The Mailbag: Welcome to America

Posted by Michael Getler on

For a first-time visitor to the United States, just turning on the local or national 6 o’clock television news can bring a quick, usually informative but sometimes startling sense of what the media say is going on in this vast, complicated and energetic country. I don’t know if Pope Francis happened to be tuned in to the PBS NewsHour yesterday just hours after he arrived for the first time in this country. But if he did, he would have seen a quite long—by NewsHour standards, almost 10 minutes—report on how “sex abuse scandals still haunt American Catholics,” as it was described.

Several viewers wrote to me right away questioning why this segment, which they viewed as very old news and in very bad taste to present as Pope Francis landed in Washington, was broadcast at this time.

I forwarded a few of those letters immediately to NewsHour Executive Producer Sara Just, asking for an explanation. She wrote back almost immediately, which suggested to me that the program anticipated that some viewers would be upset and was prepared. I’ve posted a sampling of the letters below, but first I want to post the NewsHour response and explanation.

The NewsHour’s Executive Producer Responds

As part of the NewsHour's extensive coverage of Pope Francis' visit to the US, we felt it appropriate to include a look at this issue that 1 in 5 American Catholics in a recent poll said is the most important problem facing the Church. Some of the NewsHour's other coverage of the Pope's visit includes Judy Woodruff's lengthy report in Monday night's program profiling Pope Francis, senior economics correspondent Paul Solman's report last week on capitalism and the Church, a series of online essays about Pope Francis from other clergy, and much more still to come, both on air and online, every day this week.

Regarding tonight's report, as [special correspondent] Chris Bury reported, charges of abuse by clergy continue to be a painful and ongoing matter in some communities, including Minneapolis-St Paul, where prosecutors are currently investigating new charges of abuse and two bishops resigned this summer. Additionally, he noted the impact that the abuse lawsuits continues to have on the financial health of some archdioceses across the country.

But in his thorough report, Mr. Bury also noted the steps that Pope Francis has taken to address such matters. His report also included an interview with a now-grown abuse victim who continues to be active in his parish and feels confident that the abuse reform measures taken by the Church ensure a safe atmosphere for his own children and others.

Here Are the Letters

I am writing as a non-Catholic to object to your 9/22 story on the painful legacy of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. There was nothing new in the story. Absolutely nothing. However, to broadcast it on the day of the Pope's arrival in the USA was provocative and served no useful purpose, especially as Pope Francis is forcefully addressing the problem. You owe you viewers an apology.

Richard Lowenstein, Westport

~ ~ ~

I believe the PBS made a poor choice with its programming on the NewsHour today. The historic visit to Washington by Pope Francis was marred by covering an old story on the sex abuse scandal on the first day of his visit. It was a disingenuous act on your part to discredit the importance of his visit. A good story, well-balanced but poorly timed.

West Palm Beach, FL

~ ~ ~

I must say as a "fallen away" Catholic and a "fallen away" Unitarian, I was Very unhappy with your feature on Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. This is an issue of 17 years duration. Could you not have presented your findings last year, or last month, or last week, or even yesterday? To air this only 2 hours after the Pope's touchdown at Andrew's AFB smacks of FOX News journalism. You are better than this, I know! The man has a universal message...why compromise the moment?

Ramona Rowe, Asheville, NC

~ ~ ~

Was it really necessary to do a story about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church on the same day as the Pope arrives in the US? My question has nothing to do with respecting or not respecting the Papacy, simply it seems greatly unfair to undermine His message re assisting the poor and underserved in our country and the world. The story of the abused has been covered and should continue to be, but I truly believe The PBS NewsHour's timing was very questionable.

Brooklyn, NY

~ ~ ~

I was very disappointed in PBS NewsHour this date (9/22/2015) and the decision to bring up the sexual molestation of children in the Catholic Church again. It was an affront to the Church and the Pope who is visiting in that there have been tremendous efforts on the part of the church to make things right in many ways. To bring up this topic again, when you don't bring up the topic in other groups, I see as a ploy to put down the church once again. You have lost a long-time viewer.

Santa Barbara, CA

~ ~ ~

I think the airing by PBS Newshour of the segment on the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal on the evening of the arrival of the Pope in the United States was in extremely bad taste. I am not Catholic but I was offended.

Mary Hantzes, Rockville, MD

~ ~ ~

Just finished watching the News Hour. Enjoyed the extended coverage of the clergy sexual abuse. It was nicely timed to put those Catholics in their place. Please be assured that my support for PBS is ended and through the legislative process I will be fully behind removing any remaining government support for PBS. I just can’t take the blatantly partisan approach and the anti-Catholicism any more.

St. Paul, MN

~ ~ ~

As a long time viewer of the NewsHour--and a non-Catholic--I was extremely disappointed to note that you chose to air another episode of the Catholic sex scandals on the day of the Pope's arrival in the US. shame on you!

Paula Utphall, Eau Claire, Wisconsin

~ ~ ~

Why, on the day that the current pope lands on US soil, does PBS have to highlight the child abuse scandals, on which this pope and his predecessor have had much to say, in attempts to mitigate the suffering of victims?

Richard Hardin, Lawrence, KS

~ ~ ~

I am very concerned about PBS's choice of stories on last night's NewsHour. On the day of the Pope's arrival, they chose to air a story about the sexual abuse scandal. Really? The story had no breaking news, nothing that had any sort of time issue, yet it had to air on the day when the Pope is arriving. I find this offensive, and am concerned about the timing. The story would have been fine in a week or two, and it would not seem to have been driven by someone's agenda. I would appreciate your looking into this.

Robert Johnson, Berwyn, PA

Posted on Sept. 23, 2015 at 12:58 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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