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The Ombudsman Column

Is The New York Times Still Necessary?

There are, after all, other world-class newspapers like The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal. And there are other papers that cover New York.

But of course The New York Times is still necessary; more necessary than ever before, it could be argued, because the major newspapers in this country, along with dozens of other quality regional papers, are facing huge technological, financial and readership challenges that have come together to threaten their future. And that, in my view, threatens our future as well.

(This column and its headline, by the way, were written before the Times published its story on Thursday about Sen. John McCain and has nothing to do with the ensuing controversy).

Newspaper circulation is down. Readership is down. Advertising is down, as are profits. News space is being cut. Staffs are being cut. Senior and experienced reporters are being bought out because their salaries got too high. The number of foreign bureaus and correspondents is declining, along with expensive investigative reporting. It is true that online versions of many newspapers are growing. But those editions are nowhere close to generating the kind of revenue that print newspapers produce and is needed to support the high costs of comprehensive news-gathering and pull-no-punches journalism. That kind of news and information has been indispensable for citizens in a democracy, and that remains the case for Americans in today's global environment.

So the question in the headline on this column is rhetorical. But it is also a parody of a headline on an article that was spread across the top of the front page of the "Arts&Leisure" section of The New York Times last Sunday. That headline read:

'Is PBS Still Necessary?'

The article, not surprisingly, has caused quite a stir, especially here at PBS and among readers of the Times, viewers of public television, and even among those who communicate via the ombudsman's office. The Times' position at the top of daily journalism's cultural pyramid gives such commentary an extra dimension. So a broad, critical, attention-getting, poke in the gut — which is what this piece was — from within one of the nation's premier news organizations committed to informing the public, rattles cages and sets off some of the special alarm bells that ring within public television, especially. PBS is dependent on contributions from viewers, grants from foundations, support from some commercial companies and from some funds appropriated, and argued over, by Congress every year.

The article carried the byline of Charles McGrath and it didn't carry any label, such as commentary, that would alert the reader that they were looking at an opinion piece. When I asked the Times about this, they said McGrath "is a longtime writer-at-large for The Times." They described the piece as an "essay" that "offered original opinion, and thus conformed to our house style for criticism and opinion in the news pages." That style refers to a different kind of type layout and a larger byline, which, I presume, the dedicated reader is supposed to recognize as something other than news.

The news peg for McGrath's essay, and for the question in the headline, is the annual rumble over the new federal budget submission; in this case, the eighth consecutive year in which the Bush administration has sought to cut the government portion of funds for public television and radio. About 15% of total PBS revenue comes from Congress via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

McGrath gives very high marks to National Public Radio, with which I strongly agree. On the other hand, NPR's escalating good works and good fortune have benefited greatly from a huge bequest of more than $200 million from the estate of Joan Kroc, the widow of the McDonald's chairman, which he points out.

But in comparison, PBS television is largely portrayed disdainfully, as aged and musty — programs including prime-time stalwarts such as the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, NOVA, Nature, Masterpiece that are into their third or fourth decade "and they look it." The good stuff, he says, "often gets lost amid all the dreck." He says that many cable channels now offer the kind of stuff that in the past you could only see on public television "and in at least some instances they do it better."

He gets a little personal with NewsHour chief Lehrer, reporting that he is 73 and has been with the program so long that "some of his early viewers are now in assisted living." And McGrath concludes by saying: "At its best public television adds a little grace note to our lives, but public radio fills a void."

Reaction Is Swift and Heavy

Within a day or so, there were more than 830 comments posted on the Times Web site in response to McGrath's column before it was shut off. A sampling indicated that the majority of respondents definitely thought the answer to the headline question on McGrath's column was, "yes," PBS was necessary. Lehrer, who usually lets punches slide off, also did an unusual thing. He ended his Tuesday broadcast by referring to the article and invited viewers to view the comments to the Times online or to join the discussion on PBS.org. The PBS site had received more than 5,600 responses by Friday morning. A sampling showed them to be overwhelmingly supportive of PBS and a large number of its programs. Another such invitation was being pulled together on the Web site for the public radio and TV trade newspaper, Current. There was a lot of mail to me, as well.

PBS President Paula Kerger has sent a letter to the Times in response.

My Two Cents

My own reaction to the article was mixed. PBS is no sacred cow and, like any big organization dealing with the public, needs to be challenged. I try to do that regularly based on viewer observations and some of my own. But my platform is not the front page of the culture section of the flagship Sunday edition of The New York Times, and I'm not sure if any people who happen to run foundations or vote in Congress read the ombudsman's column. And if you are going to deliver a punch, budget time is the right time to get people's attention.

There are indeed some old programs that haven't seemed to change in decades, as McGrath points out, and maybe they should. On the other hand, many people also seem to like them the way they are. I also get complaints about too many old British comedies, but also, of course, even more letters saying don't you dare remove them. The NewsHour can, at times, be boring and even-handed to the point of frustration when issues are not so even-handed. And maybe some fresh ideas for upping the energy level are out there and should be considered. All news organizations need to do that. But the NewsHour is still the best and highest information content news program on television and there is a very large audience that says it likes and trusts the way news is presented on that program, and that they, as consumers, can form their own judgments about guest performances.

I thought the most important point made by McGrath was in his comparison with NPR, which, he said, "has managed to stay distinctive" by doing what no one else on radio is doing. NPR, again, has had a huge bonus in outside funding from the Kroc estate. But they are very focused and imaginative and are producers of actual content, in contrast to PBS, which is dependent on a small core of stations and independent producers for its national programs. I think PBS, as I will come to, also plays an absolutely necessary role in informing and enlightening the public. But you always wonder whether this large and unique collection of some 350 affiliated but independent stations could take another step in its evolution that would make it even more relevant, more enlightening.

What's Bothersome

There were a couple of things that bothered and surprised me about this article. One was its placement, which struck me as strange. It could easily be seen as an unmarked editorial placed in a very prominent, top of the page spot in the nation's leading newspaper in the heart of PBS-land. Its position seemed to suggest a newspaper's endorsement. While questioning PBS is a very legitimate thing to do, it is a big and weighty subject. Millions of people rely on PBS, and to ask, in sort of a flip treatment, if it is really necessary treads on something very important to viewers in a less than full fashion. The article contained no original reporting and no comment or response from PBS.

Most importantly, it seems to me that to say PBS at best adds "a little grace note" to our lives is to overlook powerful contributions to important issues that are routinely presented in an uninterrupted, non-commercial format that large audiences say they enjoy, learn from, and are devoted to.

There was no mention in the article, for example, of Frontline, the best continuing series of timely, frequent and often hard-hitting documentaries on television. Indeed, the same section of the Times that Sunday called attention to Frontline's then forthcoming "Rules of Engagement," and its "even-handed account" and in-depth look back at the killings by U.S. Marines of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha in Iraq. The NBC evening news on Tuesday night also reported on the program. Who else is doing that?

Whatever one thinks of Bill Moyers, many of the interviews he conducts on his Journal place intelligent and iconoclastic views before the public that deserve to be heard but don't get a chance elsewhere. The NOW program does the same thing. Charlie Rose, when he is not interrupting, has an array of guests that rarely disappoint and frequently enlighten. Who else took the time to produce an uninterrupted in-depth look at the courtroom drama in Pennsylvania involving the teaching of Intelligent Design as NOVA did in November, or a powerful American Experience series on The Mormons?

I don't want to go through the long list of programs that many of those who responded to the Times article mentioned. But "a little grace note" is, in my view, an inaccurate and misleading way to describe a significant dose of PBS programming.

What most surprised me, however, is that at a time when newspapers are cutting back and probing journalism is threatened, when commercial television, with the exception of CBS's Sixty Minutes, adds little to in-depth treatment of issues, and cable not much more, why would there be any gain for the public in doing away with public television and its contribution to public affairs? And what would all those millions of people without cable do? It seems to me that this needed to be addressed if you are going to hang this theme out there in such a prominent way.

On to Other Matters

I'm not going to publish here the scores of e-mails I received from viewers about the Times column. You can look at the links to the Times and the NewsHour posted above to read thousand of the comments on this subject.

Here's a sampling of recent e-mails on other subjects, and some responses from PBS. The following three letters refer to a NewsHour segment on Feb. 18 about the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture recall of beef in the wake of a slaughterhouse scandal.

I would like to file a formal complaint about this segment on the Newshour. This usually excellent program typically invites TWO guests to present both sides of the issue. But on this segment only one guest was invited, a man from the USDA, which is in charge of inspecting meatpacking plants. No person with an opposing point of view was called. In effect they called the fox that was supposed to be watching the hen house. This has been my field of expertise for 30+ years, and I was outraged at the one-sided and partly inaccurate point of view expressed by this USDA spokesman. Obviously he was protecting the meat packing industry, making this string of incidents look like a rare exception to normal practice. I think PBS should be consistent in having both sides represented on every sensitive issue.

Bill Shurtleff, Lafayette, CA

I look to The News Hour for in depth BALANCED coverage of major news stories. I was excited and hopeful to see the inhumane treatment of dairy cattle among the headlines...a real first for broadcast news even on PBS. But instead of the usual two-person interview, there was a USDA messenger giving a canned "public service" (really government/dairy industry service) announcement. I was truly sick at heart and now the last bastion of almost news is gone as far as I'm concerned. WHERE WAS THE OTHER SIDE OF THIS ISSUE? That was sloppy and biased reporting. Anyone who's done any research in this area, even superficially, knows that mistreatment of dairy cattle and downed cows is STANDARD practice.

Boston, MA

Tonight's coverage of the "downed cattle" --leading to the biggest beef recall in California history --could have been a showcase of authentic PBS journalism-- instead it became a mere whitewash to excuse an abusive and apparently weakly regulated industry-- one committed to converting living flesh into profit with as little humane consideration as can be hidden behind barbed-wire enclosed compounds.

Even the transparently corrupt major networks carried more graphic footage of the abuses than did 'The News Hour". Actual arrests for heinous cruelty were made--but PBS of course negated that and made it a public safety issue. Even there, PBS chose to interview only a Bush-administration apologist for de-regulation: not a consumer advocate, and certainly not the persons who bravely exposed the cruelties inherent in factory farms.

We heard no discussion about the cutbacks in the numbers of inspectors under the Bush Administration's paybacks to it's corporate donors. We heard no comparison of humane standards with those of the more progressive European Community, and certainly no reflection upon WHY animals would be "too injured to walk"; just a vehicle to blandly pronounce that "all is well" in America's slaughterhouses.

R. Christopher V., Dolores, CO

Here's a response from Murrey Jacobsen, a senior producer with the NewsHour:

"We decided to interview the USDA official in the same manner that we interview many government officials about their response to a problem. We often put the questions directly to the official and incorporate criticisms and concerns into our line of questioning. In this case, Gwen Ifill shaped her questions after reading through numerous articles and research as well as background interviews we did with consumer advocates. And in fact, Gwen utilized some of those criticisms when she interviewed Mr. Petersen.

"We believed that since many of the questions critics and watchdogs were asking were similar to what Gwen was planning to ask, we felt a solo interview was a valid approach to raising some of the key questions in this story.I'm sorry we disappointed some of you with this segment. We remain committed to balanced journalism and we are very aware of the concerns raised. We think about those same issues ourselves before we air a segment. We felt we did not give a pass last night and we don't plan to in the future."

And on Kosovo Coverage

In the NewsHour's coverage of Kosovo (2/18), NOT ONCE was there mention of the 200 Orthodox Christian churches, convents, and monasteries destroyed by the Kosovar Muslims. Slobodan Milosevic is the villain in the event, NOT the Orthodox Christian Church of Serbia.

Robert S. Miller, Bainbridge Island, WA

It is dishonest to have had only US Ambassador Frank Wisner on the NewsHour in regard to the secession of Kosovo. No independent comment, to say nothing of a position from Serbia. PBS is a purely propaganda service for the US administration. Shame on you.

Robert Hayden, Pittsburgh, PA

I was watching PBS news as usual when I saw how Kosovo's "independence" was presented by US ambassador. This was clear one sided presenting of the story with a lot of non-true or half-true elements. Why does PBS allow an official position known to the public to be presented as the whole truth? Kosovo is much more complicated than any US ambassador could have a clue. My credit to PBS went down after this story. Is PBS really independent?

Grand Rapids, MI

Here's a response from Mike Mosettig, senior producer with the NewsHour:

"First, our objective was to explain to the approximately 99 percent of our audience who have not thought about Kosovo for the past decade why we were even doing this story in the first place. I think we did that in our setup and as well in the discussion. Frequently, when we take one crack or our first crack at a story, we do it with an administration newsmaker. Ambassador Wisner was the right person to interview. He has been involved in these negotiations for more than two years; I doubt if there is anyone else better informed about how the situation reached this point.

"We did make approaches to the Russian ambassador to the UN (he was involved in a Security Council Meeting) and the Serbian Ambassador to DC (who was recalled from his post). And we subsequently heard from several of our analysts who generally are sympathetic to the Serbians that Wisner did a straight-forward job even if his some of his role was to explain American policy. Should this story require more coverage, we will be going to other people."

More on Mukasey

Unlike the critics of the Mukasey interview (NewsHour 2/11 and ombudsman's mailbag 2/14), I thought it was excellent and consistent with the hour's programming and approach. It was informational and we learned about Mukasey and his perception of his job. Personally, I found it reassuring, and I think that those who criticized the interview expressed their own opinions and prejudices, and were upset that their perspectives were not vindicated. That would not have been consistent with the hour.It provided information, not an opinion.

Dennis Santillo, Cornville, AZ

We think Mr. Lehrer did exactly what he has said in the past he would try to do in an interview. That is, he would ask the questions and let the interviewee reveal himself. In this case the AG riggled and dodged and revealed himself as someone who is covering up for the Administration regardless of any principles he himself may actually have.

Judy & Roger Shaw, Cambridge, MA

I agree with those who stated that J. Lehrer allowed Mukasey to avoid any responsibility for the mess we are currently in, especially since the President is greatly lacking in the devotion to the standards set by our founding fathers in the Constitution, and even basic common sense!

Watsonville, CA

On Frontline and the Marines

I am writing to express my disappointment with the journalistic practices employed in the recent broadcast "Rules of Engagement." While the broadcast upheld the Frontline gold standard of not oversimplifying an issue, objectivity finally gave way, in the course of the broadcast, to the editorial desire to suggest that the soldiers were victims of the "fog of war" as it applies to the rules of engagement in Iraq. Unfortunately, we cannot know this since the entire broadcast ducked the main question: what were the stated rules and were they followed by the soldiers in Haditha. Let me quote the very card the broadcast refers to but pointedly avoids citing: "US forces will not fire unless fired upon unless there is clear evidence of hostile intent...

My complaint is not about where the broadcast ended up on this question (reasonable people might disagree). My complaint is that the question was never actually engaged. However, difficult these decisions are, if, in fact, the actions of the Marines that day failed to demonstrate a.) clear evidence of hostile intent from the car passengers and the residents of the first three houses and b.) a proportionate response, then, by the Marines' own rules, they are necessarily guilty of criminal action. These two criteria were glossed over by the producers because they are an uncomfortable fit with their desire to suggest that the Marines may in fact not have done anything wrong, may in fact might have been following their ROE. Isn't it a problem, then, to call a show by the very core issue and then skirt it for 60 minutes? I hope you and/or the producers of Frontline think so.

David Charbonneau, Pasadena,CA

If you ever hear complaints that PBS or Frontline has presented any unfair discourse on very controversial subjects, they must see tonight's Frontline broadcast of the tragedy at Haditha. I was one of those who had been outraged at the criminality of that incident. Tonight's presentation was so well presented, showing both sides of the way it happened, that I wept for the young men who have been blamed for it. I was presented with the facts and with the situation so graphically, that I could understand exactly how such a terrible thing can happen, not only by mistake, but by the terrible circumstances that jeopardizes the humanity of our young men, and places them in the position to commit the worst mistakes of their lives. It gave me a more complete understanding also of the dilemma in which our young men and women find themselves, even though I still am against the whole situation of Iraq, and how we got into this situation by irreconcilable lies and motivations. It is heartbreaking to think how many of our young, well motivated service men are making instantaneous decisions on life and death and political ramifications. That is not just war, it is putting unconscionable choices into their psyches that will affect them their whole lives.

Maria Davidson, Norfolk, VA

I continue to be disturbed by the left bias being exhibited by PBS. My husband and I have been loyal supporters of PBS until a few years ago when the bias became blatant. I cite as an example tonight's programming spotlighting the controversial killings by some American soldiers in a village in Iraq. Instead of presenting the thousands of positive actions of our troops you choose to air a controversial episode that portrays our troops in a bad light. This would never have occurred in the Roosevelt era when the press was not even allowed to show the president as crippled. Why, because it would compromise our strength as a nation and our bargaining power. Whatever our political persuasions might be we must support our country and believe in her. That does not mean that constructive criticism should not be offered but the destructive criticism that is evident on PBS in the name of winning an election is reprehensible.

Candace Broecker, Bridgman, MI

Congressional 'Babble'

Let's see, we are tuned to PBS in Phoenix, or are we? We are witnessing a "debate" between two arrogant House of Representatives members about the surveillance legislation. I think we tuned in by mistake to Fox News, or CNN or MSNBC. Give us a break. Skip the useless "debates" you have been having recently. Or get the staff of NewsHour to pin down the "debaters" to answer the question(s). We are fed up. Stick with the news.

George Lusk, Phoenix, AZ

The appearance of the two House Reps.[Hoyer and Hoekstra] on tonight's program (2/15) was a good example of the reason why Congress' approval rating is lower than the President's. I understand why you have features of this sort and why you will continue to do so but it really is a waste of time to hear the sort of babble that occurred this evening. I feel that the least informative of all your features are those which focus on politicians from each party "discussing" an issue. Otherwise, thank you for providing, by far, the best news broadcast in all of television.

Ray VanHoech, Canton, MI