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PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

Debates Are On; Debaters Are Off

PBS seemed to be making news this week rather than just broadcasting it. The news revolves around two debates, officially called "forums," for 2008 presidential candidates — one in Iowa for Democrats and one in Maryland for Republicans. Both were scheduled months ago, are being broadcast on PBS, and are taking place within days. And both, in odd and contrasting ways, have become controversial.

The Democrats will meet tonight (Thursday), Sept. 20, in Davenport, Iowa, in a forum focused on domestic issues, specifically health care and financial security. It will be broadcast nationally by Iowa Public Television (IPTV), moderated by senior correspondent Judy Woodruff of the nightly NewsHour with Jim Lehrer program, and is a joint venture between IPTV and AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons.

What is distinguishing the run-up to this forum, however, is that the ground rules established by AARP, and agreed to by IPTV, have resulted in the exclusion of Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel from the debate because, according to Gravel, of AARP criteria that candidates must have at least "one paid campaign staff representative" and "a campaign office" inside the state. So these candidates, with low-budget campaigns run mostly by volunteers, are not allowed to take part, and Gravel says that no other organization that has sponsored such debates or forums has demanded AARP's brand of requirements. Kucinich claims that Iowa party leaders are "rigging the game." Although both candidates barely register in the polls, Kucinich points out that he scores higher than Sens. Joe Biden (Del.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.) in recent polls, and both of those candidates were invited to participate. Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) had previously declined to participate. The senator had said earlier that he wanted to limit his attendance at certain events, including those sponsored by interest groups.

Dozens of viewers, some of them made aware of the AARP decision in e-mail campaigns, have e-mailed or called to protest this, and some of those messages are posted below.

When I asked PBS about this situation, here is how they responded: "As part of our commitment to providing the American public with access to information about the upcoming Presidential election, PBS and Iowa Public Television are providing coverage of The Candidates 2008: The Democrats on Health Care and Financial Security. We will cover a similar forum featuring Republican candidates in October.

"This forum was organized by AARP, which decided upon the criteria for participation, which included the demonstration of campaign activity in Iowa as measured by two conditions: the establishment of an Iowa campaign office and the employment of an Iowa campaign staff representative no later than August 1, 2007. The AARP has confirmed that all candidates were informed of the criteria. Iowa Public Television is providing live coverage of the forum as a news event."

When I asked Dan Miller, general manager of IPTV, whether they objected to these criteria, knowing it would rule out these two candidates, Miller said IPTV did not know that at the time. "We had no idea it would exclude them. We felt these were fair and objective measures that were very easy to meet. An office and a staffer is not a very high bar to meet. It doesn't take much." These requirements were set up in late June and early July, he explained, and candidates were informed in a letter on July 2. Miller said there have been recent discussions with AARP but that they stayed with the established criteria because they were easy, fair and objective, established at least some minimum test of interest in Iowa, which is the first-in-the-nation caucus state, and that changing them at the last minute could present legal challenges.

The AARP requirements do, indeed, seem minimal and easy to meet, and Miller's explanations sound reasonable. Nevertheless, given the cast of characters that the campaign had already established nationally, this is an unfortunate result for a forum to be broadcast on public television. There don't seem to be any heroes here. You can argue that the politicians could have easily met this requirement, as all the others did. On the other hand, it might have been more fair for AARP not to set any requirements at all, since it was clear who the candidates were, or for PBS, once it was known by Aug. 1 that Kucinich and Gravel would not meet the requirements, to press for a different solution.

The issue is particularly controversial because of the exclusion of Kucinich, who is a strong advocate of health care for all and a critic of AARP which, he says, has "a $4 billion vested interest in preserving the role of private, for-profit insurance companies in the health care industry," according to an online article posted on Cleveland's The Plain Dealer site Wednesday, in which the congressman also took a sharp shot at PBS.

Empty Suits, By Choice

Meanwhile, while AARP is ruling-out some candidates from the PBS-aired debate among Democrats in Iowa, all four leading Republican presidential candidates have indicated they are ruling themselves out of attending a long-scheduled "All American Presidential Forum" for GOP contenders at historically black Morgan State University in Baltimore on Sept. 27. This event, also to be aired nationally on PBS, is moderated by PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley, features a panel of minority reporters, and is meant to focus on concerns of minority voters. This forum follows a similar debate in June at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in which the entire Democratic field of candidates showed up.

Although this situation has not yet drawn viewer mail, at least to me, it has received considerable press attention, with the Baltimore Sun and USA Today providing early coverage while The Washington Post put it on the front page on Wednesday, highlighting the concerns of key Republican leaders "fearing a backlash that could further erode the party's standing with black and Latino voters." The decisions by leading Republican candidates have also produced a flood of commentary on the blogosphere.

According to the Post, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) all cited scheduling conflicts in forgoing the debate.

GOP candidates who will be in Baltimore, according to USA Today, are Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, California Rep. Duncan Hunter, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo.

The Post report says that making matters worse, some Republicans believe, is that the decision to bypass the Morgan State forum comes after all top GOP candidates save McCain declined invitations this month to a debate on Univision, the most-watched Hispanic television network in the United States. The event was eventually postponed.

"We sound like we don't want immigration; we sound like we don't want black people to vote for us," said former congressman Jack Kemp (N.Y.), who was the GOP vice presidential nominee in 1996. "What are we going to do — meet in a country club in the suburbs one day? If we're going to be competitive with people of color, we've got to ask them for their vote."

"For Republicans to consistently refuse to engage in front of an African American or Latino audience is an enormous error," former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) told the Post. "I hope they will reverse their decision and change their schedules. I see no excuse — this thing has been planned for months, these candidates have known about it for months. It's just fundamentally wrong. Any of them who give you that scheduling-conflict answer are disingenuous. That's baloney."

As for Smiley, he told the newspaper: "When you reject every black invitation and every brown invitation you receive, is that a scheduling issue or is it a pattern?" he asked. "I don't believe anybody should be elected president of the United States if they think along the way they can ignore people of color. That's just not the America we live in."

My Two Cents

I don't know what the political calculations are going into decisions such as these for those GOP candidates who decided they could not take part. But it seems to me that from the perspective of the citizen and voter, that this is not a good or healthy thing to do. Whatever one thinks of the quality of these debates, especially ones that have a restrictive subject focus, the format arranged by Smiley is imaginative and surely there is room for it in a country as diverse as ours where minority issues too often are not focused upon in debates with a national audience.

I sat in on the one at Howard, and there was a lot of pandering and there were a lot of platitudes from the podiums. Yet, it had the feeling of a legitimate happening, of something new and worthwhile. There was more of a discussion about Hurricane Katrina, for example, than in other debates, and some imaginative, and probably very costly, education proposals from a couple of the candidates, including Kucinich.

Here Are the Letters On AARP and Iowa

Why is PBS going along with the AARP's selection criteria that excludes valid presidential candidates, it is way too soon to try narrowing the field, because you're really narrowing the scope of opinion to the middle of the road ideas again . . . it's disgusting. Makes me ashamed of supporting our so-called 'Public' broadcasting system. Let's rather do the job that Public Broadcasting was intended for, making the ideas on the airwaves available to the widest range of public discourse. Thanks for listening.

Jeff Clithero, Port Townsend, WA

As a viewer with deep respect for your organization I am alarmed and upset to learn that you're planning to sponsor the Sept. 20th Presidential Debate with the exclusion of several bona fide Democratic Presidential candidates. I also thought yours was a nonpartisan organization. Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich, in prior debates, have raised the important issues that many Americans are concerned about. Why would they be excluded? Their exclusion, to me, represents an exclusion of the American voter. I hope you will reconsider your decision. In this crucial Presidential race it's extraordinarily important to support debate and dialogue. While I understand why Hillary Clinton and John Edwards would not want their competitors present, I'm not so sure why your organization wouldn't. Please support democracy. At this junction it's what our country desperately needs.

Tara Lewis, Bronx, NY

Though I understand why it is necessary to have qualifications for who is allowed to participate in the debates, it is unjust to deny Senator Gravel and Rep. Kucinich the right to participate. Both candidates have been allowed to participate in the other debates, and both have contributed insightful input. The point of these debates is to allow candidates to express their ideas and solutions to our nation's problems. It is unfortunate that PBS, which prides itself on representing the general public and providing alternative education, would deny the inclusion of the only two recognized democratic candidates who dare to distance themselves from the usual rhetoric of the Democratic Party. I hope that PBS and AARP will reconsider their decision and reverse this injustice to the American people.

Madison, WI

True debates include all sides — it would appear that by excluding Gravel and Kucinich Thursday evening, you are declaring yourselves partial reporters. No news should be pre-determined by the very hosts who falsely claim to have integrity.

L. Braun, Wenonah, NJ

Is the message below accurate? If so, I wish to express my disapproval and hope AARP Iowa will reconsider. Forum participation should be allowed for all declared candidates.

"This Thursday, September 20, the American Association of Retired People (AARP) and Iowa Public Television (IPT) are sponsoring a nationally televised presidential forum — and they are excluding former Sen. Mike Gravel and Rep. Dennis Kucinich. The forum, entitled 'Divided We Fail Presidential Candidate Forum,' is focused on health care and security and will be moderated by Judy Woodruff of PBS." The AARP set up criteria that excluded Kucinich and Gravel. They said candidates had to be renting office space and have a paid staff in Iowa. This is the first debate to exclude any Democratic Party candidate, and it's ironic that AARP is excluding the only septuagenarian in the race."

George Avellar, Spokane, WA

I am incensed that the AARP, an organization to which I belong, presumes to make up the minds of Americans by excluding from their debate the two most positive candidates for president in the entire field. It really angers me that they would exhibit such a lack of judgment as to take the "Peace Now" quotient out of the equation. All of the rest of the candidates are positioning themselves to support one form or another of continued occupation and permanent military bases. They all support the notion of American corporations profiting from this war . . . I have personally heard Biden say, "We did not go to Iraq for the oil." Even Greenspan is willing to admit that we did. I hope you will ask that question of the candidates, underneath all the other excuses, wasn't it really to control the oil? I urge you to firmly suggest that the AARP allow Kucinich and Gravel the opportunity to plant seeds of peace and rationality, their role in American history in telling truth to power is extremely important. They should not unilaterally be preempted from speaking to the American public.

George Ripley, Washington, DC

Keep the Presidential debates wide open. It is bad enough that we are stuck with many truly bad candidates cycle after cycle, but to have people like those in the three organizations determine who we get to listen to is reprehensible. You are taking away our choices and 'electing' our candidates for us. Who the hell gave you permission to constrict this? Try again!!!!

Jack Harrington, Deer Isle, ME

PBS should not take part in the AARP Iowa debate if they are to exclude Gravel and Kucinich. I am 67 years old and have been a member of PBS for more years than I care to remember. I am NOT a member of AARP because of this decision and other decisions they have made in the past.

Louanne Rice, Burleson, TX

That Lehrer Interview and an Ifill Description

There were also some letters this week about last week's Ombudsman's Column and another NewsHour segment. Here they are:

It seems that the (unfounded) attacks of the conservative right on PBS' objectivity, a year ago has so petrified producers and newscasters that what PBS dishes out today on controversial issues is little more than diluted and bland. With what is over compensation to avoid any appearance of imbalance, PBS (& NPR) seems no longer interested in advancing the cause of "truth" but in perpetuating self safety. PBS has lost courage. The consequence is a loss of clarity and the promotion of obfuscation on issues. at a time when more interpretation is the need like that once provided by a Murrow or Cronkite.

John Conmy, Richmond, VA

First, I agree with all those who saw what I saw, powder puff questions between moments of fawning by Jim Lehrer in the interview with the general and ambassador. TODAY'S outrage: The Pentagon released its report saying that things are getting worse in Iraq, especially in the South. It made it perfectly clear that Petraeus cherry picked his facts. Not a word on the NewsHour. Shame on P.B.S.

Winfield Shoemaker, McKinleyville, CA

I, too, was disappointed in Jim Lehrer's interview of Crocker and Petraeus because he did not ask pointed questions. But I was pleased to see some of the questions you would have asked. Why is it that we never hear about OIL and PERMANENT MILITARY BASES and the MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX when assure American access to Iraqi oil before we leave? 2) We are seeking permanent military bases in Iraq? 3) Are we supporting the present Iraqi government because we hope they will give us what WE want? 4) How much congressional support for the war is due to lawmakers being financed by military contractors who are getting rich on this war? I hope that you will be able to persuade the NewsHour to address these issues. I don't mind the general and the ambassador being allowed to make their points. We need to know the position of the administration. But I hope the NewsHour will do a better job of presenting the criticism of this war, hopefully raising the issues I have listed. Thank you for listening.

Edwin Womack, Cottonwood, AZ

While I believed Jim Lehrer should have pressed Petraeus and Crocker on specifics, they are just the on the ground stand-ins for the policy makers, the President, NSC, and Dept of State. The latter have successfully shifted the entire Iraq responsibility onto the shoulders of Petraeus and Crocker, possibly because they (Bush, etc.) do not know what to do themselves. Lehrer should have also used his time to inquire as to the national policy driving what Petraeus and Crocker do and who they are consulting with about this, and who's actually giving them direction. Obviously Petraeus talks to the Secy of Defense and Joint chiefs, but who does Crocker actually talk to about the policy and what does he see that being? He also should have been asked about efforts to engage the border countries in security enhancement for Iraq. We know he has talked to Iranian representatives, but what about Rice and her deputies, what are they doing to assist? Unfortunately, the President and his policy team have managed to wiggle out of responsibility for Iraq, leaving it to Petraeus and Crocker to wing it the best they can within the 4 quarters of Iraq. You cannot criticize these honorable men, but I sure feel sorry for them holding the bag.

Lois Jeffrey, Bend, OR

Amen to the letters commenting on Jim "I won't have radical opinions on this show" Lehrer (almost a verbatim quote). Tonight Gwen Ifill actually referred to Hillary Clinton's first attempt to advance a universal health care proposal in the early 90's in these words — " . . . that she pushed, peddled, sold or whatever you care to call it." You just know that any Republican plan would be "proposed", not pushed or peddled, to the American public. And the "author" who was plugging his "book" about how culture is being killed by the democratization of the internet, where was the probing of his so-called thesis. He was merely one more mouthpiece for the status quo media powers who claim that a sound, balanced offering of opinion is offered by them and them alone. He pretended to be unaware that there are important views not aired in the mainstream organs. Why are the contributors to commondreams.org not regular guests on the NewsHour? Because Jim "Grampa knows best" Lehrer won't have it. He wants America (and we aliens who receive your broadcast) to have a warm glass of milk and sleep peacefully. Best not disturb us with too much contrariness. It's bad for the digestion.

Nick Johns, Vancouver, BC, Canada

I was dismayed at Gwen Ifill's lack of professionalism verging on bias when, while acting as anchor on the NewsHour on Monday, September 17, 2007, she asked Susan Dentzer how Hillary Clinton's newly-announced health-care plan differed from the one Senator Clinton was "peddling, or pushing, or selling" in the 1990s. At least a pretense of journalistic neutrality might have been nice, such as by using the word "advocating," "proposing," or "advancing."

Salem, OR

On the issue of Greenspan and the war for oil. Deal with this please!! If you gloss over or shade around this you certainly will loose my respect.

B.L., Conway, AR

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