The Mailbag: On Torture, Protesters and #$@&%!

By Michael Getler

DCEMBER 12, 2014

These last several weeks have turned out to be an unusual time for me in my role as ombudsman. Over the years, the usual flow of mail from viewers covers a pretty wide swath of programming offered by PBS. But because of the recent flow of news—and the controversy swirling around the stories dominating the news—the mail has been overwhelmingly focused on the nightly PBS NewsHour.

What follows is another in a string of recent Ombudsman’s Mailbags, which are representative samplings of what some viewers are writing to me about. This is the fifth posting—four of them just in the past three weeks—dealing with the aftermath of the deaths in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., of unarmed black men and the grand jury decisions in both cases. And adding to those explosive events this week was the release of a detailed and devastating report by the Senate Intelligence Committee (actually by the committee’s Democratic majority with a separate dissenting report by Republicans) on the harsh and controversial interrogation techniques used by the CIA in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Any list of subjects that is guaranteed to stir emotions of Americans is certain to include interactions of police and minorities, and the question of whether the U.S. tortured, or used what are called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs), on terrorism suspects.

The letters that follow are all critical, and that has been the case for some weeks now. But it seems to me that some context is called for and I hope it does not come across as defensive on my part. Most importantly, the NewsHour is just that, an hour-long news program (30 minutes on Saturday and Sunday) in contrast to the less than 30 minutes of actual news viewers get on all the other major nightly broadcast networks with commercials. So it covers more news and more aspects of the news and in more depth. That also makes it more vulnerable, at times, to criticism because it covers more angles and if one segment treats one aspect of a story before another aspect is looked into.

So, for example, there are letters below sharply critical of a segment the NewsHour didon Dec. 8 about what’s driving young protesters on the post-Ferguson events. But on Dec. 11, a segment was aired featuring law enforcement officials on training and other matters. The Dec. 11 segment, in my view, lacked the emotion or power of the protesters. It would have been good to hear from actual cops. But I’m told it is hard to get rank-and-file policemen and women on TV in such situations for a variety of reasons.

Also, the NewsHour is probably watched by a million or so people every night and what these mailbags add up to is a relative handful of letters. Still, I try to post those that go to substantive issues, and also perceptions that may or may not be more widespread. Some of the letters are followed by responses or notes from me.

Here Are the Letters

I understand that when the NewsHour has guests on, they are speaking their opinions. But when an opinion is factually wrong, and we have the evidence to show it is factually wrong, and the speaker should have known better, then I think it is the NewsHour's obligation to correct the record. Below [the quote from Bill Harlow] is such an instance from tonight's [Dec. 10] show. The former CIA spokesperson is describing the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. The Senate Intel report proves by quoting CIA's own documents, which Harlow could read himself in the report, had he bothered, that in fact this story is completely false. Instead, the version of events described by the FBI agent Ali Soufan in his book “Black Banners” was correct. Abu Zubaydah never clammed up. The CIA shrink team showed up, booted Soufan who was getting the information, put Abu Zubaydah in solitary confinement "without questioning" (!) for 47 days (!) as part of their "learned helplessness" strategy (see page 27 and following of the Senate report), and then convinced their superiors that AZ's "clamming up" justified the harsh measures to follow. So much for the ticking time bomb, when 47 days go by! Lies like this, on the NewsHour no less, need correction.

Tom Blanton, Washington, DC

BILL HARLOW: “Right. And then he gave us that bit of information while he was being medically treated. And then when he became healthy again, he clammed up and stopped telling us information. And only because he stopped telling us information, and that time bomb was still ticking, did we escalate to other tactics and he gave us much more information, much, much more information than that one nugget after he was subject to EITs.”

The NewsHour Responds:

Sara Just, executive producer, said: “We have reviewed this and feel that this does not warrant a correction. This is a dispute over what a guest said, not an inaccuracy by the NewsHour.”

(Ombudsman’s Note: I thought this was an important letter and issue. Blanton is the director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and one of the leading non-governmental experts on secrecy and security matters in the country. This is, indeed, a dispute, but somebody is right and it would seem to me to be a very good and focused point to use in a follow-up segment as a case study and fact-check of sorts about what people say on television about important but complex matters. It is often very difficult for a reporter on live television to have detailed background on hand to challenge many complex subjects. There is a great deal on this in the Senate report and in other material and it was part of a New York Times story on Dec. 10.)

~ ~ ~

The coverage of the Torture issue on Dec. 10 with Bill Harlow and David Iglesias was disgraceful. You gave equal time to someone who was arguing that the end justifies the means. This is like giving equal time to Josef Stalin. The United States ought to be obligated by basic human morality NEVER to employ certain means simply because they yield desirable ends. Debating how effective or ineffective torture may be is disgusting and shameful. It is a new low for the PBS NewsHour.

Cincinnati, OH

~ ~ ~

I am writing with concern about the NewsHour broadcast of December 10. I was deeply disappointed that Ms. Ifill allowed Bill Harlow to stop her use of the word "torture."  She should not have succumbed to his view. As Senator Feinstein said in her introduction, "While the Office of Legal Counsel found otherwise between 2002 and 2007, it is my personal conclusion that, under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured. I also believe that the conditions of confinement and the use of authorized and unauthorized interrogation and conditioning techniques were cruel, inhuman, and degrading. I believe the evidence of this is overwhelming and incontrovertible." By changing her language to use EIT rather than torture, she explicitly agreed that there was a question as to whether torture was the correct word. I have the highest regard for Ms. Ifill. She is a journalist of the highest rank. Normally, I would have addressed a concern directly to her. However, here we are dealing with matters that affect the United States in the deepest possible way. We must be honest, correct, and unafraid to speak truth.  I believe it would be appropriate for the PBS NewsHour to issue a "clarification" or "apology" on this matter.

Richard Mahoney, Sedona, AZ

(Ombudsman’s Note: This is another hugely contentious issue that actually splits the government, with the CIA on one side (EITs) and most of the other parties, including the White House and Sen. John McCain, on the other. As I watched this segment, I didn’t get the impression that Ifill allowed the guest to stop her from using the word torture. She used it in introducing the segment. The guest, Bill Harlow, said he would disagree with that term. My sense is that Ifill, properly, chose not to get bogged down in this argument over semantics but rather get to the main question about what interrogation techniques did or did not produce useable intelligence.)

The Protesters

As a very long time viewer of the NewsHour, I am becoming more and more disillusioned with the objectivity of the program and its coverage of the recent grand jury actions in St. Louis and Staten Island. Why in tonight's broadcast [Dec. 8] is a forum given to 3 protesters with opposing viewpoints and nothing but softball support from Ms. Ifill? What is going on with the editorial integrity of this venerable program? Why am I seeing more and more of this surrounding this issue? Where is that PBS objectivity that has made me such a supporter in the past? Very disappointed.

B. Gallagher, Philadelphia, PA

~ ~ ~

I just watched an interview with three protesters of police brutality. I was anxiously waiting for the interview with three police officers to give their side of the issue and what they deal with every day risking their lives to try to protect us. Unfortunately, those interviews were overlooked. It does not seem fair and balanced to me.

Woodland, CA

~ ~ ~

The PBS NewsHour tonight segment on police/Black incidents was disgusting. This subject has had repeated emphasis on the program and is disproportionately dominated by persons, as tonight, that promote revolution (his word) and self-determination (his word). There is no balanced reporting--unlike the wonderful Shields-Brooks exchanges. Your reporting unfairly and dangerously promotes racism rather than diminishing it. None of the interviewed persons dwelled on the looting and criminal damage to property. Be fair.

John Tuohy, Mendota Heights, MN

~ ~ ~

I'm appalled at the interview conducted by Gwen Ifill with three people protesting the recent shooting of black men and boys. She asked the question of all "why are you protesting?" The responses ranged from "I want to be free" to "the police are killing all of us and I don't want to be next.” I watch the NewsHour for balanced reporting. Not to hear hyperbole from activists that only want a forum. Unfortunately Ifill gave them that time. They added nothing to the debate.

Jeff Jefferson, Millersville, MD

(Ombudsman’s Note: As I mentioned earlier, the NewsHour did do a later segment with three law enforcement officials and introduced it by referring to the earlier session featuring protesters. In terms of dramatic power, the law enforcement types didn’t match the protesters, and, as I also said earlier, it would have been good—but difficult—to get some beat cops on the screen who have faced tough, real-time situations. The segment on the protesters was useful in terms of knowing what they are, and are not, about. But it did lack questioning about some of the controversial and at times violent actions that sometimes go along with protests.)

What the #$@&%!

(Ombudsman’s Note: the headline above refers to the otherwise unmentionable titles of a couple of bleeped but recognizably profane picture books that, along with the author, were the subject of a Dec. 10 NewsHour segment with chief culture correspondent Jeffrey Brown. These are not children’s books. They are about kids and their parents but are written exclusively for parents. It is a total no-brainer to expect that doing a segment on PBS about these books would produce letters from people who don’t find this suitable or funny. The letters follow. But first, two personal confessions: 1) I’m a big fan of Jeffrey Brown’s cultural segments so I put a lot of stock in his choices for what is worth calling attention to, and 2) I thought the first book on sleeping was #$@&%! hilarious, bought copies when it first came out two years ago for some friends and relatives with young children, and thought it most assuredly rang true for lots of young parents.)

I was just watching the NewsHour and you have an "author" talking about his book. Why don't you fXXXing eat. I know that PBS for some time has been a liberal and secular source of information for the American public, but this is simply unacceptable. I do not approve of my tax dollars going to an organization that is promoting and spewing out this type of filth. I am going to contact each of my political representatives to see what can be done about limiting or cutting back on the government money you receive to put out this type of garbage. It is simply not appropriate. I am sure that Mr. Rogers would turn over in his grave to see the decline of what was once a good source of information to the American people.

Richard Macias, Merriam, KS

~ ~ ~

I have been a PBS fan for forty years and tonight I am disgusted with the pathetic broadcast of the interview with the sleazeball that wrote the books "You Have to F.....g Eat" and "Go to F.....g Sleep".

Whitmore Lake, MI

~ ~ ~

The NewsHour decided it would be cute to air a spot about the book "Go the F**k To Sleep." Mr. Brown even seemed to really like the guy. Really. What will be next in the downslide, the 'Joy of Gangsta Rap Lyrics'? What would Robt. MacNeil say?? How far, sir, is PBS willing to go into the gutter (not just on the NewsHour) to track pop trash culture?? PBS's job is NOT to appeal to ALL aspects of our rapidly declining so-called-culture, but to set a Decent standard of adult behavior. How can society exist without it. Junk is junk, sir. And this Junk is totally inappropriate on a show purported to deal with IMPORTANT issues of the day. It was my impression, decades ago, that PBS was trying to pull society UP, which is hard work, and not to happily wallow in the gutter with the low classes. Times have changed, huh? For instance, Jimi Hendrix is NOT an 'American Master'--How dare PBS defile that formerly distinguished show with the likes of Hendrix. Please. And Hard Rock music concerts on PBS? Please. What WOULD Robt. MacNeil say?? Be an oasis of higher standards rather than slosh down into the muck. Not all 'culture' deserves promoting in the name of 'diversity.' Junk is junk. If PBS insists on going downward, PBS will no longer have a reason to exist. It's that simple. Please.

Seattle, WA

Some Broad Knocks

I have watched and supported this show for over 30 years and have been able to get an informed perspective on many issues. In the past it was a fairly objective view with a liberal slant. Recently, the perspective has become slanted, allowing things to be said that were untrue and unverifiable to allowed by the moderator. Specific incidents occurred dealing with the Ferguson shooting, the recent conflict in Gaza, the rape allegations at University of Virginia, and the viewpoint of an individual who worked for the U.S. Attorney General on his legacy. I never hear an apology from your program not from the moderators when they have allowed things to occur that have no factual basis.

If you want an independent overview of a person, you get someone from the outside not a person who worked for and was part of the decision process. When Holder resigned, rather than get someone from the outside, you got someone who worked for Holder and was part and parcel of his administration. In the Ferguson shooting, the moderator allowed a person, to say without any qualification that the teen was shot in the back, when she had no more information than you or I.  This was right before the grand jury verdict.

There was a Palestinian woman who works at George Mason University to make statements about the Israeli's deliberately targeting civilians. She quoted sources that were taken out of context. The moderator allowed the young lady to make statements that could not be proven. The gentleman who I believed work for University of Utah could have destroyed her on factual basis was not given the time to do so.

The University of Virginia rape case speaks for itself. Why allow someone to represent a story as a fact on your program, when that person does not provide a balanced approach. The woman who wrote the story failed as a journalist by not doing her work and your program gave her credibility. You did not do your fact-checking on her story. The media, including this program, runs with stories but never corrects itself. You can make a mistake that is understandable. When you do not go back and admit to your audience that things were allowed and/or said that were ultimately wrong then you are headed for world of hurt. It eventually catches up with you or your organization.

Will Simpson, England, AR

(Ombudsman’s Note: The NewsHour did do a follow-up segment on the holes that were being punched in the Rolling Stone story as they developed.)

Posted on Dec. 12, 2014 at 5:02 p.m.

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ABOUT THE OMBUDSMAN
As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >

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RECENT POSTS
DECEMBER 5
Viewer comments continue on cops and race coverage, and an unusual segment draws attention.
 
DECEMBER 2
More reaction to Ferguson coverage, including the need to question sweeping statements.
 
NOVEMBER 26
First wave of viewer reaction to the grand jury decision news coverage is critical, the ombudsman reports.
 
NOVEMBER 19
Words matter and some viewers take issue with how some were used and others were missing.

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