Another opening, another show …

The new PBS weekly public affairs program “Need to Know” made its much-awaited debut Friday evening and the first comments by those who wrote to the ombudsman aren’t what you’d call four-star reviews. In fact, they are almost all pretty grim.

In fairness to the new program and its co-hosts — Alison Stewart and Jon Meacham — a couple of points need to be made.

1) This is the first program and lots of series get off to rocky starts in the eyes of some people. So let’s give it a chance to evolve.

2) Most people who write to an ombudsman do so to offer criticism, so maybe you can’t tell much from the letters below about how the wider audience felt. Indeed, there are several good comments on the program’s website.

3) The program follows in the same general time slot as the now-ended Bill Moyers Journal, an iconic PBS program and personality. Thousands of people had written to me in recent months who were very unhappy about the departure of Moyers, and also the now-departed NOW on PBS with host David Brancaccio. So there was a good chance from the git-go that many people would be critical because Moyers and NOW are tough acts to follow.

4) Meacham, in particular, had been the target of a couple of Web-based campaigns — especially by the progressive “watchdog” group known as FAIR — opposed to his appointment, which almost guaranteed a heavy flow of follow-up criticism.

On the other hand, all those folks whose e-mails appear below may be right; the first episode may, indeed, have been a bomb or at least a disappointment. I’m withholding judgment as this point, in part because I want to see more and hear more and also because so far the viewer observations deal with their own personal reviews rather than issues of editorial standards.

Also, I’m going to be away from the office this week at our annual gathering of ombudsmen. But my able assistant, Marcia Apperson, will be manning the ombudsman’s desk and I will try and stay in electronic contact.

I will only offer two sort of non-substantive, personal observations at this stage. The last segment, with comic Andy Borowitz, struck me as extremely un-funny and seemed a strange note upon which to leave viewers on a maiden voyage of a new public affairs program. Also, I personally find it distracting for the interviewing hosts to reach out to shake hands with the important guests at the end of interviews. It’s an unnecessary bit of politeness that diminishes journalistic distance and sort of says “we’re one of you.”

WARNING: This is a looooong collection of e-mail, even though it’s a sampling.

First come quite a few of the e-mails about “Need to Know.”

Then there are letters from two viewers, broadly representative of others, about last week’s Frontline broadcast of “College, Inc.,” a tough and fascinating look at the world of “for profit” colleges that are a growing presence on the American educational landscape. I sent a handful of the e-mails about this program to Frontline Senior Editor Ken Dornstein, and he and program producers address them in a response that follows the letters.

‘Need to Know.’ Not?

If the first show is going to be a good example of what will be airing, I won’t be wasting my time again. The show is fluffy, lightweight and has that horrible ring of “dumbing down”. It reminds me of a vacuous Sunday news magazine on commercial television with less ads. As Meacham warned us in the beginning, it wasn’t to replace Bill Moyers, but it would “turn on the light, but not the heat”. No, there certainly wasn’t any screaming opinions, but there wasn’t any in-depth reporting either. This program is a news failure. I get a better news analysis & wrap-up by going to GoogleNews.

E. Rivers, Portland, ME
I am both appalled and truly heartbroken about the replacement of NOW with its in-depth, researched and location-based coverage of important topics, and of Bill Moyers’ Journal, a show with such depth in discussion and variety of intellectual thought with two trite and frankly embarrassing shows. Need to Know is no more in depth than the 6:00 news. A world figure with the mind of Bill Clinton was asked immature and trite questions. I cannot understand a management that would denigrate PBS like this.

Marcia Cox, Dayton, OH
I had to write someone because I am so upset that I am shaking. I feel such a sense of loss of the Moyers and Brancaccio programs but had been hoping against hope that they would be replaced by a program of similar caliber. Though I know those programs would be difficult to replace, I thought that they would be replaced by a program that would be thought-provoking, challenging the status quo and include guests that we don’t usually hear from who have unique perspectives. It is clear that Need to Know was not intended to be such a show and is instead quite prosaic. But did we need another ordinary descriptive program?

We have so much meaningless chatter from both the extreme right and now copycat left trying to be as sarcastic and snide as the right. To have people interviewed who are intelligent, knowledgeable and thoughtful, who challenge both the right and the left speaking truth to power and tell about the unknown suffering in this world because of US or other government policies feeds my need to know. Where will I now go for such nourishment? I am sure there are other intellectual giants with extraordinary interviewing skills. Except for The News Hour and BBC and Masterpiece Theatre and Masterpiece Mystery I could easily get rid of my TV. That’s all there is left. Is someone working on this? I am so sad.

Beverly Isaksen, Brainard, NY

Friday Night Light?

I was told that PBS made a strategic decision to create a new format program for Friday night. Why didn’t that decision include what viewers might want to watch? The new show is pretty lame compared to NOW and Moyers, which we have been staying home on Friday to watch for years. What, exactly, was wrong with expanding NOW to an hour, or NOW plus Frontline on Friday? The best thing I can say about the program is that I now have my Friday night back to do something outside of our home.

Casselberry, FL
My wife and I used to look forward to Fridays, where we would not answer the phone or the door so we could completely focus on NOW and BILL MOYER’S JOURNAL. This was journalism at its best with investigative insight, as well as it being enlightening and uplifting, i.e., “hey, we aren’t the only ones that feel this way.” The new program NEED TO KNOW should be retitled: GOT TO GO. It is Pablum. We can’t describe it any other way. Both presentation and content do not even rise to the standard of SIXTY MINUTES. If PBS was looking for something ‘safe and non-controversial’ just like commercial programming, then congratulations, you have succeeded.

Julian Gonzalez & Soraya Aragundi, Anchorage, AK
Watching Need to Know was like having someone snatch your NY Times and give you back US Today. It was flimsy and disappointing. Couldn’t you at least give us David Brancaccio and Maria Hinajosa? Friday night has been PBSTV night in our house for years. From now on, we are switching channels after Washington Week. I just can’t bear to watch this program. I understand that Bill Moyers wanted to retire but please don’t insult your viewers with this program. At least bring back NOW!!!!

Fresno, CA
I am stunned … have just finished watching the “Need to Know” program; words that come to mind: inane, empty. I am sad that this was your choice. This household will not be watching again. I hope that your feedback delivers a quick and clear message. I have been a PBS viewer/supporter for decades and NEVER ONCE have written for negative reasons; this experience created a first for me.

Nikki Nordstrom, Bothell, WA
In the initial edition of “Need to Know”, I note that for the in-studio discussion on the Gulf oil spill an “environmental writer” for the New York Times was used, for the discussion on firearm carry notorious anti-gun Mayor Michael Bloomberg was tapped, and for a general political discussion former President Bill Clinton was employed. The blatant bias was overwhelming. Is this supposed to be a news program or a social advocacy show?

San Louis Obispo, CA
I used to look forward to Friday night all week for the excellent PBS new shows, Now and Bill Moyers. Not any more. I can understand Bill Moyers going, he retired, But to replace an excellent program like Now with such crap as “Need to Know” is a shame. Don’t we already have enough entertainment news shows on cable? Now was doing excellent investigative reporting. PBS has become the last source of investigative reporting on television. Please don’t lose your way.

Ed Olmstead, Anchorage, AK

Suspicion Reigns

I was not really disappointed by the new show, for how could the editor of a very middle-of-the -road magazine possibly replace Bill Moyers. But I do regret that PBS did not even attempt to find someone with a similar caliber and outlook as Moyers. The show was so-so, more entertainment than insight. I know it is difficult but the disappearance of two such programs at once raises an ugly suspicion as to what might be behind this change of direction.

Martin Ben-Ari, Wheatley Heights, NY
Being a curious carbon-based biped, I tuned in to the first installment of “Need to Know.” I will tune in for the second installment next week to see if anything has changed and, if next Friday, I don’t I find myself continuing to yawn in order to stay interested (not due to the hour of broadcast). In depth reporting did not figure in to this first program. Nor did in depth questioning. Instead of thinking about what was being said and processing the information, I found myself thinking that I was learning/hearing nothing new. No alternative perspectives.

The segment on guns offered the same tired two views: for and against and the personal reasons why. No one cited what crimes were prevented from happening because some citizen owned and used a gun. No history, except for the reference to the Second Amendment. No mention of Columbine or Oklahoma City or any other event which transpired because a person or persons were exercising their “right to carry.” The mention of “states rights,” which seems to permeate the mainstream media, never once gave an alternative view or mentioned that this was the issue of the American Civil War and meant “states rights to own human beings.” I hope this program changes or my Friday nights will be spent doing more reading.

R. Woods, Kansas City, MO
Last night I watched Bill Moyers’ Journal replacement and was thoroughly disappointed. I used to look forward to seeing people whose material I read on different venues. The last installment of the Journal brought Jim Hightower and Barry Lopez whom I admired for a long time. I also saw Simon Johnson several times on the Journal, as I did Grace Lee Boggs and so many other contributors to our culture. Instead last night I saw gun-toting Virginians who promised to bring more guns to the rest of the country. My sleep last night was very fragmented as a result, and I am depressed. It would have been much more appropriate to bring someone of Moyers’ stature and values to your public program. Public television should try to fill the gap left by mainstream corporate media and not replicate it. Those of us who seek alternatives are left bereft by the recent changes.

Aliza Keddem, Portland, OR
I watched last night, waiting to hear some hard-hitting journalism. Really: celebration of the ‘pill’; Bill Clinton and Michael Bloomberg. I should have known better with Alison Stewart and Jon Meacham. How ‘mainstream’ can you get. When I compare my $$$$ against the dollars of Bank of America, Boeing, etc. I lost and so it’s not public television, it’s corporate television from my perspective. I’m thankful for online journalism!

Marilyn Bruning, Sequim, WA

Off the Rails?

‘Need to Know’ last night was a train wreck and lived down to my expectations of something hosted, produced and overseen by alums of commercial media. Cancel this turkey and find someone from independent media or public broadcasting with some credibility that actually leaves Manhattan from time to time. Cancel the show, push the reset button and find someone with some credibility. Also fire the producers and find someone who realizes PBS viewers do not suffer from ADHD.

David Gregory, Marion, AR
I, too, was hoping for the best, acknowledging my bias I kept an open mind and watched last night. While not bad, I must say I was disappointed. In the vernacular of CBS the new show is more “Sunday Morning” than “60 minutes”. While I watch and enjoy Sunday Morning, it is not intended to be a replacement for in-depth reporting. I’m sure the new show will have a broader audience, but it is truly sad to see the bar lowered. A poor tribute to Bill and David. What’s next “Frontline Magazine”?

Dave Allen, Lake Cowichan, BC, Canada
Watched, “Need to Know” concerning firearm carry. To say I was deeply disturbed on the obvious anti-gun slant of the program would be an understatement. I have donated to PBS in the past but cannot and will not provide my hard earned money for this sort of slanted reporting/programming. I am pro-gun but open minded enough to listen and respect the opinions of others. Very, very disappointed.

Steve M., Tampa, FL
Jon Meacham and Alison Stewart are clearly intelligent and earnest, and it is interesting and useful to have interviews with such high-profile personages as Mayor Bloomberg and Bill Clinton, and to have background on issues such as “the pill,” BUT what is totally missing now is the Moyers progressive perspective, that sharp and stimulating sense of exploring and questioning the status quo.

Bill Moyers deserves his retirement and the time to pursue other interests, BUT why did PBS have to take Brancaccio off the air at the same time? It almost appears that some powerful corporate interests want to silence ALL views that raise questions about the influences in our economy and society who pollute, who corrupt the political process with cash, who enrich the rich and squeeze out the middle class, who tolerate the climate deniers, and who reject any alternative to continued dependence on fossil fuels.

It is clear that Meacham and Stewart are conventionally intelligent, But now that PBS has established a standard of willingness to air the non-conventional and the progressive perspective, we as supporting viewers deserve more than conventionality.

J. Tyler Resch, North Bennington, VT
That’s It? That’s your replacement for NOW? Let me see how it balances off. A half-hour program on a subject that one has not heard treated anywhere else in depth (so packed with info that it seemed like an hour program) in the public media on one hand; on the other hand several subjects visited, not in depth, which are visited either by other news media or in the case of some stories, by the likes of Woman’s Day Magazine in about the same manner; and for something special, an interview which says nothing discernible from that old has-been, or as many of us have come to realize, never was, Bill Clinton. All followed by a truly amateurishly written, painfully unfunny and out of place comedy section. Hmmm. How does that balance again? Something is behind this change, but what is certainly NOT behind it is an effort to provide more essential news.

Lake Oswego, OR
Sorry but Need to Know does not cut it.

Kathleen Connell, Buffalo, WY

Viewer Comments on ‘College, Inc.’

Having taught English at Allan Hancock Community College in Santa Maria, California for 44 years, I was very interested in and to a fair extent pleased by your treatment of for-profit colleges on Frontline [Tuesday, May 4]. There were some disappointments however:

1. Little attention was paid to entrance requirements and the existence of remedial programs for those with undeveloped basic skills (math and English), probably the vast majority of their students. The typical community college offers several levels of developmental courses in both areas in an effort to bring students up to speed in these skills, which will allow them eventually to succeed in college level classes.

2. Accepting students with undeveloped reading and writing skills leads to high dropout rates — little mention of these as I recall — but these dropouts are stuck with large loans, difficult enough to repay even for those who complete programs.

3. More attention might have been given to the quality of education offered and percentages of graduates able to find employment. How diplomas from these schools are regarded by potential employers would be interesting to know.

Overall, it was a fine thing to offer this program, and I thank you for that. Still, I had a sense that your effort to be totally unbiased, more than fair to these schools, led to your going a trifle easy on them, perhaps allowing them to come off better than they are.

Jack Miles, Santa Maria, CA
As a journalist with no ties to the profit or nonprofit university world (except for having graduated from a private school in 1985), I am very disappointed by the shoddy reporting in Frontline’s program on for-profit universities. The main question asked — is it OK for schools to make a profit? — was the wrong question. The real questions are: “Are the schools effective in teaching the subject as compared to other schools teaching the same subject?” and “Do these schools graduate students who are better able to succeed in the world/the field of their choice as opposed to those similar in economic background/sociological circumstances who graduate from other schools (public or private) with the same degree?”

There were no comparisons or statistics of note in this program. One never learned:

* What percentage of the students at for-profit schools get jobs in their field, in fair comparison to students at other schools? Do profit schools really do a worse job at job placement or is this just implied by an example (albeit a very disturbing one)?

* How does the percentage of defaults on loans in for profit schools compare to the particular percentage of defaults from students from the same socioeconomic background attending other schools?

* Are all the schools having the problems mentioned, such as unfair recruitment techniques? Or are the problems solely happening at the for-profits addressed? The program gave no context. Moreover, I noticed that at least 3-4 times the DeVry building and logo flashed across the screen. DeVry was never mentioned in a bad light during the reportage, but having the logo flash throughout a programmatic critique sends a highly unfair message of an implied problem where either none exists or none is ever discussed.

I write these comments NOT in the spirit of lambasting Frontline’s particular program, but to hopefully make you and PBS aware going forward that when Frontline’s reportage sinks in integrity because of the failure to provide the statistics and comparisons from which viewers can make informed decisions, that needs to be carefully and proactively monitored going forward, for the sinking of Frontline is not very far off from the sinking of American journalism.

New Paltz, NY

Here’s Frontline’s Response

We received a lot of responses to our recent broadcast, “College Inc.” — both on the FRONTLINE web site and through the Ombudsman’s office — and we’d like to respond to a few of them here in the interest of keeping a good dialogue going. Here are some responses from our producers:

On the question of job placement rates, and whether we should have compared the for-profits with other community colleges, four-year schools, or other institutions: Since, for-profit colleges are geared directly towards helping their students find jobs or improve their careers — more than community colleges, say, or other public institutions — we felt it was fair to ask how well they do that. Unfortunately, there is no standard measure.

University of Phoenix, the largest for-profit university in America, does stand out for the breadth of information it collects on its students and graduates. It presents some of this information in its Annual Academic Report, but, to our knowledge, it has not consented to release this data to independent researchers, so questions remain over the statistics on graduation, job placement and salary increases that they present.

Given this general paucity of information, FRONTLINE focused on tuition costs, debt levels, and default rates. These figures are readily available across all sectors of higher education and can easily be compared. They are important factors in student choice, and also important proxies for the quality of education and outcomes.

On the matter of admission policies and remedial education to help improve the transition to college: It is right that community colleges and for-profit colleges both espouse open enrollment, but they do it in very different ways. The community colleges, in general, have a well-established process for evaluating students and providing remedial courses for those who need it. Generally at for-profits, anyone who wishes to attend, and who can pay the cost of tuition, can matriculate. In some cases, the lack of a high school diploma is no impediment.

The University of Phoenix is one for-profit that appears to recognize that many of its students find the step up to higher education a challenge. They recently introduced a free introductory course for its enrollees in order to improve their chances of success.

Regarding the films’ primary focus on publicly-traded for-profits: The producers interviewed a wide range of investors, managers, academics and others involved in higher education, and decided to focus mainly on publicly traded for-profit schools because they are the largest and fastest growing segment of the for-profit segment. We’d note that the film did report on several privately held for-profit schools — InterAmerican College in San Diego, CA (now United States University) and Chancellor University in Cleveland, OH.

On the question of whether we adequately addressed the fact that the for-profits serve a chronically underserved body of students who find traditional higher education elitist or beyond their reach: Here, we’d note our interview with Harris Miller, President of the Career College Association, the lobby group for for-profit colleges in Washington, DC, who specifically addresses this in his interview. He says, “We educate the students the traditional higher education has given up on. Traditional higher education has become a very socio-demographically elite group of people. If you’re not wealthy or upper middle class, you’re not going to get into a traditional higher education system. So, the only options lower-income students and working adults have is either to go to a community college. Some of them can go to minority-serving institutions. And our option is the third option.”

In response to comments that we failed to point out more problematic aspects of the for-profits, like the difficulty some have had transferring credits earned there: These are all important to note, and have been adding to the richness of the conversation on the web. In the film, we did not set out to fully catalog the merits or the shortcomings of the for-profits, but to look at the sector as a whole and ask important questions about how the sector operates and how it’s affecting higher education.

In terms of the images of colleges seen in our broadcast: Any time we used an image or a name of a school in the film, we were very careful to make sure it related to the immediate context of that section of the film. That applies to general statements about particular places being for-profit colleges, offering online courses, comparisons on tuition costs, issues concerned with recruitment practices, and any mention of lawsuits.

It perhaps goes without saying that an hour of television time is not the best way to do justice to all of the issues and circumstances that impact millions of students each year. On our web site we’ve got more resources, including extended interviews from the film, responses from the for-profit colleges and universities discussed in our film, and links to reporting on a number of additional issues.

This column was originally published on on May 10, 2010.

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