The Mailbag: Chopping Off a Viewer, or Appropriate Response?

Posted by Michael Getler on

Usually, something controversial produces a fair amount of email to the ombudsman, probably reflecting a somewhat larger but hard-to-measure audience that also reacted but didn't write. But on a number of occasions over the years, a single email from a single viewer produces something revealing.

What follows, at least in my judgment, is one of those occasions. Last Friday, the weekly edition of Washington Week with Gwen Ifill dealt, in part, with the resignation of Eric Shinseki as Secretary of Veterans Affairs amid a growing scandal about lengthy delays and falsified record-keeping at some VA hospitals.

A viewer in New Orleans, Willie Clark, took issue with some phrasing used in the program and wrote: "The PBS host of Washington Week made a most uncomplimentary remark about General Shinseki when she said, '[Obama] cut the head off of the snake...' and fired Shinseki. Whether he resigned, as the president announced, or was asked to resign was not an important distinction. What is very important is that the PBS host voluntarily insulted distinguished Japanese-American military family along with the millions of Americans who honor the members of the U.S. Army. I think that an on-air apology should be made by the host and the program's producer(s) to the Shinseki Family and the viewers."

I sent Clark's comment to Washington Week senior producer Chris Guarino and asked for a response to the viewer.

Here is what Guarino wrote to Clark: "In the passage you mentioned, Gwen Ifill was paraphrasing a question to the President earlier in the day regarding Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki's departure. The White House transcript reads this way:

'Q:  So is lopping off the head of it really the best step to take going forward here? What I'm asking is, is there a political reason for removing him other than going straight to the problem of the bureaucracy?

'THE PRESIDENT:  Well, the distractions that Ric refers to in part are political. He needs to be -- at this stage, what I want is somebody at the VA who is not spending time outside of solving problems for the veterans.  I want somebody who's spending every minute of every day figuring out have we called every single veteran that's waiting; have they gotten a schedule; are we fixing the system; what kind of new technology do we need; have we made a realistic assessment of how long the wait times are right now, and how are we going to bring those wait times down in certain facilities where the wait times are too long; if we need more money, how much more money do we need to ask from Congress, and how am I going to make sure Congress delivers on that additional funding. That's what I want somebody at the VA focused on.'"

Then Guarino continued: "As you can see, even the President acknowledged that there was a political component to Secretary Shinseki leaving his job under the circumstances that he did. In the context provided, I do not believe it was an inappropriate characterization."

Not surprisingly, Clark did not "see" this as an acceptable answer from the producer, nor do I. Clark wrote back to me to say, in part: "Nowhere in the Q&A citied is the characterization 'snake' that was spoken by Ms. Ifill, which is the gratuitous insult that I think should be acknowledged and followed by…apologies. …What is needed here is a level of contrition to admit and correct the wrong."

My Thoughts

First, some background. Cutting the head off the snake is a not uncommon metaphor or figure of speech. For example, a secret document that became public a few years ago via Wikileaks reported that the King of Saudi Arabia, speaking privately about Iran to American officials, "had repeatedly asked them to cut off the head of the snake before it was too late."

But the phrase can easily strike a gruesome, repulsive image and is usually used about a potentially deadly enemy. So you can see how using it in connection with the removal of Shinseki—a former four-star general and Army Chief of Staff with a distinguished military career—could appear to be jarring and insulting to some.

On the other hand, the cutting-off-the-head phraseology, without the snake imagery, is more common, and it was used at the White House press conference by reporter Christi Parsons of Tribune Newspapers in questioning the president. As the transcript above shows, she used the phrase "lopping off the head."

Later that day, Parsons was among the journalist-panelists on Washington Week and a clip of her question was shown on the program. Then, after some brief discussion with Parsons, Ifill asked another panelist: "How big a deal was this, actually, and what difference will it make if just the head of the snake is chopped off—to put it in that very lovely, lyrical way that Christi did?"

I have some sympathy here for Ifill's role, although I think the introduction of the "snake" imagery was a mistake but perhaps an understandable one. For one thing, the lopping-off-the-head phrase had been used at the press conference and replayed on the program and the phrase is frequently associated with the head of a snake. So it is possible, on live television, that Ifill instinctively used the fuller and generally understood phrase. But it is also seemed clear to me that she was quickly aware of how this sounded and was trying to satirize it by describing it as Parsons' "lovely, lyrical way of putting it," even though that's not the way Parsons put it.

Frankly, I'm not sure whether the headline on this column should be "Chopping Off a Viewer" or "Dancing on the Head of a Pin," another common phrase that has come to mean a futile debate that doesn't change anything. But the point of this posting, for me, was mostly to call attention to the response of the producer; a response that very obviously, to Clark and to me, specifically did not go to the specific concern raised by the viewer.

Posted at 11:32 AM

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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