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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: More on 'MAKERS' and Other Stuff

Today's ombudsman's mailbag is a brief follow-up to the last one that was devoted to what I described as "a pre-emptive strike" by critics of some individuals slated to be profiled in six new one-hour documentaries that will be part of the "MAKERS: Women Who Made America" series. Those new broadcasts won't even begin until June, but several people, perhaps spurred-on by some conservative websites, wrote strongly-worded emails to me, which I posted, objecting to the choice of personalities to be highlighted in the forthcoming segments. The new programs expand on a three-hour PBS documentary of the same name that was broadcast in 2013 and dealt with the American women's movement of the last half-century.

Specifically, most of the mail at first was about the choice of comedian Sarah Silverman and actress/writer/filmmaker Lena Dunham, who stars in the HBO "Girls" series, to be among some 60 women to be profiled.

In the past week or so, the focus of those who write and call has been exclusively on Silverman. My office has now received more than 80 emails and phone calls, and the PBS main phone line has been bombarded by somewhere between 2,500 and 2,750 calls. And there may be other areas within PBS that have received additional calls.

The Issue

The purpose of this column is, in part, to simply acknowledge the receipt of all these additional emails and messages but also, in part, to mull over this situation a bit more. Obviously, there is no way to assess or react to, or know anything about, the segment involving Silverman until it airs. But the interesting issue that is out there now, and will remain, is why she was selected by PBS.

In last month's column, I said I didn't know much about Silverman and Dunham other than that they are both edgy and controversial and are well-known for performances that push the envelope. But so are a lot of other personalities these days, male and female.

At the time, I had asked filmmaker Dyllan McGee for her response to the critical email I was receiving. I posted her full response in which she said, in part, that the series "is a project that celebrates women who have and continue to shape our nation" each in "a different sphere of influence" and "who have reshaped and ultimately transformed the landscape of their chosen profession." As for the focus of the criticism, she said only: "Ms. Silverman and Ms. Dunham were selected for this project as they have both created, starred and led their own series, each of which has garnered significant attention for bringing a new, distinctive voice to television."

I said at the time that I would agree with what little McGee had to say about those particular choices but also that I wished she had given us a broader insight into her reasoning because of the controversies that these performers also stir-up. When the heavy flow of email continued and focused on Silverman, I did some more web searching and some of what I saw for the first time on YouTube was truly pushing an envelope, in my opinion. This prompted me to write to McGee again, via PBS, saying, having seen some videos, that I was now more curious about her reasoning. But I was told, by PBS, that "given the responses that we have already provided and since films are in pre-production, it's premature to discuss further details about this project." It was pointed out in the press release, PBS noted, that this series shines "a light on the women who broke down barriers in vastly different areas . . ."

I should note here that Silverman is undoubtedly popular, has a significant following, has won awards, can be very cutting but very funny, is a habitual challenger of almost any taboo you can think of and, of course, has a perfect right to perform as she does. That is not an issue. What continues to interest me, even more now that I have seen more of her work, is what went into the choice by PBS and the filmmaker to include her in a series that, as McGee said, "celebrates women who have and continue to shape our nation."

You Get the Idea . . .

Of the scores of emails and phone messages that came to me, all but two were very critical. They tended to be brief, outraged, and almost all called for an end to any PBS funding from taxpayer revenue. Many focused on religious themes that come up in her work, but what caught my newcomer's attention was other stuff, such as a political proposal. Here are some excerpts from viewers around the country who sent signed emails in the second wave of messages:

"As a taxpayer, I'm disgusted by PBS's decision to use MY tax dollars to profile the bigoted Sarah Silverman as some sort of a heroine 'who makes America.' PBS cannot use taxpayer dollars to promote hate speech with impunity, and I denounce PBS's decision to use my tax dollars in this manner. Please pass on my opinion to Beth Hoppe [programming chief at PBS]."

"I am writing to object to this coming summer's planned inclusion of comedienne Sarah Silverman in the 'Makers: Women Who Make America' documentary series. This woman is intolerant of and offensive to my religion, and her hate speech should not be included on a PBS program. I regularly enjoy many PBS programs, but this woman has no place next to the quality programming you normally provide."

"As a taxpayer and former supporter of PBS I'm disgusted by PBS's decision to use MY tax dollars to profile that bigoted Sarah Silverman as some sort of a heroine 'who makes America.' It is an absolute outrage and must be stopped by your management. Further it is not appropriate for any tax-supported 'public' media station such as yours to advocate for any political figure — no matter their position(s) or philosophy."

"Echoing some of the letters you posted, I find it sad that you take my tax dollars to celebrate someone of the low caliber of Sarah Silverman and hold her up as an example of a woman of some standing. She is rather crude and nasty towards people that have a different view than she and does not make me feel very positive about PBS for supporting this type of woman."

This kind of mass emailing always creates some difficulties for me. A lot of people who write, on this or other issues, clearly do so as individuals upset by what they see or hear. But in today's environment, many are also driven by partisan websites who tell them what has been aired, or is scheduled, and what's wrong with it. Some, undoubtedly, are not PBS viewers. Some writers may well have never seen or heard Sarah Silverman. That doesn't mean they are wrong about an issue, just that it is not spontaneous or based on first-hand experience.

A Different Drummer

So in deference to the god of suspicion, here are the only two contrary letters I received that clearly were not part of anything:

Here's one from Waterford, PA:

"Oh, dear. The writers complaining about the 'Makers' series are very likely not PBS viewers. For reasons beyond my comprehension, the first series was also vilified; the women provoking similar terror were then Hillary Clinton and Gloria Steinem. Before it aired, my local online TV listing had been Freeped and bore a 1-star rating from 'viewers.' Right-wing blogs had a collective case of the vapors. There are people in this country who are paid to write letters and make ugly comments about the right wing's targeted choices for attack. The assignments include newspapers with comment sections, radio hosts such as Thom Hartmann and Ed Schultz, YouTube videos, Facebook (of course) and, less frequently, PBS. 'Work at home' ads often lead to this activity. The comments are usually very similar and focus on the same individuals, in this case Silverman and Dunham, who happen to be Democrats. Favorites from previous years include Nancy Pelosi and George Soros. Those commenting have little or no knowledge of their subjects but work from supplied bullet points. I was raised in an environment which performed this function in the 70's and 80's, though of course without computers. Letter-writers of the era gathered in my basement to oppose the ERA, OSHA, the EPA and others.

"Something to consider for the 'Mailbag' is to print a couple letters rather than the Breitbart.com brigade. They are seeking attention, not careful thought. When progressive think tanks start offering money for letters written, I will probably write daily! Until then, I'll write when I personally have something to say. Good luck fending off this bunch. I look forward to the new series."

And another one from South Bend, IN:

"About the controversy over honoring some women in TV like Silverman, I think those complaining viewers are demanding too high a level of political-correctness. They need to take a deep breath — we all need a thicker skin when, as a democracy with separation of Church and State, some programming doesn't follow our personal points of view or lack of appreciation for irreverent humor.

"PBS, though, sometimes caves in to celebrity seeking and pandering to tastes of the 'in-crowd' regarding its picks for the spotlight. If mostly TV celebrities were selected to represent the creativity of women, that would be a mistake. What about celebrating women who have found a creative way to solve social and public problems in government, science, tech and business? Our young people need more of these types of female role models."

What follows is a catch-up on a couple of other issues that drew some letters.

On Lauren and His 'Skinny Women,' and Those Pesky Pop-Ups

I am disgusted by the grotesquely skinny women featured in the Ralph Lauren ads that play prior to every episode of Downton Abbey on PBS. Please stop encouraging unhealthy body weight as a cultural norm and stop promoting a designer who jeopardizes the health of his models and girls all over the world by glamorizing the grotesque. Please, please insist on healthier models from your design sponsors. I don't have the power, but you do.

Chandler, AZ

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The Ralph Lauren ads that run prior and following Masterpiece Theater and other programs are getting on our last nerve. The visuals are not so bad, the featured models look like young girls playing dress-up. However, the pretentious voice track claiming that "it's all about a woman, her hopes and desires" as the camera lingers on the face of what looks to be a 14-year old, is ridiculous, insulting, and increasingly irritating with each viewing.

Bill Brown, Takoma Park, MD

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I am so offended by the ads of Ralph Loren that I am considering stopping my support. You apparently will allow anything for money. That's not the PBS I love.

Michael Morton, Whitefish, MT

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While watching "Downtown Abbey" with women friends last night, we all commented on the Ralph Lauren commercial. We all really dislike it for a number of reasons: pandering to so-called "women" (using girls as models), the pompous, egotistical message from Mr. Lauren (including a snappy photo of himself). While we understand that he generously supports the program, we wished that he had used better taste and messaging. We are all middle-aged/senior citizens, young at heart, intelligent, educated, love the arts and PBS.

Flint, MI

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This is part of PBS's mission: "PBS and our member stations are America's largest classroom, the nation's largest stage for the arts and a trusted window to the world." On that stage, in what can only be called commercials (even though they're not called that), what is being learned — by young and old alike — can be nothing more than the acceptance of cruel practices. I'm speaking about the Ralph Lauren ads PBS runs over and over with Downton Abbey and other shows. These high-fashion ads feature women wearing different articles of clothing made of fur — unnecessary, vanity items produced through cruelty and suffering. Awful ads, just awful — and on public television!

Jeri O'Donnell, Manhattan Beach, CA

(Ombudsman's Note: Here's some language from Ralph Lauren passed along by Masterpiece producers regarding the fur: "Ralph Lauren stopped using fur in our apparel and home collection in 2006. We take very seriously our responsibility for ensuring a safe and healthy working environment for the people who make our products and the ethical treatment of animals used in our products. Ralph Lauren requires all licensees, vendors, contractors, sub-contractors and trim and material suppliers to adhere to strict operating guidelines. Please be assured that we do not buy angora, shearling, or other animal products from companies that knowingly harm animals and we require our suppliers to sign a letter of guarantee that states the same.")

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Thank you for completely ruining the viewing experience with intrusive station bugs and constant, garish, large pop-up advertising for upcoming programs (as if viewers are too stupid to know what channel they have tuned in to, and can't check the channel listings to see what shows are on). It is extremely insulting and disrespectful to the viewing audience, and to the integrity of the programming. PBS used to be a welcome place of refuge to get away from that sort of garbage; since you've sold out, I guess I must now look elsewhere.

Cranston, RI

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The first episode of the new season of Downton Abbey had no on-screen advertising "bug" interruptions. That was greatly appreciated. However, they were back on the screen in tonight's episode. Not only were they there, they were big, used vivid colors and stayed on the screen a long time. PLEASE stop inserting these bugs. Viewers don't want them, nor do viewers need them to know what program they are watching or what the schedule is for upcoming programs. PBS can survive without them. PBS members pay their membership dues so they can enjoy a viewing experience free from commercial interruptions. These "bugs" are in reality ads for PBS and they should not be there. By inserting them into program content, PBS is violating its contract with members.

Jeffrey & Marcia Keimer, Portola Valley, CA

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