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PBS Ombudsman

A FAIR Catch But UnFAIR Conclusion

Ombudsmen sometimes are the recipients of email campaigns driven by various interest or self-styled media-watch groups. So it was this week when some 2,000 emails landed in my inbox within a 24-hour period. As far as I can tell, they all, with at most one or two exceptions, said exactly the same thing. That does not inspire confidence that the senders did anything more than what they were told to do, or that they actually saw the program that was the target of the criticism.

On the other hand, the originators of these campaigns often make important journalistic points and worthy observations, even if they fit a particular self-interest. So I pay attention. Personally, I would pay just as much attention if the organization simply posted its critique for its subscribers and also sent it to me.

The campaign this week was based on a posting on Jan.10 by Peter Hart of the organization known as FAIR, for Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, and was headlined: "PBS's Dishonest Iran Edit." It dealt with the way in which a segment of the PBS NewsHour on Monday evening, Jan. 9, reported on comments Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made about Iran's nuclear program on the CBS Sunday program "Face the Nation" the previous day.

FAIR and Hart produce rather frequent critiques of NewsHour segments and I have written many times about them.

Here's What Hart Wrote:

As if tensions between the United States and Iran weren't high enough, here's PBS NewsHour anchor Margaret Warner (1/9/12):

The Iranian government insists that its nuclear activities are for peaceful energy purposes only, an assertion disputed by the U.S. and its allies. On CBS yesterday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta repeated international demands that Iran stop enriching uranium.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: But we know that they're trying to develop a nuclear capability, and that's what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is, do not develop a nuclear weapon. That's a red line for us. They need to know that, if they take that step, that they're going to get stopped.

The way that's presented you'd think that the United States has evidence that Iran is pursuing a weapon. Leon Panetta's soundbite is from his appearance on Face The Nation on Sunday. But the NewsHour removed one key phrase; right before Panetta says, "But we know," he said this:

Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.

So Panetta's statement — that Iran is not building a nuclear weapon — is being used to argue that the United States disputes Iran's long-standing contention that it not building a nuclear weapon.

Good Catch

I have a couple of thoughts about this issue. I think FAIR makes a good journalistic catch in calling attention to the fuller quote by Panetta on CBS. It was a very brief and clear statement by the defense secretary on an important point about whether Iran is actually developing a nuclear weapon. After FAIR pointed this out, I was mystified about why the NewsHour would cut this short and declarative preceding sentence, and I asked for an explanation, which is posted below.

On the other hand, I think FAIR goes too far in describing the PBS editing as "dishonest." The logical understanding that NewsHour viewers — and anyone who has been following this subject — would draw from the portion of the Panetta quote that was used is that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon but that they are developing a "nuclear capability" and that the U.S. warning, as Panetta expressed it, is not to cross "our red line" and actually develop a weapon.

NewsHour Foreign Affairs and Defense Editor, Mike Mosettig, Responds:

In a word, it would have been better had we not lopped off the first part of the Panetta quote. But even without it, is clear from what we did air, that Iran is not at this moment putting a bomb together. That said, the segment (tape and discussion) was not about whether Iran has or does not have a bomb at this time or whether they will have one soon, but the pressure on Iran not to cross "red lines." So bottom line: an unfortunate edit but not a game changer.

The NewsHour and the News

I usually watch the hour-long PBS NewsHour at 6 p.m. on Maryland Public Television and at 7 I usually tune-in to the 30-minute NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. On Wednesday evening, I thought the NewsHour had an especially interesting and informative program on several timely subjects. But when I switched to NBC, I realized that the NewsHour had not reported on the two stories that were at the top of the NBC program and were big news in many other places as well.

One was news that the outgoing governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, a prominent national figure as well, had granted full pardons to 193 criminals, including five who had been convicted of murder, on his last day in office. All three major commercial networks carried that story and the controversy it provoked.

The other was about the surfacing of a video that appeared to show a small group of Marines in Afghanistan urinating on dead Taliban fighters. The authenticity of the video had not yet been verified by the Marines but it was clear from statements by the Marines and the Pentagon that they were deeply troubled by the scene. NewsHour editors point out that this was a late-breaking story, which is true. But NBC and ABC both managed to carry it, although it was not on that evening's CBS News.

No explanation yet about the missing Barbour story but I was surprised that, within an hour-long news program, there was no mention of these two broadly interesting news stories.

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