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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: The Holiday Spirit Is on Hold

The leader of North Korea had his uncle executed and a mentally-unbalanced sign-language fraud managed to stand next to President Obama in South Africa, but it's been relatively quiet these past two weeks for the ombudsman; no big controversies and not a great deal of mail. That is not surprising during the holiday season. On the other hand, the time of year hasn't dulled the edge or softened the views of those who did write. What follows is a sampling of the recent mail, all of it critical, with an occasional ombudsman's intervention or explanation offered by PBS.

On Susan and Laura

I am writing to express my puzzled state of disappointment and dread at PBS choice of host for Downton Abbey. Hmmm . . . it just doesn't gel with the gentility and elegance of Downton Abbey. This is the actress [Susan Sarandon] whose character evokes images of anger, pushiness, violence, oddness, strife, screaming, fighting, and New Jersey? The seemingly nutty actress who attempted to censor a radio show just because the views expressed did not agree with her own? Not that she's not an accomplished Hollywood actress . . . it's just . . . host to Downton Abbey??? It's just a walking oxymoron. My friends and I just don't get it. We loved the lovely Laura Linney!

Columbus, OH

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Thanks for RUINING DOWNTON ABBEY by hiring that limo liberal Susan Sarandon to host the show tonight. She's all about the people but makes sure she lives in the whitest neighborhood, sends her kids to the whitest schools — a hypocrite. I'd rather have seen Ted Bundy host this.

New York, NY

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Could you have found a less enthusiastic host than Susan Sarandon? She is TERRIBLE! She appears drugged during her introduction as well as unknowledgeable about Downton Abbey content. I understand her political alliances contracted the job, but she is an AWFUL presenter. Please do not stoop to her level.

Holly Hennessey, Westlake, OH

(Ombudsman's Note: Laura Linney remains as the host of Masterpiece's "Downton Abbey," according to a program producer. Susan Sarandon is the host only for the special pledge-drive, fourth-season preview segment that aired before the new season begins in January. Last year, Angela Lansbury carried out the same role. Masterpiece officials say the fund-raising, pre-season segment is produced for PBS by another producer and that Masterpiece has no say in the selection of the host for that segment.)

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Sesame Street Porn — OK for your kids? How in the world is Lady Gaga appropriate for Sesame Street and a children's audience? Can I trust that you are OK with your kids and grandkids listening to a scantily clad woman sing "throw me on the bed, squeeze, tease and please me — that's what I said . . . touch me in the dark, put your hands all over my body parts . . ."? Please do your job and stop the insanity of PBS sexualizing America's children. Matthew 18:6 James 4:17

Katy, TX

(Ombudsman's Note: This appears to be a reference to the 90-minute, Thanksgiving night performance on ABC Television — not PBS — of "Lady Gaga & the Muppets' Holiday Spectacular." The Walt Disney Company owns both ABC and the Muppets and the characters on the ABC special "are completely separate from PBS or the Sesame Workshop," according to a PBS spokesperson.)

On Charlie and Stan

The Charlie Rose "Let's all Worship Another Wall Street Titan Show" is getting pretty old at this point. His interview [Dec. 2] with Stanley Druckenmiller was, and I don't say this lightly, disgusting. Do Charlie a favor and eliminate the possibility of me having to watch him fawn over his idols on public television. Encourage him to work on Wall Street where he can be closer to those he admires so much. In the interview, Charlie never challenged Druckenmiller's stance on earned benefits, as most people call them, once. They are not entitlements, they are earned benefits. In case PBS hasn't got the message, there's a class war going on, and out here in working America, we don't care much for Charlie's idols on Wall Street. And we don't care much for puppets like Rose who gives them a platform to spew their sociopathic ideas.

John Kuhn, Cincinnati, OH

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Year after year the lack of empathy in this country becomes more apparent. The interview last night with this black-hearted hedge fund manager was as scary as any monster movie I've ever seen. The man's name is Druckenmiller, a hedge-fund manager still espousing the challenge of the stock market when any sentient person knows with the new computer trading, the game is rigged. But more serious is his CRUSADE to start a generation war between youth and seniors (who are already crime victims). Going to colleges and ramping up the vitriol is disgusting. PLEASE explain to C. Rose what "entitlement" means as he never mentions it. Maybe he thinks the senior audience is asleep when he interviews these people. How shameful, the millionaire and the billionaire discussing the final solution for the little people.

Johnson City, TN

(Ombudsman's Note: Here's a link to the program so you can judge for yourselves.)

The Budget Deal and The NewsHour

Can't the NewsHour find better spokespeople [12/11] for the conservative point of view? Holtz-Eakin is such a retread and appears everywhere representing this view. Romina Boccia of the Heritage Foundation parrots conservative ideologues but she is so strident that she hasn't earned the right to do so.

Bill McLin, Annapolis, MD

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I'm a long-term viewer and fan of the NewsHour but have become increasingly concerned about their "balance" in reporting on economic issues. Yesterday, 12/11/2013, they reported on the currently proposed budget deal and followed up, as usual, with a roundtable discussion. That table, as is now standard, had a centrist democrat, the former Economic Advisor to George W. Bush II Douglas Holtz-Eakin, and a spokesperson for the ultra-right wing Heritage Foundation. Holtz-Eakin was the guiding light behind the Bush II multi-trillion dollar tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations that a) eliminated the Clinton tax increases that had produced a budget surplus and b) that were supposed to stimulate growth and balance the budget through taxes on that growth (while creating loop-holes for Wall Street traders, reducing the capital gains tax etc.).

We all know where that went: our National Debt doubled, we had the lowest employment growth in decades, reduced economic growth and then, our recent depression rebranded as "the Great Recession." Within that Bush II era we again tested the idea that ignoring Federal agencies created to regulate markets and avoid risk left the public with massive unemployment, loss of homes, loss of a "future" for recent graduates while also sticking us, again, with a multitrillion dollar bail out of the companies that benefited from their unregulated "financial innovations." Holtz-Eakin created the fertile field for the Anti-Keynesian radical Republicans who see public spending as a hindrance to wealth transfer to the top 0.1% and parts of the top 1% (the real success of the Reagan, Bush II economic program).The NewsHour rarely ever has a representative Keynesian economist even though that "theory package" is widely respected as true and effective in stimulating recovery from a depression/recession. Any balanced roundtable should have at least one or two actual economists who understand and can defend a rational economic policy, and there are quite a few recent Nobel Laureate Economists who write and speak publically about these issues as there distinguished professors also capable of supporting that set of ideas. You would never discuss physics or chemistry issues with a full roundtable of people who reject Einstein's works, Quantum Mechanics, or String Theory or a roundtable discussing evolution who all reject Darwin's work as the origin of our understanding . . . there are too many examples of purposeful rejection that you do not follow. Why then this one great exception?

Ronald B. Cohen, PhD, Tarzana, CA

The NewsHour's Political Editor, Christina Bellantoni, Responds:

When reporting on sentiment about the budget agreement, we found it broke down into three basic camps. There were Democrats who felt it didn't go far enough because it does not raise taxes or provide an extension of unemployment benefits, and Republicans who felt it did not go far enough on deficit reduction. But both groups actually still supported the measure as "good enough" and had laudatory things to say. The third group, on the right, opposed the measure for not maintaining sequester level cuts. Our panel reflected those views and captured the essence of the debate over the agreement. As for Holtz-Eakin himself, we weren't intending to litigate Bush-era policies during this segment about the Murray-Ryan budget. Though we certainly have done so many times on our program, including with Holtz-Eakin himself.

My Thoughts

NewsHour producers add to Bellantoni's response by saying that the overwhelming vote of approval (332-94) in the House last night demonstrated that her analysis of the situation, as reflected in her choice of guests, was correct.

I would differ with both appraisals and find myself more in-tune, at least on the question of balance rather than politics, with the writer from California. There is, in fact, no one representing progressive or liberal left-of-center economic views on this panel. I should also say that I have an appreciation for how hard it is to gather a panel on short notice — although you could see this vote coming — that closely reflects a real-world balance of views. But this is a panel — as is not unusual on TV generally in my unscientific opinion — that most charitably can be best described as center-right — in political terms at a time when the country is quite clearly more sharply divided over economic policy and income extremes.

What you had, basically, as the progressive media watch group FAIR described it, was "Wall Street Democrat Steven Rattner, who has worked for most of the big banks and currently runs his own investment firm . . . From the right, viewers got Douglas Holtz-Eakin of the American Action Forum, which anchor Judy Woodruff called a 'policy think tank.' Holtz-Eakin was a McCain economics adviser whose think tank is involved in, among other things, helping corporations lobby against tax hikes. But someone at PBS thought viewers needed one more voice from the right: Romina Boccia of the Heritage Foundation. So the spectrum of debate was right, righter and Wall Street Democrat."

(Ombudsman's Note: Woodruff did describe Holtz-Eakin as an economic adviser to President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign.)

Pledge Drives Getting Longer?

It seems that pledge drives are much more frequent than in the past — or much longer. The respite of good programming between these pledge drives (with vacuous "specials") seems shorter and shorter. It has become a topic of conversation among those of us who have loved and supported PBS for years. But, some say we should abbreviate the contributions such as the good programming has been abbreviated. I will still contribute, BUT those pledge drives are much more of a "turn-off" than a "turn-on." Annoyance increases and appreciation waivers.

St. Louis, MO

(Ombudsman's Note: A PBS official explains it this way: Over the past four or five years many stations have increased the number of days they fundraise in December. At other times, while the number of minutes of pledge time has increased (usually weekend daytime or overnight), there have been fairly modest increases in the number of days. A number of stations have also started to split up their drives. For example, there are stations that now pledge for a few days in August and a few in September. In those cases, while the number of days hasn't increased, it may create the appearance of additional fundraising. The fundraising environment generally is tougher these days.)

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I am writing to express my extreme disappointment in the scheduling a 5-minute fund-raising appeal right in the middle of the Shields and Brooks segment of the NewsHour tonight [12/6]. I understand the acute financial challenges PBS faces and appreciate the need for fund-raising segments between programs and during entertainment programming. I am even willing to endure the short commercials for corporate sponsors who underwrite programming. But to interrupt a news commentary segment midstream for more than 5 minutes totally destroys the flow of the discussion and is insulting to your loyal viewers. I will continue with my annual support of WGBH in Boston but ask that Programming folks at PBS show better judgment and respect for their viewers when deciding fund-raising segment placements.

Jeff Whitestone, Boston, MA

Coverage Issues

Your web site does NOT make it easy to send input from viewers. Let's not assume you folks are infallible. For example, why not have a Charlie Rose show or Frontline on UKRAINE? This is a key democracy struggling under authoritarian leadership, being lost to Europe and bullied by Russia. Ukraine is vital to Europe and US. Please give the situation more attention!!

Frances Plude, Cleveland, OH

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I am very disappointed in the fact that PBS's NewsHour has yet to report on the contested Honduran election. As in the past, the US seems to always back right-wing dictators over more populist elected officials. Ignoring these ongoing anti-democratic elections will not make our imperialist efforts go away. Please do not insult the public's intelligence. Do you think we are unaware of our colonial efforts in the world?

E. Rivers, Portland, ME

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I have heard several PBS-based news programs including the NewsHour and BBC World claim that taxpayers were on the hook for over $10 billion from the GM "bailout." This is deceptive if not dishonest. Stock value was far from the only consideration in financing auto manufacturers. Loans were repaid with interest, and millions of jobs were preserved. Let's say there were no loans or capital investments. Estimated losses in tax revenue along with increased use of unemployment, Medicaid, food stamps et al (from those who became unemployed) would have cost taxpayers over $40 billion. How do you intend to correct the disinformation so prevalent in the PBS news community?

Samantha Matson, Waterford, PA

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When the Swiss reported that it looked like Arafat was poisoned, the NewsHour was all over that report. The French have just reported he died by natural causes. Not a peep out of the NewsHour. Why is that? Is it cause if he died by poisoning Israel would be the implied murderer but if natural causes not?

Jacob Zeder, Atlanta, GA

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I have two major issues with recent reporting. Regarding pension shortfalls and "legacy costs:" I have seen in person how employers will, over the years, deliberately underfund pension obligations. This is usually not because they can't afford it (after all, they did agree to these contracts), but because they would rather use those funds for something else. Then, surprise, surprise — the fund is in crisis. This makes the public think that employees were getting outrageously generous and unsustainable early retirements, and of course it sets the stage for blaming the employees and justifying cutting what was promised. The employer gets the double benefit: having spent the money elsewhere all along, and then being allowed to escape even more expenses in the future.

I also must say how irritating it is to me that your interviewers often just segue between two "experts." "Well, you heard what he just said. What do you say to that?" Informed staff work should provide the interviewers with the hard questions that each side does not want asked. It does not help educate the public, or get in- depth to the substantive policy issues. Please don't just be the voice in between each "side's" talking points and sound bites. And why do we only hear the two mainstream positions?

Diane E., Traverse City, MI

On Evolution and Climate Change

Upon watching the Nova science program the other night, the host David Pogue stated that one of the reasons why the United States lacks in science and math abilities is that still 50% of us and our children do not believe in the theory of evolution. What a preposterous statement that should come out of such a learned man! Does he not know of Newton, Kepler, and Galileo, and countless others that do not ascribe to evolution's "theory?"

Waretown, NJ

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As a former Alaskan that still works and travels the State, I was shocked at the piece about Arctic ice recession in the North. This was a nothing more than a propaganda flick crafted to influence a gullible public for political purposes. Arctic thick ice has increased over 40% in 2012 alone. So much for artifacts lost "burning a library" or unsupported claims made by government paid "scientists." This all makes me ill. I know the game, nice play PBS. I plan to cover as many as I can on my email list with this fraud, including my representatives in Congress that fund this garbage.

Mark Rose, Albany, OR