PBS at a Crossroads
By Michael Getler
April 26, 2007
It certainly qualifies as a TV epic and as among the more memorable and expensive events in the recent history of public television; PBS's "America at a Crossroads," a 12-hour, 11-part series that "explores the challenges confronting the post-9/11 world." Commissioned and funded three years ago by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is the steward of the federal government's investment in and grants to public radio and television, the individual segments in the $20 million project are by 10 different documentary filmmakers. It was aired over six consecutive evenings in prime time last week, beginning on Sunday and ending on Friday.
In his preview in The Washington Post, the respected television critic Tom Shales said the series answers, in the affirmative, the question, "Is there still a purpose for public television?" The series, he said, "asks plenty of salient, crucial questions — and works slavishly to find sane, satisfying answers." The series has been widely reviewed in newspapers, magazines and Web commentaries in recent days and weeks. Many of the reviews have been favorable. Others have been sharply critical of some aspects and segments.
That the reviews are mixed is not surprising. This project has been draped in controversy from its birth. The concern among skeptics both within and outside of PBS was that the series would be politically manipulated to serve a more conservative agenda as it evolved during the tenure of former CPB board chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who resigned in November 2005. Last year, the project was altered in two important ways. Robert MacNeil, the former co-anchor of what used to be called the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," was brought in as host, and editorial control of the project was turned over to WETA, the big Washington D.C.-area station that produces the nightly NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Washington Week and other well-regarded public affairs programs.
Having watched this entire series, it seems to me that the addition of MacNeil was crucial to introducing timely context and balance to each of these films, and to at least raising the questions that sometimes were still left in the minds of viewers. His appearances are brief and his words are few. But they help a lot.
The series dwells heavily on "the war on terrorism," on the experiences of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the problems inside Iraq and, in other segments, on "Europe's 9/11," and, in parts of four separate episodes, on the struggles within Islam and among Muslims here and abroad.
Is This Another Review? No and Yes
The point of this column is not to review the series. There have been plenty of those. In brief, I thought several of the 11 films were excellent, especially the first four: a two-hour special on "Jihad: the Men and Ideas Behind al Qaeda"; "Warriors," a film about a group of American soldiers serving in Iraq; "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience"; and "Gangs of Iraq," which examines the failure so far to train the Iraqi army and police to "stand up." The third film, about "Writing the Wartime Experience," struck me as especially brilliant in conception and execution, one of the most gripping hours I've spent in front of the tube in quite a while. The series finishes strong as well, I thought, with the films about Indonesia and the battle in this country over "Security Versus Liberty."
My office has received several hundred e-mails and phone calls about "Crossroads." As I've said before, people usually write to ombudsmen to complain rather than to praise. There were some messages of praise, but the overwhelming number wrote to complain about one film, in particular. That was the one-hour episode called "The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom," a film by and about Richard Perle, the former chairman of the Defense Policy Board under President Bush and a leading advocate for the war in Iraq. This is what is called a "point of view" film. According to the credits, the film was "written and presented by Richard Perle."
The other complaints focused mostly on what some viewers felt was "Muslim-bashing" that came through, in their eyes, in several segments, and for the failure, in any segment, to focus with any depth or intensity on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and U.S. policy in that conflict as a factor in the turmoil that now has put America at a crossroads.
I have included in this column a representative sampling of the letters from viewers that go, specifically, to these two issues. Some of the language and assessments are harsh and personal. I'm not endorsing any or all of the letters below. But I do think they have hit on the two weakest and most troublesome aspects of this important series.
My own view is that the absence of any serious focus and discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the situation of the Palestinians is, indeed, a huge omission in understanding the Arab and Muslim world, especially in the midst of a war with Iraq, and especially if we are a nation at a crossroad.
About Richard Perle
As for the Perle program, "The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom," it leaves two very large questions in my mind as a journalist/ombudsman, and as a viewer.
The first is why give an hour to a program controlled by Perle to focus on the case for a war that has, at the very least, gone badly, is now in its fifth year, could go on for many more years, and has been explained to the public endlessly from the outset by the President, Vice President and many other administration officials?
The second question grows out of the first. At a time when most Americans, no matter what they think of the war, would agree that we have a big-time problem on our hands, why in the world would PBS choose to focus on re-arguing the case for taking down Saddam and an assertive American foreign policy rather than examining how this happened, what went wrong, how to avoid having it happen again, where we are, and how are we to deal with its enormous human, financial, military, and policy consequences?
It may be that history will be kinder to the decision to invade Iraq than it looks now. Let's hope so. But I personally find the decision to produce this film, as it has turned out, to be a stunning avoidance of the real crossroad that we are at and an abdication of journalistic principle on the most crucial issue of our time and our future. This was not the subject or the time, in my opinion, on which to have a "point of view" film controlled by an advocate.
Any journalist that has come close to covering national security issues for the past several decades knows Richard Perle. I have known him for some 35 years. He is a defense intellectual, very smart, well spoken and fast on his feet, a man familiar with the details of issues and unfailingly polite in laying them out. He is a conservative on defense and foreign policy issues, a true believer in his causes. He is actually, in my view, often a better explainer and defender of positions than the government he serves. So Perle is a worthy participant in any discussion of Iraq because he was a player, even though not an administration official, and a view supporting the war is certainly legitimate and deserving of airing.
But the way to present Richard Perle, it seems to me, is to interview him, ask questions and match him with guests who know as much of the details as Perle knows and who can challenge, with authority, what he says when there is an important challenge to be made. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies comes to mind — or any number of former national security officials or members of Congressional intelligence committees — as someone who would not let things go by or unsaid.
A Corny Quality?
The film, itself, struck me as having a propaganda tone. It starts out with Perle saying, "In this film I'll try to show that we must continue the fight against Islamist terror . . . and I'll do so in a series of discussions in many places and with people holding a variety of views." It has travelogue and all-American boy scenes that just sound corny and unrealistic — about how a street market in Kabul shows the free market at work and how he "could spend a week just walking around Kabul, the sounds, the smells, the faces," and about his old high school in Hollywood.
The film was originally commissioned to the British filmmaker Brian Lapping, who is an old friend of Perle's. When that caused a ruckus, Lapping recused himself but the film was produced by Brook Lapping Productions and the executive producer is employed by Brian Lapping. These are respected firms and producers, and their charter was to produce a thought-provoking opinion film. Well, it has provoked thought. For me, I think the controversy surrounding it overshadows the rest of the series and my bet is that "Crossroads" will always be referred to as "Oh, that was the Richard Perle thing."
The film is not without challenge or powerful moments from some expressive and, in some cases, well known critics. But it is structured so that Perle always has the last word and controls the flow.
One exchange, among several examples, ends with conservative commentator Pat Buchanan saying, "I think Iraq was a mistake. I think it may have been the biggest blunder in our history." Then there is music and Perle says: "Pat Buchanan and I agree. America had to respond to al Qaeda" and on he moves to the Middle East. Well, an overwhelming number of Americans agreed that 9/11 had to be responded to by attacking the Taliban in Afghanistan.
An argument on Washington D.C.'s Mall with war protestors is the most dramatic segment of the film. It is very well done. But then Perle sets up his own case, saying to nobody visible, "I've heard many times the assertion that there was no link between Iraq and terrorism." Then he invokes the name of Abu Nidal, a renegade and notorious Palestinian terrorist who lived in several countries and whose infamy surfaced for the most part in the 1970s and '80s in the Middle East conflict. Someone might have pointed out that Nidal was not al Qaeda, was once thrown out of Iraq and died there of gunshot wounds in 2002 after Iraq officials claimed he had re-entered the country illegally.
At multiple points in the film, the central issue of the Iraq invasion plan — the purported Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction — comes up and Perle says "we all believed" that Saddam had them.
We All Didn't Believe
Well, that's not entirely true. We know now that the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, before the war, argued that the available evidence did not support the judgment that Iraq was pursuing a coherent effort to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program. We know that State and technical experts at the Department of Energy did not believe that aluminum tubes imported by Iraq were for centrifuges to enrich uranium, a central, and false, assertion that was at the heart of the administration's case that Iraq was seeking nuclear weapons. We know that Air Force experts did not agree that Iraq's small pilotless drones were meant to be used for biological weapons attacks. We now know that the Defense Intelligence Agency had said it had no reliable evidence that Iraq was stockpiling chemical weapons or that there were al Qaeda training camps in Iraq. And there had been early internal warnings, according to a senior CIA official, that a key Iraqi defector known as "Curveball" feeding information to U.S. intelligence was not reliable.
Meanwhile, in public at the time, the chief of the United Nation's International Atomic Energy was saying before the invasion began that inspectors had found no evidence of any Iraqi nuclear weapons program, or of the alleged mobile biological weapons laboratories touted by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his speech to the UN. And, by the way, documents that supposedly showed how Iraqi officials sought to purchase uranium in Africa were forgeries, the IAEA reported.
That much of what the country was told about the reasons to go to war turned out not to be the case is well known by now. No weapons of mass destruction of any kind were found. Yet one of the truly interesting and important aspects of those pre-war statements is that they were presented to the American public at the time with a great sense of certainty.
President Bush: "On its present course, the Iraqi regime is a threat of unique urgency . . . It has developed weapons of mass death . . . The evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program . . . We've also discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas. We're concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVS for missions targeting the United States." Vice President Cheney: "We believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons . . . Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." Defense Secretary Rumsfeld: "We know they have weapons of mass destruction." Secretary Powell at the UN: "Ladies and Gentlemen, these are not assertions. These are facts corroborated by many sources."
So, how, exactly, did the gap between the public statements, the internal and public doubts in some quarters, and the ultimate reality happen? The Republican-controlled Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, in July 2004, delivered a very damaging assessment of all the wrong or unsupported intelligence regarding Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction that had been provided before the war, and also reported that there was no "established formal relationship" between Iraq and al Qaeda, another area of heavily implied pre-war linkage by the administration. But it made no assessments of how that intelligence was used, or misused, by the President, Vice President, the Pentagon or other top officials, and the then-chairman of the committee, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), put off that Phase II portion of the committee's charter until after the 2004 election. It has still not been completed.
So some of these issues, in my view at least, could have been explored during "The Case for War" with experts as well armed with counter-arguments as Perle is with his case. It would have been time better spent than showing Perle walking around Kabul or his boyhood Hollywood High School, where so many actors graduated.
What follows are some of the letters. But first, an . . .
(Ombudsman's Note: Last week's column dealt, in part, with the role of the host of PBS's regular Friday night "Washington Week" program, Gwen Ifill, in the aftermath of the firing of radio/television talk show host Don Imus over racial and sexual slurs made on the air. In response to the column, Ifill sent along her comments to me and to the viewers whose e-mails were posted last week. Ifill's response is posted after the letters about "Crossroads.")
Back to the 'Crossroads' Letters
Though I have been generally pleased with topics and quality of Frontline and other PBS programs . . . I was thoroughly horrified by the propaganda that you aired this evening. Richard Perle's "The Case for War" was a disgusting collection of old lies that have long ago been debunked publicly. However, your network just provided a means for him to reiterate those lies and misrepresentations without serious challenge. Within one verbal battering of a war mother who was not prepared for any debate with a career politico such as Perle, I counted at least 3 well-known lies about prewar intelligence that were allowed to be resurrected and disseminated on your airwaves. The only brief moments of reality were when Perle was face to face with people such as Richard Holbrook. However, even these few moments were always followed by Perle's unchallenged monologues which attempt to discredit his challenger and/or reframe the dialogue into a historically unparallel context of his particular liking. This was the worst piece that I have seen on PBS in years and I think you done an incredible disservice to your viewers and this country. We need honest political dialog that does not permit reiterations of the well-known deceptions. Those lies prolong this war and we cannot afford more death just so this man and his kind might save their reputations after their disgraceful warmongering.
Christopher Kriese, San Francisco, CA
While the other films on America at a Crossroads were truly insightful and moving. I had a hard time keeping the TV tuned to PBS and Perle. This show is truly a low point in PBS reporting, giving this neo-Zionist a major forum to repeat his hateful rhetoric.
Michael B., Portland, OR
Why are you showing tonight Richard Perle's egocentric self-justification for his misguided views? Most of what he is saying in his "Case for War" propaganda piece has long since been discredited by the very agencies he quotes. It is very unfortunate that PBS did not provide a "reality check" to each and every one of his claims.
Elin McCoy, Kent, CT
The Best, But . . .
The best 5 hours of TV I've ever seen! . . . Thanks to your "America at a Crossroads" series. I can't thank you enough. After concluding David Martin's segment (which should win whatever the highest awards there are for reporting in this country, if not beyond), I eagerly awaited hour #6 but now sit with TV at low volume while Richard Perle continues on. WITHOUT ME. Of the entire series, no one with an "agenda," has had an hour devoted to their point of view. No one. As one of the war's "architects", why would this otherwise beyond-excellent series, provide such a lengthy platform to the likes of Perle?! Bad call.
I am enjoying the America at the Crossroads series of documentaries that PBS is showing this week. The one on the history of al Qaeda on Sunday night was fascinating, and the one last night about the soldiers' stories of their experiences in Iraq was heartfelt and moving. Unfortunately, the Richard Perle's documentary was extremely biased. His interviews were alright, but then he was able to have the final say, to comment on his opponents' views after they have left. Why did you give him the opportunity to depict such a completely one-sided perspective? Perle is living in a dream world, claiming that the United States did not make a mistake going into Iraq. In the interest of balance, I hope there is a documentary that is one-sided against the war that will be shown on PBS as well.
Johan de Zoete, Grand Rapids, MI
Wow. A whole hour with Richard Perle. Justifying and marketing his view of Iraq. He could not have asked for a better venue than this . . . Your journalistic integrity just went down the toilet sir. This was no different than the ABC 911 docudrama. Worse, in fact, since you bankrolled it with money from PBS supporters who thought you were a cut above the rest.
Paul T., Medford, MA
This is the third night that I am viewing your "America at a Crossroads" presentation . . . I am very much a supporter of Richard Perle's thinking . . . I like very much that it was clearly presented that everyone thought there were WMDs in Iraq . . . we are there and we can not just 'cut and run' and allow evil to overtake the citizenry at this point — we need China to send a million soldiers to stand guard at Iraq borders, that would stop the influx of outsider Shi'ites coming in and supplying material to being troublemakers . . . I like that it was said that if the terrorism in Iraq would end that there would be a vast improvement in the environment for reconstruction.
Carla D., Flanders, NY
I am an avid viewer of PBS, particularly the well researched and unbiased programming, such as NOVA and Frontline. I was absolutely flabbergasted last night when after a well researched, video footage and interviewed series on the Iraq war was followed by an incredibly biased, self-serving hour long Fox-like piece on the deceitful, warmonger Richard Perle. What is drivel like that doing on PBS? That show was not a well researched piece of journalism, it was an opinion based infomercial full of statements that were not backed by ANY documentation, research or fact.
Lisa Coulter, Carbondale, IL
Last night I watched Richard Perle's personal documentary. Like any flawed work, when the protagonist writes the script, questions, subject matter, viewpoint and has the last word it is a one giant deliberate lie that insults the viewer. How to win an argument? Argue with yourself. I expect PBS to have some follow up refuting Perle's "documentary" point by point. OK. So I expect Fox to air such a crock but I expect higher standards from PBS. That's why we the people contribute to PBS. One of my favorite parts was when Perle shows a marketplace in Afghanistan and praises it as showing the success of the Bush invasion. "Capitalism" now thrives there as evidenced by this open market. Huh! Markets are as old as human history. This is not capitalism. These open markets were central places of trade prior to the Soviet invasion. They remained so during the invasion. During the Taliban rule. And, yes, still today. So how can Bush and the Neocons take credit for this? Maybe we PBS viewers are just dummies.
Beverly Labin, Reno, LV
There was even an episode that was narrated by one of the main architects of the Iraq war and a leading neocon, Richard Perle. Whoever greenlighted this project should go back and reread Orwell's 1984. This series is pure propaganda for the hawkish ideology of the neocon movement.
Mark Butler, Hutto, TX
Are you kidding? Perle and others need to be investigated and jailed, not given access to the airwaves. They already had that and created hundreds of thousands of wrongful deaths and up to 3 million refugees. Shame on PBS for letting the liars continue.
Randy Cecil, Baltimore, MD
"America at a Crossroads" is an interesting series, and I have watched all of it to date. But how could you give so much time to Richard Perle and not present the other side of those who oppose and have opposed the war. THEY WERE RIGHT, as it turns out, and not the nitwits Perle would make them out to be. PBS lacks more than a little integrity by allowing itself to be a shill for the Neocons and giving the finger to the war resisters. A well-rounded series would have certainly included Richard Perle — and then also a segment on the people who had it right from the beginning. I am not willing to give my money to support Republican propaganda which is what the Perle segment was — but I am willing to give it so that voices like Perle's will be heard as well as those who oppose them. PBS has failed us this time — again.
Richard Humke, L., KY
Richard Perle? Was Wolfowitz unavailable?
Bob Dierker, Oyster Bay, NY
First of all let me start by saying that despite some missteps in terms of programming decisions I consider the programming on PBS to be some of the best in all of television. That being said I was disappointed at this new series you're currently showing called "America at a Crossroads." I happened to be watching last night and must say that I was disappointed to say the least at how this particular episode portrays Muslims, their religion, their culture and their history. What struck me the most was the fact that Richard Perle, not exactly the paragon of journalistic excellence, came on to basically argue what he calls "the case for war." I think most Americans would agree that our government, starting from the top made their case for war based on lies, alarmism and fear mongering. I think PBS is better than that.
Roberto Aburto, El Cajon, CA
CPB/PBS is obligated to present accurate, objective, clear portrayals of the currents and activities afflicting this beleaguered world. Richard Perle is not objective; and, as I watched him and discussed his appearance with public, taxpaying friends, it was all too apparent that, in the guise of "even-handedness," Perle was always — always — afforded the "last shot," the lasting impression. Not good . . .
Robert H. Stiver, Pearl City, HI
I watched the Richard Perle film last night that is part of the America at a Crossroads series and I was astonished. It seems to me that if PBS wants to include the neoconservative perspective, there are other ways to do it besides giving an entire hour for one of their most skilled and subtle ideologues to speak unchallenged and unquestioned.
Tom M. Pittsburgh, PA
Just a short note to tell you how impressed I am with "America at a Crossroads." This is TV at its best. It is a shame that President Bush did not have this kind of information before he got us into this tragic mess. Now the question is how do we get out for victory is impossible.
Paul Bjornstad, Ann Arbor, MI
There was never any legitimate reason to invade Iraq. It was all lies and the Bush Administration started planning it upon taking office in 2001. Of course, they would as most of the members of the Project for the New American Century are in the administration. Please present all the facts. The fact that you are maybe going to show the two shows you've held up at a later date is very alarming.
Marilyn Dudek, Baker City, OR
I have found America at the Crossroads extremely effective in conveying the reality of the Iraq issue. I expected no less from a program with Robert McNeill as headliner. All of my high appreciation came to a crashing halt yesterday (4/17/07) with the propaganda film of Richard Perle. How could you? What kind of "constituency pressure" could have prevailed on PBS . . . There wasn't one mention of his having to resign from a Pentagon advisory group because of his close relationship with a defense contractor.
Morton Stelling, Mukilteo, WA
What journalistic standards were they following by allowing an extreme anti-constitutional partisan with huge credibility problems of his own, have sole control over editorial content, to decide what to show, whom to interview, what topics to cover or avoid?
Tom Fleischman, Nyack, NY
While a few opponents — but never the strongest, most authoritative critics of the war such as Juan Cole who is noticeable by his absence — are also included in the segment, Perle is given time to rebut each one. Little wonder: The film was produced by his associate, Brian Lapping.
James Charles, Minneapolis, MN
Somehow we have got to figure out how the Perles of the world trumped the Scowcrofts. How the ideas of a guy like him, your quintessential clueless academic, trumped the ones of seasoned statesmen who actually care more about America than Israel, and who see imperialism for what it is, instead of as some kind of starry-eyed promotion of "liberty." How in God's name did that happen? Please don't take my criticism for condemnation, or rejection. I LOVE PBS and rely heavily on it to be a voice of logic and reason in the world. Keep on keepin' on.
Karen Copeland, Jackson, MS
I can barely convey in words how important your programs are to American people. Tolerance can never be achieved without understanding. Violence, hate and war will never end until we learn to understand and respect all people. Even though I believe the blood of all Americans and Iraqis are on Richard Perle's hands and others, I respect the fact you let him present his views on the war in Iraq. Over one hundred Iraqis died during the time of the tragedy in Virginia yet, Americans only seem to care about deaths happening here. Your program on soldiers in Iraq (Crossroads) opened my eyes to the war in a way I never imagined. PBS journalism represents the only ways we can teach our children how not to let us make these mistakes again. Unbiased presentation of information. Peace is not an antiquated idea, it is the only hope for civilization.
Robert S., Amarillo, TX
Why is there no mention of the root problems for example the ethnic cleansing of the original inhabitants of Palestine by Jewish colonists and settlers?? Why doesn't PBS show the extremist Jewish settlers harassing, killing and ethnic cleansing Palestinians from their land?
Hamid Reza, Los Angeles, CA
Why isn't there a discussion of the fundamental issue that relates to Muslims — the Israeli-Palestinian crisis? Why is there not a comparison of the minority radical Muslims with the minority radical Israelis and the minority radical Christians. I think that this series will only fuel America's hatred against Muslims, and whose agenda is that?
Catherine Legge, Coalville, UT
After having watched the first few episodes of 'Crossroads' I am deeply disturbed for a variety of reasons. For one, what I have seen so far seems to be a thinly veiled attempt at Muslim-bashing made palatable to the PBS audience. It chronicles events without framing them, from the events in Egypt to Iran. It conveniently overlooks America's deep involvement in these events and paints the Muslim uprising as one of madmen. It follows the violence in Iraq, showing the most gruesome images, yet skipping over U.S. atrocities. This piece appears to be deeply marred in propaganda, juxtaposing a peace loving America with a bloodthirsty Muslim planet. No, it doesn't help that you state that 'not all Muslims are bad'. In an odd way, it is intellectualized polemics.
Rolf Ernst, Plano, TX
I am very disappointed with the Crossroads series. It seems to me that you have chosen to highlight some of the most egregious Iraq warmongers and you have chosen, as well, to whitewash the issue of Israel's brutality. I think you have also suppressed the issue of blowback from US manipulations of the region over decades.
Paul Kane, Bloomington, IN
I had hoped PBS would portray a more accurate presentation, of the real issues which have created the problems that have brought us to this Crossroads. However this is just another rehash of "Muslim Bashing," subtle though it maybe. The root of this whole situation is not even mentioned, the blatant persecution of the Palestinians by Israel.
After watching the first 3 segments, I am outraged that no real attention has been paid to the role of Israel and the Christian right fundamentalist movement in the USA. The editing of the Perle segment allows him the last word in every discussion and presents none of the hard evidence available to refute blatant lies. The well known planning sessions conducted by Cheney and the oil lobby well before the invasion may be included in future segments but somehow I doubt it. So far what I have seen is propaganda not investigative reporting.
Ellis Breaux, San Francisco, CA
Muslims and the TSA
Wednesday's episode "The Muslim Americans," part of the "America at a Crossroads" series, exhibited a particularly shoddy piece of journalism. In purporting to show how Muslims attract greater scrutiny, two reporters were dressed in Islamic garb and passed through TSA airport security. The woman, dressed in a hijab and an outer garment to cover her western clothes, underwent extra security checks. As anyone who has tried to wear a hooded sweatshirt or coat through TSA security can confirm, outer garments of this type are not permitted regardless of any religious affiliation. The fact that the "Muslim" male reporter, who had no outer garb of this type, was allowed through security without extra checks should have been the tip-off to the objective enforcement of this policy. Instead, unfair treatment by TSA was implied where there was none. Like most people, I have been subjected to numerous extra searches since 9/11. I am not a Muslim, and I object to the implication that I am given preferential treatment because of it.
It seems that many of your programs range from mildly to vehemently anti-Muslim, and that the views of Islam and the situation in the Mideast that you portray are strongly skewed . . . You make no attempt to discuss the background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to point out the numerous UN resolutions violated by the occupation and settlements, or to portray the violence of the Israeli state toward civilian populations (Palestinians and Lebanese).
J. Contursi, St. Paul, MN
Now, a different subject. Here is . . .
Gwen Ifill's Response
I turned down dozens of media requests to talk about the Imus controversy, on everything from the Today Show and Good Morning America, to Greta van Susteren, Dateline, and A.M. radio. I expressly did not want to be drawn into a debate about Mr. Imus, or a campaign against him. But I feel I have a special responsibility to PBS viewers. Although there is no way to personally respond to the hundreds of emails I have received on this topic, I hope you will let me respond to the ones you posted.
As you know, I am not given to climbing on soap boxes. And I spoke out on the Imus matter only because, upon reflection, I felt I could contribute something unique. Because of my history with Mr. Imus, because of my standing as a black woman and a journalist, I was able to see something few others could. This was a story of young women who accomplished much, and in return received a nasty slap.
Because I think I had a good idea how they felt, and had once worked at the New York Times, their opinion page seemed the perfect venue.
As it happened, my article appeared the same day the Rutgers' coach and team went public, magnifying my words. Although I find it interesting how many writers sought to link me with the actions of others who spoke out — especially Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton — it is clear to me those connections are made by folks with other axes to grind. (a "finger-licking display of happiness"? Whatever could that mean?)
I have no axe, and certainly no hatred for Don Imus. I received a flood of response, much of it from people who read the article in the newspaper, and much more from people who read the column online after it was forwarded to them. Honestly, I was somewhat taken aback by the emotion of response — dozens of people writing to tell me they cried as they read the words I wrote. I understood immediately that I had inadvertently touched a nerve, tapping into what one observer later called the great "river of anxiety" we have about race in this country.
By Friday, that flood had not stopped. At Washington Week, we discussed how to talk about the Imus story, and I made the decision that since I was part of the story, I owed it to my viewers to let them know what I was thinking. I was also well aware that a lot of people would be tuning in just to see what I had to say. The Imus story was not a Washington Week story, per se. It had nothing to do, in a strict sense, with Washington, or in a broader sense, with public policy. But it did have something to do with me. Since my name is on the program, I thought it would be too cute by half to behave as if nothing had happened. That's why I wrote the closing commentary.
I also agreed to appear on one program — "Meet the Press." I'd worked at NBC News, am friendly with Tim Russert, and knew instinctively that this would be the best place to address the one topic I had publicly avoided — the role journalists played in this.
I have been moved by much of the response and even amused by some of it. One female White House reporter wrote to let me know that her kids have always thought the cleaning lady covered the White House!
But a few inaccuracies need to be cleared up. Mr. Imus has said he did not call me a "cleaning lady," then said it was a joke, then said it happened in the Reagan administration. Some of his champions have taken up this line of defense. But I did not cover the Reagan administration, and wonder how something one never said can be a joke. Hmmm.
If nothing else, I have gained new appreciation for the speed at which information and misinformation can take root in cyberspace . . . and as the events at Virginia Tech have demonstrated this week, how little much of it matters. As I always say to our viewers . . . thanks for watching.