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PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

Ombudsman's Mailbag

Welcome to another Ombudsman's Mailbag. Just as a reminder for those who may have only recently tuned into this space, these "mailbags" are primarily collections of viewer commentaries about recent PBS programs, usually with some brief commentary from me and occasionally with some explanation or response from independent producers or from PBS. They are meant to provide a place where readers can view the wide range of observations sent to the ombudsman.

The mailbags are in addition to The Ombudsman's Column, which also contains viewer e-mail but which is meant primarily to convey more extensive assessments from me about editorial matters, as well as responses and explanations from PBS. Both the columns and the mailbags are posted regularly, usually on Friday. Today's is a little early due to a scheduling conflict. There have been about 100 such postings — many more columns than mailbags — since the first one appeared in December 2005.

One other reminder for new readers of this page: people generally write to ombudsmen to complain. Lots of other mail, good and bad, goes to individual stations or program producers or to PBS generally. But what you most often see here is from those who are critical or say they are disappointed in this program or that interview.

For example, the inbox this week was filled mostly with e-mail critical of two presentations. One was an interview with Attorney General Michael Mukasey by Jim Lehrer of the nightly NewsHour on Feb. 11. The other was the airing of the documentary produced by Robert Stone for PBS's "American Experience" titled "Oswald's Ghost," another look back at the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The documentary actually aired for the first time on Jan. 14, and we heard from viewers soon after but did not have a chance to post the letters right away. As it turned out, the program was re-broadcast and produced additional mail, so we have included a sample from both batches.

The letters follow, but first a brief two-cents worth from me.

There have been times when some viewers have been critical of Lehrer for not being tougher or more challenging, in their opinion, when questioning top administration and military officials. On a couple of occasions, I joined in. But not this time. Mukasey is a tough interview. He is very guarded, very careful and simply will not say what a lot of people want him to say about torture and waterboarding, for example. He seems, to many, to be legalistic to the point of evasiveness, and if you follow the news, you will see that many in Congress have been frustrated by him as well. With that in mind, I actually found this interview to be informative and illuminating, much more helpful than the typical news clip that rarely shows more than a sound-bite in pursuit of a question and issue, and better than the typical congressional exchange.

As for "Oswald's Ghost," I found myself more in agreement with the generally positive reviews I read about this film in the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe, for example, than with the thrust of the letters although, as the Times' Robert Lloyd put it, this is "the sore that America keeps scratching" and probably always will.

Lazy on Mukasey?

I was disappointed in what was an otherwise good interview that Jim Lehrer conducted with Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

At one point Mr. Lehrer questioned Mukasey about the process for approving certain interrogation techniques. Mukasey responded that once he had given his legal opinion approving the technique it was up to the President to determine whether the technique would be adopted. Mr. Lehrer did not follow through by asking him whether if he, the AG, submitted an opinion disapproving the legal status of the technique, the President could still approve the technique. This would have raised a question about the constitutional power of the President to disregard what the chief legal officer of the US had determined to be the law of the US. Surely, this would have brought the issue of certain interrogation techniques into sharper focus.

As a second matter, when questioned by Mr. Lehrer about his decision not to prosecute those interrogators who relied upon the opinion of previous AGs that certain interrogation techniques were legal, Mr. Lehrer should have questioned Mukasey about the status of the "Nuremberg Defense" — that is, that someone being prosecuted for war crimes or crimes against humanity could not plead that he was merely "following orders."

Mr. Lehrer's failure to follow through with these observations left me disappointed in what can only be regarded as a "soft soap" interview. Otherwise, the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour is a superb program.

T. Lindsay Moore, Arlington, VA

I have been viewing The NewsHour for as long as it has existed and I am a big fan of Jim Lehrer. His interview this evening with the Attorney General was of very low quality. The tone was sinister and I was offended by the amount of time he spent on the waterboarding issue. If the interview was prompted by the upcoming trials in Cuba, why the almost complete absence of any discussion of the charges and the facts surrounding the charges?

Bradley Gold, Los Angeles, CA

Jim Lehrer did not ask Mr. Mukasey why he was not inquiring into whether the Department of Justice lawyers (such as John Yoo, whose extreme position on presidential powers were not seriously challenged in his several NewsHour appearances) had, in finding waterboarding legal, authorized an illegal action. As things stand, there is the appearance of it being all right for DOJ lawyers to improperly shape findings in a manner allowing the use of such findings as the basis for illegal actions and that, in such circumstances, DOJ attorneys will not be called to account. That those who set PBS standards and monitor adherence to same tolerate his softball approach in interviews with top officials is not in keeping with PBS commitments to the public which it serves and from which its support ultimately derives.

Henry Myers, Peaks Island, ME

I was clearly dismayed at the interview by Mr. Lehrer of Attorney General Mukasey on PBS tonight. I could not believe how much the Attorney General danced around answers that he should have been straightforward about. The question about waterboarding i.e.: is it legal? He could not answer that question. This man is not thinking nor speaking independent of this administration. He could not speak clearly about the process of military courts and the use of evidence as it pertains to waterboarding. What a sham. This man clearly does not represent the best interest of the American people. And I feel that Mr. Lehrer let him off way too easy.

George Brousard, Hayward, WI

I am at my desk listening to Jim Lehrer enable Atty. Gen. Mukasey to continue to insult the Constitution, our intelligence, our country, and all the values that true patriots hold dear, by refusing to ask him the very questions, whose answers would clarify how low this country has fallen.

Jim Olson, Penobscot, ME

Your news staff seems to work hard at doing fair interviews and asking tough questions. However, in the interview of the Attorney General on Feb. 11, the following situation should have been presented. Our President on many occasions after 911 has stated that he wants to bring persons to "justice" in which he strongly infers "to kill them". Thus, the Attorney General is the head of the "Justice Department" which infers "Killing Department". When he refers to the trials of the detainees, he stresses that the judges will be military persons . . . who have been trained in the art of killing. The Chief Judge is again a trained killer of persons. The ruling that this judge will decide if information obtained through techniques that constitute war crimes can be used to justify killing these persons is in the hands of this judge.

Our Attorney General did the equivalent of a ruler from the past who washed his hands ceremonially of the blood of Jesus and put the blame on Congress for passing laws to railroad persons to their deaths. In 20 years or less when America loses its leader of the economic world status and finds that it cannot any longer afford the most powerful military in the world, then the world may bring to account Americans for war crimes. I wonder if waterboarding and other such things will be used to gain confessions out of our present leaders. Eventually, with what measure one measures others, this measure will be used on them. We should have long ago decided that doing what is right far outweighed getting our way everywhere in the world.

Ray Barrier, Rileyville, VA

More News, More Ron Paul, Less Horse Race

I watch PBS nightly, have for many years and love the quality and character of the programming. However, I don't understand why the coverage of the presidential primary candidates continues to focus on polls and who is ahead in the race and not about the issues for which the candidates stand. This is disturbing and disappointing to me.

Connie Von Maur, West Barnstable, MA

The Lehrer NewsHour on Mon., 2/11, had a segment of "horse race reporting" — who's ahead, what's going to happen tomorrow, etc. This really isn't journalism to me — I know it's an inexpensive spot & real reporting costs more, but please do research and give us info on issues. I speak for a lot of people when I say "We're sick of polls & prophecies — give us news."

A. Wyman, Centerville, OH

I just finished watching the 6 p.m. Jim Lehrer's program, where they showed three remaining Republicans running for President at a Republican convention. Mitt Romney spoke for about five minutes, announcing his departure. Then McCain spoke for another three minutes. Then Ron Paul spoke — for four seconds (if that) before it cut to an interview with an "expert" about the Republican race. Also, there was no sound during the 4 seconds, so all you saw was his face but could not hear what he had to say. Is there any reason why Mr. Paul was so brutally cut off? I don't have an opinion on any of the Republicans or Democrats running for President but I find it very interesting that Mr. Paul was so rudely discarded by PBS.

S. Courtenay, Maui, HI

Here's an explanation to the question above from Jim Trengrove, senior producer for politics, at the NewsHour:

Everyday we receive video and audio of some, but not always all, of the candidate events from that day. We make decisions to use that material based solely on its news value. It's not an exact science. For instance, if there has been a candidate debate, we'll include what we consider the most important exchanges, but we'll also do our best to give each of the participants some air time.

On February 7th, the news was Mitt Romney's departure from the Republican race for president which, in turn, placed John McCain in the arguable position of "frontrunner." Romney's announcement came at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference at which three of the Republican candidates — Romney, McCain and Ron Paul — all were participating. We considered both Romney's announcement and McCain's response as newsworthy. However, Ron Paul did not make mention of Romney's decision. That, and the fact that we didn't receive any of Mr. Paul's remarks until just before our program aired, drove our decision not to include any sound of the candidate but to, at least, show our viewers that he had been included.

An Old Wound That May Never Heal

I recently viewed a re-airing of Oswald's Ghost. It's obvious that PBS has become that which it used to be an alternative to. The program sneakily hints at objectivity, but really steers the viewer to come to the same absurd conclusions that have been repeated endlessly, with complete disregard for evidence and facts not presented by the dog-and-pony media. There is a reason so many people believe there was a conspiracy. Anyone who has read the Warren Commission report along with the stacks of additional well-researched literature realizes there is much more to the story than that reported on the evening news and in drivel such as Oswald's Ghost . . . and oh yeah . . . they also believe it because it is true. Yeah . . . I'm REAL impressed with the OPINION of a fiction writer even if it is Norman Mailer. I can't make up my own mind. I need a pseudo-intellectual to do it for me.

I suppose eventually, from repeating the lie long enough, and with the passing of a couple of generations who saw hope die that day, the public will no longer care to find out the truth. For those of us old enough to have lived through the changes that took place subsequent to John Kennedy's murder, it is obvious that the assassination was but a brush stroke on a canvas smeared and splattered with the blood of sixty thousand young Americans and two million Vietnamese and so many, many more continuing on well beyond my lifetime . . . I guess my frustration is more with myself for thinking that PBS was really any different other than its political correctness.

Joe McAtee, Lawson, MO

Why air, much less re-air, such a skewed "documentary"? It isn't that I don't agree with its conclusion, that would be no problem as I believe the role of PBS must be to present "facts" that are objected to by some and accepted by others. It's that the piece was presenting a conclusion without supporting it with ANY facts or evidence, save for Norman Mailer's own opinion (and that of 5 Warren commission supporters, including of course (Edward Jay) Epstein, a full-fledged member of Shaw's defense team).

No, I don't mind differing opinions in fact, I welcome them and even demand them, especially in a public, un-biased forum such as PBS should be. Provided of course that those opinions are based on facts, discovery and evidence which should be clearly presented to the viewer. Not fabricated by splicing tape out of sequence or by omitting KEY information.

The assassination of President Kennedy, followed by Dr. King and the President's own brother Robert deserve such scrutiny that it should last for the next 100 years, or until we can force the government, OUR government to release important papers so that the WHOLE truth can be brought to light.

Until then, and until we allow our government to act in total secrecy, as it is doing now under the Bush administration (I use that term loosely) we will continue to be victims of well produced, well planned and well executed propaganda pieces, such as Robert Stone's "Oswald's Ghost," which even portrayed Garrison's effort in investigating the murder of our President as which hunt against gays? Please, that is ludicrous at best and borderline malicious at worse. It's NOT journalism in any way shape or form and as such PBS should clearly label it a FICTION piece before and after airing it. Better yet, stop airing as respect for a murdered President. Robert Stone can of course correct the countless omission and biases in the piece and re-air it as a REAL documentary. But, I doubt that will ever happen.

No one who has spent any meaningful time researching, reading and examining the pile of documentation available can possibly say with the degree of certainty implied by Stone's and his talking heads that it was Oswald alone and, a last minute decision at that. Even being generous it would be a 50/50 chance of the Warren Commission being wrong. That alone makes the piece's conclusion unreasonable and stamps it as a clearly biased, fiction film.

Los Angeles, CA

Why has American Experience taken such a hard-left turn? It didn't used to be such an ideologically partisan show. The recent Oswald show is as dishonest a piece of "journalism" I've seen in a long time. Why is the Left still so determined to blame the Right for JFK's murder when Oswald (a communist!) did it without a doubt, with no help? (Please read "Case Closed.") This show had only Leftniks and conspiracy nuts on it: Josiah Thompson, Mark Lane, Gary Hart, Norman Mailer, etc. Egad. You guys are really pathetic.

Alan Hobden, Colorado Springs, CO

Oswald's Ghost totally lacks any journalistic integrity. It's the same old cherry-picking of the evidence that one sees in other programs on the Kennedy assassination. The conclusion of the House Assassinations Subcommittee of a probable conspiracy (which means a second shooter) is ignored. The testimony of the doctors at Parkland Hospital (conclusively proving that Kennedy's massive head wound was inflicted by a shot from the front); and the total absence of nitrates on Oswald's right cheek from a paraffin test (showing that he had not fired a rifle that day) are also ignored. These latter two items strongly point toward Oswald's innocence. You disagree? Then make the case against Oswald from an examination of the TOTALITY of the evidence, not from taking easy pot shots at the shortcomings of Garrison's investigation or from Mailer's speculative ruminations. And please don't engage in cheap tricks like cutting off the press conference at Parkland after Kennedy's death right before the Hospital spokesman points toward the right front of his skull to show where the bullet hit Kennedy in the head. Or cutting off the film right at the very end before the shot that hits Kennedy in the head — thereby relieving the viewer of wondering how Kennedy's head jerked violently backward and to the left from a shot fired from the rear (or also wondering in retrospect how the motorcycle policemen in the rear of Kennedy's limousine got sprayed with his brain matter if the head shot came from the rear).

It is insulting to suggest that the public needs a conspiratorial explanation to satisfy itself as an explanation for Kennedy's death when a mountain of hard evidence points to a conspiracy and the strong probability of Oswald's innocence. One official government body has already stated that there was a strong probability of a conspiracy (or did the House Assassinations Subcommittee also have a paranoid impulse?).

Here we are, nearly 45 years after the fact, with a strong majority of the public long since disaffected with the highly deficient investigation of the Warren Commission, and the media is still (!) trying to pin Kennedy's death solely upon Oswald. When are you going to allow the other side of this issue to be explored? You have no choice if you are serious about maintaining the integrity of your programming.

Dennis Gosier, Silver Spring, MD

I have just reviewed PBS's EDITORIAL STANDARDS AND POLICIES and I must say, with regret, that Robert Stone's new documentary Oswald's Ghost runs counter to almost every stated value and aim of your network. A balanced look at the way the Kennedy assassination affected our nation would have given some time to the passionate researchers (also known by the derogatory misnomer "conspiracy theorists") who have indeed unearthed much new evidence, not merely smeared them with slick hypnotic sequences while upholding the Warren Report's fictions and showing us Oswald's face a million times.

Mr. Getler et al., you should be deeply ashamed of the role PBS plays as a propaganda mouthpiece for the CIA, especially when it means stooping to peddle such transparent, insultingly a-historical dreck like Oswald's Ghost. Likewise be ashamed if you are innocent of this function. Please, make it your business to reflect upon the ethics involved, and strive to produce better historical content on PBS.

Philadelphia, PA

Other Stuff

I just watched Maria Hinojosa's program (NOW/Jan. 11). It was on the influence of Latinos in America's Elections. Sadly Miss Hinojosa did what so many Hispanic journalists do, she implied Americans have an issue with Latino immigrants. The problem most Americans have is with illegal immigrants from Latin America and every other nation. The distinction needs to be made. FYI, I am a lifelong PBS Viewer, an admirer of Miss Hinojosa's work, and the ex-husband of a Latino immigrant who is now a US Citizen and the father of 3 kids from this marriage.

Anthony Johnson, Brentwood, NY

The program on African American heritage and genealogy was the most moving and meaningful program I have ever viewed. As a child of a different genocide I wish I could see my ancestors' orchards, their vineyards and their churches. Mr. Gates has built a monument of everlasting quality. May it be a model for future human stories that otherwise would be relegated to eternal oblivion.

Eddie Bilezikian, Berkeley Springs, WV

Honorable Sir, although my vision of the likes of your broadcast of America Ballroom Dancing might be provocative to some (I would hope only a minority) of the more lascivious PBS viewers, I personally find it rather reprehensible and certainly not in conformity with principles that I have experienced by viewing PBS broadcasts.

Clifford Davies, Lorton, VA

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