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Saturday, July 12, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

"Here, In Silence, Are Eight More."

There was a slight, but noteworthy, change in the nightly NewsHour with Jim Lehrer last Wednesday night, Jan 4. The change relates to the recording of American military deaths in the war in Afghanistan, and it unfolded in two parts at the end of the program.

First, Lehrer introduced a final segment to that day's broadcast called, "Meanwhile, in Afghanistan." He said that "much attention on this program and elsewhere has been given to the American military personnel who have died in Iraq, but not so much to those in Afghanistan." He then went on to introduce what he called "our catch-up on those deaths," a detailed updating by correspondent Jeffrey Brown on the 191 servicemen and women who the Defense Department said had been killed in the Afghanistan theater of operations at that point (seven more died outside the country but as a result of action in Afghanistan) since the U.S. invaded that country in October 2001. Then Lehrer came back on and announced that "for the record," the program, from now on, would "include Afghanistan deaths in our closing Honor Roll," which previously had been limited to the war in Iraq.

As a dedicated NewsHour watcher for many years, and speaking only for myself, that closing Honor Roll introduced by Lehrer — in which individual photographs of those killed in Iraq are shown as the names and photos become available, along with their rank, age and hometown — provides the most powerful few moments anywhere on television. It is on, unfortunately, most weekday evenings. The segment and photographs are delivered in silence. There is nothing to interfere with any viewer's thoughts. I find it riveting. Also on a very personal level, I frequently find myself wondering what thoughts go through the mind of Lehrer, who also served in the Marines as a young man.

In the eight weeks or so that I have been in this new job, and before The NewsHour decided to change its policy, I received only a handful of complaints about the omission of the Afghanistan deaths from the Honor Roll. But they were all interesting and go to a touchy point that I'll come to in a moment.

In the aftermath of the change, I also got a rather small number of comments, but they were all pleased to see the expansion of the segment to include those U.S. fatalities in Afghanistan. The NewsHour's Executive Producer, Linda Winslow, reports receiving more than a dozen responses thus far, all but two of them positive. One, from an Army Lt. Col. in Afghanistan, she reported, said he and his men "stood still and were grateful" as the piece aired on Jan. 4.

A couple of those viewers who wrote to me earlier to complain claimed that they had written to their local stations, and to PBS, a while back to ask why the Afghan fatalities have not been included in the Honor Roll and had not received an answer. I passed these along to Winslow, who is also new in her job (since November), and she did respond to these viewers, expressing regret that the casualties had not been included earlier and letting them know that an updated news report on the U.S. military toll in Afghanistan, and an expansion of the Honor Roll, was forthcoming.

The touchy part of this development is contained in letters to me from two viewers, one in Austin, Texas, the other in Glen Ellyn, Ill., that were sent before the change in NewsHour policy was announced. The Austin writer notes that "Iraq is not as popular a war as Afghanistan" and asks, "Are the show's producers making a political statement reflecting a bias between good and bad wars and, if so, why is that tolerated?" The other writer says this: "In my view, only publicizing the military deaths in Iraq and not those in Afghanistan is not balanced coverage. It leaves me with the feeling that PBS is against the war in Iraq but not the war in Afghanistan. I'm very proud of our military in Iraq but I'm very much against the war. However, I don't want PBS to make itself a target for those that believe PBS is not fair in its programming."

The reason I think these are important letters is because they go to the heart of journalistic decision-making that is not often discussed with viewers or explained to them. Sometimes the answer may be that it wasn't even discussed much internally when the decision was made. What makes it even more interesting is that the subject is the death of young Americans in two wars that are, indeed, differently perceived by large numbers of Americans at home.

The war in Afghanistan was an immediate response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. There was overwhelming support for a military effort to get bin Laden and oust the Taliban government that supported him. The invasion of Iraq in March 2003, was very different. There was more resistance, more debate, more doubt about attacking a country that had not attacked us. And that has only grown in the aftermath as it became clear that the principle reasons laid out for the public for going to war, and the forecasts for its aftermath, turned out not to be the case. The writer from Austin says, "Both are wars on terrorism." That may be the case now, but many critics argue that Iraq has become a place for terrorism because of the invasion.


"To honor . . . Period."

So what goes through the mind of producers? Here's what NewsHour producer Winslow said in response to my questions and viewer observations about this.

"The NewsHour's Honor Roll began airing on March 31, 2003, 11 days after the war with Iraq began. Our intention then, as it has been all along, was to honor the men and women who died fighting a war on behalf of the United States. Period. There was no political statement behind that decision. Jim Lehrer came up with the idea of identifying them silently as a way to make the Honor Roll as neutral as possible."

She said that "when the President declared major combat operations in Iraq over, on May 1, 2003, we stopped reporting the war dead. However, after about six weeks, it was clear to us that American service personnel were still being killed in a war zone . . . and we resumed the Honor Roll. Jim Lehrer announced that we were doing so on June 23, 2003, with these words: 'and now . . . we resume our honor roll of American service personnel killed in Iraq. We discontinued it when major hostilities ended in Iraq. But since then, 56 American troops have died there, in accidents as well as fire fights. As before, we'll use the official Defense Department list of fatalities and photographs as they become available. Here, in silence, is the first group of 33.'

"When the war with Afghanistan began," Winslow said, "we reported the casualties as they occurred, in our news summary. We continue to do that to this day. But the idea of an Honor Roll did not occur to us until the Iraq War began, and we did not connect the two campaigns. In retrospect, perhaps we should have, but the fact is, we did not.

"About a year ago, we discussed whether we should be including Afghan war dead in our Honor Roll. Jim Lehrer thought we should, for the same reason that he urged us to restart the Iraq Honor Roll: American troops were being killed in a war zone. He asked the senior staff to figure out a way to cover what was happening in Afghanistan and explain to the audience why we were adding Afghanistan war dead to the list. Frankly, we dropped the ball on that. It was a tough assignment, each of us thought the other was worrying about it, and nothing got done."

More recently, she explained, Lehrer decided that the Honor Roll absolutely had to include the people killed in Afghanistan. "He outlined the information he wanted to include in an overview piece, and the staff spent a week trying to get precise answers from the Defense Department, and devise a way to present the statistics effectively and neutrally. We tried very hard to make the piece be about the men and women who died — not a rehashing of the war in Afghanistan.

"I want to make one point very clear," Winslow added. "Honoring the men and women who died fighting for their country is not a political statement. And including those who are dying in Afghanistan is an overdue acknowledgment of their sacrifice."

So what do I think?

First, I think The NewsHour did the right thing. Second, I thank Winslow for her direct responses to viewer letters on this issue and for her expanded and candid explanation to me, and hence to viewers and online readers, about how this evolved.

Here are some further thoughts that go through my head as a journalist.

There is no question that the death of a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine in Afghanistan is every bit as important, worth memorializing and remembering as one in Iraq. The war in Iraq, however, is very controversial. The one in Afghanistan is not. The war in Iraq is fought by a large army of roughly 150,000 U.S. troops (about 19,000 are in Afghanistan) and the casualties are more than 10 times those in Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan is, indeed, a war on terror. The one in Iraq has become one but was much more a war of choice at the outset in the view of many people, and, in hindsight, an increasingly divisive choice, according to the opinion polls. So, I ask myself, does inclusion of the Afghan toll with the Iraq toll add to the linkage in the public's mind that the administration makes in presenting these as two battlefronts in the same war on terror?

Whatever the answer to that question may be, there is no doubt that all the deaths are equal in their loss and all those lost lives were equal in responding to what their government and country asked them to do in either place. So, The NewsHour, in my view, took a good, although belated, step in expanding its Honor Roll. I would take it one step further and add a line to the visual display that shows where each military person was killed. That way, in silence, viewers can still have their own uninterrupted thoughts. But they would be even better informed, and the service personnel from both theaters would be equally honored and mourned in those thoughts.


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