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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: A Downton Downer and Other Things

Despite on-screen warnings by PBS at the beginning of last Sunday's edition of Downton Abbey that the segment was rated TV-14 and "The following drama contains scenes which may not be suitable for all audiences. Viewer discretion is advised," many viewers objected to the inclusion of a "rape" scene in this popular British drama. That is not surprising, and a sampling of letters is posted below.

Also in the ombudsman's mailbag in recent days were emails about last Thursday's ombudsman's column dealing with a Moyers & Company program about politics in the state of North Carolina. There is also some information about the latest version of that series. And there are interesting viewer observations on other things as well.

First, the Downton Letters

My wife and I were BETRAYED by PBS' Masterpiece Theater tonight by the decision to include a rape on Downton Abbey. We will NOT watch any future episodes and will STOP recommending the show to others. The standards that Downton Abbey has set in the past would have allowed for an attempted kiss, followed by a slap to the offender and his subsequent firing from the staff. Nothing more. Therefore it was, before, SAFE entertainment on Sunday night with tension produced ONLY by romantic intrigue, personality conflict, monetary problems, war, etc. and containing much commendable content in period history and social manners, leaving us entertained and informed to end our weekend. But NO LONGER for us. The rape made the show the equivalent of R-rating content which we would not choose to watch. It was imposed upon us by surprise and let us upset and unhappy. We cannot support such programming.

Thomas & Joan Gibbons, Oak Park, IL

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The showing of Downtown Abby last night Jan. 12, 2014, was disturbing to our group of women that have watched all three seasons. We were completely turned-off by the rape scene of Anna. It is not necessary to add this new story line to get viewers. We are loyal because of the shows charm and integrity and class. Do we now have to watch another reality show . . . you lost all of us last night . . . shame on you. You have ended our love affair with the show.

Naples, FL

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I am angered and betrayed by J. Fellow's script for Downton Abbey Season 4 week 2. Rape is not entertainment: it is the piercing of the soul. To have all characters upstairs listening to opera and the audience helpless to react makes us all complicit in Anna's terrifying experience. One in four women in America are raped by the time they are 20. I ask you to think of four women you know: your mother, sister, first girlfriend, daughter. One of them has been raped. It has destroyed a part of her spirit and her life. Do you know? Are you entertained? Delighted? Do you think it was "handled sensitively"? Of course not. Julian Fellows and the entire cast of DA do women and great disservice — and reinforce the insidious power of patriarchy — in this episode. I will not watch again.

Elizabeth Ferry, South Royalton, VT

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My family was troubled by yesterday's episode of Downton Abbey where the rape scene of Anna, the housemaid, was featured. It was troubling that the narrative showed that Anna did not report the crime and even greeted her attacker subsequently. Given that millions of viewers are young fans of Downton Abbey, is this really a good example for women (and men)? Further, the guide to this Downton Abbey episode read "Anna encounters trouble" or something to that effect. The key word being "Trouble". Rape is not "Trouble". Rape is a crime. The guide should have been explicit in saying that Anna was the victim of a crime.

New York, NY

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I was very disappointed in Downton Abbey series 4 and it has lost my viewership after last night's episode. I've been a steady fan for all of the seasons, even though I suspected the series was sliding into popular media violence, sex and shock drama last season. What a shame that my fears were well founded. I had hoped there was some decency left at least on PBS.

Arlington, VA

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I can't tell you how disappointed I am at the most recent episode of Downton Abbey. Do you know why half the world loves this show? Because it's different than the rest of the junk on T.V. It's mostly lighthearted and humorous and totally enjoyable, or at least it has been. I've never watched an episode and been left with a bad feeling afterward. I've always felt entertained and uplifted. That's why I look forward to it every week. How could they have a key character who is well loved and have her violently attacked like that? I honestly don't know who to write to but felt strongly that I needed to say something.

La Grange, KY

The Producer Responds

A spokesperson for UK Producer Carnival Films issued this statement when the episode premiered there: "The complex and loving journey of Anna and Bates has been central to the narrative of the show. The events in this episode were, we believe, acted and directed with great sensitivity. Viewers will see in the forthcoming episodes how Anna and Bates struggle to come to terms with what has happened."

(Ombudsman's Note: As a viewer, and as just a personal observation, I was not offended. The scene was painful, as it should be. But the pain was conveyed by screaming. The visuals — so common on almost everything else on American television and in American movies — were thankfully absent. Downton is a drama unfolding in early 20th century England and the reason I found such a scene at least potentially worthy is because it could lead to exploration about what a woman could do or felt she had to do in such circumstances during such times. I have no idea what lies ahead in the series, but would a servant such as Anna lose her job if she complained? What chance would she have with the police or the justice system of that era if she brought charges, with no witnesses, against the male valet of an aristocrat, Lord Gillingham, an invited guest to Downton? How does a smart young woman of that time — probably the most perceptive figure in the drama, and possibly impregnated — deal with such an act, which is ageless? Does she lose control of her decisions because she can't keep others in a gossip-filled mansion from finding out, becoming involved and taking matters into their hands? Finally, although this attack is distasteful but real, it is about the only thing in the first three hours of the new season that seems to me to have produced any dramatic tension or interest other than Lady Mary's switching from her black "I'm still grieving" dress to a purple outfit, signifying something.)

Catching 'Frontline'

I liked "To Catch a Trader." It's a good movie and it's a real reflection of Insider Trading and how common it is. Also it's a direct reflection of the movie "The Wolf of Wall Street."

Vallejo, CA

(Ombudsman's Note: This is a reference to the Frontline investigative documentary that aired on Jan. 7 and that I thought was outstanding and definitely worth seeing if you missed it.)

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Why has Frontline programming been pushed to late night or the early morning hours as of late? Frontline IS the only objective investigative journalism program that I am aware of on the air in the United States. Everything else is controlled by corporate interests. Unfortunately, one has to go overseas to find anything with any similar content. Seems like Europeans are more up on what ails America than Americans are. The media bubble in the US is so obviously designed to pacify the masses. Important stories like 'To Catch a Trader' should be shown in prime time. It looks, to the casual observer such as myself, like PBS management is more worried about minimizing damage to their contributors than getting the story out. Unfortunate state of affairs in our country. Americans have lost faith in this country's institutions. The message appears to be 'playing by the rules is for idiots'. We glorify people like Cohen who appear to define the current American ideal — smart people figure ways around the rules/laws — while our young soldiers die for those ideals (like it or not) in foreign lands. Pathetic — truly.

Stephen Romero, Anderson, CA

More on Moyers

Re: Bill Moyers 1Hour program on PBS on Sunday afternoon at varying times, lately. Why has Bill Moyers above program been cut to one half hour? I do not understand this and do not like it either. Mr. Moyers is a very bright ray of light in my progressive sadness to the current disarray of political America. His is one of the few honest, enlightening programs on television. That's why I don't understand this and resent it because I donate every year to PBS. Please reply and explain this.

Judith Nappe, North Bonneville, WA

(Ombudsman's Note: Bill Moyers' most recent program — the weekly, hour-long Moyers & Company — has been distributed for the past two years by American Public Television, not by PBS. In October, Moyers announced that this series would end, as originally planned, on Jan. 3, 2014. But a few weeks later, he announced that the program would, indeed, continue but as a half-hour weekly broadcast beginning Jan. 10. Here's the story as reported in the New York Times and also the fuller announcement by Moyers as posted online by Deadline Hollywood which, mistakenly, includes a PBS logo rather than APT.)

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Bill Moyers is one of the very few journalists deserving of respect in the North American "free" media. Outside of his program, it's pretty much a desert. All the stuff and guests I've seen on Moyers' programs are what Public Affairs TV should be about, not the mamby-pamby interviews conducted on PBS's NewsHour.

Carlos Coimbra

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I think this is one of your better columns. In particular, you wrote, "My sense is that an independent, fair-minded viewer watching this would have no doubt that Moyers does not like what is going on in North Carolina, disagrees with all of it except the protests . . ." I agree with you. That also is my main criticism of Moyers, whom I generally admire. I just finished reading David and Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell. Its nine chapters illustrate how "underdogs" can succeed by using innovative methods to outflank powerful opponents. Protests such as Occupy Wall Street only pit the masses in a frontal assault against powerful foes, who largely ignore them.

James Bruner, Oak Harbor, WA

Other Stuff

I just watched tonight's [Jan. 9] PBS NewsHour segment on poetry in medical education and in medicine. The story is welcome, encouraging, and heartwarming. Dr. Campo is to be lauded for his efforts to humanize medical care. We need more of this approach to caring for people.

However, I thought, as I have so many times before, why is there never something similar about nursing? I am acquainted with school nurses who have used music and art to help school children with chronic health problems, and hospital nurses who have used alternative healthcare techniques with critically ill or dying patients. I so understand the media's perspective; nursing is just not thought of, is not considered important enough. Nonetheless, for the thousands of us who are nurses and part of the healthcare delivery system, this view gets old. Thanks for listening.

Susan Proctor RN, PhD, Placerville, CA

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I am an endocrinologist associated with Harvard Medical School. Several days ago, I watched the program featuring Dr. David Perlmutter and was appalled by its content. The measures he advocates, a radically low carbohydrate diet and gluten aversion to avoid Alzheimer Disease, diabetes, etc., have no standing in the scientific community and there is massive evidence to the contrary. Worse he offers sufferers of these distressing illnesses a false path to health, which is hardly a public service. I cannot imagine why this program was selected for a PBS special.

David Singer, Cambridge, MA

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I used to have a high opinion of PBS. They ran excellent programs like Nova and Masterpiece Theatre and I felt I could count on finding good programming when I tuned into my local PBS channel. No more. It was bad enough when they started featuring Deepak Chopra, self-help programs, and "create your own reality" New Age philosophy, but at least it was obvious what those programs were about. What is really frightening is that now they are running programs for fringe medical claims and they are allowing viewers to believe that they are hearing cutting edge science.

Neurologist Robert Burton has written excellent articles for salon.com pointing out the questionable science presented by doctors Daniel Amen and Mark Hyman in their PBS programs. Please click on the links and read what he wrote. These programs are being shown during fundraising drives as if they were examples of the best PBS has to offer.

Several people (myself included) protested to our local stations and to the PBS ombudsman. The ombudsman basically said those are not PBS programs and the local stations choose whether to run them. PBS doesn't take any responsibility for their content — but how are viewers to know that? There is no disclaimer, and the PBS logo has sometimes appeared on the screen during these programs.

PBS is providing airtime to fringe practitioners for what amounts to infomercials. They are lending their cachet to ideas that are not accepted by mainstream science, and they are not giving their viewers any clue that these ideas are not generally accepted. One commenter on the salon.com website said, "I worked at a PBS station in Tampa for several years and I can tell you the reason they run that crap — it's because it pays the bills. Unlike every other show on the station (like Nova and American Experience) the station gets a check when the show airs instead of having to pay to air it." If this is true, it is reprehensible.

If PBS really wanted to support good science, it would not air these infomercials. If it insists on airing them, it should at least provide a disclaimer and make it clear that the programs are not endorsed by PBS. Burton says: apparently PBS's mission is to raise money by exploiting viewers' gullibility at the expense of trustworthy programming. If so, it has achieved its goal — and undermined the central reason for having educational TV in the first place.

Frederick, MD

(Ombudsman's Note: I have written a number of times about this issue, including a lengthy column several years ago about these specific programs and criticisms that touches on all the issues raised in this letter and make perfectly clear that I believe PBS should, indeed, do more to make very clear that these are not programs distributed by or provided by PBS.)

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I just wanted to pass along an observation. A post on my Facebook page concerning "60 minutes" coverage on the lack of progress with renewable energy received a massive amount of disagreement with the report. Many questioned whether or not the reporting on "60 Minutes" could be trusted. One response asked if there was any place where you could get the truth and get the news. Every response thereafter said PBS NewsHour. That's a great reputation to have. And a high standard to maintain. Well done.

Dan Cignoli, Coram, NY

An Ill Wind

Though PBS was thankfully muted, tonight the broadcast still referred to the 'wind chill' factor as though such a thing actually existed. Please put a fact checker on this bogus metric. Here are a couple common sense observations.

1) Accuweather calls it 'real feel.' Well how would they (or anyone) know? Say the temperature is -5 and the 'wind chill factor' is -30. By the time a human body has actually reached that temperature, it can't feel anything, because it is dead! And by -5, frozen solid.

2) The temperature outside is 33, with a 100-mph wind. Look up the bullsh... I mean wind chill factor on the NOAA website. Then put out a springwater bottle. It will not freeze. And the thermometer will continue to read 33. That's because there is no such thing as a 'wind chill factor.'

Now the wind DOES present a real danger. And that is: wind accelerates the rate at which a warm object will cool to ambient temperature. And that IS a danger, to be sure - in terms of frostbite and hypothermia. So instead of a 'wind chill factor' we should have a 'heat loss factor.' A mom sending her kid out to the middle school bus stop would be better off knowing that frostbite (in this wind) can occur in 6 minutes, not the usual 20 minutes. But a fantasy reading of 'feels like 40 below?' Meaningless to the point of dangerous.

'Wind chill' is pseudoscience on the same order of creationism: it's unprovable, untestable, nonscientific . . . in short, theology (or economics!), based entirely in speculation and fantasy. No wonder America's schoolchildren are stupid (and 21st in science is stupid). Is PBS going to continue to be a part of this?

David Maurand, Essex, MA