The Mailbag: More on Gaza

Posted by Michael Getler on
With the war between Israel and Hamas now in its 17th day, there is no let-up in the mail coming my way from viewers. This is the third ombudsman’s mailbag posted this month reporting on viewer comments about coverage. This is also the third major conflict since Israel withdrew its troops from Gaza in 2005—but retained control over its airspace, territorial waters and patrolled most of its land borders.

Throughout these conflicts, there have been two especially powerful issues: 1) Has Israel used its overwhelming military power to heap disproportionate devastation on tiny, densely-packed Gaza, with many civilian deaths and much devastation resulting from attacks said to be aimed at Hamas military targets situated in urban settings? And 2) Does Hamas intentionally base its rockets and other weapons and military personnel in homes, schools, hospitals and mosques?

Last night, July 23, the PBS NewsHour, as part of its continuing coverage of the fighting, presented a five-minute and 40-second segment featuring an interview with Pernille Ironside, a Columbia Law School graduate and longtime child protection specialist for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, who has been on the ground in Gaza since the conflict began. The interview was conducted by the NewsHour’s co-anchor, Gwen Ifill.

It was this segment that produced more mail than any other individual segment since the conflict began. Ironside presented a very detailed and tragic picture: “There's over 168 children who have died already. And we are now over 1,100 children who have been seriously injured, maimed and even terribly burned.” There was a lot more.


The mail to me was not so much from people taking issue with Ironside’s report but rather with the role of the interviewer. Ifill asked only three, very brief questions, so almost all of the time, in what was a relatively short segment by NewsHour standards, was taken up by Ironside’s very full descriptions. There was nothing wrong with these questions, but there was no question about whether she had seen any evidence of Hamas weaponry based in densely-packed civilian areas and whether this tactic, which has been widely asserted, was at least a contributing factor to these casualties.

In recent days, another UN agency, the UN Relief and Works Agency, had reported that during routine checks it had found dozens of rockets hidden in two of its vacant UN schools in Gaza. And a front-page story in today’s (July 24) New York Times starts off this way: “GAZA CITY — Militant rockets can be seen launching from crowded neighborhoods, near apartment buildings, schools and hotels. Hamas fighters have set traps for Israeli soldiers in civilian homes and stored weapons in mosques and schools. Tunnels have been dug beneath private property.”

I’ve said a couple of times in these columns that I felt NewsHour coverage has been solid, straight and informative. I still feel that way but it struck me, as it struck some viewers who wrote to me, that a question getting to Hamas tactics should definitely have been raised with this on-the-ground specialist in casualties.

When I asked Ifill to respond to a couple of letters that made a similar point, she said this: “As you know, it is impossible to cover this story without angering one side or another. We decided talking to a representative of UNICEF who is working in Gaza and has an eyewitness account to share, was worth it. She did not assail the Israeli government or make a value judgment about the overall incursion. She told us what she sees from a humanitarian viewpoint. It was not designed to debate the issue of civilian shields and weapons in schools. In our overall coverage, there have been many opportunities to tell the story from all sides. And there will be more.”

That’s a fair answer and this segment was powerful in terms of a report on the reality on the ground without assessing the factors that contribute to it. Yet is still seems to me that this was a seriously missed opportunity; that this segment cried out for a question to an experienced observer that goes to the heart of how this conflict is carried out. And the lack of such a question seemed to me to diminish, to some degree, the segment’s impact.

Here Are Some of the Letters

I have NEVER written to you or PBS before. I have never been upset before but after watching the Gwen Ifill segment with the UN health representative in Gaza, P. Ironside, I found my blood boiling. Not once did Ms. Ifill say that the UN HAD FOUND WEAPONS IN UN SCHOOLS IN GAZA!! Not once did she ask a pointed question. The use of civilians as shields and embedding weapons in homes, schools, and hospitals is A KNOWN FACT. As a long, long time viewer, I am terribly upset. 

Lido Beach, NY

~ ~ ~

Gwen Ifill's interview of Pernille Ironside on 7/23/14 NewsHour was a sham.  It was a one-side PR piece without any question from Ms. Ifill. No remarks like the fact that the UN itself acknowledges the storage and use of weapons in the UN schools. Even reluctant foreign journalists (usually unfavorable toward Israel) have tweeted of the use of civilian shields to hide weapons and even dressing as women to hide weapons. But no questions from the host. Why?

Mary Schwarz, Long Beach, NY

~ ~ ~

Your segment on the Hamas/Israel war with Pernille Ironside interviewed by Gwen Ifill was unbelievably one-sided. All I can hope is that tomorrow, you will present the Israeli perspective.  Some of the points that should be covered, that were not even mentioned, let alone discussed, are the following: 1. Israeli civilians under constant rocket bombardment from rockets aimed at population centers. 2. The finding that a UN organization handed weapons that they found in a school back to Hamas. Moreover, Hamas consistently operates from civilian areas.

Orinda, CA

~ ~ ~

Your reporting on THE NEWSHOUR this evening (23 July) on GAZA, in particular the interview with Ms. Ironside, totally ignored the fact, as reported this morning on radio's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, that Hamas knowingly stores  in the homes, schools, hospitals, and even mosques of Gaza inhabitants, hundreds of rockets and other weapons designed to kill Israelis. Those willing Gaza inhabitants by virtue of that cooperation with Hamas, cannot be considered 'civilians.' They have been willing to participate actively in actions designed to kill Israelis, and as a result they are legitimate targets. Very sadly, Ms. Ironside's report this evening, while designed to elicit the sympathy of Americans, was a flagrant distortion of reality and THE NEWSHOUR should immediately broadcast a statement that demonstrates the reality of what Israelis face daily.

Bernard K. Gordon, Newmarket, NH

Prof. Emeritus, University of New Hampshire

~ ~ ~

I have been a supporter and viewer of the PBS NewsHour for over 25 years but was outraged by the coverage tonight of the Israel/Gaza conflict.

The one sided interview conducted by Gwen Ifill was beneath the journalistic standards of the program and the fair reporting I expect. Perhaps the dire situation in Gaza gets better ratings than anything else and that is why no questions were ever asked about why the Hamas government does not provide shelters for its civilians? Or why it is not made clear that the sanitation and energy systems have been far below standard in Gaza since Hamas took power because of how civilian infrastructure has been allowed to decay as Hamas has funneled its money into military hardware used to attach Israel.

Brooklyn, NY

Posted at 3:48 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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