunk, of course. Maybe you think that you can pump this story up for ratings or something, but I don't think I'm alone out here.

David Cooper, Vashon, WA

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Hello, NewsHour: This is to urge you to drop the Daily Download with Lauren Ashburn and Howard Kurtz. This is a vacuous waste of time taking valuable space from significant national and world events. It is obviously a demographic marketing stunt to make the program relevant to younger viewers who use social media extensively, but there is no there there. We see no content in terms of reportable information, just unsubstantiated, wide-eyed references to "this many tweets" or text messages from unidentifiable "sources." Instead of adding anything by way of social media, your Daily Download further erodes our belief in verifiable news gathering. Dump it.

Dennis Renault, Monterey, CA

A Taxing Interview

There were a handful of letters critical of NewsHour senior correspondent Judy Woodruff for not being tough enough on anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist in a Dec. 12 interview. On the other hand, there was the conservative website NewsBusters that attacked Woodruff from the right, claiming that the "interview proved to be an occasion for liberal anchor Judy Woodruff to push back hard against Norquist on taxes, firing every possible liberal talking point at him she could."

Watch Grover Norquist on Balanced Approach to 'Pink Unicorns' on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Here are some of the emails I got, followed by my thoughts on this matter.

Judy Judy Judy! You did not ask Grover Norquist who funds his efforts. Is it a couple old rich white guys? Grover's hammer lock on the GOP affects people's lives. NewsHour just lets him recite his talking points without any journalism or asking the basic question 'WHO is THIS guy?' Stop using the talking points of [consultant and Republican strategist] Frank Luntz as if they are facts. Social Security is an insurance system. We pay into it. Ditto with Medicare. They are not 'entitlements.'

Marc Cavanaugh, Venice, CA

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Giving credibility to Grover Norquist on tonight's NewsHour was pathetic. This man is essentially the leader of the American Taliban. He is responsible for the stagnation and petty divisiveness in our entire political process in Washington. Grover Norquist should be incarcerated not presented as an interesting American!

Chip Woods, Sarasota, FL

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I am troubled by what I see with our Public broadcasting, including PBS and NPR. I notice that Grover Norquist is being interviewed about the so called "fiscal cliff," and about the effort to raise taxes on those who can afford to pay more. Grover Norquist is responsible for stalling our economic recovery by holding the Republican Party to a pledge to not raise taxes. Our representatives are here to represent us, not Grover Norquist or the minority of millionaires who they are trying to protect. Please include a balance by interviewing a progressive view such as Bernie Sanders or Alan Grayson. It is highly suspicious to me that PBS gives Grover Norquist so much air time.

Scott Belanger, Greenfield, MA

My Thoughts

First, the interview with Norquist was one of a series with important figures on all sides of the fiscal debate now occupying center stage in Washington and on the nation's airwaves. Other guests included a fiscally conservative Democrat from Pennsylvania, Rep. Allyson Schwartz; Max Richtman, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare; Republican Sen. Bob Corker; economist Paul Krugman; Erskine Bowles, co-author of a key deficit reduction plan; and Mark Bertolini, the CEO of Aetna.

So I think it is reasonable to have Norquist as a guest since he clearly is a central and important player in the tax debate. I also felt that Woodruff did question him directly on his unwavering stance against raising taxes, on polls showing a distinct majority supporting a tax rate increase on those with incomes above $250,000, and on why some Republicans seem prepared to renounce their former allegiance to a pledge not to raise taxes that Norquist had many of them sign. I think viewers absorb information from the questioner as well as the person being interviewed.

There were some areas left unchallenged, such as Norquist's analysis of the Clinton years' surpluses, and his claim that "only the president can cause the default, because only the president decides whether or not to pay interest bills." No follow-up here about the legislative responsibility.

But I think that viewers engaged with the debate over the dreaded "fiscal cliff" could make their own judgments about Norquist and his positions from Woodruff's questions and Norquist's answers. That may sound like simply a platitude but one of things that I've become convinced of as an ombudsman is that even though lots of people get upset and write to me about the choice of a guest or what one guest or another says or represents, the broader audience, it seems to me, makes its own judgments. Statements that may upset some people because they seem wrong or outrageous do not necessarily influence an audience, benefit the person making them, or further the policy being represented, because viewers recognize this and draw their own conclusions.

As a viewer, I felt that Norquist made some of his points well but, on balance, did not come off especially convincing in the interview. I felt his answers about polling probably hurt his case because they seemed deceptive in the face of widespread results, as Woodruff pointed out, that "poll after poll since the election shows a distinct majority say they believe that it's the right thing to raise taxes on income over $250,000 a year if that's what it takes to deal with the deficit." A new poll by Pew Research that came out the next day re-affirmed that.

I thought some other answers were hard to follow, such as the invoking of the Alternative Minimum Tax, and a joking reference to "pink unicorns," presumably meaning spending cuts that he feels will never come.

What's always interested me about Norquist was not really dealt with on the program, and that is how this unelected, conservative lobbyist has come to wield such power over so much of Congress for so many years. I consider myself to be pretty conservative on fiscal issues but I've always been fascinated about how hundreds of duly elected congressional representatives can sign a no-tax pledge. It is no doubt a testimonial to the power and persuasiveness of Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform organization. But it has always seemed to me that legislators sent to Congress to use their best judgment on crucial national issues would be embarrassed to willingly tie their own hands on something so fundamental as federal tax policy.

Sesame Street, in the News Again

Sonia Manzano is an accomplished actress and author who has also shared in numerous Emmy awards as a screen writer. But she is most well-known for her on-screen presence, since 1971, as the character Maria on Sesame Street. She is also a blogger with personal opinions on important national and global issues, and has an active following on Twitter.

And, as has occasionally happened to other PBS personalities when they express themselves elsewhere, some people don't like what they say and feel it reflects poorly on PBS. So Manzano came in for some criticism when a couple of her personal tweets about Israel began to circulate on several blogs early this month after the UN voted to award non-member observer status to the Palestinians.

One of her tweets asked: "Why do Israelis need to be 'recognized' by Palestinians? Did Native Americans need to 'recognize' their tormentors?" Another said: "Israelis retaliate the simple recognition of Palestinians by UN by deciding to build 3,000 more settlements. Bullies!"

In the endless real battles and war of words between Israelis and Palestinians, this is comparatively mild stuff. Coming from an average citizen who happens to be a critic of Israeli policy it would be unremarkable. Coming from a star of Sesame Street it is going to be more remarked upon.

Here Are Some letters, a Sesame Street Response, and My Thoughts

Let me start by saying that Sonia Manzano has a right to be uninformed and to state her opinions. That said, loudly tweeting offensive ideas has consequences. The actress tweeted that Israelis are "bullies" and "tormentors." I am friends with one of those "tormentors" whose husband is dead and son is blind because a suicide bomber entered the restaurant where they were having lunch. Her ability to ignore thousands of rockets and missiles raining down on civilian centers (stopped only by Iron Dome), or by the stated goal of wiping Israel off the map is alarming. Sesame Street isn't sunny to me anymore. I will see her and hear [her] hate-filled rhetoric, ignorance, and intolerance. Until she is gone, Sesame Street is out in my home.

Los Angeles, CA

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Sonia Manzano's recent comments about Israel just further confirm that PBS is a far left liberal media propagandist machine. Love it when your representatives, like Ms. Manzano, show her true colors. My children and grandchildren will have NO part of PBS ever again. We can live without big bird!

Cathy Copeland, Austin, TX

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Are the anti-Semitic comments via Twitter feed from Sonia Manzano her opinion based on full knowledge of the history of Israel, the Jewish People, the Muslim people, Hamas, Hezbollah or merely ignorant Anti-Semitic rants that seem to be more popular than ever with the liberals nowadays? If she is so concerned about the Native Americans — then she should definitely rant about giving Manhattan back to them. Our family and friends will no longer "Recognize Sesame Street."

Joan Bachman, Hazlet, NJ

Here's What Sesame Street Has to Say About This

"Sesame Street's cast members, as private citizens, have a right to express their personal opinions, be it thru social media or otherwise, but they do not do so on behalf of Sesame Workshop. Sesame Workshop is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization whose mission is to educate children around the world."

My Thoughts

Of course Manzano has a right to express her personal opinions, and she used Twitter not Sesame Street as her platform. The problem here, as I see it, is a complex personal, corporate and common sense situation. There are lots of organizations that have so-called rules for using social media but it is a form of guidance that is still in its infancy and still evolving. There are a couple of things, however, that seem obvious.

One is that whatever you send to friends or tweet to followers is almost certain to show up someplace other than where you intended, especially if you happen to be a well-known person. Another is that you should use common sense, be thoughtful, have some respect for the credibility of the organization you work for — assuming you respect the organization. In other words, don't be naïve. One newspaper editor put it this way: "I've told my staff that my social media policy is this: Don't be stupid."

Sesame Street is a big deal. It's important. It's public broadcasting, not commercial. It's edgy but not in the business of alienating viewers. It's not The New York Times in terms of a traditional news organization. But it does inform and its performers are more well-known than New York Times reporters. So, sure, have your personal opinions, don't be inhibited. But think also about the impact on the other part of your life, how it will affect — fairly or not — how others view where you work and what they stand for, and be prepared to take the consequences if employers or social media rules get tougher.