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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: White? Hispanic? White and Hispanic? Or. . .?

The mailbag this week was filled mostly with reactions to two events: a segment on the PBS NewsHour April 9 about the shooting death in Florida of an unarmed teenager by a neighborhood watch volunteer, and last week's ombudsman's column about Dr. Wayne Dyer's pledge-drive special.

There was also mail about the beginnings of a 10-part series called "Finding Your Roots" that will be posted in the next mailbag.

The shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman on Feb. 26 immediately ignited national, and even international, attention and sparked intense, and continuing, controversy over racial and ethnic issues and identities, and about the journalistic language used to describe Zimmerman. Martin was black. Zimmerman's father is white. His mother is originally from Peru. George Zimmerman has been described in various press reports in one or all the ways noted in the headline, and some other ways as well. But no matter how he is described, it seems to outrage some people in the racially and ethnically charged environment that surrounds this episode.

This brings us to the NewsHour. The segment Monday was focused on the impact of Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law and the two dozen or so other states that have similar self-defense statutes. In introducing the report, Senior Correspondent Gwen Ifill said: "Martin, who is black, was on his way to a convenience store in a mostly white gated community when George Zimmerman, who is white, shot and killed him after a disputed altercation."

Watch How Trayvon Martin Case Could Affect Stand Your Ground Laws on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

This description triggered a heavy flow of mail, all critical of the description of Zimmerman as "white." Several of the letters are posted below. Some of them may have been provoked by an online report on NewsBusters in which correspondent Tim Graham wrote that these are "disputes and protests avidly promoted by liberal networks who plucked this singular crime out of a national haystack because it fit their racist-America template." Graham's article was sent to me by a viewer in Maryland. The stated mission of NewsBusters is "exposing & combatting liberal media bias."

All the letters express the view that describing Zimmerman only as white feeds a black-white racial polarization. But they are also of interest on other levels. For example, a number invoke as an example President Obama, who had a white mother and black father, but who is never described as white.

But black and white are races. Hispanic is a description of ethnicity, not race. Indeed Hispanics can be, and often describe themselves, as of many different races. The Pew Research Center last week released a new study, "When Labels Don't Fit: Hispanics and Their Views of Identity," that points out that most Hispanics identify themselves by their family's country of origin and that half of Hispanics or Latinos, when asked about their race on the U.S. Census, check "some other race," while 36 percent identify their race as "white" and three percent as "black."

A story by the Associated Press on March 29 was one of the early ones trying to sort out Zimmerman's identity, which has become a murky yet explosive issue. The story pointed out that he identified himself as "Hispanic" on his Florida voting registration.

This is a complex subject, and I'm hardly an expert. Probably the best way to deal with it in print is simply to state that he has a white father and Peruvian mother. Another, at this point because the case is so well known, may be just to show his picture with no attempt to define him racially. But since this case could involve civil rights issues or possibly racial profiling, it is certainly something that needs to be dealt with using as much precision as possible.

However one comes at this, "white," as used in the NewsHour segment, definitely doesn't seem the way to go. Ifill, in an email exchange with me, acknowledges this and says she agrees with an in-house, post-April 9 NewsHour assessment that suggested that it is best to just show him and not try to describe him. Program officials also explained that the script for the segment, which was not produced by Ifill, also did not reflect the latest language they had used.

On March 19, for example, Senior Correspondent Ray Suarez used "white and Hispanic" to describe Zimmerman. But officials say they can't explain why that language did not remain in what is called the "Setup" file that editors use in preparing scripts, and claim that time-pressures the evening of April 9 prevented changing the script and using only pictures.

The Washington Post's media blogger Erik Wemple, who has done an alert job on questionable media coverage of the Martin/Zimmerman story, also reported Wednesday on the PBS usage controversy.

Wemple reported that there was no NewsHour plan for a clarification or correction, but he said there should be. I agree that an on-air clarification is in order. In fact, the controversy would actually make an excellent segment to do on the NewsHour to shed light on this highly charged and complicated issue.

On a personal note, I knew Gwen Ifill many years before either one of us got to PBS, when she was a reporter at The Washington Post. A racist she is not. A professional journalist, she is. The language used on April 9 was a poor choice by the NewsHour and is open to legitimate criticism. But the NewsHour also presents probably the most diverse face to the public of any major U.S. television news broadcast, so accusing it of being party to some "racist-America template" seems way out of line to me.

Here Are the Letters

I was just watching evening news hour and report stated that Trayvon Martin, who is black, was shot by George Zimmerman, who is white. Why are reporters continuing to spread this when it's well known that his mother is Peruvian. This makes him Hispanic, no? Or does it just make good copy to paint him as racist. Shame on you for it must have been done on purpose. Stop stirring up hatred, seems there is enough to go around all ready.

Auburn Hills, MI

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On her 4/9 broadcast Gwen Ifill stated the shooter of Trayvon Martin was white. The picture clearly shows the person shown was not white, but of a mixed race. The heritage as I understand it is 50% Spanish and 50 % Caucasian. How is that considered white unless you are trying to bias the story?

Milan, MI

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I am watching a segment of the PBS NewsHour featuring Gwen Ifill. She is discussing the Trayvon Martin case and in the introduction she identified the man who shot Trayvon, George Zimmerman, as "white." It has been widely reported — even on the NewsHour, I believe — that Mr. Zimmerman is white and Hispanic. In other words, he is as white as President Obama is. I have never heard President Obama referred to as "white" on PBS or NPR. Why is Mr. Zimmerman referred to as "white"?

Philadelphia, PA

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Regarding Gwen Ifill's introduction to the Martin/Zimmerman piece on 4/9. It was the most lopsided misrepresentation that I have heard outside of NBC. It bordered on race-baiting. Zimmerman was touted as being white when in fact he is half Latino/half Jewish. According to all eyewitnesses, he was attacked by Martin and Martin threatened to kill him.

Vincent Walker, Forest Hill, MD

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I can't tell you how disappointed I was this evening when Gwen Ifill perpetuated the racial divide and racism accusations this evening by referring to George Zimmerman as the "white" neighborhood watchman who shot the "black" Trayvon Martin. I have and continue to see the NewsHour as one of the best news programs available today and have always held Gwen with high regard . . . but I am personally sickened by the overt attempt to turn this unfortunate situation into an overwhelming issue of racism, by those that have misrepresented the facts by editing 911 calls (NBC) and others who have now created a new sub category of racial identify as "white Hispanic" and now Gwen's exclusive "White" categorization.

Madison, WI

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Please reprimand Gwen Ifill. She was wrong when she referred to George Zimmerman as white on Monday's show. Mr. Zimmerman is both Hispanic and white. When Ms. Ifill refers to President Obama will she say that he is white? The president has a white mother and a black father just like Mr. Zimmerman has a white father and a Hispanic mother.

Park Ridge, IL

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I am disappointed with PBS continuing to fan racial fires, or "debate", with the insistence that the Trayvon Martin killing was a "white" on "black" crime. Gwen Ifill's characterization of George Zimmerman as "white" is incorrect. Zimmerman is of mixed race, "white and Hispanic. The media has even referred to him as a white Hispanic. That is nonsense. President Obama is of mixed race; however, we never hear Mr. Obama characterized as white; or even as "white African American". He is always referred to as black . . . because of his appearance. If we did the same with Mr. Zimmerman appearance he would be characterized as a Hispanic man. On face value it's shameful how PBS, and other news outlets, continue to make this into a white issue. PBS's, and other news orgs, insistence of not calling it a Hispanic on Black crime; but as a White on Black crime smacks of racial divisiveness and of a political agenda. I request you all report the truth.

Hank G., Sumter, SC

Re: Wayne Dyer: a 'Religious Point of View'?

The methods and opinions expressed by many of these so called motivational speakers are little more than thinly veiled religion — may be not by brand name, but an all-encompassing belief system all the same. That's church/mosque/temple flying under the radar.

I do not mind discussions of faith, presentations in a comparative or historical aspect — that is well within the PBS 'mandate'. What Dyer and Chopra do is espouse and advocate for a set of beliefs which is religion in my book and that of most people. A lecture from Dyer is little different than a sermon from a minister. Such is outside the PBS 'mandate'.

David Gregory, Marion, AR

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The Montana station is not the only one that will not air the Dyer shows. For that matter, there are stations that will not air the whole range of healers and "snake oil salesmen," as one manager calls them. It is more than a religious question. It is a question of appropriateness for public broadcasting, especially given that those kind of shows simply do not contribute to any stated goal or objective of PBS or public TV stations as a whole or in particular. Their airing transcends embarrassment.

Dwight Bobson, Washington, DC

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References to God are by definition . . . religious content. Each reference assumes the existence of a mythological being/entity/idea. His/her/its existence must be taken on faith. To espouse thought or action based on such existence is the practice of religion. Wayne Dyer simply assumes his audience believes as he believes . . . that there is a god. Some of us don't believe that.

Any reference to Jesus as God automatically gives preference to the Christian religion. Such a reference therefore expresses a religious bias. I need my PBS to be non-sectarian. Tell me about religion. Do not tell me to believe in it.

Robert Blundin, Elkridge, MD

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Your construction would carry more weight if the article "a" preceded the words 'religious point of view,' but the way it is now written is equally susceptible to having particular qualify both religion and religious point of view. I say this as a viewer who will not watch (can't abide) Dwyer/Dyer (never can remember which) but will continue support for PBS because of the many other wonderful things they provide.

Ruth Kahn, Detroit, MI

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I was happy to read your April 5 column. The PBS "pledge arena" is crowded with programs that don't belong on PBS but are justified because they help raise money for the local stations. Consider Dr. Nicolas Perricone who built his skin care empire with PBS pledge programs. "Viewers like You" should be motivated to become "members" of their local public TV station, just as they become members of the Nature Conservancy or other not-for-profit whose mission they support. They should NOT be "pledging" to get the premium that is offered (e.g. the spiritual DVD from Wayne Dyer). PBS stations are addicted to a pledge model that is inconsistent with the mission of public broadcasting. Station managers all admit it among themselves but seem powerless, or unwilling, to wean themselves off their "habit."

New York, NY

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