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The Ombudsman Column

The NewsHour Wins Some, Loses One

* A correction was added to this column, at the bottom, on Nov. 30.

This started out to be one of those "nobody asked me, but . . ." columns in which I comment on some things that no one actually wrote to me about. But it changed after the most recent military clash between Hamas and Israel when, no surprise, I got lots of mail from people claiming that coverage of the conflict by the PBS NewsHour was biased against Israel. I'll get back to that.

But first this, on other matters.

I write often about the NewsHour. That's rather natural because it is on five evenings a week, is the closest thing PBS has to a daily newspaper, covers lots of topics, and people have opinions and observations about the stuff that goes into a daily news program. So it is often, and naturally, in the line of fire for one or another of its nightly segments.

Most ombudsman columns, because of the nature of the position, deal with viewer criticism of one PBS program or another. Sometimes I share that. Other times I do not. But when it comes to the NewsHour, I occasionally make an accompanying point for context that whatever the perceived or actual failures of a given segment on a given evening, the program remains, in my opinion as a viewer, a uniquely informative daily hour of news that doesn't exist elsewhere on broadcast television.

Last year, for example, I made a point about a "routine" night on the NewsHour with stories that nobody wrote to me about but that struck me as anything but routine. This was another such week; at least it started out that way.

On Nov. 23, NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels, reporting in conjunction with the Center for Investigative Reporting and member station KQED, provided what struck me as an important update on the crackdown in Iran, not just on dissidents but on human rights attorneys and journalists. It was news and insight about a continuing issue that one just doesn't see on American television unless there is some big international event that turns a sudden and momentary spotlight on that country.

Watch Iran Cracks Down on Journalists and Dissidents on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Then on Nov. 26, in the aftermath of sweeping new powers that the new president of Egypt proclaimed for himself that, in turn, sparked big new protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, a NewsHour segment provided what I thought was first-rate television news and analysis. Correspondent Ray Suarez asked good questions and Nancy Youssef, the Cairo bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, provided excellent, stand-up reporting and insight from the scene. She captured the complexities of what was unfolding in that square and among Egyptian factions in a report that also, in my view, far exceeded what one would find elsewhere on the tube. Richard Engel, the correspondent for NBC News, also does fine and often courageous reporting from the region, but the length and depth of the NewsHour segment gave Youssef the opportunity to take the understanding of interested viewers well beyond the typical sound-bite, and she did that.

Watch Egyptians Debate Accountability for Elected Presidents on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

That Brings Us to Israel, Hamas and the Gaza Strip

I got about 50 emails dealing with the recent escalation of the decades-old conflict between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamic Resistance Movement that governs the Gaza Strip. All of them were critical of NewsHour coverage, claiming a bias against Israel. Almost all of them focused on a two-part segment broadcast on Nov. 22. And all of those seemed to be provoked by and come from subscribers to CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, that posted an analysis of that particular broadcast several days later.

CAMERA is a U.S.-based, pro-Israel media watch group that is well known to any reporter or editor who deals with coverage of the Middle East. I did receive a handful of critical emails about the coverage prior to the Nov. 22 broadcast. But the vast majority of criticism, citing the same points as in the CAMERA critique, came after that analysis was posted. CAMERA concluded that the segment was "partisan, factually flawed and unbalanced." And, according to israelnationalnews.com, CAMERA urged its subscribers to "let PBS know their bias is showing."

My Thoughts

I also thought this was a poorly done segment, at least in part, that was certain to generate legitimate criticism. I had that feeling immediately as I watched it on the 22nd. I did not feel it betrayed intentional bias, however, because I also watch the NewsHour almost every night and I had seen earlier segments on the fighting, including reports from Israel of the threat from and damage by rockets launched from Gaza, and a lengthy interview with the Israeli ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, among other clips presenting the Israeli view. I've made the point many times that news programs need to be judged on a continuum of coverage rather than on any one segment which self-interest groups can use as a hammer to try and make a larger point.

The segment was anchored by NewsHour correspondent Hari Sreenivasan and featured two parts. The first was a filmed report on the scene in Gaza by Alex Thomson of Britain's Independent Television News.

Watch Cease-Fire For Israel and Gaza, But Both to Act If Provoked on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

The second, which was the problem, in my opinion, was a static, long-distance interview by Sreenivasan with a freelance journalist, Stephanie Freid, who was in Tel Aviv on what seemed to be a rooftop, with normal, busy nighttime traffic and lights from buildings in the distance. The content and contrasts between the two reports were stark. It was the first time Freid had appeared on the NewsHour.

Watch Israelis Return to Sense of Normalcy After Hamas Conflict on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

What we have here is one part, the one based in Tel Aviv, of one night's coverage — Nov. 22 — that simply didn't work, wasn't very informative, and seemed to be an all-around mistake, especially on the heels of an energetic report from the scene in Gaza, which is almost always horrifying. I can imagine that happening without assigning ulterior motives. So the headline on the CAMERA press release, "PBS Gaza Coverage Partisan, Shoddy, Unbalanced," was uncalled for, in my opinion.

Several of the letters that seemed to result from the CAMERA critique focused on this comment by ITN reporter Thomson, who was elaborating on a Hamas official's argument that "if the Palestinians will stay under occupation in the West Bank and here [in] Gaza under siege, I don't think there is going to be a long cease-fire." Thomson then told viewers: "By occupation, he means this, areas, just one militarized crossing from Gaza to Israel. And Israel decides what crosses, goods, people. It is a complete commercial stranglehold on a place desperate to be a country."

As one of the letters below points out, there are two crossing points between Israel and Gaza and it can be argued that Israel does not have a "complete stranglehold" on Gaza. I would add, however, that while there are two crossings, both controlled by Israel, only one is for people. The other is only for goods. And, while some goods do move from Gaza's border with Egypt, about two-thirds of those, according to the latest edition of National Geographic come through an elaborate and dangerous system of makeshift tunnels. Since 2007, Israel has blockaded its border as well as Gaza's airspace and 25-mile long coast. So "complete stranglehold," meaning a restriction of the flow, may be a little off-base but not by much.

What PBS viewers could benefit from, it seems to me, is an in-depth segment on the NewsHour or another program that seeks to capture the complexities of this tiny but densely populated and misery-filled strip that has been the scene of multiple wars and thousands of ruined lives in recent years and may continue along that course.

Perhaps viewers need to be reminded that Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005. That Gaza City, though cut-off from the West Bank, is the largest Palestinian city, with some 450,000 people. That militant organizations other than Hamas fire rockets from Gaza into Israel. That those rockets are seen by many Palestinians as resistance to Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Do most Gaza residents really agree with those rocket attacks since they are certain to bring Israeli counter-attacks that often leave them and their homeland ever more devastated? What is the actual role of other Arab nations in helping, if that's what they do, Gaza residents cope? What is the current extent and real impact of the Israeli blockade? There are many more questions.

The NewsHour Responds to the CAMERA Report

In its November 22 report on reactions to the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, we sought to provide perspective from both sides, based on the material available to us. We do take CAMERA's point, that on the particular broadcast in question (November 22), the report from Gaza contained video footage shot on location, while the report from Tel Aviv was primarily an interview with a reporter on the scene. (That report opened with images of people injured in a Tel Aviv bus bombing and also discussed how civilians in southern Israel have faced rocket attacks for years.) The NewsHour produced coverage of the conflict every day last week and on other occasions included many images of destruction in Israel and interviews with its citizens. The program's producers make daily decisions about the best available means to inform viewers about developments in a continuing story and, over time, consciously try to make sure our coverage of this and all other stories is accurate and impartial.

Justin Kenny, Foreign & Defense Editor

Some Letters from Viewers

I question PBS standards of editorial integrity. The PBS focus is on portraying people in grief in Gaza. Do not the people of Gaza know that Hamas has been sending rockets into Israel for several months with the sole intent of killing civilians? There is no mention that some of the targets where buildings had gigantic explosions is certainly testimony that Hamas has hidden armaments in homes and buildings inhabited by civilians. One must wonder why Hamas does not appear to be concerned about keeping their families safe and out of harm's reach. Surely they must bear some responsibility for the seeds they have sown. Why aren't your listeners informed about the circumstances that led up to the war? How interesting it is that Gaza receives funding from the United Nations while at the same time, purchases rockets in lieu of providing for their people. In a circuitous way, we are financially supporting Hamas in this terrible adventure. There seems to be distorted and biased reporting fostering a desire for proportionality in deaths. That might make the reporting more sensational.

Washington, DC

~ ~ ~

For many years we have been regular watchers and listeners, and think highly of all aspects of the program, including in general its objectivity and even-handedness. But there is one glaring exception: The reliance on reports by the British organization "Independent Television News" for coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

We thought we had become inured to the not merely sensationalistic but grossly biased, anti-Israel nature of these ITN segments. But a segment on one of this past week's programs was so outrageous that we no longer can stand by in silence. (We should say that we are by no means apologists for Israel's administration of the West Bank, including the settlement program, which is a different story entirely.) The ITN correspondents' (and presumably producers') hostility to Israel shines through virtually every ITN segment originating on the ground in Gaza. We refer not just to the incessant featuring of the grisliest possible images showing dead, dying, and wounded Palestinians, preferably children. Virtually never is there the slightest reference in ITN's accompanying commentary to the indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel's civilian population that its military operations in Gaza seek to quell. Never have we heard a reference to the admitted fact that the terrorists deliberately place themselves and their rocket batteries in the midst of their own civilian population, effectively using them as human shields in violation of the laws of war, while loudly deploring the deadly consequences they have ensured when Israel, as they know it will, strikes back in self-defense anyway.

Instead, the spoken commentary accompanying ITN's bloody images seems deliberately designed to whip up an emotional response of anti-Israel hostility. Earlier this week, the commentary during one such segment reached a new high (or new low): First came the usual set of heart-wrenching images and accompanying faux-outraged commentary. But then, ITN's correspondent managed to outdo himself and his colleagues. In closing, he gratuitously alluded to Israel's effort to keep offensive weapons and other military supplies out of Gaza (a blockade that even the UN has admitted is permitted by international law), calling it as "the Israeli stranglehold on a people that desperately wants to be a country." Surely PBS can find some other source of on-the-ground coverage in Gaza and the West Bank.

Alexandria, VA

~ ~ ~

I am astounded by your lack of balance and accuracy in two segments aired on Nov. 22's "News Hour" with Hari Sreenivasan on Gaza and Israel. While I appreciate your apparent attempt at balance by covering both locations in the same program, you clearly demonstrated a lack of "truthiness" in your execution. Why in the segment on Gaza are personal stories relayed and interviews with politicians included while in the Israeli segment no personal accounts nor horrors documented nor politicians interviewed. Your program leaves an impression opposite of the truth. A viewer of your program would not realize that Israel was attacked by terrorists nor that Israelis suffered from the onslaught of missiles from Gaza. Further, factual errors are also misleading. Israel does not hold a "complete commercial stranglehold" on Gaza, which also has a border with Egypt. Israel continued to operate two crossings during the attack from Gaza, except when rockets from Gaza were fired upon Israel. And where is the commentary on the opening/closing of the border with Egypt?

New York, NY

* (Ombudsman's Note and Correction: Two of the three sample letters printed above — the one from Washington, D.C., and the one from Alexandria, Va. — arrived in the ombudsman's mailbag before a critique of the Nov. 22 NewsHour segment had been posted by the media watch group CAMERA and thus were independent of the subsequent analysis done by that group. In the column, I made the point that "I did receive a handful of critical emails about the coverage prior to the Nov. 22 broadcast." I meant to say prior to the publication of the CAMERA analysis of that broadcast. My apologies.)