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PBS Ombudsman

'Speak No Ill of the Dead'

Yesterday, I posted a brief column taking note of how informative the PBS NewsHour can be, and usually is, even when there are no big headlines, as was the case last Friday. The headline on the column read: "Above Average on an Average Day."

Today, alas, I write another brief column; this time about Monday evening's NewsHour segments reporting on the death, earlier that day, of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as being somewhat below average. Not bad, but not rising to the occasion. The headline on this column — a centuries-old expression first uttered in Latin that has been transformed over the years into common English usage — is perhaps best suited to speeches at funerals of family members. It is not so good for news programs.

As viewer James Holder of Waco, Texas, put it: "I have to take issue with the NewsHour's coverage of the death of former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Her tenure in office was complicated and controversial, but the various segments on the NewsHour were solely lauding in depiction. I feel a more critical tone could have, and should have, been inserted to fully explore what her legacy is — both positive and negative." I agree.

Monday's program included two segments on Thatcher — an introductory news segment and a longer one, shown in the video below, featuring interviews with former U.S. Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker and former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell.

Watch Remembering Margaret Thatcher: Pioneering Female Politician on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

The progressive media-watch group FAIR — which stands for Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting and which frequently targets the NewsHour, perhaps for not being sufficiently progressive — also took another shot at them online yesterday, comparing the Monday evening NewsHour, in its coverage of Thatcher's passing, to the most popular show on the Fox News Channel, "The O'Reilly Factor." FAIR called the parallels "striking" and said "they were basically singing the same tune."

I was planning on writing something about the NewsHour coverage and am not doing so in response to the FAIR blog post. I didn't watch O'Reilly's program and, while it's clever of FAIR, I don't think it's fair to compare a PBS news program to a Fox opinion program. On the other hand, I do think that FAIR and the viewer in Texas have a point. In fairness to the NewsHour, they did come back the following day (Tuesday) with additional coverage that provided some balance.

An Extraordinary Leader

As the correspondent in London for The Washington Post during the mid-1980s, I covered a couple of years of Thatcher's 11-year tenure. It was a time when two huge victories — over Argentina in the Falklands War and over the coal miners' union after a long, bitter and violent strike — boosted Thatcher and much of Britain. She played an important role in the unraveling of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, and gave the West and President Ronald Regan their first close-up look, and thumbs-up, at a Politburo member named Mikhail Gorbachev when he visited Britain in 1984. She re-aligned British politics, made Britain far more economically competitive, strengthened what is probably the most important alliance in the world, that between Britain and the United States, and did many other things, too numerous to mention here and too well-described elsewhere.

She was an extraordinary leader, historic figure and very successful politician who managed to diminish the power of both intransigent unions and the privileged upper-class while transforming her country.

But she was also extraordinarily, unusually divisive, relentless in her attacks on labor and liberals, seen by her critics as disregarding the plight of the have-nots and unnecessarily abrasive and confrontational. As a reporter watching her up close for those years, I often wondered why a politician that was seemingly so successful and flying so high at the time did not then seek to unite her country and countrymen much more than she did.

Rather little of that divisiveness, other than a mention of the battle with the miners and her "unyielding policies" arousing political hostility, was in the NewsHour's Monday segments. Campbell, the former Canadian leader, seemed to me to be most incisive and to bring the most valuable insights about Thatcher to the program. But there was nothing about the impact and legacy of financial deregulation, the broader crushing of labor and societal divisiveness, or about what became an extremely controversial "poll tax," for example. On the foreign policy side, it would have been interesting to recall her initial stance against German reunification.

There was also no mention on the NewsHour, and rather little mention elsewhere that I saw, about how the huge revenues eventually to flow from discovery and development of new oil deposits in the North Sea greatly contributed to Thatcher's political good fortune and her ability to implement financial reforms and weather the oil-shock, unemployment and recession that had hit much of the world in the early 1980s.

It was okay to hear the reminiscences of Shultz and Baker, but this first program after Thatcher's death had a distinctly North American tone, and it was the British who were missing. It would have been good to use some of that air time to hear from a British journalist, historian or public figure that captured her and her era more fully. You don't necessarily have to speak ill of her, although she had plenty of enemies, but her tenure was more complex and left more of a complex legacy than the Monday segments portrayed.

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