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PBS Ombudsman

Another Never-Ending War

Another round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict brings still more death and destruction to those caught in its path, still more gut-wrenching images on television, and always more letters from viewers who have strong feelings about how this long-playing human tragedy is being reported and presented. For many news organizations, there seems to be nothing, with the exception of presidential election campaigns, that engages the reactions and emotions of readers and viewers more than the reporting about new outbreaks of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. For PBS, the focus of this is, naturally, the news, footage, interviews and analysis presented five nights a week on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Aside from a never-ending war, this is also something of a never-ending column and mailbag combined. What follows, first, are a dozen or so critical e-mails from viewers who, indeed, feel very strongly about what they saw and heard, and some of it is personal. They start roughly with the broadcast of Monday, Dec. 29 and continue into the first few days of January. There were more letters, and several phone calls, but the ones below are a fair sampling.

At the end of these letters is my assessment of the coverage.

Here Are the Letters:

"Journalistic integrity"!!! What a joke. With programs like NOW and Margaret Warner's interview with the Israeli representative tonight (12/29) I don't see how your station can use those two words and keep a straight face. Ms. Warner had the gall to ask the representative if "Israel would take responsibility for civilian deaths in Gaza?" Who does Ms. Warner think Hamas is targeting; strictly military targets? If so, then she is more naive than I ever thought possible. Hamas targets nothing else but civilian targets. They are TERRORISTS! I can use that word because I am not scared of "irritating" Muslims. "Journalistic integrity". You and your programmers can't even come close to such a thing.

Dan Reiff, Abilene, KS

Margaret Warner's tone in her interview with (Sallai) Meridor is testy and reflects feelings of her own about the Israeli response to Hamas. Interestingly, the script itself has no voice and sounds reasonable. However, as I review her question, repeating (Riyad) Mansour's accusation is not an unbiased question. Of course I, too, have a point of view. However a reporter has a special obligation to clarify an issue rather than repeat an accusation. I was surprised and disappointed both by her questions and her disapproving look.

Isidore Shapiro, Tucson, AZ

I am extremely concerned about the "News with Jim Lehrer" TV program for 12/29/08. The program included two spokespersons for Israel and one spokesperson for Fatah, when the issue is Israel's onslaught on Gaza, which is a Hamas location. PBS could have sent a reporter to Lebanon to interview Khalid Maashal, the President of Hamas, who lives in Lebanon to avoid being assassinated by Israel, as so many other Palestinian leaders have been. Foreign Minister Livni got an opportunity to repeat her point of view (unchallenged), with which US viewers/listeners have been bombarded for the past 48 hours, and the Israeli ambassador got a soft pitch over the plate, with a milquetoast interview by Gwen Ifill, who appears to have a blank slate as to data, where she should have been deeply briefed on the history of Israel/Palestine before undertaking the interview. At no point did she show any awareness of the fact (which I picked up early on from Yahoo) that Israel fired first. Shortly after the ceasefire expired, Israel assassinated three Hamas activists, whom it referred to as "gunmen" (as though half of the Israeli "settlers" in Palestine were not armed with handguns, which many routinely fire at Palestinian men walking from their homes to their olive groves or jobs, and even at teenagers on their way to school). Only then did the rockets get fired from Gaza.

You should be aware that Israel was founded by terror and ethnic cleansing, for which I will provide citations, if desired. Both Livni and the Israeli ambassador insisted that "We are making every effort to avoid hitting civilians." It is the ultimate hypocrisy to fire into the most crowded spot on earth, where one cannot aim at combatants without also hitting noncombatants, and claim that civilian causalities are being avoided. It would be like saying that the Allied forces attempted to avoid civilian casualties in WWII, despite our saturation bombing of Tokyo and Dresden. BBC did a better job of pressing the Israeli ambassador to the UK on that topic, but neither network handled it with visible objectivity. Shame, shame. I am not proud of you tonight.

Timothy Ray, Gainesville, FL

'The Same Propaganda'

How about some balanced coverage of the Palestinian-Israel conflict on the Jim Lehrer report? Every day we hear the same propaganda from a different Israeli official, but virtually nothing from the Palestinian point of view. How about a comprehensive review of human rights violations Israel has suffered upon the Palestinians (e.g., stealing land for illegal settlements by radical fundamentalist orthodox Jews)?

John Young, Sheboygan, WI

On the NewsHour on 12/31, Ray Suarez referred to the Palestinians as "killed" whereas Israelis "died." Is Israeli blood less precious than other blood? I feel you owe an apology to Israel and to the affected families.

B.B. Etgar, Scottsdale, AZ

Relative to the Israeli-Hamas conflict reporting, I realize many more Palestinians have been killed/wounded than Israelis. However, The NewsHour has been showing much of the carnage in Gaza and very little of the death and destruction in Israel, which is the proximate cause of Israel's response. Just as the insurgents do in Iraq, the Hamas fighters disguise themselves as civilians and launch from within civilian areas, then bitterly complain that Israel is targeting innocent civilians when it targets these launch sites — and the NewsHour does a very poor job of putting the situation in perspective.

Charles J. Schmidt, San Jose, CA

I am concerned that the NewsHour gave biased and limited coverage on both Wednesday and Thursday evenings this week to the Gaza debacle.

On Wednesday (12/31) the only person interviewed was an Israeli official who gave a limited and one-sided description.

On Thursday (1/1/09), Ethan Bronner of the New York Times was the only person interviewed. As readers of the Times know and as Bronner demonstrated, he, too, gives a limited and biased description of the situation. His remarks did include the chilling reply to a question about the suffering of Gazans: Bronner said that is of little concern to most Israelis. Ray Suarez did not pursue this remarkable statement — an important and revealing statement that must somewhat explain the willingness of Israelis to see their government slaughter hundreds of Palestinians, in one of the most crowded areas in the world, by aerial bombing that is bound, no matter how carefully "targeted," to kill and maim hundreds of civilians.

I implore you at the very least to state the current "kill-and-wounded ratio" in each broadcast. We are witnessing a barbaric and tragic episode. Surely you will also include Palestinian and Gazan viewpoints in every broadcast, as well as those of the powerful, dominant Israeli apologists. And surely you will follow the intelligent lead of the BBC in always placing these current events in context — noting the decades-long repression of Palestinians and colonization of their lands.

Anne Remley, Ann Arbor, MI

(Ombudsman's Note: Bronner gave a fuller explanation of what he meant. Here is his full quote: "Well, you know, honestly, the situation in Israel is that people are not desperately concerned about casualties in Gaza. I mean, there are people who are; I don't mean to overstate this. But honestly there is a kind of sense of these — Hamas was voted into power in Gaza, the Gazans deserve what they're getting on some level, and there is concern on the other hand about Israeli casualties, yes, because of the close urban kind of warfare that they're worried they'll have.")

Apparently, it is more newsworthy to have an Arab bemoaning the bombing of Gaza, as you broadcast today (Jan. 1). Then, simply a slight reference to the rocket fire into Israel — which has been going on for years! The Palestinian says that windows are broken in homes and the people there are cold because of the winter. Don't you think that the rocket blasts into Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beer Sheva have broken windows in homes and schools? Jews get cold too, or is this not newsworthy?

Once again the "Palestinian" propaganda machine is at work, and PBS is in the thick of it. You might remind your listeners that they repeatedly incite the Israelis with terror attacks. Then, when the Israelis attack, they scream foul and tear their hair while they shed crocodile tears. The staged photos and the deliberate encouragement of civilians to locate near military targets are hallmarks of Hamas and other terrorist groups. If the Palestinians really wanted to protect their civilians, they would quickly sign a peace treaty with Israel. The truth is that they use the death of innocents as a war tactic. PBS has bought that type of propaganda hook line and sinker. The Palestinians have repeatedly shown they do not want peace. They only want to destroy Israel.

Allan Avery, Tulsa, OK

I find that PBS is completely in line with Fox news when it comes to the one-sided reporting about the massacre in Gaza. When Ray Suarez interviewed the person from Israel a few days ago, where was a spokesman from Gaza? I am receiving many e-mails from the desperate people and the peace activists working in Gaza and it is immoral how the US is supporting and encouraging Israel. As long as we give Israel the dollars, weapons and support, they will not change the way they deal with Palestinians. Hamas is dead wrong, but so is Israel. They had planned this war (Israel) long before they found an excuse to destroy Gaza.

Lee M., North Liberty, IA

Not Covering Sderot

We watch the NewsHour regularly. Re coverage of the Israel-Gaza conflict, there is sufficient footage on the Gaza side of the equation. Where is the video footage of the Israeli town of Sderot — where the Hamas rockets have been fired daily for the past few months, of the crying children there who respond to the sounds of rockets raining down on them that caused Israel to have to respond? The verbal/interview aspect seems balanced, but the heart-tugging video is not. The on-site reporters complain of Israel restrictions to be allowed into Gaza, but they are managing to get the footage. Is Israel preventing them from getting the footage from Sderot or has that not been deemed important enough?

Jeff Black, Staten Island, NY

Last Friday night (Jan.2), on NewsHour with Ray Suarez, the Gaza war was covered with a filmed report from ITN, covering the Gazan experience of the ITN broadcaster. No report from Israel was presented. Why did PBS present a one-sided, biased report on this war? I found your coverage a disgrace. Your piece appeared more like a pro Hamas propaganda broadcast than an accurate news story. You all should be embarrassed.

Ken Price, Dallas, TX

PBS news is a voice of Hamas in US. BBC news program and PBS evening news broadcast lie and fraudulent information on Israel war on Hamas portraying Israel as monster intentionally targeting and killing Palestinian children and civilians. However, even recognized that Hamas uses civilian infrastructure, including schools, houses, kindergarten facilities, hospitals, for storing and launching rockets and other ammunition, placing training camps inside civilian areas in violation of Geneva Convention and international law.

Mark Bernadiner, Pearland, TX

Here's My Assessment

As it turns out, the criticisms voiced above break down almost evenly between those who felt the NewsHour coverage, in specific instances, was being pro-Israel or pro-Hamas. News organizations sometimes find comfort in such splits. They say to themselves that it must mean we are being even-handed and therefore doing a good job.

That, of course, is not always the case. But in this case, when viewing NewsHour coverage over the last 10 days or so, I would say that viewers have been well served. There were weak spots and oversights, which I'll get to. But, as I've said many times, when viewing a nightly news broadcast or reading a daily newspaper about a continuing crisis, individual misjudgments, errors or omissions are important and should be spotlighted. But the overall coverage should be judged more as a continuum in terms of the completeness of the picture presented. On that basis, I think the NewsHour did well; much more broadly informative and with much greater depth than one would find on the major broadcast networks which, of course, have much shorter nightly newscasts.

Just for example, there were two analytical segments, neither of which was mentioned by those who wrote, that added immeasurably, I thought, to public understanding of what was happening on both sides. The first one, which I felt was especially important, was on Dec. 30 when NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Brown interviewed Hisham Melhem, a senior correspondent for An-Nahar, a Lebanese newspaper, and David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Another was on Jan. 5 when correspondent Margaret Warner interviewed Matthew Levitt, also of the Washington Institute, and Mark Perry, co-director of the Conflicts Forum that promotes engagement, according to the program's description, between the West and political Islamist groups, including Hamas.

Looking over the coverage generally, The NewsHour was alert on Dec. 18, with Lehrer reporting in the news summary that Hamas had declared an end to a six-month cease-fire, and adding something that would turn out to be particularly important: "Tensions have risen lately, with an Israeli raid into Gaza and a new wave of rocket attacks by the militants." As far as I can tell, none of the three major commercial broadcast networks informed their viewers that evening of those developments. The Fox News Network actually provided the most extensive coverage, including more details on earlier Israeli raids into Gaza during the cease-fire and comments by both Israeli and Hamas spokesmen.

The NewsHour stayed on the story on Dec. 24 and 25 with reports by correspondents Gwen Ifill and Jeffrey Brown recording the heavy onslaught of rocket and mortar fire from Gaza by Hamas at Israeli towns, and with quotes from Israeli, Egyptian and Palestinian Authority officials.

Weekend Warriors, PBS Is Not

The big Israeli counter-attack in the form of a heavy air assault on targets in Gaza began on Saturday, Dec. 27, and PBS and the NewsHour, of course, were nowhere to be found. Sorry, no weekend news on TV if you rely on PBS. So it was not until the evening of the third day of the assault, Dec. 29, that the NewsHour caught its viewers up with what was happening.

Aside from this physical gap, I thought there were three other aspects of this conflict that could have used more focus by the NewsHour. These involved a more in-depth look at events leading up to the end of the cease-fire, some fuller disclosure about the process of news-gathering in such a conflict, and a more concentrated look at Gaza today, the effects of the economic blockade on its 1.5 million inhabitants, and its history. All of these issues were, indeed, touched on at various times on the programs. But given the known volatility with many viewers of an Israeli-Hamas clash, it would have been better to lay them out in more detail as early as possible.

For example, the day after Hamas declared a formal end to the cease-fire, the Los Angeles Times reported from Jerusalem on Dec. 19 that Hamas complained that Israel had allowed far less that the promised restoration of cross-border deliveries in what had been a crippling economic blockade of Gaza, and that on Nov. 4 Israeli forces had entered Gaza for the first time since June to blow up a tunnel, an operation in which six Hamas members were killed. On that Jan. 5 NewsHour segment mentioned above — 10 days after the Israeli air assault started — Mark Perry claimed that "there were 153 violations of the cease-fire by Israel and 36 Palestinians in Gaza were killed by Israeli forces."

Clearly, the firing of many hundreds of basically unguided rockets — and many more mortar shells — toward Israeli towns is a huge provocation that Israel could not ignore. But the point here is that the specifics of earlier actions by both sides that may have played a part in ending the cease-fire and igniting a full-blown conflict are important to focus on as early as possible in the news cycle. When that happens, things sometimes look more complicated. That turned out to be the case last August when the conflict between Georgia and Russia erupted and its origins appeared to be less and less clear as the reporting about the battle unfolded.

Sorry, You Can't Do Your Job Here

One major problem in covering the still unfolding war in Gaza is that the Israeli military has thus far barred reporters from every major western news organization — from the BBC to CNN, from the New York Times and The Washington Post to the Associated Press — from going into Gaza, even though an Israeli Supreme Court ruled two months ago against such a ban. One Israeli press official is quoted in the Times as saying, "Any journalist who enters Gaza becomes a fig leaf and front for the Hamas terror organization, and I see no reason why we should help."

The Foreign Press Association has protested vigorously, and correspondent reports used on the NewsHour have mentioned the ban on several occasions. But this is a much bigger story in its own right that viewers would benefit from, it seems to me. It means, for one thing, that all the video, photographs and news coming out of Gaza is from locally-based journalists — something that is rarely explained — and for another, that there is no independent way to cover and attempt to verify what is actually going on in a massive military operation carried out in one of the most densely populated areas of the world.

On Jan. 6, for example, Israeli mortar shells killed as many as 40 Palestinians outside a United Nations school. It was one of the most terrible moments and images of the war thus far. The Israelis contended that Hamas fighters had actually fired mortars from the school compound and UN officials called for an independent inquiry. Would an injection of experienced foreign correspondents help to track this and other reports down? Absolutely, in my view. Back in 2002, for example, western reporters were able to report a much more accurate picture, for example, on what had been initially labeled a "massacre" by Israeli forces in the West Bank city of Jenin once they were allowed inside.

Some writers and callers have also called attention to the use of British correspondents for the field reports on the NewsHour. I think most ombudsmen who have dealt with this conflict for years would agree that among some TV viewers there is a mistrust of British reporting when it comes to the Middle East. I thought the reporting used by the NewsHour from ITN, or Independent Television News, correspondents was solid, and included reporting from and scenes of Israelis towns that had been hit by Hamas rockets. There was rarely any explanation or attribution, however, of whose films these were.

The Role of ITN

Probably long-time viewers of the NewsHour understand that the program does not have what you would call a reporting staff other than the handful of familiar NewsHour faces who operate out of WETA just outside Washington, D.C., and only occasionally make reporting trips. And, as I've said before, American television networks generally, except for CNN, for several years now have abdicated foreign news coverage on the scene except when U.S. troops are involved. Hence, the British; who, thankfully, still believe in covering the world and still manage to find a way to pay for it.

When I asked a NewsHour official earlier this week about this aspect, he explained, "We rely primarily on ITN for our coverage of this story. We pay ITN a set annual fee and get their reporting on breaking stories from all over the world. There is no American equivalent of ITN.

"As to their decisions on how much they are covering Israeli towns versus trying to get as much information as they can on the air and ground war inside Gaza, you would have to ask them. They are there, making the decisions on what to cover," he said. "We are subscribers to their service; we do not have any say in their editorial decision-making. We do edit, as we feel necessary and as we can, the pieces we receive from them to make them, as much as possible, adhere to our standards of straight-forward reporting absent commentary. We certainly mention the attacks (on Israeli towns) in our news summary, as they happen. And on Monday (Jan. 5), for example, we did run parallel two-minute pieces in the main program with some inside-Gaza footage, voiced by Mark Austin on the border, and a piece from Israel by Juliet Bremner. I do know the ratio of dead is 600-plus to 5, which undoubtedly has an effect on ITN's decisions and to some degree on ours."

Looking back over the programs between Dec. 29 and Jan. 6, it seems to me that Israeli officials got more NewsHour exposure, by a fair amount, than did voices of Hamas and its explainers in terms of sound-bites and actual interviews. But what was happening on the ground in Gaza clearly dominated the visuals as opposed to what was happening in Israeli towns. It is not to diminish the terror in some Israeli towns of being under the constant threat of rocket attacks to say, however, that the actions and anguish in Gaza overwhelm it as the larger part of the news story.

Were there lapses in the questioning of guests on the programs? Sure. Mark Perry's claim, for example, of all those Israeli cease-fire violations should have been followed up, assuming there was time. But in general the questioning was straight-forward, with Gwen Ifill getting it off to a proper start with the first guest on the first program after the war had started. "Explain to me," she said to the Palestinian observer at the United Nations, "what Hamas was thinking; how you were thinking that the Israelis would respond when you began firing hundreds of Qassam rockets into Israel?" And when the answer was mostly a plea to stop the fighting, she said, "So I have to ask you again, Mr. Ambassador, what was the point of launching the rockets . . . what did you hope to accomplish?"

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