When Short-Hand and Off-Hand Is Not Enough

By Michael Getler

JANUARY 23, 2015

Good television programs, such as the nightly PBS NewsHour, attract good audiences; people who are engaged with the news, take public affairs seriously, and rely on an uninterrupted hour-long newscast to give them more than they can find on shorter, commercial network broadcasts.

So it is not unusual that NewsHour content gets a big dose of scrutiny every night and that, from where I sit, it seems that anywhere from one to sometimes dozens of viewers are ready to pounce at something they follow closely and consider not quite right.

In recent weeks, some 75 or so emails and phone calls have landed in the ombudsman’s queue mostly complaining about, and a few complimenting, the NewsHour’s decision not to show the cover cartoon drawings of the now well-known Charlie Hebdo satirical news magazine in Paris. I wrote about this earlier, and will get to the new letters farther down in this posting.

But what I wanted to call attention to first were a number of other incidents in which only one or two people wrote to me about something that had been said on the NewsHour. These tended to be quick, brief, on-the-air exchanges that perhaps didn’t cause most people to get off the couch but did cause some to pounce and write. They also tended to occur when correspondents were using short-hand or off-hand descriptions to take note of something in the news, or during an interview when the questioning was questioned.

Some of these emails used some harsh language, which I don’t at all endorse. But I do think the challenges raised were legitimate and worthy of posting.

Short-Hand

For example, in a Jan. 15 segment introducing the news of the day, co-anchor Gwen Ifill noted an intensified war of words between Israeli and Turkish leaders, and said: “Relations between Israel and Turkey have gone downhill since 2010, when 10 Turks died during an Israeli raid on an aid convoy trying to reach Gaza.” True, but short-hand.

A viewer in New York, Henry Silver, put it this way: “You characterized the Mavi Marmara incident as 10 Turks being killed by Israel while trying to bring aid to Gaza - not a fair history on many counts. The ship was trying break through a blockade of Gaza implemented by Israel to prevent rockets from being smuggled to Hamas, a blockade that was declared legal by the UN. Israel had offered to unload any aid on the ships in Ashdod and take it into Gaza by trucks. The radicals who were trying to break the blockade refused, so the issue was not sending aid to Gaza, but confronting Israel. The killings took place in self-defense after Israelis who tried to board the Mavi Marmara peacefully were fiercely attacked by thugs who were put on the ship for such attacks by Turkish authorities.”

Clearly, one cannot produce a history about every item in a brief rundown of the day’s news. But another sentence or at least a couple of additional words would have helped.

Off-Hand

In a Jan. 12 NewsHour segmentabout the terrorist threat in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris, Ifill was interviewing the NewsHour’s chief foreign correspondent, Margaret Warner. As a final question, Ifill asked about whether there was much concern in Europe over the “kerfuffle” about whether President Obama should have gone to the big solidarity march in Paris, noting that the White House, that day, acknowledged that maybe the president or someone high-ranking should have gone. Warner pointed out that on the operational level, there is no complaint. “But,” she added, “certainly, on the symbolic level, you can always count on the tabloids in Britain.” And Ifill added, “Well, the tabloids here as well.”

This provoked a strong negative reaction from viewer James Neely, in Austin, Texas, calling it “crass and unprofessional” to make the observation “when discussing the President's obvious faux pas of not attending the Paris demonstration, that this wasn't really news and that only the tabloid news was carrying the story…[this] was way out-of-line.”

In defense of Ifill, she did report, earlier in the program in the news summary, that “the administration suffered withering criticism for failing to send anyone of higher rank” to the march and reported on the White House acknowledgement. So this made these—what I would call off-hand comments—later in the broadcast seem strange and at odds with the “withering criticism” that had begun to emerge. Indeed, the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, on at the same time as the NewsHour in many places, led its broadcast that same night with a long segment on reaction to the president’s absence from the march. This was more than other networks did but the NewsHour dialogue between the correspondents about tabloids could make it seem as though they were trying to downplay the episode.

Weak Hand?

Earlier, on Jan. 8, there was an interview by Ifill with Ava DuVernay, the director of the new film “Selma,” the powerful dramatization—not a documentary—of the crucial civil rights protests in Alabama in 1965 that led to the passage by Congress that year of the Voting Rights Act. I have not yet seen the film but by late December it had already stirred considerable controversy over the historical accuracy, or inaccuracy, of the portrait of then-President Lyndon Johnson’s role in relation to the protests, legislation and to the Rev. Martin Luther King.

Several historians, authors and political figures of that time had already taken issue publicly and to varying degrees with the accuracy of the film with respect to Johnson. There have, by now, been scores of articles written about this.

The controversy swirls around two key points. The film, according to comments from critics who have seen it, depicts Johnson in a December 1964, White House meeting, as negative and perturbed when pressed by King about the timing for legislation, according to The Washington Post. But Andrew Young, then a young lieutenant to King who was at the meeting, tells the Post, “He and Martin never had that kind of confrontation.” Julian Bond, another of King’s young lieutenants, also took issue with the depiction of LBJ as an obstacle to progress.

The second point was the implication that Johnson approved or authorized then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to give to King’s wife secret recordings of marital affairs to discredit him. On that point, Young has said: “I don’t think that is fair to LBJ.” Others have used much harsher language.

In her interview with Director DuVernay, Ifill says, “There have been so many questions now raised about the choices that you made,” and then asks, “What has been your response to all of that?” She doesn’t ask why you did some of the specific things that critics have charged are wrong and where there is some historical record of conversations and understandings of people who were there. DuVernay’s answer to the question asked is actually quite fascinating but it doesn’t go to the journalistic issue of why do this depiction of a president in a film to be widely seen when the weight of testimony and in some cases historical record does not support it.

Later in the interview, Ifill asks, “Did you leave the impression that Johnson was complicit in things like the FBI tracking of King that he was?” Again, the question a viewer might prefer is why, according to various sources that could have been cited, did you leave the impression that LBJ had been complicit?

A viewer from Illinois wrote to me to “protest” Ifill's approach to the controversy over the depiction of Johnson, first on CBS’s Sunday, Jan. 4, Face the Nation and then on the NewsHour in what the viewer saw as a “phony” interview with the maker of "Selma."

Ifill’s Jan. 8 interview actually provided a valuable look into the director’s approach and thinking. This is clearly a very powerful and well-made film that has won a lot of acclaim and Ifill stresses that it is important to see the movie before forming judgments. But most people have not seen this film, yet many know there is a lot of controversy swirling around it. And it does seem to me that there were specific areas and questions for a journalist to pursue on a news program about a film that dramatizes the role of a president, falsely in the view of many critics, during an extraordinary period of American history that millions of us remember.

Now for the Hebdo Decision, Part Two

What follows now, without further comment, is a sampling of letters received after my Jan. 14 column on the NewsHour decision not to show the cartoons in the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo depicting the Prophet Muhammad that were at the center of the deadly terrorist assault on the paper’s offices. The new letters deal mostly with the NewsHour’s continuing decision not to show the cover drawing on the next edition, which also depicts Muhammad but in a different, non-confrontational way, and which sold more than five million copies in France alone. Some viewers were particularly annoyed that on the program Jan. 16 co-anchor Judy Woodruff asked regular NewsHour analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks what they thought about the NewsHour’s decision-making.

You’re Good

We are faithful viewers of the PBS NewsHour. We strongly support your editorial decision last week not to show the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. We are grateful to Judy, Gwen and all the staff for their gracious and wise leadership.

Tyler, TX

~ ~ ~

I want to express my support for not showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Offensive images and words intended to gratuitously insult or humiliate decent people is inappropriate for any upright news agency to disseminate.

Jim Darcy, New York, NY

~ ~ ~

I wish to send my thanks for NewsHour decision not to air the cartoon. I did not know it was an issue until seeing the discussion on Friday with Shields and Brooks. My thinking has been that scorn and contempt are, sadly, themselves a form of hatred and that it is almost pathologic to consider them comedic. They are not funny unless it is funny to humiliate someone else. I was delighted that the Pope (best Pope ever) said if you insult his mother, expect a poke in the nose. He was being gentle, but he seemed to give a voice to my feelings. So thank you for your choice and sorry to hear it was questioned. There's just so much polarization that it is wonder you could even make that decision. It was made by some other media and duly appreciated by me.

Sylvia Hawley, Springfield, OR

You’re Bad

I'm so sorry that PBS doesn't have the ---- to publish the cartoon that was on the cover of Charlie Hebdo today. It only shows how little you are willing to do to support freedom of speech. I think this is very cowardly and disappointing in the news network that I have always had so much respect for. I will continue to watch because you are the only intelligent station on the air but it still makes very sad.

Michael Foxworthy, Palm Springs, CA

~ ~ ~

What an incredibly cowardly act on the part of PBS not to show the cover of Charlie Hebdo magazine/paper that hit the stands in Paris on January 14, 2015. Even your guest Daisy Khan was not the least bit offended by the cartoon. If anything I thought the depiction of Mohammad and what it said "all is forgiven" with the tear coming down his face was the most moving and compassionate cartoon and could help heal many people. Your refusal to show the picture, even though all the major news networks did, only inflamed the rhetoric because people assume it was much worse than it is. Shame on PBS for censoring this magazine cover and cheapening the lives that were lost protecting freedom of speech.

Trout Creek, MI

(Ombudsman’s Note: NBC and ABC did not show the Jan. 14 cover. Only CBS did, of the three major broadcast networks.)

~ ~ ~

I'm adding my voice to those challenging the wisdom and honesty of not publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons -- especially the recent one published after the attack. But beyond that, I find the NewsHour, and other news reports on PBS, to be lacking in thoroughness with regard to exploring the roots of this current Islamic extremism. I'm particularly incensed by the references to Saudi Arabia as "a moderate Muslim state," and an "ally" of the west, whereas Saudi Arabia is a seedbed of Islamic extremism with its teachings in the madrassas of the most reactionary, even violent version of Islam. And that goes for Pakistan as well, but we've had some disputes with that country, and none of the reverence reserved for Saudi.

Marjorie Hirsch, New York City, NY

~ ~ ~

Wow, I thought the PBS question posed to Brooks and Shields tonight, and their answers, about the propriety of showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoon, was the most gutless, self-serving exercise by PBS and its commentators that I can imagine.

Leesburg, VA

~ ~ ~

Tonight's self-vindication of the NewsHour's craven conduct - not showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoon - was journalistic cowardice wrapped in deceit. Judy Woodruff managed to toss to Brooks and Shields, who agreed that PBS - their employer - was quite right not to publish a cartoon that might offend. PBS is Washington PC lapdog non-journalism at its lowest.

Albuquerque, NM

~ ~ ~

What bleeding whitewash! I just heard Mark and David say they agreed with PBS in not showing the cover of the issue of Hebdo subsequent to the horrific events at its office in Paris. Words like sodomy were tossed around. But the cover of the issue in question was not about sodomy or anything else, except the depiction of a tearful Mohammed that might not have been considered offensive by anyone. And those who might have been offended are the ones who PBS must be so afraid of to abridge its responsibility to its viewers so as to make the act an act of cowardice, of submission to those who would tell us what we can and cannot say.

Michael Kemper, San Francisco, CA

~ ~ ~

I found your refusal to show the Charlie Hebdo cover, a cartoon in which the prophet Muhammad is featured, to be outrageous and cowardly, a grave insult to the 18 people who died, as well as to all precepts of free speech, and Western culture, upon which this country was founded.

Malibah, HI

~ ~ ~

PBS NEWShour is a NEWS program. This is a world-wide news story that will affect everyone's life and yet you take it upon yourself not to give us the news. I've seen the cartoons. I can't imagine what people who have not seen them are imagining. We can handle the news. We are not 3 yr olds. Without NEWS, we will remain an insular, exceptionally stupid country and will remain so as long as politically correct remains your motto.

New York, NY

Posted on Jan. 23, 2015 at 1:52 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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