The Ombudsman's Mailbag
By Michael Getler
April 4, 2008
Welcome to another posting of viewer comments about recent programs or ombudsman columns. Much of the mail this week continued to focus on the two-part, four-and-a-half hour Frontline series titled "Bush's War" that aired on March 24 and 25. It was the subject of last week's column that also contained many letters from viewers as well as my own questions and assessment. Any program or series about the war is certain to be controversial and draw some negative comment, as well as praise, from viewers. That trend continues in the letters posted below, several of which raise other points and issues.
My overall assessment, contained in last week's column, remains intact:
"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 . . .
"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 the dots, a technique that was absent in a lot of news coverage. It becomes a coherent whole that simply does not exist elsewhere. So it is exactly, in my opinion, what PBS should be doing."
The Letters About the Letters and 'Bush's War'
I am amazed at how divided we are politically. No matter how much fact is presented the "true believer" refuses to accept it. I glanced through the comments and felt like many of the commentors that used the words like "liberal" to denounce the material presented were not interested in finding out the truth of the matter. Many of the contributors that were interviewed in the segment were there on the scene and have written books of their own. The reader can easily check the facts in the "notes" in the back of those books. Such as in "Fiasco" or the 9/11 report. There could have been more on the surge but I imagine there was a deadline to finish and you can see the effects successes/failures going on right now. I don't think that listening to Petraeus was necessary because they talked with McMaster. He was implementing the strategy in a difficult area so who better to cover than McMaster and his troops. Thanks for bringing us the facts, it's convinced me to be a member.
C. E., Bastrop, TX
I was glad to see the program. All programs are bound to have some bias as certain details will be included and others excluded, and we'd each prefer to be the judge. Was glad he (Michael Kirk) ended where he did since we don't really know much about the effectiveness of the surge — time will tell and considering that Sadr had kept his people from taking part in any activity at the time, we don't know if its supposed 'success' is real, or real only in the sense that we don't know everything about it — surely when its tale is told, the effect of Sadr will be included.
Tillie Krieger, Eugene, OR
"Bush's War" did well what it set out to do: provide a visual narrative of the events of the first 4-plus years of the war. It provided a forum for those who either supported the efforts to go into Iraq or were instrumental in the subsequent events on the ground, both in Iraq and at home. For so many of the viewers to complain about bias is so very revealing. Those who supported the invasion of Iraq have no ability to step back and look at events in any kind of objective way. They are too vested in a positive outcome. Given the events in Iraq over the last few days, even their arguments that the series didn't delve into the improvements within Iraq within the last few months as a result of the "Surge" have less validity. And I thought that Mr. Kirk's explanation of why he didn't take the documentary into the surge was entirely adequate.
In the end, I felt that Mr. Kirk and his documentary made an effort to be factual and unemotional about the war. If this comes out to appear biased on the part of the war's supporters, it probably proves what the rest of us already know: the war was and is a tragic and unnecessary quagmire, and it has nothing, absolutely, nothing, to do with fighting terrorism. It has only fomented it, a fact that, to this day, the war's supporters are not even remotely able to acknowledge. From many of my relatives I still hear this: "fight'em over there so we won't have to fight them over here."
The Iraq War is the signature event of Bush's Presidency and has apparently consumed every aspect of his administration with unfortunate results for Americans. It is far more his war than Viet Nam was Kennedy's (a more compelling case could be made for calling it Johnson's war) and any real student of history would never presume to designate WWII Roosevelt's war. He didn't start the war. Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld started the Iraq War.
D. Williams, Macon, GA
An Army Too Small for its Mission
Thank you for your in-depth analysis of the Iraq War. I was impressed with the level of reporting and interviews. It certainly highlighted the arrogance of the civilian leadership and the resulting blunders of policy decisions that have led us down this catastrophic National Security path. But you should know that I was surprised and discouraged at the absence of any reference to the fact of a peacetime-sized US Army fighting two simultaneous wars for 5 years; and therefore, seen an under-sized force being unreasonably tasked to shoulder the unacceptable burden of accomplishing the missions resulting from these series of faulty Foreign Policy decisions.
It is imperative to first understand that the present Army is almost half the size of that in the first Gulf War, in order to more clearly understand why we have never been able to put the correct number of troops in Iraq; why it has been necessary for there to be multiple deployments; and why, when the need for a "surge" arose the only way to achieve this, was through increasing the active duty army personnel deployment from 12 months to 15 months. When one understands that the Army is too small for the missions it is assigned, then it becomes clear why our Army now has the highest recorded suicide rate in 27 yrs, why there are significant rates of PTSD among those having been in combat, and even why, there is an alarming rate of captains leaving the service, leading to current and future serious shortages of mid-level leaders.
In the first Gulf War the US Army was comprised of 18 divisions of which 10 were sent to the Gulf. There were a total of 500,000 coalition forces deployed. The Army was subsequently downsized to 10 divisions, a total of about 518,000 personnel. The Army has fought for the last 5 years in 2 wars with only these 10 divisions, almost half the size of the Army in the first Gulf War.
The first major question I would like to see Frontline and the media at large address, once it is recognized we have been fighting with a peacetime-sized Army, concerns "Why the civilian leadership, during the planning and pre-deployment phase, never right-sized the US Army to equal the size force utilized in the first successful Gulf War?" Could it be possible that SECDEF Rumsfeld's rejection of General Frank's estimate of the need for 400,000 troops was based on the Bush administration's conscious decision to not right-size the US Army in preparation for these wars? If this is so, "Why?" Could the subsequently misguided belief that the Iraqis would take over the governance and management of their country; the decision to implement the "light tactical footprint" policy; and the initial rejection of Condoleezza Rice's "Clear, Hold and Build" strategy were due to a conscious decision to not acknowledge or address the fundamental and continuing flaw of fighting 2 wars for 5 years with an Army of roughly half the size needed to accomplish the missions assigned.
The media, believing it is the fourth leg of democracy, surprisingly has not addressed this fundamental flaw in our current National Security Strategy.
Donnella McGreer-Minez, Staunton, VA
Not sure if this is the right place to send this e-mail but my question is on your Frontline series Bush's War, I watched with great interest and have boiled it down to one question, why if we know all of this has there been no charges filed on this administration, based on what I have seen this would be to coin a phrase "a slam dunk" we have all clearly been lied to repeatedly. How do we justify to the rest of the world, these types of actions buy our leaders?
Ross Crivaro, San Diego, CA
I would like to add my voice to the praise comments for Michael Kirk's brilliantly researched and well produced program entitled "Bush's War". I think it would be very important for PBS to show this again (and perhaps even a third time) with many days of pre-announcement to inform the viewing public when it will be rebroadcast. This program was massively informative and should be seen by all Americans.
Santa Barbara, CA
You Know Who You Are, Don't You?
After reading numerous remarks about "Bush's War" I cannot help to agree, that Frontline is composed of a bunch of anti-Bush, anti-America and anti the Military, Libs. Here is hoping the rest of the world didn't see it. What a hateful, bias report!!!
Jane B., Richmond, VA
Using a title like "Bush's War" and filling the program almost exclusively with interviews from two of the most liberal-biased and corrupt newspapers in the United States, i.e. the New York Times and the Washington Post, just further exemplifies how PBS itself is part of the corrupt media machine we have in this country today. Less than fifteen minutes into the show, two of the reporters used the terms "neocons" and "evangelical" in ways absolutely not necessary to convey their ideas.
G. M., Joplin, MO
I guess the only journalists worthy of being quoted were with the Washington Post and NY Times. Talk about manipulating the facts to fit the premise. And just think we tax payers pay for this junk.
David Cox, Carlsbad, CA
"Bush's War." Bashing President Bush; what an original idea! No wonder that you all are so proud of yourselves! Actually, I think that President Bush has done a better job of "connecting the dots" than has "Frontline." Let's see: Terrorism begins with terrorists, who are recruited from oppressive Middle Eastern states. A free Iraq would do much toward leading the way to hope and freedom. No oppression, no terrorists.
It would appear that "Frontline" prefers the old approach of burying our heads in the sand and doing nothing. When 9/11 round two occurs, then "Frontline" can do another expose on the mechanics of how it happened. Additionally, the attack can be blamed on the nearest Republican. I know that "Frontline" hates President Bush and will do anything it can to destroy him.
John Robertson, Pompton Lakes, NJ
More Timely Investigations, Please
"Bush's War" seemed to me quite well done, and I know several people (myself included) who appreciated having the chronology of all the lies put in order. However, so much of the story was OLD. And are we really to believe that many people in the government couldn't see what was going on? Please! The lying was quite clear to those of us paying attention and not trying to "save a career" in the corrupt administration.
It would be great if PBS carried out its investigative reporting in a more timely fashion. History is being made by horrible choices that PBS doesn't talk about to the public until far too late. No wonder the citizenry on the whole is so passive. We need to be told NOW what is going on now. We know the mainstream media doesn't INVESTIGATE, but PBS should fill that gap. As it is, much of the political commentary on PBS wastes our time on relatively trivial stuff. PBS should carry a lot more shows like that of Bill Moyers.
I have just finished watching Bush's War on PBS and I have to say I am very upset and angry but not with PBS and its great documentary but at the fact that this is something that should be shown on other channels, talked about more in the news and TV shows. We have to make this known more to the country. It is quite depressing to see how a good part of this country has forgotten this and how many can still support this current government. Our country is falling into pieces and this president is the only one to blame. We can't expect him to be affected by the current crisis because while the U.S. is going bankrupt, Bush and Cheney are becoming millionaires at the expense of falling soldiers and innocent people in Iraq. Great job to the entire PBS team.
Kudos to Frontline on its Iraq War retrospective of March 24/25. Why did Frontline find it necessary to place the subliminal alarm bells within the commentary? It seems sinister and manipulative and, in my opinion, diminished the impeccable journalistic integrity demonstrated by PBS ordinarily. It gilded the lily and damaged the otherwise presumed objectivity of the report. Such subliminal messages are unwarranted and insulting to the listener. Please distinguish yourselves from the tactical strategists of the Bush Administration. We have too much at stake in the national conversation for PBS to fall below its high standards.
Claramargaret H. Groover, Orlando, FL
My reaction to "Bush's War" was initially one of joy. But the more I watched, the more angry I became. The administration's complete disregard for facts about intelligence, especially Darth Cheney, made me ashamed to be an American. And those people who still defend these criminals are either brain-dead or criminals themselves. Please keep up the honest reporting of the news, because one sure doesn't get it from the other news services.
Michael Cindrich, Kansas City, MO
Propaganda — in War and Health
Despite the continual leftwing, neo-Marxist bent of many a Frontline production, I do note and admire that at least you post the critical comments as well as those that praise Frontline's propaganda. I frequently check in on Frontline to keep track of what leftist line they are feeding the American public. "Bush's War", and it's the title I'm referring to, was of course a dead give away and the series did not disappoint in its predictable bias. If nothing else Frontline is consistent.
Tonight my wife and I watched your show about health and economic inequity which focused to a certain extent on Louisville, Kentucky. And once again, just like Bush's War, it was more propaganda on parade. Will the next installment be taking us to Cuba to examine the wonders of their state run health delivery system? Gee, I hope so and can we all look forward to a little chat with Michael Moore.
I forced myself to watch because I am a nutritional counselor and wondered how you would propagandize health. Do the writers have the slightest clue about personal responsibility? The true components of health were not touched upon. Instead all the poor viewer got was "golly gomer, if everybody just got the right amount of pay we sure would be healthy" you know like in Cuba. I actually felt a little sick after I watched this little anti-capitalist hit piece. Good luck and good night.
Steve Yochum, Nashville, IN
"Bush's War," which aired on "Frontline" this week, was positively Shakespearean in its portrayal of the internecine struggles that gave rise to the nation's current military adventures. The cast of tragic characters — Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Powell, Tenet — are the subject of fond but disapproving reflection on the part of a chorus of war-buffs. These sage observers didn't tell us at the time, but today the likes of Woodward, Armitage, Kristol, Kagan, Perle, Gordon, Chalaby, and Bumiller, to name a few of the featured players, will admit candidly that the top people in our government really messed up.
No discussion in this two-night epic of the war boosters in the media who helped shape the nation's aggressive policy. How did so many Americans come to believe that it would be acceptable to bomb people in foreign lands in "retaliation" for crimes they didn't commit? If Bush sold them that idea, how did he do it? Did Dan Rather and Peter Jennings and Jim Lehrer help at all? How about "Frontline"?
There was no public discussion five years ago and there was none in this film of whether bombing people and rousting them from their homes at the point of a rifle might be morally wrong or legally wrong or strategically wrong. There was no consideration of how long an occupying force might sustain support for such atrocities among decent people. We presume that this is done by keeping the truth from the people, but if the media are performing that function, writer-producer Michael Kirk doesn't tell us in this opus.
Another fact obscured by Kirk was the volume of dissent from the conventional view in the media and its systematic suppression by those same media. PBS doesn't want us to know that there were reporters and analysts who accurately rendered the events of the time and who cautioned against an unfavorable outcome — like the journalists of the Knight-Ridder news syndicate and then-candidate for senate Barack Obama — and that these voices were mocked and shouted down by the mass media. And so we didn't hear in this film from Kucinich or Feingold or Molly Ivins or my congressman John Larson, whose reasons for opposing the Iraq invasion all turned out to be sound.
Another subject Kirk avoided was law. We have laws prohibiting "Bush's War," and legal experts like Ralph Nader raised the issue of illegality at the time. The media refused, in advance of the invasion, to direct the people to look at their laws and their morals for guidance, and Kirk's not about to go there now. The so-called war is no less illegal today, but "Frontline" didn't want to confound us with sticky issues like law and ethics.
Stephen Fournier, Hartford, CT
PBS is still the best. I watch The History Channel, National Geographic Channel, and Discovery constantly and love them all, but there is something about American Experience and Frontline that is so extremely excellent. What a treasure and what a great job that you do for us here!
Doug Littrell, Kansas City, KS
The Drives Drone On
I have to add my comment, even if late (though not late for us — our drive drones on in its Dyerormond boredom), about the horrible packaged programs on PBS pledge drives. I am one of those older viewers that people think they are for, and I can assure several correspondents that I hate them too. But it seems to me that the answer to why they are there has to do with economics: packaged programs don't require live on-air activity by the station. At the same time, I cannot understand the claim that people won't pledge in response to the programs they actually like and would prefer to be watching. Where is the research that shows this? And having lived in the UK and gladly paid my tax for excellent programming, I find it somewhat galling to hear various Brits from the Britcom series praising our glorious freedom to "vote" with our pledges for what we want. Ha! Would that we could!
P. Galloway, Austin, TX
I personally have a problem with those who complain about such programs as "Now" and Bill Moyers. If you want the other side(s) that counterpoise their perspectives, there are any number of places you can go for those. PBS DOES give balance: it makes a point of presenting perspectives that are almost impossible to obtain elsewhere, and I am grateful that PBS continues to offer these conscientious, discerning and all too rare perspectives.
KA Calder, Nashua, NH
Ya know, each time you drag out Col. Pew . . . A. Kohut . . . the story is the same: almost 50% of the public is content with their financial situation . . . but worried about the economy . . . huh? Why the pessimism if they're content? It's because that's all they hear from the news hookers . . . NewsHour included . . . constant negativity! Just like the Frontline series "Bush's War" . . . all negative. Do you think that if you looked REAL HARD you'd be able to find a few atoms of positive news?
Chas Crist, Van Dyne, WI
Ted on Charlie
Regarding Ted Turner's comments on Charlie Rose's show on what will happen (cannibalism) if nothing is done about 'global warming' — it's just another 'big scare'. It's interesting, yet with modern journalism it's become expected, that few journalists ever respond to these wild statements by mentioning similar statements from the past to put them in a historical perspective. And how many journalists bring up the fact that one of the big 'scares' from just a few decades ago was . . . 'global COOLING'. How many journalists take the time to actually STUDY the science (pssst . . . it's called research) instead of simply parroting the rants of the doomsayers without any independent research into the actual science. Reading them now, we realize how ridiculous they are/were.
Frank Hipp, Oklahoma City, OK
Ted Turner on Charlie Rose, April 2008. This is the man who should be speaking for all of us. Plain old wisdom, please keep out of the dialogue and let us have more tough talk. I am too old to care about what happens to me but we cannot destroy this planet from ignorance.
Just a note on the "Charlie Rose" show of Apr. 2, 08. Mr. Rose's guest was billionaire Peter G. Peterson of the Blackstone Group and his "purpose" for this interview was to promote his campaign to rescue America from increasing and debilitating debt by way of encouraging Americans to save more of their money! Anyway his premise seemed reasonable up to that point when he was describing who his peers were, including Warren Buffet. But when he described "Henry Kissinger" as his "great friend" the integrity of Mr. Peterson and his lofty ideals completely deserted me! To knowingly and proudly describe Henry Kissinger as your "great friend" is such a vicious, unconscionable insult to anyone who knows Kissinger's history!
K. Hawley, Vancouver, BC
Tonight's (4/02/08) NewsHour had Eric Lichtblau comment on newly released AG papers authorizing certain Presidential actions. Judy Woodruff was the PBS correspondent. Not only is Lichtblau unsuitable — he is with the untrustworthy NY Times — but there was no balance in the form of an expert with an opposing view. It was appalling. And then at the end of the interview the NewsHour touted a Lichtblau book! A very poor performance. PBS should do much better and it wouldn't be hard.
Paul Marshall, Morristown, NJ
Michael Getler said the NewsHour "needs to be judged not by any one segment or one night's performance but by its performance over a longer period. With that as a yardstick, the NewsHour has always seemed to me to be about the best television has to offer for solid, fair, comprehensive and non-partisan presentation of the news." Amen to that. I am continually amazed by the comments from the narrow-minded bigots of any stripe who are only capable of reflecting their own bias.
I often disagree with various opinions expressed and occasionally find the quality sub-normal, but for TV it is far and away the best thing going for news. (Not to mention Frontline, AE, Nova, and other excellent programs. It matters not a whit that I don't particularly care for the pledge week specials.) Keep it up. Make it even better.
Tom Morgan, Arlington Heights, IL
Your job of monitoring journalistic integrity must be quite boring for you these days since there are only about a handful of journalists/reporters left on this planet who still deserve to be referred to as such! Making your job even easier is the fact that you and PBS seem to have ended up with them ALL! I say to you in all earnestness that PBS's ability to still tell the truth, to the best of its ability, is the only hope I have left for this God-forsaken shamble of a Democracy. THANK YOU FOR HAVING THE GUTS TO STAND UP WHEN ALL ELSE HAVE FALLEN ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL OF TRUTH!
Octavio A. Perez, New York, NY
*A few letters were added to this mailbag soon after the original posting.