The Mailbag: The Fighting, and the Mail, Go On, As Always

Posted by Michael Getler on

As long as the latest brutal clash between Israel and Hamas goes on, viewers will continue to write about news coverage. This is a fact of life for virtually every major American news organization. Emotions and sympathies are very strong and what one person may consider fair and balanced, another may consider totally one-sided and biased. PBS does not escape the intense focus many people have on every word or picture related to the fighting, so the PBS NewsHour is the focus of the mail that reaches me.

As I wrote in the last mailbag, and as I’ve said many times before, the best way to judge coverage of an intense, continuing, evolving story—especially a real military conflict—is as a continuum, where interviews and explanations and news and film pile up day by day and build on the overall picture and understanding of what is happening.

In any battle being covered and talked about in real time, mistakes get made, questions get left unasked or unanswered. Hopefully, they get corrected, asked or explained later. But in my long experience within news organizations and with reporters in the field, there is absolutely no benefit in getting things wrong or being perceived as being biased in life and death struggles.

So this week, the ombudsman’s mailbox, not surprisingly, was dominated by more correspondence about reporting on the Israeli-Hamas conflict. Here are some of the letters with my thoughts and ombudsman’s notes attached to some of them.

These first two letters are about the appearance on the PBS Weekend NewsHour on Saturday, July 12, of Anthony Cordesman, a well-known defense analyst and author associated for many years with The Center for International Studies in Washington, D.C. He previously served in the departments of State, Defense and Energy during the 1970s and was a national security assistant to Sen. John McCain in 2008.


Here Are the Letters

I am appalled that you would have a so-called expert like Cordesman on the NewsHour dispensing his brutal opinions about how to stamp out Palestinians, trapped in Gaza with meager abilities to protect themselves from the military in Israel, armed and supported by the US.  Where was the proper rebuttal?

D. Goldsmith, Portland, OR

~ ~ ~

Reference: Your July 12 NewsHour "report" entitled: What's to come in the fighting between Israel and Hamas, How do you respond to this criticism from

William. M. Edwards, Austin, TX

My Thoughts

I think the invitation to Cordesman by the Weekend NewsHour was altogether proper. Whether one agrees with his analysis or not, Cordesman is one of the most well-known, and I believe by many who follow security issues, well-respected military and strategic analysts in the country. As I have read and watched him over the years, he is pretty much a just-the-facts kind of analyst, presenting a cold-eyed and tough-nosed assessment of facts on the ground, opposing force strengths and weaknesses, and the reality of the situation.

Please watch or read his comments on the NewsHour segment above to form your own opinion.

I thought the criticism of him by the media-watch group FAIR, cited in one of the letters above, was not up to FAIR’s usually higher standards. The author of the FAIR report cites something Cordesman wrote 14 years ago as “advocating the option of brutality against Palestinian civilians’’ and claiming that “Cordesman hasn’t changed much since his 2000 CSIS report.” I think that is wrong, a cheap shot and not at all reflected in the analysis Cordesman presented on the NewsHour.

In his 2000 report, Cordesman was actually writing about what the Palestinian Authority at the time needed to do, in his opinion, to keep the peace. Below is a paragraph from Cordesman’s draft report in 2000 that became circulated as reported on at the time by the British newspaper, The Independent.

“In a section headed ‘The Need for Palestinian Authority Ruthlessness and Efficiency’, it states ‘there will be no future peace, or stable peace process, if the Palestinian security forces do not act ruthlessly and effectively. They must react very quickly and decisively in dealing with terrorism and violence if they are to preserve the momentum of Israeli withdrawal, the expansion of Palestinian control, and the peace process. They must halt civil violence even if this sometimes means using excessive force by the standards of Western police forces. They must be able to halt terrorist and paramilitary action by Hamas and Islamic Jihad even if this means interrogations, detentions and trials that are too rapid and lack due process. If they do not, the net cost to both peace and the human rights of most Palestinians will be devastating."

On Gaza Reporting

Kudos to Margaret Warner for her in-depth knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as reflected in her questions to Martin Indyk on Monday [July 14] and Mark Perry on Tuesday [July 15]. Covering, in part, the hostilities between Israel and Hamas Gaza from Washington is a good idea, short of sending Ms. Warner to the scene.

Richard C. Gross, Santa Fe, NM

(Former UPI bureau manager in Tel Aviv)

~ ~ ~

I noticed something on the NewsHour last night [July 15] that struck me as curious. The program featured a segment on Hamas which it said was the second of three on the subject to be aired on consecutive nights. Each segment seemed to be an interview with someone with a point of view: I follow this issue closely (and am wary of complaints from reflexive supporters of Israel). I didn't know what to make journalistically of the interview with the academic [Mark Perry] who seemed chosen as a sympathizer or at least student of the Hamas point of view. In his interview with Margaret Warner, he said several things seemingly empathetic with the Hamas position. At one point he responded to the argument that Hamas missiles are launched from close within civilian population locations. He said that Israel does the same, i.e., its military installations are also in close proximity to and mixed with civilian populations.

For me, this raises two issues. First, I believe his assertion of equivalence is incorrect, if not preposterous. Whatever one might think of Israel's actions -- and one may be justifiably extremely critical -- I do not believe Israel scatters its artillery or weaponry within population centers. The situations are simply not equivalent and I thought this fellow's assertions were stunningly misleading. So, should the interviewer have challenged him on that or -- as it's broadcast -- deleted that claim if she had not thought to challenge it at the time?

Washington, DC

My Thoughts

Here’s the relevant exchange:

MARGARET WARNER: The Israelis charge that in fact Hamas is responsible for these Palestinian deaths in that they deliberately put rocket launchers in places where people live and so essentially they’re making their own civilians targets. What does Hamas say to that, at least privately?

MARK PERRY: Hamas privately and publicly says, we’re outgunned, we are outmanned. We have a right to protect ourselves. We put rockets in built-up areas, but that’s been the case throughout all wars in human history. I don’t think it’s accurate at all that to say Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields. You could make the same claim about Israel. All of its major military installations are in urban areas. No one seems to care.

When I asked Warner about this, she points out that “this interview was part of a series in which we are trying to expose our viewers to different perspectives on this sensitive subject. They all say contentious things, and I do challenge them with my questions...but I can't engage in a tit for tat on every factual assertion. And on the one this person cites -- dealing with where Israel locates its military installations -- it was not something I was knowledgeable about. The fact is, this is a deeply emotional subject to all the people involved. And that comes through. I do try to challenge the most outrageous assertions, but I think showing how far apart they are in their world views has merit, too.”

I think both the viewer and Warner make fair points here. I, too, when watching, was struck by Perry’s assertion about Israeli military locations. I felt he had cleverly worded it so that viewers might see some equivalence between putting rocket launchers in urban areas and alleged Israeli “military installations in urban areas.” But I also had not heard such a claim before and so I understand Warner’s explanation of why she didn’t challenge that live and on the spot.

More Letters

I thank you that Margaret Warner interviewed Mark Perry who fairly stated Hamas's goals: to essentially lift Israel's occupation of Gaza (yes, Israel still occupies Gaza by closing its borders, denying it a seaport or airport, starving its residents on Dov Weissglas's infamous "diet", and preventing the import of means to rebuild the horrific destruction Israel imposes on them. Gaza is a concentration camp and you'd think people who survived the Nazis would stop acting like them!)

However, on subsequent shows you act as if Israeli lives and goals and self-defense rights are more important than Palestinian ones. As an occupied people, Hamas and other Palestinians have the internationally-guaranteed right to defend themselves, even violently. That right is equal to any "self-defense" right of Israel's as an illegal occupier, who violates the Geneva Conventions daily with collective punishment, moving their people into Palestinian homes, stealing private Palestinian land, destroying Palestinian property like orchards and farms, and killing unarmed teens like the two shown in a video near an Israeli prison recently. If someone forced you out of your house by gunpoint and immediately moved Jews in, to sleep on your beds, sit on your furniture, use your fine china and silver, cook in your kitchen with your nice pans, and maybe even wear your clothes (since you were marched out of your East Jerusalem home with only the clothes on your back), wouldn't you resist? All this oppression is done simply because you are the wrong ethnicity, a non-Jew in a "Jewish state", itself an abomination of inequality.

Please report the horrific, massive, Palestinian deaths in as humane a fashion as you report the minimal Israeli ones. Show the suffering. Talk to the Hamas leaders as often as you talk to the Israeli ones. Hear their reasons for continuing to resist Israel's very real occupation, both of Gaza and the West Bank, since Palestinians are one people and feel one another's pain (they're often related).

June Forsyth Kenagy, Albany, OR

~ ~ ~

I have been watching what I still call the McNeil Lehrer Report for as long as it has been broadcast. I often have a problem with reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but have never had what I thought was a concrete example of bias that might be heard. Margaret Warner today [July 18] talked about the 50,000+ people killed in Iraq in the past year, without mentioning the number of children that included. Never does PBS miss an opportunity, when enumerating casualties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to mention the number of children who died? Why such an omission?

Deborah Breznay, New York, NY

(Ombudsman’s Note: Actually, Margaret Warner did not report on Iraqi casualties on July 18. Judy Woodruff reported in a news round-up that: “The number of civilians dying in the violence in Iraq is rising sharply. That word comes in a new report from the United Nations. It says that between January and June, nearly 5,600 civilians were killed in Iraq. There were just over 7,800 killed in all of 2013. Sunni extremists have stepped up their fight against the Iraqi government since the beginning of the year.” Neither the UN news agency report or the full UN report contained the number of children that had been killed.)

The Meaning of ‘Occupied’

The following two letters refer to a letter in the previous ombudsman’s mailbag from Margo Gray of Tucson, Ariz., and an ombudsman’s note that followed.

I truly appreciate your stated commitment to fairness but you must admit that, overall, there seems to be a positive bias towards the Israeli side.  This is nothing new! Look for example at the fact that you responded with "That is a good point..." to the Margo Gray letter and only to that letter. Can we ever expect you to be that openly "fair" with the OTHER side or are we practicing self-censorship, as Bernard Goldberg would say. I did like your point about the need for more Gaza based news- "from the ground." Thank you for that!!!

Clinton, NJ

~ ~ ~

Margo Gray, Tucson, AZ comments that Gaza is not 'occupied' as the Israeli government withdrew its civilians who were living in the strip. However, Israel's ongoing strict control of Gaza's air, sea and land access, and the fact that Israel can enter the territory at will means that Israel - according to the strict UN definition, is still in 'belligerent occupation' of Gaza. Having Israeli civilians living in the strip is not the test. Israel also mandates that all Palestinian births in Gaza are registered with the Israeli government.  Identity documents are then issued by Israel. How many 'non-occupied' countries are required to register their births with a neighboring entity? 

Stephen Elliott, Miami, FL

Posted at 4:02 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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