The Mailbag: On the RFRA, Cheating, the ‘Cuckoo’s Nest,’ ‘Nukes’ and Other Stuff

Posted by Michael Getler on

This is the fourth ombudsman’s mailbag we’ve posted in the first two weeks of April, a testimonial to the activity of PBS viewers who write to us. Getting them sorted and posted is also a testimonial to the hard work of my assistant, Marcia Apperson. Because of the heavy flow on a wide-range of topics, we’ve tried to break these up so that any individual mailbag doesn’t get too long. So we had an April 1 posting mostly about a Frontline documentary on “The Vaccine War” and a NewsHour segment on gender discrimination, followed by a cri de coeur from viewers on April 7 who feel that background music often drowns out the dialogue on PBS dramas and documentaries, and then one primarily about reactions to the Ken Burns series on cancer on April 10.

Almost all of the letters below deal with recent segments on the nightly PBS NewsHour which, quite naturally, is usually the biggest target for comment because it deals with the news of the day, every day.

The first batch of emails, and also the largest number, arrived during NewsHour coverage over several days of the controversy surrounding the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) legislation, primarily in Indiana but also in Arkansas.

I passed this sampling of letters on to the NewsHour. The letters follow but I felt that it would add context to the individual comments in the letters below, which relate to segments on different days, to present first the general response to the criticisms from NewsHour’s executive producer, Sara Just: 

The NewsHour Responds

The NewsHour devoted several segments to reporting and analyzing the controversy that emerged in Indiana and Arkansas around RFRA legislation. I believe we spent more total minutes on this topic than any other that week. Some issues in the news are multi-faceted and do not lend themselves to simple pro/con debates. This was one such topic. We made an effort to cover the political, business, religious topics that grew out of the controversy. Clearly, some in our audience felt their point of view was not sufficiently covered. We will continue to report on this topic as it develops and strive for insight and balance of the many points of view surrounding it.

Here Are the Letters

Just about without exception (and the coverage of the PBS NewsHour has NOT been one of the exceptions) the news coverage of what the Indiana religious freedom bill means has been a real disgrace to journalism. I have actually read the text of the Indiana bill (as it appeared in the Washington Post), and, granted, the bill is written in hard-to-follow, almost undecipherable legalistic language. However, the "coverage" of this bill by the media, including the coverage of the PBS NewsHour [this email was received March 30], has been focused, almost to the degree of cheerleading, on the 'backlash' AGAINST the bill. Key questions have been ignored, perhaps deliberately, seemingly to give the impression that this is primarily a "hate" bill. Such questions are: Does this bill merely protect a wedding-cake maker or wedding photographer from going against his/her conscience and being forced to 'participate' (in his/her view) in the wedding of a same-sex couple? Or, under this bill, can an Indiana restaurant owner deny service to a known homosexual just because that person is a homosexual? I think this latter interpretation is not the intent of the bill and would not be permitted. However, this latter extreme example is the perception that opponents of the bill would like to be broadcast and disseminated, and the media, including the PBS NewsHour, seem to be a willing conspirator.

Christopher Xavier O'Connor, Albuquerque, NM

~ ~ ~

On the NewsHour tonight [March 30] the idea that the Indiana religious freedom law is not significantly different from the federal or other states' laws was heard, unchallenged. This article from the Atlantic makes clear that there are important differences. I'd like to hear this mentioned before the discussion moves quickly to what the uproar means for Mike Pence's political future.

Gaithersburg, MD

~ ~ ~

Just watched [March 31] your pathetic coverage of the RFRA law in Indiana. You call interviewing what looked like a couple of old gay men in a sports bar and some unknown talk show host "in depth" coverage? Judy [Woodruff] introduced it with the comment that it "claims" to protect religious freedom. The substance of the law was never even hinted at. Where is the usual two-sided, expert legal approach used on other controversial topics? The coverage was sprinkled with a bunch of other irrelevant information.

James DellaValle, Yorktown, VA

~ ~ ~

Why, during discussion [April 2] of Indiana's rollback of religious freedom law, does PBS perpetuate the idea that the law is about government forcing citizens against their beliefs? The law was clear that no government interest need be invoked.

David Cook, Baltimore, MD

~ ~ ~

Deeply concerned about the discussion [April 2] of the Indiana law and the air time given to the biased Baptist as somehow representative of "religious" Christian or faith community in Indiana. The Christian Church, Disciples of Christ Hdqtrs is in Indy and their leaders have made clear statements and taken positions opposing the RFRA in Indiana as well as Christian Theological Seminary Board of Trustees along with many others in the mainstream, progressive faith community in Indiana would have been able to provide insight, wisdom and maturity to this inept discussion as if religious views of conservatives are the only ones that matter to PBS and the NewsHour! This is very discouraging. It is ONE area where mainstream ecumenical and interfaith leaders agree and can offer articulate and helpful and honest perspectives. This is not really a religious issue but a "political" one couched in religious language by the conservatives hostile to basic human rights and non-discrimination. The way the NewsHour handled this is offensive to, I would suggest, the majority of the mainstream faith community in Indiana and in most of the US.

Karen Hessel, Cape Elizabeth, ME

(Ombudsman’s Note: I would add just one general observation and that is the tendency of all U.S. television media to focus too heavily on the political implications of these issues, such as the impact on Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in this case, relative to the substance and meaning of the legislation. My sense, also a general one, is that the NewsHour usually does a lot better than other broadcasts on this kind of thing.)

On Cheating in Atlanta’s Schools…by Teachers!

The piece on racketeering [April 1] according to the verdict in the Atlanta cheating question was horrible. Yes, the teachers cheated. It is a horrible model for kids, and the teachers should be fired. Punishment enough for people who are on the margins. Nonetheless, Kevin Reilly [editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution] and Judy Woodruff went to town over these teachers who were under a lot of pressure in their school system. Kevin Reilly has a solution in a "different system for the public schools" though he did say in a subordinate clause something about too much emphasis on testing. He got in a jab about public schools, left unchallenged. To me the really big thing is the contrast in the way the court system and the NewsHour dealt with lying and cheating by teachers and by the bankers of 2008 who will never go to jail.

Boulder, CO

~ ~ ~

I just heard/watched your disheartening report on the cheating scandal in the Atlanta schools. Then, you cut to a display that indicated that a key school involved had 90+% students in meal-assistance programs. What is that juxtaposition intended to mean?! Please don't penalize the students of limited economic means for the sins of their teachers! My esteem for PBS has taken a hit.

Fort Worth, TX

The NewsHour Responds

Re: the wording of the on-screen note that followed the Atlanta cheating interview.  The reason it was chosen was to illustrate that it is mainly lower income students who were victims of the scam by public school teachers and administrators. Ninety-two percent of students at Parks Middle School, at the center of the scandal in Atlanta, qualify for free or reduced lunches.

A Bad Scene

I cannot tell you how disappointed I am to see you treat the subject of Transcranial Electrical Stimulation and ECT in such a glib and irresponsible manner [March 31]. Showing ECT as it was performed in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” can hardly be described as "journalism." That scene from Cuckoo's Nest has haunted me for years. It is responsible for misconceptions and prejudices about a treatment that is safe and has saved the lives of more people than you may know. I am certain of this because it saved mine. This is a fact I am hesitant to admit exactly because of that scene from an old, sad piece of entertainment. The shame that I and many thousands of people feel about our treatment is a result of the current stigma of mental illness in our society. Your inaccurate portrayal of ECT in the context of a news program has fed that stigma and diminished the credibility of a once-trusted program.

As a way of compensating for this lapse in judgment, I would welcome a serious look at this treatment as it is currently used. There is plenty of debate surrounding it even as it is performed in the real world (which is not how it is portrayed in Hollywood). The NewsHour could present both sides of a real issue affecting the lives of thousands suffering from severe depression. As for Transcranial Stimulation – this is an important development that may in fact offer an alternative to ECT for many people. To see it compared to a cup of coffee not journalism – it is entertainment.

New York, NY

Science Correspondent Miles O’Brien Responds

I do believe it is true that people of a certain age conjure up that image precisely because it is so powerful and haunting. Frankly, I think it’s better to take these things head-on (since we can all agree this is what people are thinking about anyway) and write them in the manner we did. But I do understand the viewer’s concerns and I hope it hasn’t caused any harm. It is a reminder that intense images often overwhelm our careful wordsmithing.

Oh, Those Other ‘Nukes’

Your reporting on Israel regarding the Iran nuclear diplomacy is seriously lacking. I have NEVER seen a segment where the Israeli nuclear arsenal is questioned. Seriously, if we're going to ask Iran to give up the bomb, should we not also ask Israel to do the same? Israel's refusal to sign on to the nuclear non-proliferation agreement should also be questioned, front and center! Please make your reporting on this issue whole by questioning the country that is arguably responsible for more war and killing than any other entity in the Middle East. Glenn Monahan, Bozeman, MT

~ ~ ~

I keep seeing "Iran Nukes" as a heading on the preview summary for the NewsHour. I have previously protested this, but apparently to deaf ears. "Nukes" is a common term for nuclear weapons, and therefore must NOT be used in this context, which refers to negotiations about a nuclear development program. So who's writing these summaries? Bibi Netanyahu? This is from preview for April 2, 2015: “IRAN NUKES…The United States, Iran and five other world powers announced an agreement today outlining limits on Iran’s nuclear program. Judy Woodruff debriefs with Indira Lakshmanan who has been covering the negotiations for Bloomberg Business.”

Carlos Coimbra

Other Stuff

Now I know what the "S" stands for in PBS- it's "Sociology.” Can we please get off of the discussions of gay rights and racism long enough to have broader news coverage?

Ponte Vedra Beach, FL

~ ~ ~


John J., Rutherford, NJ

Calls About ‘Call the Midwife’

There were also some telephone messages similar to the letter below.

Up until two weeks ago, I was in love with this series. FINALLY...a show that is entertaining, historical, and family-friendly. It is so rare to find a show these days that doesn't promote sexuality, profanity, and/or gory violence. However, Call the Midwife has now lost me as a viewer, as well as the members of my family. Introducing homosexuality into the plot serves no other purpose than to appease the demands of your liberal viewers. I had hoped that PBS would have higher standards than to compromise moral values for a larger cash flow, but perhaps I incorrectly assumed that PBS, a station known for presenting educational entertainment, would continue to withstand the encroaching pressures of an immoral society. I do hope that you will receive enough negative feedback to let you know that your new direction is inappropriate and unappreciated and that changes should be made to reverse the plot.

Ashburn, VA

Posted on April 14, 2015 at 1:54 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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