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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag

Welcome to another collection of viewer commentaries and observations that landed in the ombudsman's mailbag during the past week or so. This one is a double feature, and that makes it rather long.

First comes a sampling of reaction to Frontline's Tuesday night broadcast of "Inside the Meltdown," a gripping and dramatically portrayed narrative of the extraordinary string of events that began to unfold publicly on Wall Street last fall with the collapse of investment banks Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and the near collapse of insurance giant AIG and mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. There is also a response to some of the critical e-mails from a top Frontline editor, and some of my thoughts follow that.

The second batch of e-mails involves reaction to last week's Ombudsman's Column, both to my remarks and to some of the letters that were posted. The subject last week was the Jan. 28 appearance on the Tavis Smiley program of the highly acclaimed singer and rapper known as M.I.A. during which she talked about a "systematic genocide" that she claimed was being carried out by the government of Sri Lanka against its minority Tamil population.

Her comments drew sharp criticism from many who disagree, and Smiley drew criticism for offering her a platform for such charges without asking for evidence. For me, the issue was Smiley rather than M.I.A., and I felt that providing a platform for such a powerful accusation without any probing, allowing such statements to go unquestioned and unchallenged, was fair criticism. I also said that as far as I could tell, no major human rights group of the kind one usually looks to, such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, had described the situation in Sri Lanka — where tens of thousands of people have died in a 25-year battle between the government and a separatist insurgency led by a group known as the Tamil Tigers — as genocide.

In the aftermath of the column, many other people wrote to support Smiley, M.I.A. and the Tamils and to criticize my assessment. A sampling of those letters is printed below. Also in that column last week, Smiley's executive producer, Neal Kendall, answering my inquiry about whether they would respond to the critical letters, said that they were going to look into airing a follow-up program about M.I.A.'s remarks with a guest, most likely, from the Sri Lankan government. Kendall and Smiley moved quickly on this and on Wednesday evening this week, Feb. 18, aired interviews with the Associated Press bureau chief in Sri Lanka, Ravi Nessman, and then with the country's foreign secretary, Palitha Kohona.

Here Are the 'Meltdown' Letters

I just finished watching "Inside the Meltdown." While it was very informative, I was amazed that two Democrats, Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, who only a couple of years earlier both said that Freddie and Fannie were in "great shape," were two of the "talking heads." Why was there NO mention of their involvement with standing in the way of those who wanted to place stricter lending rules on both institutions? And, I don't think we heard from ONE Republican "talking head" in the entire hour?

What's up with that . . . seemed a little too "one-sided." And the final audio at the picture fadeout, Now we're all waiting for Barack Obama to fix it was a little too heavy-handed for my tastes.

Bob Seaman, Park City, UT

My sense of fairness and balance specific to the Frontline program has now been forever decimated after watching last night's presentation on the financial meltdown. How dare your program portray Barney Frank in the light of innocence and objectivity. He denied the alarm bells ringing around Fannie and Freddie. Dodd got sweet heart VIP deals and still has not released his records. You and your programming are in the back pockets of the Democratic Party. Objectivity and balance are not foundational pieces of your programming.

Tom Atkins, Whidbey Island, WA

Barney Frank, Christopher Dodd, Paul Krugman, Joe Nocera, Mark Gertler . . . Is it just a strange oddity that the talking heads asked to wax intellectual in Frontline's "Inside the Meltdown" all inhabit the same echo chamber on the Left? Was Hugo Chavez unavailable for comment?

For some unknown reason the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was completely glossed over, and never once was the involvement of Frank and Dodd even hinted at. Nor was there any mention of Dodd's cozy relationship and sweetheart loan deals with Countrywide. Perhaps the Frontline producers thought such information would get in the way of a narrative wholly indistinguishable from Democratic talking points. Bravo, PBS.

David Krause, Dallas, TX

I watched the meltdown show last night and I am surprised that more Democrats and less Republicans were featured. Actually I didn't see one conservative. More Democrats would have made it even more unfair to hear the story of how hard and complicated the meltdown was and that conservatives were at fault. I am sure no bias was intended or was it???

Seattle, WA

I bought property in 1989 just before the real estate market crashed, and had to wait 10 years before my investment appreciated. I'm not educated in economics, equity trading, bonds, or equity derivatives, but my own experience would tell me not to bundle additional securities to the real estate market so quickly, and more over, I would know that if I sold these securities I could not guarantee a return for a number of years, not to mention leveraging against these types of financial products.

My point is that these Wall Street guys knew they were selling shaky products. That should have been the focus of tonight's story, because your audience is already informed as to who played what part in the meltdown. But I did marvel at the poignant moment when Mr. Paulson announced the bailout. He really cares about his capitalist brothers.

M. Schek, Washington, DC

The last sentence spoken by the narrator on "Inside the Meltdown" was one of the most irresponsible, reprehensible statements ever made in the history of PBS, and, for that matter, American broadcasting. Regardless that it may be true, the brain-dead person who authorized it should be summarily discharged. If the market crashes further tomorrow, it will be on your heads.

Stow, OH

(Ombudsman's Note: Here are the last sentences spoken by the narrator. I don't see anything wrong with them. "Last month, Henry Paulson was replaced by President Obama's choice, Tim Geithner. Ben Bernanke will stay on at the Federal Reserve until at least 2010. So far they have spent 350 billion dollars to save the financial system. They have said they will spend trillions more. And still nobody knows if it will be enough.")

After hearing the credentials for all of the CEOs and the Government Officials interviewed for the story, "Inside the meltdown," and then listening to what these people said as they looked directly into the camera is either these people are dumber than their credentials make them out to be or they are GD LIARS! I believe the later! For these people to say they had no idea that this would happen based on the way they were running their financial institutions is completely disgusting and a slap to the face of the people who lost most or all of their money because of THEM! I am not educated in finance, but I saw this mess unfolding and it was NOT rocket science to figure that out. The background provided by the story clearly told what was happening and that it was based on NOTHING BUT GREED, GREED and GREED!

David Gabrielsen, Beavercreek, OR

I just wanted to thank somebody for the Frontline "Meltdown" episode. The fraud perpetrated upon this Nation is unraveling and programs such as this do much to shine some light. I would hope in future exposes, the Fed would be brought under Frontline's camera and people were shown the extent of their deceit. The fed has given away trillions without oversight. They print money out of thin air. How long until we're the next Zimbabwe?

Mike Flores, Wilmington, NC

Hollywood on the Charles?

Your program last night showing the meltdown of our financial systems and its international implications viewed like a Hollywood movie. My husband said it would take 2 or 3 hours to make a more complex film. It might have been good for Frontline to have had a series on several nights to complete this task. As it was, it was superficial. Instead of long close up shots of Paulson and many windows of the Fed and other buildings, it could have infused this documentary with "real" information.

Really, I think Frontline was subverted. Where was the info about the hedge fund traders and their profits? Who were the traders who did the CDS's and the Collaterilzed Mortgage Obligations? How much was their profits? The March Vanity Fair magazine has done a better job of journalism than your Frontline.

Joanne Aloni-Boldon, Encino, CA

What an outstanding program!! The content was so interesting, so many details brought out by so many responsible for it. I sat in awe as I watched and listened. I am always so impressed by the 'production' aspect of FRONTLINE. I constantly look beyond the surface during your broadcasts. I listen to the 'background music,' how a scene fades in and out, little nuances that give the entire broadcast depth. Please thank each and every person who contributed to the research, planning and creation of FRONTLINE in general and 'INSIDE THE MELTDOWN' in particular. All of FRONTLINE'S documentaries are great, but this one is superb.

Drew Thomas, Bradenton, FL
MSgt. USAF, (Ret.)

In true Frontline style, the research and objectivity were excellent; presentation, however, seems to be diverging from having a primary focus on clear content delivery. I noted that Frontline has descended into using splashy visual transitions accompanied by distracting and annoying sound effects. While this might be appealing to the ADD crowd, it detracts significantly from the program and delivery of content. Frontline has been, for me at least, the "gold standard" of delivering outstanding investigative journalism in a clear and objective style. The outstanding journalism is still there, but I implore you to return to a delivery style that enhances, not distracts from, the content.

Santa Rosa, CA

Frontline Responds

Here's the response from Story Editor Catherine Wright:

"In the first 48 hours since FRONTLINE broadcast 'Inside the Meltdown,' we have received nearly 500 letters from viewers about the program. Compared to average response following a new broadcast, that's a lot. Clearly the subject, and the program, touched a nerve. The discussion on our web site is robust and varied, and has a sampling similar to the letters you received.

"We did receive a number of letters wondering why Rep. Barney Frank and Sen. Chris Dodd were given time and not 'taken to task' for their roles in regulating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and why we didn't interview any Republican legislators. We didn't, in this film, set out to hold particular people responsible for what happened in the markets from March of last year through the summer and fall; we wanted, instead, to understand the progression of what was happening on Wall Street and inside the key meetings in Washington during that period. Rep. Frank and Sen. Dodd were in a number of those specific meetings and as witnesses to those proceedings were in a unique position to talk about what happened behind closed doors. We offered many Republican senators and congressmen equal opportunities to talk about those meetings; they declined to participate.

"We've also received many letters from viewers with thoughts about things they felt we didn't treat deeply enough and suggestions about what they felt was missing from the program. We appreciate their comments about and suggestions for what they would like to see us report. Even in an hour (or two or three), it's impossible to tackle every angle of a story of such enormity and import; 'Inside the Meltdown' is the first film of several we have planned on the economic crisis over the next six to nine months, and as the stimulus bill develops and is put into action and the story continues to shift over the next months and years, it's territory that FRONTLINE will return to, and will perhaps tackle many of the specific questions raised by our viewers."

My Thoughts

In general, I found this documentary very much in keeping with the timely, high-quality work of Frontline and Producer Michael Kirk. It comes across as a thriller that captures the house-of-cards nature of huge companies whose stability so many took for granted, and of the powerful internal ideological struggle that accompanied the frantic search for a solution that might work.

The dramatic music and camera work worked for me because this was dramatic and real and it isn't over. The intense, black and white close-ups of former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and current Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke captured the strain on these two suddenly very public men faced with the beginnings of a cascading financial catastrophe that seemed to defy control. The use of experienced financial reporters and economists, including former Reagan adviser Martin Feldstein, to move the narrative along was extremely helpful, I thought, although it might have been better to leave it to them rather than bring in economists who are also op-ed page columnists such as the New York Times' Paul Krugman, who offered a distracting put-down of Paulson.

I also thought that those viewers who complained about the role of Democratic Rep. Frank and Sen. Dodd, and the lack of any Republican lawmakers raised fair points. The two Democrats were the only lawmakers interviewed. The after-broadcast explanation offered (above) by Frontline's Wright addresses these points, but why not take a view seconds in an hour-long program to tell viewers while they were watching that Republicans declined to participate. And why not include at least some brief reference in the narration to the roles that Frank and Dodd played in recent years in seeking to give the two mortgage giants an even larger role in the mortgage market and who, in Frank's case, had argued in the past that suggestions that the two entities faced a financial crisis were exaggerated. Both lawmakers also were major recipients of campaign contributions from the financial services, insurance and real estate sectors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

On Smiley, M.I.A. and Me

First of all, I am disappointed at you for even writing [in the Feb. 12 Ombudsman's Column] about whether there is a genocide happening in Sri Lanka or whether it was right for Tavis Smiley not to probe further the accusation of Genocide on air by M.I.A. Well, Sir, I did watch the interview, and I am going to tell you it is the finest and truthful interview that I ever seen in your PBS channel for long time. I am going to be critical at you sir even for taking the time to write an essay on a Topic that is painfully meaningful to my family. I am going to give you many facts that you cannot just refuse. I left Sri Lanka 20 years ago, when Sri Lankan armed forces ethnically cleansed my village because some one from our village had joined the militant movement at that time. My mother's family was totally wiped out by a gun wielding Sri Lankan army soldiers. Now, 20 years later what is happening in Sri Lanka is definitely a systematic Genocide against minority Tamils by the Sri Lankan government. I am attaching some web links that have investigated and placed Sri lanka on the Genocide watch list. Sir, Everyone one of us agrees that interview is fair and balanced. Nothing more, nothing less.

Vijay Sivaneswara, Toronto

We really enjoyed the [Jan. 28] Tavis Smiley's interview with MIA. We congratulate MIA and Tavis Smiley for bringing up the Genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka and informed the world that there are hundreds of Tamil innocent civilians are getting killed every day. Her act may save so many innocent civilians life since Sri Lankan government is not allowing any international media to the conflict zone.

Vara Pillai, Toronto, Canada

Why is it that when the word genocide is being mentioned everyone starts jumping up and down? Well it seems like no ones realizes how it feels like to see people being killed in front of your own eyes or tirelessly going from country to country. Well no one knows how it feels like, when you are a refugee and treated like one. Killings have been ongoing in Sri Lanka since it got its independence and the LTTE was the outcome of the injustice brought on by the majority (Sinhala) on the minority (Tamil), this doesn't mean that I support the activities of LTTE or what so ever. Have you ever felt how it feels like to lose someone you knew everyday? Well, if you had, you would know the real pain of having gone through it for the rest of your life.

Sujeebavan Manoharan, Ottawa, Canada

I firmly believe Tavis Smiley interview with MIA was fair and balanced regarding the Sri Lanka's civil War. MIA took the initiative to tell the suffering of Tamil people since she experienced it while growing up in Sri Lanka. You cannot believe how many Tamil people watched the interview over and over again to appreciate that MIA had a chance to tell Americans about the Tamil's plight.

Sri Lanka's civil war is under reported in western media for the last 3 decades. This war has been a slow genocide of Tamils by the Sinhalese government and its mono-ethnic Sinhalese Army. After 9/11, the Tamil struggle against oppressive Sinhalese government has been looked as if it is terrorist war since LTTE, the main fighting force for Tamils, is also banned by USA, Canada, European Union and some other countries since it has also used some terrorist tactics against the Sri Lankan government and citizens. Sri Lankan government used this opportunity to portray its hidden agenda of slow genocide of Tamils as if it's a war against terror. Why can't the government let independent media to operate in conflict areas as well as non-conflict zone such as the capital, Colombo, to report the reality if the government insists it's a war on terror? The government will never let this happen to hide its genocidal war against Tamils from the internal community.

Tamils against genocide recently filed a lawsuit in US to punish the main actors of Sri Lankan Genocidal war, U.S. Citizen and Sri Lanka's Defense Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and U.S. green card holder and Sri Lanka's Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka.

Aravinthan K, Scarborough, Ontario, Canada

I recently viewed the interview you had with MIA. And I would like to tell you that she was full of crap (pardon my language). I assure you that there is absolutely NO genocide in Sri Lanka. She is just trying to win sympathy because the war against terrorism is almost finished in Sri Lanka. I have a complete video of how MIA used to have terrorist icons on her albums. But dropped now because Tamil Tigers are labeled as Terrorists and banned from most of countries. Google LTTE and you will find the truth.

Cham Herath, Wixom, MI

Thank you for providing this balanced view of the interview given by MIA. As usual an unsuspecting person, decent person has been taken for a ride by an LTTE sympathizer. While MIA is undoubtedly talented with her rap she has used this interview as a platform to air her personal political views. This is not fair by the interviewer. Coming to the subject of genocide, one cannot compare what's happening in Sri Lanka to what has happened in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. All innocent Tamil people caught up in the conflict who have crossed over to the government defended territory are cared for by the Government to the best of their ability.

Many Tamils, indeed a vast majority of them, actually live among the majority Sinhalese. Now how can one call this Genocide. This word is being used by LTTE to camouflage and confuse others to describe what is happening to its own military infrastructure. Of course the current military campaign has laid waste the vast military and terrorist infrastructure of LTTE. Thanks again for giving this issue the balanced reporting it deserves.

Nalin Uduwawala, London, England

I had a chance to read your column on MIA interview with Mr. Tavis Smiley. You are right in the sense that world should know the fact before we use the world "Genocide." And in your piece, you were saying that PBS plans to bring a Sri Lankan representative to give his/her view from MIA's interview. Of course, he/she would deny everything that MIA says to justify Sri Lankan government. If you want to be fair and balance then you should invite a Tamil representative to give the facts from the Tamil side as well.

Kani Jeevahan, Toronto

I feel Tavis did an excellent job in relation to the MIA interview.

Chris Muttiah, New York, NY

Very interesting discussion. We all have to be careful on propaganda and journalism is to bring the true stories realistically as possible. It's nothing wrong to say about genocide without asking about it because underreported or unreported is the whole point here. But again, repeating her interview but asking comments only from Sri Lankan Government may again lead to one sided if the program coordinator has little knowledge. Best thing is to bring people who can speak for genocide and Sri Lankan government to the panel and let them tell their stories.

M. Robert, New York, NY

No Need to Yell

We're all entitled to our own personal opinions. I believe there is something called . . . I dunno . . . Freedom of speech? People are only seeing this from the Sinhalese point of view. Just try and get all the facts straight before you say anything. Mr. Smiley just wanted to know more. No need to yell at him for that. Jeez.

New York, NY

It's unbelievable how many of these comments are so biased. He is just stating what was said in the interview. We are all entitled to our opinions so it's okay to say what you feel but try to look at both sides of the situation. Though the LTTE may be seen as "terrorists," the army isn't exactly the angels of Sri Lanka either. According to the various articles found in the papers such as the Boston Globe, the Sri Lankan army has been continuously shelling the so called "safe zones" for the last few weeks. If the innocent civilians aren't within the safe zone, they get bombed. If they are in the safe zone, they still get bombed. Funny enough, majority of the victims are of Tamil Ethnicity. If that's not genocide, I don't know what is. And another thing. How do all these people who've submitted comments know the truth behind this war? I though many of the journalists were either killed or driven out of the country. Even some Sinhalese journalists were killed. It looks like the Sri Lankan government has something to hide. The government seems even more suspicious when the recently denied entry to Britain's Special Envoy. Even as many members of the International Community asked for ceasefire, Sri Lanka stubbornly refused. Get the facts straight before commenting people. Don't be afraid of the truth!

Lan Hikari, Boston, MA

First of all, it is clearly evident from the "sample" letters that you have provided that the divide in Sri Lanka is along ethnic/linguistic lines and those that have expressed "concern" are in fact the majority Sinhalese population, whose government is the oppressor of Tamils. If you feel that fair journalism is only about being able to hear both sides of a story, then that is exactly what MIA's point in the interview was. Sri Lanka has a total censorship of all news items about the mass murder of Tamils that it conducts in Sri Lanka. As late as yesterday, more than 150 Tamil civilians were killed as confirmed by locals who have seen the carnage of dead people rotting along roadsides. Was this reported anywhere in the media? Why was it not reported? The clear answer is that the Sri Lankan government allows only the version that it wants the world to hear about it. So in that case, what should be the role of a responsible media like PBS? Should it not take the lead to ensure that both sides of the story are covered rather than producing a one-sided editorial criticizing not only MIA but also one of your own, Tavis, for trying to bring out the truth. Has PBS ever made such an attempt or has it even tried to verify whether what is indeed happening in Sri Lanka is genocide by gathering the truth, and not simply what is reported by the Sri Lankan government or the reporters that do not ever take a step into the actual war zone.

Arul Siva, Toronto, Canada

This is regarding the interview done by Tavis Smiley: I want to thank Mr. Tavis Smiley for giving M.I.A. the opportunity to explain the Tamils' problems to the U.S. audience. This is extraordinary when all the TV hosts were until now only interested in interviewing politicians or officials representing the Sri Lankan government and the audience had to listen to one-sided propaganda.

I totally agree with M.I.A's statement calling what is happening in Sri Lanka as "Genocide against the Tamils". What do you call killing of innocent civilians including babies, pregnant mothers, patients sleeping in hospital beds etc. with the purpose of creating a one race Singhalese Buddhists nation. This has been going on for nearly 60 years and only now people from around the world are paying attention due to expatriate Tamils having rallies in major cities asking foreign governments to intervene. If it is not for the expatriate Tamils, this mass killings would be still going unnoticed.

Pillai Ratnam, Rochester, NY

Only Partisans Write

Having the wisdom to know that the complainants are all with very strong partisan views, don't you think it would have been prudent on your part to investigate, independently, to find out the truth about the situation? The Tamil people used to form 18% of the population, which has now been reduced to close to 10%. The number of people killed is NOT 70,000, but closer to 215,000 AND almost all but a very small number are Tamils. (This figure has been arrived at by WHO in a research carried out in conjunction with a university in Britain.) The lower figure has been flaunted by the Sri Lankan government to avert the attention by the International Community away from it Genocidal war. The reason why it has not been covered by most media is simply because it is not in the interest of USA's geopolitical aims. However, any number of International agencies like the Amnesty International would give you the information, if you would ask them directly, rather than taking some cooked up info from another interview.

Kana Sivanantha, Melbourne

Legal experts say that the Sinhala government of Sri Lanka is committing genocide. Karen Parker, Chief delegate of International Educational Development (Roster) and President of US Association of Humanitarian Lawyers says that there is genocide in Sri Lanka. In addition, Professor Francis Boyle, professor of international law at the University of Illinois College of Law, USA in a communiqué sent to TamilNet says that Defence secretary Gothabaya should be charged for genocide of Tamils. Bruce Fein, former U.S. Deputy Associate Attorney General and currently counsel for the US-based self-help-group 'Tamils Against Genocide,' said "There can be no difference of opinion over the fact that what is happening to Tamils in Sri Lanka is a clear-cut case of genocide." Under the circumstances why ask a layman for his opinion for a thing that is already practiced by a racist regime. This will be wild goose chase.

Cathirithamby P. Thiagarajah, London, England

Thank you very much for listening to our voices. We are really disappointed about the way Mr. Tavis Smiley conducted the interview. We regret that Mr. Smiley nor the producers of the show didn't issue an apology, to the viewers and to the Sri Lankans, for giving M.I.A a world-trusted stage to disseminate brained-washed terrorist sympathizer's views without any facts or questions.

The truth is M.I.A is talented but, she is also connected to the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) terrorist. She is related to the ruthless leader and has used the LTTE terrorist mascot (Tiger) in all her previous work before she came into the mainstream. For example take a look at one of her previous works. I hope Mr. Neal Kendall will keep his word by doing a show on Sri Lanka and inviting a spoke person from the Sri Lankan government (democratically elected) to answer M.I.A's false statements.

Okemos, MI

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