Asking tough questions of those in power is one of a journalist's most important jobs-- especially when a country may be going to war. But PBS's Jim Lehrer failed to challenge Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a September 18 interview on the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer"-- even when Rumsfeld made factually inaccurate assertions.
For instance, Rumsfeld repeatedly referred to the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) weapons inspectors being expelled from Iraq, saying, "We have seen the situation with Iraq where they have violated some 16 U.N. resolutions and finally threw the inspectors out." Rumsfeld went on to say that "we have gone through... four years where they threw the inspectors out and there's been no one there."
In December 1998, the U.N. inspectors were not thrown out; they were pulled out by UNSCOM chief Richard Butler prior to a U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq. As Madeleine Albright told Lehrer at the time (12/17/98), Butler "made an independent decision that UNSCOM could no longer work."
Rumsfeld also made a dubious assertion about Iraq's plans for "invading Saudi Arabia, which they were ready to do." This was presumably a reference to the Pentagon's claim in September 1990, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, that Iraq was massing hundreds of thousands of troops along the Saudi border in preparation to take over that country as well.
But the St. Petersburg Times (1/6/91) published satellite imagery from the region that appeared to disprove the Pentagon claim, since no massive Iraqi build-up was visible in the satellite photos.
After the war, a U.S. "senior commander" admitted to Newsday (3/1/91) that reports of a major Iraqi troop mobilization were exaggerated, saying, "There was a great disinformation campaign surrounding this war." Despite the serious doubts about the veracity of Rumsfeld's charge, Lehrer allowed it to stand without comment.
A recent segment on CNN demonstrates precisely how journalists can clarify misleading statements from government officials. On September 18, CNN reporter Richard Roth explained the confusion about the UNSCOM inspectors this way:
"On our air, Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense... said look, it was Iraq, he said, that booted out, kicked out those weapons inspectors. That's not exactly accurate. It was the U.N. and the weapons inspections agency that withdrew them, under pressure from the U.S., because they had barely gotten out with their bags when U.S. military strikes occurred."
It's always important for journalists to correct misstatements of fact, but when an official is offering misinformation as a justification for war, that journalistic duty becomes an imperative.
ACTION: Please contact the PBS NewsHour and encourage them to correct the inaccurate statements made by Donald Rumsfeld. You might also suggest that NewsHour media correspondent Terrence Smith take a look at how the NewsHour and other broadcast outlets handle official inaccuracies.
CONTACT:NewsHour with Jim Lehrernewshour@pbs.org