The Mailbag: A Bit of Holiday Jeer

Posted by Michael Getler on

Not everyone took a break from the tube for the holiday season. Below are some letters from viewers that raise some old issues and some new and interesting challenges, along with the ombudsman’s two-cents worth.

The Eye of the Beholder

Gwen Ifill just covered [Dec. 24] the shooting yesterday of the young black man in Berkeley, Missouri. At the end of her piece she said the video did not clearly show the weapon pointed at the officer just prior to the officer firing. She did not mention that the weapon had been recovered and was loaded. Wouldn't have doing so been useful in clarifying that this shooting was much different than the case in Ferguson? It seems to me PBS, and the other media, have a responsibility to not inflame the present unfortunate tension between blacks and police.

Michael ORear, Ann Arbor, MI

~ ~ ~

What in the world prompted Gwen Ifill to report that one could not see a gun in the hand of the young man threatening a Berkeley, Missouri, police officer? Does she doubt the police account of the event? Does she have sources who say there was no gun, that perhaps the police planted the gun themselves to cover-up another shooting of an unarmed black man? If so, then let’s hear solid reporting on that information, but, until then, Gwen Ifill has no business stepping into the story herself and suggesting in inflammatory fashion that there may not have been a gun.

Austin, TX

Ifill’s Response

I sent these emails to Ifill, and she responded, “In both cases, we were reporting the latest information available to us at air time.”

(Ombudsman’s Note: I think that response, and the news report, fall short. This event was covered in the introductory news section of the program, so it was covered relatively briefly. Ifill, in fact, led off her report by saying police said that 18-year-old Antonio Martin had pulled a gun and the officer shot him three times. She then briefly showed a clip from the press conference by the mayor of Berkeley, Mo., Theodore Hoskins, with the mayor cautioning that this was not a case of a policeman going off “half-cocked” and could not be compared to the deadly confrontations in nearby Ferguson, Mo., or Staten Island in New York City. Then Ifill ended her report this way: “The police said the officer was not wearing his body camera, and his car’s dashboard camera did not activate because its emergency lights were off.  Security camera video did not clearly show the object in Martin’s hand.” That last sentence was Ifill’s assessment. I would agree that, to a layman’s eye, the video was not very clear. But if you are to give your own assessment on television, you should also show and report what the mayor said: “We reviewed the video and it appears that there was a gun pointed at the officer before the officer fired.” He also said that the gun had been “found at the scene” and was “recovered.” This was a potentially very explosive incident at a time of already heightened tensions, given the emotions and protests surrounding the recent killings in Ferguson and Staten Island. And the mayor gave a prompt and rather thorough press conference. His preliminary assessment, which was available in time, should have been given at least as much air time as Ifill’s assessment.)

‘Alleged’ Is Always Best Before a Verdict

I assume the "NewsHour Weekend" is also your bailiwick? Mr. Sreenivasan disappointed me on coverage of the USA warning the PA [Palestinian Authority] not to go further in joining the ICC [International Criminal Court]. For the record, I am not necessarily against the PA joining; I have expected it for some time. And I'm not all that sure that Israel is so afraid of it either, other than for its attendant and predictable bad publicity. My objection is a statement he made. He said that joining the ICC would enable the PA to pursue War Crimes (he did not say, "War Crimes Charges or Allegations"), but to pursue War Crimes against Israel.

If the PA joined the ICC, it would also enable Israel to pursue war crimes charges against the PA and certain members of the PA! This was not pointed out. Mr. Sreenivasan's report leaves the viewer with the impression that Israel in fact has committed war crimes and all that remains is for the PA to join the ICC, which the USA is preventing them from doing, with threats, in order to protect Israel! Nothing could be further from the truth. The process of leveling charges is complex and, as noted, open to Israel as well.

Immediately following, there was a report of Jews (not Israelis - news reports do not refer to "Muslims" in reporting violence in the mid-east, they refer to this Syrian group, that Iraqi group, not "Muslims" - but with (mere) allegations of wrongdoing, it's "the Jews") uprooting olive trees belonging to Arabs.

Bob Tucker, Garden City, NY

(Ombudsman’s Note: I’ve asked Sreenivasan for a response and will post it if and when it arrives. He is, in my estimation, a careful journalist and presenter of stories. The report that the viewer objects to was part of the brief news rundown at the start of the program. I agree with Tucker that in discussing the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to join the ICC, it is proper to have said alleged war crimes against Israel, and also would have been helpful to point out that Israel could pursue allegations against Palestinians.)

Pop-ups Keep Popping Up

As I tried to enjoy watching Masterpiece Theater tonight [Jan. 4] for Season Five of Downton Abbey I was absolutely horrified by the presentation. This is not the PBS I have known and have loved for many years. My first objection, is that I have come to accept the visual distraction of watermarks but the assault of flashing "banner" advertisements, for all things pbs shows, is unacceptable for a dramatic presentation. This is a horrible practice and I find myself so angered that I may avoid watching future broadcasts. The banners ruin visual continuity, tempo and feel for the drama. Secondly, the increase in the amount of advertising is very disappointing whether for future PBS shows or commercial marketing. However, after repeating the same Ralph Lauren advertisement twice within 5 minutes I turned off the tv. Perhaps I should thank you, I now will read for the rest of the evening. Many of us viewers want to escape being assaulted by commercials. PBS must remain unique as the prized national asset that it has been by eschewing the encroachment of adopting visual distractions. Help us to have less distraction in our lives.

Robert Volker, Salt Lake City, UT

(Ombudsman’s Note: I feel Volker’s pain. I’ve written about this issue a number of times and stated that for me, as a viewer, watching a promo for some forthcoming PBS program surface multiple times at the bottom of the screen—which involuntarily takes your eyes away from what is happening in the program—during a tension-filled documentary or drama is a useless, counter-productive technique that produces enemies for PBS, in my book, rather than viewers running off to pencil in something in their date book. On the other hand, PBS, in response, did provide a substantive explanation that is included in the link above.)

~ ~ ~

Let's see, tonight [Jan. 4] on two of the 4 PBS channels I get here in St Augustine, Florida, the programs were about Jews. In the last few weeks at least two or three times a week a program involving Jews or Israel etc., was airing. In fact there probably hasn't been a month in the last 14 years I've been watching PBS stations that one channel or another isn't showing a program about Jewish history or Jewish artists or Jewish contributions to this country etc. Funny, but I don't think there has ever been a program about the Palestinian people. You know, the people being misplaced by Israel's constantly expanding/changing borders? Now keep in mind, the Jewish population in this country is about 5% of the U.S. population.

Charles Booher, St Augustine, FL

Pouring Cold Water

My wife and I have been viewing the news hour show for decades. We have become increasingly concerned with the deterioration of content in the past year. I refer to both quantity and quality of what we regard as real news. If this is an attempt to appeal to a wider younger less sophisticated audience, be careful that you don’t wind up losing those of us who are interested serious complex issues and news, while failing to attract the target younger audience.

Today [Dec. 30] is the second consecutive day that you aired “ice water bucket” campaign to raise money for ALS. The illustrative ALS victim was a young athlete and his mother, an appealing bright articulate woman. In point of fact ALS effects 2/100,000 people in the U.S. accounting for 0.25% of our annual mortality. Contrary to the impression given by the news segment, the median age group affected by ALS is 70-80 years of age. Deaths from Gun violence accounts for 5 times that mortality, and effects predominantly young people.

Richard Staub, MD, Groton, MA

~ ~ ~

What dribble! Ten minutes [Dec. 30] about how charities raise funds and another about people's opinions about books. These are not NEWS. News would be investigating the enormous salaries some "non-profit" execs get. The book segment was nothing but an advertisement. PBS is getting more and more like the useless local news.

William Roberts, Elkins Park, PA

(Ombudsman’s Note: Well, we all have our opinions. I thought both of those NewsHour segments were worthy.)

Posted on Jan. 7, 2015 at 1:59 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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