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The Ombudsman Column

Another Opening, Another Show . . .

I used the headline above, lifted from the 1949 Broadway hit "Kiss Me Kate," just over three years ago to signal the arrival of what was then the new PBS public affairs program "Need to Know." Alas, that program, which turned out to be really quite good, only lasted three years and was shut down in June.

I come back to that tune again because last Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 7 and 8, PBS introduced the first-ever weekend edition of the 38-year-old, five-nights-a-week PBS NewsHour. The new program, PBS NewsHour Weekend, is 30 minutes in length and anchored by Hari Sreenivasan. Then on Monday, Sept. 9, PBS lifted the curtain on the new-look, weekday NewsHour with two of its longtime correspondents — Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff — in their new roles as co-anchors of the venerable, hour-long program.

So, it was a big three-day stretch for the NewsHour. So far, the two events haven't generated a whole lot of mail to the ombudsman and most of what arrived was critical, specifically, of the Charlie Rose interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

There are some viewer emails posted below about this and other things, but one point of this posting is for me to stick my two cents in as a viewer and say that I thought the debut of both these programs was quite good.

Two Good Starts

The launch of the NewsHour weekend edition was blessed with news — big, often and still confusing news about what the Obama administration might or might not do in response to the use of chemical weapons in the civil war raging in Syria. Very often, it has been the case that big news broke on a Friday night or Saturday or Sunday, and loyal viewers of the PBS NewsHour would have to wait until Monday evening for it to be reported. So I thought the value of such a program made itself quickly apparent to those viewers and news junkies.

Sreenivasan presented an informative and fast-paced opening program. As a viewer, I was particularly grateful for a revealing segment by reporter Kristen Gillespie that took us inside a vast, city-sized refugee camp just inside Jordan where some 120,000 Syrians now live in extremely difficult conditions. I had a similar reaction to veteran correspondent Margaret Warner's report on the 100,000 refugees in Egypt and the strong opposition to a U.S. strike on Syria and on the strong strain of anti-Americanism now prevalent in that country. Both of these segments, and another on the potentially profound effects in Israel of huge offshore natural gas reserves, were big pluses for viewers engaged with public affairs.

Sunday's program did a good job as well, not in straightening out the state-of-play with respect to Syria, but at least in keeping people up-to-date on the state of confusion.

Monday evening's NewsHour — with new co-anchors Ifill and Woodruff sharing a desk and a "new look" set on the "new" NewsHour — also benefitted from the heavy flow of news about Syria. There is, even as of this writing, almost nothing that is clear, certain or durable about the Syria story. But it is an important, divisive and potentially truly explosive situation and I must say that Ifill, Woodruff and the NewsHour did about as good a job — indeed better than I've seen anywhere else — as could be done in pulling together the extraordinary number of always confusing strands of what was a very fast-moving story.

As a viewer who has followed this closely, I thought this was excellent television news coverage. Aside from smoothly pulling those strands together at the outset, with good use of film clips, there was a timely interview with the president by Ifill, clips from the interview with President Assad of Syria by Charlie Rose of CBS and PBS, clips of Russian and Syrian officials and an extended interview with Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, that had more clarity, at least from the Russian standpoint, than most, and a discussion documenting the extent of popular opposition in this country to military action.

The NewsHour — because it deals with the news that everyone has thoughts about — will continue to be the subject of lots of mail to the ombudsman — and some of it, of course, will be critical. But these were two good debuts in my unsolicited opinion.

Here Are Some Recent Letters

I just don't understand how Antiques Roadshow and repeats of other programs could be more important than in informed analysis of the President's speech addressing whether, when, and why we should go to war over Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons and the issues regarding the Russian proposal to internationalize Syria's chemical weapons. We receive and have supported PBS for many decades so we were quite surprised when our 4 PBS affiliates in (MA, RI, and NH) all failed to provide any discussion after President Obama's speech last night or to address the recent efforts to resolve the crisis diplomatically. There is no more important issue facing our nation now, yet you abdicated your role as public service watchdog.

Lois Karfunkel, Andover, MA

(Ombudsman's Note: The PBS NewsHour did, in fact, present follow-up analysis by its regular commentators David Brooks and Mark Shields. But, as is always the case, the decision about whether to use it or cut off the special programming right after the speech, is left to the local station, all of which are independent. PBS officials said at this point there is no way to tell which stations aired the analysis and which ones did not.)

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I am watching Gwen Ifill masterfully conduct a series of illuminating interviews about the crisis in Syria. Judy Woodruff is right behind her in the exceptional quality of the interviews being conducted with real experts. Their work is timely, intelligent and truly important in the national discussion. Bravo! They both deserve Peabody's. How refreshing to be on the receiving end of professional journalists performing their functions of educating the public on urgent matters of national interest with alacrity, intelligence and without bias.

John Woodall, MD, Newtown, CT

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The journalistic integrity of the NewsHour has suffered from the makeover. Last week, Gwen and Judy were both poorly prepared for interviews and wound up with accusatory lines of questioning that badgered interviewees. That's not a first for either of them. Margaret is better on issues than either of them, and nobody interviews top officials better than she does. Jeff does better interviews too, almost always. The overall impression I get is that your NewsHour showrunners have tried to make the NewsHour exciting by making Gwen and Judy into celebrities. Big mistake IMO, because they're not your best, and they're stretched thin so that they're not at their best either. Further, with the celebrity emphasis, you become less differentiated from the rest of cable news, and that's sad. Al Jazeera news is interesting. No detectable celebrity emphasis, serious news, watchable. Please don't go soft and pop on us. That's one thing that would make us quit watching and supporting.

Dan Flaherty, Malibu, CA

Charlie, Charlie

The following letters are comments on the hour-long interview by Charlie Rose of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus that aired Monday evening. All the letters are critical, some of them sharp and personal, and some question the news value and judgment. This was, without question, not your usual, polite PBS interview. It was an aggressive interview by Rose, more like a preemptive strike, with too many "they say" references by him to unnamed American commentators and analysts. But Assad, who spoke in English, is not exactly a push-over and the result was, in my opinion, an extraordinary look at, and into, a major figure — that we rarely get to see or hear — in the tragedy that has been unfolding in Syria for more than two years. To me, it was fascinating television and absolutely newsworthy and timely. I could have done without the unseemly journalistic ritual of the "congratulations, Charlie" part on the NewsHour, but the actual interview, for me, came across as tense, powerful, informative television.

Here are the letters.

I don't understand the appropriateness of the interview with Assad. If he did what he is accused of — and of course he will deny it — isn't he in the same general class as Hitler or certainly Saddam Hussein? Would we give these men a platform to present themselves as civilized people talking calmly, wearing western business suits, and making our President look unreasonable and perhaps reckless, at a time when we are potentially poised to go to war with them. This is not a U.S. political campaign where you may feel compelled to give both sides equal time. This is potentially war where the issues are difficult and most U.S. citizens relatively uninformed. Why would you give the alleged wrongdoer, and their enablers, the Russians, a chance to make his (their) case to the American people before the President has given his address and Congress has debated the matter? This seems wrongheaded and completely insular that Charlie Rose would receive kudos and high fives for conducting such an interview at this time just because other media outlets wanted to do the same thing. In fact, I would suggest it was irresponsible journalism and nothing more than one-upsmanship against your media competitors.

W.G., Mill Valley, CA

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The Charlie Rose interview with President Assad of Syria was a disgrace to journalistic integrity. Rose continually indicated that many, the majority, etc. believed this to be true. No factual information on Rose's part. He was most disrespectful to a head of state. Why is Rose allowed on this network or any network?

Georgetown, TX

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It is extremely discouraging to me to see that even PBS does not understand that diplomatic processes cannot succeed when they are constantly exposed to the glare of media coverage. Tonight, for the first time in days, there is potential good news . . . the idea of Syria turning over its chemical weapons to the international community. Yet you, just like all the media, are weakening the possibility of the success of this idea by talking it to death . . . rather than allowing the process to proceed in proper channels. Usually, I believe PBS rises above the rest if the media, but you have now followed the "mass media" in its usual ill-considered effort to lead the news. I hope that PBS's traditional more thoughtful approach is not going away. And I thank you for your part in the general excellence of PBS programming.

Nancy Lonsdale, Doylestown, PA

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I viewed the interview of Syrian Pres. Assad by Charlie Rose — suspecting in advance it would be a "hatchet job" and "ambush journalism" at best. Mr. Rose did not fail to deliver his usual propagandist/gatekeeper for Empire, pro-Zionist drivel. He was an absurd, Arab-baiting bully and name-caller devoid of substance. His entire arsenal consisted of baseless accusations and feigned threats against a sovereign country posing no threat whatsoever to the US. Rose is a journalistic disgrace. Shame!

Gary Bolle, Las Cruces, NM