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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: Making Sen$e of 'Clean-Cut' and 'Scruffy'

I was away last week and the mail and phone traffic was fairly light. But what messages did arrive seemed to reinforce a couple of observations made in earlier columns.

The headline above, for example, refers to a caller's critical description of characters appearing in a PBS NewsHour segment last Friday. The segment is part of a year-long series of reports by economics correspondent Paul Solman on income inequality under his signature financial news feature called "Making Sen$e." Last month, I wrote about an earlier controversy involving this series.

And, once again, almost all of the recent mail was directed at one thing or another on the weekday-evening NewsHour. Back in April, I made a similar observation and surmised that "it's probably because there is so much important political news these days and people are so exercised about politics, or perhaps because nothing else on PBS has stirred up much controversy lately." That still seems to be the case.

Finally, over the years, I've described, most recently in July, what I call "Lone Rangers," a single individual who calls attention to an interesting editorial issue that no one else wrote or called about, at least to me. That was on display this past week as well.

First, to the Solman segment, which asks the provocative question: "Why are conservatives happier than liberals?" It is designed around a study by Yale University social psychologist Jaime Napier that concludes economic inequality does affect people's subjective sense of well-being and that conservatives, who believe there is equality of opportunity in America, are happier than liberals. To check on this, Solman visits with a group of young staffers at a conservative Washington DC think-tank (AEI) and another group of mostly young people protesting at a nearby park who presumably are meant to represent "liberals."

Watch Why Are Conservatives Happier Than Liberals? on PBS. See more from PBS NEWSHOUR.


AEI stands for American Enterprise Institute, a well-known and well-funded conservative brain-trust in the heart of the nation's capital. ODC stands for Occupy the District of Columbia — an off-shoot of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement against extreme income inequality that has spread to many cities. Its focal point is a collection of tents a few blocks from AEI.

Within minutes of the Dec. 9 segment ending, I got a call from a woman who said: "I'm a liberal in San Francisco. I really think that was so unfair of Paul Solman's report to do the people in the park versus the people in the AEI. You had scruffy and unkempt versus clean-cut and well-groomed. It was so unfair I just can't believe he couldn't find a group of liberals somewhere else. I mean that just fed into every kind of conservative viewpoint about liberals in this country. And I love the show and I've never got upset, but that just really bothered me because that was just so, so blatantly unequal in terms of . . . a silly little survey, unscientific or whatever. I'm sorry. It was really bad to do that. I'm not an Occupy person and I just was really upset by that and I think that you did an unfair thing in contrasting all those clean cut kids with all those messy kids. Just not right."

I forwarded the voice message to Solman, asking for a response. He answered this way: "We didn't imagine anyone would take the Occupiers to represent all liberals, any more than the AEI folks to represent all conservatives. And I, at least, didn't find the Occupiers to be especially scruffy, or dismissible on account of their dress. Yes, Brookings [a well-known, more center-left think tank also nearby] would have been an analogous venue. But a lot less interesting. Still, I understand the criticism. Doing it again, I suppose I would acknowledge the lack of symmetry and explain we mean nothing by it."

My Thoughts

You need to watch the segment — it's only nine minutes — to really form a view on this because the dominant visual message is as powerful, and maybe more so, as anything that is said. I watched it live and thought I'd get lots of critical mail. But it was just that one caller from California until a sprinkling of emails arrived on Monday.

I would agree with Solman that the ODC protesters actually interviewed were not a "scruffy" or "unkempt" lot and that they expressed their views quite candidly and well.

But the impact of the background visuals of the encampment and other inhabitants that were not associated with interviews, and the accompanying contrast between the AEI conference room and the park scene did give the segment, in my opinion, a decided editorial tilt that did, indeed, feed negative stereotypes about "liberals."

Obviously, there are millions of liberals in this country that look like the people in the AEI conference room, even if they agree with the thrust of the Occupy movement. I have no idea if they are happier, or not, than conservatives. And I have confidence that Solman's routine quest for unconventional and catchy journalistic approaches to present issues — much of which works — is not driven by bias. Indeed, I saw no problem with the spoken, interview components of this report. But I felt that this segment was very much open to a charge of poor editorial judgment with the way it was presented on the screen.

I was also surprised that more people didn't complain about it to me. On the other hand, Solman's website actually contains a lengthy and lively discussion of this segment by scores of viewers, many of whom do criticize the contrasting choice of venues and visuals.

Here's a Letter to the Ombudsman on the Same Subject

At a time of national economic, financial and political turmoil, it is surprising that Paul Solman would trivialize the subject by presenting a poll which poses the question: "Are conservatives happier than liberals?"

Members of supposedly representative groups are asked to rate their personal level of happiness on a scale from 1 to 5. On the one hand, young impeccably-dressed business managers in a plush office environment; on the other, equally young (but mostly grungy) left-wing protesters camping out on inner-city streets. Conclusion: conservatives are indeed happier than liberals because they still believe in the American work ethic and think anyone can succeed based on his or her merit. Message: the protesters are lazy, neo-hippie bums.

But wait! How could these motivated, junior execs NOT say they are happy when they are being interviewed on national television at their own company's headquarters? They might lose their jobs and suddenly find themselves living in a tent at one of the local OCCUPY camp sites. And how could the protesters NOT say they are unhappy about something (mass unemployment and corruption in high places, for example) when they are willing to brave the cold 24/7 on the street to stage their demonstrations? Maybe, after all, the young rebels have a point. Meritocracy, like democracy, is not always applied in a uniform manner. If it were, big banks and corporate CEOs would never be richly rewarded when they fail.

A related problem: all the talent and ambition in the world can be of little use when employers systematically refuse to hire. And what about all the unhappy conservatives out there? Oddly, the report makes no mention of the ranting and raving of right wing talk show hosts, populists and Tea Partiers who constantly vent their anger and disdain toward "socialist" liberals. Granted, Solman's poll has no scientific basis. It is nevertheless a biased, superficial treatment of a serious issue and falls short of the excellent editorial standards of the PBS NewsHour.

Paul Kistner, Albuquerque, NM

New Subjects: Where Did the Guns Come From?

The following two letters came from the same viewer, Greg Thielmann, in Virginia in November and December:

Having watched the NewsHour's coverage yesterday evening [Dec. 9] of the latest shooting at Virginia Tech, I'm tempted to repeat the question I asked earlier: "Why wasn't it newsworthy to say something about the source of the murder weapon?" I admit that the question is not as compelling as in the case of the White House shooter, but since I never heard anything about the response to the question last time, I thought I would make a pest of myself to raise it again.

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I wanted to share a reaction to tonight's [Nov. 17] PBS NewsHour coverage of the White House shooting. I found it interesting and informative with one glaring omission — no mention of where the suspect got the gun and why he was able to buy it. It was as if how he got an AK-47 was of no more interest than how he got a driver's license. This is a common feature of contemporary news coverage about gun crimes in our violent society. It's just that I expected better of PBS. How can we ever have sane gun laws with this conspiracy of silence among journalists?

(Ombudsman's Note: As the viewer noted, no answer was forthcoming on the November episode but with respect to the Virginia Tech shooting, NewsHour producers told me they only even learned the identity of the shooter after the program went on the air Friday night and barely had time to get his name in the story. They said they were pretty sure that piece of news was not accompanied by a detailed history of the provenance of his gun. I think the viewer raises a good point and observes, correctly, that tracing the gun is a question that many news organizations routinely fail to report or follow-up on. But, as he says, he expects better from PBS.)

The Relentless Russell Cook and Other Voices

MacNeil/Lehrer journalism guideline #3: "Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story."

Regarding the NewsHour's 12//12 discussion of the Durban climate talks, the two guest commentators were basically in complete agreement on the topic. Not a word was said about the fresh revelations found in the 2nd batch of released ClimateGate emails, not a word was said about the latest revelations concerning the overall credibility problems plaguing the IPCC, and not a word was mentioned about a very detailed report issued by skeptic speakers at Durban who used it to describe how the global warming movement is suffering the scientific death of a thousand cuts. Why is this entire other side of the story still missing from NewsHour global warming segments?

Russell Cook, Phoenix, AZ

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Why was PBS unable to field junior comments from Financial Times' news correspondent Dan McCrum, whose analysis of U.K.'s choice to back out of the Euro Summit agreement was barely educated? Did no one hear David Cameron's key word "Sovereignty" in his explanation for not joining into the grand IMF/global banking plan? Does no one at your publication consider the repercussions of countries being coerced into "integrating" at the cost of their own economic autonomy — risking the loss of their freedom to world Banking?

Your superficial response to McCrum's childish analysis was appalling — especially in these times when individual freedoms are being compromised in "increments" by the fear-mongering tactics of Big Business. We know the money is made up. And whoever controls the money controls the world resources. Please TALK about what EU countries will do when they are in DEBT to the central Big Banking system, which ultimately controls world resources. Sad to see smart people tiptoeing around — or half asleep. Sorry, I like PBS, but this issue is huge.

G. A., Littleton, CO

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I'm a diehard fan of the NewsHour, but I've been meaning to write you about a pet peeve — small, but with substantive overtones. Many times each week, the program presents talking heads from think tanks, mostly but not always based in Washington. The names of the think tanks are mentioned but they are usually unhelpful. Don't we need some kind of guidance, in each intro, about the political coloration and/or fund source of each?

Hoboken, NJ

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I have a concern regarding PBS using the coal industry as a sponsor and promoting, through the industry's "Clean Coal" ads, that clean coal is a good thing. There is not one environmental leader who believes that clean coal is doable financially or environmentally. By supporting their ads, isn't PBS placing itself in the role of public educator that this ruse by the coal industry is sound?

Stew Plock, Palo Alto, CA

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