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The Ombudsman Column

This 'Boot' Is Made for 'Walkin' All Over You'

(Ombudsman's Note: This column was scheduled to appear at its usual time last Friday, July 25, but posting was delayed until Monday, July 28, due to technical problems at pbs.org.)

The headline of this column is lifted from a song made famous more than 40 years ago by Nancy Sinatra titled, "These Boots Are Made for Walkin.'" It goes on to say that "one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you."

That seems to be what happened Monday night, July 21, during a segment of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, when Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and informal adviser to Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign, appeared as a guest in a discussion about the differing plans for Iraq and Afghanistan offered by McCain and his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama.

Along with Boot, was Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and an informal adviser to Obama's campaign. The NewsHour's Margaret Warner moderated the segment. When it was over, Korb and Warner had been essentially "walked over" by Boot, who rather thoroughly dominated — in terms of air time (more than 3-to-1 by my calculations) — the 10-minute discussion.

It was one of those rare NewsHour moments when you could tell something had gone wrong with this normally polite and even-handed program just by observing the facial expressions of Korb, in particular, and Warner at the end of it.

Setting aside the merits of what each guest was saying, and borrowing another not altogether accurate analogy, Boot was like a running-back for an underdog team who, late in the game and deep in his own territory, saw an opening, accelerated past the defense and kept going to score the winning touchdown while eating up the clock and stunning the crowd.

The crowd, in this case, would be Korb, Warner and a fair number of viewers who wrote to me and were angry, especially at Warner for, in their view, letting this get out of control. Some of the letters are printed below, along with a response from Warner.

Two Points in Defense

I was watching as this unfolded and knew instantly that letters would be forthcoming. I do think Warner let this one get away. Even Korb, who generally gave short answers, tried to interrupt Boot more forcefully. When Warner did interrupt, she went right back to Boot for answers which gave him that open field to race down to the end of the segment.

In Warner's defense I would raise two points. Boot showed himself to be perfectly equipped for today's political discussions on television: well-informed, a fast (that is not meant pejoratively) and relentless talker and advocate who does not stop at yellow lights or hesitate at any opening. So his was quite a performance; a tough guest to control, so to speak. Warner, in my view, is normally an excellent interviewer; well prepared, alert to following up answers and polite but firm when necessary. But she came up short this time on that last quality.

Here are some of the letters:

'Appalled' and 'Outraged' Seem to Be the Reactions of Choice

I am appalled at the lack of equal airtime given by Margaret Warner to the Senator Obama side of the Iraqi discussion. The fact that senator McCain's spokesperson overflowed at the mouth with incorrect facts and propaganda is no reason to give him the majority of the allotted time. Ms. Warner should have controlled the time as the professional she is supposed to be, instead of shrugging her lack of control off with a little smirk.

Susan Goldin, New York, NY

I am outraged at the atrocious job that Margaret Warner did allowing Max Boot to dominate a supposed debate on tonight's news. I timed the responses with Boot having a 4-1 advantage to spew his slanted opinion regarding McCain and Obama's view of the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm all for sharing views. I expect the moderator to control the response to provide some balance to it.

John Alkire, Bend, OR

I'm outraged that Margaret Warner allowed Mr. Boot to monopolize and dominate the "conversation in tonight's News Hour." Mr. Boot was allowed to attack and distort Mr. Obama's position and then allowed to continue his argument. Mr. Korb was not allowed to answer the distorted attack. I'm sure the aggressive Max Boot was given more time to speak than Lawrence Korb. Ms. Warner should show more backbone and make sure aggressive speakers are not allowed to dominate.

Jess Frost, Portland, OR

Margaret Warner interviewed two individuals, one a conservative, the other a liberal. She couldn't stop the conservative from talking over the other speaker. I am sure if you review the discussion the conservative got more air time. Observe the face of the liberal at the end of the segment. He looks disgusted with his experience.

Bill McGuinness, Lynn, MA

A member of your staff "moderated" a Q&A between representatives for McCain and Obama. The McCain rep. spoke nonstop and hogged almost the entire interview, not giving the Obama rep a chance to speak. The "moderator" did nothing to cut the McCain rep off. She probably did not do so intentionally, but the result was shoddy journalism. This discredits an otherwise reputable program.

Stephen Wentland, Houston, TX

We are faithful listeners of your program and have in general enjoyed your even-handed debates of issues. However, we were very annoyed by the biased interviewing of Margaret tonight. It was incredible to sit and listen to the Mc Cain "friend or advisor" who would not stop talking and let the other side reply or defend his views! He went on and on for so long and in the end Margaret just stopped the interview.

Adi Conover, Mendham, NJ

I just watched Margaret get run over by the McCain foreign policy advisor who did not answer the questions asked but instead refuted and misquoted the Obama foreign policy advisor — and then repeated the same "talking points over and over." The result was a lousy interview that was far from even-handed. The moderator needs to take control. Good manners on the part of the moderator and the Obama representative allowed the McCain representative — totally unfettered by manners — to dominate the segment. SHAME ON YOU — that is not doing your job.

Pat Dusenbury, Atlanta, GA

Very disappointed in your segment on presidential politics. The Obama representative answered Margaret's questions briefly and well. The McCain representative ignored the questions and simply ranted and raved against Obama, reminiscent of the McCain tactic of assailing his opponent at every chance because he has nothing positive to say about his own campaign. And, Margaret just sat there using no control. The McCain rep used three times as much time as the Obama rep by brut force, while Margaret did nothing. The Obama rep was obviously upset, but refused to lower himself to the same level. I doubt that he will be back.

K. Blanchard, Tallahassee, FL

For god's sake, don't let the NewsHour have representatives of the two presidential candidates on the program together. They bicker, don't answer questions, spout party lines, demean viewers' intelligence, act asinine, etc. etc. And the staff can't seem to get hold of the "discussions". Please, please, on our knees, don't have representatives of the presidential candidates on the program together.

George Lusk, Phoenix, AZ

Margaret Warner Responds:

"As NewsHour viewers know, we strive mightily to make sure each side gets roughly equal time in conducting debates like this. The attempt was not successful in this case, though not for lack of trying. A look at the transcript will show that since Lawrence Korb tended to give relatively short answers, I tried to compensate by asking him two questions at each of his 'turns' to speak. Max Boot gave lengthy answers, so after the first one, I interrupted Boot on each of his next two turns to speak. That said, Boot clearly was able to run out the clock at the end with a lengthy filibuster, which I regret not successfully and more persistently interrupting so I could give Korb a final word.

"I won't comment on the quality of Boot's answers, as many viewers did. But we trust our viewers to make their own assessments, and to discern, as one viewer put it, when a guest like Boot is simply 'returning repeatedly to his talking points.'"

(Ombudsman's Note: This response by Warner was, in turn, well received by a number of viewers who had been critical.)

Another Night, Another Interview

The five-nights-a-week NewsHour is the closest thing PBS has to a comprehensive daily newspaper and, as I've said before, it needs to be judged as a continuum, where stories at times unfold gradually, and where news stories or more in-depth segments frequently get expanded in follow-up reports and discussions.

I thought that was in evidence on the subject of Afghan-Iraq policy early this week. Although the Korb-Boot segment Monday evening seemed to get overwhelmed by Boot, it was, nevertheless, sharp and informative with both participants making points worth hearing.

But for those following this issue closely, the following evening, Tuesday, an extended interview by Jim Lehrer of the nation's top military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, was, I thought, among the best interviews anywhere on this crucial topic in a very long time.

Mullen, though naturally cautious and careful because of his position, struck me as far more candid than his predecessors for the past seven years on this subject. I'm not going to go through this point by point but I thought Lehrer extracted quite a few important and telling answers from the admiral, including some left unanswered by the previous night's debate. The transcript is well worth reading if you missed the program.

That same Tuesday edition of the NewsHour, incidentally, carried what I thought was an excellent news summary and discussion in the aftermath of the capture of the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic, who is accused of some of the worst war crimes since World War II. The news account and the discussion — led by Margaret Warner, with former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and journalist/author Laura Silber — went well beyond what I saw on the commercial broadcast networks as a reminder for Americans of the kind of mass, anti-Muslim atrocities that unfolded in southern Europe only some 15 years ago.

Here are some of the letters on the Adm. Mullen interview:

Mixed Reviews

I was amazed by how skillfully Jim Lehrer interviewed Admiral Mullen. Apparently age has not diminished the insight, tenacity or quick reflexes of this exceptional journalist. He put into the shade all other interviews of military leaders that I have heard in recent years.

R. Joffe, New York, NY

In all of the discussions about the "success of the surge" by Adm. Mullen, Sen. Obama, Sen. McCain, it is rarely mentioned that whatever "success" it has had is a small part of a devastating war that has displaced 4 million people, killed 500,000 civilians and thousands of military persons. No matter what "success", there is to the surge this war has been needless horror. Further, let us mention the thousands of wounded soldiers and those emotionally scarred.

Richard Wahl, Houston, TX

Jim Lehrer's badgering interview of Adm. Mullen last night was a disgrace and yet another example of juvenile, politically motivated non-journalism. Imagine, attempting to demand the Admiral state that the USA doesn't have the wherewithal to back up its policy regarding Iran's nuclear program. Can you say stupid? This program is simply pathetic.

Kent Christensen, Albuquerque, NM

While I certainly appreciate the insight PBS provides on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I am continually left wanting for an answer to following question: If we need more troops so badly in Iraq and Afghanistan, what in the world are the 73,000 US troops doing in Germany? What about the 40,000 each in Korea and Japan? I would love to see this addressed on the NewsHour. Keep up the good work.

Chris Schorre, Austin, TX