Mar 18 2004

Fear and Favor at the PBS NewsHour

(NOTE: Please read the update to this alert.)

Journalist Christian Parenti was invited to talk about Iraq on the March 2 broadcast of PBS‘s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. But Parenti’s criticism of the reconstruction contracts granted to corporations like Halliburton and Bechtel apparently crossed 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”:

PARENTI: 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.

It would be understandable for the NewsHour to be concerned with the accuracy of comments made by any guest; that would be responsible journalism. But the show is not claiming Parenti said anything inaccurate. Instead, the show seems to be saying that journalists shouldn’t give opinions on the show. Lehrer has declared that one of his principles of journalism (1997 Catto Report on Journalism and Society) 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. New York Times reporter John Burns, for example, often shares opinions on the NewsHour while being interviewed about his reportage. On the November 17, 2003 broadcast, for example, Burns 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.

Far more important than regulating journalists who cross such arbitrary lines, though, is challenging official sources who misstate the facts. The NewsHour, unfortunately, does not always exhibit a keen interest in correcting misinformation from Bush administration officials.

In September 2002 (9/18/02), Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claimed in an interview with Lehrer that Iraq “threw the [U.N.] inspectors out” in 1998, and that in 1990 Iraq had plans for “invading Saudi Arabia, which they were ready to do.” Both assertions are false, and neither was challenged by Lehrer. Despite the fact that hundreds of FAIR activists wrote to the NewsHour to point out Rumsfeld’s distortions (see FAIR action alert, 9/20/02), Lehrer made no attempt to correct the record.

ACTION: Write to the NewsHour and ask them to explain why Jim Lehrer apologized for airing the opinions of Christian Parenti when other journalists are routinely allowed to offer their opinions on the NewsHour. Ask them why Parenti’s analysis merited an on-air apology, while Rumsfeld’s distortions were not challenged or corrected.


PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer

As always, please remember that your comments are taken more seriously if you maintain a polite tone. Please cc with your correspondence.

PBS Gets Picky” by Cynthia Cotts (Village Voice, 3/17/04)