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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: Bye-Bye Bobbleheads and Lots of Other Stuff

The ombudsman's mailbag has become quite stuffed in the past week or two, and in the past few days in particular, because of lots of email from people upset about a short video offering from PBS Digital Studios that was meant to be informative and even humorous — using bobblehead figures of some of the world's great scientists — but turned out to have bombed with an overwhelming number of viewers.

I wrote about this on Tuesday but now it turns out that author/writer Joe Hanson has decided to remove the video from the web. Here's how he explained it in a posting on Wednesday afternoon:

"I have decided to remove 'A Very Special Thanksgiving Special' from the It's Okay to Be Smart channel. We failed in using satire to shine some light on the problem of women's under-representation in science and the on-going disrespect and harassment women face in the field. I hope it is clear that I never set out to offend anyone. Harassment is real and unacceptable — I never meant for my work to indicate anything other than that. I am looking forward to continuing what has always been my mission for It's Okay To Be Smart: Inspiring people — all people — to learn about the beauty and wonder of science."

What follows is a representative sampling of letters that arrived after my column was posted but before the video was deleted. Then come letters — along with ombudsman commentary in some cases and a response from PBS about a children's program — about a variety of other subjects from health care coverage, the endless debate over the Kennedy assassination, the interview with former Vice-President Dick Cheney and Tavis Smiley. My apologies for such a very long mailbag but I wanted to get this posted before the holiday break.

Here Are the Letters

Writing as a new parent and life-long fan of PBS programming, I was impressed with your response to the Thanksgiving video that depicted an Einstein puppet assaulting a Marie Curie puppet, but extraordinarily disappointed with the official corporate PBS response that you posted below it. Is there any further recourse at this stage to express dissatisfaction with that official response? I am already starting to share with my baby girl the marvels of children's educational programming that PBS has for decades offered as a sterling public service. I really cannot fathom why the network would jeopardize its well-deserved reputation in defense of a grossly offensive web video. PBS relies on viewer contributions, and it will be a tragically counterproductive outcome if donations for so much wonderful programming are with-held on account of this ill-conceived defense of a single 5-minute online clip.

Jake Yeston, Alexandria, VA

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Your Corporate Communications person states, "With this video, Joe has opened up an important, though difficult, debate. We believe we are meeting our public service mission by providing an open forum where this and other conversations about complex subjects can take place." I don't understand. He didn't open up anything but a can of worms which you've unsuccessfully tried to stuff back in the can. The debate was already open, and it had traveled well past the ground Hanson claims to have covered. Far more nuanced voices than his have commented on the issue of sexual harassment (many of them female, I might add), and yet you've chosen this piece of dreck to represent it? Shame on you. Take it down.

Vancouver, BC

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The response by PBS to the outcry over the Thanksgiving video depicting sexual harassment and assault was not appropriate. Even the added warning that some people were offended on the video adds insult to injury. The offered apologies have been of the false "I'm sorry if you were offended" type, and not any sincere indication that this was not just inappropriate because it might offend delicate sensibilities. This portrayal was hurtful, perpetuated the problem for which you now pretend it 'opens a debate' Do you mean to say there is any *debate* about whether sexual harassment and assault hurts women? Would you have allowed Einstein's bobble head to call a Neil DeGrasse Tyson's bobble head by a racial slur, just because it might have been acceptable in Einstein's time? You would not.

M.S., Millis, MA

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I would like to add my voice to those that support taking down Joe Hanson's recent "Thanksgiving" video and publishing some kind of statement of apology. Dr. Hanson is a outstanding science communicator and this was an accidentally offensive piece.

Michael Tomasson, St. Louis, MO

In Defense of Joe and Other Things

For the record, I don't think Joe Hanson has done anything wrong. At all. For example, today I laughed at a movie trailer where a baby appeared to be thrown into the road and hit by a truck. I laughed *not* because I make light of baby-throwing. And similarly — and obviously — Joe is not making light of sexual harassment. Please don't encourage such PC witch hunts by apologizing or bending.

Dr. Mark Changizi, Columbus, OH

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It's disgusting that Hanson had to apologize (probably in order to have enough of a career left to feed his children, pay his rent). The video was funny. Where were all the people complaining that Tesla was portrayed as a boob? Or about the others? Your apology, which I also understand — correct response to a witch hunt when viewer/contributor dollars are at stake — dismayed me. My response, in full, is here — "The PBS Bobblehead Controversy: Victim-Feminist Science Ladies And The Men They've Co-opted Have Their Panties In A Wad Again." The comment I left on the video on YouTube: This was humor through scientists being humanized and behaving badly — as people do. Tesla makes outrageous boasts, for example. One way people behave badly is by hitting on other people who aren't interested. Men do it to women and women do it to men. This video is funny. I deplore those who try to squash any bit of speech that isn't politically correct. The answer to speech you do not like is more speech, not trying to shut down the career of the person who makes speech you have a problem with. The upshot, as I see it: If you feel diminished as a woman and as a scientist because of a video like this, well, I don't think you're much of a person or a scientist. Men hit on women. Sometimes they do it in a way that is oafish. Why do men hit on women and not so much the other way around? See basic evolutionary biology. Women are the ones who have babies that need to grow up and be fed and cared for. They are the choosier sex because of it and generally are the pursued rather than the pursuers. The video is reflecting life. Deal with it ladies — and all you silly men who feel guilty for being born with a penis and are now compelled to do penance by falling in with the victim-feminists and calling for women to be treated specially instead of equally.

Amy Alkon, Santa Monica, CA

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Let me first just say that I had no idea that PBS had an ombudsman, and while I've never completely understood the role and purpose of one (I know we have one at our university) I'm starting to understand through reading your blog. You are awesome. Thanks for your comments on Joe Hanson's Thanksgiving video. I understand it's hard to appeal to everyone (I had no idea how many people were that offended by Downton Abbey, for example) and I really appreciated an honest viewpoint from an unbiased party. I think that's all my feedback. It doesn't assuage the disappointment I feel as PBSDS continues to leave the video up, and not give a satisfactory apology, but I really appreciate your contribution to the debate. Thanks again, and I will now be a loyal reader of the PBS ombudsman blog.

Rachel Bloom, Durham, NC

On That Health Care Series

The woman whose "story" about health insurance aired on the NewsHour tonight [11/20] never mentioned comparing her coverage to what is available on her state's exchange. The only other option she talked about was a more expensive policy from Kaiser. How could both the interviewer and the commentator allow her to omit the most relevant alternative?

Stamford, CT

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NewsHour has been running a series about people's health insurance under ACA.
When NewsHour reports that a person has lost a policy because the policy does not meet the standards of the ACA, the NewsHour should explain exactly what standards were not met. That allows the listener to evaluate whether the old policy is substantially different than the new policy. It also allows the listener to evaluate whether the old policy is really insurance.

Kevin Dalley, Oakland, CA

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I just listened to an infuriating interview in which a woman who was cancelled by Kaiser complained about the 67% increase of getting a new policy with them. The news person did not suggest that she check with the Obamacare web site to see whether she could get or qualify for a better plan — they just focused on her problem. THIS IS VERY POOR JOURNALISM! Alternatives should be explored! That is, unless sensationalism is your goal, and warping the public perception of health care alternatives is the object. SHAME!

Bennett, NC

(Ombudsman's Note: The series being run by the PBS NewsHour is a good public service. But the viewers whose emails are posted above, and some others, make a good point in that a number of these segments allow long explanations from the consumer but then move on to "the bigger picture" with a discussion with an independent observer. That is also informative but it can leave viewers hanging about the credibility of the view offered by the consumer.)

Poor Accent or Poor Character?

Ladonna Compson on Arthur & PBS Kids: This character is disparaging and extremely condescending. How do I explain this to my Louisiana children who are watching PBS, when the character is a totally mockery of our citizenship, rooted in French heritage. The accent is not even close — why don't you have a character with a really bad Boston accent as well, who is a gang member or the like? Shame on PBS, and shame on WGBH! Your editors are asleep at the switch. You do not even begin to comprehend the negative impact you are having on this region and the prejudices you are exacerbating. Your work is harmful to children from Louisiana, as well as those who have never visited!

Baton Rouge, LA

(Ombudsman's Note: The following response is from the executive producer of "Arthur," Carol Greenwald, who has also offered to be in touch directly with the viewer to discuss his views in more detail.)

Arthur's Producer Responds:

We appreciate your thoughtful viewing of the program, and we sincerely regret that you have been offended by our portrayal of this character. As you may know, our overarching educational goal with the ARTHUR television series is to promote basic literacy and to foster positive social skills. We work closely with Marc Brown, author of the Arthur book series, advisors, and writers to create engaging, meaningful and developmentally appropriate stories that reflect the lives of real kids, while exploring some of the issues that kids and their families confront.

The character of Ladonna, like many on our show, is based on a real person. The writer for the episode that introduces her had a childhood friend from the South who was a nonstop storyteller. He wanted to explore the situation of "the new kid" who is trying to make an impression and make friends in a new school, and he used her storytelling as her approach. Like all of the characters on ARTHUR, Ladonna is not perfect — she makes mistakes — in this case, tells exaggerated stories in an effort to get kids to like her. We have also featured Ladonna (and her brother Bud, who becomes friends with D.W.) in a few other episodes in which she experiences her first snowstorm, gets overloaded with activities, and helps restore a kite to its rightful owner.

Our goal with Ladonna, and her brother Bud, was to introduce Arthur and his friends, and our audience, to kids from another part of the country, as a way of fostering a positive connection. We know it is always tricky to get regional accents just right, but clearly you feel we have fallen short in more ways than that, which we are extremely dismayed to hear.

Good Week, Bad Week

I have 2 suggestions! 1. Most Important: PLEASE provide Washington Week with a full hour! 30 minutes is never enough time for that fluctuating group of journalists to address all the issues. I am so tired of being left wanting more, although I suspect I would feel that way even after an hour of this terrific program. 2. Make it easier to provide feedback for a specific program. It should not take 15 minutes to find a spot like this that allows for input. Thank you so much for all your wonderful programming, I rely on it.

Christine Holmes, San Francisco, CA

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Washington Week, Fri. Nov. 15 was absolutely terrible. The reporters continually said the same thing in substance about the ACA rollout and President Obama's "bad week." They said NOTHING about what the president requires of the insurance companies if they do re-issue their junk policies; hence the public was not informed about the "fix" in such a way as to make thoughtful judgment. It was a gossip feast.

John Wilson, Tucson, AZ

Dept. of Endless Debate

Regarding Nova [Nov. 13] on the JFK assassination: the ballistic experts showed how the bullet used on the first shot that hit both JFK and Gov. Connelly was virtually unmarked. To test whether this was possible they fired the same type of bullet into pine blocks and found the bullet traveled through almost three feet of these blocks and was virtually undamaged. Yet no one questioned or commented on how the next bullet to hit JFK in the head fragmented into pieces. You need to watch the JFK program aired on REELZ to see how a proper investigation of such an obvious red flag is done.

Joseph Basciano, Chilton, WI

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What are the odds ANY response to the shoddy, ludicrously biased "Nova: JFK-Cold Case" material broadcast recently will be allowed to air? What's most farcical is that there were repeated instances of long discredited "evidential facts" deployed to lend plausibility to their shenanigans, in the guise of "objective science." Cf. Meagher's Accessories After the Fact (Vintage edition, 1992) for example. Absolutely egregiously shameful misconduct by PBS if there is no response allowed to the "critics" and broadcast ON PBS with similar publicity.

Richard Turnbull, Minneapolis, MN

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The recent American Experience episodes [two hours each on Nov. 11 and 12] on JFK did a great disservice to the understanding of the Kennedy administration by its obsessive focus on the President's health and marital infidelity. The majority of Americans who are too young to remember President Kennedy would likely assess his Presidency in a negative light if they were to rely on the PBS documentary for their impression of that significant time. One of our greatest Presidents, FDR, had similar issues. While they deserve some mention, as was the case with Roosevelt, such issues do not overall diminish JFK's forward-looking and inspiring Presidency.

Stuart Endick, Burke, VA

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PBS' two-part series "JFK" was quite a pathetic smear job of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Would anyone even know — based on the snow job by Caro, Thomas, and Dalleck — that JFK was a true intellectual; scholar of history; a brilliant mind cultivated in part from boyhood to manhood during his fierce bouts with illness at times leaving him near death? No. Caro is the biggest fan of LBJ, the man who orchestrated the assassination of JFK. PBS neglected in whole to inform the viewing public who these three men were selected by PBS for what had been billed as the most definitive documentary on JFK. Your PBS did a great job of painting him as nothing more than a rich Harvard-educated effete . . . for this I will watch PBS for its FICTION programming only. PBS owes this country an apology for a slamming, negative and gossipy piece while here we thought, my generation, we would be shown a documentary honoring one of if not the greatest President of the 20th century.

Levittown, PA

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Who are the Rich Lying Nasty people supporting your lie-filled show on JFK? I just saw your Quack Host Luke Haag on the MSNBC show "The Cycle" say, and I quote "People find it hard to believe that a Peasant could kill a King." Really!!! Why would he disparage JFK's memory by calling him a King?? He was our President and he should be respectfully referred to as such!!! And, we are Citizens and we should be respectfully referred to as such!!! How dare he make such an arrogant, asinine, offensive statement. It makes it very clear that he is not a credible person since he cannot even respect the memory of JFK or the Citizens of this country.

Michelle Ronning, Saint Paul, MN

(Ombudsman's Note: With respect to the letters above, the circumstances surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy have been a subject of debate for 50 years and are likely to remain so, perhaps forever. Similarly, the personal and public life of the murdered president is so complicated; hard to capture adequately on film even in four hours of American Experience. In general, I thought PBS did quite a good job in marking this 50th anniversary of his death. The American Experience effort was the centerpiece and won high-marks from the Los Angeles Times and others. I thought it managed to capture his charm, intellect, privilege, toughness, luck and recklessness to present a pretty well-balanced picture. As I watched, however, I recall feeling it fell a bit short in not probing the depth of his father's accepting views about Hitler and Nazi Germany a little more, and in not having someone address the huge national security risks that JFK took in his involvement with other women. Also, I thought the producers should have supplied more information about the many writers and historians that appeared on screen. The most detailed critique I read is by Sheldon Stern, the former historian at the Kennedy Library. As for Nova's "Cold Case," here, too, the attempt was to test certain aspects of the assassination with modern forensics. This debate will never end but here's how Newsday and Inside Science reported on this program. As for the viewer who objected to the "peasant" and "king" language on another channel, that's just a figure of speech and I would not draw any conclusions about the person who used it.)

Do Dick Cheney's Heart and '60 Minutes' Flop Go Together?

The NewsHour program this evening [Nov. 12] was extremely disappointing to me. Selected segments were critical of others, namely the CBS 60 Minutes program immediately followed by a woman complaining about her healthcare insurance being canceled without any clear indication that the NewsHour staff had confirmed the story. It was accepted. Then followed a discussion of the government failures. Finally Dick Cheney was introduced to advertise his book. Cheney is a man who has caused this nation much trouble with his many misleading statements. In summary I find the presentation of this material was equally irresponsible as the 60 Minutes program they had criticized.

Chapel Hill, NC

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Shame on you PBS for letting Dick Cheney ramble on limitless non-facts trashing the Obama Administration on the NewsHour, 11/12/13. During the Bush years this would have been considered treason. Your previous story was about the need for CBS to vet their stories with more care. Perhaps you should vet Mr. Cheney's fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Portland, ME

(Ombudsman's Note: I thought the interview, or at least most of it, was actually very useful. True, Cheney would gain some promotional value for his new book, but whatever one thinks of the vice-president's performance in office, he is a fascinating example of someone who has pursued a demanding career against considerable odds. I think most people understand that if you are secretary of defense or vice-president, you get better than average care. But you still need to survive and he did so and I thought that made an interesting tale. Letting the interview migrate into the pros, but mostly cons, of Obamacare was probably inevitable but, in my view, distracted from an engaging personal story.)

~ ~ ~

Congratulations: finally outing CBS, Simon & $$$chuster, and 60 Minute$$$' commercial connection hyping the latest in a long line of episodes of right-wing nut Benghazi-gate! Check out the movie rights (and plastic action figures) — was CBS getting a cut in that as well? What about the book editors and producers at both S&$ or 60 Minutes? Interview them. Why not also compare Dan Rather's treatment for broadcasting the truth about W. Bush as a deserter. Love to see what additional lies were to be in the liar's book. BTW: you panelist is partly correct — 60 Minutes is not the 'gold standard' of anything beyond producing gold for the parent company.

Evanston, IL

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Ms. Woodruff's interview [Nov. 14] with BATFE Director B. Todd Jones was a puff piece, anti-gun to its core. First, why would you want to keep track of guns used in crimes? If you know a gun was used in a crime, it is already in the hands of law enforcement. Thus what good would it do to keep track of these guns? They will never again see the light of day. Second, you completely ignored the BATFE's criminal gun-running operations, the biggest being Operation Fast and Furious. This operation was directly connected to the deaths of two federal law enforcement agents, not to mention the deaths of hundreds of Mexican civilians. Further, there are still hundreds of guns missing from F&F. Not one ATF agent was criminally charged with what is clearly a gun-running operation across international borders. The whole interview was geared at attacking the NRA and nothing about the criminal activities of the ATF . . . pandering to liberals and no interest in the truth of the ATF activities.

Gary Hoff, Middletown, OH

And Smiley

After listening to Tavis Smiley's comments to [film actress] Nia Long during a recent interview, I am convinced that he is an anti-white racist and a bigot. Someone should tell him about it.

Marc Bush, Greeneville, TN

(Ombudsman's Note: My guess is that the viewer above is referring to a clip on the show in which Long is shown kissing a white male actor and Smiley asks, "Was that you kissing a white man?" Then he comes back to it again a minute or so later and says, "Saw you kissing a white guy, so I wasn't expecting that." Then Smiley adds, "I should stop this, because all the white guys are going to hate me.")

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As a lifelong supporter of PBS programming I have as of late become concerned with the on and off-air rantings of Tavis Smiley. Viewers are MORE than clear on his bigoted opinions but as a PBS representative we would hope he could keep them deemed personal and private.

Atlanta, GA