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PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

On Balance: Bill Moyers Responds

Last week's posting was a combined ombudsman's column and viewer mailbag that dealt primarily with the July 13th edition of "Bill Moyers Journal, which was headlined, "Tough Talk About Impeachment; Should Congress Start Proceedings?" There was a fair amount of viewer reaction and I added my assessment of that reaction and the program.

I wrote that this is, indeed, a newsworthy subject, even though it doesn't have much political traction at the moment, and that as a viewer, I was grateful that it was being addressed. But I also said, "there was almost a complete absence of balance, as I watched it, in the way this program presented the case for impeachment proceedings against President Bush and Vice President Cheney." I said that there were "no rebuttal arguments or legal challenges" to the string of abuses of power that the two guests laid out as grounds for impeachment.

And I summed it up this way: "This was an hour-long program and it was, in many ways, an education, listening to this view of the impeachment process being laid out, whether or not you agree with it. But the program, in my view, would have been not only less vulnerable to charges of political bias, but also even more educational to more people in terms of illuminating the public about impeachment, if it had contained at the very least a succinct summary of the likely legal challenges to each of the main charges raised by the pro-impeachment process guests."

Last week's column also drew a fair amount of mail from viewers, and from readers of the column, and several of those letters are posted below.

But first comes a special letter from Bill Moyers responding, especially, to the issue of balance that I raised in my column.

The Moyers Message

Dear Mr. Getler:
I respect your work and your role, but I disagree with you about "balance." The journalist's job is not to achieve some mythical state of equilibrium between two opposing opinions out of some misshapen respect —sometimes, alas, reverence—for the prevailing consensus among the powers-that-be. The journalist's job is to seek out and offer the public the best thinking on an issue, event, or story. That's what I did regarding the argument for impeachment. Official Washington may not want to hear the best arguments for impeachment—or any at all—but a lot of America does. More than four out of ten people indicated in that recent national poll that they favor impeaching President Bush and more than five out of ten, Vice President Cheney. They're talking impeachment out there and that dynamic in public opinion is news. There's a movement for impeachment, not one against impeachment, and to fail to explore the arguments driving that movement would be as foolish as when Washington journalists in the months before the invasion of Iraq dared not talk about "occupation" because official sources only wanted to talk about "liberation." Letting the official consensus govern the conversation is also to let it decide the subject.

So to hear the best arguments driving public sentiment, I invited on my broadcast a conservative scholar who reveres the Constitution, Bruce Fein, and a liberal political journalist, John Nichols, who has written a fine book on the historical roots of impeachment. That two men of different philosophies come to the same conclusion on this issue is in itself newsworthy, and they made a valuable contribution to the public dialogue, as confirmed by the roughly 20:1 positive response to the broadcast. Of course I could have aired a Beltway-like "debate" between a Democrat and a Republican, or a conservative and a liberal, but that's usually conventional wisdom and standard practice, and public broadcasting was meant to be an alternative, not an echo. If a debate about impeachment becomes the story, I'll come back with different guests to explore it. Right now it's the argument for impeachment that is shaping public opinion, and that's why I chose to interview two informed thinkers who have arrived at the same destination from very different directions.

A personal note: Pinned to the bulletin board on the wall behind my computer—I am looking at it now—is the column you wrote in January calling on public broadcasting to "be more...aggressive," including on the issue of, yes, impeachment. I took encouragement from that column over these months as I tracked grassroots activity and the growing public conversation on the subject across the country. I was cheered by your assertion in the same column that "'on-the-one-hand / on-the-other hand' type of journalism that is much more common can be less than enlightening at times such as these..." In thinking that you imagined public broadcasting as a service, not a sedative, I trust I wasn't misreading your New Year's resolution.

By the way, we did not remove any controversial postings from our Web site, as indicated in your critique. We welcome all points of view and responses to our programs on our blog.

Sincerely, Bill Moyers

My Response

On the broad issue of balance, I don't disagree with Moyers. I have written many times in this column that "balance" is not one of my favorite journalistic measuring rods. Accuracy and fairness rank much higher. In the very first column I wrote as the ombudsman for PBS, for example, on Dec. 2, 2005, about a documentary titled "Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories," I said: "The question of 'balance' is not one that I rate at the top of the list of yardsticks for measuring good journalism. Some stories don't have a real balance to them and it becomes distorting to give equal time and space to every viewpoint. It can create a false sense of equivalence among readers or viewers in cases where that is not justified. But I thought this particular program ('Breaking the Silence') had almost no balance, and went too far, turning it, at least in my mind, into more of an advocacy, or point-of-view, presentation."

And that was also the point I was trying to make in last week's column: that while conventional, equal-time balance is frequently a false measure, the absence of any balance can undermine any program. That's what I was calling for when I said, "the program, in my view, would have been not only less vulnerable to charges of political bias, but also even more educational to more people in terms of illuminating the public about impeachment, if it had contained at the very least a succinct summary of the likely legal challenges to each of the main charges raised by the pro-impeachment process guests."

As for the allegation that controversial postings had been removed from the program's blog, that is something a viewer claimed in one of the published letters last week.

Now, on to More Viewer Comments

In your criticism of Bill Moyer's Journal's piece about impeachment, saying that is lacked balance, I find it odd that you didn't point out that the two guests were from diametrically opposite ends of the political spectrum, i.e. the American Enterprise Institute and The Nation magazine. Doesn't that say something?

Sally Macrae, Toronto

Could you please tell Mr. Moyers that I feel blessed to have him in my life! I think he does the most excellent job and his program about impeaching the President and VP should be aired EVERYwhere. And even if EVERYone doesn't agree, at least it will get people thinking critically -- or just thinking would be nice.

Pam Lyttle, Pownal, VT

In your recent mailbag (July 20), you write regarding the impeach Bush movement, "there is something going on..., [a]nd yes, it's news and worthy of a program on public broadcasting." All this arrived at without observing the most obvious answer PBS NewsHour neglects? Psychological displacement. This topic has been a regular theme of University of Michigan Med School psychiatrist, Dr. Pat Santy's, who blogs under the nom de plume "dr sanity" - at her blog dsanity:

"The number of things that Bush has been blamed for in this world since 9/11 (even acts of God like Tsunamis, hurricanes and other natural disasters) is the stuff of major comedy. You name the horrible event, and he is identified as the etiologic agent. The purpose of displacement is to avoid having to cope with the actual reality. Instead, by using displacement, an individual is able to still experience his or her anger, but it is directed at a less threatening target than the real cause. In this way, the individual does not have to be responsible for the consequences of his/her anger and feels more safe--even though that is not the case." If you can't defeat Bush, impeach him!

Orson Olson, Boulder, CO.

I find myself in quite support of how Moyer's handled the issue of impeachment. I listened to it twice to assess it carefully. Viewers who found themselves opposed might do well to check their emotions at the door, and imagine how they would feel if Russia or China went to war on false pretenses and advocated torture.

The show consisted of thoughtful arguments and descriptions of real events, not the loud noise making of most commercial news broadcasts. It is now historically known that the White House did adopt such and such a policy on torture, and created the "Office of Special Projects" to create spin for the war. If many Americans do not support those policies, as they do not, let us not blame Moyer's show. The "imbalance" we suffer from is that of the neglect of the "Lapdog" commercial media in the run up to the war. Moyers has begun to correct that imbalance. But this endeavor will only be complete when educational news programming can act as a corrective to the commercial media's obsessions with celebrity trivia, dirty laundry, the local murder of the day, and indeed, war.

Andrew K. Donlan, Washington, DC

Conservatives Dominate

For at least a generation, opinion in the nation's mass media have been dominated by conservatives, without a squeak from our friends on the right about lack of balance in their own output. Now, liberals and progressives, conservatives who oppose the present administration, and people of all political stripes who view with dismay the flouting of our constitution, are fighting back. Along comes a program like Bill Moyers Journal or a movie like "Sicko" and - surprise, surprise - all of a sudden we hear complaints about lack of balance, not only from diehard conservatives but also from mainstream media personalities.

Let's be clear: Bill Moyers' program about impeachment filled a yawning gap in our media. If commentators on the other side want to provide "a succinct summary of the likely legal challenges to each of the main charges raised by the pro-impeachment process guests," they have ample enough opportunity to do so elsewhere in the media. They would have to do their homework, but why should Bill Moyers be expected to do it for them? Conservative opinionators are so used to having their thumb on the scales that naturally they will fight anyone who threatens to dislodge it. The mainstream media remain so intimidated by fear of being thought "liberal" that they lean over backwards to disprove that accusation.

Rochester, NY

Bill Moyers program on impeachment provided an enlightening dialog on a subject that most media outlets have blacked out. To say that the program lacked balance you would have to ignore two obvious points that prove otherwise. First, balance was provided by the selection of guests who, while favoring impeachment, were from opposite poles of the political spectrum. Second, merely presenting a discussion that makes a case for impeachment balances the mainstream media's utter neglect of the topic.

Mark Howard, Los Angeles, CA

Bill Moyers' exploration of impeachment was a necessary airing of views held by tens of millions of Americans. Mr. Moyers provided a forum denied by other media more interested in the price of Mr. Edwards' haircuts, an item that appeared several times in Gwen Ifill's recent Polaroid of the Edwards campaign.

Mr. Moyers' essay was advocacy and intentionally thought-provoking, unlike much so-called journalism today, which merely entertains.

More generally, the notion of "balance" has been corrupted. Its current incarnation is an incubus that takes the form of Talking Heads. These are paid advocates from starkly opposing views whose professional success requires that they never compromise or yield, regardless of the merits of their opponent's facts or arguments. That substitutes melodrama for thinking and arithmetically equal time for views of unequal merit. Worse, even NewsHour anchors rarely challenge their most outrageous claims; that function seems to have been defined out of their job description.

The symmetry of two opposing views, beloved of producers, does not mean that the views have equivalent intellectual or moral parity. A course midway between the views of Ann Coulter and Bill Moyers would not be safe; it would be aimless, alternatingly cruel and empathetic. Informed balance must be a product of overall coverage; it need not, perhaps cannot, be the function of a single program.

D.P.Kilian, Cleveland, OH

I read your piece about Bill Moyers with great interest. To generate so much controversy, Moyers must be doing something right. Isn't good journalism supposed to be about getting people's attention and making them think? Bill Moyers has done both.

John Kirch, Silver Spring, MD

Your comments that Bill Moyer sometimes breaks the rules begs the question 'what rules?' It's not an exaggeration to say that I've never seen Moyers fairly discuss an issue--ever. PBS sees fairness as ignoring opinions of a vast swath of America.

Robert Holmgren, Menlo Park, CA

I was fascinated by your concern that Bill Moyer's recent program with a Republican and Democrat discussing the possibility of impeaching President Bush was imbalanced. Could you muster the same concern for the vapid, right-wing platitudes of Richard Perle that went totally without balance, or the recent piece of propaganda decrying the separation of church and state that completely disregarded the atmosphere of religious persecution that the founding fathers fled that led them to believe an absolute separation must be maintained. Please aim that concern at all shows not just those that seem to question the right wing. I am willing to see Mr. Moyers opinion leavened with opposition only if Mr. Perle and the other right-leaning propagandists suffer the same scrutiny.

Phil Boiarski, Columbus, OH

(Ombudsman's note: see columns of April 26 and June 15, 2007).

Real Arguments Weren't Raised

The biggest problem was that while Moyers voiced concerns viewers would be having, he was not well-informed enough, or simply didn't raise the real arguments.

For example, Fein and Nichols spoke of impeachment as though it is an obligation, which just isn't backed up by the Constitution or historical record, and this went unchallenged. And when Nichols mentioned that Bush should be impeached over the commutation of Libby's sentence, he referenced Mason and Madison. What he left out was that Madison specifically linked impeachment in (as Nichols said) "regards to pardons and commutations because a president might try to take the burden of the law off members of his administration to prevent them from cooperating with Congress in order to expose wrongdoings by the president himself" to actual "evidence" that this happened.

So yes, the House could impeach over this (as it can impeach over anything), but after years of investigation, there's no evidence that there WAS any wrongdoing (certainly not enough to warrant criminal charges), let alone wrongdoing by the Executive or Vice President, let alone a cover-up to protect that alleged wrongdoing.

So the House should be obliged to impeach for a charge they have no reasonable prospect of being able to prove, knowing what happened to the Republicans when they impeached Clinton over a "crime" that everyone KNEW he committed, that they had proof of, that he was later held in contempt for?

And that lack of evidence was most startling when they gave precious few examples backed up by evidence, and then said essentially, "we don't need evidence of wrongdoing, we only need a PATTERN of wrongdoing," which is terribly fallacious question-begging, because how can you establish a pattern without evidence?

I wanted someone to raise those points, and Moyers was not the one to do it. That's why I continue to watch NewsHour and not Moyers. NewsHour had Fein on recently too, and he was challenged by David Rivkin on his assertions about habeas corpus in the Military Commissions Act. That is something that can truly inform people.

Chris Nandor, Arlington, WA

I, too, watched and was both dismayed and inspired by Bill Moyer's program discussing impeachment! He is a national treasure... his views were presented with consideration and care. He went out of his way to present what the supporters of the administration say... blah blah this is a war... blah blah... we don't torture. The issue for me is that 24 hours a day on the national news and on cable talk shows and even on the radio, owned by Clear Channel, a Republican company, the opinions given are for the most part those of Fox News, Rupert Murdoch etc.

But back to Bill Moyer's program. This really is a bipartisan issue as Bruce Fien said... this is about the dismantling of our constitution... this is about the future of our country... people, of all political persuasions should be outraged! Those of us who have felt and thought this for some time have come to think we are the crazy ones when we watch all the other TV that passes for news...

Keene, NH

(Ombudsman's note: The following letter relates to an earlier program)

The following is taken from CPB'S COMMITMENT TO OBJECTIVITY AND BALANCE: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has had a legal mandate to ensure "strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature."

Could you please explain to me how the opening lines of Bill Moyers' Essay; "Beg Your Pardon", which aired on June 15, 2007 meet "the legal mandate" of "strict adherence to objectivity" criteria?

"Welcome to the Journal. Iraq is a bloody mess and getting bloodier every day. So what's been all the buzz this week among the people who took us to war from the safety of their beltway bunkers - I mean Washington's ruling clique of neoconservative elites? Their passion of the week is to keep Scooter Libby from going to jail. I'm not making this up."

I see a painting of a bleak and bloody picture of Iraq, followed by criticism and ridicule, a favorite liberal pejorative and condescension - all directed toward conservatives/Republicans - but I don't see "objectivity".

Steve Stout, Amarillo, TX

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