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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag

Most of the mail that accumulated while I was away focused on two segments of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. One aired on Tuesday, Sept. 15, and dealt with a new and strongly-worded report from the United Nations about the fighting late last year between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The other was the following evening and it dealt with the role of race in the current political climate. Both segments were moderated by Senior Correspondent Gwen Ifill.

If you want a sure-fire, hot-button, journalistic double-header guaranteed to generate controversy you can't do any better than Israel vs. Hamas followed by the role of race in American public life. So it is not surprising that it generated responses from viewers. A sampling of the letters is posted below.

Much of it is critical of Ifill, but as I watched both episodes I thought her questioning was what made both of these segments more informative than they otherwise might have been. These are both very tough and touchy subjects and her questioning struck me as alert, smart and challenging, playing quickly off what the guests were saying and asking the questions that the average NewsHour viewer would have wanted to be asked.

But the format of the segment on the U.N. Human Rights Council investigation and report about the Israeli assault into Gaza also raised questions in my mind as well as some of those who wrote to complain.

The first guest was Justice Richard Goldstone, a respected South African judge who is widely known internationally and who headed the U.N. investigation. He was interviewed by Ifill from the U.N. earlier in the evening. The other guest, interviewed in the studio, was the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, who blasted the report and the Council, as have officials in Israel who have said the Council is biased and questioned the panel's legitimacy to undertake such a mission. Israel had declined from the start to cooperate with the investigation.

Why Invite the Ambassador?

So, if Israel had refused to take part in the U.N. mission, why invite the Israeli ambassador on the program to criticize the panel's findings? When I asked NewsHour Senior Producer Mike Mosettig that question, he said: "More than three-fourths of the report was devoted to criticism of Israel. We offered them a chance to reply, which they decided to do after some cogitating on the matter."

Ideally, it might have been better if Goldstone had been able to appear for another minute or two to challenge the ambassador's views, or if reporters who had covered the fighting and its aftermath had been guests to assess the U.N. report. So what actually unfolded was Ifill questioning Goldstone about the harsh criticism of Israel in the report and whether fair conclusions could be reached without Israeli cooperation, and the Israeli ambassador getting a chance to voice strong Israeli condemnations of Goldstone's mission and report.

On the other hand, Ifill also pointed out to the ambassador that some Israelis had actually flown to Geneva to give their testimony to the U.N. group and introduced the segment with the very tough language of the report which, she said, "concludes that Israeli [forces] deliberately targeted civilians by launching military operations against homes, factories, schools and hospitals in a deliberate policy of disproportionate force. The 574-page report focuses primarily on what it calls grave breaches by Israeli forces, including willful killing, torture, or inhuman treatment, willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, and extensive destruction of property."

So, you could argue that the guest list might have been better structured if there was time to do so. But I thought this wound up being a pretty good representation of the report's findings, the Israeli reaction and the questions surrounding both aspects, and that there was enough there for viewers to get a better feel for this highly contentious issue than they might otherwise have.

Here are some of the letters, as well as some about the segment on race.

BTW, He's Jewish

Gwen Ifill conducted an interview with UN Judge Richard Goldstone (who, BTW, is Jewish), who in fact has been representing the World's people in investigating what went on in Gaza early this year for the UN Human Rights Commission. But then, I was astounded to see that PBS had the totally unjournalistic gall of following that with an interview of the Israeli Ambassador to the US, who of course dissed the forthcoming report, a report for which Israel was invited to contribute but for which it refused to provide data.

In other words, Israel was given the opportunity to oppose the (somewhat mild) conclusions of the report by PBS, unbalanced by any other views. Not only that, but, for the casual and momentary viewer, Amb. Michael Oren appeared to be a regular commentator, as, during this lengthy interview, his name and position (Ambassador only, could have been to the US or to the UN) were only put up onscreen three times (at the beginning, and twice more), remaining visible from between 2 to 10 seconds each time.

Carlos A. Coimbra

Shame on Gwen Ifill for conducting a set of interviews on the UN report on Gaza that basically gave a platform to Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren's effort to delegitimize it. She first interviewed Justice Richard Goldstone, the report's author, and repeatedly challenged the fairness of the report rather than focusing on the allegations of war crimes. She interviewed Oren second, who did the Israeli government spin job, and the soft-spoken Goldstone was never given a chance to rebut. The effect of this was to forward the Israeli governments' talking points and undermine the legitimacy of Goldstone's investigation. And why was no Palestinian interviewed?

Nina Tannenwald, Providence, RI

The segment on 9/15 on the UN report on Gaza could just as well have been produced by AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] for all the objectivity it demonstrated. Very strange to see this from Gwen Ifill who is one of your best correspondents. Just in case anyone missed the point that the UN report was complete rubbish, the Israeli Ambassador was brought on to reinforce it. Where is the balance you tout? Contrast this discussion of the UN report with the segment presented the following night on whether racism plays a role in criticism of Obama and specific incidents like Congressman Wilson calling the President a liar. The segment was informative, balanced, and nuanced. Why is it OK to have a frank discussion of black and white relations in this country, but not about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict? I feel this is a legitimate question, but the Israeli lobby has been so effective at stifling questioning of Israeli policy or actions (let alone criticism) that I am afraid to have you post this with my name for fear of being labeled as anti-Semitic.

Richmond, VA

I was very disappointed in the NewHour's report on the study about Israel and Gaza strip. Gwen Ifill's questions to the UN's respected chair of the study were not objective, and letting the Israeli ambassador make a false case and hand out more propaganda was too much. I turned off the NewsHour. Hope you do more than cater to the Israel lobby groups.

Salem, OR

Shame on PBS and shame on Gwen Ifill for allowing Israel a free platform to discredit the UN report on Israeli war crimes against Gaza. Thousands of defenseless Gazans were killed, yet PBS failed to give them a voice. When will the US media ever hold Israel responsible?

Glen Ellyn, IL

About Those 'Teabaggers'

Do you care to comment about Gwen Ifill's use of the word 'teabaggers' to describe some of president Obama's critics on a segment discussing racism charges on the 9/16/09 NewsHour program. You are aware of what that means?

Since racism charges were directed at President [Bill] and Hillary Clinton during the campaign, as well as media questions such as Time magazine's questioning whether Obama was black enough, fixing a narrow focus on this type of charge seems short sighted. Was it also necessary for a black host to have a panel of comprised of three other blacks and one white? Does the NewsHour have a diversity problem?

Robert Holmgren, Menlo Park, CA

(Ombudsman's Note: Ifill says, "Turns out I am the only person with access to email who never knew this was a term with a sexual meaning. I used it in an offhand manner as a shorthand referring to the 'tea party' movement. It was a slip I was unaware of, and I regret it." I would add that I didn't know that either.)

I was deeply offended by Gwen Ifill's segment on racism and in the current political scene. I do not think that was the title of the segment but that was the message of the segment. These are the areas in PBS stated Guiding Principles which I felt where breached.

Accuracy, The guest and Ms Ifill were all guessing and superimposing their beliefs about and onto the actions of those whom they were speaking of (the tea party members and other unnamed but-implied-to-be out-there voters). There were no tea party members invited as guests, although their reputation and intention was the main topic and was being misconstrued which leads to the lack of fairness.

Add to that there were three guests and Ms Ifill who held the view that racism was a definite part of the tea party members' belief system, actions and intentions. There was only one guest who was (I guess appointed) to voice the side of the tea party members (although he was not a tea party member) He was decent enough to state that the tea party people and other who where being labeled as 'secretly racist in their motivated', should be taken at their word and that reporters should not tilt their coverage (and guest) to express their predetermined agenda. This of course goes to the unbalanced nature of the selection of guest.

Kennewick, WA

Having been a subscriber since Watergate, I am sorry to say that I can no longer support your system. What with the ties to NPR, Gwen I. calling people teabaggers on the NewsHour, this does not seem like a balanced news hour.

Kirkland, WA

And About That Boehner Interview

I am writing to object to Jeffrey Brown's interview with Congressman Boehner on tonight's (Sept. 17) NewsHour. It was amateurish in that he allowed the Congressman to simply rely on talking points without requiring him to be specific. The subject was health care reform and when the question of what the Republican proposal is, the congressman was allowed to simply refer to a website without being drawn out on specifics.

Boehner did cite two suggestions that were of minimal potential effect on costs and was not pressed about how the major problem (costs) would be addressed. In the past I have enjoyed Jeffrey's interviews on the show but, in this instance, I am very disappointed in that it was an opportunity to put the Republican position (heretofore unarticulated) before the public and Jeffrey simply blew the opportunity.

John Daniels, Wilmette, IL

We watched the interview with John Boehner this evening. He said two things that were accepted without question. First: We have the best health system in the world. Second: The Obama administration is spending us into great debt. On the first statement, by many measures, we rank well below the rest of the Western World in our health care. On the second statement, the Bush tax cuts are responsible for a great bit of our deficit. Those cuts were made by a Republican Congress and President. Why were these statements not challenged? Does the NewsHour not challenge such statements from the House Republican leader for some reason not shared with the audience?

John Elsbree, Bethesda, MD

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