The Mailbag reflects changing face of journalism

This was another of those weeks in the rapidly changing face of American “journalism” that struck me as worth marking. Two months ago, I noted that on a weekend in May, two iconic PBS public affairs programs—Bill Moyers Journal and NOW—ended their long runs with little fanfare, while a celebrity-studded White House Correspondents Dinner was covered in some 84 stories posted on the Politico Web site.

This week started out with the publication of an extraordinary series of articles in The Washington Post called “Top Secret America,” an in-depth accounting—two-years in the making—of a government-industrial “national security and intelligence system so big, so complex and so hard to manage, no one really knows if it’s fulfilling its most important purpose: keeping citizens safe.”

At the same time, a deceptively edited and grossly misleading film clip was posted on the Web site, run by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart. The two-minute clip from a much longer speech makes it appear that a black, middle-level Agriculture Department officer, Shirley Sherrod, was admitting that she had discriminated against white farmers. The clip, and accompanying commentary by Breitbart, immediately went viral, as things do nowadays, and quickly spread throughout the media, with inadvertent and irresponsible help from the administration and the NAACP that also failed to check and to consider the source.

The Post series, with excellent attention paid to use of the newspaper’s Web site to display the breadth of the linkages and the depth of the research, is a reminder of why newspapers—many of which are in serious financial and staffing decline—and news organizations with the resources and commitment to finding out what is really going on are so crucial to informing citizens who want to know.

The Breitbart posting reminds us of how we are exposed so fast and frequently these days to misinformation and how easily it spreads though a society.

That brings us to the first letter in this week’s mailbag. It is about the Wednesday night segment on the PBS NewsHour dealing with the controversy over the Sherrod story. This is followed by a response from the program’s executive producer, Linda Winslow, and some thoughts of mine.

Then comes a letter dealing with a segment of last Friday night’s “Need to Know” broadcast in which President Obama is caricatured. This also includes a response from the producer and from me.

Finally, there are several e-mails about last week’s ombudsman column dealing with the three-part, three-hour documentary about former Secretary of State George P. Shultz. Some are favorable and some are critical, including an important criticism from a former U.S. ambassador to the former Soviet Union.

No Mention of Breitbart

I watched Jim Lehrer’s interview (7/21/10) with (the NewsHour’s) David Chalian on the USDA fallout from the firing of Shirley Sherrod, and I am hard-pressed to understand how neither Mr. Lehrer nor Mr. Chalian mentioned the name of Andrew Breitbart a single time. In all the discussion about how everyone in the media and government was too quick to judge and act upon misinformation, how is it possible to overlook the only person, other than Ms. Sherrod herself, who knew how falsely the video portrayed her views? Breitbart knew because it was his malicious editing of the video, and his posting of it on his website (, that created the situation. I can only wonder whether NewsHour sponsors have pressured Mr. Lehrer to tread carefully when dealing with the right-wing. In this case, Mr. Lehrer and his political editor didn’t tread at all. What a terrible failure by Mr. Lehrer and his guest.

Forest Hills, NY

Executive Producer Linda Winslow Responds:

We have received several complaints from our viewers regarding NewsHour coverage of the Shirley Sherrod story. Most focused on two points: why we didn’t mention the name of Andrew Breitbart whose web site,, originally posted the incomplete and misleading excerpt from Ms. Sherrod’s speech; and why we didn’t take to task other online news outlets, as well as major cable news channels, who exacerbated the misrepresentation of Ms. Sherrod’s position by playing the incomplete excerpt over and over.

We certainly could have mentioned Mr. Breitbart’s name but, since we don’t consider him to be a household name, we were more concerned with mentioning the name of his web site and identifying it as a vehicle for conservative political opinion.

By the time the NewsHour aired at 6pm, our editors had decided the [Agriculture Secretary] Vilsack apology to Ms. Sherrod, and her reaction to it, had advanced the story well beyond the Breitbart behavior that started the whole thing. That’s why the introductory setup was written to explain, as briefly as possible, how the mistreatment of Ms. Sherrod began…In our judgment, this story was about how a combination of supposedly responsible organizations and institutions handled a misleading piece of information that first surfaced on a web site with an avowed political agenda. The press, the administration, and the interest groups involved all have blame to share for pre-judging Ms. Sherrod’s words before understanding their original intent and full context.

(Ombudsman’s Note: I think not naming Breitbart was a serious omission. While his may not be a “household name” to lots of people, he is very well known among the media who report information to the rest of the country and he has been at the center of other major controversies, including promoting and releasing video tapes of a staged encounter last year that essentially destroyed the community organization ACORN. Subsequent state investigations revealed that these tapes were misleadingly edited.)

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I was up at 4:50 in the morning in the Bay Area in California and was watching excellent programming, when along came a program (Need to Know), “Who is Obama?” with a cartoonist Steve Brodner. I was shocked that you were seriously interviewing a cartoonist who depicted Obama over and over again as a monkey. The questions asked were fair, and ones I myself have asked, however, the depiction of our president, or anyone, especially a person of African American descent, as a monkey, was so offensive that I turned PBS off immediately. Please do better than this. I will not watch PBS for quite some time. Fair and equitable criticism and discourse is what our democracy is about. However degrading depictions of individuals is what racism is about and to treat one such person as someone to be listened to and codified by an organization such as PBS is deplorable. The only power I have as an individual is to turn you off until you do better.

Walnut Creek, CA

‘Need to Know’ Executive Producer Shelley Lewis Responds:

I want to assure you that Mr Brodner did not depict President Obama as a monkey. Not at any time. He drew the President climbing a mountain peak, using a walking stick, and wearing a robe that looked something like a Tibetan monk. Later, camouflage colors were added to his face to depict his war policies. It’s true that Mr Brodner, as a satirical cartoonist, exaggerates features, and he, like virtually every cartoonist who draws the President, draws Mr. Obama’s ears as very prominent. Could that be what you were reacting to? I’m not sure what else I can say, except that we would never, ever, have depicted the President in such a disrespectful and racist way.

(Ombudsman’s Note: There were moments when I also found these drawings to be jarring, especially since the narration talked about evolution. It was clear this was meant in a political sense yet one can have sympathy for a viewer who found the whole thing unsettling. Here’s a link to the segment, actually called “Obama, Where Art Thou?”)

More ‘Turmoil’ Over Shultz

See my comments on:

Jack Matlock, Fayetteville, TN

(Ombudsman’s Note: Matlock, as I mentioned earlier, was the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union during the latter part of Shultz’s tenure and beyond. He was among those interviewed for the broadcast. In his comments, he is critical of my assessment. I, as they say, stand by the column as both fair and critical. When you have among the funders for a documentary The Stephen Bechtel Fund, an arm of the firm Shultz headed for some nine years and also served on its board of directors, and Charles Schwab, founder of the investment firm where Shultz also served on the board, you have “created at least the appearance of a conflict of interest” for viewers, in my view.)

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Mr. Getler, What is the point of having you as ombudsman if PBS entirely disregards your report? Shultz was a second-rate economist and compared with Dean Acheson and even James Baker a second-rate secretary of state. Three hours is indeed over the top for this Bechtel family retainer.

Michael Aronson, Boston, MA

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“Turmoil” producer David DeVries asks, “Must we fall prey to a knee jerk requirement for negative coverage to ‘keep it balanced’?” My answer is, you must at least DILIGENTLY SEARCH for all points of view on a topic, in order to be sure you’re keeping it balanced. That would include, for example, interviewing people who were targeted by the Reagan/ Shultz foreign policy, such as those in El Salvador in the 1980s who were bombed time and again by the US-funded Salvadoran government. Funded at $1 million a day during that period by our US taxes!

Barbara Larcom, Baltimore, MD

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Kudos to Michael Getler for such a thoughtful, substantive & wide-ranging analysis. I was delighted to see the calibre & care of this thinking.

Betsy Taylor, Lexington, KY

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First, thanks for addressing the issue of the Shultz show and for applying the appropriate ethical tests. Is it, however, too much to ask that the Ombudsman be gracious as well as factual? FAIR’s ideological leanings and its role in media activism are perhaps worthy of a mention. Far more important is the question of whether they were right, which you concede they were. By devoting the first paragraph after the description of the program to who you were getting complaints from, you make it seem as if that’s what matters. Which would you rather: that PBS receive criticism that it can address or that people simply stop watching and stop contributing?

Albuquerque, NM

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I believe that there are so many admirable things about George Shultz and he also benefits from looking good. He has enough goodness to shine on his own. However true this may be there is no doubt that this was an intentional hero-worship piece that should have no place on PBS. Every politician has made mistakes and these warts must be included with all the celebratory good-old-boy stuff that is being put out there which obfuscates the truth and in reality is an attempt to change history. Shame on PBS.

Edwin McCready, Los Angeles, CA

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I live in Florida. Most of my friends were young adults when Schultz was a star. We remember who he was and what he did. The people that put together the program seem to be rewriting history, from our perspective. I am wondering if PBS has become a sponsor for the GOP. Is the director that accepted this film part of the GOP? It smells bad to us. We are questioning the fitness of the people that are suppose to be the guardians of what we thought were the rules of PBS.

S. Lee Holt

Not So Average Jane

As an average Jane citizen who attempts to follow our nation’s political leaders and the policies they promote, I have been well-conditioned to expect that bad news will eventually follow the men I have otherwise thought were worthy of my respect. The navy blue dress, the baby daughter, the payoffs to silence family members of special staffers, packages of frozen money, and most recently, reports from the massage therapist —all ways that otherwise competent politicians simply fail us as leaders.

I was inspired by the first episode of the George Shultz program and impressed by this man who has actually sustained through an entire lifetime a commitment to integrity and the greater good of our country. The critics of this biography are going to have to come up with something more than “too long” or “not enough bad stuff” to diminish my appreciation for this series. I think the line is “they just don’t make them like that anymore” and I very much look forward to learning more about this admirable man in the next segments. And thanks to PBS for a producing the program. I needed it!

Des Moines, IA

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How is it that PBS often finds reason to reject the airing of items because of their backing by left wing but never hesitates to air something that is so heavily right-winged backed such as your currently airing George Schulz 3-hour special? The ability to deflect the brazen corporate right-wing influence in PBS is non-existent. As corporate influence grew from the 80’s, PBS has lost any semblance of fairness. The few examples of ‘another view’ i.e., “Now”, and Bill Moyers have been given a hard time, or just dumped. It is very sad and quite scary that the network which is supposed to be about fairness and the public good is so tied to its greatest sources of it money—the corporations such as Monsanto, the Oil industry and other bad very conservative apples. Yours with great concern about our future,

Barry De Jasu, Northampton, MA

Right Up There

Thank you for the great programs on the life of George Schultz. Truly
educational. Before seeing them, I looked to Jesus, Da Vinci, Gandhi, Einstein, and Jim Thorpe as models. Now I know, because of PBS, that they are all second rate next to St. George.

Roy Tuckman, Los Angeles, CA

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Thank you for Turmoil Over ‘Turmoil.’ I don’t find the program listed by my local PBS station. I agree with the producer’s statement: “As we sadly know, our society has become plagued with partisanship and an obsession with ‘Gotcha’ publicity.” I don’t know if I would have watched the program, but I certainly admire Mr. Schultz. I, too, am a Democrat, but that never keeps me from admiration for people who, like Mr. Schultz, are worthy of admiration. Mr. Getler, I add you to that list. This may have been the best column you have written. I read every word written by you and everyone else.

Olive Lohrengel, Buda, TX

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Good for Mr. deVries. I have never seen anything from FAIR that was fair and so have considered them an oxymoron in name and fact, not unlike CAMERA’s reaction to anything on NPR. Being a past target at a station of those who judge prior to viewing I long ago found that to discount them was the intelligent thing to do. Otherwise I would have been guilty of giving voice to their false ideology and political bias. It’s important not to be a carrier of the divisiveness that currently infects the U.S. and verges on being a plague that could destroy our democracy.

Dwight Bobson, Washington, DC

This column was originally published on on July 23, 2010.

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