The Mailbag: On Race, a Very Tough Assignment

Posted by Michael Getler on

Race, always a factor throughout American history, has been an especially high-profile issue in the news of recent months. The PBS NewsHour, in particular, has devoted a lot of time and resources in covering this issue extensively, as it should, since the events in Ferguson, Mo., last August put race relations and police actions once again on the country’s front-pages, TV and computer screens, where it has stayed.

It started there on Aug. 9, when an 18-year-old, unarmed black man, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a policeman under disputed circumstances. This week, it was fraternity brothers singing a racist chant at the University of Oklahoma. Last week, it was another shooting of a young black man in Madison, Wis. There were other incidents—in Staten Island, N.Y., and other places—in between Ferguson and Madison.

And, I should add, there have been several incidents, including one early today in Ferguson, of shooting of policemen.

Reporting on racial issues is always a tough assignment. In this huge and very diverse country, the views are diverse and the gaps are still wide.

What follows is a sampling of letters received in recent days and weeks on this issue and its coverage. They are presented largely, but not entirely, without comment from me. Some are pretty tough. But the role of the ombudsman’s mailbag—as compared to ombudsman columns, which are usually devoted to one or two specific programs or issues and contain my assessments—is to present a representative sampling of editorial observations about a broad range of things that viewers see and hear on PBS.

Here Are the Letters

I was very disappointed that your coverage of the racist chant at the University of Oklahoma tonight [March 11] failed to address the constitutional issues involved. Individuals employed by the NewsHour -- of all people -- should recognize a First Amendment issue and give a fair presentation of it.

John Deal, Columbus, OH

~ ~ ~

Are you proud of the coverage given by this organization to the University of Oklahoma racism scandal? I heard not a single word in defense of free speech, nor was any spokesman in favor of free speech given rebuttal time. Racism is an attitude and the expression of racism cannot be punished by governmental units, no more so than the expression of envy, or disdain, or anything else. Really, of what use are you? The left-wing neurosis of this organization never ameliorates, and behaves, not as a news program, but rather a radical form of social work.

Tito Perdue, Brent, AL

~ ~ ~

I have not seen coverage of the UCLA student council initially denying a student a seat on their judicial council only because she was Jewish. I may have missed your reporting of it, if so, please send me the link. Tonight, you aired a long form account of the racist video by Oklahoma students. Both stories are important. If you haven't given the UCLA story equal coverage, please send me your thinking. Anti-Semitism and racism are each ugly, shameful and dangerous.
Many thanks for your attention,

Iris Metz, Mill Valley, CA

~ ~ ~

I just watched the piece on PBS relating to the racial song by the fraternity. The president of the university espouses a politically correct dogma of the "thought police." One is not allowed to say what is on their mind. Are we going to put people on trial because they are racist? I hate racism as much as anyone. Grew up in the south and saw it first-hand. However, I cannot condone any speech that denies "freedom of speech"!! Where was the objective voice relating to our freedom to ignore those who foment bad speech or acts? When are you as a supposed neutral program going to have an opposing view, no matter how distaining or heinous it is? You are buying into the line of teaching pervasive in this country that wants all our youth to be thought- police trained. Enough folks! This is why I cannot support a PBS station, no matter how much I enjoy most of the programs.

Hamilton, MT

~ ~ ~

David Boren [president of the University of Oklahoma] was hysterical and a little nauseating. I resent Judy Woodruff's imputation that racism is so embedded in every corner of America. As long as black crime against whites is astronomical there will be racism. How do you expect whites to think and to behave? There is minimal racism against Asians because they have solid families and they believe in education and do not have the levels of violence of blacks. Every city with a black majority is a killing zone. Where is your story on that?...And why do you still show a picture of Michael Brown when he was ten or 12 years old and not as a 300lb. man?

Rutherford, NJ

More on Photo Usage

I have been involved in crime prevention, law enforcement and security for 35+ years. I am very annoyed by the press continually showing pictures of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin as cherubic youths — not as they were around the time of their deaths. Truth in reporting? Pandering to the public's sympathy? Who in the news media is responsible for showing out of date and misleading photos? The editors, anchors, and reporters? If you have any influence with your colleagues, remind them to use current pictures of the individuals involved, which in these cases, are readily available.

Ira H. Schoen, Annandale, VA

Adjunct Professor, Department of Criminology, Law and Society

George Mason University

~ ~ ~

PBS's coverage of the race issue is still lacking. Selma, police shootings, it just goes on and on. Yet the one thing missing is the critical thing and not one of your many (many...) shows on this subject states the obvious. And neither will President Obama. And that is this: until a policeman is sent to jail, the problems will continue. It amazes me how such a simple point goes unreported. Btw, I am a white male. So PBS can keep doing these generic coverages of this problem, or, you guys can make the obvious point that it will continue (as it has over and over and over again), until the justice system in the US does what it is supposed to do: send people guilty of murder to jail. This holds no matter who does the crime—white /black/police/pedestrian—last I read the Constitution, it did not discriminate.

So, being the Ombudsman, I think it is up to you to bring this issue to the team controlling PBS broadcast. Otherwise, you are simply another arm of the government...and we already have too many government arms (pun intended). So, I am looking forward to better coverage and for your team to make this very important point.

Crossville, TN

Who Was That President?

I was disturbed by Gwen Ifill's report from Selma tonight [March 9]. Her report included a clip of President Obama leading a procession across the Edmund Pettis Bridge. The brief clip panned from left to right across the group to President Obama and then abruptly cut away to another shot. This awkward cut was done to avoid showing former President G.W. Bush who was also attending this commemoration. Why this Orwellian photo editing?

Matt Guerreiro, New York, NY

(Ombudsman’s Note: There were, in fact, two split-second scenes where Bush was visible, but in one he was obscured and in the other not really recognizable. I felt the fault, having reported that two presidents were in attendance, was in not specifically stating who the second president was.)

~ ~ ~

I was surprised to see Gwen Ifill interview her sister - an official with the NAACP - in a story about the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches. There seems that there could be a conflict of interest when reporting about relatives and their activities.

Charles Armstrong, Annapolis, MD

(Ombudsman’s Note: Usually, this is not a good idea. But Sherrilyn Ifill, Gwen Ifill’s cousin, is president of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund and an important voice on racial issues. The LDF defended the demonstrators at the bridge in Selma 50 years ago, so it seemed also natural to have a quick sound-bite from her about how things have, and in some ways have not, changed. She has been on the program before.)

More on Brown

We've supporters of PBS for years but are frustrated by biased, liberal reporting. Ferguson shooting wouldn't have occurred if Michael Brown obeyed the policeman. The huge kid assaulted the policeman & a sales clerk, threatened the policeman. I'm white and couldn't dare do that.

Alisa Slack, Houston, TX

(Ombudsman’s Note: There were other letters since the Ferguson events unfolded that were critical of what these viewers said was insufficient, more in-depth coverage of Michael Brown and his actions. My own sense is that, while the shooting of an unarmed teenager is the proper thing to focus on, the relative lack of more coverage of Brown and his actions prior to the shooting fed into the feeling of bias that some viewers came away with.)

~ ~ ~

You have heard the news that the Feds declined to indict the Ferguson police officer for the shooting death of the large black teenager and ruled he was justified in shooting the teen in self-defense. This was the same verdict the local grand jury made. We listen to the PBS NewsHour nightly and we have yet to hear an apology on their mishandling of the coverage of this incident. We had to stomach 2 weeks of daily stories on race discrimination and police brutality in Ferguson and PBS never got the story right. There needs to be a couple of follow-up stories by the NewsHour on rectifying their errors reporting this story. One story need to cover what really took place and how hard it was to get the right story out and another story needs to be done on the black teen, looking at his literal suicide mission.

Vancouver, WA

(Ombudsman’s Note: I’m not aware of errors in the NewsHour’s reporting.)

~ ~ ~

The reporting on racial injustice in Ferguson PD regarding the gentle giant is bogus and only inflames the unrest in this country! Makes me question the agenda of national PBS and reliability of any of the news items!!!

Poland, OH

~ ~ ~

I am addressing this question to you because, as far as I can tell, this was network wide.
Why did PBS run ‘The Italian Americans’ during Black History month? I have nothing against Italian Americans: all ethnic groups deserve recognition. But February is supposed to be Black History month. It’s bad enough that they picked the shortest month of the year for Black History, but now you put someone else’s history on during that month. Couldn’t you find anything else about African American history or culture? Or are you tired of Black History so you decided to run a series about Italian Americans?

Washington, DC

Posted on March 12, 2015 at 3:51 p.m.



AUGUST 28, 2014

The Mailbag: After Tiller, After Ferguson and Other Things

Gwen Ifill responds to a concern about coverage the day of Michael Brown's funeral.

NOVEMBER 26, 2014

The Mailbag: Reactions to the Reaction

First e-mails following the Ferguson grand jury decision are critical of news coverage.

DECEMBER 12, 2014

The Mailbag: On Torture, Protesters and #$@&%!

Several viewers were upset a NewsHour segment gave protesters a forum.

Search Ombudsman Archive

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 >
Have a comment related to the journalistic integrity of PBS content? Send an E-mail to Michael Getler or contact him at 703-739-5290.
The ombudsman does not replace viewers' long-standing ability to contact stations, producers and PBS.
If you have a comment related to PBS website design or user experience, please contact the Audience Services team.


Will PBS Be a Victim of ‘Dying to be a Martyr’?

An old teaching plan revives an even older controversy.

Some (Almost) Closing Thoughts

Some thoughts about an old “great war” and a new not-so-great one.

The Mailbag: When Interview Subjects Can Be Seen as Stereotypes

Viewers call attention to how interview choices can be interpreted in different ways.

E-mail Update

Sign up to receive an E-mail notification when new columns are published.

Your E-mail address:

Unsubscribe from E-mail update.