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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: No, Virginia, PBS Is Not NPR

There was quite a bit of mail this week from viewers responding to the report by the media watchdog group FAIR on PBS public affairs programming that I wrote about last week. A sampling of that mail is included below.

But first, folks: the mail about the provocative assessment by FAIR was swamped by several hundred e-mails and phone calls that began shortly after the firing of NPR news analyst Juan Williams by NPR CEO Vivian Schiller after a television appearance by Williams on Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor." Williams has also been employed by Fox as a senior news analyst for many years.

Unless you have been on Mars for the past week, you probably know as much about this as you want to, and I don't intend to get into it. My fellow ombudsman at NPR, Alicia Shepard, got many thousands of emails and phone calls and has dealt with the continuing arguments about this episode in her online columns and in various interviews.

My interest in mentioning this is simply to remind the vast majority of those who wrote to me or called is to explain that PBS is not NPR, that Juan Williams does not work for PBS, that PBS did not fire him, and that both organizations, while part of public broadcasting in this country, are separate organizations and separate public media entities.

They are also quite separate in other ways. NPR does radio. PBS does television. NPR has a substantial news operation of its own with hundreds of reporters and editors in a central newsroom in Washington and in bureaus around the country and the world. PBS does not produce anything for television. There is no PBS newsroom. It distributes and puts its stamp of approval on programs developed by individual stations and independent producers and distributes them to member stations around the country.

Here's a typical letter from a viewer in New York City:

"I am a longtime listener to PBS stations and am deeply disappointed at what amounts to PBS's censorship of Juan Williams. While I find his comments to be quite troubling, they were honest and reflect how many people, conservative and liberal alike, feel. Perhaps a more thoughtful response would have been to consider that if Juan Williams feels that way, how might the rest of America (or the Judeo-Christian world) feel? Shame on PBS. This censorship is the mirror image of what went on during the McCarthy era. Shame on PBS."

As far as I can tell, PBS has said nothing officially about the Juan Williams episode. Meanwhile, it is getting pretty well smeared among a segment of the public that makes no distinction between NPR and PBS. Some of this may simply be out of confusion, some may be simply an attack by those who don't like public broadcasting in any form, or others who believe that distinctions such as those I cited are distinctions without a real difference.

PBS's audience services group is answering all the e-mails to me and to PBS with a paragraph stating that "NPR and PBS are completely separate organizations. We at PBS had nothing to do with the decision to fire Mr. Juan Williams. Mr. Williams was dismissed from National Public Radio (NPR). PBS is a separate entity with its own Board of Directors. For more information about NPR, including their contact information, please visit their web site at npr.org. Kindly contact NPR directly to voice your complaints."

Covering, or Not Covering, Colleagues

There was one other bit of criticism from a small number of viewers about the failure, when the Williams story broke, of the PBS NewsHour to cover it, although they did a lengthy panel discussion the following evening. Here's how a viewer in Poolesville, Md., put it:

"I would like to comment on the content of The NewsHour on 10/21/2010. Although there was extensive coverage and debate in other news media and associated forums, the NewsHour failed to even mention the issue regarding NPR and Juan Williams. This apparent 'oversight' casts significant doubt on your claims of 'journalistic integrity'. Additionally, I find Ms. Schiller's statement regarding '. . . his psychiatrist . . .' particularly offensive. While I strongly support free speech in both instances, I find Ms. Schiller's remarks far more worthy of discharge or resignation then those of Mr. Williams. In light of NPR's and PBS's respective actions and lack there of regarding this issue, they appear to be less of an asset in addressing the many challenges facing our nation, and a significant part of the problem."

I would make one point on the margins of this controversy. While the actions of Williams and NPR's leadership are surely open to criticism by some while being defended by others, it is to be hoped, in my personal view, that NPR's work and reputation as a leading and trustworthy source of news and analysis will not suffer from this. One can imagine the gloom that a management action such as this casts over reporters, editors and producers in the trenches around the world who work to bring the news to millions of people in a smart and straight-forward fashion. The news business is contracting and is in enough trouble. NPR is one of the few places left with the resources to present solid, comprehensive coverage.

FAIR or Not?

As a crime analyst I know the golden rule is "never let numbers over rule common sense or sound professional judgment." And numbers are only information — not results — until the numbers are properly and thoroughly analyzed. As some responses to the FAIR report have pointed out, FAIR seems to have violated these concepts as they apply to journalism. FAIR has used statistics to "prove their point" without offering any substantial investigation into the results or predictions those numbers have to offer.

Park Ridge, IL

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Excellent Report. There has to be a way for the viewing public to have the information you have put forth. I do believe that you have to pursue getting the context of this message before the public.

Peter Long, Buffalo, NY

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I applaud you for your in-depth analysis of the 'Fair vs. PBS, Again.' Regrettably, without reading the entire FAIR 'special edition,' just the press release, I find I must side with FAIR on all counts, and find their comments and statistics very much akin to what I've been writing for years. Clearly, whether we are talking about the PBS NewsHour, Washington Week, Need to Know or Charlie Rose, all of you are still 'failing to see the crowd for the faces.' As one who chooses not to spend about thirty-dollars a month to get an extra hundred channels of less than optimal satellite TV programming, and regularly gets two channels of PBS for every one of preferred broadcasting I can receive continuously, I spend a lot of evening hours watching PBS, like America, self-destruct. In a nutshell: with the exception of the working-class victims of the establishment interviewed by PBS journalists, about 99.99% of the people interviewing and interviewed are partisan professional capitalist people of religious faith, regardless of their country of origin, gender, party membership, race, religious preference, sexual orientation, etc. That is not balance or diversity. That is lopsided propaganda from about 3% (journalists) of the population to 95% of the population. How, exactly, are you news and commentary professionals to know what questions to ask of third generation factory workers and second generation homeless and hungry, after several years of higher education has programmed you to forget your roots, if you ever had any?

Charles Shaver, Westfield, WI

A World Without PBS?

I am disgusted with the continuing attacks on the integrity of your news broadcasts. Frankly, I don't know what I would do without PBS. I am so disappointed with what has happened to journalism today . . . such as the editorialized news we get from Fox News. You bend over backwards to be fair. Please, continue what you are doing! You are needed!

Portland, OR

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Hmmm, really confusing response from the ombud. The FAIR report refers to e.g. "the program's heavily white (78 percent) and male (70 percent) guestlist . . .", or how "NewsHour's guestlist was 80 percent male and 82 percent white", or "Eighty-five percent of guests were male, and U.S. guests were 92 percent white", etc. And the ombud seems annoyed that he has to respond because (from what I can gather) this same complaint was already made 4 years ago. The responses from the individual programs are equally odd, talking about the unseen people off-camera who help make the shows. The point of the FAIR report, that you seemingly didn't understand or are otherwise pretending to understand, is that guests on these shows are overwhelmingly white and male, but this ombud column doesn't really address that imbalance, like, at all. Really odd.

Eduard Beckstein, New York, NY

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Thank you for giving us a full go at the FAIR report. I agree with you about the numbers game. It doesn't always tell the true story. Gwen Ifill! My Heavens. She is my favorite PBS person both on the News Hour and her very lively Washington Week. Washington, D.C.! The center of politics. Even jumping Charlie Rose seemed, well, stupid. Maybe he is one you have to have a certain level of intelligence to listen to. I do admit to being an old (in my 80's) white lady who grew up back when June Cleaver was the model, not that daring reporter Martha Raddatz of whom I've long said, "If Martha said it, it must be true."

Olive Lohrengel, Buda, TX

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Mr. Getler, I found your response to the FAIR report far more balanced, informative, and enlightening than that of the various newshows representatives. They were predictably defensive. Not once did I see an acknowledgement of "we can do better" about a specific issue. I thought the FAIR report was fair. Liberal advocacy organization yes, but not an irrational off-the-wall one. Pretty much of a miracle in these contentious times. Your point about the shows needing a wider range of opinion rather than a he said/she said and let's meet in the non-controversial middle is exactly what many of us liberals find so frustrating about all news shows.

And it is why, as you say, Bill Moyers is so missed. Re "Need to Know", I found it once on GPB TV digital, not cable. I can never easily find that sort of programming on GPB. They were showing Bill Moyers on Sunday afternoons, and 3 out of 4 of those Sundays he was usually preempted for a fund raiser or some other. I am convinced there was some political shenanigans at work behind the scenes. Conservatives despise him, you know. and conservatives do indeed control our state budget. Would that there was some other viable funding method for public media? We are on the road to privatizing everything. It is not good news that Liberty Media owns a program we thought was in the real public domain. Not good for our democracy and certainly not conducive to airing extreme and perhaps unpopular views. I really do enjoy your Ombudsman column. Thanks for doing what you do so well.

Donna Williams, Macon, GA

*The above letter contains three sentences that had been dropped from the original posting.

Taking Money from the Kochs

I just began supporting PBS for the first time in my life this year, having always been a supporter of NPR, but my local affiliate PBS station (WNPT) offers excellent programming and so I began to support them as well. BUT NOW — I may have serious second thoughts about ever doing so again! If the Kochs are allowed to support PBS, then that means they will also be (or probably already are!) influencing programming! Having glanced over your FAIR report just now, I can see that PBS's news programming is already accused of leaning too far to the Right. And I agree. I think "Washington Week" is terrible, and I miss "Bill Moyers' Journal" tremendously! Really, I need to know what PBS is thinking, taking this guy's money!! I do hope you've got a good explanation, or I may be spreading this very disturbing news far and wide.

Nancy Knoll, Franklin, TN

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I see the problem as one of sponsorship. The prime PBS sponsorships are from corporations and other organizations which have a stake in the status quo. Thus, it becomes very difficult for PBS to develop programs which respect opinions contrary to those interests. The fact that PBS has become this way is simply the truest evidence of the fact that this country is plutocratic to its core. Even when PBS reports on things like the foreclosure crisis it doesn't really dig down deeply into the details, but rather focuses on "human" interest stories about a few who have been wronged. It fails, on almost everything it does, to focus on reality behind the news. It is uncontroversial, it does not report on serious views which are at odds with the vested interests. It has become maudlin without any incisiveness.

Bayard Waterbury, Alpharetta, GA

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Ms. Linda Winslow is correct in the "nose counting" quality of FAIR's recent report. However, she is dodging a critical point of FAIR's & Mr. Getler's criticisms. The Newshour is lacking when it comes to representing the left — the anti-war voices, the "public option" voices. Does Ms. Winslow think that the audiences of Michael Moore's films so small they can be ignored? What does she think about the audience of Democracy Now? Are auditoriums filled when it was announced that Howard Zinn, Naomi Klein or Noam Chomsky would speak? In an interview with Chris Mathews (May 12, 2004) Jim Lehrer admitted to The Newshour's mistake of not being critical of the Bush Administration's call to invade Iraq and having a herd mentality. The New York Time made waves with their article about the "Pentagon Pundits". Where was The Newshour? Smack in the middle of it. The "lefties" in PBS's audience are aware of this. The anti-war groups were critical, did our public broadcasting system represent us? Is The Newshour objectively reporting on Israel & Palestine? The Gaza Flotilla? Haiti? Honduras? Is The Newshour interviewing the ones critical of Obama that feel he did not do enough regarding FISA courts, Healthcare & the "public option," extraordinary rendition, official secrets and whistleblower protection? A good interview would be with Glenn Greenwald regarding those subjects, but would the Newshour rock the boat?

Eli Rivers, Portland, ME

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I have to admit, even before FAIR's study, I felt PBS programming had been co-opted. For example, PBS has a nightly business report. Great. Business (aka capitalism) is one economic philosophy that has influenced our politics, society, culture et. al. How about comparable segments on the state of labor unions that documents something other than a demonized union worker? Why haven't you had others, like Chris Hedges, on to discuss things like the true state of American democracy? Must we live in this endless fantasyland of Washington insiders? If it's one thing the American people (and many public administrators, too) can agree on, it's that the American media has categorically failed to inform the electorate. Where's the discussion about that and what it's doing to us? You've got some very credible people out there saying this is no longer a democracy, but a plutocracy (Robert Reich, Lawrence Wilkerson, Chris Hedges). Does that not warrant an emphasis that resembles something close to the status quo programming we're subjected to? I was so disheartened by the FAIR report. Not because it opened my eyes, but because it let me know I wasn't the only one seeing things. And the defensive responses from some of your shows were quite illuminating. All of this leads me to one question. What exactly does the "Public" in PBS mean anymore? Forget it. I don't think I want to know . . .

Richard Sullivan, Lawrence, KS

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