Jan 10 2007

Debating the Iraq ‘Surge’ on PBS

NewsHour panel skews against public opinion

(NOTE: Please see the Activism Update regarding this alert.)

With public opinion running heavily against the White House’s planned escalation of the Iraq War, one might think a debate on the issue on public television’s flagship newscast might reflect public sentiment. But the discussion on the January 8 edition of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer skewed in favor of supporters of the Iraq War, only allowing space for muted criticism of the White House’s troop “surge.”

The show featured Iraq War hawks Senators Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), both of whom support sending additional troops to Iraq—a position endorsed by 12 percent of the public, according to the most recent polling (USA Today/Gallup, 1/5-7/07). (In another question, Gallup did find 36 percent support for Bush’s plan to increase troops—but only when the increase was described as “temporary,” an odd word choice for a troop spike that administration officials say may last up to two years.)

NewsHour‘s other two guests, by contrast, were lukewarm to the White House’s policy, but one would be hard-pressed to describe either one as a stalwart opponent of the war, or as presenting a case for withdrawal (the position held, according to Gallup, by 54 percent of the U.S. public).

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), for example, argued that the number of additional U.S. troops being discussed was not large enough: “It’s going to be a gradual escalation of troops. And if 20,000 is the total, it will probably be inadequate. To make a difference, I think you’d have a much larger force. And so, as a result, I think it’s going to be a little too little and probably too late.” Reed argued that “we need more American troops” to train Iraqi forces.

Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M) was not a strong defender of the White House’s policy, but stressed instead that the U.S. should focus on its “very narrow national security objectives” and the “need to strengthen our counterinsurgency strategy.”

PBS ombudsman Michael Getler recently lamented the fact that the debate on shows like the NewsHour represents the Beltway establishment instead of the public at large. As he wrote on the PBS website (1/5/07):

A national debate or dialogue needs to be much broader and deeper than what has passed for on-air discussion so far, in my view. The “on-the-one-hand/on-the-other hand” type of journalism that is much more common can be less than enlightening at times such as these when such an approach can result in only a narrow band of conventional thought being expressed, and when issues that not long ago seemed extreme—such as a more rapid troop withdrawal, or a big surge in new troops—are being discussed by those who argue that they are no longer extreme and need to be heard.

In this case, the NewsHour opted for a peculiar type of balance: The one “extreme” of an increase in troops had two forceful advocates, but the “extreme” of withdrawal—which apparently includes most of the American public—was left without a voice.



Tell the NewsHour that the January 8 debate on the Iraq War should have included forceful advocates for withdrawal from Iraq. Encourage the program to broaden future discussions to include such voices.


PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer

Phone: 703-739-5000


Michael Getler

PBS Ombudsman

Phone: 703-739-5290

Web form: http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/feedback.html