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The Ombudsman Column

Taking Note, and Not Taking Note

The first part of the headline on this brief column, "Taking Note," is the title of a widely-read blog by veteran PBS NewsHour and Frontline education correspondent John Merrow. In January, I wrote about a Frontline program featuring Merrow's reporting and focusing on the tenure of the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system from 2007 to 2010, Michelle Rhee.

Rhee, not at all well known before she came to Washington, became a national figure during her time in D.C. and controversy surrounding her tenure has continued to swirl. A detailed investigation in 2011 by USA Today first raised issues about test erasures and the validity of scores. The Frontline broadcast in January reinforced the controversy about her approach to school reform and the results, and about whether there was widespread cheating on standardized tests within the schools in which teachers were alleged to have changed and inflated student scores.

Then last week, on April 11, Merrow posted a blistering follow-up, headlined: "Michelle Rhee's Reign of Error," which he prefaced by citing the recent indictment of the former school superintendent in Atlanta and 34 other officials there "in a massive cheating scandal" and declaring that "the time is right to re-examine other situations of possible illegal behavior by educators. Washington, DC, belongs at the top of that list."

Merrow reported disclosing "a long-buried confidential memo from her [Rhee's] outside data consultant" that "suggests that the problem was far more serious than kids copying off other kids answer sheets." Merrow, citing the 2009 memo, says, "Twice in just four pages the consultant suggests that Rhee's own principals, some of whom she had hired, may have been responsible."

Rhee and her successor have pointed to other investigations to support their view that only isolated violations have been found and that there is no evidence of widespread cheating. But the New York Times and The Washington Post have both picked up on Merrow's disclosures and the issue is expected to be discussed at a D.C. Council meeting this week, although the council chairman has said he will not call for a full-scale reinvestigation of the test scores during Rhee's tenure.

The point in this column is to provide a reference to Merrow's latest reporting as a follow-up to the Frontline broadcast.

And on 'Not Taking Note'

The second part of the headline on this column refers to what had been the broad failure of most of the national print and broadcast media, including the PBS NewsHour, to cover the rather grizzly but newsworthy trial in Philadelphia of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, an abortion provider.

The absence of coverage was called attention to back on March 26 by Brent Bozell, of the conservative online media-watch site NewsBusters. In recent days, it has sparked an intense online and social media debate that has resulted in a lot more coverage about the trial, why it wasn't covered and whether it should be. So that's a good press story as well as legitimate news story.

The NewsHour, so far, hasn't reported on either, although there was a very brief mention of the situation in Philadelphia by a guest on a Feb. 23 segment about the debate in Virginia over proposed mandatory ultrasound examinations.

In the past week or so, lots of press organizations seemed to realize that this was newsworthy. On April 15, for example, the New York Times headlined a story this way: "Online Furor Draws Press to Abortion Doctor's Trial."

Here's the way the Times' story began: "Through four weeks, prosecutors have laid out evidence against Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortion provider on trial on charges of killing seven viable fetuses by 'snipping' their necks with scissors and of causing the death of a pregnant 41-year-old woman during a procedure.

"The grisly details drew mainly local attention. But after an online furor that the case was being ignored by the national news media because of troubling accounts of late-term abortions, reporters from major newspapers and television networks descended Monday on the Court of Common Pleas. It was the latest example of the power of social media to drive a wide debate, similar to the attention paid to a rape trial last month in Steubenville, Ohio, that resulted in the conviction of two teenage football players."

Here Are Some Letters

I turn to PBS and NPR for nearly all of my news. I love the balanced, in-depth reporting and the fact that I hear stories not found on other news outlets. This is why I am so disappointed that there has been little to no coverage of the following case: http://www.phila.gov/districtattorney/pdfs/grandjurywomensmedical.pdf.

If this abortion practitioner had been threatened or injured by pro-lifers the story would be prominent. I realize that it is touchy because what he does to these infants is so similar to the D & X procedure which is legal, but touchy stories are just the kind of thing I expect PBS to do. Who else will encourage us to face ugly truths on both sides of an issue?

Kim Marxhausen, Lincoln, NE

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I am amazed that you have not covered the murder trial of the Philadelphia abortion doctor. I realize you want to protect the abortion industry, but this is really, really big news. What is the matter with you? You are supposed to report big news stories.

Doug Wright, Renton, WA

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One story in particular that was not reported was the Dr. Kermit Gosnell abortionist trial. Please do what you can to give all sides of every political affiliation so I can regain my trust in PBS as a more reliable choice for news.

Palm Springs, CA