‘We Hear You’ Is Not What Viewers Wanted to Hear

By Michael Getler

SEPTEMBER 30, 2014

It started within minutes. Dozens of emails from irate viewers started pouring into the ombudsman’s inbox. They started moments after a segment on the PBS NewsHour last night (Sept. 29) featuring an interview by co-anchor Judy Woodruff with Frederick Kagan, a well-known defense analyst for a well-known, predominantly conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute.

Kagan has been on the program before and Woodruff, while not characterizing AEI, introduced him in part by pointing out that he was “a leading advocate for the surge of American forces in Iraq in 2007” under President George W. Bush.

The subject was President Obama’s comments the night before during an interview on the CBS “60 Minutes” program that the U.S. intelligence community had underestimated the capabilities of the Islamic State group that has now seized large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and overestimated the Iraqi military’s willpower to fight back.

I’m not going to go back over this interview, but Kagan, whose work was especially influential in Bush’s second term and also with Gen. David Petraeus when he was the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, made it clear throughout that, in his view, it was President Obama who dropped the ball rather than the intelligence community. “I think it’s very telling that, called to account on this, what the president said was, somebody else got it wrong.”

That was Kagan’s final comment on the segment. Then Woodruff closed by saying: “We hear you, Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute. Thank you.”

As Always, It’s Complicated

Several viewer emails are posted below. But let’s put the cart before the horse for a moment and offer some background.

First, having Kagan on without another guest offering a different, and presumably opposing view, was a mistake. The NewsHour almost always has opposing viewpoints on such segments. Not explaining to viewers why this was not the case was also a mistake, an even bigger one as I will explain. And Woodruff’s sign off, which I’ve heard her do on other occasions where it may have been appropriate, was also a big mistake last night.

Kagan is a high-profile defense analyst and scholar and it is perfectly good journalism to have his views on the record on the NewsHour. And Woodruff has a 40-plus-year career in journalism and is widely respected as a top reporter, interviewer and straight-shooter.

A Bad First Night

Ironically, Monday night’s program was the first under the direction of the new executive producer of the NewsHour, Sara Just, also a veteran of more than 25 years with ABC News, including deputy bureau chief in the network’s Washington bureau and, before that, some 17 years with Ted Koppel’s “Nightline.” This was not a great way to start at the new gig.

I asked Woodruff and Just what happened.

Here’s What Woodruff Had to Say:

“At the very last minute, we lost our second guest, Steven Simon, Professor at Dartmouth College. The studio there had technical problems that weren't discovered until a few minutes before we went on the air. We went back and forth about whether we had him; finally we didn't. In retrospect, we should have told the audience. I decided not to, thinking I could play devil's advocate. In retrospect, that was a mistake.”

Simon is a Senior Fellow at The Middle East Institute. He previously served as senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs at the White House from 2011 through 2012. Woodruff also sent along to me an off-line pre-interview, “so you see he's coming from the other side,” she said.

As for “we hear you…” Woodruff said this: “This is an expression I sometimes use at the end of an interview or a letter – especially when someone has expressed strong views on something. It’s a polite way of saying something other than thank you.’ There is absolutely no suggestion of endorsement or the opposite.”

Executive Producer Just Said This:

“In retrospect, I agree we should have explained the situation to the audience in the moment and I take full responsibility for our not having done that. It was a judgment call in the moment. That said, I do think we can sometimes have a single pointed interview subject and rely on the interviewer to push back. But that was certainly not our goal here - we were caught by surprise by a technical snafu.”

More of My Thoughts

These strike me as reasonable, helpful answers, although it remains inexplicable to me why the viewers were not told that a scheduled out-of-town guest who previously worked in the Obama administration could not appear because of last-minute technical problems. The decision not to do so unnecessarily hurt the credibility of the program and viewers will have no understanding of how this happened. Woodruff did try to play the other side in her questioning but it didn’t alter the impression of a one-sided interview on an extremely sensitive and politically-explosive subject.

In my many years of watching and listening to Woodruff, the idea that such an experienced journalist would allow herself to endorse or reject the comments of an interviewer is hard to imagine, and I’m confident that was not what she was doing here. On the other hand, my strong and unsolicited advice would be to stop using that "we hear you" phrase as a sign off. It is quite understandable that viewers were especially outraged to hear that at the close of a segment that they rightly viewed as one-sided.

Here Are the Letters

I was offended to see Frederick Kagan interviewed by Judy Woodruff tonight, 9/29/14, on the disintegration of Iraq. This was without any opposing perspectives offered, and no substantive context provided for the viewers. Mr. Kagan has a number of dogs in this fight and his implication in the initial invasion as well as his previous views on the war in Iraq should have disqualified him from such a privileged podium. Judy's closing remarks "We hear you Frederick" seemed to imply her agreement with the guest's questionable take on this issue of national importance.

H. Swerdloff, New Brunswick, NJ

~ ~ ~

I am appalled that The Newshour used Frederick Kagan as a "news source." His history of neo-con advocacy is disgusting. His fingerprints are all over the mess in the Mid-East. I cannot believe Woodruff let him off so easily . . . a disservice to gullible viewers.

Alan Knight, Duanesburg, NY

~ ~ ~

Incredibly disappointing that the News Hour allowed Fred Kagan with the well-known political agenda of the AEI to speak with no counter opinion regarding the ISIS situation in Iraq and his feeling that the President is to blame. I can't recall when a story of OPINION, not FACT was presented by the NewsHour in this fashion.

Jonathan Caldwell, Stratham, NH

~ ~ ~

I've just seen tonight's episode with an interview of Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, commenting on the current government/military situation in Iraq. Calling it an interview would be beyond euphemistic; more appropriately it could have been labeled an unchallenged right-wing opportunity to rail against the Obama Administration with the typical right-wing propaganda we've come to expect from Fox "News." I don't object to your presenting commentary on the situation, but gee, give a balanced view of what the situation in Iraq was, and is. Have someone who has a fact-based understanding of what happened to a withdrawal program negotiated by the Bush Administration and a President Maliki that was virtually personally picked by former president G. W. Bush, defying most of his own staff's objections. I'm not here to say that Kagan was wrong on everything; my own knowledge of the situation is limited to what I've learned from broadcasts like yours and NPR. However, maybe I'm spoiled, or maybe your producers have changed, but that segment was about as unbalanced as anything I've ever seen on the 30+ years I've been a viewer. Thank you for indulging my expression of disappointment,

William Westerman, Brookville, IN

Did the Iraqis Fight ‘Like Lions’?

I was appalled by the poor excuse for journalism evidenced in and lack of preparation by Judy Woodruff in her so-called interview with Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute. If PBS wanted to have a discussion about the President's comments in the CBS interview, then fairness demanded a representative of the President be part of the interview or at least somewhat neutral observers. The whole bit was just a neo-con trash talking the President.  Woodruff was wholly unprepared to question anything Kagan said, i.e. "the Iraqis fought like lions..." To the extent they fought like lions, it was against us and stopped only when we paid them off. I don't care if someone wants to disagree with the President, but responsible journalists do not just hand the microphone over to a spokesman for the neo-cons to opine. And the ending, "we hear you..." The whole piece was irresponsible and unfair. I expect better of PBS.

Marian Matthews, Albuquerque, NM

~ ~ ~

How could you use the tremendously biased, conflicted and self-serving Mr. Kagan to comment on the situation in the Iraq and Syria. I am deeply disappointed in your judgment and expect you to present more objective and reasonable commentary very soon.

Bethesda, MD

~ ~ ~

We just listened to Judy Woodruff's interview with Frederick Kagan which she ended with "we hear you." It sounded as if she supported all the AEI spin he was providing through her softball interview. As long time PBS supporters, it was embarrassing to watch Ms. Woodruff help him spread his right-wing propaganda without challenging any of his distortions of facts. Sigh....

Glenda K. Nau, Kansas City, MO

Losing ‘Respect’

The News Hour lost my respect this evening when I watched Judy Woodruff interview Fred Kagan concerning ISIS and the President's policies in Iraq and Syria. What was so disappointing was the fact that Ms. Woodruff didn't give a brief biography of Kagan and his role as a neoconservative supporter of the Iraq invasion in 2003 based on the existence of WMDs and Saddam's alleged involvement  of the 9/11  attacks. In the best tradition of the News Hour, there should have been another guest with an opposing viewpoint on the crisis in Syria and Iraq.

John Bird, Southbury, CT

~ ~ ~

After watching Judy Woodruff's interview regarding when the intelligence community knew ISIS was a threat with the gentleman from the American Enterprise this evening I will be switching to MSNBC. This gentleman was particularly offensive regarding our commander in chief . . . Ms. Woodruff tacitly agreed with him "We hear you." This is not balanced reporting, or reporting with integrity. It's flat-out biased.

Kathleen Converse, Atlantic Beach, FL

~ ~ ~

Tonight 9/29 you had a commentator from the American Enterprise Institute who of course is completely biased against our President, PBS gave no counter to his argument. He spoke as if it was fact. I expect better from PBS, you are the last remaining news organization that has any integrity. I want to hear both sides of the argument.

Tucker Kendrick, Orlando, FL

~ ~ ~

I am very troubled to see Judy Woodruff's discussion with a member of the American Enterprise Institute, regarding the President’s recent actions in Iraq. He was obviously greatly biased against the President. Why did the discussion not include someone else, who could provide an alternate perspective? This type of one-sided discussion greatly undermines my trust in what was once the true fair and balanced media news source.

Hollywood, FL

~ ~ ~

I'm writing regarding Judy Woodruff's treatment of Steve Krofts' interview on the NewsHour September 29.  It was perhaps the most blatant one-sided presentation I've witnessed on a show I have watched for over three decades. Where was the balance to Mr. Kagan's highly political rendering?  I have witnessed this creeping lack of balance for some time with growing dismay, but tonight did it for me!  It seemed to confirm all that I read in a recent Harper's magazine article on mission creep away from the PBS journalistic values that so encourage we viewers from the outset. I would welcome an explanation. By the way, I tried to email the NewsHour, but had great difficulty in trying to use the contact site. I hope this wasn't planned!

Allan Sklove, Benicia, CA

Posted on Sept. 30, 2014 at 3:37 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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