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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: Anybody Here Against War and Speak English?

The headline on this brief ombudsman's mailbag is a paraphrasing of one of the more famous, irreverent but eminently practical questions ever asked by a war reporter, as Jonathan Randal pointed out in an obituary some years ago of legendary, French-born foreign correspondent Edward Behr. The original question was: "Anyone here been raped and speak English?" It was posed to a planeload of survivors from a siege in eastern Congo in 1964. It became the title of Behr's book.

Early this month, when there was a lot of war talk going around about a possible Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities and possible U.S. involvement, I wrote a column raising numerous questions that I felt had not been discussed much, especially on television. I said I thought public broadcasting had the time, charter and range of programs to do this better than others, certainly better than the commercial networks. "But to do so," I wrote, "it needs to get away from the standard, conventional, surface issues that pass for debate about this subject."

The PBS NewsHour did a segment on March 5 that was focused mainly on the discussions about Iran at the time between President Obama and visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

On Wednesday evening, March 28, the NewsHour devoted another segment to the Iran issue. The guests were Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine, Austin Long of Columbia University, Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Ali Alfoneh of the American Enterprise Institute.

It was headlined: "Will Israel Bomb Iran? Possible Outcomes of a Possible War." It was a discussion of just that; possible military tactics and responses. There was no discussion of the case for not going to war, no advocate of that position, no one arguing that it might be unwarranted for Israel and/or the United States to go to war over this, or that it might lead to catastrophic consequences.

Watch Will Israel Bomb Iran? Probable Outcomes of a Possible War on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Segment host Margaret Warner, to her credit, started out down that road but it was never pursued. She pointed out right at the beginning that protesters marched in Tel Aviv carrying posters that read: "Bibi, don't bomb Iran," and that "recent public opinion polls in Israel show only 19 percent would support their government attacking Iran unilaterally." But there was no one on the program — Israeli or American — presenting that side of this potentially deadly debate, and the idea that war may be a terrible idea never came up.

I ended that earlier column by saying that a few viewers had begun to write to me about this and cited a letter from San Francisco that read: "I had déjà vu watching the NewsHour address the issue of attacking Iran. I remember how you were banging the war drums prior to the Iraq invasion and here you go again. There was no one on your panel addressing how we could NOT support Israel's attacking Iran."

The reason for this mailbag is two new letters, in particular, on this subject that arrived after the March 28 segment. The first is from Greg Thielmann, a former top intelligence official at the State Department, and the other is from author and journalist William Greider, who writes for The Nation. Both are longtime fans of the NewsHour.

The Letters

Sorry I don't bother you with praise for all the great news coverage on PBS, but I have some more constructive criticism on Margaret Warner's Israel-Iran piece last night. It seems like a 9:28 minute report on the subject of a possible Israeli attack on Iran should mention what virtually everyone agrees on: it wouldn't prevent and would probably make more certain Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon. I didn't see much balance in the guests. There are many experts who would emphasize what a "catastrophe" such an attack would be for the U.S.

Also, Margaret used "preemptive" in characterizing a Goldberg statement. The whole discussion was about a "preventive," not "preemptive" attack. The latter is striking in the face of imminent attack, which is potentially legal. The former is always illegal and usually immoral. President Bush incorrectly and disingenuously used the wrong label in his roll-out of a new military doctrine in 2002 to avoid admitting that Nuremburg established preventive attacks as a war crime.

Greg Thielmann

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I am an every night fan of the News Hour but I write because I am deeply distressed by how you are covering the run-up to war against Iran. Last night's program was not the first one to upset me but it was pretty bad. I scream at the TV set when I see people like Jeffrey Goldberg holding forth as an expert. Ask him where he stood on the question of invading Iraq! Ask the guy from AEI whether he thought 'shock and awe' would subdue the Iraqis without a fight. And pin them down on the facts of their own past.

My point is, the NewsHour discussions are devoid of the historical context that every citizen-viewer remembers. We invaded Iraq on the very same pretext, now the same guys who sold that are back selling another war. Only this time US intelligence actually says Iran is right, they're not doing a bomb. That doesn't even get mentioned as the various war jockeys describe what they think will happen. Last night we were told — I couldn't believe my ears — that Iran won't strike back; they wouldn't dare because we are so powerful. Isn't that what Cheney and Rumsfeld said?

Here are some points for discussion that you might invite some non-bellicose "experts" to discuss:

1. Preemptive war is illegal in international law. That would be a stimulating debate. Why are the dovish experts never called for interviews? PBS is afraid of being called leftish — so we get rightwing hawks posing as disinterested commentators.

2. What about Israel's nukes? Never mentioned. Yet Iranians and Arab neighbors would say, hey, that's why we need a bomb — to keep Israel from bullying us. Another ripe opportunity for some reporting.

3. Tell the history everybody knows and call in the old experts who got it wrong. Ask them what they think in hindsight. Ask them if they have any regrets or apologies for the American people.

4. The costs of war. The Washington elites are preoccupied with budget deficits and mainly want to whack Social Security and other programs for people. If we go to war, however, all that will be treated as an off-budget emergency expenditure. How sick is that?

Personally, I think this country will explode if we get sucked into another war in the Middle East. I also think Israel's relations with the US would be gravely injured. This, too, is a subject for exploration. What DO the people think about these war whoops?

Bill Greider

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And this landed just before posting time from a viewer in Dayton, Ohio:

Re: March 28, 2012 "Will Israel Bomb Iran? Probable Outcomes of a Possible War", I point out that any such topic should: a) consider the legal basis of such an attack, and b) that sources used for such discussion must have a reasonable track record of being reliable and impartial. Mr. Goldberg, used in this report, has been suggesting an imminent attack on Iran for years and has been at time a cheerleader for such an attack. I suggest that such a source does not offer an impartial and reliable basis for a story.

(Ombudsman's Note: I am not endorsing the views of the letter-writers about individual participants on these segments, but rather endorsing the idea that other voices need to be heard.)