Apr 1 2004

‘A Loose Cannon Experience’

Which opinions need balancing on the NewsHour?

When journalist Christian Parenti was invited to talk about Iraq on the March 2 broadcast of PBS‘s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Parenti’s criticism of the reconstruction contracts granted to corporations like Halliburton and Bechtel seemed to cross a line for the program’s host.

According to a report by Cynthia Cotts in the Village Voice newspaper (3/17/04), Lehrer objected to comments Parenti made in response to a question about whether bombings in Iraq would “make the American job harder on the ground in Iraq”:

I would think so. I would think that we have to look at some of the deeper causes as to why there’s so much frustration. Why are Iraqis so angry and willing to point the blame at the U.S. after this sort of bombing? A lot of it has to do with the failure of meaningful reconstruction. There still is not adequate electricity. In many towns like Ramadi there wasn’t adequate water. Where is all the money that’s going to Halliburton and Bechtel to rebuild this country? Where is it ending up? I think that is one of the most important fundamental causes of instability, is the corruption around the contracting with these Bush-connected firms in Iraq. Unless that is dealt with, there is going to be much more instability for times to come in Iraq.

Two nights later (3/4/04), Lehrer made an unusual on-air announcement: “An editor’s note before we go, for those who were watching two nights ago: A discussion about Iraq ended up not being as balanced as is our standard practice. While unintentional, it was our mistake, and we regret it.”

According to the Voice report, producers for the show suggest that Parenti’s mistake was referring to the Halliburton contracts. The Voice quoted NewsHour senior producer Michael Mosettig saying: “This was not reportage, this was giving his opinion, and that’s not why we brought him on.” Mossetig’s deputy, Dan Sagalyn, told the Voice that Parenti’s comments lacked “balance.”

The remarks seem to have gotten Parenti virtually blacklisted from the show. “I would have liked to have him on again… but because of this it would be very hard,” Sagalyn told Cotts. “When you have a loose-cannon experience with somebody, you’re going to be wary,” Mossetig said.

The NewsHour did not claim that Parenti’s statements were inaccurate–a legitimate concern for any media outlet–but instead seemed to be saying that he should have kept his opinions to himself. Lehrer has declared (1997 Catto Report on Journalism and Society) that one of his principles of journalism is to “carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories and clearly label them as such.”

But that’s not been a consistent policy at the NewsHour. New York Times reporter John Burns, for example, often shares opinions on the NewsHour while being interviewed about his reportage–as when (11/17/03) he suggested that he felt “profoundly dispirited and disappointed” by the situation in Iraq six months after U.S. troops pulled down Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad. Burns recommended a renewed commitment to the occupation: “It’s going to take stout hearts on the part of the people of the United States, and the government of the United States, to see this through.”

Those are certainly opinions, and the NewsHour audience is entitled to hear them. What the NewsHour seems to be arguing is that it just didn’t care for Parenti’s opinions– specifically, that official corruption might be to blame for some of the problems the occupation is facing.

After FAIR issued an Action Alert on this issue, NewsHour executive producer Les Crystal sent an email to activists that read:

We have no quarrel with what Christian Parenti said at the end of the segment in which he was interviewed. He was asked a question and appropriately gave us his answer. Our concern was with the lack of another view. We should have asked the other guest, Professor Juan Cole, for his reaction.

Balance is one of our most important standards. It is a signature characteristic of the program. We believe our viewers value it as much as we do. Therefore, we decided to acknowledge that we regretted the imbalance which occurred.

Crystal’s explanation was very different from the comments NewsHour producers gave to the Voice, which were clearly directed at the content of Parenti’s response.

But more importantly, the response did not address the inconsistent application of NewsHour‘s standard. Do the opinions of all guests require a balancing perspective, or was there something unique about Parenti’s criticisms of Bush administration policies?

As FAIR noted in its Action Alert, factually inaccurate statements made on the NewsHour by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (9/18/02) passed without comment, either by Lehrer or another guest. (See FAIR Activism Update, 9/20/02.) It remains curious that Parenti’s words would be singled out for an apology.