The Mailbag: Fireworks on the Mall and in the Middle East

Posted by Michael Getler on


This week’s ombudsman’s mailbag had two predominant themes. One was the annual Capitol Fourth concert and fireworks display from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol broadcast live by PBS. The other was coverage of the new outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas.

And, there were also some comments and calls about a NewsHour segment last Monday about for-profit colleges.

The July 4th concert, called “A Capitol Fourth,” has been broadcast for three decades on PBS and is always one of the most popular and widely-viewed programs. But it also generates some critical comments and I have written about it several times before.

It is hard to judge the significance of a handful of critical comments about such a popular show, and I don’t want to overstate it. But the new letters from viewers that are posted below, although fewer of them than in previous postings, continue a trend that I noted last yearwhen I said this about the mail received following the 2013 concert:

“The letters that followed last week's concert raise a broader question of whether these events have turned into predominantly pop concerts and strayed too far from the more overtly patriotic fare that viewers associate with this special holiday. What is also interesting is that the new letters reflect that same strong sense of disappointment about the general content of the program as those who wrote to me in years past.”

The concert is produced by Capital Concerts in conjunction with local station WETA. I have asked Capital Concerts for comment on these letters but as of this posting it has not been forthcoming.

Here Are the Letters

A Capitol Fourth was a disaster. Tom Bergeron's script was hokey, at best. Frankie Valli sounded like he sucked on a helium balloon. Patti Labelle screamed her performance. Can't PBS get quality performers? Too many views of the crowd. I want to see the fireworks/performers, better performers-not has beens. I could go on, but space is limited and I think my displeasure of A Capital Fourth is apparent. This show has been going downhill year after year. Fortunately, I watched the show using my DVR so I didn't have to suffer for an hour and a half. As a member/supporter of PBS/Channel 9-St. Louis, I expect better quality all around.

Daniel Boeddeker, St. Louis, MO

~ ~ ~

Watching the Washington Fourth of July Concert on the Mall I was disappointed there was no musical salute to the Armed Forces as there used to be. I can only conclude that PBS has no interest in honoring the military branches on Independence Day.

Russell Miller, La Grange, IL

~ ~ ~

Excellent program & presentation. Please consider for your 2015 4th of July program including Native American dance groups, e.g. Brule. America's "first nation" has been overlooked in the annual celebration of its national heritage. The Native Americans have continually shown their patriotism and pride in being Americans in every way. They have paid the price and earned the right to be a part of this celebration up front before all of America, not just one time but annually.

Thomas Decker, Signal Hill, CA

~ ~ ~

I am soooo disappointed in the 4th of July program tonight. It is only a "pop concert." In prior years, it has been patriotic music and commentary. Pop music has nothing to do with today. You should be ashamed of yourselves. We can find pop music on any channel, 24/7. I am totally disgusted, so should you be.

Glenn Lackey, Greenville, SC

~ ~ ~

While Patti LaBelle's vocal performance on tonight's "A Capitol Fourth" was loud, her audible "Jesus!" screeched as she made her entrance onstage was beyond offensive. She should be ashamed. PBS owes its viewers a huge apology. As does she.

Ashburn, VA

~ ~ ~

I was just on PBS Video looking at clips for 'A Capitol Fourth' and was very surprised to see that the site had the name of composer John Philip Sousa as John "Phillips" Sousa. URL is here: While I do appreciate that the spelling was consistent throughout the page, there's really no excuse for getting this wrong. It's an easy mistake to make, but it's equally easy to verify the spelling. It's particularly grating on Independence Day, when Mr. Sousa is on just about every instrumental concert program in the country.

Winterport, ME

(Ombudsman's Note: It's been fixed. Thanks for catching that.)

On Gaza/Israel Coverage

The following letters relate to NewsHour segments on July 4, 5, 8 and 9 dealing with the escalating tensions and clashes in East Jerusalem, and especially the widening attacks by Israel against Hamas targets in Gaza and by Hamas rockets being fired into Israel. The latest outbreak of hostilities, which is continuing, came after the kidnapping and killing of three young Israelis in June and what is suspected to be a revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager by six young Israelis, now under arrest.

There are ombudsman’s notes following some of these letters and I offer these brief, broader comments as well. Every new outbreak of violence in this region produces strongly-worded and strongly-felt letters about news coverage. Even though some are overtly partisan, they can contain legitimate journalistic criticism. But I have found that the best way to judge coverage of rapidly unfolding stories is as a continuum. Things not covered one day can be picked up on the following day. This is what seemed to be the case, for example, with the beating by Israeli security forces of a young American-born cousin of the slain Palestinian teenager that, as one letter-writer points out, was not covered in the July 5 NewsHour broadcast. But it was covered, along with film of the episode, the following evening on the NewsHour.

In general, and as a viewer, I found these NewsHour segments to be timely, informative, straight-forward, and often with good context not supplied by shorter coverage on other television networks. The reporters who were interviewed were experienced and from the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press. Most of the reporting was from Jerusalem-based correspondents. It would have been good to have on-the-ground reporting from correspondents in Gaza as well, but there was good use of filmed news reports and interviews from there.

Throughout the viewer comments below, we have inserted links to the transcripts for each of the reports, so those who may have missed this reporting can judge the fairness and accuracy themselves.

Here Are the Letters

I watch the PBS NewsHour. Today [July 4] a Mr. Josh Mitnick [Wall Street Journal] reported about the situation in Palestinian East Jerusalem and about Israel and Gaza. I think he left out that the vigilantism of settlers has been documented for I believe years now and is called "Price Tag" attacks as extremist settlers object to peace negotiations or any Israeli court or military decisions that clamp down on settler takeover of more land or commit vandalism or violence.  These attacks have been categorized by our own State Dept. as terrorism. I think Mr. Mitnick needs to be clear that settler vigilantism is not just a reaction to recent Palestinian protests or clashes with Israeli police or soldiers.

Hillsborough, NC

~ ~ ~

I am writing to report my deep disappointment in your news coverage today [July 5] on the murder of the young Palestinian boy, Muhammad Khedir and the three Israeli teenagers who were also murdered. The reporter from the Associated Press reporting from Israelprovided bias and unjust reporting of the issue. The report did not talk about the extensive brutal murder of the young Palestinian boy as mentioned in the New York Times article. Nor did the reporter mention the collective punishments that the Palestinian suffered as their homes were demolished for the revenge of the three slain Israeli teenagers. The brutality of the beatings and burning of Muhammad Khedir is an act of Nazism. He was alive while he burned to death. Along with this murder, the news coverage also failed to mention the brutal beating and arrest of Tariq Khedir, the cousin of the murdered young boy. Tariq is an American born citizen who was caught on tape being beaten by Israeli military even while he was handcuffed. The brutal act is caught on tape and ABC evening news today showed the video live. This American citizen is currently in prison with a broken nose and beaten swollen face. I am against all murder and have deep sorrow for the Israeli parents who lost their boys. However, both of these people cannot have peace until there is justice in their land.

I wish that it was PBS, the organization that I have always supported would have the courage and professionalism to broadcast this news. Instead it came from ABC news owned by Disney reported on brutal murder and beating of the two Palestinians. If PBS, a non-commercial media, is not able to do just reporting than there is little hope to hear the voices of the oppressed. Justice cannot happen until we are able to condemn all oppression and have the courage to speak the truth.

R. Shah, Berkeley, CA

(Ombudsman’s Note: Associated Press correspondent Josef Federman, reporting on the investigation into the killing of Muhammad Khedir, started off his report by stating that the “initial results of the autopsy…are pretty disturbing. The signs are that this boy was burned alive. They found signs that he had actually inhaled smoke before he died.”)

~ ~ ~

Today [July 8] the NewsHour had a "report" concerning the violence in Israel/Palestine. The reporter referred to the Israeli government "believing" that it needed to do what it takes to supposedly end the Palestinian rocket firings. The reporter went on at length about the supposed need to bomb Gaza in order to "protect" Israelis. However, the reporter made no mention of the fact that the rocket fire was an act of self-defense in response to the Israeli government's bombing and missile attacks on Gaza as well as the Israeli kidnapping and imprisonment of Palestinian youth and the destruction of whole Palestinian neighborhoods as retaliation for the shooting of three Israelis. The reporter also described the Israeli positions as if they were neutral descriptions of what is happening instead of referring to those positions as what they are: political allegations and claims made to defend their actions. The same courtesy was not used during the very small amount of description of the Palestinian side. This reporting is both very biased and typical of PBS's coverage of Palestine. It is not even handed and is obviously one-sided toward the position that Israel is acting only in self-defense. It should be corrected and PBS should not allow such biased reporting in the future.

G. R., Cambridge, MA

~ ~ ~

Your report on the violence in Israel was totally biased in favor of Israel. You told us why Israel is retaliating. You didn't tell us why Hamas is lobbing these rockets. Hamas is NOT crazy. They are morally wrong but not crazy. You don't mention that the Zionist take-over of Palestine was also immoral and worse. Read Pres. Carter's book. You are following the popular press, I know. You could do much better in telling this whole story.

W. Zagotta, Livermore, CA

~ ~ ~

Your reporters allowed your July 8 reportabout the violence between Hamas and Israel to be a propaganda tool of Hamas. Specifically, in your interview you allowed Sami [Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri] to state Hamas is fighting the "occupation."  No one challenged that. What occupation? Surely your reporters remember that Israel withdrew from Gaza. Surely your reporters know that ever since the withdrawal, the Hamas gratitude has been continued barrages of rockets which hit innocent civilians. When Sami speaks of occupation, that is a code word for Hamas' ultimate goal to eliminate the state of Israel altogether. Any PBS story which repeats the lie of occupation without explaining the true meaning, allows its integrity to be manipulated, allows truth to suffer.

Margo Gray, Tucson, AZ

(Ombudsman’s Note: This is a good point but “occupation” is also widely understood to mean Israeli occupation of the West Bank. This was in a brief introductory news segment in the July 8 edition by NewsHour co-anchor Judy Woodruff. That segment was followed by a longer and fuller report by the AP correspondent.)

~ ~ ~

I enjoy PBS NewsHour but was amazingly disappointed in Judy Woodruff's coverage last night [July 9] of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. It seemed completely one-sided, as though Israel was the blame and the perpetrator of all that is going on. Not a mention of the fact that rockets are constantly being sent into Israel even before this incident. The fact that the Israeli families of the dead boys and the head of state all condemned the killing of the Palestinian boy and immediately arrested the killers whereas the Palestinians rejoiced in the killing of the 3 boys. The fact that Israel calls to warn the dwellers in homes of Hamas that they are about to bomb the home and they give a 5 minute warning (tell me what other country in the WORLD does that) and what do the Palestinians do, they take their women and children up to the rooftop and wait for them to be blown up and then say that Israel is killing civilians. When Israel gave Gaza to the Palestinians they left behind a successful farm community with greenhouse galore. What did the Palestinians do? They destroyed them. I understand this is a difficult situation for all concerned but a little more balance in the reporting would seem to me to represent the standards we expect from public broadcasting.

Ron Briskman, Phoenix, AZ

(Ombudsman’s Note: Again, there were two consecutive segmentsto the Middle East report that evening and the combination struck me as fair, balanced and informative, with news reporting on the impact of the fighting on both sides and fitting in well with previous reporting on the continuing and escalating struggle.)

And, Finally, Those 'For-Profit' Colleges

I would like to PRAISE NewsHour for a great segment on for-profit colleges [July 7]  that are bilking veterans/GI Bill out of millions to enroll in online & schools, particularly U. of Phoenix. For years I've believed these "colleges" are nothing more than diploma mills whose diplomas are not worth anything.

Barbara Woodin, West Chester, PA

~ ~ ~

I just watched the "veteran education" report focusing on Phoenix University. I am wondering if many of the students of the "for profit" schools would even meet the admission requirements of accredited colleges and universities. Instead of letting all persons have the expectation of getting a college degree how about the expectation of continuing education in an area of study, trade school etc. where they can be successful.

Mission, KS

Posted at 11:13 a.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.
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