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Sunday, November 23, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

Above Average on an Average Day

Over the course of any year, the hour-long, five-nights-a-week PBS NewsHour probably gets more than its share of the mail that comes to the ombudsman. That's not surprising. It's PBS's only daily news program and those who watch are people engaged with the news, who care about how it is presented, and who hit the keyboard quickly to let you know if something doesn't measure up, in their opinion.

Of course many people also write to say how much they appreciate the long-running program. But mostly, as I've said many times before, those who write to me do so to complain about one thing or another or one program or another. And frequently, I wind up agreeing with them, or finding fault on my own. This brief column isn't about any of that.

Rather it is only meant to offer my opinion that the NewsHour — day in and day out and with all the frustrations people feel in today's hotly debated environment in which news is judged — does quite a good job. It has what some news editors might call "cruising speed," a steady way to keep you more broadly informed, and usually with some depth, than you find elsewhere on the tube.

I watch the NewsHour almost every evening but I was moved to write this after last Friday's broadcast. Nothing very big had happened. Margaret Thatcher was still alive and the North Korean leader was still behaving like a dangerous, well-armed teenager. There was a controversial court ruling and other things worth reporting. But, overall, it was what one might categorize as an "average news day." Yet it also struck me as a very informative, even powerful in places, 55 minutes of news. And it dramatized, for me at least, the routine value of a serious, early-evening, television news program with enough time to explore a handful of events and issues.

The video is below so if you haven't seen it you can tune in and let me know if you share my observation. As a news consumer, I wound up feeling grateful for this average, routine program.

The eight minutes or so devoted to a report on the refugee situation inside Syria, filmed by video journalist Ted Nieters and narrated by NewsHour correspondent Hari Sreenivasan, was especially powerful and moving. We all know that something horrible is going on in Syria but these films and interviews, especially with children in refugee camps, were gripping. There was no way to take your eyes off these youngsters. Some four million Syrians have been uprooted by the civil war there. More than a million are in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. But some three million are displaced within Syria, many of them along its borders, and the films capture their plight.

There were two segments with correspondent Jeffrey Brown that also seemed to me above average on an average day.

One dealt with the long-term trends in the job market after release of the latest, and disappointing, job-creation numbers. The guests provided candid assessments and what I found to be an especially succinct analysis of the unavoidable challenges for workers of rampaging digital technology on the economy and the future. The other introduced NewsHour viewers to Washington Post reporter Sarah Kliff who provided what sounded to me like an informative and authoritative report on the decision by a federal judge in New York that day to overrule an earlier decision by Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and make the morning after pill available to women and girls without a prescription.

And another segment led by Sreenivasan reported at length on a new investigative expose of the global use of offshore bank accounts to hide trillions of dollars and evade tax laws. The investigation, carried out by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, is a massive undertaking that is already making news in several countries.

The director of the project, Gerard Ryle of Australia, was the guest but unfortunately seemed too withdrawn and soft-spoken on camera, as I watched it, to really capture the breadth of what was being uncovered and to get excited about what Sreenivasan was asking him.

Nevertheless, this newscast on an average day seemed worth the time and reminded me of how much there is to know even when there is no big headline.


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