The Mailbag: The Guns Go Silent but New ‘Shots’ Are Heard

Posted by Michael Getler on

The mail arriving in the ombudsman’s box has been a little light in the past week or two. But that’s okay coming after some 550 emails landed here, beginning in mid-February, lambasting a Jan. 6 Frontline program dealing with the power of the NRA called “Gunned Down.”

That mail was almost all generated by an “Open Letter to PBS from 5 Million NRA Members” that appeared in the March edition of the NRA magazine “America’s 1st Freedom.” I’ve tried to answer all those who wrote by referring to two columns that I posted about this program both before and after the NRA campaign against Frontline began. I don’t have anything to add to those assessments.


The new mail involves another Frontline program, “The Vaccine War,” that aired on March 24. This is an updated version of a program that initially aired on April 27, 2010. It generated a lot of mail, and I included some of those letters as well as responses from Frontline in a mailbag at the time. The producers decided to do a follow-up about the continuing debate – between most doctors and public health officials on one side and some parents and anti-vaccine advocates on the other – because of the recent return of measles, mumps and whooping cough, once thought to be eliminated.

There are also viewer comments dealing with the PBS NewsHour's coverage of the outcome of a high-profile gender discrimination trial in Silicon Valley, and a documentary on former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

As I indicated at the top, this amounts to very little actual mail – just a handful of messages – from viewers. So maybe that’s a good sign for all the programs. But the messages struck me as worthy of recording, so here they are, along with some responses from producers and my thoughts on two of the three subjects.

On Getting Those Shots

I just watched your episode "Vaccine War" and have to say that I feel it was poorly balanced. On the pro side, you have many scientifically-credible voices from the CDC, drug companies and medical research community. On the anti-side you have Jenny McCarthy, Dr. Wakefield and a handful of parents. Why didn't you include scientifically-credible voices who question the lack of research around giving large combinations of vaccines all at once? Why didn't you contact Dr. Sears for his thoughts on the delayed vaccine schedules that he educates parents about? Why didn't you talk about the conflict of interest present between the CDC and big pharma? Look at how much they spend lobbying Congress and tell me that the CDC and FDA regulations don't benefit drug companies? You presented this issue in the same way as many have done before, asking all the safe questions and making the people who ask the tough questions of the medical establishment look like the irresponsible crazies. You can do better.

Minneapolis, MN

~ ~ ~

Because of your biased treatment of the vaccine issue (The Vaccine War) I have suspended my sustaining membership. You presented those with vaccine concerns as emotionally unbalanced without once interviewing doctors with vaccine concerns. The very audience you reach (educated) are the ones who are opting out of the vaccine schedule because they have the research skills to make an educated decision. At least Fox news doesn't pretend to be reasonable on issues, which makes PBS all the more offensive. You lost me on the vaccine issue. Your credibility is shot. Not one mention on the NewsHour about the CDC whistleblower, Dr. William Thompson. For shame-no concern for all our vaccine-injured children.

Philmont, NY

~ ~ ~

I was shocked at the one-sided presentation of the vaccine debate that aired on Frontline tonight. I know that others were interviewed for this special and that their input was cut from the final showing. They failed to mention that Dr. Pan is funded by big pharma, and that the govt. has paid out billions in vaccine-related injuries. Why didn't they interview parents and children that are paying the lifelong price for these injuries? Who is funding KVIE that they need to cover up the truth, is it the pharmaceutical co's or is it the govt? We are all aware that the main stream media is dependent on the advertising dollars they receive from pharm. co's, but who is paying KVIE off? Read this please:

Randie Thompson, Citrus Heights, CA

Frontline Senior Editor Andrew Metz Responds

We took a careful look at the viewers' complaints you sent about our update of “The Vaccine War.” As you know, the points being raised now repeat concerns expressed back in 2010 after our first broadcast. We answered those criticisms and others at some length then and would refer to them now. See this link: We recognize that this is a contentious issue, and viewer comment on our site, then and now, reflects strong feelings about the subject. We have heard from both sides.

As for the ongoing critiques, it’s worth remembering that the film’s central theme is the conflict between those who vaccinate their children and those who don’t or only do so partially – and what the public health consequences are. The recent measles outbreak suggests how the tension between public health and parental choice can play out.

One of the complaints made in 2010 and again now is that we did not include in the film two doctors, Dr. Robert Sears and Dr. Jay Gordon, both of whom we interviewed. As we pointed out in our previous comments, although these two doctors, and some others, are willing to adjust the schedule of vaccines, they say they are “pro-vaccine” and would recommend vaccination. While neither doctor was included in the broadcast, we did post an extended interview with Dr. Sears on our site in order to reflect this thinking. Dr. Gordon expressed his displeasure with not being in the film back in 2010, and we responded to him then. It is understandably frustrating when interviewees take the time to speak with us and do not appear in the final version, but their participation is valuable and informs our reporting, and this happens sometimes.

…More from Metz 

A couple of other points from the emails you sent. One writer alleges that “Big Pharma” is determining the science at the CDC and our film failed to raise that issue. That’s a serious claim, of course. In the film, Dr. Paul Offit, who helped develop the vaccine against rotavirus with Merck, was called by critics a “biostitute” and “Dr. Profit” – to which he responded that while he may have made money, the vaccine has been effective and saved lives. So, while it may be that the CDC’s position in favor of vaccines “benefits” the drug companies in the sense that they make money selling them, it may also be true – as the medical and scientific establishment clearly believes - that vaccines are safe and effective for the majority of children and a public health benefit.

Lastly, you relayed a criticism that we did not show interviews with parents and children who suffered severe reactions to the vaccines. The film did address the subject of possible risks from vaccines, and featured people such as Barbara Loe Fisher, Jenny McCarthy and J.B. Handley, who say their children suffered side effects.

Did the NewsHour Discriminate?

The PBS NewsHour on Friday night [March 27] presented a thoroughly disappointing report on the [Ellen] Pao [Silicon Valley discrimination] case. Instead of intelligently and objectively reporting the outcome of the case your reporter provided a soapbox for an advocate against gender discrimination in Silicon Valley.

New York, NY

~ ~ ~

Half-hour ago, we were given the feminist view of a gender trial concerning discrimination in high tech industries in California. Oddly, the anti-or non-feminists view was not given! Yes, I realize I am wasting my time. It is fully clear that you are ideologically with her to the end.

Tito Perdue, Brent, AL

The NewsHour’s Executive Producer, Sara Just, Responds

The verdict in this case came down less than an hour before our air. We booked a single guest, in part because of timing, but also because we wanted to hear from someone watching the case closely who is not just an observer but a part of the industry in question. This case had reverberations at the highest levels of corporate America, but especially in Silicon Valley. So we booked an interview with a woman who is herself a longtime senior executive in Silicon Valley. I don't believe our audience is best served if every topic is followed by a debate. Sometimes a single interview by an informed reporter, such as Hari [Sreenivasan], provides a more illuminating conversation than a debate might.

My Thoughts

The NewsHour response may make sense conceptually, but I don’t think it worked in this situation, and the questioning didn’t help much. Fortunately, correspondent Sreenivasan, in his introduction, pointed out that her former firm, Kleiner Perkins, said Pao was a chronic complainer who twisted the facts and wasn’t a team player and that the jury rejected all of her gender discrimination claims. The single guest, Fran Maier—founder of TRUSTe, an online privacy management firm, and co-founder of—may be a longtime senior executive in Silicon Valley but she started out saying she was “disappointed” in the six-men, six-women jury decision, and went on to provide a very one-sided assessment of this high-profile and important case. I thought this resulted in what appeared to be a biased presentation and that the NewsHour should come back to this in a more balanced fashion. It doesn’t have to be a debate but it can be a discussion.




‘Lauding’ Baker?

[Former Secretary of State, and many other titles, James A.] Baker, using his skill, gave us Bush, the war in Iraq, a trillion and a half, two tax cuts for his rich friends, there's another two trillion, no attention to terrorism, 9-11, a historic eroding of our rights, torture under the guise of fighting some terrorists, the hiring of that blockhead 'Hank' Paulson, under the rubric of cutting regs, no regulation of the financial industry, there's a couple trillion... And you're lauding this man?

Grand Rapids, MI

My Thoughts

The letter above refers to a 90-minute documentary that aired on March 24 titled “James Baker: The Man Who Made Washington Work,” which was produced for PBS by independent filmmakers Eric Strange and John Hesse. It deals with the extraordinary career of Baker, the Houston lawyer, now 84, turned master campaign strategist who helped elect Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and also served at various times as White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of State. It deals with the lasting impact of that career on contemporary American politics and policy, and is a reminder of a tough but practical, more bi-partisan approach to politics and diplomacy that is largely missing these days.

Five years ago, PBS took an even longer look at another Republican, former Reagan-era, Secretary of State, George P. Shultz, who served before Baker. In contrast to the solo letter above, the Shultz program produced a great deal of mail, controversy and comment in the press. I wrote about it and said, among other things, that I felt the film was “over the top with praise but with relatively little critical appraisal.”

As a former reporter and editor at The Washington Post, I was involved with covering both Shultz and Baker. From a purely personal standpoint, I – and I think a lot of journalists – found both of them to be well-prepared, pragmatic and dedicated public servants. And I think it is good for PBS to offer such profiles, assuming they don’t pull punches, since there has been an almost relentless political assault, including from some presidents, on government work and workers for many decades.

I don’t want to write a review of this program; here are some by The Houston Chronicle, McClatchy, the New York Daily News and The Daily Beast. I felt the Baker film was well done, a testimonial, in one sense, to his skills, versatility and accomplishments but with less hagiography and more balance and reporting of missteps than the earlier program on Shultz.

 The program, with major funding provided by two Texas-based foundations, dealt well, thanks to the longest interview in the film with former Washington Post reporter Kathleen Day, with Baker’s role in keeping the huge Savings & Loan bank scandal of the late 1980s – that cost taxpayers more than $150 billion – under wraps from the public prior to an election. It also dealt, although briefly, with the ugly 1988 election campaign, including use of the racially-provocative “Willy Horton” ad, to portray George H. W. Bush’s opponent, Gov. Michael Dukakis, as soft on crime.

The film falls short, I believe, and as some other reviewers have written, in paying almost no attention to the failure of Bush 41’s bid to win re-election in 1992 with Baker heading the campaign. It just hints at but doesn’t pursue the question of whether Baker’s crucial role in the deadlocked Florida and national election of 2000 involving George W. Bush was motivated in part as payback for the ’92 defeat. And it doesn’t at least touch on the loss of thousands of Kurdish lives in Iraq in 1991 after they rose up against an ostensibly defeated Saddam Hussein, whose army and helicopters were allowed to function under terms that ended the first Gulf War in 1991.

Nevertheless, this is a good and important film about a consequential American political and diplomatic figure of our time and definitely worth watching.

Posted on April 1, 2015 at 11:15 a.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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