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PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman's Mailbag

The Jimmy and Judy Show

On Tuesday evening, Nov. 28, former President Jimmy Carter was interviewed on "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" by special correspondent Judy Woodruff. The subject was Carter's latest book, the 21st he has authored, titled: "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid."

That's a catchy, and provocative, title and, as Woodruff said at the start of the interview, "that title has brought some sharp critiques from Americans sympathetic to Israel, and its publication comes amid both renewed tensions and some peaceful gestures between Israelis and Palestinians."

Carter, who was the Nobel Peace Laureate in 2002 and who fathered the Camp David Accords and peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1978 during his presidency, has devoted many years of his life to seeking lasting peace in the Middle East. His more contemporary views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and especially the plight of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, are more controversial among some Americans, as Woodruff pointed out, and the subject itself always draws a lot of attention to coverage by news organizations from viewers and readers.

So it was not surprising to me that this interview drew a fair amount of letters. Several of them are presented below. But what did surprise me was that so many of the letters were critical of Woodruff as the interviewer.

That was not my reaction. I thought this was both a good interview and good television. Indeed, I thought it was lively and important television, if one can say that about two talking heads; the kind of interview-driven discussion about this very important subject that one doesn't hear very often on American television, especially involving such a prominent American spokesperson as the former president.

President Carter can hold his own in any discussion of this subject, and he did. I thought what Woodruff succeeded in doing was asking good, challenging questions that elicited focused responses by Carter that went to the core of what he sees as the problem, namely failure of Israel to withdraw from occupied territories. She also, in her questions, worked in recent news developments, which is certainly fair, and some general perceptions in this country about some of the broader issues. That technique, on one hand, might be seen by some as challenging the notions Carter was driving at, or appearing uninformed that some of these perceptions may be wrong. Yet, some of those perceptions about what is happening in the conflict are widespread here and, in fact, are not often challenged in the American media, or at least analyzed with the experience and viewpoint that Carter brings to them. I thought Woodruff's questioning, whether intentionally or not, brought those points out in Carter's responses. In other words, some of the questions enabled Carter to make his points more emphatically and tellingly about what details Americans may, or may not, be informed about, and I thought that was a plus for viewers.

I didn't think Woodruff's questioning was condescending or disrespectful or partisan or any of the things that several viewers said they saw. I saw it as fair and with a degree of proper challenge that, as a viewer and a journalist, I'd vote for more of in more NewsHour interviews.

You can judge for yourself by clicking on the link in the second paragraph of this column, which will take you to a transcript of the interview. Meanwhile . . .

Here Are the Letters

President Jimmy Carter has been brave enough to speak out about the suffering of the Palestinian people. I felt that the interviewer 11/28/06 on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer was condescending to one of our country's most honored and honest citizens.

Betsy Gardner, So. Burlington, VT

It is regrettable that no one was present to challenge the truth of the remarks by President Carter re the Palestinian positions. I have read in more than one source that Hamas and other Palestinian spokesmen have clearly stated that they would never recognize the State of Israel and one 'moderate', now deceased, stated loud and clear that the objective was to claim all the land between the river and the sea.

Your guest, on his book tour, didn't even mention that the barrier had been built in response to terrorist acts, that there has been a marked reduction in suicide murders since its erection. Nor did he mention that the large number of Palestinian prisoners have blood on their hands, that the Palestinians have publicly stated their intention to eliminate Israel.

Abraham Walfish, New Rochelle, NY

I listened to Pres. Jimmy Carter on the NewsHour tonight. I was in total amazement in how brave this man was to tell the story that you (and all the U.S. press) are afraid to tell. It was a pivotal moment in television. The portion of the program that was not pivotal was the ignorance shown by host Judy Woodruff to the reality of the Israel/Palestinian situation. Judy acted surprised to hear that there ARE 9,300 Palestinian prisoners (some women and children) held by Israel. She was surprised that there has been NO American initiated talks to end the civil war for 6 yrs. I was dumbfounded. But please, to Judy Woodruff's credit, she has the company of all of the American journalists when I said she was ignorant (of the issues).

George Brousard, Hayward, WI

My husband and I just finished watching the interview with Jimmy Carter on "The NewsHour." It is quite obvious that Carter chooses to ignore facts and history in order to present his case. As an example of his distortions and half-truths, he spoke about the wall at Gaza which humiliates the Palestinians but he neglected to mention the suicide attacks which prompted the building of the wall. Also, Israel was ready to implement the Oslo accords when the Palestinians started the 2nd intifada. It is very disappointing that your reporter did not have the integrity or the knowledge to put his statements in their proper context.

Flushing, NY

The woman who interviewed him introduced him as former President Jimmy Carter; then, throughout and at the end of the interview she addressed him as President Carter. This is incorrect since he is not the President. I notice this is done by news reporters when Bill Clinton is introduced or interviewed, as well. Correct and proper addressing is good journalism; it is accurate.

Judy Novotny, Roseville, MN

(Ombudsman's note: It is proper to address all former presidents as president.)

More on Judy Rather Than Jimmy

I was very distressed by the manner in which Judy Woodruff addressed her questions to former President Jimmy Carter on the NewsHour yesterday evening. Her attitude was overbearing, condescending and far too editorial in its character. By this I mean it was obvious she was opposed to what President Carter was saying about the United States and the Palestinians and made no effort to hide it. It was an unpleasant interview and a shame because what President Carter was saying was so important and so little said in the mainstream media. It was irritating to have to listen to Ms. Woodruff's aggression in the face of President Carter's calm and informed comments. A poor choice of an interviewer.

Joan Banach, New York, NY

Judy Woodruff sounds as if she is working for Fox News. She passes critical comments against the Democrats in her questions of her guests. They just slip in. I am now watching her interview President Carter and she is not respecting what is being said, but takes the other side in a very aggressive way. She is not interviewing him, but debating him on all points, and is very biased.

Houston, TX

Ms. Woodruff was disrespectful, obnoxious and arrogant and did not contribute to learning more about the issues. President Carter is a respected peacemaker worldwide. He was constantly interrupted while trying to present important but unknown facts about the crisis in the Middle East.

Gold Canyon, AR

I have been a long time viewer of the NewsHour. However, recently I've sometimes switched to Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Tonight cemented my choice. After the NewsHour's interview with Marjorie Miller of the Los Angeles Times and then the later interview of President Carter I felt insulted by the apparent disrespect shown for their opinions. This is NOT the balanced news I expect from Public Broadcasting. You've lost me as a viewer.

Darlyne Burns, Haiku, HI

Judy Woodruff really disappointed us tonite! In her interview with Jimmy Carter, she effectively set herself apart from the NewsHour's regulars and from the program's high standards of objectivity. How sad!

Judy finished her interview with Carter with a flourish by stating that Carter's views were "very passionate." The irony is that from the get-go, Judy was tingling with emotion and vehemently partisan in her questioning. Carter, on the other hand, was straightforward, deliberate, and thorough in his answers. He didn't get excited and bounce forward or tap his pencil hard in the way that Judy did. Certainly, he was committed to his topic and strongly behind the facts that he presented — but the word "passionate" better describes Judy's demeanor than Carter's!

If the NewsHour has a problem with Carter's "facts," then how about an interchange between him and some other reputed expert, with an IMPARTIAL NewsHour moderator! Then we could hear both sides of what could be a very important controversy — in a dispassionate way.

Nancy & Ed Weiss, Batavia, IL

Re Judy Woodruff's interview with Pres. Carter: I was astounded by the obvious bias of Ms. Woodruff in this interview. I could understand if it were Fox — but PBS?? Evidently PBS is now an outlet for AIPAC-fair and balanced? Well my only vote is to not renew my PBS membership. Adios.

Denis Langhans, Olympia, WA

A Changed View of Carter

I was appalled by today's interview with ex-President J. Carter concerning his most recent book on Israel and the Palestinians. I used to think he was an honest and impartial person, but I think so no longer. He is (hopefully) not an imbecile, but if so how can he argue (and forcefully) about the imbalance between "one abducted Israeli soldier versus the thousands of Palestinian prisoners?" The clear implication is that Israel holds Palestinian prisoners for no reason except meanness, not because these prisoners have committed transgressions of the law (terrorist or other). Moreover, Israel is so evil it holds (doubtless totally pure, innocent) Palestinian children as prisoners, just out of "evilness." (Ombudsman's note: There is no expression of evil or "evilness" in Carter's comments.) There were other such "inaccuracies" and if need be we can obtain the transcript and rebut them. Surely one thing one cannot accuse Israel of is stupidity, and what motivation can there be for one holding imprisoned innocent people?

One other argument which Mr. J.C. made was that firing rockets or suicide bombers was the only defense the Palestinians had. This argument is immoral in addition to being dishonest: the intent of these acts is not to protest but to kill innocent people. By no means is that equal to Palestinians losing their lives because of unintentional mistakes.

Sir, I ask that you have a balanced presentation in the near future on this very subject (Mr. J.C.'s book) to undo the harm you have done to the truth.

As the Mr. J.C.'s explanations that by using the term apartheid in the title he did not mean to compare Israel to South Africa, since apartheid means other things than apartheid as we all know it (I forget the etymology and Mr. J.C.'s sophisticated interpretations) all I can say is: if we had a Polygraph on line at the time, it would have probably have exploded (or died of laughter). Mr. J.C. has an axe to grind — and he does so in a biased and dishonest way. Is he at the pay of the Arabs (if not personally then via his Library or his "good works")? I have no such knowledge, but then again how would I? I ask again that you have a rebuttal session — it is unprofessional to bring on one person which proceeds to butcher a cause with no opportunity to answer that person's lies (direct or by implication).

P.S. I've been watching PBS since I was a graduate student in Boston almost half a century ago. This is the first letter I have ever addressed you . . . too bad it is a letter of anger, sorrow and (to some extent) disgust.

Raymond Naar, Delmar, NY

I heard President Jimmy Carter last night and nearly jumped for joy. Finally someone is having the "guts" to speak the truth. At first I was angry with Judy Woodruff's reaction of almost distain and not seeming to believe what he was saying. Then I realized that she is no different than most people who only hear what we are told by the "powers that be" about this situation. When you see pictures of the "wealth" of Tel Aviv, and the conditions that the Palestinians are living under, you have to ask, what did Israel do to help build the economy and well being of the people they "occupied" for years? How about some "sympathy" for all involved. And Judy, please, inform yourself more about the world of "reality."

S. Nelson, G., WI

I am writing to complain about the Judy Woodruff interview with President Jimmy Carter. I find Woodruff strident and biased always, but she hit her stride tonight. She was disrespectful and rude and tried her best to diminish President Carter's balanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In summing up his comments she tried to make it seem as if he was a dithering old man with passionate feelings. My household agrees with President Carter and we have great respect for his humanity. I have none for Judy Woodruff and I wish fervently that you would leave her to Fox News, where she belongs.

Judy North, San Geronimo, CA

A Revealing Exchange

I'm grateful for the Internet service that provides text from your television interviews. Last night I watched Judy Woodruff interview Jimmy Carter about his new book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." The most alarming piece of the exchange was Woodruff's response to Carter's statements on Hamas:

JIMMY CARTER: And as a matter of fact, Hamas, whom everyone criticizes — the fact is that Hamas, since August of 2004, has not committed a single act of terrorism that cost an Israeli life, not a single one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I think many Americans would be surprised to hear that.

Why would Americans be surprised to hear what Carter has to say about Hamas? Don't Americans watch the news? Who brings us the news? YOU DO.

If Carter makes such a crisp statement only to be questioned by a journalist, it makes me wonder just how much I can trust the news that comes through PBS. Did Woodruff believe Carter was lying? Or did she know only the party line, that Hamas is evil? Is Public Broadcasting losing its way because of money? The ADM ads are enough to turn my stomach. But ads allow PBS to continue, so we ignore the p.r. spin as best we can. But we cannot ignore sloppy news reporting. The Lehrer Report must work hard to bring us the news that is not part of the official White House view, it must question the common view, and if it doesn't believe a former president because he espouses views from a different angle, we are in big trouble.

Sharon E. Streeter, Portland, OR

Judy Woodruff's Israeli bias, whether real or not, was palpable last night when she interviewed President Carter. What's going on? I know her better than that! Is the East Coast Israeli donor establishment that powerful that PBS cannot be balanced in its news reporting? She asked the same question three times to the point that I shouted back at the TV set: "He has already answered the question." I don't normally do that and maybe never to the NewsHour staff.

Kenneth Jones, Eugene, OR

Was anyone embarrassed by Judy Woodruff's lack of preparation for her interview with former president Carter? Ms. Woodruff asked about the day's news story of an Israeli offer of talks. Mr. Carter had to remind her that The NY Times had dismissed the gesture as non-substantive. Ms. Woodruff ploughed on, asking two more questions about the Israeli offer. Think about it: the former president's book is about six years of American neglect of the Palestinian situation, and Ms. Woodruff stayed stuck on the morning's headlines. Well, not quite; but it got worse. When Ms. Woodruff listed Palestinian abuses, including the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, the former president responded that some of 9,200 Palestinians, almost three hundred of who are children, currently languish in Israeli jails without charges, and that Hamas offered to swap prisoners immediately after the abduction. Ms. Woodruff looked confused. Why? Did she read the book? Did she do her homework?

(Ombudsman's note: She did read the book and prepared for the interview over two weeks, according to the producers.)

Finally, after the former president recounted the rejection by Israel and the US of the democratically elected Hamas government, Ms. Woodruff offered, "Many Americans would be surprised" (at these facts). I thought it was Ms. Woodruff's job (and indeed The NewsHour's task) to inform Americans of such facts. The reporter's job is to enlighten, not be uninformed.

Ms. Woodruff is no neophyte, and I thought hers was a poor performance by a seasoned reporter. It was as though she did the interview "cold," unaware of the contents of the former president's book, and that he apparently has decided to become a lightning rod for this critical Israeli/Palestinian issue. Poor preparation by a reporter ill serves your viewers.

Bill Duncan, Woodburne, NY

After hearing Jimmy Carter's review of his book, we felt it was decidedly pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli and was hardly an unbiased point of view. As PBS usually does, it offers varying points of view on an issue. We therefore would expect someone such as (Alan) Dershowitz or of his ilk to present the Israeli point of view. P.S. We are regular viewers of this program which we feel offers us the best news available on TV.

Woodbridge, CT

It was really shocking that on yesterday's Lehrer news show that Judy Woodruff was so hostile and patronizing toward President Carter. It is not her role to channel the Israeli Government. And if she is so ignorant of the Palestine/Israeli conflict as she appeared to be, she should not have been assigned that interview. President Carter was gracious but the interview was an embarrassment.

Larry W. Bowman, Storrs, CT

Pres. Jimmy Carter says that apartheid is not apartheid as every one acknowledges it is . . . he is a sly old fox and will do anything to sell his book. Why won't he discuss the US occcupation of half of Okinawa 60 years after the war?

Edde Neidich, Rancho Cucamonga, CA

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