PBS Skips Sheen Antics for Abuse in Guatemala, Swipe Fees: TV

NewsHour correspondents Ray Suarez, Gwen Ifill, Jim Lehrer, Judy Woodruff, Margaret Warner and Jeffrey Brown. NewsHour airs weeknights on PBS. Photographer: Robert Severi/PBS via Bloomberg

“PBS NewsHour” didn’t inform its viewers this week that Charlie Sheen labeled his former “Two and a Half Men” co-star Jon Cryer a troll. The newscast did, however, devote 10 minutes -- the airtime equivalent of several dog years -- to a discussion of swipe fees.

If you’re thinking “I’ll take Charlie, thanks,” my response on some days might be “Me, too.” But swipe fees -- the 44 cents invisibly tacked on to each of our debit-card transactions --will add up to almost $20 billion this year. “NewsHour” thought we should know.

PBS, like its radio equivalent NPR, is once again under attack from conservatives in Congress. House Republicans recently passed a bill cutting all funding for public broadcasting, while President Barack Obama has proposed a $6 million increase to $451 million in his 2012 budget. The Senate likely will land somewhere in between.

But at an annual cost to each taxpayer of about $1.35, money isn’t the big issue here. Both PBS and NPR have reputations as bastions of urbane, smart liberality, cemented in place by classical music, British costume dramas and the occasional ginned-up political scandal.

Not everyone is a fan, though. This week, NPR’s chief executive resigned after the organization’s top fundraiser blasted Tea Party followers in a secretly recorded video. It was the second major embarrassment for NPR in the past five months, following the firing of news analyst Juan Williams for remarks he made about Muslims on Fox News.

Big Bird

Even PBS’s highly regarded kids’ series aren’t immune from attack. Big Bird and Elmo, foes claim, are money-making characters that would survive just fine without the public housing of “Sesame Street.” But a quick surf through the brainless, commercial-laden landscape of most children’s programming suggests just how unfriendly the terrain can be for such gentle creatures. Nickelodeon’s Samurai Power Rangers would eat them alive.

As for charges of liberal partisanship (and as a TV critic, I’ll limit my comments to PBS), you’ll look in vain for anything approaching the one-sided name-calling permeating even the tamer of today’s cable news shoutcasts.

“NewsHour,” PBS’s take-your-medicine presentation of the day’s events, is level-headed and no-nonsense, just the sort of old-school approach to news so many viewers claim to want. Fun, “NewsHour” isn’t.

Abused Women

But it’s as close to indispensable as any one TV newscast can be in the Internet era. The deliberately paced, hourlong format, free of commercial interruptions, is long enough to include all of the day’s must-cover headlines as well as more in-depth segments that demand and reward full attention.

“NewsHour” headline reports this week on the political turmoil in Libya were not dissimilar to coverage on the broadcast networks. But deeper into the program, on Monday and Tuesday, “NewsHour” marked International Women’s Day with lengthy reports by correspondent Ray Suarez about gang violence against women and girls in Guatemala. It was thoroughly reported, important and very grim stuff.

On Monday night, ABC’s “World News with Diane Sawyer” also included a segment on women’s health: treating menopausal hot flashes with acupuncture.

Obviously I’m cherry-picking, but in the commercial marketplace of TV news, the drive for attractive demographics and big ratings leaves no room for expansive reports on subjects like swipe fees and misogyny in Guatemala. Even in tough economic times, that’s an argument worth remembering.

‘Triangle Fire’

Outside of the “NewsHour” domain, PBS’s prime-time schedule this week included two terrific documentaries: “Troubadours” about the singer-songwriter movement in Los Angeles in the early 1970s; and “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story,” an unnerving chronicle of the murder trial and conviction of a 16-year-old prostitute.

Even better was “Triangle Fire,” about the shirtwaist factory blaze of 1911, an engrossing example of the historical documentaries PBS does better, or at least more consistently fine, than any TV channel.

Later this month, HBO will air “Triangle: Remembering the Fire.” Available to subscribers only, of course.

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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