The Mailbag: 'Snake Oil,' Hillary, Climate, Concerts, etc.

Posted by Michael Getler on

I'll get to the ombudsman's business in a minute, but first a personal note.

The news has been pretty terrible now for quite some time: the unchecked slaughter in Syria goes on, the daily slaughter in Iraq has now escalated into what looks like a new and evermore gruesome takeover of parts of that country. Here at home, national politics in the public interest seems to be over, too many millions can't find work. And I've given up watching the local 11 p.m. television news (NBC) because, aside from weather and sports, it is a relentless recitation of murder, gun violence, sexual assault, fraud, fire and misery just before bedtime. My guess is it is much the same on other channels in other major cities.

But two long-planned days off last week to attend the graduation of our granddaughter from UCLA helped lift the gloom for someone immersed in daily news. I mention this here not because it involves our family, but rather because the whole event—a version of which gets played out at hundreds of colleges and universities around this country around this time every year—conveys such a strong sense of optimism, progress and continuance; a necessary antidote to so much that we read, watch and hear every day.

The UCLA event, however, struck me as especially powerful and important because it was a reminder of the role that public universities have played, and still play, in providing first-class educations, especially to lower and middle-income families who cannot afford to send their children to far more costly private institutions. The thousands of graduates streaming into the school's famed basketball arena presented an extraordinary array of diverse faces and names. The vast majority of them stood when asked how many of them engaged in community projects in and around the city. They seemed an enthusiastic bunch who loved their school, and it made me feel good witnessing it and also knowing that multitudes elsewhere were witnessing and feeling the same thing.

Now, the letters and some notes about them.


The Good and the Not So Good

This morning I was shopping at Fry's grocery store in Cottonwood where I live and the check-out person, a woman in her 50s, and the young fellow who bagged my groceries were discussing the news. As she scanned my purchases, the woman at the register said, "You can't believe anything you hear on the regular news. Only PBS and sometimes the Discovery Channel are reliable." The young man agreed wholeheartedly. "The rest is just junk," he said. "Totally not worth watching." I thought you would like to hear this comment!

Joan Prefontaine, Cottonwood, AZ

~ ~ ~

Two points I'd like to make. One, I think there should be some code of good practice for PBS stations on exactly how many, what the limit is on the number of hours of fundraising. Some stations seem to be continually fundraising in Los Angeles. It's never ending, and it's self-defeating. The other thing is there are an awful lot of shows with doctors telling you how to live your life whether it's eating or exercising or whatever. Many of them are not scientifically sound, many of them are contradictory. You need to have that whole idea of doctors giving advice on TV re-evaluated by outside experts. Thanks. I appreciate PBS, good work. I wish you had more audience-specific stuff.

Los Angeles, CA

~ ~ ~

I'm not sure whether it's just my perception, or whether in fact the PBS stations are running an awful lot of 'lifestyle' and 'feel good' lecture shows. Many of these shows seem to have a sales component, and they are run endlessly on various local PBS stations when they seem to have nothing else to fill the time. There's almost a 'snake oil' sense to most of them, and I wonder if others feel this way. I realize that PBS is suffering financially, and I sometimes think that these 'feel goodies' are actually paying PBS to be on. I know that's not so, but still ... it's like watching late television when it switches to paid programming. My paltry $25 won't stop this endless onslaught, maybe PBS (or the local stations) could turn themselves off for a couple hours when they don't have anything worthy to broadcast (I guess the FCC wouldn't allow that). Does anyone else feel this way? Of course in the end I just turn the telly off. Thank you for listening (reading).

Little Compton, RI


Good Choice or Tough Choice

Reporting about Mrs. Clinton's book [June 10, PBS NewsHour] all the commentators were pretty positive. Could we have more balanced reporting? Plus, if there is anyone there who doesn't think this is prelude to running for presidential nomination, I've got a bridge to sell them!

Sedona, AZ

~ ~ ~

What a waste of air time spending ten minutes speculating about Hillary will she or won't she. That isn't news, it is useless gabbing.

J Mitchel, Montrose, CO

~ ~ ~

The appearance of Hillary Clinton on the PBS NewsHour constitutes a breach of the equal time mandate. You're using your show as an excuse to put her face on TV as much as possible WAY before she declares candidacy. She is a political figure, tied to a specific party, and should not be on your show AT ALL, unless you also host someone from the opposing party.

Baltimore, MD

(Ombudsman's Note: Clinton and her book were definitely in the news and there was nothing wrong with devoting a segment to it. The panel, however, could have been stronger and more questioning. With the exception of the New York Times reporter, the three-person panel was loaded with a longtime advisor to Clinton and a Democratic strategist who worked in the Clinton administration.)


Covering Climate Change

I wrote yesterday deploring the amount of programs devoted to World War II -- and now I see there's another one tonight, which I can skip and read a book instead of watching. Perhaps a book on CLIMATE CHANGE, which I have not seen you address. I have noted bits and pieces, but even where a discussion seems called for--Greenland's ice, for example--if there is a discussion on CLIMATE CHANGE, I must have missed it. It is without doubt the most important issue of the day and humanity's continued existence depends on our -- quickly -- addressing it. As I wrote before, I suspect DAVID KOCH's fingerprints are all over this failure. Take his money--but don't let him dictate your program contents. If the price is losing his support, tell your listeners you need more money and get it from them. Get him off the board. I'd be interested in reading why you have so little on climate change when life on our planet is in such peril.

V. L. Martin, St. Paul, MN

(Ombudsman's Note: The PBS science series NOVA did a good program called "Extreme Ice" about the Greenland ice sheet. But that was five years ago. It has aired a couple of times since then, most recently last December. There have been some other efforts to address climate change elsewhere on PBS, including the NewsHour and Frontline. But NOVA is PBS's premier science program and it appears to me that there has not been a strong, timely, in-depth television presentation that goes right to the heart of this crucial issue—climate change and the contribution of human activity to global warming—despite its importance and the intense political divisions and high stakes surrounding it. A memorable and authoritative program is needed, it seems to me, that does not pull any punches, reports what the science shows, identifies the forces who deny such outcomes and analyzes those arguments.)

~ ~ ~

I have long been a dedicated watcher and admirer of the PBS News Hour, which we view almost every night. You present aspects of the news not available anywhere else and for that I am grateful. In a recent PBS NewsHour (May 12) Judy Woodruff interviewed Thomas Wagner from NASA who was describing the results of two recently published papers on the melting of the West Antarctica glacier. The impression the viewer would get from hearing this interview was that the collapse of the glacier was impending and that the result would be serious flooding of many low lying shores around the world. At no time during this interview were any qualifiers introduced either by the questioner or the responder. Compare that failing with the following quote from the authors of one of the original papers (Marine Ice Sheet Collapse Potentially Underway for the Thwaites Glacier Basin, West Antarctica, Science, 12 May 2014): "Except possibly for the lowest-melt scenario, the simulations indicate that early-stage collapse has begun. Less certain is the time scale, with the onset of rapid (>1 mm per year of sea-level rise) collapse in the different simulations within the range of 200 to 900 years." In simple language it says that simulations indicate that sea level rise of something greater than 4 inches per century could begin in 200 – 900 years from now. Did you make that clear? Additionally did your interviewer make it clear that the conclusions of the author were based on simulations? Did your interviewer make it clear that this segment of the Antarctica ice mass rests very near an area of undersea volcanic activity? I don't think you did your homework and you failed in your obligation to present a full and balanced presentation to your audience.

The other paper under discussion appeared in Geophysical Research Letters and nowhere in it do the authors make any predictions of the impact of their measurements on sea level rise. In fact their final sentence in the paper clearly states the limitations you failed to highlight: "Until numerical ice sheet models coupled with realistic oceanic forcing are able to replicate these observations, projections of the evolution of this sector of West Antarctica should be interpreted with caution." More serious than your failure to adequately question the significance of these papers is the impression you create for those who understand the limitations of these studies that you have a bias on this issue and that causes you to overlook the limitations in work that sustains those biases.

Boynton Beach, FL


Woodruff Replies:

This segment was generated quickly on May 12, after the news broke about two separate scientific papers coming to the same conclusion. NASA called a news conference that day to highlight the urgency of the findings. We were able to secure an interview with NASA's scientist in charge of programs on polar ice. Our lead-in to the interview pointed out about the melting ice sheet, that "Eventually, scientists say, it will lead to rising sea levels." And: "The collapse of the ice sheet will take more than a century to play out...."

This was a roughly 5 minute long interview, designed to touch on the main points of the scientists' findings. There was no practical way to delve into the many important details that [the viewer] raises. But we appreciate very much his close attention to the program.

(Ombudsman's Note: I thought this was a pretty well-done segment; timely, given the news of the day that was widely covered, and with good questions by Woodruff to help the average viewer put things in some perspective, including the long time periods and millimeter increases involved. I can't see all the TV news programs but my guess is that this was the best coverage--with some probing questions--anywhere on TV that day. As a layman, it didn't strike me at all as revealing a biased performance by Woodruff. Both Woodruff’s note and mine were sent to the viewer, but they did not satisfy him at all.)



I watched James Jones' Battle for Ukraineon PBS [Frontline], from Kharkiv, where I live half the year. It gave me an idea for a Frontline piece on the American civil rights movement. It's the 1960s: the TV crew comes from England to report on the overall situation. It goes to Oakland, CA and interviews a Black Panther holding a gun. Then to Mississippi where it interviews a KKK member, also with gun. It gathers great footage of violence (not from its own cameras of course but from local folks). Then it edits it into a tight 32 minutes, and presents it to the world as what is happening in America. Oh yes, mention MLK Jr. in the closing minute. Putin must have loved the focus on Right Sector--whose leader got 1% in the presidential election. In fact, he and the other right-wing candidate (out of 21) got less votes combined than the head of the Jewish conference here.

Patrick Breslin, Washington, DC


Frontline Responds:

The PBS Ombudsman forwarded your e-mail to FRONTLINE.  Thank you for taking the time to share your critique of our film, Battle for Ukraine. We appreciate the fact that you have regular, on-the-ground experience in Ukraine. As we said in the film, our producer spent an extensive amount of time reporting in Ukraine, including Kharkiv, and consulted with many sources inside and outside the country – well beyond the characters who appeared in the film.

Your e-mail and analogy suggest that we presented a distorted view of the conflict. But we believe that our reporting and our focus on the militant forces behind much of the deadly violence cannot –and should not – be dismissed as easily as you suggest. These factions are playing prominent roles in the fighting in Ukraine. There are obviously many aspects to this ongoing story, but we stand by our reporting and we feel it provided important insights into the situation.

What's Missing from that Concert

More than 750 Ships of the Merchant Marine were sunk in World War II. Casualties? ... rarely did anyone get picked up by escorts. 68,000 DEAD. I doubt that there are more than 150 of us left. I would surely like a response from you. If you would supply me with an e-mail address to those responsible for the Memorial Day event... I would be very appreciative.

Robert Fein, Boynton Beach, FL

~ ~ ~

My wife and I were thrilled at the honor bestowed on our U.S. military heroes, living and dead, and their families during the 25th annual National Memorial Day Concert. The stories and pageantry were wonderful and amazing. We were pleased to see the addition of the National Guard to the ceremony this year.

However, we were sincerely disappointed that the sacrifice and service of members of the U.S. Maritime Service (USMS) and U.S. Merchant Marine (USMM) were not recognized along with their armed forces comrades. These services are considered the forgotten services (see the first website below), but they deserve to be recognized for their courage, valor, and commitment to duty, just as their armed forces comrades have been recognized for decades. The men and women of the USMS and USMM gained veteran status in 1998 after many years of neglect by the United States Government. USMS and USMM veterans are honored at the WWII memorial alongside their armed forces comrades. Why not have the same recognition for the National Memorial Day Concert and other such veterans' events sponsored by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?

Patrick Cotter, Pacific Grove, CA

(Ombudsman's Note: The above letter was initially sent to the ombudsman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and then passed on to me. Both of the letters have been passed along to the producers of the annual Memorial Day Concert, and a response to Mr. Cotter's letter from Jerry Colbert, executive producer of Capital Concerts, is posted on the CPB ombudsman's website.)


How, Exactly, Does He Know This?

Matt Farwell knows absolutely nothing about anything Gwen Ifill is asking him about tonight [NewsHour, June 5]. How did he get on the program?????

Edith Martin, Manning, SC

(Ombudsman's Note: This refers to an interview with a former soldier who served in Afghanistan and helped "report," according to the way he is introduced on the program, a 2012 feature on the then-missing Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with the late journalist Michael Hastings for "Rolling Stone" magazine. I have the same question as the viewer. There are no details about how Farwell knows anything. Did he serve with Bergdahl? Did he meet and interview him along with Hastings? If so, when and for how long and what did he actually learn directly from Bergdahl? None of this is made clear.)

Posted at 1:16 p.m.

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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 >
Have a comment related to the journalistic integrity of PBS content? Send an E-mail to Michael Getler or contact him at 703-739-5290.
The ombudsman does not replace viewers' long-standing ability to contact stations, producers and PBS.
If you have a comment related to PBS website design or user experience, please contact the Audience Services team.


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