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PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

Too Much Reverence for the Reverend?

This was a busy week at the ombudsman's desk.

Things started to heat up last Friday night after the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. was the guest for the full hour of Bill Moyers Journal. In case there is anyone left out there in TV-land who doesn't know who Wright is, he is the recently retired pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where he presided for more than 25 years and where, for the past 20 years or so, one of his congregants was Barack Obama, now a Democratic Party candidate for the presidency. There was lots of mail about this interview — much of it critical — and a representative sample is included farther down in this column.

Then on Sunday evening, PBS began to unfold its heavily-promoted and highly-touted series "Carrier," 10 hours of television divided into two-hour segments on five consecutive evenings, capturing life onboard, and in the skies above, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. This also attracted a heavy flow of viewer comment. Since the series still has a two-hour final segment tonight, I'll wait until next week to report on its impact.

And, as all viewers of the nightly NewsHour with Jim Lehrer will have noticed, the anchor and executive editor of that venerable program, Jim Lehrer, has been out for the past 10 days or so. Jim underwent a heart valve procedure at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston on April 23 and, according to a PBS statement, it was a complete success and Lehrer plans to be back at full speed and back on the program within a few weeks.

Linda Winslow, the executive producer of the program, told me that she "spoke with him Tuesday (April 29) and he sounded quite strong. He is making rapid progress, according to his doctors, and may be released from the hospital later this week. He told me he was amazed at how much has changed in the field of heart surgery since his first operation 25 years ago. We still don't know exactly when he'll be ready to come back to work, but it should be a matter of weeks, not months."

The ombudsman's office got lots of get-well wishes for Lehrer and there is a form on the NewsHour Web site that allows you to send greetings.

The letters about the Moyers program, and some portions of transcripts reprinted below, make this a very long column. You are free, of course, to tune-out wherever you like, but some of the transcripts are included because they have been hard to find elsewhere.

But Hill before Bill

But before we get to those events, a slight detour on my behalf to a news event that wasn't covered by the NewsHour at the time, and also got no attention, or very little, at any of the TV networks except ABC. Indeed, it didn't even seem to get much coverage in the newspapers. So, maybe I'm being naïve here, but the event I'm referring to involved an interview with Sen. Hillary Clinton on the ABC program "Good Morning America" on April 22, the morning of the Pennsylvania primary. Here's the exchange between interviewer Chris Cuomo and Sen. Clinton:

MR. CUOMO: Iran: some language recently. You said if Iran were to strike Israel, there would be a massive retaliation. Scary words. Does massive retaliation mean you'd go into Iran? You would bomb Iran? Is that what that's supposed to suggest?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, the question was if Iran were to launch a nuclear attack on Israel, what would our response be? And I want the Iranians to know that if I'm the president, we will attack Iran. And I want them to understand that. Because it does mean that they have to look very carefully at their society, because whatever stage of development they might be in their nuclear weapons program in the next 10 years during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them. That's a terrible thing to say, but those people who run Iran need to understand that, because that perhaps will deter them from doing something that would be reckless, foolish, and tragic.

MR. CUOMO: Is it difficult to reconcile the logic of a statement like that with the realities of what it would be like to make that decision?

SEN. CLINTON: It is. It's very hard, and that's why you hope you can deter such behavior.

Several things struck me about this that would seem to make it news. First, a presidential candidate was stating, on the public record, that if she were president, the United States would "obliterate" Iran, a country of some 65 million people, if that country attacked Israel, not the United States, with nuclear weapons. Has that kind of direct, public threat been made before by any president or leading presidential candidate? Is the U.S. committed to a nuclear war involving third countries outside of specific defense alliances? Israel, of course, is a strong democracy and ally, and there are memorandum-style agreements that pledge American assistance to help defend against attack. But there is no legally binding treaty that I'm aware of that commits the U.S. to intervene militarily. And Israel is also known to have plenty of nuclear weapons of its own and probably the world's best air force to deliver them. So why would it be up to the U.S. to "obliterate" Iran? It also struck me as odd that while this issue got almost no attention, the American news media for months was broadcasting with great consistency the sound bites of Rev. Wright, someone who is not running for anything. So that gets us . . .

Back to Bill

Most, but not all, of the viewer observations of the Moyers interview with Wright were, as I said above, critical. I had some concerns as well, which I'll get to. But, as readers of this column will have noted, I view many issues as complex as well as controversial, and I thought there were certainly positive benefits for PBS viewers from that interview.

First of all, Moyers presented the first major interview with Wright after the reverend's inflammatory sound bites had been played and re-played relentlessly on TV. And Moyers laid those accusations out himself right at the start: "Wright suggesting the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were payback for American policy . . . repeating the canard heard often in black communities that the U.S. government spread HIV in those communities . . . seemingly calling on God to damn America."

The hour-long Journal allowed a much fuller hearing of the actual sermons that included such passages, and Moyers did draw the reverend out and then let him talk, at length, about where he was coming from. Moyers introduced the program by asking "Just who is this man?" and that was a worthy theme. Moyers, an ordained Baptist minister himself, is clearly comfortable with probing the role of religion and informed about its history and themes. As a viewer, I indeed felt that I knew more about Wright after watching this interview, and I was grateful to hear more of the actual sermons and the context from whence some of these inflammatory remarks sprang, and to hear Wright elaborate on these and other things, including his six years in the Marine Corps. And Moyers caught very well, I thought, the many good works that Wright and his church routinely engage in, work that gets lost in all the political controversy.

There is no doubt that some of what Wright said and the way he said it in those sermons came across as outrageous, offensive and wrong to the vast majority of Americans, and that may be the case as well for many viewers listening to Wright during the interview with Moyers. But I also think that a sizeable chunk of the public comes to such conclusions about the value of interviews based on what the guest says, without condemning the person conducting the interview, and that most people understand that there is something to gain and to learn from hearing these views first-hand, from not having them reduced to 20-second sound bites, and in an interview setting that does allow a wider context and basis for judgment either way.

On the other hand, as ombudsmen often say, this came across to me more as a conversation among theologians than it did as a truly probing interview with a truly controversial person who had said some truly inflammatory things and had become deeply inserted into a tight, hard-fought and historic race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

While I don't endorse the language or the broader criticisms below, I do feel that there were not enough questions asked and some that were asked came across as too reserved and too soft, considering the volatility of the charges. For example, after replaying at length a Wright sermon delivered the first Sunday after 9/11— in which Wright invoked America's role in slavery, taking the country from the Indians, bombing Grenada, Panama, Libyan leader Gaddafi's house, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Iraq, plus state terrorism against Palestinians and black South Africans to conclude that the 9/11 attacks were "America's chickens are coming home to roost" — Moyers asked: "When people saw the sound bites from it this year, they were upset because you seemed to be blaming America. Did you somehow fail to communicate?" As Howard Kurtz wrote in The Washington Post afterwards: "Thought he was blaming America? Where did anyone get that idea?" It would be hard to formulate a more delicate way to put a question to Wright about that sermon without challenging any of its content.

Moyers did seek to draw Wright out about his "God damn America" statement, and he called Wright to task, still rather gently, about Louis Farrakhan. But others of those inflammatory, and inaccurate, statements that Moyers himself laid out at the top of the program went largely unchallenged and those that did come up didn't really get addressed until well into the hour-long program. Some comments, such as the HIV accusation, didn't get addressed at all, nor were other questions asked about whether, for example, the U.S. should have invaded mainland Japan at the cost of countless lives, American and Japanese, rather than dropping two atomic weapons.

One of the more curious aspects of that sermon right after 9/11, in which Wright clearly blames America's policies, is that he wrapped this whole idea that "chickens are coming home to roost" as something that other people have said. He referred specifically to a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Edward Peck, and an appearance that Peck had made on Fox News just a day earlier on Sept. 15, 2001. Wright said: "America's chickens are coming home to roost! Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred and terrorism begets terrorism. A white ambassador said that y'all, not a black militant."

Actually, Peck never used the phrase about chickens coming home to roost. His answers were more nuanced. There is, apparently, no transcript available of that interview with Peck so I can't link to it. But Fox News did provide a video copy of the interview to me and I include a portion of a transcript that we made here so you can read what it was, exactly, that Peck said during the interview with Fox's David Asman.

ASMAN: Ambassador Peck, you know, I'm thinking of a man named Chamberlain back in the 30s who had such a strong adherence to the orderly world and the rule of law, etcetera, that he had become accustomed to that he lost sight of precisely what it was a madman like Adolf Hitler was doing. And, unfortunately there were too many people like him, who in order to adhere to those specific rules of law, allowed Hitler to get away with an awful lot. Some people are saying the same thing is happening now with not only Osama bin Laden, not only those in Afghanistan who support him but people like Saddam Hussein, too, because of adherence to these specific little rules, is able to get away with murder.

PECK: Well, you know, the specific little rules are what we base our entire conduct on.

ASMAN: But there comes a point in which, and we came to that point Tuesday, Ambassador, in which those rules have to be looked at again and have to be taken in context with massive, massive loss of human life and a change of the rules in effect, wasn't it a very significant change of the rules that took effect last week?

PECK: They came to do to us what they perceive, it doesn't make them right, but what they perceive is we've been doing the same thing now for a long time in various parts of the world. It doesn't make them right or us wrong. Don't misunderstand me. But the only thing anybody has to

ASMAN: I just have to stop you. We've been doing the same thing around the world?

PECK: Yeah. You want a list of the countries that we've bombed and invaded over the last 25 years?

ASMAN: What country, in what country have we rammed a plane loaded with fuel through a known civilian center such as was done this week? Excuse me, Ambassador, but I can't think of a precedent for this week anywhere in the world, certainly not one committed by the United States.

PECK: Certainly not, we've never had to do that because we have, you know, untrammeled military force. These people are terrorists. They resort to that because they can't take us on, head on, nor should they even, well they can't. But the point is that some of the things that we have done in the firm, honest belief that we are advancing the cause of justice, human rights, and freedom and all of that are not perceived that way by the people that we bomb. I offer you Panama. I give you Haiti. Take Cambodia. What about Iraq?

Here Are the Letters

I am a fan of Bill Moyers, but he was a total disappointment in his Rev. Wright interview. The Reverend struck me as an absolute mediocre in all respects, trying to seek cheap publicity. He is chained to slavery, and does not represent modern blacks. Bill Moyers failed as an uncompromising journalist with his soft, non-penetrating questions. Victory is always won at the margin, and Rev Wright has unwittingly pushed the margin in favor of Republicans in 2008 elections. Bill Moyers needs to set the record right, with his own judgment of a rascal politician masquerading as a pastor using tax-exempt pulpits to preach his shameful ideology of hate and of America.

Vembar K. Ranganathan, Irvington, NY

I am writing to express my complete disgust at the Bill Moyers-Jeremiah Wright interview as aired by PBS. If this is your so called journalistic excellence that you seem to trumpet about so much, then God help us. Jeremiah Wright is nothing more than a race-hustling, American-hating radical and for your station to give him the platform that you did is beyond any resemblance of journalistic integrity.

Tom Kotrous, Niobrara, NE

I had to bite my tongue while watching this "fluff" interview conducted by Bill Moyers. It really saddens me to think PBS paid this "nut case" to lie about his "sermons" given at the Trinity United Church. I listened to several of his sermons found on U-Tube and also read in full context by several radio commentators. Rev. Wright said it was taken out of context and if one would listen to the whole sermon, it would not be filled with hate and racism. Well, please have Bill Moyers listen or read the whole sermons as they are even worse than the clips.

How in the world can you misunderstand when Rev. Wright accused the U.S. Government of giving the black community AIDS? How is the 3-Strikes law just for the black community? Now, Rev. Wright said he was "cursing" the government, not the United States of America; well his very words were "the United States."

Aloha, OR

I watched Bill Moyers' recent hour-long interview with the Reverend Wright, and I have also watched the segment dealing with Wright on 'The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer' on April 28, 2008. Let me note at the outset that I am a Caucasian university professor who has taught African-American literature for decades and who has many African-American friends. Because of what I have learned from these sources, I can say without hesitation that I do not blame the Reverend Wright for such statements as 'G-d damn America.' I would say the same thing if I were black. African-Americans face entirely different, and far worse, circumstances from those that whites face. Whites need to learn and acknowledge the fact.

MaryAnn Wimsatt, Columbia, SC

Thank you PBS and thank goodness for Bill Moyers! We need so many more journalists with the integrity and sincerity to produce programs worthy of the serious issues facing us today. I regret to think that he will ever retire.

Caren von Gontard, Paonia, CO

Love PBS in many ways for many reasons, but shame on Bill Moyers for his kid glove interview of Reverend Wright. Has Bill Moyers been hired as Wright's spin doctor and then get to use PBS as their venue? I expect (hope) to see you provide your perspective objectively about this. This episode was so obviously a forum for Wright even the unconscious would notice.

Higganum, CT

As a former journalism student, I had the importance of objectivity in covering controversial subjects underscored repeatedly. To opt for one side over another was considered to be moving into the world of public relations or issue advocacy.

After watching Bill Moyers' interview with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, I can say Mr. Moyers crossed that line and did a great disservice to PBS and the journalism community. In short, it was shallow in substance and abundant in agenda. I feel Mr. Moyers was not acting in a way that advanced journalistic integrity in any way. His interview with Jeremiah Wright was one-sided, dismissive of any criticism of Wright's statements as politically-motivated dishonesty and racism, and devoid of anything resembling editorial integrity.

Thomas Lindaman, Des Moines, IA

I feel PBS made a mistake allowing the Reverend to come on the show and not answer any real questions. He was allowed to talk about what he thought about people twisting his words. Never once was he asked to explain his comments in context. He spoke about context but never explained how these words of hate and racism he spewed were out of context.

Ed M., Providence, RI

Bill Moyers' interview with Rev. Wright is the kind of programming essential for us to determine the truth from the relentless political garbage we are fed. The Rev. was most impressive and I was able to evaluate the man for what he is. Thank you Bill Moyers for your courage.

Raleigh, NC

Mr Moyers has never had much political balance in my opinion; does it not occur to him to ask any questions that are not complete softballs? Having seen Rev Wright in the very complete clips railing against our wonderful country "sickens" me, to use one of his phrases. This interview is the worst example of liberal pandering that I have seen since the Clintons were in office.

Dennis McCarthy, Sherman Oaks, CA

I found the Bill Moyers interview with the Rev. Wright both interesting and self serving to those who want to see a Democrat elected at any price. In reality this was not an interview at all. Mr. Moyers did not ask any of the questions that should have been asked. It is hard to claim that these sermons were taken out of context when the Church itself sells them and they are filmed in their entirety. Anyone can watch them and take from them the intent. But Moyers let him stick to the script rather than point that out or even ask the questions.

Now personally I think that Rev. Wright is a well meaning man and is not a fanatic at all. Indeed he believes like many people do that our government is basically made up to keep certain people down. Mr. Moyers himself has made comments that certainly state what he believes our government does.

Ronald Cassoni, Austin, TX

First, full disclosure: I was a lifelong Republican until the mid-90s when I felt the party had moved too far to the right. George W. Bush's administration confirmed me as an independent. This year, of the three front-runners, I personally would prefer Hillary Clinton as President, despite all her warts.

As to Bill Moyers. His program is literate and civilized but it is very biased to the left. PBS has no counterpart to the right. I would encourage you to find someone who is not a ranter (because Bill Moyers certainly is not), but a host who can conduct an intelligent program from a more conservative point of view to provide balance. PBS used to host Bill Buckley, who left your network some years before his recent and regrettable death. And for some years now, PBS really has had no one on that side of the fence.

Now, as to the Reverend Wright's program this evening on the Moyers' show. The good reverend came across as a decent and articulate fellow. But Bill Moyers soft-balled him, and failed to ask essential (tough) questions, to include: what was Reverend Wright thinking when in a sermon shortly after 9/11 he proclaimed "God damn America?" And failed to distinguish Hiroshima from 9/11 — a colossal error of attempting moral equivalence? That was not an expression of intellectual opinion, it suggested, with a good deal of emotional brio from the minister, an expression of hate for this country. Or, it may well have suggested that the good reverend was simply carried away by his own rhetoric to give a good show to his congregation that Sunday with an emotional "high" which would allow them to expiate their frustrations. Frankly, I suspect the latter was the case; but no minister will ever admit that he is at least in part a showman! Reverend Wright doesn't want to admit he may have been creating "theatrical effects." But neither does he want to plead guilty to the "hate-America" charge. So he waffles. And Bill Moyers allowed him to do it.

Moyers gave Wright a total pass on the point, and in doing so Mr. Moyers basically rendered his entire program largely irrelevant to the national debate that the Reverend Wright's comments engendered. It was a journalistic disservice to the public, and it was all too characteristic of Moyers' civilized, but very distinct, liberal political bias and the soft balls he threw at Wright.

Marc E. Nicholson, Washington, DC

You know what? Bill Moyers is the best thing that has happened to the 4th Estate since Edward R. Murrow and Ida B. Wells Barnett and other heroes of their ilk! In this sad aftermath of the outgoing administration, he's my journalistic anchor!

Eleanor L. Best, Boston, MA

About Those Retired Generals/ Military Analysts

Here are some letters about last week's ombudsman's column:

The (NewsHour's) piece on the Pentagon's pr machine was terrific. Especially the Zelnick interview, with the giant university logo in the background shouting to your viewers: it's all about the PR. Lovely irony. The art/science of PR holds that client spokespersons shouldn't enter an interview "on the fly," but rather, have "key messages" to proactively communicate. Such is the crime you and the NY Times exposed.

San Diego, CA

Your column about the TV generals was excellent. Thank you for the background on PBS' use of and disclosures about these on-air analysts. I watched last night's NewsHour segment with Judy Woodruff and I was absolutely stunned by Robert Zelnick's cluelessness. It appeared very clearly that he did not even grasp the issues involved, like a propaganda program aimed at the U.S. viewers. He seemed more concerned with out-of-work retirees who deserve to make a living. He missed the point of the Times' article entirely, or he was being disingenuous. (And he teaches journalism, how discouraging.) He added no insight to the real story.

The administration's program is ongoing, and the lack of comment or correction by any in the Pentagon or the networks is chilling. For anyone who did read the report and see the NewsHour, it will be impossible to believe that the next TV (or radio) retired military expert who speaks is independent. But the majority will believe them, not hearing or reading anything about this Pentagon program.

Klamath Falls, OR

Thank you for covering the troubling revelations of The New York Times on the role of retired military officers in the selling of Pentagon propaganda and the defense industry. To many who watch the news, and even The NewsHour, this has been obvious for some time, but it is good to see it exposed for what it is.

Alan Goldfarb, Fremont, CA

The New York Times is either trying to mislead us or totally ignorant. Retired General Officers are subject to recall and are expected to keep up-to-date on current events. Bush was criticized for not getting advice. Now when he does, he's brainwashing us.

Shelby Township, MI

How about a story on PBS about how the networks aren't covering this embarrassing story?

Dennis Foley, Holland, MI

I am glad you called the NewsHour on this. I read the NYTimes article last Sunday and sent it to others but it would have been better understood if it was heard ALSO by outside sources. The only one I heard was Tuesday's clip on CNN Headlines stating in two sentences what the NYTimes wrote and two sentences from one of their officers disclaiming all 7,600 words. Why was he so defensive??? Keep pushing PBS and the national "news cover-ups". I switched to BBC international over NBC 6 weeks or so ago because of the "rosy" pictures told mostly by McCaffrey on NBC and MSNBC. Now I see why I was right.

Patricia Wilson, San Jose, CA

Getler deserves a raise.

Patrick Sloyan, Paeonian Springs, VA

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