More Self-Inflicted Wounds

By Michael Getler

Sept. 2, 2015

This column is not about me, but I start by acknowledging that I am something of a technological dinosaur. I still read printed newspapers and I don’t have a Twitter account or Facebook page. But the reason I don’t engage in social media is only in part because I’m a little challenged technologically. The real reason is that I’m the ombudsman at PBS and I don’t want to be glib or dash off something on Twitter that I would quickly regret, or that could easily be misunderstood, or could be used to either discredit me and my work or PBS. I had the same policy about pre-social media venues when I was the ombudsman at The Washington Post.

So that brings me to the real self-inflicted wound, which was a tweet by PBS NewsHour co-anchor Gwen Ifill on Wednesday—after it became known that President Obama had secured the necessary number of Democratic backers in the Senate to ensure that the nuclear agreement with Iran could not be blocked by opponents—that said: “Take that, Bibi.” That was a reference, of course, to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who has strongly opposed the agreement and came to Washington at the invitation of Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner to argue against it in front of Congress.*

Ifill added the comment when she retweeted an illustration from an Obama administration Twitter account that is designed to support the case for an agreement.

Ifill tweet_2.jpg

As they say in today’s world, her tweet instantly went viral, picked up by bloggers, websites and a large number of Twitter followers and it quickly produced a lot of angry emails in the ombudsman’s inbox.

I asked Ifill and the NewsHour for a response and explanation. She explained, in an email to me and in a tweet to many others, that she was “RT'ing a @TheIranDeal tweet,” and added that she “should have been clearer that it was their argument, not mine.”

One would have to lean way over backwards to give her the benefit of the doubt that she was simply shedding light on the administration’s view of portions of Netanyahu’s arguments. But to personalize it by saying, “Take that, Bibi” is, in my book, inexcusable for an experienced journalist who is the co-anchor of a nightly news program watched by millions of people over the course of any week.

It is not the first time that I have written about Ifill and tweets. Three years ago a tweet supporting a former colleague, who made an inflammatory remark apparently unaware that his microphone had not been turned off, also brought about lots of criticism.

Ifill is a highly experienced journalist, very quick, alert, knowledgeable, and with an engaging on-air personality. She also has a talented eye for the ironies and political turnabouts in the daily flow of news that contributes to her presence. But PBS and the NewsHour are bigger than any individual and tweeting does not appear to be a tool, in these cases, that is appropriate for maintaining credibility, which is the bedrock for news organizations.

* Correction: John Boehner is Speaker of the House, not Majority Leader.

Posted on Sept. 2, 2015 at 5:02 p.m.

Updated on Sept. 3, 2015 at 4:49 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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