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The Ombudsman Column

On the War: Questioning the Questioner

The appearance in Washington this week of the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, four-star Army Gen. David Petraeus, and his diplomatic sidekick, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, was among the most high-profile visits to the nation's capital in a long time.

The good news for PBS in all this is that out of all the television appearances the two men made, even including two days of lengthy testimony before House and Senate committees, no one individual probably had as long a sustained crack at the general and ambassador as did Jim Lehrer of the nightly NewsHour on Wednesday evening. I didn't see all the other interviews, but Lehrer had more than a half-hour on camera with them.

The bad news, at least for the handful of viewers who wrote to or called me, is that they thought the interview was pretty bad. Some of the assessments, printed below, are harsh and sweeping. I don't buy those indictments. But if I had to sum-up my reaction to the interview, I'd register some disappointment.

It's not that there was anything specifically wrong, or that there wasn't some value and at least some attempt to sum up, in a couple of questions, the skepticism so many Americans feel about this war, its duration and about official pronouncements. Lehrer pressed Crocker, for example, for reaction to retired Army Gen. John Abizaid's assessment that it would take three to five years for the Iraqi government to operate on its own, and tried to pin down Petraeus on when future troop level decisions would be made. Both men are too skilled and careful to reveal what they don't want to. Yet, you never know what pointed questions will produce.

It's just that for an issue that is at the heart of this moment in our history, the half-hour, as a whole, seemed too flat and dry to me, an under-utilized opportunity. It offered a calm nod to those frustrations that engulf millions of Americans about where this war is going without really pressing more specific questions about military and diplomatic strategy and the associated costs in lives, money and reputation that are on people's minds.

There seemed to me to be a fair amount of time wasted as well on questions like have they talked to the president and "Did he seem pleased by what you said?" and how they work together in Baghdad and get along with each other, and whether one agrees with the other. Of course they do. That's okay for some other time, but it seemed a too leisurely and easy-to-predict conversation at this moment.

What, for example, is their assessment of when Iraqi army and police will be able to take over security? Why is training now likely to be more successful than past efforts? What are the projections of the continuing military dollar costs of the war? What are the troop levels that the Army and Marines can maintain, and what happens if there is an emergency elsewhere? What are the implications for U.S. casualty rates — killed and wounded — associated with the "new" strategy, and for keeping large numbers of troops there for at least another few years? Do they see the need for permanent U.S. bases in Iraq and what affect might that have on public opinion in the Muslim world? What is the role of Iraqi oil reserves in diplomatic-military discussions about staying or leaving? What is the impact of Iraqi civilian deaths and of millions of others who have left the country or are displaced on the ability to carry out the strategy?

Here Are the Letters:

This evening's (Sept. 12) was one of the sorriest interviews Lehrer conducted on the NewsHour; practically agreeing with everything Gen. Petraeus is suggesting to do in Iraq. What kind of journalist is he not to be asking hard and specific questions? I got so fed up I turned to CBS for the rest of the news. Does Lehrer not get it that more than 60 percent of us out here are fed up with what is going on with this sorry war. Katie Couric had him beat by a country mile tonight. Shame on PBS and Lehrer.

Ann Hicks, Greenville, SC

I was surprised tonight, in watching "The Lehrer NewsHour," to hear the very strong, editorial comments by Jim Lehrer in his interview with Petraeus/Crocker. He began the interview by characterizing Congress as hostile. During the interview, he asked leading questions to negate the comments of Biden, and to some extent, Lugar from their 9/11 interview. It was quite apparent that Jim Lehrer was strongly in support of the "recommendations" of these two men, and was very negative re: Congress' right to question them and the policies that have led the U.S. into this situation. I do not listen to the Lehrer NewsHour to hear Jim's opinions or to have Jim's opinions supported. I listen to the program out of a desire to hear real journalistic questions asked to provide objective information re: the topic.

San Diego, CA

Lehrer didn't ask an important question. Why have we been unable to train Iraqis to replace US troops? Is it because Iraqis don't want to kick down doors, blindfold their own people and bring them to Abu Ghraib?

James Elliott, Florissant, MO

Edward R. Murrow just rolled over in his grave. The 9/12/07 NewsHour interview with Petraeus and Crocker was an anemic suck-up. What ever happened to hard-hitting journalism? Sickening.

Gene Bitner, Amarillo, TX

I had stopped listening/watching to the Lehrer report on TV for several months due to its lack of objectivity and Mr. Lehrer's inability to ask tough questions especially of government/administration representatives. I was hoping that the program had become more objective. I was sorry to see today that Mr. Lehrer continues to pander to the Bush Administration. He spent well over half an hour asking soft questions to Crocker, a Bush appointee for ambassador who ultimately reports to Condoleezza Rice, and General Petraeus who reports to the Department of Defense.

This was nothing more than an opportunity for these two Bush apologists to repeat their opinions based on selective repetition of data, unsupported and sometimes grossly distorted facts shaped and distorted to support a failed policy. Yet Mr. Lehrer failed to ask a single follow-up question or even interview somebody with a different opinion on this program. SHAME ON YOU!!!

Anwar Bhamla, Weston, MA

The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer should no longer be an offering under the PBS network. Any claim that the news coverage and editorial comments are non-biased is totally without merit. Every story associated with President Bush's administration is presented with a total lack of journalistic criticism. Most discussions hosted by Mr. Lehrer are one-sided since the invited experts are always supporting conservative viewpoints.

Ron Diaz, San Mateo, CA