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Sunday, April 20, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

Be More, um, Aggressive?

That little black-and-white PBS logo that you see on your TV screen — the one with the three facial silhouettes — is accompanied by the PBS motto, which is "Be more." The idea, if you read the fine print, is that watching PBS can help you "be more" of any, or all, of the following attributes: "informed, involved, inspired, passionate, creative, independent, connected, tolerant, original."

Since the logo and text have always reminded me of New Year's resolutions, I thought this would be a good time to offer one, unsolicited, to PBS, and that would be: Be more aggressive. I don't mean aggressive as in hostile or combative, but rather as in energetic and enterprising.

This is not a typical ombudsman's column and this proposed resolution of mine for PBS is not accompanied with any specific ideas. Rather it is to express a sense that we are at a troubling time in our history and that journalists and producers of news and public affairs programs who have access to the nation's airwaves need to ratchet up their determination to challenge, to explore and to cut through spin. And, it seems to me, that public television and its 350 independent but affiliated stations may be able to play a special role, both in making lots of voices, including new ones, heard and in stirring some sort of national dialogue about these troubles, broadcast soon and in real time.

At the heart of this troubling time, and proposal, is, of course, Iraq. No matter what your politics, we are in one heck of a mess. There is no end in sight to this conflict and no seemingly good way out of it. Soon, there will be official proposals for a new strategy; presumably, according to news reports, with more troops and more money. The administration will get plenty of print and on-air time to lay out its case.

Not a Good Record

Sadly, however, it is hard to argue with critics who say there is no real reason to believe, or have confidence in, whatever the administration says because so much of what it said before the war and for a long time after it started, turned out not to be the case. The human, military, financial, reputational and homeland security aspects of having started this war are huge and will probably be with us for many, many years to come. Perhaps there is a way to end it that will benefit from a more open process than the one that started it.

The press did not do a good job before this war started and it needs to do a better job if the country is going to find a way out or ahead. It may be that adding troops, as the president is expected to do, will turn out to be the right thing, or it may not. History may yet vindicate President Bush's decisions, or it may not. But all future steps should be vigorously explored in public by an independent press in a way that goes well beyond a Democrat saying this and a Republican saying that on a talk show, or the panel discussions of predictable on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand specialists. The failures, misstatements and miscalculations of the past should be a lesson that more and better reporting is necessary for whatever future course is ultimately settled upon.

There are now more than 3,000 American military deaths and more than 22,000 wounded. About half of those wounded return to duty but many thousands are amputees or wounded in ways serious enough to alter their lives forever. At least 52,000 to 58,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed, and that number may turn out to be a considerable understatement if the real number is closer to the 150,000 estimated by the Minister of Health last year, or if some even higher but more controversial estimates turn out to be correct.

The United Nations estimates that 1.8 million Iraqis have fled the country and another 1.6 million are displaced within Iraq. The $400 billion cost of the war has been contained mostly in emergency supplemental appropriations, a technique that diminishes the impact in the headlines. Another big supplemental is coming soon. The Iraq Study Group said estimates of the final cost of the U.S. involvement in Iraq "run as high as $2 trillion," including caring for veterans and replacing huge amounts of lost or damaged equipment. Congressional oversight of all of this has been an oxymoron. Incompetence and corruption in contracting is reported regularly in the newspapers but nobody seems to care much. The Army and Marines, and their equipment, are badly strained, and the situation in Afghanistan, as well, now seems to be getting worse rather than better.

Good Times and Bad Times

But the economy seems in pretty good shape. The stock market is up. Bonuses are stratospheric on Wall Street. Unemployment is low. Taxes have decreased. The fighting and dying is done by a volunteer military. Nobody sees the caskets coming home, or much of the direct violence. Officials who took part in laying out the case for war are honored or rewarded. We all go about our business. But there is no doubt that a large part of the population stews, rather quietly, so far.

The press's problems before the invasion are pretty well known. There were some stories that actually strengthened the case for war. There was, with some notable exceptions, a general failure to challenge, with sufficient dedication, the case for war that was presented with such certainty by the administration. And there was a general failure, again with some exceptions, to present — with prominence — the case against an invasion. Since the war began, the press, in my view, has done a much better job, especially as it has become clear that administration pre-war assertions were not correct.

By any calculation, this is a perilous time and my sense is that PBS, as a unique, non-commercial, non-corporate outlet for the public, can and should find a way to play a more important role in stirring real national debate — beyond politicians who don't have fresh ideas or much to say — and in helping viewers gather a more complete and timely picture of where we are now, where we are going, at what cost, and how the bills will be paid.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken early in December showed that about 70 percent of Americans favor withdrawing almost all U.S. combat forces by early next year. There is no sign the administration agrees with that, and there are some military experts, such as retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, a former Director of the National Security Agency, who argue that an immediate withdrawal is preferable to other options and who believe that it is not within U.S. power to "fix" Iraq at all. "Mythologies about the war in Iraq are endangering our republic, our rights, and our responsibilities before the world," Odom writes on the Nieman Watchdog Web site. "The longer we fail to dispel them, the higher price we will pay."

To PBS's credit, Gen. Odom has been a guest four times, from 2002 to 2005, on the nightly NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. But, given the record of official miscalculation on Iraq and the turning point that we are now facing, it is worth hearing more such out-of-the-mainstream views more often and in depth and on all sides of this question.

A national debate or dialogue needs to be much broader and deeper than what has passed for on-air discussion so far, in my view. The "on-the-one-hand/on-the-other hand" type of journalism that is much more common can be less than enlightening at times such as these when such an approach can result in only a narrow band of conventional thought being expressed, and when issues that not long ago seemed extreme — such as a more rapid troop withdrawal, or a big surge in new troops — are being discussed by those who argue that they are no longer extreme and need to be heard.

Strong Feelings

That same ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that 52 percent of those polled think the administration "intentionally" misled the American public in making the case for war. That leads to another extreme angle of these times. Tom Felt, a viewer in Arizona, writes to say that "PBS doesn't present all sides of the issue. The corporate media propaganda outlets greatly under-reported the anti-war movement in this country — just like they are now doing the grassroots effort to impeach Bush. The point is the American public needs to hear the other voice, the other perspective on these issues we face, on the public airwaves where it is available to all people because that is what shapes the public dialogue. One of the problems is that no one is conducting polls — not like they did for impeaching Clinton."

A Newsweek poll conducted in October was one of the few that I found that dealt with the issue of impeachment. It showed that, in fact, there wasn't much support for such a move. Some 28 percent of those polled felt it should be a "top priority." Still, 28 percent is not nothing, and maybe it would clear the air to hear it reported on.

PBS has some excellent news and public affairs programs, including the five-nights-a-week NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Washington Week, the weekly news magazine NOW, and the highly regarded and the hard-hitting Frontline documentary series. But the documentaries, however good, are naturally always looking back. NOW is more timely and also hard-hitting but just half an hour once a week. The NewsHour is straight down the middle. Washington Week is much the same with its journalist guests.

In the end, PBS probably does a better job than the commercial broadcast networks in presenting a more comprehensive nightly news program, and nothing matches Frontline for top documentaries. But we are at a crucial moment and, as a whole, it seems to me that PBS needs to rise, in some new and timely fashion, to meet the immediate demands of this special time.

Finally, just to close the loop, Happy New Year. I hope it is a good one for all of us.


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