By Michael Getler
January 11, 2007
Welcome to another Ombudsman's Mailbag. This one is rather long. In fact, it is extremely long. You could even call it a "surge," to use the word of the moment.
This mailbag surge is mostly because there's been a burst of post-New Year's correspondence surrounding, especially, a new documentary aired on Jan. 8 titled "Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century: The Resurgence." Anyone who follows news of the Middle East and the long struggle among Jews, Muslims, Christians, Arabs and Israelis will understand that this subject provokes fierce opinion and argument.
But viewers also weighed in about the "American Masters" documentary on photographer "Annie Liebovitz: Life Through a Lens," on several aspects of recent segments of the nightly "NewsHour," and on last week's Ombudsman's column about being more aggressive.
There were other subjects as well but in the interests of keeping an already very long Mailbag from becoming unmanageable, some of those have been held for the next posting. Indeed, just as I was set to hit the "send" key on this column, the media watch group known as FAIR, for Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, called on its subscribers to take part in an e-mail campaign about one of the NewsHour segments that some other viewers had written to me about earlier. That has produced, at press time, more than 100 other e-mails that are not included, however the issue is dealt with further down and I have included a link to the FAIR assessment. Finally, there is a bit of old business at the end of this Mailbag concerning the 2005 documentary titled "Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories."
There were also some phone calls from viewers who felt PBS dropped the ball in not providing real-time coverage of the swearing in on Jan. 4 of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives in U.S. history. These callers said yes, it was on cable, but they didn't have cable, couldn't afford cable, and thus looked to PBS as the public vehicle for such a historic event. I agree. Public television shouldn't let viewers down at times like these.
What follows is a representative sampling of the letters on all these broadcasts, starting with a very big batch about the anti-Semitism program, and some comments of mine (in italics) at the conclusion of a couple of these segments.
On the Resurgence of Anti-Semitism
Judy Woodruff's piece on anti-Semitism was one sided. It failed to mention that the Zionists used terror to become a nation. The Jews accepted the UN partition plan and proceeded to implement it even though the Arabs rejected it. Sharon repeatedly attacked Arabs. He knew that his walk through the Temple site would provoke violence. But that was what he wanted. The Arabs don't think Israel has a right to exist on their land, and Israel uses that as an excuse to withhold money that is theirs.
James Elliott, Florissant, MO
I viewed the program Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century and was most distressed to see a case being made to excuse the rise in anti-Semitism and thus giving it legitimacy. Prejudice is NEVER acceptable! Teaching small children that a group of people are apes and pigs, as declared by God, is Wrong!! The documentary did not address the atrocity of brain washing generation after generation that is going on in the Arab world. Pointing fingers of blame will never end the problem. We have to teach our children that prejudice, discrimination and hatred of ANY people is wrong. Instead of trying to blame the victim, I wish the documentary had focused more strongly on the need to move on from inappropriate and dangerous behaviors.
Joan Hersch, Langhorne, PA
Your program on anti-Semitism in the 21st century is PBS at its best. Thank you for a balanced and in-depth analysis at the rise of anti-Semitism in the ME. The historical background you provided was invaluable. I further appreciate the timeliness of this program after the publication of Jimmy Carter's dishonest and increasingly rebuked book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Keep up the great work!
Suzanne Ryan, Waltham, MA
A very disappointing production. It showed almost none of the actual anti-Semitic violence with which Jews are confronted, choosing instead to focus on the growing worldwide acceptance of anti-Semitic propaganda. On the other end, it went to great lengths to explain the "reasons" for worldwide acceptance, with a focus on present Israeli policy. A viewer could easily form the impression that Jews bring anti-Semitism on themselves because of the policies of the Israeli government and its American supporters, which, sadly, I think is the view of the world's media already. This documentary lacks an accurate historical perspective and does not begin to depict the depravity of anti-Semitism, current or past. The producer's apparent goal to help viewers "understand" anti-Semitism as the first step to begin to address it, is a benefit which is far outweighed by the above shortcomings.
I wish to commend PBS on their presentation regarding anti-Semitism. I feel it is important to point out the historical lies regarding the Jews. It is also important to show that Muslim leaders use the Jews as a scapegoat for the subjugation of their followers.
Long Beach, CA
I watched your recent program on anti-Semitism; most of the program dealt with the Israeli govt. and the Palestinians. Since 1948 Israel has achieved regional super power status with an arsenal of nuclear weapons; this makes one king of the hill. The Palestinians continue to be the thorn in Israeli side and the President of Iran is in no position to "wipe Israel off the map." It could easily be the other way around. A quick victory in a pre-emptive war can turn out to be an illusion.
J. Hall, Liberty, NY
More on Anti-Semitism
Although I am thrilled to see PBS addressing this issue, I was vaguely disappointed by the show. First of all, if they wanted to address Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century then they probably needed to make it a series of shows. As it was, the show delved into some history and tied it to current Middle Eastern anti-Semitism and that's all the show was about.
While they did a serviceable job with that aspect of it, they did not go into white supremacy, the current rise in neo-Nazi politics in Europe, the advent (and history, frankly) of anti-Semitism on the left, or even the problems with current MSM in reporting events from the Middle East. The connection of Hitler during the rise of Arab nationalism was fascinating but so much was glossed over or not even mentioned that it simply felt inadequate. There was also the sense of "Oh this is a problem in Europe!" or "This is a problem in the Middle East!" while barely touching on the problem here in the States which I personally found almost shockingly familiar. It was a good show for what it covered and I think it gave balance to anti-Semitism versus anti-Israel feelings.
The PBS TV show, "Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century," that just aired tonight in the United States, was a very sophisticated piece of pro-Israel (hence anti-working class) propaganda. There were a lot of talking heads. One was Tony Judt, who wrote an article in the New York Review of Books a few years ago that advocated, for the first (and virtually only) time in the 21st century establishment press, a one-state solution to the Palestine conflict. But, revealingly, the idea that it is wrong for there to be a Jewish state in Palestine did not see the light of day in this documentary.
The Nakba was mentioned (with old film footage of Palestinians leaving their homes), but it was framed not as the crime of ethnic cleansing that it was, but rather as "a result of war." This is the standard Zionist framework that dismisses the criminality of the ethnic cleansing by waving a magic wand over it and chanting "war justifies all," as if a war for an unjust cause justifies the crimes carried out in its name. The fact that the Zionist forces had carried out half of the ethnic cleansing of 1948 before any Arab government had even sent an army into the conflict was not mentioned. Nor did the documentary mention that brutal discrimination against Palestinians inside the Israeli Green line that exists today.
There was even a talking head who focused on the true point that Arab leaders use anti-Jewish and pro-Palestinian rhetoric to divert away from themselves the anger of their own people against the oppression carried out by anti-democratic Arab rulers. But the implicit framework here was that, since Arab rulers have this ulterior motive for their anti-Israel rhetoric, therefore all criticism of the existence of a Jewish state in Palestine has no merit and reflects only irrational anti-Jewish hatred or cynical manipulation of the masses.
Another talking head, Rashid Khalidi (the Edward Said Professor of Arab studies at Columbia University), made the very good point that it is profoundly wrong to focus primarily on a criticism of the manner in which some Arabs express their opposition to Israel — even if the criticism has merit — when the primary focus should be on the injustice, itself, that Arabs are opposed to. This excellent point was, however, weakened and essentially neutralized by the fact that when Khalidi gave examples of the fundamental injustice, he only used examples of what Israel does in the occupied territories, implicitly allowing the overall theme of the documentary — that there should be a Jewish state in Palestine and anybody who says there should not has only irrational anti-Jewish reasons — to remain unchallenged.
Thus, this documentary went out of its way to deal with many of the facts and arguments that we and other anti-Zionists rely on, and to frame them in a manner that undermines and obscures their significance so as to neutralize them. This technique also gave the documentary a sophisticated tone that made it seem to be not propaganda at all because, after all, it was presenting, supposedly, all of the various viewpoints on a complex issue.
This is a very effective method of propaganda. Unlike propaganda that works by explicitly saying the intended message, which inevitably sounds like crude propaganda, it is far more effective to deliver the propaganda message not by what is said but by what is not said. People exposed to this sophisticated type of propaganda typically do not even realize that they are being propagandized. They think they are being "educated" by objective and impartial experts. In this case, what was never said in the documentary was that there should not be a Jewish state in Palestine, and that it is not anti-Semitic to oppose the existence of such a state.
The net effect of this documentary was to tell its audience that Arabs are a people who are increasingly irrationally anti-Jewish, and Jews, though not always in the right, are nonetheless increasingly threatened by growing "anti-Semitism" (ie anti-Jewish hatred), and therefore have every reason to defend their Jewish state. Nowhere did the documentary explain that Israeli leaders depend on anti-Jewish/anti-Israel attitudes among Gentiles to more effectively control their own Jewish population, and that Israeli policies are intended to foment anti-Jewish feelings. ("Israel's main export is anti-Semitism" as some Israeli once put it.) Nowhere did this documentary even hint that there is an implicit alliance between the Arab and Jewish upper classes to pit "their people" against each other to control them, and that this is the source of the irrational ethnic/racial hatreds that may exist in the world, over which the producers of this documentary merely shed crocodile tears.
John Spritzler, Brighton, MA
And Still More . . .
Saw program on anti-Semitism on Monday. Pretty elementary stuff. I have a question. Are Jews allowed to protect themselves? Not according to some of the people being interviewed.
Arnie Kurtz, Wpg, ME
Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century: The Resurgence seems to gloss over many of the major concerns relating to the Middle East, such as the war in Iraq, American tacit support for Israeli nuclear weapons, and the treatment of the residents of the West Bank and Gaza. Obviously we all want to hear ideas for a solution to the problems plaguing Israel, but the producers of this show do not seem interested in presenting them. Instead they seem interested in trotting out hook-nosed Jewish caricatures and menacing black and white footage worthy of the new Indiana Jones revival. Which is fine, but does the conflation of the "Elders of Zion" with the Middle East crisis really bring us any closer to understanding how to mitigate the raw sorrow and terror of both?
I don't get the impression the producers are interested in this at all. This show seems to simplify where nuance is called for, such as Henry Ford's involvement with the protocols and a more comprehensive discussion of Arab-axis relations. Why would PBS present a show that is so promising in terms of providing sorely needed illumination but seems to only create friction?
B. P., San Francisco, CA
KQED usually attempts to be impartial. In a time of great Middle Eastern strife, "Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century" was about the most irresponsible and sanctimonious piece of propaganda I have seen come on late in the evening on PBS since the last anti-Muslim "documentary." Why should Americans continuously endure this nonsense? Why is our news, our radio and our TV filled with one-sided politics about the Poor Jews while we are occupying a Muslim country and Supplementing Israel with more Aid than many more needy countries around the world? Billions of dollars of military aid to Israel.
DB Ross, Oakland, CA
PBS erred seriously by referring to Palestine as if it were a nation. As you know, it never was a nation, but only the name of a region, a territory. This must be corrected publicly.
J. Andrews, Los Angeles, CA
I was greatly disappointed and troubled by your recent documentary about "Reemergence of Anti-Semitism in the 21st century" hosted by Judy Woodruff. One of the goals by Ms. Woodruff in airing the show was to combat prejudice amongst people, yet the documentary seemed to spread that very hate by portraying Muslims and Arabs as the classic intolerant, rabid Jew-haters. Although the "other" side was presented, it was clear where the documentary's bias lied when it:
1) Only covered the topic of "Anti-Semitism" of the Jews and NOT the Arabs (though the latter has been persecuted by the Jewish Israeli state which was given only a cursory mention by the respectable Columbia professor Mr. Khalidi).
2) Footage was taken by the likes of the pro-Israeli Propaganda think-tanks such as MEMRI's and Palestine Media Watch who have NEVER criticized one Israeli action be it military, political, or social.
3) Prejudice against only Jews were presented in Islamic societies where the documentary fails to mention that if it were truly "prejudice and anti-Semitism" and not policies of the Israeli gov't, then why would America be also as hated? Because the US gov't shields and protects the Jewish state from any criticism including UN resolutions condemning its heavy handed policies.
Tyler Johnson, Somerset, NJ
I wish to express my disgust with KVIE's refusal to air a documentary on anti-Semitism. The only conclusion one can draw from this betrayal of public broadcasting's liberal principles, is that this station has abandoned the struggle for justice and tolerance. Instead, it seems, KVIE is becoming a vehicle for indifference at best — and downright bigotry at worst. Does PBS condone this behavior? I need to know because I will NOT financially contribute to media that promotes intolerance and hate.
Santa Cruz, CA
I just watched the PBS program, "Anti-Semitism in the 20th Century." A finer propaganda film was never made! The film expertly equated opposition to the racist Apartheid State of Israel with anti-Semitism and studiously avoided any interviews with Jews such as Noam Chomsky or Israel Shamir who are adamantly apposed to Zionist Imperialism.
H. H., Tinley Park, IL
The Palestinians are Human Beings. Imagine if there were a million Jews forced off their land, out of their homes, forced into a ghetto, surrounded by barbed wire and concrete walls, and under attack from a well equipped, hostile army. Sound familiar? Why is it OK to hate Nazis for what they did to the Jews, but it is not OK to hate Zionist Jews and Zionist Christians for what they are doing to the Palestinians? Are their any Racists Jews? Is Zionism Racism?
Steve Benassi, Silver Bay, MN
A Palestinian View
I have just watched the above program on my local PBS channel. I found the reporting to be deeply biased. The overall argument of the show is that anti-Semitism is prevalent in the Arab and Islamic world portraying them as insanely biased and prejudiced people. What they feel or say about Jews is a symptom of their irrationality and intolerance. This view is biased in two ways:
First, if the producers of the show made an effort to research Israeli culture and institutions (media, army, political establishment) it would have witnessed a parallel virile anti-Arab sentiment on their part. Graffiti of "death to the Arabs" is engraved in all cities in Israel. Israeli curriculum especially children's book is full of inhumanizing references to Arabs. Quotes from several Israeli political leaders, army chiefs of staffs, rabbi continuously represent Arabs as roaches, bugs, snakes and insects. Israeli anti Arabism is morally equivalent to Arab anti-Semitism and yet is nowhere discussed or even attempted. The end result is that Israelis are portrayed as simply innocents, victims of age-old anti-Semitism that has found a new location in the Arab and Islamic world inexplicably.
Secondly, the program is biased in that it suggests that Israel simply defends itself against Arab (Palestinian) murderous anti-Semitism when it kills Palestinians, their children and bombards their houses and assassinates its leaders. Palestinian militancy is merely a symptom of Palestinian anti-Semitism and is therefore deservedly violently crushed by the Israelis. Well sir, imagine that you unjustly kick me out of my house because you have determined that an ancestor of yours two thousand years ago lived in it. Assuming that all your life you have suffered from being called unjustly an (expletive deleted). I am now squatting in a tent outside my now your house because I have nowhere else to go. I scream (expletive) from my corner because no matter what I do you refuse to give me back my house. Assuming that your success in taking my house makes you tempted to move and take over my neighbor's house using the same claim you used to take my own. Now me and my neighbor are squatting outside calling you an (expletive). You own a gun and we have no access except to stones. You have convinced a country far away that you are justified in your take over and they provide with a constant supply of guns. You sit in your window and start shooting my children, my neighbor's children, my cousins, etc. I shout (expletive). You respond: see they are calling me (expletive) and therefore they deserve what they get. In fact, I only took their houses because I knew they would call me (expletive) the way all these people from the past called me (expletive) unjustifiably! Judy Woodruff comes from the country helping supply the arms and interviews all those who are in the house that has been occupied. They say, see they are calling us (expletive)? We are merely defending ourselves against their prejudice which is historic associated with me. It is unfair isn't?
I, sir, as a Palestinian Arab do not appreciate your portrayal of me in this program. You may have thought that having a few Palestinian/Arab/Muslim sympathetics shows you are unbiased in the show. The problem is what they say was edited to be a quick casual blip on the consciousness of the viewer who was otherwise saturated by a background narrative of the ontological innocence of Israelis and their essential victimization, no matter what they do.
Lama Abu Odeh, Washington, DC
I would like to object to Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century: the Resurgence, broadcast on WETA in Washington, DC on January 8th. The reporting is anecdotal, uncited, and irresponsible. It is not responsible journalism to flash collages of unidentified anti-Semitic images, defaced tombstones, clips of nameless Arab teenagers spouting absurd conspiracy theories, unidentified bearded mullahs shouting at crowds, undated clips of Arab intellectuals without any context and base broad pseudo-sociological conclusions on them. This is not responsible journalism. This is inflammatory and irresponsible.
Then to provide the briefest thumbnail history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and mix it up with this supposed "history of 21st century anti-Semitism," is the most inflammatory, biased and irresponsible substitute for objective political analysis. This conflict is terrible and intractable, and will breed terrible prejudice on both sides; the conflict is not the result of or exacerbated by the prejudice of only one of the parties. To depict it as such is horribly unfair and irresponsible.
Matthew Kolodziej, Washington, DC
If you are going to do a piece on anti-Semitism, it is important to distinguish between fact and fiction. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is clearly fiction and is not important. It is natural for people to revile their enemies any way they can. You gave less than five minutes of your 57 minute report to the facts of the matter. The facts are that Israel has been continuously stealing Palestinian land for over 50 years. By one account there are 350,000 Israeli "settlers" on stolen Palestinian land.
If you want to get the facts on what's going on with Israel and the Palestinians, I suggest you tune in to Uri Avnery and Gush Shalom. The daily humiliations of the Palestinians are well recorded in the Arab media, but almost never mentioned in our own media. The kill ratio between the Israelis and Palestinians is roughly 5 Palestinians dead for every Israeli. The imprisonment ratio is roughly 9,000 Palestinians for every Israeli. The land theft ratio is infinite, as the Palestinians steal no Israeli land. If you pay attention to the facts and not the words, you realize who the evil ones are in this situation.
Donangelo, Bend, OR
A Course in Anger Management?
The Muslim world reminds me of the Wild West. Different versions of Islam that provoke the actions of extremists, and even "moderates." All of which have no credibility when random violence is committed (extremists) and no protest by the "moderates" in any of this violence. Muslims need anger management. It is laughable that a group of "people" who base their lives on the principles of "religion" can become so violent even in the face of a pathetic "cartoon." Ever see the pathetic cartoons of Jews in Muslim newspapers? This is what anti-Semitism is all about. Jews did not write the cartoons, yet it was the Jew that was attacked! Sound familiar? Hitler did the same. That is anti-Semitism at its finest hour! To associate anti-Semitism with the state of Israel can only be to associate the anti-Semitism with the victim. That victim being the Jew and Israel, and the victimizer is the Muslim.
That simple. After all if it is so easy for a Muslim to victimize a Muslim, how hard would it be to victimize a "Jew"? Very easy no doubt! By the way for those who are lacking history lessons, Muslims have always victimized Jews throughout history, and clearly were on the side of the Nazis when it came to Jews. This was prior to 1948, and could not possibly have anything to do with the State of Israel! Ignore that too!
Shlomo Rosen, Toronto, Canada
The Palestinian Arabs, when not under the iron control of "foreign occupiers," whether Egyptian, Ottoman, Mongol, or European, were constantly at war with one another and regarded their Jewish and Christian neighbors as objects of plunder and extortion. Joseph Schwarz's historical account also provides an accurate description of how Palestinian Arabs conducted themselves before they had the excuse of "Zionism" and "occupation," which is to say, exactly the same way in which they are behaving now in Gaza. Their claims to property, in the absence of any legal title, are based on previous looting and conquest. Just as it is impossible to turn back the clock, a robber should not be entitled to claim the return of stolen loot. Since, as it has been admitted at the beginning of this essay, there is no narrative to contradict the documentation provided by Joseph Schwarz in his history, the behavior of the Palestinian Arabs from 1948 until the present, would confirm rather than refute the notion that they have ever conducted themselves any differently.
Louis Allen, Santa Monica, CA
The program on anti-Semitism, what I saw of it, was pretty heavy propaganda to my way of thinking. Who have been the major victims in the Middle East? The Arabs and Palestinians have been the victims of an oppressive occupation. These people may be anti-occupation, from what I have read. To characterize the Arabs as anti-Semitic is a bit heavy-handed. In fact, aren't they Semites also? They have been the victims of Israeli expansionism. I feel that the program lacked any balance. It serves no useful purpose.
John Borel, Saratoga Springs, NY
PBS continued its consistent record of publishing lies and half-truths in its program supposedly about anti-Semitism. Its choice of people to interview, its perversion of clear truth is manifest. Neither the existence of Israel or its actions cause anti-Jewish hatred by Arabs, nor the Muslims visceral hatred of Christians or America.
Robert Snider, Framingham, MA
I'm a Holocaust survivor and I'm calling to complain about "Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century." PBS has a lot of good programs and I support my local station, but this film really upsets me. This was so hateful. It was stirring the wrong emotions — hate and mistrust mdash; about Jewish people. What is the purpose of creating such a hateful program? The film never said anything about the good that Jewish people do.
Gerda Friedeman (by phone), Ft. Myers, FL
Is Israel to blame for anti-Semitism?
If a neutral viewer watched this show, they would assume yes. It was 45 minutes into this one hour show before anything positive was said about Jews or Israel. Instead of analyzing any one aspect of anti-Semitism, all forms of anti-Semitism were presented on a platter. Christians were blamed. Muslims hatred of Christians AND Jews was not presented. Muslims were presented as emotional blank slates who were incapable of making moral judgments and were the victims of their circumstances and the absorption of Christian anti-Semitism.
I do not understand why PBS chose to promote this very biased program.
Dorothy Margraf, Monee, IL
I watched your stations program on anti-Semitism last night and while much of it was most informative and well done, there were several very important points which were not addressed. One of these was the lack of information on the 900,000 Jewish refugees who were forced to leave the Arab countries in which they had lived for 2,000 years when Israel was born again in 1948. These refugees were forced out without any of their goods or money. This number is far larger than those Arabs who left Israel ON THEIR OWN — not because Israel pushed them out. This is a very important subject and it was not addressed at all. Viewers should know about the "other" refugees.
Another vital point not made is that the Koran adds a religious component to the whole problem by stating that Jews are evil and pigs etc. It is an additional part of the anti-Semitism you described quite well. Anti-Semitism becomes another component of the Arab religious belief when one is aware of this. You also neglected to mention this in the program. It is an important part of anti-Semitism which does not victimize just Jews but also those who attempt to make them victims. Both hater and target become victims.
In my heart I know that PBS intended to present a fair and unbiased overview of anti-Semitism in the 21st century, but what I viewed with my wife was an ill-conceived and disjointed survey of isolated events with many flaws -a sophomoric and rather random study of anti-Semitism that was certainly more "politically correct" than historic. At its lowest level your program pandered to the "Israel is the reason" mentality and provided a forum for two men whose agendas feed the Palestinian mythology. If you disregard everything else that I and other Jews felt were quite damaging you are still left with a production that, despite Judy Woodruff as host, did more to feed prejudice than heal its practitioners.
Jew-hatred was inculcated in Europe and the Arab world long before any Zionist set a foot upon Palestine. There are so many specific historical facts that were left out it leads one to believe that the research was simply culled from magazines. The fact that the West Bank was settled and farmed by Jews long before 1967 was never sufficiently clarified — it's a major point that few around the world acknowledge. The fact that just as many or more Jews were displaced from Arab nations as so-called "Palestinians" in 1948 was never mentioned at all. Where were the cameras to record the "Hate the Jews" posters on the walls of every Arab school, the level of anti-Semitism preached by the Christian church before the Holocaust? Where was any mention of the sudden embrace of "Palestinian nationality" by hundreds of thousands of Arabs who normally moved from one place to another throughout their lives? That Arafat was Egyptian? That peace has never been a desire on the part of Hamas, Hezbollah, Black September or any other terrorist group? The gentleman at the end who warned that "to link modern anti-Semitism to the birth of Israel is a major mistake because anti-Semitism was rampant before any UN recognition" characterized your show's faults. It was like a teacher telling a student to "go back and do your homework."
Jerome Margolis, Boones Mill, VA
I was very pleased with your balanced presentation on anti-Semitism and the related subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Scholars such as Bernard Lewis, Reza Aslan, Nathan Sharansky, and Salameh Nhemet were effective in expressing the idea that as long as the Arab culture in the Middle East chooses death and destruction as a core policy, and refuses to accept Israel's right to exist in peace and harmony, they will never progress as a people, and will eventually implode. It was very important that PBS identify various Islamic militant groups as terrorists and not as "freedom fighters" or equal entities in this terrible conflict.
Nathalie Guttmann, Los Angeles, CA
Ombudsman's Comment: To anyone whose work has involved the Middle East in the last 50 years, as mine has during many different periods, it is not at all surprising that this subject and the ancient hatreds it draws on attracts so much intense reaction and commentary. I thought the viewer from Tennessee was right who said that to deal with the subject of anti-Semitism probably needed a series. Nevertheless, I thought that producer Andrew Goldberg, moderator Judy Woodruff, and presenter Oregon Public Broadcasting did a good and bold job and provided a useful and unique public service in taking on this volatile, uncomfortable to watch but important subject at this time. This struck me as just the thing Public TV ought to be doing. It is unlikely that any diverse audience will ever say that you got this subject just right, but producers need to take a shot at it. Its value, I thought, was in explaining the evolution of anti-Semitism, the original Christian and European role and the differences with Islam, and in exposing to American audiences the kind of hate-filled imagery about Jews that is broadcast and publicly stated in many Arab counties that Americans are unaware of and that the American media rarely captures and broadcasts if they see it. By the same token, it gave time and space to Arab views, especially Palestinians, who have suffered for decades under Israeli settlement and occupation policies that enrage and humiliate them daily and that also are not portrayed with any persistence by American media. The problem here is that this aspect is laid out most powerfully by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius and Hisham Ahmed, a professor at Birzeit University in Ramallah, rather than by ordinary Palestinians. This is not a theoretical problem, but a real one for millions of Palestinians. Another area where the film fell short, in my view, is that it barely mentioned the impact of the recent war in Lebanon and there was no discussion of the impact of the war in Iraq.
Smile. That Will Be $30,000, Please
Just saw the documentary on Annie Leibovitz. As a serious photographer, I think she is one of the most overrated photographers/"celebrities." Vicki Goldberg is the only one in the piece who had it correct. "She photographs popular culture and it's a pretty shabby culture." They forgot to mention her day rate of $$30k+. She is definitely part of our solipsistic culture, (pretty obscene). She is known as a real diva in the business. "Barbara Streisand with a camera" was the second best comment. There is MUCH better out there . . . or did you feel so compelled to profile a successful female photographer? You guys have become so corporate, you'll do anything to bring in the cash.
New Britain, CT
I just saw your 90-minute doc on Annie Leibovitz. How can she claim to be a friend of Susan Sonntag and then photograph Ivana and Donald? Only for the money. I know that your funds come mainly from the gov and I totally support your station, but promoting this sucks!!!
Christof Hamm, Millerton, NY
Ombudsman's Comment: I enjoyed this documentary, was grateful to learn more about the life of this ultra-famous contemporary photographer and to gather new perspectives on how she approaches her iconic work. On the other hand, the film has a serious flaw of ommission that rolled around in my brain even though, as I said, I was glad that "American Masters" put this program on the air and that I liked it on many levels. It is just that when it was over, one realizes that there is basically no serious, critical look at Leibovitz's work by anyone in the film. And, when you think more about it, that isn't so surprising because the film is directed by Barbara Leibovitz, the photographer's younger sister. With all due respect to the sister's talent, and to the fact that this is an enjoyable show to watch, I think this is a big mistake. There are two reviews that appeared on Jan. 3 that I thought caught this film quite well, one by Ginia Bellafante in the New York Times and the other by Robert Lloyd in the Los Angeles Times.
I watch the Jim Lehrer show every night that I can, but his reporters are far too politically correct and I request that they be more challenging to those they interview. Take the interview tonight with Sec. Rice. She should have been asked, other than the USA wanting Iraq's oil, why else do we care whether the Iraqi's are law abiding when we don't seem to care about it in at least 100 other nations on the planet? And in the interview with Josh White from the Washington Post about the military charging the soldiers with murdering 25 civilians, why didn't your interviewer ask why doesn't the military then also charge the air crews with murder who dropped tons of bombs on Iraq and killed thousands of innocent civilians at the start of the war?
Chuck Buss, Grand Junction, CO
Margaret Warner's interview tonight (Dec. 21, 2006) on the NewsHour was a great example of journalistic integrity. She asked Sec. Rice difficult questions, tried to solicit answers beyond the usual Bush-speak canned replies, and managed to maintain a polite and respectful demeanor. Thank you, Ms. Warner.
I am concerned about the NewsHour's interview with Secretary Rice on Thursday, 21 December. My impression is that your interviewer failed completely to rein in the Secretary's well-known proclivity to filibuster a legitimate question. The interviewer allowed Secretary Rice to ramble on — Rice's goal is always to prevent follow-up questions. The NewsHour should employ some tougher and smarter interrogators. Let us not be beguiled by the notion that Rice has been on the side of the angels in this debacle in Iraq. She is part and parcel of the Bush entourage and should be held as responsible as Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the dolt in the White House!
My wife and I are becoming disenchanted with the quality of news reporting coming out of the "Lehrer NewsHour." As an example: On the evening of 1/4/07, Slade Gorton, Vic Fasio, and Ann X (a Republican representative from Kentucky) were being interviewed. They indicated they wanted help with "transitional funding" in dealing with U.S. Representatives who had been convicted of felonies or other crimes that resulted in their imprisonment. Did I hear this correctly? What does "transitional funding" mean? Are we expected to maintain the salaries and/or pensions of convicted politicians? Why doesn't PBS define these terms? Just what are they expecting the public to do? We are also getting upset with the format of the "News" hour. We have seen poets, essays from writers, interviews with musicians and other celebrities. This doesn't strike us as news, but a variation on the "Sunday Morning" program. If I want to see I magazine, I shall purchase one.
Sandy & Sune Timour, Tucson, AZ
A Tilted Panel
I am writing to protest the limited spectrum of debate over Bush's plan to escalate the conflict in Iraq. Tonight, (Jan. 8) on the NewsHour, you had four Senators on to debate: Two Republicans and Joe Lieberman in support of the policy and Sen. Reed to alone represent the view of the Democrats and the majority of the American people who are in opposition to this plan. Even worse, Sen. Reed was at best weak in his opposition. I believe that you did a great disservice to your viewers by limiting the scope of debate by your choice of Senators, excluding any who would voice any serious criticism and slanting the panel in favor of those who support escalation. If you really needed to have an Independent Senator, I think you would have better served your audience by inviting Sen. Bernie Sanders from Vermont onto your program who at least would have provided some balance and more closely represented the vast majority of American opinion. Sen. Russ Feingold would have been another excellent choice. That you failed to invite a Senator on that is a strong voice of opposition and critic of the occupation of Iraq is a sad reflection on your commitment to providing opportunities for all sides of this most important issue to have a voice.
Ian Brewer, Bloomington, IN
Why would you have Sen. Joe Lieberman on the program to discuss his point of view on Iraq, when he was denied re-nomination by his own party in Conn. because of his views which the election discredited. His appearance on the show was an insult to our intelligence.
John Borel, Saratoga Springs, NY
I watched the beginning of the show tonight (Jan. 8) and the conversation about Iraq. The show had two Republican legislators and one Democrat and Sen. Lieberman of Conn., described as an "Independent Democrat." Sen. Lieberman won re-election with Republican votes. He acts as a Republican and should not be offered as someone who has opinions other than Republican, particularly on Iraq. I think PBS makes a bad mistake by sending us that kind of "balance."
Roldo Bartimole, Cleveland Heights, OH
Ombudsman's Comment: I'm with the viewers on this one, although it turned out to be not quite as egregious as it seemed at the start. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., is the equivalent of an administration-supporting Republican on the war, although at times he has criticized its management. Sen John Cornyn, R-Texas, is also a supporter of the surge and Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico was another Republican member. Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island was the only Democrat. So this makes the panel look very much off-kilter, with only one Democrat and two Republicans plus Lieberman. But one of the Republicans, Rep. Wilson, was hardly a locked-step partisan. She voiced an independent view and was in agreement on some things with Sen. Reed. So the discussion was more balanced than it might have seemed. Whether the NewsHour figured this would happen or it just turned out that way one doesn't know.
Nevertheless, this was a poorly constructed panel, in my view, and its imbalance stood out dramatically, not only because it seemed lopsided at the beginning, which startled me and I'm sure others, but because it was a debate over a crucial subject on the eve of one of the president's most crucial and controversial decisions. For dedicated NewsHour viewers, it also seemed to betray the normal care they take with such discussions. For my money, it also turned out to be the kind of discussion that doesn't break through anything in terms of public understanding, or explore much other than the roughly centrist views that everyone knows about, or the well-telegraphed administration view. It doesn't go into, for example, some knowledgeable analysis of what might happen if the U.S. withdraws more rapidly and whether, in a situation that has no good options, that could lead to the same or even better outcome than withdrawal later, with fewer losses, less cost and with Iraqis forced to come to grips sooner with the product of killing each other. Or the pros and cons, in some depth and detail, of whether a longer term deployment of many more than 20,000 U.S. troops is required to salvage some success and stave off a demoralizing defeat, as Sen. John McCain argues.
Here's a link to the FAIR critique.
Be More, um, Aggressive
Excellent column. Am heartened to see it. As an assistant business editor at The Denver Post and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, I couldn't agree more with your assertion that news organizations in general — and PBS in particular — should seek greater diversity of voices in regular news coverage and analysis. For example, I heartily would welcome seeing journalists of a wider array of ages and ethnicities on my favorite news-analysis programs. Hearing from people who don't work in Washington, D.C., would be even better.
Christine Tatum, Denver, CO
Thank you for your article — we certainly need more info on this war — I watched the NewsHour every night and also enjoy NOW and Frontline — the closest to unfiltered news. I would like to request more Bill Moyers journalism — we need him to run for president. We need more of a variety of opinion journalists!
Great column, Michael. This is exactly what needs to be said, and especially done, in this crucial time and place in history. Hopefully someone at PBS will read this and have a "light-bulb" moment.
Rod L., Kansas City, MO
Hooray for you. Well thought through and written and never more needed than now. Don't falter. Keep it up.
Estelle Ellis-Rubinstein, New York, NY
Your own polls say that more than half of Americans believe George W. Bush "intentionally mislead" us into war; 70% want us out of Iraq; you acknowledge that the media did a terrible job informing us about the war; and, still you dither. What's it going to take to get you up off your collective a**es and do something? I suppose the fact that you recognize your own shortcomings is something, but what does that do to solve the problem. Does that mean that Jim Lehrer can now sit back and pat himself on the back? I don't think so.
H. Freeman, Sacramento, CA
How long have you been the ombudsman for PBS? This is just an observation from the outside of the three ring circus you call a country. I was born and grew up on the US border (north) and I don't recognize the place anymore. I notice that since the Republicans (Bushies) got handed their rear ends in the last election (the one they couldn't steal) they have all been on their new talking points. Bi-partisanship, team work, the bad old days and a new beginning. This from the same bunch of thieves that stole everything that wasn't nailed down including your rights and your money? Now PBS wants more aggressive journalists? Where were you when your country was being stolen by this bunch of liars? Oh, yes. I forgot! You were busy firing Bill Moyers for being an aggressive journalist!
Ed M., Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
While I agree with much of your "Be, um, more aggressive?" column I think you gave too little credit to the Frontline team and their consistently aggressive reporting on the run up to the war. Yes, you did acknowledge them in a backhanded way in your penultimate graf but they deserve better than that. As an old television journalist myself I can testify to the inherent difficulties they face from both an editorial and production standpoint in turning out high-quality, hour-long reports each week. Nonetheless the Frontline producers have been far out front of the commercial networks in examining the evidence the administration used to sell the war to the public.
I wish I could recall every such broadcast but last week's look at the role played by VP Dick Cheney in the crucial late 2001-2002 period was outstanding. They had a number of sources, albeit not the top players, but the second level people who went to the meetings and did the work, confessing to their sins on camera. Colin Powell's chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson's interview in which he confessed that he had "lacked the intestinal fortitude" to resign after Powell's UN speech was shown to be riddled with assumptions and inaccuracies, was absolutely extraordinary. And Wilkerson was only one of the many key officials who went on camera to describe the influence of Cheney and his secret intelligence unit at the Pentagon in that crucial period. Granted this was not new to those readers of "Fiasco", "Circle in the Sand" and other fine book and magazine (mostly New Yorker) pieces that have documented the same deception. But it's one thing to talk to a print journalist, something quite a bit more difficult to confess one's weaknesses on camera before a national audience. But those kinds of interviews are what Frontline has delivered for its viewers over and over again. There are very few anonymous sources in their broadcast reports.
Their reporting has been excellent, their journalism outstanding. They deserve an "attaboy" at the very least, not just a quick nod by the ombudsman.
Ed Fouhy, Chatham, MA
I greatly appreciated your call to media arms, and was a bit surprised. My first thought was "uh oh" the Looney Right is going after him now!
Jim Fuge, Durango, CO
Couldn't agree more about PBS' coverage of Iraq. Our group thinks all PBS outlets could do more to facilitate community dialogue and change by actually producing LOCAL content (with its OWN content guidelines) — something less and less PUBLIC stations are doing.
Robert Mabbitt, Flint, MI
Hear, Hear! I applaud and endorse your plea for a more aggressive, and skeptical, reporting initiative at PBS. We are, IMHO, being subjected to a government that conflates Marketing with Governance, and treats information as a commodity to be "manipulated" to serve the product of the moment. Regrettably, for the most part broadcast journalism is on a parallel path — everything is "Hype;" all opinions are equally factual, and equally important. Proctor and Gamble perfected this art, but at least their soap did somebody some good.
Except for the Sunday shows, I hardly watch commercial news anymore; when CNN put up a tag screaming "The Road to War (or something like that) back in 2003, I realized that they were far more interested in "eyeballs" than "information." (Such a shame; I think Ted Turner's insight was one of the truly significant changes of the modern information age.) But I make it a point to catch The NewsHour and BBC World News each evening at 6 p.m. on WGBY. And I try not to miss Washington Week, Now, Frontline, and Foreign Exchange.
Unfortunately, over the past few years I've begun to feel that my NewsHour team had "drunk the Kool-Aid" and was condoning some really "foolish" and simplistic arguments — otherwise known as Spin — by failing to adequately challenge the interviewee. One reason for watching the BBC is their unwillingness to defer to "power" when they don't get an adequate answer — for example, Nick Robinson's push back at Bush (at the Bush/Blair press conference around Christmas) when "W" tried to skate on his talking points. Thankfully, since the election, I sense that the NewsHour team has stepped up to the plate — Ifill and Suarez both did really fascinating and unusual "everyman" panels on the election and the Iraq Study Group reports. I suspect that might have been the message they picked up from the election, at least I hope so; they're too good as journalists to get trapped the way they were.
Jay McAnally, Bristol, CT
The American media was from the very beginning of both, the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq in opposition to those conflicts. So, I don't know where you're getting your views that rush to war was enhanced by the American media. If you mean Fox, that is all but one channel. What I fear most for this country is the inability to ever fight a war again. The American media, CNN, NBC, the New York Times, was busting as death toll rose to that round number 3,000.
But let's say we had to fight a real conflict let's take Korea for instance, and take serious casualties, let's say to the tune of 50 thousand in three years? I don't think so. We are losing the war because the AMERICAN PUBLIC doesn't have the stomach for it. NOT the soldiers who are fighting, they're doing the job they were put there to do. WE as a public are letting these men and women down. Thank heavens for our superior air, sea and tech. advantages. If we didn't have that we would be seeing a lot more pine boxes. A generation of children are being raised to be soft and pretty soon, there we will be too weak to fight on the ground. And we're doing huge damage to the nation by acting this way.
Thank you for a wise composition on the troubles we find ourselves in. The Middle East situation is very frightening. I have been following it closely and I agree with your opinion that what we are offered as solutions are weak at best. One thing that we as a nation don't know is, WHAT DO THE IRAQIS WANT? Are they such an ignorant race that their opinions don't matter. I do occasionally hear about polls conducted in Iraq, but maybe that would be a place to start. Why aren't the Sunni and Shiites united against the American occupation?
What I'm really writing about however is that I fear that PBS is becoming a commercial network. For years PBS said thanks to Merck, or some other big pharmaceutical, or Monsanto or some other big agri corporation but I am now starting to see commercial advertising on PBS. Though we only contribute a modest amount annually, I still feel I have the right to complain. In order for PBS to maintain its integrity, it must remain a commercial free network.
Thank you for your editorial on Iraq. I cannot believe people are not noting the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. Both wars started with lies, the Criminal Master Class Politicians sending the poor to be killed, the CMCP's cozying up to their hand-picked "elected" officials, a Civil War denied, throwing more and more bodies into the death machinery.
Mel McKee, Burbank, CA
It occurred to me, after seeing an ad for PBS, that the Little Red Riding Hood story was very appropriate. PBS claims that balance is important, and that we need to hear all sides of the story.
What PBS is missing is that the story is a myth, a fairy tale. There was no Little Red Riding Hood. But for sure, PBS will bring all sides of the story to us. Thanks a lot!
What we really need, and what PBS used to bring us, is accurate reporting and insightful analysis of the facts. We need to hear that the story is not true, that it's manufactured events to take our minds off what really happened.
Please bring back the old PBS.
Naomi Durant, Lindsborg, KS
I agree absolutely "PBS needs to rise, in some new and timely fashion, to meet the immediate demands of this special time."
Indeed. Right now we need to hear strong opposition voices to the Iraq War, not hawks and weak dissenters. Are the actions in Somalia a way to actually ramp up the war; is the President now laying a course for attack on Iran? These broader issues, tying them together with the Iraq War need to be explored.
John Burik, Cincinnati, OH
I totally agree with your comments. Keep up the good work.
Anne-Marie Kaukonen, San Diego, CA
I trust PBS more than any other media outlet. If Gwen Ifill tells me something, I believe it. Also Bill Moyers is a national treasure. I hunger for more knowledge nearly as much as food and drink. I am not easily duped because I learned to think freely long ago. I want to thank you all for quality programming. I will be forever in your debt. You must continue challenging convention, that's the only way our society will reach its full potential.
Gary Kennedy, Ravenswood, WV
Finally, a Note from the Past
The first column I wrote as the first ombudsman for PBS was on Dec. 2, 2005, and it dealt in part with a documentary titled "Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories." The program had actually aired on Oct. 20, 2005, a month before I got here but a vigorous viewer reaction was still underway.
My column was highly critical. I viewed it as a "one-sided advocacy program" with "a complete absence of some of the fundamental journalistic conventions that, in fact, make a story more powerful and convincing because they, at a minimum, acknowledge that there is another side." CPB ombudsman Ken Bode also had sharply criticized the film in a column just a few days earlier. Months later, PBS, to its credit, commissioned another program to further examine the subject of child custody abuse. The follow-up program, "Kids & Divorce: For Better or Worse," aired on Sept. 14, 2006, and Bode also took note of this new program, this time in a more favorable light in a Nov. 27, 2006 column. Asking himself what lessons are to be learned from the experience with these two programs, Bode said: "Perhaps the overriding one is that before accepting programming for the PBS schedule, someone needs to make a more thorough check on the motives of sponsors." Can't argue with that.
Then this week, the producers of "Breaking the Silence" officially expressed "regret" over any inferences viewers may have drawn about the case involving Dr. Scott Loeliger, his former wife and his daughter in the film. Connecticut Public Television and Tatge-Lasseur Productions also agreed that in all future distribution of the film by them in whatever form, "they will obscure the faces of Loeliger's daughter and ex-wife such that viewers will not be able to recognize them."
Long before the program aired, the producer's letter also acknowledged, "Dr. Loeliger advised us that he strongly disputed the version of events related by his daughter and former wife in the film. He also contended that his former wife was herself abusive toward their daughter . . . and that the film would cause damage to his daughter."