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Sunday, September 21, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag

Here's another quick ombudsman's mailbag focused mostly on Thursday evening's (July 8th) edition of the PBS NewsHour. It features some viewer response, especially, to Jim Lehrer's featured interview with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. In these early letters, Lehrer is viewed as either uncharacteristically hostile to the White House and echoing Republican talking points, or floating "softballs" toward his guest that Emanuel can knock out of the ballpark.

With that kind of balance, journalists and TV producers can easily conclude it was a good interview. I thought it turned out to be tough questioning that led to an informative segment. But having watched Lehrer now through two administrations, I'd also say that the general tone of this interview and the one two days earlier with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was more challenging than, for example, the one that I wrote about a few years back with then Vice President Dick Cheney, when many viewers objected to what they saw as "softballs" and a "deferential tone."

Letters about this and a few about a mailbag posted earlier this week appear farther down.

The Pentagon and the Press

There was another segment on Thursday's NewsHour that nobody has written to me about but which involves the press and interests me and so here's my unsolicited two-cents worth. The segment was about the relationship of the news media and the military in the aftermath of a now widely publicized article in Rolling Stone last month about Gen. Stanley McChrystal that led to the general's firing by President Obama and new ground rules for press access to military and civilian officials more recently announced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

I'm not going to go through the history or the segment, but if you are interested in the issue of Pentagon-press relations and have not seen the segment, it is worth looking at online. Among the guests, I found myself in agreement with the views of Christopher Hanson, a former reporter who is now an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Maryland.

This was a good segment but too short, in my view. Aside from carrying out this country's battles, the U.S. defense establishment has more than a $600 billion annual budget and the more scrutiny it gets the better. I would add the following points to the discussion.

My Thoughts

I thought the author, Michael Hastings, and Rolling Stone provided a public service in reporting that story. For McChrystal, the commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, it was a tragic way to end his career. He is a warrior general and the country needs warriors. But there was no denying what he and his aides were saying in the company of Hastings and it is mind-boggling that they exposed themselves in that manner and, ultimately, it was important that this be recorded and revealed.

Some have argued that Hastings abused the trust that comes with such extraordinary access, that some things said in bars or barracks are just bravado or blowing off steam and the sources should be protected, and that a reporter whose beat is the military would not have written the story that Hastings, an outsider, did. I don't agree with any of that.

What Hastings heard during an accidentally-extended month or so was not just foxhole talk. It was from the general then in charge of America's longest war and his top aides, and it was directed at the administration and some allies. It was a window on the thinking inside the bubble of a top commander. And McChrystal had been in trouble before over public comments in London about U.S. strategy.

The idea that a military beat reporter might not have reported this, I think, is a bum rap. We'll never know for sure, but the rap itself is harmful. I covered the military for many years and I can't think of a reporter who would back away from this story. It is true that many blockbuster stories — the My Lai massacre and Watergate in the 1970s, for example — were uncovered by those outside established beats. But the secret bombing of Cambodia at that time, a huge story that led in part to the fateful search for leaks by President Nixon, was also reported by the New York Times Pentagon reporter, and the recent Washington Post expose of outpatient conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center was also done, in part, by a national security reporter.

Another interesting aspect of this episode is that it was a civilian adviser under contract to the Pentagon that arranged the fateful access to McChrystal. The Pentagon for several years now has outsourced many of the duties — including security details in Iraq carried out by the then Blackwater USA company that also came back to bite them — that were formally carried out by professional military staffs. My guess is that there are plenty of people in the Pentagon who would have known what would come of 30 days with any reporter.

The Pentagon needs to do what it needs to do to protect real national security information and there is little doubt that the new rules on access and interviews will have what most reporters believe will be a "chilling effect" on what the public finds out.

But my sense — which I hope is not long out-of-date — is that reporters will keep on digging around new restrictions, and that within the military and the civilian bureaucracy there remains, as there always has been, an understanding among many about the role of the press in a democracy and the right of the public to know what is really going on. Those clichés sound corny, but that is how embarrassing information gets out, how covered-over policy disputes are uncovered, how insights into cost and character are gathered.

Letters About Lehrer

I have just watched Mr. Lehrer's interview of Rahm Emanuel. The interjection by tone and selected questions of a negative point of view was offensive and I believe unprofessional. My husband and I have regularly watched this program for years, we seldom miss it even while traveling. I used to count on it for reasonable, even-handed and reliable reporting. When Mr. Lehrer came down hard on President Clinton for a long period after the "Monica" incident, I cut him some slack because Clinton has used him and lied to him in the first interview afterwards. But I can find no excuse for his current behavior. We do not need another Beck or Limbaugh. Shields and Brooks and their predecessors are asked for their opinions and tend to balance each other out rather well.

But of late Mr. Lehrer is demonstrating bias that is unbecoming. In no way nor in any response did he acknowledge the facts and patterns Rahm put forward. He more than once spoke sarcastically in both tone and words as if Mr. Emanuel were misrepresenting the situations being considered. Rude! Inappropriate! If one cannot support their position by facts or reasoned argument, they sink to this kind of behavior — not a journalist of his past stature.

He quoted Congressman Boehner's statement regarding our President "whining and indulging in childish partisan attacks, how out of touch can he get," absolutely not necessary to the point and insulting. Certainly Boehner is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, and Jim knows this, yet chose this quote — why? Throughout the interview Mr. Emanuel was patient, frank and used humor in his responses. By contrast, Mr. Lehrer's poor behavior made the administration look good; I feel it is safe to say that is not the outcome for which he hoped. For what it is worth, the other program associates are doing fine work and appear to be able to question thoroughly without displaying inappropriate bias.

Barbra Allen, Kailua, HI



Jim Lehrer should apologize for his inept interview with Rahm Emanuel. Compare to Margaret's [Warner] interview where specific questions were asked, as opposed to Jim's open forum for Rahm to present his position as he wished. Discouraging. Where are we to go for good TV news?

John Blakemore



Jim Lehrer is a reporter I have admired and followed for years. This evenings' news grilling of the White House Chief of Staff was shattering to me. Lehrer has apparently adopted the point of view of the most cynical and dishonest critics of the Obama administration. He was actively hostile, the complete opposite of the kind of reasonable analysis that I expect from the News Hour.

John E. Becker, Bronx, NY



I am watching Lehrer's so-called "interview" of Rahm Emanuel! He was tossing "softball" questions right and left and "NEVER" asked any tough questions or pointed out any of Emanuel's errors! The closest that he came was when he "read" an accurate assessment by John Boehner of the "job" that Obama has done!

Also, someone needs to teach Lehrer how to pronounce Missouri! It is NOT Missourah! It is Missouree! Just like Mississippi is not pronounced Mississippah! What a horrible so-called "interview"!!!!!!

Ed Kertz, Ballwin, MO


And More About 'Fancy'

Four brief points about your latest column: First, Reba's 'Fancy' makes a fine metaphor for elected officials selling out to big corporations; Second, the 'William Tell Overture' makes a fine musical metaphor for how fast and well the Media stampedes America's 'human capital' in whatever direction the big corporations want them to go; Third, in my rural Wisconsin area (WPT) 'Need to Know' does not occupy any of the old Bill Moyers Journal/NOW time slot, it takes the place of Charlie Rose on an alternate digital channel, making it even less 'must see TV' than the producers have already made it and, Fourth, I keep hoping I'm wrong about the directions in which America, PBS and WPT are going, but the professional establishment keeps proving lay old me right.

Charles Shaver, Westfield, WI



I suppose people who liked the song "Fancy", or didn't react to it, do not tend to write to you. I can only say that I like the song because it reflects another side of our country. I wasn't aware that a 4th of July celebration must be 100% positive. The girl in the song is a symbol of all those Americans who love the country just as much as anyone else, but have not reaped its promises. These people should be celebrated for their ability to survive in increasingly challenging economic times. What better time to acknowledge all the "Fancy's" who are doing the very best they can, than the 4th of July, our nation's day of Independence — Fancy did what she had to do to survive — she was very independent, indeed, and in many ways symbolized all the rugged individualism we love to honor ourselves for. Thank you Reba! It doesn't all have to be waving the flag and pretending that struggles don't exist for so many.

Janet Camp, Milwaukee, WI


And, This . . .

Keep the Need to Know program. I like it and it covers important stuff.

Wooster, OH


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