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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: The July 4th Concert, July 6th Crash and Other Things

Like lots of folks, I was away over the July 4th holiday break. So I missed the live PBS telecast from the West Lawn in front of the Capitol building of the annual "A Capitol Fourth" concert and fireworks display. I caught up with a rebroadcast, and viewer emails caught up with me.

For decades, the July 4th and Memorial Day concerts have been among the most popular shows broadcast on PBS. Last November, another celebratory, patriotic offering was added to mark Veterans Day. The concerts are produced by Capital Concerts in conjunction with local member-station WETA.

Despite the high-ratings of these broadcasts, they frequently generate some critical mail to the ombudsman, and I've written about the concerts and the concerns several times. Usually it involves veterans of a particular war that feel slighted in one broadcast, or a song that some view as controversial or inappropriate for these occasions.

But the letters that followed last week's concert raise a broader question of whether these events have turned into predominantly pop concerts and strayed too far from the more overtly patriotic fare that viewers associate with this special holiday. What is also interesting is that the new letters reflect that same strong sense of disappointment about the general content of the program as those who wrote to me in years past.

What Comes Next

The emails about the concert follow but first, here is a guide to what comes after that.

On Saturday, July 6, an Asiana airliner from Seoul, South Korea, crashed while attempting to land at San Francisco International Airport, killing two and injuring about 180 other passengers, some of them critically. The story and scene played out on television networks everywhere. But, as I have also written many times before, if it happens on the weekend, there is no PBS television news program to report it. A viewer writes about this from San Francisco and his email is posted below the concert letters.

PBS, however, is committed to doing better. Last month PBS announced that, beginning on Saturday, Sept. 7, a PBS NewsHour Weekend program will debut. It will be a half-hour news program on Saturday and Sunday evenings, with a segment set aside at the end of each broadcast for local news reporting. The weekend program will augment the long-running, hour-long, weekday night PBS NewsHour. The NewsHour online operation did carry a running news account of the plane crash.

Finally, there are two letters from viewers who take issue with my assessment, posted on May 25, about the controversy surrounding the relationship between PBS, billionaire industrialist David Koch and a new film that never made it to PBS.

Here Are the Concert Letters

Every Fourth of July, I schedule my day around the time the Capitol Fourth begins. For many years watching the patriotic performance seems to fill me up like a puffer fish — goose bumps, smiles, anticipation, and joy in our historical quest for Independence. However, the last 5-6 years have been disappointing to me and my husband. What was substance has become common place Hollywood idol worship. Pop culture has gained its foothold and booted the original intent of solid patriotism out the door. It's become a sideshow for Hollywood's love of itself instead of love of the idea of Independence. I would suggest that the entire program focus on less pop culture and more on the core meaning of this special holiday. Oh sure, the "entertainers" wear patriotic colors generally; we see flood lights and staging done in patriotic themes. However, the message behind every song, every presentation should reflect the intent of the holiday. This should be a history lesson with appropriate musical accompaniment. We want to see each branch with their themed song represented individually. Where was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs or his representative? Where is the dignity of this special American day on PBS? Please bring it back.

Tom and Donna Dewitt Schnell, Lapeer MI

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Disappointing! What happened to PATRIOTIC music on the FOURTH? We can get country or Pop or Motown/Rap . . . whatever any day of the week.

Pat Duncan, Rancho Cucamonga, CA

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Increasingly, the concerts from Washington on Memorial Day and July 4 are moving from patriotic events to a half-patriotic, half-rock concert format. Radio and TV have more rock music than anyone can possibly listen to and/or watch. Patriotic fare, on the other hand, is almost non-existent except for the three events cited above. This year's Capitol Fourth had no appearances by our military leaders or servicemen and women, other than an occasional pan of Wounded Warriors present. The only people specifically recognized were the Boston first responders — who deserve credit, but not at the expense of our military men and women. The service songs weren't played. While Jackie Evancho and the lady in the red dress whose name I didn't catch sang beautifully, there was way too much Barry Manilow and Motown, and not nearly enough patriotic music for this old sergeant's taste.

Joseph Benham, Kerrville, TX

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I watched the "A CAPITOL 4th" broadcast on WVIZ last Thursday and was very disappointed. The program was a slick professional performance and the performers all did their acts which were well designed to entertain but the program missed its purpose, to celebrate the birth and growth of our great nation. Too many of the performers used music that was not relevant and had words that were not understandable punctuated by loud thumps and bangs from the drum emphasizing the beat and covering up what might have had some meaning. Many of the female singers re-arranged the notes to scoop-up, which is very irritating. Many of the performers will never be remembered and the songs, which are not lyrical, will be quickly forgotten within a short period of time.

What should have been featured is the great music that relates to the building of our country. Many of the best patriotic songs came out of the wars in which we were involved. During the Revolutionary War, there were many English melodies that had American words put to them and were widely heard. During the Civil War, there were many camp ground songs written to keep their spirits up. Francis Scott Key wrote the words to our National Anthem (there are many other verses which very few have ever heard) to an English drinking song as a result of the bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. The program did include a good rendition of the anthem without scooping (which is so prevalent today). During World War I and World War 2 there were many patriotic songs written. John Philip Sousa wrote many very stirring military marches. Of course, the armed service bands with a marching performance (which was provided) followed through on the theme.

We should also feature music that was written as the country expanded from North to South and coast to coast. Music like Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite," Stephen Foster's many tuneful southern melodies and even cowboy songs often sung on the empty prairie around a camp fire with harmonica or guitar. And who cannot enjoy a little New Orleans dixieland? These were all an important part of our growth.

And we should not ignore Broadway's influence with music like "Oklahoma" and "Porgy and Bess." Composers Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, George Gershwin and many others contributed to our nationalistic fervor as we built our nation.

We should be proud that we are Americans and this yearly performance should fortify our beliefs in freedom and the pursuit of happiness. We should all be very happy that we live in a nation like ours when you look around the world and hear and see that so many people have no rights at all. I hope that there are others who agree with me and will make themselves heard by letting PBS know your thoughts.

Chagrin Falls, OH

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A Capitol 4th was a capital disappointment. Why cannot PBS show the fireworks, some of the best in the country. Instead we get intermittent views of fireworks in the distance while Barry Manilow sings, the band plays, a talking head talks and then we get commercials and the show starts again (one of the worst Independence Day shows ever and I have watched at least 25 years worth). If I wanted to watch fireworks I had to switch to NBC to see Macy's NY show. PBS can do (and has done) better.

Charles Conway, Laurel, MD

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Regarding "A Capitol 4th" — Now just where was/were the Hispanic or Latin performer or music? It was a big hole in the program and to the discredit of PBS. Would it be easy to do? Not necessarily, but you all there are very intelligent and I am sure you are up to the challenge. When will you do it?

W. G., Bremerton, WA

The Weekend News Problem

How do you ensure that PBS affiliates do cover Breaking News that happens to occur on the weekends, such as the San Francisco Airport crash that took place on Saturday, July 6, 2013? I noticed KQED-TV 9 and 54 did not even cover the crash yesterday. Most of the KQED-TV feeds were focused on donor programming. However most of the KQED staff were around but they were doing breaking news of the event on the KQED NPR News/Talk feed on 88.5FM and on their website. KQED did respond well on Web and radio The Reason I state this is because more people are putting pressure on PBS Affiliates and NPR News/Talk Stations to do well in not only doing investigative journalism but also do breaking stories in some cases. I just think PBS, APT, NETA, ITVS, and local PBS stations need to improve the way they respond to breaking news when it's outside of Washington DC and when they take place on the weekends.

Bill Totuki, Vallejo, CA

Disagreeing With the Ombudsman

Due to PBS's affiliation with the Koch Brothers and the acceptance of funding from them, I have asked to be removed from your mailing list and will be severing all ties and donations from here forward. Unfortunately PBS has fallen victim to the powerful dollar by feeding the control model that many corporations implement in exchange for their exorbitant funding. Many Americans are becoming increasingly aware of "not-for-profit" entities that accept such large gifts from corporations and in return, give preferred benefits that solely benefit the corporation's interest and not that of the public. PBS, unfortunately, has fallen victim to this practice. I truly hope that one day PBS reestablishes its mission and can hold its head up high, able to state that they truly are a "public" broadcasting station. P.S. Mr. Getler, your statements within your write-up of the response to the Koch Brother's "scandal" were pompous and arrogant. Reading what you wrote made it even easier to sever my ties with PBS.

William Dickel RN, Middletown, NY

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As a longtime PBS viewer and a signatory to the petition regarding David Koch's influence on PBS programming, I find your attitude toward the petition rather too dismissive. I will readily concede that the language of the petition is not as careful as it could be; David Koch may well not have actively "censored" PBS. As you (and David Koch) are obviously aware, however, his enormous donations and his time on the boards of prominent stations do create conditions favorable for self-censorship within the various organizations that collaborate to find and promote PBS content. The role of the Fourth Estate within our democracy is no less compromised by this type of censorship than by overt donor meddling. The nature of organizations that depend on funding is to please donors, and the end result is that many people are willing to look after David Koch's interests without his having to ask them. Like an inverse form of institutional racism, such a ubiquitous and "natural" desire to please the wealthy easily leads to widespread injustice. It seems clear, based on reported evidence, that people within the various organizations responsible for vetting potential PBS programming are eager to keep David Koch's money flowing, and that is a legitimate problem for journalistic ethics. It deserved more careful regard than your discussion of this affair gave it.

Menomonie, WI