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PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

All Stirred Up: Viewers React to a Program and a Panel

The Ombudsman's Mailbag this week was filled with e-mails focusing on one or the other of two PBS offerings.

One was an hour-long program on Sept. 3 called "Inside America's Empire," in which journalist-author Robert D. Kaplan travels to smaller and less well-known American military outposts around the world and argues that these places are the frontiers of a non-colonial American empire, and that what goes on in these places provides a better alternative than other policies that can lead to big wars in the future. This "special program," as it was described, was part of the continuing PBS series titled "America at a Crossroads" that began with an original string of 11 documentaries packed into six consecutive evenings in mid-April.

The other focus of viewer attention was a segment of the nightly NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on Sept. 4 in which senior correspondent Judy Woodruff led a discussion with four members of Congress — two Republicans and two Democrats — who had recently returned from trips to Iraq during the August recess.

All of the mail to me about the program and the segment was critical and, in both cases, I found myself in agreement with the viewers. That is not to say that I endorse the specific views, language and points of the sampling of letters posted below. Rather, it is that there is validity to criticism of both of these offerings in that they fell short of what viewers should expect.

I should also say at the outset that I have some sympathy for NewsHour discussions that have to be quickly scheduled and sometimes turn out, on the air, to be not what was expected, meaning that a debate that one assumes will air both sides of a controversy sometimes becomes a three-to-one onslaught, which is what happened Tuesday evening. In keeping with that uncertainty, when I asked the NewsHour about how this had happened, I got two somewhat different, yet interesting, responses from Mike Mosettig, senior producer of the show, and Woodruff. Those responses are printed below the letters.

No Road to Cross

As for Robert Kaplan's contribution to the "Crossroads" series, the issue here for me was the absence of any voices challenging the author's "thesis," as series host Robert MacNeil put it at the start, that this global U.S. military presence "mark the frontiers of an American empire, not as colonial occupiers but as outriders of democracy and help against terrorism" and that, as he says Kaplan believes, "such small scale gestures can prevent future massive wars like Iraq."

Kaplan is a major writer with an influential following. He also is controversial and has his critics. He is a journalist, in that he produces lots of reporting, often from places that most reporters don't go. But he is also an advocate for specific approaches to military and foreign policy, and that usually does not mix with journalism. That's what happens here, in spades — Kaplan and the unseen narrator reinforcing each other throughout with a narrative of policy advocacy. The problem, in my view, however, is not Kaplan or what he says. The conclusions he supports certainly present one legitimate perspective on a tough problem. Rather, the problem for the viewers is PBS, and the concept of what this "Crossroads" series is supposed to be. There is only one road on this program; there is no other road to confuse you.

Kaplan actually sheds light, through his travels and reporting, on American military forces, in small numbers, working in the Philippines, in the West African country of Mali, in Colombia and in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, now an independent country. These are just a few of the scores of countries where the Pentagon has bases or base rights overseas and where relatively small groups of servicemen and women carry out a variety of missions deemed to be in American interests. This is nothing new. These outposts have been around the world for decades, but they are rarely, if ever, focused on in the press until, for example, a small group of advisers in a place called South Vietnam becomes something much, much bigger and more controversial.

Only One Choice, Really

Here is how Kaplan argues for what he sees as the proper approach to the question of what kind of policy the U.S. should maintain or emphasize in dealing with threats from abroad:

"Are we being busybodies? Are we being over-extended? Are we just getting involved in too many places that we can't handle? Here's the answer. What other alternative is there? On the one hand, we can be total isolationists, not get involved anywhere. But that would be irresponsible. And on the other hand, we could let problems build up and fester to a point where every once in a while we'd have to invade with a large number of infantry, and we'd have more Iraqs. So the real answer to avoiding future Iraqs is not to be involved in less places, but more . . .

"If you don't have a US military-diplomatic footprint over large corners of the earth, somebody will replace it. Well, would you rather have that to be the authoritarian Chinese or the reconstituted, thuggish authoritarian Russian Empire? It can't be the Europeans, because they're not putting in the defense budgets, the military budgets to do that kind of thing. The UN, as we've seen, is a great idea in the abstract but look at its record in Bosnia, Rwanda, in Southern Lebanon and many other places we could name. There is no alternative to United States great power presence around the earth at this moment in history . . . What we've seen, as imperfect as it is, seems to me the only pragmatic middle of the road choice that Americans can support. So if you're against, this tell me what are you for? Are you for isolationism? Okay, are you for mass infantry invasions every decade or so? Okay, what I'm saying is this is, this or a variation of this is the only practical alternative as imperfect as we've seen."

Caution: This Is a Point of View Film. Got It?

So this is, without a doubt, what producers would call a "point of view" film. Some others in the original "Crossroads" series also had a point of view. But I don't think that, as this series continues on a very occasional basis, viewers necessarily understand that is what they are going to get when they tune in, or that is what they want when it is over. In this case, you have the author/reporter, the ever-present but unseen narrator, and the military personnal being interviewed, all essentially singing from the same hymnal. Yet this is a subject of enormous importance. There are other serious, contradictory and alternate views. But they are never even touched on.

Robert MacNeil, who interjected succinct but vital context for several of the earlier programs, particularly those with a point of view, has very little to say on this subject in this film, aside from an obscure one-liner at the start pointing out that Winston Churchill once warned that empires of the future will be empires of the mind.

Kaplan at a Crossroads; the Letters

I just watched America at a Crossroads, and I can only describe it as bizarre and irresponsible. It was almost literally an infomercial on American imperialism without reflection or analysis of the claims made. To literally and glibly endorse an issue as weighty as imperialism without critical analysis of what that entails at home or abroad was utterly fraudulent.

There was no alternative view aside from Kaplan's summary stereotyping. No possible repercussions were addressed — whether international or domestic. Only glowing examples of success were used — one "warm fuzzy" after another — without any question of possible collusion or questionable tactics by U.S. forces and politics (I think there was one vague reference to some problematic things that happened at one time in S. America — in the past). At times the narration was almost like something from the '50s: "They like the American forces. They're like their new big brother protecting them from the threat of bad Russia" (or something pretty close). When the program started I wondered how Kaplan got access to the military bases. It soon became clear. Considering PBS's record of quality work it remains less clear how he found access to my living room.

Edward Anderson, Milwaukee, WI

Tonight's segment by Robert D. Kaplan on "America at a Crossroads" in my opinion should have been prefaced with information about Mr. Kaplan's overall world-view, which as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, is extremely right wing and accepts a priori that what is "good for American interests" (meaning American economic and political interests) is unquestionably good. I was shocked to hear statements in tonight's program that "we had forgotten lessons learned in earlier anti-insurgency campaigns" in the Philippines — referring to our much earlier imperialist occupation of that nation. Mr. Kaplan thought these lessons should have been applied to Vietnam. Obviously, he feels that not only are we a de facto empire, but that we have a right to dominate the world. If this type of extreme right-wing viewpoint is going to be given airtime, then PBS needs to counter with a radical left vision. At the very least, a discussion by those critical of Mr. Kaplan's controversial views is needed.

Tom Kara, Norwood, MO

I just watched an installment of America at the Crossroads and found the presentation to be one-sided and both its host, Mr. Kaplan, and its announcer peppered their commentary with what I regard as gratuitous and largely unsubstantiated remarks. My objection is that a presentation of this shoddiness can be found on PBS. I think you should be embarrassed.

Stanley Dorn, New York, NY

"America at the Crossroads" was very disturbing. I cannot imagine a more biased look at terrorism. It seems we may need American Troops in MORE countries around the world NOT LESS!

William Wieske, St. Clair Shores, MI

I thought the program on American Imperialism was one of the most nauseatingly propagandistic programs I have seen on or off PBS. Strategic problems vis a vis Islamic Jihad were treated as the only means of dealing with the problem. American imperialism was treated as a beneficent process that had only WORLD DEMOCRACY in mind . . . In Georgia? (With a hint about oil wealth?) What was that all about?

Anton Swensen, Pearl River, NY

I saw "America at a Crossroads" last night on the local PBS channel. A shockingly obvious propaganda effort aimed at a justification for American expansionism around the globe, done in the style of similar propaganda documentaries from decades ago, all the way down to the use of the "pro-America" narration, as opposed to a considered, thoughtful historical analysis as to why anti-American attitudes have risen sharply in more recent years around the world. Robert D. Kaplan seems like a fool as he superficially and flippantly assesses the "situation on the ground" in the various regions of the globe. One wildly hysterical quote from "Professor" Kaplan as he educates us: "Not all of the previous U.S. intervention into Latin America in the past has been positive." I almost fell off the couch laughing! What ridiculous garbage!

Frank C. Rodman, Denver, CO

I see no justification WHATEVER in providing air time for the likes of Robert D. Kaplan. With no backup for his statements of historical "truth," and apparently little reference to what happens to empires, not to mention no concern for whether humanity is trying to move forward or backward politically and socially, he merely states with a lot of outdoorsy informal clothing and seldom seen film footage what those in Washington have been spouting in good suits in front of public buildings, and getting repeated on every news source nearly, for the past 6 years. Why PBS has to add itself to that list is beyond me. PBS is not putting itself in the best of company and is certainly not serving any unmet news need.

Lake Oswego, OR

Wow, PBS appears to be more and more a propaganda machine for our US Imperialist Government. Very sad, of course, there are some exceptions, but very few. I suppose the truth about the current corruption of media and Congress, voting fraud and caging, stolen elections, along with the demise of the middle class, schools, libraries and unions eventually will surface in history given another 20 years, perhaps, and perhaps it is too late. I suppose we the people, asleep at the wheel, can only blame ourselves.

Leland B. Tanquary, Medford, OR

Last night's America at the Crossroads program with Robert Kaplan was as blatant a bit of propaganda as I have seen for some time. There was no balance; it was just a white wash of America's militarism at work across the world. It made me wonder why I have supported PBS. The historical distortions and omissions in support of an imperial foreign policy were overwhelming. Shame on PBS for allowing such a program without rebuttal.

Lyle Sykora, Lanark, IL

The America at a Crossroads show featuring Robert D. Kaplan was horrible and suspicious because of Kaplan. I consider him a demagogue. Untrustworthy based on his writings. Was this Fox coming to PBS as one observer put it? This show makes me real suspicious and wary about PBS.

Iowa City, IA

I am presently watching "America at a Crossroads: 'Inside America's Empire.'" PBS should be ashamed at presenting such extreme positions with no countervailing views and without examination of the underlying assumptions of Kaplan's position. This is simply journalism as propaganda. Such reporting is unworthy of PBS.

Richard Barish, Albuquerque, NM

And Here Is the Perfect Transition-to-the-NewsHour Letter

Kaplan's "Inside America's Empire" was so one-sided and devoid of critical facts that it shouldn't have been aired. The NewsHour discussion about the GAO report on Iraq was also blatantly one sided with three congressmen in support of the war and only one critical. I hope you can do better.

Erwin Levings, South Range, WI

My husband and I just watched Judy Woodruff's segment with four members of Congress. We were inspired by the Illinois congresswoman (Democrat Jan Schakowsky) who held her own in what was really quite an unfair set-up: three against one. Two Republican members of Congress spouted White House lies and talking points. I was especially incensed by Chris Shays' (R-Conn.) shameless hawking of the despicable White House canard that we can hardly fault the Maliki government [sic] for failing to work well together when our own Congress is so dysfunctional. This is about as low as it gets. The fourth member of the panel was a Democrat (Brian Baird of Washington) who conveniently came home from a recess visit to Iraq with a change of heart about "giving the surge a chance to succeed." This was a very inappropriate choice of panel members. Where was an anti-war Republican member, such as Walter Jones of North Carolina? Jan from Illinois should not have been forced to stand alone in enunciating a skeptical attitude towards the current Bush-Petraeus talking points. Who was in charge of booking this panel, and why did he or she or they do such a horrendous job?

Nancy Kaplan, West Bloomfield, MI

Judy Woodruff hosted a panel of 4 politicians. 3 male politicians arguing that the Surge was working and 1 woman arguing that the Surge was not working. Therefore, the "Surge is working" side got to argue 75% of the time, and the "Surge is not working" could only argue 25% of the time. This was a BLATANT one-sided discussion. Who is responsible for this miscarriage of journalistic integrity?

D.S., Roanoke, TX

On the "Lehrer NewsHour" today there was a debate about the "surge" in the Iraq War in which three congresspeople supported the surge and only one opposed it. This seems to me skewed coverage, and fits with the fact the "NewsHour," during the early years of the war, presented few arguments against it. Now that the war is going badly, the "NewsHour" is still presenting pro-war sentiment as a primary, even the dominant, viewpoint.

Marc Hofstadter, Walnut Creek, CA

You had 3 pro-war politicians and one anti-war politician. One of the reasons I support PBS is to get as close to an unbiased sense of the truth as I can, but your tactics seem to be more and more slanted to Corporate influence. You even found a Democrat to show some kind of balance but was clearly pro war. How FOX of you. PBS has become just like all of the other news outlets that just report what they are told to report. If you want to find out what we should do in Iraq why don't you seek out the generals and politicians that warned against this war in the beginning and get their opinion — they had a clue from the start what the problems were going to be and yet they are the most ignored. Our country is being pulled apart by bad politicians and think tanks that spin half truths and out and out lies and they are aided by your kind of journalism — if that's what you can call it now.

Mark Copeland, Riverside, CA

I watch the NewsHour every night, but was very disappointed that tonight their discussion on Iraq was not balanced. The debate consisted of 3-1 against pulling troops out of Iraq. I thought that the people at the NewsHour were more balanced than they showed tonight. This must be the reflection of conservative pressure placed on public radio and TV.

John Ahern, Sacramento, CA

I watched the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer tonight and was disappointed to see that Judy Woodruff's interview with the congress members who had just returned from Iraq was stacked 3 to 1 with individuals of a certain viewpoint. I am of the opinion that the woman on the program was treated very unfairly. It appeared that Judy Woodruff expected a different opinion from Christopher Shays and he tricked her. If that is the case why did she not call him on it? I enjoy Woodruff's reporting and respect her work.

Maplewood, NJ

Last night (9/4/07) on the NewsHour we were treated to a truly incredible panel on Iraq, hosted by the usually responsible Judy Woodruff. What in the world was the NewsHour thinking when it constructed this panel? Three pro-Bush surge speakers against one, very lonely opponent of continuing US involvement in Iraq. The lone opponent, the Democratic congresswoman, deserves one of those medals Bush is handing out. She did a great job given the odds against her. I cannot believe Judy Woodruff had anything to do with constructing this panel. She's an objective and fair journalist. Mr. Getler, I urge you to pounce on this one. PBS viewers expect to see fair discussion of issues — not sales jobs. Thanks for your vital work at PBS.

William P. Gloege, Santa Maria, CA

While I applaud the NewsHour for spending a substantial amount of time covering the war in Iraq, this coverage is disappointingly facile. I would expect a higher level of "critical" journalism from the show than I would from the corporate news media. For example, reporting on the preliminary findings regarding political benchmarks in Iraq, Kwame Holman began his narrative on the Democrats' response with this: "Several Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee seized on the findings to criticize the effectiveness of the president's surge strategy." Whether intended or not, the implication is that the Democrats are just sitting around waiting to "seize" on bad news in order to criticize the president. I find this incredibly mendacious and, looking over the transcript, see no similar language in Holman's narrative about the Republicans.

Furthermore, in the subsequent debate over the war, hosted by Judy Woodruff, there were four members of Congress present — three supporters of the surge and the continued occupation of Iraq and one lone congresswoman calling for a plan for withdrawal. Again, this is disappointing. The majority of Americans support a plan for the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq beginning immediately. The fact that news networks, including the PBS NewsHour, continue to pretend that the country is split 50/50 on this issue by failing to adequately represent the critics of the war is unfortunate; viewers of your show deserve more nuanced reporting on this important subject. To make matters worse, in addition to the 3 to 1 ratio of the surge debate, at no time did Ms. Woodruff question the false arguments put forward by the three congressional supporters of the surge. As a reporter, she must be aware that the "low" causality numbers being touted by the Bush administration and supporters of the surge do not include "non-combat" deaths — with the inclusion of these deaths the number of casualties is not decreasing (see icasualities.org).

Instead of challenging bogus claims like this, however, she sat back and let the sole congresswoman and surge critic challenge them completely on her own; thus giving viewers the impression she represented a fringe perspective rather than the majority view of Americans on the war. The war in Iraq is of utmost concern to most Americans — who are your viewers — today. I urge you to work harder to deconstruct the rosy picture being handed us right now by the Bush administration and its followers and report on the difficult facts of the war.

Santa Monica, CA

The NewsHour Responds; Here's Woodruff

In letters to complaining viewers, with a copy to me, Woodruff writes that the basic points raised in the critical letters were "very valid, and since I led the discussion, I want to try to respond. First, our goal was to sit down with four members of Congress, just back from Iraq, to get their freshly-informed perspectives. Second, we aimed — as we always do — to have a balance of views — two Democrats and two Republicans. Third, we wanted to reflect — in addition to extreme pro and extreme con views — the views of two members of Congress whose thinking has undergone change over time.

"We accomplished part of what we set out to do, but I clearly did not ask enough questions in advance about the exact views of those two who have changed their thinking. As it turned out, both — Representatives Brian Baird (D-WA) and Chris Shays (R-CT) — have ended up with positions in favor of staying in Iraq, at least until next spring. That created a lopsided 3-against-1 debate, which was never my or the NewsHour's intention."

. . . And Here's Mosettig

Producer Mike Mosettig also responded to my inquiries, "since I had most to do with selecting the panel," as he explained. He provides a somewhat different take on this.

"First, we were looking for four congress members back from Iraq. Second, I thought it was important we have Rep. Baird as part of the group. He voted against the war and then changed his view after this trip, saying we should give the surge a chance. And more importantly, the conservative and centrist and in Baird's case, more left than center, Democrats have been an important bloc in preventing the Democratic majority from working its will as much as it hoped on the Iraq issue. Boustany (Charles Boustany, R-LA) represented what I would call the standard Republican position, basically shared by all but two members of the House republican caucus. Shays turned out to be the wild card. He has called for a timetable for withdrawal, admittedly under pressure of last year's election and maybe now he feels the pressure is off. His position and views seem quite flexible. More to the point, even with pre-interviews with members and staffers, it is impossible to tell beforehand what these people have for breakfast in the morning. That he decided to light into Schakowsky with such vehemence was not predictable. And somewhat the same with Baird, who managed to transform himself from a somewhat penitent anti-war Democrat into a Lieberman in a matter of hours or days.

"Two bottom lines: it was an interesting discussion that did reflect divisions that have basically paralyzed Congress on Iraq. But maybe these differences are better explored in a tape piece rather than a studio discussion. Second, it is safer to do this by the numbers, both within the office and for those in the audience for whom numbers seem to mean everything. Even if we do, and I emphasize this, manage to achieve an overall balance and fairness in what we do."

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