The Mailbag: After Tiller, After Ferguson and Other Things

Posted by Michael Getler on

Most of the mail this past week was aimed at a program that has not yet aired on PBS. The 90-minute film is titled “After Tiller” and it will be broadcast on Sept. 1 as part of PBS’s long-running “POV” series of independent documentaries “with a point of view.” The title refers to the late George Tiller, a doctor who performed abortions and was murdered in 2009, and it focuses on the only four remaining doctors in the United States who openly perform late-term abortions. I’ve written about the Tiller case a couple of times.

The film has already been condemned by the National Right to Life organization and other pro-life groups, and more than four dozen critical emails have landed in my inbox (so far) in pre-emptive strikes urging PBS not to air the program. It received mostly positive reviews from critics after it premiered last year at the Sundance film festival. I don’t get involved in programs that have not aired so I’ll wait until after Sept. 1.

Here’s a sampling of recent mail on other subjects.

On Some NewsHour Segments

I am a casual watcher of your nightly news program and occasionally find the in depth reporting on international events to be of some merit. However I am writing today to comment on two recent broadcast pieces that I found troubling if not outright offensive.

The first was your coverage of the funeral in Ferguson, Missouri, [Aug. 25] for the young man shot in a confrontation with an officer. I do not want to debate whether one side has a monopoly on being “in the right” on this particular topic. I am very sure there is enough blame to go around. What disturbed me about your coverage was the decidedly one-sided nature of it. Three African American guests all offered opinions that emphasized the degree of racism in Ferguson, Missouri, and America. Their opinions were also, amazingly enough, unanimous in their condemnation of the officer. Your broadcast team as well as the vast majority of the American media has created a literal lynch mob and a rush to judgment in complete absence of facts.

The second broadcast episode was from last night’s show [Aug. 26]. Your piece on college loan debt was horrific and was so blatantly political it defies description. Not only do you shoot 50% of the piece in a weepy young woman’s room, but it is conveniently plastered with Democratic placards with one from President Obama so prominent there is no way to describe the shoot without the adjective premeditated.  The icing on the cake was the bias and selectivity of the facts you chose to report on. Ninety-three percent of students with debt have less than 30K balances and less than 4% have balances in excess of 50K and yet your reporter puts a weepy Democratic poster child on the screen for 10 minutes with a 56K debt problem that she expects the Federal government to fix.

Charles Taylor, Norfolk, VA

(Ombudsman’s Note: I thought the session, hosted by Ifill, with the three African-American guests—a clergyman, a professor and a policy center founder who is also a police veteran—was powerful and illuminating. But I did feel that it should have been pointed out somewhere in the questioning that we still do not know the actual circumstances of the shooting and what happened. Ifill offers a detailed explanation below. In the debt segment—a good and timely subject and with good questions asked—I must say that I also felt the weeping young woman and the political posters in the background were very distracting. Actually, she was only weeping for a little over a minute of the seven minute-plus segment, but it sure seemed like a long sob. The producer offers an explanation below. I have no problem with the statistics used in the education debt segment.) 

Gwen Ifill Responds

The segment you referred to aired on the day of Michael Brown’s funeral, and directly after a somber, taped wrap up of that day’s events. As you know, we have covered the legal issues surrounding the unrest in Ferguson extensively, and from every conceivable angle. At no point did we fail to mention that there is an ongoing investigation underway.

On the day of his burial, I decided that – rather than rehash the unanswered process questions – we could discuss some of the very vigorous unexplored issues that remained (and will remain, no matter the outcome of the investigation). I considered this a responsible way to capture the real debate underway in our country right now that suffers when it’s covered like OJ.

I also recognized that because there were three African American guests, some viewers would have trouble listening to what was actually said, including the tempering statements from the 25-year police veteran who was on the panel. Once again: we had the police veteran, a pastor from the local community who had actually been to the funeral, and a national expert from Columbia University. Each was more optimistic about the future that I have generally heard in other coverage. My experience tells me race often clouds such nuance.

I believe we added something to a conversation that was about more than shouting and accusation, and am proud of the finished product. Perhaps I should say unfinished, because – thanks to our collaborations with local stations – our conversations about these flashpoints in American history continue.

The Weeper Explained

When I asked about this, the segment producer said: “We interviewed Ann Degarmo because she brought her concerns about how to repay her loans to the advocacy group featured in our story, One Wisconsin Now - a point we mentioned in the narration. Ann was a political science major, and the posters on the walls of her college bedroom reflected that. It is too bad that viewers found the posters distracting, as you know, we were pretty jammed into that tiny apartment.”

More on Ferguson 

Please don't tell me that the NewsHour is unbiased. In the Ferguson case, you have failed to mention that the individual shot was a suspect of armed robbery. You have had myriad of black guests in your show and never asked them did the fact that he was a suspect in an armed robbery have anything to do with what happened. You are not telling the whole story just pandering to the black community.

Orlando, FL

(Ombudsman's Note: Brown was not a suspect in an "armed" robbery. A video released showed an apparent "strong-armed" robbery, in which no weapon is used, from a convenience store.)

~ ~ ~

Listening to your broadcast today [Aug. 25] and the segment about Ferguson. It is absolutely irresponsible to hear Gwen Ifill compare the case of Michael Brown to that of Emmett Till. And yet you have the temerity to insist that your broadcast is completely unbiased and holds to higher standards than commercial networks. The broadcasts relate much good information, but have become very suspect.

Union, NJ

(Ombudsman’s Note: Ifill did not compare the case of Michael Brown to Emmett Till. She asked one of the guests, Rev. Starsky Wilson, “How different is this [Brown] episode” from recent shooting incidents previously mentioned on the program by Prof. Fredrick Harris, “but also from Rodney King or Emmett Till or even Matthew Shepard?” It was Wilson, primarily, who drew the comparisons.)

~ ~ ~

I watch PBS news every night and also donate...both of which I am going to the wake of the softball treatment you have given these Black issues. Instead of asking the hard questions of the black leaders, letting them espouse that it is always the other persons (white police), both of the recent deaths resulted from some illegal activity that engaged the police....and no one of you staff brings the issue of personal accountability to light....Good night and good-by PBS.

Joseph Edwards, Rye, NY

On the VA and BoA

I am a 66-year-old veteran of the U.S. Navy and a patient of the Veterans Health Care System.  This evening [Aug. 26] you reported, again, on the VA Health Care system and it appears that you, like the corporate news media, are still stuck on that 6 week delay on some veterans getting an appointment. As long as your reporters keep their myopic view from the center of the gaggle of other reporters following each other around in circles you will never find the real problems with the system.

I have been in the VA health Care system for 15 years or more and have never had to wait 6 weeks for an appointment, with the one exception for surgery over 14 years ago. The real problems lie in the quality of care and the time given to doctors for each patient.  For instance, at my semi-annual checkup a month ago my new primary care doctor cut my visit short before I was finished telling him all of my medical problems, stating that he was only allowed 20 minutes per patient. Then, he did not renew the prescriptions for my COPD medicine that I need in order to breathe. This was my new doctor because I had requested a new primary care doctor because the last one ALWAYS let my prescriptions expire before my next semi-annual visit, which means that my COPD medicine, diabetes medicine and other meds always expired twice a year.

Jimmy Neal, Waco, GA

~ ~ ~

Our country needs more reports like Dennis Kelleher's summation of the somewhat bogus Bank of America settlement [Aug. 21]; reports that go beyond the public relations statements of industry, governments and political parties. We need to hear more about Germany's solar power, Elon Musk's groundbreaking energy solutions. We do not need to hear more about the wealth of oil sand, coal, oil and gas producers and their safety "precautions." We need to hear more about the causes of environmental warming, lost water resources, the threats to native birds, plants, trees and wildlife. Many states have no effective environmental protection agencies and no independent utility regulatory agencies.

Eureka Springs, AR

~ ~ ~

The NewsHour outdid itself tonight with its reporting of the Bank of America settlement. This was totally one-sided. They admitted they had contacted B of A but didn't get any representatives. Rather than going ahead with such a vitriolic one-sided report with no counter opinions, they should have delayed the report until they could have gotten someone to represent banks' opinion, or scrubbed the whole item.

David Jahsman, Sedona, AZ

(Ombudsman’s Note: I’m in agreement with the first letter on this subject. I thought this was an excellent segment that featured two guests with differing assessments and the program pointed out that not only had Bank of America declined an invitation to send a representative but so had major banking industry trade groups. No need to delay or scrub this segment.)

Kudos on the Kurds

Another impressive report from Margaret Warner [Aug. 26], this time from the Kurds. She is wonderfully authoritative and knowledgeable, a pleasure to watch and learn from. Thank you.

Richard C. Gross, Santa Fe, NM

Posted on Aug. 28, 2014 at 4:14 p.m.

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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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