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PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

On the Frontline, Again

All of you TV watchers out there have surely seen, by now, that famous "red telephone" political advertisement run by Sen. Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. It seeks to convey the idea that when that crisis phone rings, you want the smartest, most experienced and steadiest person in the room to pick it up.

But as all of you also know, TV commercials are not reality. The phone call on 9/11 was answered by a then inexperienced President George W. Bush who, at first glance, looked stunned but, soon enough, rose to the occasion of rallying the country and responding to those terrible attacks by going after Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

And you also know that it was only a short time later when a then more tested president, surrounded by some of the most experienced officials ever to serve in Washington — Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA Director George Tenet, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and others — combined to lead the country into a war against Iraq, a country that did not attack us, based on what turned out to be numerous false pretenses. A majority of Americans now say it was the wrong decision.

An Old Story That Isn't

That, too, is an old story by now, except that the war is still going on and entered its sixth year this month. And, it is the story of our time. So it needs to be told and understood as fully as possible, with no punches pulled. Indeed, there is going to be lots more to tell, maybe for years to come.

And it is also well known by now that the press, with some exceptions, did not do a very good job of challenging the administration's case for going to war in Iraq before the war began. Since then, it has done much better. But it is the reporting before a war, when the chips are down, that counts the most. That early effort counts for politicians and elected leaders, as well. So my recommendation is that, aside from campaign commercials, all presidential candidates, politicians and citizens watch, if you haven't already done so, the two-part, four-and-a-half hour series on PBS titled "Bush's War," produced by WGBH Boston's flagship documentary program Frontline, that aired last Monday and Tuesday evenings. It is the work of producer Michael Kirk and reporter-producer Jim Gilmore.

By now, there are scores of books about the war, many of them excellent, about how the idea to invade evolved behind the scenes and how the battle was conceived and fought. But most people get their news from television and, in my view, there has been nothing on television that comes close to this latest Frontline effort in laying out, in one place and two sittings, the factual and compelling narrative sweep of this war and how we got into it. In that sense, it may well be more important or influential than the books.

A 'Clip Job' That Works

The things that come closest are some of the 40 or so earlier Frontline programs on aspects of the post-9/11 world and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have appeared over the last seven years. But they were all slices, albeit the best in their class. This new two-parter is, in one sense, the proverbial newspaper "clip job," creating something new by stringing together earlier reports and adding at least some new material. But this also serves to connect most of the dots, a technique that was absent in a lot of news coverage. It becomes a coherent visual and audible whole that simply does not exist elsewhere. It is exactly, in my opinion, what PBS should be doing.

The series, not surprisingly, provoked a lot of viewer reaction, a fair amount of it critical. This is also not surprising because the war is enormously controversial. A sizeable sample of viewer reaction sent to the ombudsman is printed below.

I also had some questions and felt there were some holes, even though I give this series very high marks. In brief, I felt more time in the final segment should have been devoted to an assessment of the "surge" of additional US troops into Iraq that has now been underway for many months and that at least has the possibility, perhaps only temporarily, of changing the face and future of the war.

Related to that, I thought the absence from the documentary of Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander of American forces in Iraq for more than a year now, was noticeable and unfortunate. The film's portrayal of the shortcomings of all the previous commanders is among the most important keys to understanding how things unraveled. Yet Petraeus is among the most highly touted generals to emerge in years and some sense of his impact would have helped in such a comprehensive round-up of the story up to now.

I asked Michael Kirk about these and other issues and his response also follows.

There is no doubt that this series adds up to a critical portrait of this administration. But that is not new either and there is absolutely no doubt that the fullest portrait of how the country was taken to war and why it was fought the way it was is central to a democracy and an informed citizenry. The administration, indeed any administration, has essentially unlimited access to the media to tell its story, and reporters and public officials with different facts and different views must also have theirs.

There are other things missing from this series. There is no mention of the 4,000 U.S. military deaths, the 30,000 or so wounded, the 90,000, at least, Iraqi deaths, the millions displaced, the $600 billion and counting cost. Rather, this is mostly a compelling personal, internal, bureaucratic drama. It is, in fact, dramatic enough in the telling to have done without the sound of police car sirens in virtually every Washington street scene.

Michael Kirk Responds:

Thanks for your inquiry about our reasoning behind these important questions raised in response to Bush's War. They are all matters we carefully considered and spent a fair amount of time discussing in the reporting and editing process. Here are our answers:

What was the reasoning behind the title, "Bush's War"?

At its heart, the film is about the struggles within the administration for control of America's foreign policy after September 11th. The film is about the interplay of the main characters: Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice. But in the end, all of the important decisions were made by the president. He was the one who decided how and when to invade Afghanistan, to begin planning for the Iraq war, whether to attack Iraq, and who would be in charge of the aftermath. It was also the president who chose who his advisors would be and, as we emphasize in the second film, his decisions about who would be fired or hired were the last word in the administration's bureaucratic battles.

Of course, there are many other players who are important for understanding the events that transpired after September 11th: Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, the United Nations, the Congress, the press, the American public, and many others. However, they were not the focus of this project.

Why not provide additional time/focus on "the surge"?

Bush's War does spend much of the second episode telling the story of the surge: How the initial "light footprint" strategy of Rumsfeld and Casey failed, how Rice pushed for a new clear, hold, build strategy that Rumsfeld resisted, and how the 2006 midterm elections provided the president the opportunity to fire Rumsfeld and adopt Rice's policy in what became known as the surge. At the end of the day, we don't know whether or not the surge tactic will be a success and we cannot yet weigh in on the matter.

What we do know is what we report: That the surge was an attempt by the president to avoid catastrophe in Iraq and at least secure a stalemate by the time he leaves office. Ultimately, only time will reveal the legacy of the surge. However, it is fair to say that it is largely outside of the hands of this administration to secure success or failure. It will be up to the Iraqi people, the next president, the congress, and the American electorate.

Should there have been some discussion of the question of why the US actually went to war and whether anyone but the president or vice president knows the answer?

The film presents the facts as we understand them. While we portrayed the move towards war with Iraq, we cannot penetrate the inner thinking of the president or the vice president on these issues. We devote a fair amount of the film to portraying their public statements on why they were advocating a war with Iraq, which is all we can know about the matter. Ultimately, the president and vice president are the only ones who know their true motivations.

Viewers who are interested in knowing more about the run up to the war can find much more information on the interactive video timeline.

And, should oil have been mentioned?

The film focuses primarily on the interplay within the administration over the response to September 11th and the war in Iraq. In our reporting, we did not come across evidence that oil was in itself a central element in the dispute between the principals in the administration. Obviously, the Middle East is rich in oil and that played into strategic decisions about Iraq and, perhaps more importantly, into the planning for post-war Iraq. So, given the scope of this film we did not choose to spend precious air time outside the scope of our inquiry.

Why no mention of Gen. Petraeus?

I think to go there was to open up an expectation that we were about to spend time inside an analysis of the success of the surge. As you may remember, even in our film "Endgame" (a deeper analysis of the development of the "surge," with its "tactical father" General Jack Keane) we spent only a brief amount of time about Petraeus. He is a character worthy of an entire film (an extension of Endgame) and perhaps that is in our future, but we felt he was outside the limits of our larger inquiry.

Here Are the Letters

I recently viewed the Frontline program titled "Bush's War." As a faithful daily viewer and donator to PBS I was a little disturbed on how I knew the content and political way this program would lead. By portraying George Bush and his office as bickering school girls while our country was in dire straits of action is appalling. As for the emphasis placed on how the Republicans did not wait or have patience to wait while the Democrats figured out how to peacefully handle the so called "retaliation" after our country was brought to its knees is obscured. For a station that relies completely on public funding you need to watch which way your political views are chosen. We hear enough from non funded stations and do not need to hear your light stepped liberal views on a station and a country that I help support.

Joey McCullough, Milwaukee, WI

The first part of the Frontline presentation of Bush's War was a masterwork of research and presentation. I congratulate all involved. In the current wasteland of media "entertainment," a piece of this quality and depth stands by itself. Please keep such offerings coming.

Somerset, NJ

The Frontline documentary on Bush's war seems to practice the same tactic that they accuse the Bush administration of committing, namely, forcing the intelligence to fit the policy. The program seems to take the side of the liberal State Dept and CIA while showing Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz in the worst light, when it is clear that these departments' record on intelligence was very flawed.

Now, five years later after review of 600,000 documents retrieved from Iraq after the war, the IDA (Institute for Defense Analysis) has proof of Saddam's complicity with numerous terrorist groups. Read Deroy Murdock's column in National Review, March 24, 2008. It appears that history is proving that "Bush's War," as they prefer to call it, was an entirely appropriate national security response. This is further proven out by our lack of 9/11 tragedies, ever since Bush took action.

David Kimble, Royersford, PA

First off, I would like to say thank you for running the story about Bush's war. I serve in the U.S. Army. I will be starting my third tour in a month.

Fairbanks, AK

A great presentation. I only hope the many key players interviewed will help put the pieces together after this administration has left office to bring truth to the American public. But there is only one central question to be answered — What is/was the primary motive and short/long term goals for the Iraq invasion to begin with? Seemingly the only people who know the answer are Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. Without stating what must be the tragic truth, the intrigue is only sadly entertaining as no one in the world was able to stand up and stop the insanity. For the war and media accounts to continue without this frank and true indictment, I see little reason to spend time on the personal stories that pale in the face of war.

Robert Sorenson, Santa Clara, CA

On Monday March 24th, I watched a Frontline program on the prelude to the Iraq War. I am no fan of Bush and his cronies, but as a fan of truth, I am now an enemy of PBS. While the program covered the French declaration at a UN news conference that they would not support a military option in dealing with Iraq, the crucial glaring omissions by PBS were of the intense and protracted negotiations in the UN Security Council, leading to UNSC 1441, which gave Saddam another and final chance to comply with the terms of the 1991 cease-fire that suspended the Gulf War.

When Hans Blix reported in early 2003 that Saddam had still failed to comply, there were negotiations for a Security Council vote on a war resolution, which ended when France declared that it would veto such a resolution "no matter what". The failure to mention any of this is a knowing falsification of the history by Frontline and PBS.

J. Bandlow, Willoughby, OH


I just finished viewing your program on the Iraq war. Although well-produced, I could barely stomach the stupendous anti-Bush bias of this presentation. You obviously no longer even attempt balance or objectivity. It is no wonder much of the public is shifting over to other sources for news and information. Although the show was "enjoyable" to watch, the high-brow, slick production doesn't make up for the brazen, virulent leftist political perspective. From the title to the ending, your palpable hatred for the President is clearly obvious. This was not just the sincere but misguided ramblings of the "loyal opposition," this was malice towards the millions of Americans who view the war as justified and who highly respect President Bush. Your piece was shameful. I have given up my perspective of PBS as a respected source of political analysis and debate. I sincerely hope you lose a vast number of viewers and patrons as a result of this disturbing debacle.

Gary Salmons, Winston-Salem, NC

If all the info on the Iraq war is true then why aren't these people being brought up on charges for lying to the public with the support of you and your organization? I cannot believe this much info is out there and true and yet these men are free. We certainly blasted Clinton for far less then what these men have done. So if these men cannot be brought to justice then how can this info be true??

Catherine Orth, Mishawaka, IN

Bush's War is another one-sided attempt to discredit the motives and actions of the war on terrorism. No commander in chief is perfect, neither are his allies, or advisors. Just another slanted viewpoint, that the left wing press is so good at. Disappointing. Bush will leave office on a high note. The surge is working. History will have the last word. On the other hand, Ken Burns' "The War" was outstanding in its scope and impact.

Bjorn Lervik, Sioux Falls, SD

I no longer watch PBS or give money to you. Anyone who calls the war in Iraq "Bush's War" is seriously biased. Unless you show us something about JFK'S war (Viet Nam) or Roosevelt's war (WW2) then you will have to continue to get the money you need from the American Left-wingers in Congress (who voted for the war).

Dallas, TX

Witnessed "Bush's War" tonight, by Mr. Kirk. This documentation is now perpetual, a glaring sign of the treachery of the leftists. If, in some future time BEFORE our freedoms are completely stripped by your ilk, a truthful analysis is finished, it may then be apparent to all. Even to those, now young, who have been indoctrinated by our educators to believe the trash exhibited in this 'program'.

Dale R. Thompson, Reedsburg, WI

THANK YOU for your recent program "Bush's War" and for the earlier program on reconciliation. Both are amazing and hugely needed. You are doing a great public service.

Kalamazoo, MI

Nice to Hear the Truth, but One-Sided

I tuned in to watch "Bush's War" on Frontline this week. I looked forward to the show because my cousin is serving in Baghdad as we speak. I must tell you I was very disappointed in the content of this show. It seemed strange to me that the title wasn't "President Bush's War" out of respect for a serving president who still has some time in office. Bill Clinton is still referred to as president by the media and he has not been in office for seven years.

It was nice to hear the truth about the conflicts between the State Department and the Department of Defense. What I was most disappointed in was the lack of time spent on good things that have happened in Iraq. The show was one sided in this aspect. There was no time spent talking about reconstruction that has taken place or the stability in Northern Iraq. I expected the show to run another half hour just because nothing was covered in regards to the recent troop surge.

I was also surprised to see so many journalists interviewed as "expert witnesses" to the conflict when from my understanding they have hidden in the Baghdad hotel the whole war when they realized they might be killed if they went outside.

It seems to me Frontline could have worked on this broadcast for a few more months and put out a show that not only made the administration look like a bunch of fools, but also covered the positive things our troops and the Iraqi citizens are doing all over the country. It is apparent that they had to get the show on air before the November elections. Shows like this are the reason PBS will never get a red cent from me, though I watch it more than any other network and enjoy much of the programming.

Steve Hall, Oregonia, OH

I welcomed and was disappointed in "Bush's War." It did an excellent job of portraying the infighting, duplicity and incompetence of the Bush administration in re our involvement in Iraq. But it didn't even hint at the reason the neocons had their eye on Iraq even before 9/11: Oil. The impression left by "Bush's War" is that the U.S. invaded Iraq because Hussein is a bad man who has stockpiles of "weapons of mass destruction," and is secretly in the process of adding nuclear weapons to that stockpile.

Why didn't the producers of Frontline puncture holes in that rationale instead of dwelling — expertly, I believe — on the erroneous assumptions of the Bush team and the consequent cooking of intelligence and mishandling of our occupation? Why wasn't more emphasis placed on the fact that Hussein not only admitted UN inspectors into Iraq but that they were able to go wherever and whenever they wanted without notifying the Iraqi government?

Why weren't Hans Blix and Scott Ritter interviewed? If, indeed, the Bush administration's WMD rationale was legitimate, despite its bungling, why invade Iraq before the UN team had completed its work? The inevitable conclusion, missing from Frontline's production, was that the administration had a different motivation. In fact, it decided to invade when it did precisely because it was afraid that the UN team would completely destroy its WMD rationale. Finally, why were there no voices from peace activists heard on the program? I realize that the aim of the show was to have the "insiders" tell their side of the story. But other voices who might have set the record straight as to the neo-cons' true motivation would have been welcome.

Seymour Joseph, Brooklyn, NY

Bush's War was an interesting piece of journalism but its failure to explore the combined impact of the Anbar Awakening and the Surge in Anbar and the spread of its success leaves a gapping hole in a report that promised to be encompassing. I thought its analysis of the Bush administration's mistakes and course corrections instructive and interesting. However, the Frontline special seemed to fixate on the negative and behind the scenes squabbling. It ignored the 1st Armored Div. work and sacrifice in working with the sheikhs in Ramadi and how the Surge's Third Inf. Div. units completed squeezing Al-Qaeda from downtown Ramadi and the pursuit of Al-Qaeda and Sunni insurgents in the area around Ramadi and Fallujah.

Frontline's failure to show petty brutalities committed by Al Qaeda to ordinary citizens of Iraq is particularly disappointing; analogous to the press' failure (in Vietnam) to publicize the thousands of murders in Hue City. Dwelling on the "genius" of the Samarrah bombing was somewhat disturbing. I would challenge PBS, be it Frontline, POV, etc. to ask the soldiers what they saw without editing that leaves the unvarnished facts on the cutting room floor. Get your reporters, not just your photographers, outside the big bases. Your reporters and especially your editors owe it to those who have sacrificed with their blood, sweat and youth to tell the complete story of this war. They should not have left out the last year of the war and the sacrifice of tens of thousands of young Americans because it was perhaps an inconvenient truth. As Bush deserves the blame for persisting in de-Baathification and the dismantling of the Iraqi Army, Frontline should have given Bush at least the credit where it is due — the Surge worked — at least for the time being. I had hoped for better from Frontline.

Robert Murphy, Binghamton, NY

After last week's debacle on the NewsHour, when a terribly misrepresentative group of Americans were saddled with responding to a US Iraqi war veteran's emotional and extremely ill-informed assertions, "Bush's War" produced by Frontline could not more fully restore my belief in PBS and public media. I will be purchasing "Bush's War" to share with my family, circle of friends and associates, and anyone else I can entice to watch. It's the least I can do in light of the great sacrifice of American families of soldiers, and the cost to Americans and Iraqis at large.

Susan Gooding, Danbury, WI

I was greatly offended by the title of tonight's presentation "Bush's War." Those of us who were veterans of another war did not call it Kennedy's or Johnson's War. Nor did my father and my father-in-law fight in Roosevelt's War. This seriously undermines journalistic integrity and strengthens my belief that with all the choices of cable, PBS should stand on its own without further tax subsidies. Then it could enjoy all the freedoms that other outlets have without cranky old tax payers like me having a reason to complain.

Charles Bailey, Darien, CT

Where Were the Pols?

I was impressed by the high technical and journalistic standards in Frontline documentary — Bush's War. It was shocking to learn that no one in the senate, house, or media even asked a simple question, what is the proof that 9/11 was Al-Qaeda work, except Secretary Rice stating, "it looks like Al-Qaeda and quacks like Al-Qaeda."

M. Rab, Detroit, MI

While I am a big fan of PBS's Frontline and believe it has done excellent examinations of under-reported important stories, I was very disturbed by the end of "Bush's War" broadcast this week.

I have some minor criticisms of the 4.5 hour presentation but I was astounded that it managed to spend no more than 10 minutes on developments in Iraq since the surge was announced over a year ago. More than 4 hours examining events covering 6+ years and 10 minutes at most on significant developments that, in the most modest terms, at least complicate what outcomes can be predicted!

My concerns are twofold: first, that this is a disservice to the viewing public and a failure to fulfill the program's goal and, two, that this editorial decision opens the program, its producers, and PBS to charges of political bias and being agenda-driven.

I am a fierce critic of the Administration and I believe that the decision to invade Iraq and the execution of the war will have consequences that will take decades to correct even if we are lucky enough to have a succession of national leaders who are competent and not collaboration-averse. The last seven years have been a disaster in many, many ways. But how does Frontline justify the decision to neither review or examine developments over the last year that at least increase the possibility that Iraq will not end in utter disaster for Iraqis, the region, and the US?

Rob Carpenter, Washington, DC

About Frontline: These shows are informative but are often strongly biased because they, among other things, use "choreography" in an apparent attempt to demonize one side or the other. Ex: In Bush's War pictures of Bush and associates are very often displayed in black and white. NOTE YOUR OWN PBS WEB PAGE TODAY 3/26/2008. Also whenever the scenes show the White House there are always subtle siren sounds in the background and usually ominous music. Pure propaganda. Who the heck controls Frontline? It would be an excellent show but it shoves its own credibility into the Dumpster by using these infantile choreographic tactics.

Alexander McWilliams, Saint Cloud, MN

Thank you so much for putting together this interesting and candid film. I myself try to keep abreast of the truthful story of our government's part in the War but this documentary told the story and the events that put this sickening story of unfolding blunders, obvious lies, corruption at the highest level, power war mongers, inexperienced, non communication, all together into 4 hours. Bravo! Let's hope this trickles down to the peoples.

Willits, CA

Your "Frontline" show on "Bush's War" was nothing short of an emasculated pussy-footing wimp job. You never discussed the motivations for the war in the first place, i.e., OIL. You never mentioned Bush's signing statements on Iraq's oil production nor mentioned Pope Greenspan's comments on Iraq and OIL.

Gary Oppewall, Edgewood, WA

Frontline's Bush War Special was so inadequate. Where was the critical thinking? It was so incomplete. PBS missed an opportunity to tell the truth of this disastrous administration. What type of documentary will you run after we attack Iran for no reason? Does anyone, anywhere in media or government have any guts? Over a million innocent people have been slaughtered and this is what we get?

Jean R., Pittsburgh, PA

Although my telly has been acting up lately, I went out of my way to watch (part of) the first segment via streaming. After 40 minutes or so, I was rather put off, quit watching, and turned to some more informative activity. Today I read Ray McGovern, at Counterpunch, and I agree with him (insofar as I watched enough of the show to have an opinion). It appears that PBS/NewsHour and, at least here, Frontline have joined the military/industrial/financial/media/entertainment/ (and all other villains) complex. PBS needs a whole new board of directors who actually have an interest in journalism instead of infotainment. And you can tell that to Ken Burns, too.

Dallas, TX

Let's Hear It for Investigative Reporting

After watching Frontline's Bush's War, I was reminded what investigative reporting used to be. Once again, Frontline has demonstrated why it is such an important part of our Democracy! Bravo PBS.

George Brousard, Hayward, WI

"Bush's War" was a blatant oblique political rant for foundations that forked over the money. Why would it have any credibility from a script that was obviously written in advance to please their narrow and radical views . . . as most of your so called narratives are produced, and have little true research.

Ladysmith, WI

The Title "Bush's War" was a jab. As good as the documentary was, the Title was a Jab. As I recall the vast majority of the Congress voted and approved of this foray. Little was said of the Congress as if it doesn't exist. Over fifty percent of our Congress had been in office longer than Bush when the attack on the World Trade Center occurred. More needed to be said of the Bush accomplices and that was the career Congressmen and Women who didn't do more to check sources and double check intelligence. What was the Congress doing?

K. Jarvis, Heber, UT

What a cowardly piece of journalism "Bush's War" was.

Larry Dickman, San Diego, CA

I eagerly anticipated Bush's War and watched the entire program. Realizing that you can do only so much in four hours, I was none-the-less disappointed in the level of investigation and discourse. There have been excellent books and articles, such as The Assassin's Gate, that probed much more deeply into Bush's war. While I don't expect Frontline to simply mimic another's work, at least Frontline could have engaged in greater in-depth reporting.

T. Larson, Helena, MT

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