The Mailbag: Tough Love Gives Way to Tough Words

Posted by Michael Getler on

I was away for much of the past two weeks at various events, including the annual conference of news ombudsmen, and the mail piled up. So, what follows is another—this one very long—of my periodic postings of representative samplings of recent email from viewers.

As I’ve said before, most people who write to an ombudsman do so because they have a complaint. That seems especially to be the case for this batch of messages, many of which are quite tough and critical and, in some cases, personal. I’ve shortened some of these, removed some ad hominem comments and, on some of the emails, I stick my two cents in where it strikes me as appropriate. 

Some of these letters go to the continuing argument being carried on in my mailbox, in email campaigns, and in several other places about the role of David Koch, the once low-profile but newly controversial billionaire businessman, philanthropist and political activist who has also been an important financial supporter of PBS programs over the years and is a trustee of one of its most important and productive member stations, WGBH in Boston.

There are also several letters that take shots at the nightly PBS NewsHour. This is not surprising because the program is on every day and deals with the issues of the day at a time when there is a great deal of polarized opinion about so many of those issues. But here, too, the critiques seem to be tougher and more personal than usual.

Here Are the Letters

It would appear to this viewer that PBS, WNET and WGBH have decided to align themselves with the Koch money instead of honoring the mission and purpose of public media…If this is where PBS has chosen to stand, they might as well disband. I would rather see PBS dissolved rather than see it continue to slide toward irrelevance as the current trajectory points. It appears that the people pushing the buttons at PBS care more about corporate underwriting than public service—a direct opposition to the purpose and intent of public media.

A PBS that has no room for Bill Moyers but gives deferential treatment to the Kochs has no room for me. A PBS with a NOVA that does not hammer the climate deniers and the creationists for fear of the politics is not worthy of the public funding it gets. A PBS with a servile NewsHour that presents center-right to right wing beltway spin as the spectrum of debate in the US is not worthy of our trust.

PBS needs a new model for funding and the nonsense member station model will not do it. My local station is more interested in Lawrence Welk reruns than public service and the PBS app on Apple TV allows me to watch programming from KQED in San Francisco that actually still has an interest in the true mission of public media.

David Gregory, Marion, AR

~ ~ ~

I'm afraid you are manipulated by corporate donors such as the Koch brothers ($20M) and are no longer unbiased. Therefore, you are no longer worthy of public support. You have become a muzzled mouthpiece for the same corporate bullies that try successfully to influence the government and its policies. I am aware of your sellout to corporate interests and no longer trust your reporting, especially with controversial issues that reveal undue corporate influence in our democracy.

Eva Dickman, Solon, OH


On Frontline and the NSA 

I am a longtime supporter of PBS and having just watched the first Frontline program [May 13] on the NSA I am reminded why. I knew much of what was in the program but the journalistic integrity combined with the interviews with the longtime employees of the NSA -- patriots who made me incredibly proud and grateful for their public service -- made me all the more grateful for PBS.

C. Connine, Binghamton, NY

~ ~ ~

I am a Texas Liberal from Fort Worth. I vote Democratic and voted for Obama twice. I preface my remarks here tonight because I want you to know that you aren't receiving these remarks from Attila the Hun reanimated, but I am sick and tired of Glen Greenwald and his screed against the NSA! Although I am none too happy with the surveillance state our nation has become over the last 13 years as the result of 9/11/2001, but that being said, I haven't read, or seen abuses from the standpoint of harassment, or any investigation indicating misuse of our policing powers against innocent citizens. And, on the other hand, I do like the fact that we have not had another 9/11- type event on our shores, something I attribute to the efforts of all US intelligence services working together. I like the current mix of policing policies that our Government has employed. I get a really bad feeling whenever I see and hear Glenn Greenwald interviewed on television, or radio over the topic of NSA. He seems like a dishonest partisan with an extremely well-defined agenda, even a hatred against any and everything the NSA may possibly do! The fact that Snowden selected him is not helpful to me, because I believe Edward Snowden was wrong by 180 degrees. I can never forgive Snowden for betraying the United States. 

Fort Worth, TX

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The program United States of Secrets is propaganda. Opposing points of view are carefully harvested throughout the program until the authors get to Snowden. Then only the two left-wing British journalists appear who profited from Snowden's crime against the United States. There are no viewpoints opposing Snowden.

William Pannill, Houston, TX

~ ~ ~

Yesterday evening [May 15] Judy Woodruff described Edward Snowden as a "disgruntled" employee . . . Whatever he may have been, disgruntled does not describe his condition. I would hope a more accurate adjective could be found. How about a "concerned" employee. He certainly was concerned about American's loss of privacy.

Carol Ciscel, Memphis, TN


On Elizabeth Warren

Finally [May 19] the PBS Snoozehour has Elizabeth Warren on. This woman gives a shit. Warren bombed your meager little effort at equivalency. Keep up the good smirk snoozehour, bring on some other firebrands from the left who don't want to foster your equivalency lie.

Tim Ryan, San Jose, CA

~ ~ ~ 

Watching Judy Woodruff interview Elizabeth Warren last night was a little like watching Sean Hannity interview Karl Rove, which is something I wouldn't do. Ms. Woodruff failed to meet the fair and balanced test. It's very hard to take the current show seriously. I want the news without whining and without eyebrow lifting. Thanks for listening.

Donal Mahoney, St. Louis, MO

(Ombudsman’s Note: I thought this was a good, straight-forward interview. I didn’t catch any whining or eyebrow lifting. Here’s a link so you can make your own judgment.)


On Brown v. Board

As a high school teacher who was alive before Brown v. Board, I want to thank and commend the NewsHour for the coverage on the 5/16/2014 show. If you did nothing else this entire year, this would justify Congressional funding. Thank you.

Michael Shaughnessy, San Francisco, CA

~ ~ ~

One must suppose that you are rather left-wing yourself, not to have seen that this program mainly issues multi-cultural propaganda and that in today's program, for example, the "debate" on the Brown vs Board of Ed., gave no opportunity at all for a conservative or dissenting voice. This is not news. This is tax-supported liberal therapy. You know that, of course.

Albert Perdue, Brent, AL

~ ~ ~

I am increasingly disappointed by PBS's, and in particular, the NewsHour's emphasis on "progressive" or "liberal" perspectives of the news. First, a puff-piece with President Clinton [May 14].  He was the President and is newsworthy, but the questions could have been written by the DNC. So much warmth and companionship. That was then followed by the feel-good piece this evening [May 16] on the anniversary of the Brown decision. The panelists - all of one mind - were not blended by anyone who spoke of the larger concepts of a United America, what that means and why we aren't there, and what all of us can do to bring that goal into fruition. PBS may be moving toward a more civil form of Fox News, but on the Left.

Alexandria, VA


Clinton and Ifill 

Gwen Ifill just referred [May 14] to the Republicans as "they" in her interview with Bill Clinton when she asked him about Benghazi, Ukraine, etc. Isn't it obvious that she is biased? Could we possibly get some personalities on PBS that would balance the ticket? The newscasters are so obviously Democrats that it is really discouraging to "other than Democrats" to watch PBS.

Danbury, TX

~ ~ ~ 

I watched the PBS news hour on May 14 and Gwen Ifill interviewed former President Clinton. She brought up Karl Rove's comments about Hillary Clinton's health. She phrased the question as "Doctor" Rove etc. Gwen is a show host and supposedly the NewsHour is journalism. Her bias was obvious. She ridiculed Rove. She could have asked her question but she had to be snarky and revealed her personal bias.  

Palo Alto, CA

~ ~ ~

I watched Gwen Ifill's interview with Bill Clinton tonight and thought I was watching Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. When did Gwen become a partisan for the Democratic Party and why did you run that clip on TV? I am deeply disappointed because the NewsHour was the last neutral objective media outlet. No wonder Republicans want to cut off funding for PBS. Frankly, after this episode, I don't blame them.

Donald Romanik, New York, NY 

(Ombudsman’s Note: First, I thought this was a good, timely and well-conducted interview and clearly worth running. I thought the use of “they” was permissible and not pejorative. Some (seven) Democrats in the House also voted this month in favor of establishing a new committee to look into the Benghazi attack. I do think Ifill erred in bestowing the “Doctor” title on Rove. It may have been meant as a light-hearted reference to Rove’s raising questions about Hillary Clinton’s health, but that quip should have been resisted. It can, indeed, create the perception of bias.)


Woodruff in the Crosshairs

Re: the Nigerian Girls Kidnapping Story. I find Judy Woodruff and guest's review (May 12 show) of the situation to be way off the mark. As I have visited and worked in Nigeria I find that their remark--"Nigeria's economy is great!!” Are you kidding??? If you believe we have inequality issues here in the US, take a trip to Nigeria and you will see the poorest, most desperate people in Africa's richest country. Also the guest seemed to rule out issues of corrupt government and bribes. Anyone who has passed though the Lagos International Airport and not paid several bribes is either a liar or a well-armed person, or now is a guest of the airport.  PBS needs to fact check their reporters’ comments and invite guests who have not lived their lives on "F" St, in DC. 

Douglas Wilcox, Blythewood, SC

(Ombudsman’s Note: Nobody said Nigeria’s economy is “great.” Woodruff said at one point that “Nigeria is such a successful economy, certainly compared to others on the African continent” and guest J. Peter Pham, African program director at the Atlantic Council, said: “The economic successes of Nigeria are undoubtable.” Pham may well have considerably understated the degree of corruption in the country by describing it as “a bit of corruption,” but it is the largest economy in Africa and is growing rapidly although there is still very widespread poverty.)

~ ~ ~

I am so disappointed to hear a segment on the NewsHour tonight (5/14) with Judy Woodruff and a young man [NewsHour Political Editor Domenico Montanaro] who were supposed to be discussing a graph from the Brookings Institute about polarization with the two political parties. Judy and guest referred to the Democratic Party also acting in polarized behavior, but never gave one example. Guess why? There aren't any! False equivalency is only alive with lazy journalists - is this the company Ms. Woodruff wants to be included in?  The rest of us observe a House of Representatives who came close to defaulting our country over ideology, have the worst record in history for legislation passed and are viewed by most voters as completely dysfunctional - because of the Republican Party! In the Senate there has been an unbelievable record of filibusters stopping all legislation - because of the Republican Party! Please stop trotting out this old, dated, misinformed meme. How I wish Judy and guest had spent more time accurately discussing the graph from Brookings because it indeed graphically showed how extreme the Republican Party has become.

Maggie Rheinstein, McLean, VA

(Ombudsman’s Note: I don’t think the problem with this segment had anything to do with Woodruff or her questions. The Brookings Institute’s graphics were indeed very illustrative of contemporary party separations. But as a viewer, I found the commentary about the current political landscape very high-speed, hard to follow and loaded with insider references and terms. At one point, Montanaro also said, “And it’s not just with Democrats—with Republicans” which confused things a bit since he seemed to mean “with Republicans.” In any event, the politics of the letter-writer seem clear but not Woodruff’s.)  

~ ~ ~ 

Judy Woodruff's interview with Gen. Alexander [May 14] failed to uphold the integrity and honesty of PBS and failed the Journalism sniff-test as well. Every single excuse used by Alexander to justify the many NSA secret programs used to spy on Americans has been publicly refuted. NSA officials have repeatedly lied to Congressional oversight committees and to the courts which oversee the programs. The programs have been shown to specifically target Americans, and the programs have not stopped a single terrorist attack. What else really needs to be said? Did Ms. Woodruff even bother to preview the [Frontline] program shown later last night in which PBS shows specifically how the government has broken the law at virtually every opportunity to continue these illegal programs? Could she not refute Gen. Alexander on a single statement of fact? I thought that is what constituted journalism.

Doug Burr, Spokane, WA

(Ombudsman’s Note: Woodruff, in fact, led-off her interview with a lengthy segment from the Frontline program. Her questioning was good and proper, in my view—listen to the interview or read the transcript here and judge for yourself—and it was appropriate to have Gen. Alexander give his side of the story.)

~ ~ ~  

During the discussion between Nomi Prins and Mark Calabria on tonight's [May 20] news, why did Judy Woodruff of the NewsHour see fit to describe Demos as a progressive think tank and not describe the Cato Institute as a conservative think tank?

Merna Brostoff, Albuquerque, NM

(Ombudsman’s Note: I don’t know but some brief description would have been helpful.)


Other Voices

I am tired of seeing PBS champion the alarms by Global Warming catastrophe purveyors, like Bill Moyers, that ignore the profusion of scientists that question it is happening or even approaches a "catastrophe.  There are over 30,000 scientists whose views are ignored by people like Moyers who only entertain the pro-catastrophe view.  Even the "lauded" [United Nations] IPCC has neglected to involve these scientists because they hold an opposing view to those scientists that get a majority of their funding from governmental agencies that benefit from making the public crazy about Global Warming.

Science shows the earth is not warming severely and that it comes anywhere close to a "catastrophe". I believe in following the money that IPCC scientists get for being involved in this fraud and that it shows they are unduly influenced by grant funding and not science. To claim that "the science is in" is ridiculous as true science is never "in" and consensus is not science. President Obama is not a scientist, he is a politician and we hear too much from people of his ilk and not enough of the true back and forth of honest scientists. Get rid of Moyers and his B.S. approach to journalism.

Paul Ingraham, Santa Fe, NM

(Ombudsman’s Note: Moyers and PBS parted company about four years ago. His new weekly program, “Moyers & Company,” debuted more than two years ago but it is distributed by American Public Television.)

~ ~ ~

Hello, I am a strong supporter of PBS and NPR but my comment is regarding the Be More campaign. Specifically it regards the particular scene of a small girl seeing her reflection in the helmet visor of a space suit while visiting a museum. What bothers me is the fact that the spacesuit is clearly a Russian spacesuit as evidenced by the flag on the shoulder. My father worked for NASA for 28 years, and I wonder if it's not too jingoistic to have a girl imagine being an American Astronaut. Given that the Russian space program is far less diverse than the US program, (Valentina Tereshkova, aside) and given the recent problems with Putin’s Russia, can't PBS help inspire us in a better way? 

Andrew Rodriguez, Ponte Vedra, FL

~ ~ ~

Your many programs on the plights of blacks, Jews and homosexuals are sad.  So, does PBS feel sad about the plights of us atheists and secularists?  Why has PBS never, to my knowledge, run any program on so-called "unbelievers?" Is it because PBS's staff is 100 percent black-Jewish-homosexual, and so you produce programs about yourselves? And where are any programs on Native Americans -- the Red Peoples?  And why so few programs on the Yellow Peoples?  Frankly, I'm sick of watching only your favorites "peoples"!

John Spofforth, Athens, OH

~ ~ ~ 

R U kidding me? At the start of the 6pm show today [The PBS NewsHour, May 20], you teased with a story about Rinat Akhmetov in Donetsk mobilizing his own 'troops' to fight the separatists. It was one of the several in-depth stories you said you'd show. Then you simply didn't. Not even a further mention like "sorry we couldn't get to it". Nothing. Who's running the show there??

Ewing, NJ

(Ombudsman’s Note: Good question. Definitely a screw-up. As far as I can tell so far, the segment was not transmitted in time to be included. It was on Wednesday night and was very informative.)

~ ~ ~ 

Your piece [May 20] on the mergers of cable companies is disgraceful. It is full in inside-industry phrases like "content" and "broadband." This was a piece for industry insiders. There is absolutely no reference to the bottom line of the consumer experience in figuring all this out. To most consumers, these providers are the "enemy" and with good reason. Consumers are spending $150 a month or more for very basic services. In my city, there's no other option for receiving TV.  These broadcast "utilities" have hoodwinked the public, and NPR's complicit use of their spin and language doesn't help. Where's the reporting from the field that dramatizes the dilemma of receiving TV?

J Korman, New York, NY 

~ ~ ~ 

How could you ignore the retirement of Barbara Walters? Not one word on PBS NewsHour. Shame on you. Hope you get slammed with negative comments, you deserve it. 

J. Kaiser, Milwaukee, WI


Not a Futile Message 

This message is no doubt futile because it contests a practice by the PBS NewsHour that has been going on for years; namely, the frequent use of two guests who defend slightly different aspects on the same side of a controversial issue. (During our various recent wars, these guests were regularly retired colonels.) This one-sided approach changes analysis to propaganda.

Monday's discussion [May 19] of the indictment of five Chinese for economic cyber-spying was particularly flagrant. We were treated to two guests trying to outdo each other to defend the righteousness of this act and to demand China be taught a lesson. 

It went to the point of a lie by Laura Galante [of the security firm FireEye], who asserted that Edward Snowden revealed no commercial spying by the USA, and Gwen Ifill's acquiescence: "You mean that, because China is investigating private U.S. industry, not the government, that is when the problem begins? . . . OK, that’s good. . . . I just needed to be clear about that."

Why was nobody present to explain that the US had indeed conducted commercial spying in China, especially of Huawei [a large Chinese Internet and communications company]? Why was nobody present to explain that commercial spying would quite naturally be one-sided since China's production for the US is rarely of its own goods but under US licenses in the first place? Why was nobody present to remind us that firm American policy and practice makes it almost impossible to sue American individuals for their actions as members of government or the military? Yet these indictments were against five Chinese individuals.

Eric Fenster

(Ombudsman’s Note: I found this to be a confusing and hard to follow segment. Galante didn’t actually assert that Snowden revealed no commercial spying by the USA, so “lie” seems too strong a word, as does “acquiescence” as applied to Ifill. My sense was that she was trying to separate for the viewer the difference between state-on-state espionage and state-on-industry spying but I thought the guests didn’t make things very clear.) 

~ ~ ~ 

Watching the news today [May 19], PBS reported how the government was so mad at the Chinese espionage on some of the US private business. The main complaint was made that ultimately there were workers laid off and some US steel company or other had to be shut down. I do not complain about the espionage. But I do complain about the sad case of the US Government saying there goes our jobs! Because of foreign espionage on our private companies! Ha! I would like to know where the US lawmakers were all these years when the lawmakers themselves allowed company after company to leave the country with the lawmakers’ blessings. So now the lawmakers can really show their acting ability and say that this is unacceptable that China was shutting down US private companies. The lawmakers were glad to let US companies leave the US and the hell with the people because the lawmakers were doing what Wall Street wanted them to do and for their reward the lawmakers were given monies and the hell with the people.

Now on a PBS problem. First I would like to say that PBS shows some excellent programs from England and other places like Ireland and Scotland! I repeat they are excellent programs. But there are a lot of them and I do wish that PBS would cut down on them and show some mysteries or singing or acting from the country that pays PBS bills! I would rather see some bad acting from the Ghettos of America and know that they are trying and also that they are getting paid money for their effort then show some show or other that is supposedly better and give US money to some foreigner or other!

Malden, MA

(Ombudsman’s Note: It’s worth arguing about the degree of imported programming on PBS but, as a viewer, I’m not sure “bad acting” would work.)

Posted at 11:37 AM

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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