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PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

Politics, the Press and the People

Michelle Walsh, a PBS viewer in Portland, Ore., e-mailed me last week with the following observation:

"While listening to 'Washington Week in Review,' I was returned again and again to the politics of a current event (in this case, scandal around Hastert et al) by the comments of John Harwood. I have noted this in numbers of 'talking heads' who are more interested in the chess game than the issues to the detriment not only of the integrity of the news but the elucidation of events for the public who depend on them. I would love to see a discussion on this phenomenon, which has been going on far too long. Thanks for letting me vent."

I thought this was indeed an important observation; one that I, too, feel is a big factor in understanding why many Americans are frustrated and angry with the politicians and the press. Yet it is a point that seems rarely discussed or focused upon.

First, a couple of brief notes. I know the letter writer. She is the spouse of a former colleague of mine at The Washington Post, Ed Walsh, who was a top-notch reporter and retired from the paper a few years ago. Also, I'll take the liberty of removing John Harwood of the Wall Street Journal, one of the most respected political reporters in the country, as the subject of this since it is, as the writer noted, a common approach by lots of journalists in every medium. And, of course, we are just a few weeks away from very important midterm elections, so the political context for almost everything that is, or is not, happening is both natural and relevant.

Nevertheless, I would agree that it is absolutely true that far too many stories in newspapers, on TV and on the Web focus more heavily on the politics of the issue rather than on the substance, and it is the substance that concerns citizens. We seem to read or hear more about how Republicans and Democrats seize opportunities or take advantage of this or that than about the issues themselves that need to be addressed and resolved. We are told more about how a scandal will hurt Republicans than about the breakdown of ethics and accountability in Congress. We seem to hear as much or more about how Democrats will gain, or Republicans will suffer, because of the chaos in Iraq than we hear about the war itself in all its dimensions. Phrases such as "stay the course" or "cut and run" don't begin to address the anxieties and understandings of millions of Americans about the predicament we are now in.

I have talked about this issue in a couple of speeches in the past year, drawing on my five years experience with readers as ombudsman at the Post as well as my initial experiences with viewers here at PBS. But I haven't written about this point. So here is an excerpt from a talk I gave to a college audience earlier this year about ombudsmanship.

Quotes From an Ombudsman

"These jobs present an interesting catbird seat to watch how readers and viewers respond to reporters and editors. People write or call the ombudsman mostly to complain, so one tends to hear from people who are very engaged in the issues of the day, or have strong ideological views, or who spot an error or important omission. There is someone out there who will catch any mistake, no matter how small or obscure. And there are many out there who can smell bias, real or perceived, or spin, or an agenda, a mile away.

"A lot of e-mail all ombudsmen receive is pretty strident and partisan. They say things like: 'you people are determined to bash the president,' or 'you people are Bush-lovers, too intimidated to print the truth.' And while it is illuminating to witness the extent and depth of the political divide in this country these days, it is important to keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of viewers and readers don't write or call and that it is probably fair to assume that a lot of them absorb what is reported and trust it enough to help make their decisions.

"The ombudsman's mailbag also attests to this in the form of many substantive and specific comments that, collectively, reaffirm the notion that I think we all hope is true — that there is a very large body of independent-minded people of all political orientations out there who are smart, who value facts and context more than ideology, and who want more news rather than less, especially news that is important to them.

"People write to say they want more local news, more news about Social Security, schools, health care, about budget and trade deficits and what they mean. They want some newer voices on op-ed pages, and investigations on subjects that are closer to the issues they care about and that are more timely. They worry that reporters are too much a part of the establishment, too close to power and too distant from average people, let alone poor people. They say reporters don't understand the plight of schools and education, for example, because the children of journalists often go to private schools.

"They often write in frustration that every issue is presented in political terms — the Republicans seized on this or Democrats saw an opening on that — a technique that journalists seem to dwell on but that for many people undermines and diminishes the substantive concerns and frustrations that are at the heart of these issues."

And From an Author

For the past 15 years or so, one of the books that I've kept on my desk is titled "Why Americans Hate Politics." The author is E.J. Dionne, Jr., a columnist for The Washington Post who is also a friend and former colleague. This book, published in 1991, is about politics and not much about the press. But it captures the underlying issue succinctly and eloquently.

"Most of the problems of our political life," Dionne wrote at the time, "can be traced to the failure of the dominant ideologies of American politics, liberalism and conservatism. The central argument of this book is that liberalism and conservatism are framing political issues as a series of false choices. Wracked by contradiction and responsive mainly to the needs of their various constituencies, liberalism and conservatism prevent the nation from settling the questions that most trouble it. On issue after issue, there is consensus on where the country should move or at least on what we should be arguing about; liberalism and conservatism make it impossible for that consensus to express itself . . . We are suffering from a false polarization in our politics, in which liberals and conservatives keep arguing about the same things when the country wants to move on."

If the press also frames too much of its coverage in political terms, it becomes even harder for citizens, the consumers of news, to move on.

And now time for this column to move on to a sampling of other letters from viewers last week.

'Is God Green?'

Kudos to Bill Moyers for his program on "Is God Green?" As an evangelical, I hear in the criticism from evangelical leaders ominous echoes of church critics of Galileo and church leaders who supported slavery.

Pasadena, CA

I am totally offended by the lack of TRUTH on PBS and the Bill Moyers programs! Most recently was the screed about 'War trials' for Skeptics of the 'Global Warming' whooey that passes for SCIENCE! I have been working in climatology since 1963! There is sufficient evidence that there IS global warming. BUT IT IS A NATURAL PHENOMENON — otherwise how do the IDIOTS (David Roberts) PBS interviews on Moyers PROPAGANDA PROGRAM account for the ICE AGES of the Pleistocene? All four of the majors (ice ages) were interrupted by "GLOBAL WARMING" . . . guess the Mastadons were driving SUVs! If you'd bother to checkout the SCIENCE you'd see that the duration of the 'global warming' phase of this natural cycle is getting SHORTER AND SHORTER!

Louis A. Woods, Jacksonville, FL

The shows of the past week are very well done and very upsetting to me re: Tom Delay, Reed and Abramoff. Mr. Moyers presented the argument fabulously . . .

Next we see the environmental show of the W. Virginia. Very upsetting especially as this dialogue went on thirty years ago in the public forum about our water table and now we have a multi-billion dollar water industry that features Coke and Pepsi. It is my understanding that we cannot reverse the effects of global warming and therefore it seems reasonable to use lateral tactics. That is to gently move the usages over to more friendly types of energy. If we upset the very delicate balance of world economies it could prove to deliver us and the world's people to a state of near Anarchy! I am more concerned with heavy metals in our water, land and sea than I am about global warming. This could lead us to an environmental disaster sooner than the global warming scenario.

It's interesting how Moyers put these two shows on, and with encore performances, weeks before the elections. Interesting!!!

Jim Sherwood, Carmel, NY

Bill Moyer's is in my opinion a hypocrite. He speaks about corporate greed and the use of unseemly influence on politics by foundations and PACS and yet he uses the same tools to enrich himself and promote his causes through the use of public television. PBS is obviously his tool. And gee didn't I see last night one of his programs on global warming? And not only that, Mr. Moyers got a double whammy by going after his favorite target, the religious. Christians don't care about the environment huh Bill? Or is it you think with your long reach you can divide the Republican Party and take back the White House from Geo. Bush? Wait, it is a triple whammy, Bill once again gets to sell his tapes for $29.99. What a deal!

Timothy Sheehan, Hopkinton, MA

On 'The Enemy Within'

Lowell Bergman and Frontline strike again. Not content with "Chasing the Sleeper Cell" in 2003, they now follow up with "The Enemy Within", a further attempt to discredit the FBI's anti-terror efforts. Had Mohammed Atta and his cohorts been caught and prosecuted before 9/11, I doubt it would've been difficult to find an NYU professor and ABA lawyer to claim the case was flimsy, as Bergman did with the Lodi and Lackawanna cases. Yes, the FBI errs on the side of caution. It should. Our legal system errs on the side of letting suspects free, as was the case with the two Lodi imams. Both institutions did their job properly. I fail to see the story here, other than that of another institution (i.e., the media as represented by PBS/Bergman/Frontline) not doing its job properly. This is little more than Monday morning quarterbacking disguised as investigative journalism.

David Kreider, Woodland Hills, CA

I watched your Frontline program called "The Enemy Within" and I was shocked when the interviewer claimed that Umer Hayat was manipulated into making a false confession. What I saw was a VERY intelligent man using sophisticated counter-interrogation techniques. THINK! An underground training facility where men dressed in ninja costumes practice 16 foot leaps? And Mr. Hayat's broken English during the interview but his eloquent repudiation of the interview to reporters afterward? Do you need to be a detective to figure out this guy is playing games with the agents and not the other way around? The worst part is, I also know most people watching this garbage will likely believe it.

N. Bergen, San Diego, CA

Your station is getting too political. On earlier this evening — The Enemy Within — you were clearly against questioning suspected terrorists and imprisoning them even after a fair trial.

R. G., Akron, OH

On 'The NewsHour'

Having listened to the entire White House News Briefing via CNBC this am, I find your selective Q & A misleading. Neglecting the critical explanation by the president regarding prior bilateral talks vs multilateral talks is a complete disregard for "fairness in reporting."

Linda Howell, Galveston, TX

On the NewsHour 10/11/06, Mr. Lehrer should have done more than just ask questions of Dr. Jessica Mathews and Walter Russell Mead. Mathews was making statements about the North Korean situation, but neither she nor Lehrer pointed out that President Clinton had tried face-to-face diplomacy with North Korea, and the Koreans immediately reneged on the agreements.

Earle Rosenberg, Brookline, MA

I was very distressed to see on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer tonight, that Mr. Lehrer and the gentleman who presented the interview with Noble Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk, both deliberately avoided using the term "genocide" when noting that Mr. Pamuk had been tried for crimes against the state in Turkey for talking about the Armenian Genocide. The US government has refused to use the term because of its relationship with Turkey, which denies that there was a genocide of 1.5 million Armenians. PBS is supposed to be independent TV giving a trusted account of the news, not the current administration's views.

Princeton, NJ

Normally, I am very pleased with the balanced reporting on the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." However, I was very disappointed in last night's broadcast (October 11). I have read the article "Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional cluster sample survey" that appeared in the prestigious Medical Journal, The Lancet. I believe that this article represents the only systematic assessment of civilian death tolls in Iraq. The entire country was sampled, almost all of the deaths were verified with death certificates, and the results were analyzed with respected statistical methods. As the authors point out, one cannot begin to account for the deaths (as the Los Angeles Times correspondent apparently claims) by surveying hospitals in and around the Baghdad area. Certainly, there is a shortage of hospitals that are available to civilians, and the dead are not brought to hospitals. I believe that the authors should have been interviewed for the story, and opposing views invited. By asking the Times correspondent's opinion in passing, you were in effect discrediting the Johns Hopkins study, even if it was not your intention to do so.

Duane Jenness, Worcester, MA

On the 25 August NewsHour, Mark Shields said the following: "The question is, of course, how long it lasts. I mean, will it be like the Zarqawi capture or murder?" Murder? I have complained to the NewsHour with no results, but I don't appreciate the fact that Mark Shields casually implied that our Armed Forces committed a murder against this terrorist combatant. No one said anything during the discussion and no one else seems to be bothered by this. I normally take Mark Shields with a grain of salt, but I think that someone somewhere should have called him to defend that remark.

John Simpson, Kennesaw, GA

Last week Gwen Ifill had an interview with a Republican party official from Minnesota. When he tried to make some unsupported claims, her excellent response correctly pointed out that independent reports contradicted his claims. But a few moments later, he tried to justify the losses of our forces in Iraq by claiming that more Americans died on 9/11 . . . and she let him get away with it!!! The well-known passing of that terrible milestone clearly showed the futility of what Bush calls a "War on Terror," and making that outrageous claim now essentially belittles the terrible sacrifice of our forces in Iraq. I waited for a correction of this falsehood to be aired before the newscast ended, and failing that, I thought that surely there would be one the next day, but I haven't seen it yet.

Lansing, MI

The essay by Anne Taylor Fleming, on the Amish, was one of the best I have ever heard.

William Houlihan, Driggs, ID

I want to congratulate Anne Taylor Fleming on her moving piece about the Amish and their handling of the tragic shootings in their school aired 10/6/06. The juxtapositioning of the peaceful and forgiving way the Amish cope with these violent killings and the raging, hate filled, gun toting reactions to senseless killings in other cultures was very powerful. It moved me to tears and left me longing for a different world for all of us.

Potomac, MD

Anne Taylor Fleming's piece on tonight's NewsHour about the Amish tragedy brought me to tears — something that happens very seldom as I watch TV.

Fred Bender, Valley Village, CA

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