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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: Read All About It: Koch, Man-Slam, BP, the Concert, Circumcision, Cooker Bombs . . . Knitting

The ombudsman's mailbag was, literally, stuffed this past week. Much of it continued to deal with a situation that began to unfold two weeks ago when the New Yorker magazine published an article by investigative reporter Jane Mayer headlined: "A Word From Our Sponsor . . . Public television's attempts to placate David Koch."

The story deals, in part, with an independently-produced film titled "Citizen Koch" that also deals, in part, with industrialist and mega-billionaire David Koch, who has also been a big financial supporter of PBS and a board member on two key PBS-member stations. But this film did not make it through the process by which independent films move up the chain that can eventually result in distribution by PBS. I wrote at length about this situation last month and I'm not going back over it.

So far, about 1,800 people have digitally signed a petition addressed to me that says: "Please fight censorship from the Koch brothers and air 'Citizen Koch.' Individuals like the Kochs should not have the power to censor public television just because of their personal wealth." Aside from the petition joiners, scores of others wrote as individuals.

As I wrote in the May 25 column, there is no evidence that Koch interfered with or tried to censor the films involved, although it may be the case that there was some self-censorship in the decision-making within the lengthy public broadcasting processing chain. In any event, all the mail has been forwarded to all parties in the production chain.

As far as I can tell, there is no likelihood that "Citizen Koch" is going to be distributed by PBS. Here's what a PBS spokesperson said in response to my request for an up-date on the situation: "As we noted last week, 'Citizen Koch' was not submitted to PBS for consideration. We have noted that in our responses to the people who have written in to you, including the organizer of the Change.org petition that is directing messages to your email address."

As was explained in my earlier column and in the magazine piece, the film, which was originally titled, "Citizen Corp," was recommended for funding by the Independent Television Service (ITVS) that searches out films for the series "Independent Lens" that is, in turn, distributed by PBS. But that recommendation, according to ITVS, was withdrawn and the film was neither contracted or funded, officials said. Hence, nothing was ever presented further up the line to Independent Lens and PBS, according to officials.

When I asked ITVS for an update they said only: "The Citizen Koch filmmakers never executed a contract, therefore no broadcast was scheduled. The filmmakers control all distribution rights to their film." In other words, good luck to them elsewhere.

'Only a man can say this . . .'

On Wednesday night [June 5] the PBS NewsHour presented one of those priceless (for an ombudsman) moments caught on camera. It was at the end of what I thought was an informative segment hosted by Judy Woodruff on the implications of two major new administration appointments: Susan Rice as the next White House National Security Adviser and Samantha Power as the new Ambassador to the United Nations. It featured as guests two high-profile and experienced former State Department policy planning chiefs, Richard Haass, who served during the Bush years, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, who worked in the first Obama administration.

Here's a video of the segment; but you've got to watch until the end to catch the expression on Haass' face after Slaughter, with a big smile, said: "Only a man can say this is the narrowing of the team." I did a silent "whoa" myself when I heard and watched this, and some other viewers let me know their reactions. In fairness to Woodruff, this was the final word and there was no time to say the normal "And how do you feel about that, Mr. Haass?"

Watch Will Obama's Foreign Policy Change With Susan Rice as NSA? on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Some Viewer Comments

During that interview, Ms. Slaughter dismissed one of his [Haass'] statements with the comment, "isn't that just like a man." Had he said, "isn't that just like a woman," it would be front-page news. But she was unchallenged. Shame on you.

Judy Minnich, Bend, OR

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I cannot believe that Anne-Marie Slaughter just made a comment on The NewsHour that "only a man could make that statement." If Haass had said that only a woman could make such a statement [someone] would have slammed him immediately. Totally unbalanced reporting, and that is coming from a moderate with many left-of-center views.

Houston, TX


'The Beaches and Gulf Are Open for Everyone to Enjoy'

That line above is from a paid, 30-second, sponsorship message from the BP oil company that began running late in April this year at the beginning of the PBS NewsHour. A BP spokesperson tells viewers that "more than two years ago, the people of BP made a commitment to the Gulf and every day since we've worked hard to keep it." Further along, he talks about the beaches and Gulf being open and a statement is flashed on the screen saying, "Many areas are reporting their best tourism season in years." That last statement is undoubtedly true because it was three years ago, on April 20, 2010, that BP's Deepwater Horizon rig and well exploded deep under the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and producing what President Obama called at the time "the worst environmental disaster in American history."

BP has been promoting Gulf tourism and running advertisements since 2011 on many television networks, promoting its efforts and restoration of tourism in the Gulf states. But the spot on PBS is new. Only a few people have written to me about it, but they raise interesting questions.

Here Are Two of the Messages:

I apologize if you've already dealt with this topic — although my scan of your columns since the first of the year doesn't turn up anything. It seems to me that the current BP commercials, or whatever PBS calls them, on the Evening News Hour are beyond the pale of what commercial messages on public television should be. The basic message is that everything is just hunky-dory on the Gulf Coast these days, with no signs of the troubles caused by BP's massive spill there. Yet reports from other quarters suggest that everything is not just fine there, with long-term effects of the spill becoming more apparent every day. Most of the other commercial messages seem more in the "We're a good company" category, without the blatant editorial message. I wonder how this is perceived by the show's producers and reporters themselves, and whether it calls into question the objectivity of any NewsHour reporting on the continuing Gulf Coast saga. Am I the only one bothered by this? Thanks for listening.

Don Bishoff, Eugene, OR

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Why do you keep running the propaganda piece from BP on what a great job they are doing in the Gulf? I can understand why you are now running commercial ads, given the funding problems, but I think the BP "ad" is over the edge. They are being sued by individuals and states for lack of meeting their cleanup obligations, yet you keep running their promotions on what a great job they are doing. Why is there no special on the status of the clean-up of their massive oil spill? Have they bought your silence?

Olympia, WA


My Thoughts

This, naturally, is a tricky issue. BP is clearly trying to improve its image and help Gulf area tourism recover by financing and running these goodwill-type sponsorships all over the country. By placing them on a trusted and respected service such as PBS, they probably figure some of that will rub off on the company. But should PBS be running this spot, and how do they verify its content? As I read the PBS funding guidelines they cover only issues of editorial control, perception and commercialism rather than the accuracy of the specific content of the underwriter's message.

I asked officials at PBS and at the NewsHour production company, MacNeil/Lehrer Productions (MLP), about this and they made the following points. First, MLP President Boisfeuillet Jones stressed that "the editorial staff plays no role in the approval process of underwriter messages, and the staff's work is not influenced by underwriters." That, I think is well understood.

A PBS official, Cathy Hogan, senior director for policy, acknowledged my reading of the stated funding guidelines, saying, "PBS' guidelines don't specifically address the issue of the content of an underwriting message in the way you are asking about it in this context. Our guidelines are aligned with FCC requirements that credits must be free of such promotional conventions as calls to action, direct comparison with other companies, endorsements and so on. In the case of the NewsHour spot, the producer was asked for verification from BP to demonstrate the validity of the information they included before we would approve it for our air." In other words, Hogan said, "BP provided the verification to MLP and WETA," the station where the NewsHour is based.

Jones added that, "In this case National Public Media, MLP's agency, reviewed the proposed message and asked for substantiation, which it reviewed and sent to PBS and MLP along with the proposed message. PBS approved the message, with one minor change." National Public Media is a corporate sponsorship sales team for public broadcasting.

So what these responses add up to, unless I'm misunderstanding things, is that BP provided substantiation for its own message. That would not seem to be a great thing, but I have no idea what was presented. Here is how BP assesses things currently.

The Gulf oil spill was horrendous. There are still huge and unknown environmental issues to be studied and livelihoods affected, especially fishermen. And there are still very high-stakes court cases unresolved. Just last Sunday, former Florida governor and senator Bob Graham and former Bush administration Environmental Protection Agency chief William K. Reilly wrote in The Washington Post about how slowly much of the natural resource recovery was going.

I'm in no position to offer a broad assessment of how things are in the huge, five-state Gulf region. From web searches of news organizations and talking to a couple of reporters from the region, it does seem like tourism is on the rise and many beaches are open, so the limited content and comments on the BP sponsorship on PBS don't seem to be inaccurate as far as they go. But they only, of course, tell part of the story and journalists say they also anger a lot of people in the region, especially fishermen, and they almost certainly appear as misleading to some where local problems remain.

Personally, I don't see anything wrong with the idea that BP wants to sponsor an underwriting spot on PBS to help burnish its image. They've done this for two years now on other networks. My guess is that viewers know what BP did in the Gulf and take the spot for what it is — a public relations effort by the firm. Can PBS afford to turn it down or should they turn it down? I don't know. If the spot were demonstrably wrong or clearly misleading, that would seem to me to be a deal breaker. Frankly, I'm not sure if it is misleading but I give the benefit of the doubt to PBS in this case because tourism is indeed up and some restoration surely has been accomplished.

What's Needed Is More Reporting

NewsHour senior correspondent Jeffrey Brown did a comprehensive report on the lingering impact of the spill on the second anniversary of the disaster in 2012. And the program, in November and in January of this year provided good follow-up coverage of the ongoing, high-stakes court cases.

But it seems to me that PBS — Frontline, the NewsHour, Nova or some other program — needs to take a broad and fresh look at where things stand now, more than three years after this extraordinary calamity; and especially in light of BP's efforts — not just on PBS but on many other networks and outlets — to help clean-up its own image.

On Another Point

I would ask that the content of BPs Louisiana coast underwriting advert be reviewed. The advert shows wind turbines, attributing to BP its efforts in clean energy. BP has announced that it is divesting itself of wind technology. Therefore, the current ad info is misleading by allowing viewers to think that BP invests in wind technology. Thank you.

Patrick Cone, Seattle, WA

(Ombudsman's Note: The viewer has a point. I will bring this to the attention of the spot producer.)


The Memorial Day Concert; a Success for Most

As I have written in previous years, for more than two decades, PBS's 90-minute telecast of the National Memorial Day Concert from the Capitol lawn in Washington has remained very popular. But each year it also generates some mail to the ombudsman from people who feel slighted or left out. This year, the mail was strongly appreciative of the concert, except for . . .

For the past two years I have been disheartened by the fact that the Vietnam Conflict has not been recognized during the Memorial Day Concert. I truly accept the fact that this "War" was not popular; however, I proudly served my Country in that war. I am the recipient of the Bronze Star w/V device for Valor, eight Air Medals and the DFC. Along with many, many others we served as honorably as any Military personnel have in any of the wars of this great Nation and more than 58,000 never returned. Yet, not even one minute of recognition was given to Vietnam Veterans. WW II, Korea, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan were all reviewed and recognized as they should have been. I hope and pray that next year during this wonderful concert recognition will be rightly brought upon us Vietnam Veterans.

Jay Collars, Indianapolis, IN

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I just watched the National Memorial Day Concert and thought it was beautifully done and quite poignant. However I do not understand why there were no tributes to Vietnam veterans, as both WW2 and Korean War vets were honored. To me it was a glaring omission.

New York, NY

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I want to commend PBS on the 2013 Memorial Day Concert. For too many years this concert has been more of a pop culture review than a tribute to America's heroes. This year's concert was beautiful and people I have talked with agree that it was very fitting and appropriate for a day of remembrance. The music and the spoken words were solemn and inspiring and a very good example of what a Memorial Day Concert should be. I hope that PBS will continue with this dignified format in future Memorial Day Concerts.

Thomas Stiyer, Beltsville, MD

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Your Memorial Day Concert was awesome! I would like to inform you of a fabulous program that I recently became aware of www.CanineAngelsServiceDogs.org. These people are amazing and they train service dogs for veterans and give them to a disabled veteran at no charge to them. THANK YOU for the beautiful program you presented tonight!

Sandy Dunaway, Greensboro, NC


A Tough Subject to Film and Watch

I have a comment about Rick Steves. I recently read on his facebook page that he paid for a Turkish boy's circumcision ceremony, for the purpose of filming it. I do not consider the genital mutilation of children to be something that PBS should be funding or filming. I think it is disgusting that Steves seems to think there is entertainment value in watching a defenseless boy go through such agony . . . and his cavalier attitude about sending the family a copy of the footage later is shocking. I believe genital mutilation is wrong, whether it is being perpetrated on girls or boys. If Rick Steves was filming a girl being circumcised, would that be okay? No? Then it shouldn't be okay for a boy. I hope PBS will take action and assure their donors that no more money will be going towards such an unethical show. He should issue an apology on his facebook page, to the viewers and to that poor Turkish boy whose pain and suffering were put on display.

Liz Matthews, Arlington, VA

(Ombudsman's Note: A PBS official points out that the footage Rick Steves was working on in Turkey is for a project he is doing for American Public Television.)

Steves Responds:

"I apologize if the tone of my writing seemed disrespectful of a topic I didn't realize people were so passionate about. I now understand that caring people feel very strongly about it. And the discussion on my Facebook page has given me a better appreciation for this issue, which is clearly important to many people. Since I first posted the photos and video, several people have expressed concern not only that we filmed this event, but that we paid for it. I want to clarify the circumstances: This rite of passage is an important part of life in this part of the world. In the sense that it comes with a big, expensive party for the entire community, it's not unlike a bar or bat mitzvah, or a quinceañera. This family would have thrown their party, at substantial expense, whether or not our cameras had been there. But they were generous enough to let us come and share their personal celebration with viewers half a world away, so we wanted to thank them by helping to defray their costs. Of course, we did not film the circumcision itself, but were able to capture the spirit of a cultural celebration that we believe our armchair-traveling audience might find interesting and insightful of a culture that they may never be able to visit in person.

"For twenty years, I have made TV shows about European culture. I have shown controversial aspects of many cultures, from force-feeding geese for foie gras in France to bullfights in Spain. In each case, I've heard from people — whose opinions I respect — who are passionately against what I've shown. They have wanted me not to put these things on television. But in my role as a travel writer and TV producer, I have made a decision not to make judgments about institutions that are important to a culture, whatever my own personal feelings about them might be. It's not my job to censor them from you, my viewers. These things exist, regardless of whether I (or you) agree with them or oppose them. And as travelers, we all have the opportunity to see them, learn from them, and then draw our own conclusions."

Other Things

I can't begin to tell you the damage that is being done to the integrity of PBS news and ALL informational programs from the infomercials being aired on PBS. I appreciate the necessity, but can't we do some lobbying instead. It's heartbreaking to see you slide into the arms of the influence peddlers. Haven't you seen what's happened to the Discovery and History Channels?

Phil McKeever, Castle Rock, CO

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I have been a frequent donor to PBS, but am angered and dismayed to see a segment demonstrating how to make pressure cooker bombs on tonight's 6pm NewsHour. Please tell me what defensible purpose is served by such how-to demo's, or PBS can do without my donations in the future!

Robert Kauffmann, Bellaire, TX

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Programs [Frontline 5/28/13] as important as Pakistan's terribly flawed legal system inflicting heinous harm on terrorized young women instead of those deserving of capital punishment for committing such crimes should be shown at times of maximum viewership to get maximum effect in reducing these additional crimes against these women.

Richard Rader, Arlington, VA


And Finally, Don't Mess With Knitters

I think the new PBS advertisement poking fun at knitters is in extremely poor taste. I'd like to know how many viewers watch many of the programs on PBS while knitting? Knitters tend to be intelligent, giving and caring individuals who are concerned with their communities, children and the world. They will raise money, many times, by knitting for charities; which takes time because they are not purchasing an item. They purchase the yarn and then take their time to make something so that it can be auctioned off. Knitters will spend their time making things for the homeless, cancer patients, unwanted babies, and a host of other people in need of warm articles of clothing. I wonder how many of these women donate to their public stations? Perhaps PBS should consider that they are supposed to set an example not add to the negativity in society, I for one am disappointed.

Deer Park, NY

(Ombudsman's Note: Here's a New York Times article on the subject.)