The mailbag: Why is there such a stunning diversity?

The quote above is from the opening line of an episode of NOVA, the popular and long-running science series on PBS. The complete quote asks about the diversity of life and leads in to a NOVA program called “What Darwin Never Knew,” which deals with “how extraordinary science is answering” the question of how evolution works in the stunning array of life’s species.

I use it as an introduction to this mailbag only because the phrase seems also to illustrate the never ending and surprising array of new observations that viewers contribute to the ombudsman’s inbox every week.

For example, a viewer wrote to ask why her local member-station aired the NOVA program on Darwin during prime time on Christmas evening. The viewer said she didn’t object to the program but felt it was an inappropriate time to air it. This is actually an older program, first aired nationally by PBS after Christmas in 2009, and then repeated nationally this year before Christmas on Dec. 21 and, apparently, again in some regions on Christmas Day. So the local station was able to tell the viewer that the scheduling was not done locally. There is a fuller, official PBS explanation at the end of this posting.

Then on New Year’s Eve, PBS broadcast, as part of its “Live From Lincoln Center” in New York series, a spectacular concert by the New York Philharmonic performing the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. This music is so beautiful to my layman’s ears that it brings tears to my ombudsman’s eyes.

But the choice, once again, of the versatile and controversial actor Alec Baldwin to host these concerts and conduct interviews of the performers brought other thoughts and emotions to the eyes and ears of some viewers. I must say that I, too, had an instinctive reaction as I watched that Baldwin’s presence, especially because of one of his more recent public scrapes, would distract from the performance.

A sampling of those letters is posted below, along with others raising questions about all the Republican political coverage during this campaign season overwhelming any balanced presentation of political news these days.

NBR Has Holiday Specials, Too

And, finally, producers at the long-running Nightly Business Report — which recently came under new management and has also switched back to its original distributor, American Public Television, after five years or so with PBS — explain that they also use financial market holidays to present some special programs.

Despite its new distribution arrangement, NBR is still broadcast on 273 PBS-member stations, about 78 percent of the total. So I still get mail about it and a couple of viewers reacted very critically to a “special episode” of NBR on “Women in Leadership” that aired on Jan. 2 and in which, according to the program’s Facebook entry, “we profile Pamela Newman, who heads up Newman team at Aon, the global insurance giant. Aon is one of the biggest players in the insurance business and Pamela is one of its biggest stars.”

I got only two critical letters from viewers but I felt their pain, added some observations of my own, and wrote to Tom Hudson, NBR’s co-anchor and managing editor, and presenter of the special on Newman. He, in turn, responded vigorously to the complaints, including mine.

My message and his response are posted below. Here is the video of the 25-minute special so readers of this column can judge for themselves.

About the NBR ‘Special’

Here are two brief emails about the program. The first is from James Stragand in Honolulu who said: “Tuned in to watch some news on the Nightly Business Report. Instead I got a 30 min promo on Pamela Newman. I did not donate for this BS.” And a viewer in Wayne, Penn., said: “As a long term supporter of WHYY, I was very disturbed to watch Nightly Business and Tom Hudson tonight (1/2/12) and Pam ? Totally Bad! What are you doing??? I recently wrote a check for $250 to WHYY. If you continue with Tom Hudson, I am beginning to think you are in trouble, which means we are all in trouble.”

I wrote to Hudson about these comments and added: “I must say that I was amazed and puzzled by it [the program] as well. It was like she wrote the script. Not a single challenging question, observation, criticism, controversy or really substantive insight into anything except how great she is. I have no quarrel with Newman or her success, but this came across as hagiography. Personally, I felt it was embarrassing for NBR, but maybe I’m missing something.”

Here’s Hudson’s Response:

“Thanks for the opportunity to respond. Our special on Ms. Newman was no more ‘a 30-minute promo’ than our upcoming special on the president of Harvard University (look for it Monday, January 16, 2012) or previous special programs featuring the work of young entrepreneurs. NBR takes our responsibility very seriously and we use market holidays to present a variety of information and insight, including focusing on women leaders, their successes and strategies for achieving those goals.

“In regards to your accusation of ‘not a single challenging question, observation, criticism, controversy or really substantive insight into anything except how great she is’ I respectfully disagree. We spotlighted her response to 9/11, the attributes she used building her career and her approach to charity. While some may think that hagiographical, we offered it as examples of achieving success in these trying economic times. We believe Ms. Newman’s doggedness in what had been a male-dominated industry, positive attitude and team spirit are useful lessons. For the record, Ms. Newman played no role in writing the script, nor did she participate in any editorial decision.”

On Baldwin and Bernstein

I watch PBS and listen to NPR regularly and consider these to be my most important sources of TV and radio news and entertainment. I request that you think how best to include Alec Baldwin with PBS/NPR productions. I consider him one of the poorer examples of well-meaning Hollywood stars due to his personality in general and specifically the examples he’s shown with his daughter and most recently when flying on a public plane. What is most troublesome is his inability to admit mistake or poor behavior. Because of this I find it difficult to watch live from Lincoln center on NYE even though this is my preferred program tonight. I vaguely remember that he was the host a year ago which was also a big turn-off and think he had shown poor behavior with a photographer around this same time. I don’t mean to overstress this as an issue but do believe it has some negative impact on the reputation of PBS and NPR and also the fund raising. I hope PBS and NPR can separate itself somewhat from the weaker representatives of Hollywood and New York. Thank you.

San Francisco, CA

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Really PBS? I tuned in to watch Live at the Lincoln Center for New Year’s Eve celebration and you have a controversial, hate-filled sociopath like Alec Baldwin hosting? Not a good argument to continue funding. Needless to say I turned the channel but I don’t want my tax dollars going this way. Of all the people you could have picked who have some class?? Jeez!

Dale Liston, Kansas City, KS


Problem: Providing ‘Balanced’ Coverage During a Republican Free-for-All

I believe the PBS Republican coverage has been one-sided and basically a huge free campaign ad. I am sick of hearing on PBS what is called coverage, which is really just free advertising, including the interviews of fringe candidates and their spokespeople. Where is the equal time for Democrats? These are political ads and as such the Dems should garner equal time. What has been going on for months and continues under the guise of covering a Presidential election, has been spouting the Republican agenda day in and day out and ignoring the real issues facing the country every day. Again, how about equal time to Democrats. PBS is losing me due to this one-sided approach. This is not news coverage. It is a long- winded Republican campaign ad and the media is falling for it. These are elements of the fringe, and PBS calls it news. Wise up PBS, the majority does not wish to listen to these fringe wackoes and especially when called news, PBS loses credibility. Way too much air time has been devoted to this. PBS is being duped. This is the Republican agenda, to keep their message on the air and PBS does their bidding. I won’t support it, and many others are wise to it also.

Gordon Nadel, Eugene, OR

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Is it me or does anyone else remember the mainstream media, including PBS, getting so busy with trying to help a party out of power to regain the White House. The onslaught of bald face kiss ass for the Republican Party’s every move is astonishing. Every utterance from each of their clown-faced idiots is treated with David Brooks-like deference. We now have a 12 month non-media “hiatus” in which they caress each of the Republican candidates in turn in hopes of nurturing them to confront Obama. “Encourage the Horserace Spectacle.”

Tim Ryan, San Jose, CA

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The incessant and lengthy coverage given to the Iowa caucuses by NewsHour has finally annoyed me to the point of writing to you. There is simply no need for the endless, in-depth presentations and discussions to which your viewers have been subjected; especially since there appears to be no action among Democrats in Iowa. The other night we saw I believe six “representative” Iowans discuss their political philosophies. I suppose these people were chosen as a cross-section of voters. But did they represent those who will actually vote in the caucuses? Information from other sources leads me to believe that caucus-goers will be overwhelmingly white, old and affluent. But, no doubt, we will be allowed to watch endless dissections of the voting so perhaps we will be told about the demographics. Iowa is behind us for another four years but New Hampshire, South Carolina etc. ad nauseam are to follow. PLEASE restrict the reporting on primaries to the “other news” segment. Until the conventions and the campaign, I can think of little that is worth the time spent on primary voting thus far.

Robert B. Macartney, Los Gatos, CA


PBS Explains Darwin on Christmas

Sunday afternoons on PBS’ 24/7 secondary feed is scheduled with repeats from within the week, and this past Christmas day followed that same pattern. The NOVA “What Darwin Never Knew” fit in the usual NOVA repeat slot on early Sunday evenings on this channel, following a primetime airing the preceding Wednesday. “What Darwin Never Knew” first aired in 2009, which marked the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his influential book The Origin of Species. The original debut of the episode took place towards the end of the calendar year, which is how it ended up airing in late December as a repeated program.

The NOVA episode appeared on the west-coast-oriented PBS feed. PBS’ primary feed for eastern/central stations at this time on Christmas day featured NATURE “Christmas in Yellowstone” and episode three from the first season of “Downton Abbey.” A slate of children’s programming and concerts were also provided to stations throughout the day to offer additional programming options for the holiday.

PBS remains committed to advancing the highest standard in national programming and strives to be sensitive to all of our viewers when preparing content for broadcast. Please assure your member that PBS programming is discussing this viewer’s concerns and will take them into account as we make future scheduling decisions.

This column was originally published on on Jan. 5, 2012.

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