The Mailbag: ‘Thief’, ‘Liar’, ‘Old White Men’, Lend Us Your Ears

Posted by Michael Getler on

First, my apologies to William Shakespeare for toying, in the headline, with Marc Anthony’s famous speech. But to carry it a bit further the question this week, and perhaps for many weeks to come, may well be whether guests on the PBS NewsHour come to bury or praise the just-signed agreement between Iran and six major world powers, led by the United States, to limit Tehran’s nuclear weapons potential in return for lifting economic sanctions.

The words in the headline in quotes are from emails from viewers received in my office after the first NewsHour segment of this already controversial and potentially historic agreement had aired Tuesday evening.

Appearing on a panel that evening to discuss the just-announced accord with co-anchor Judy Woodruff were Sandy Berger, former national security advisor to President Clinton, retired Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA during the G.W. Bush administration, Dennis Ross, who has served several administrations as a Middle East peace envoy, and James Woolsey, former CIA director during the Clinton administration.

This was a long segment in a broadcast that contained extended news reporting and other commentary on this agreement, which is understandable given the importance of this development.

Some of the words used in some of the letters, some of which are posted below, are quite strong and the reason I post them is not because I agree or disagree but rather because they reflect the intense feelings and language that this agreement provokes and the challenge it presents to television news programs, in particular—and not just the PBS NewsHour—to air all legitimate views while attempting to substantively inform audiences.

This will be a long-running debate and as with all such coverage it always strike me as most valuable to judge its ultimate worth as a continuum. For those who have followed these negotiations, you could pretty much know beforehand what Berger, Woolsey, Hayden and even Ross would have to say. Still, it was a serious discussion of thoughts and positions that are certain to emerge as the debate unfolds. That first night’s debate has already been followed the next evening with debate between Sen.Johnny Isakson (R-Ga) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.)

Here Are the Letters (with some brief footnotes from me.)

Please explain why your NewsHour panel this evening - on the Iran “Deal” - included Sandy Berger, thief. Sandy is a convicted thief who stole Library of Congress documents on behalf of former President Clinton. Does PBS consider this man to be a reliable “expert” on foreign affairs? Please help. Is he the only one you could find to defend the “Deal?”

Cottonwood, AZ

(Ombudsman’s Note: Berger pleaded guilty in April 2005 to a misdemeanor charge of unauthorized removal and detention of classified material from the U.S. National Archives. He was fined, put on probation and required to do community service.)

I was appalled to see interviewed about the Iran treaty on the NewsHour the men from the George W. Bush administration. General Michael Hayden lied to Congress. Why on earth would he be invited to give an opinion which would be in direct opposition to the president from a very skewed perspective: that of a known liar. At a time when we need factual reporting -- it hurts the NewsHour credibility to entertain proven liars at any time but particularly about such an important matter like Iran.

Nancy Weaver, Portland, OR

(Ombudsman’s Note: Gen. Hayden was accused in a Senate Intelligence Committee report last year of “misleading” Congressional investigations in 2007 during testimony about CIA abuses of war on terror detainees when he was CIA director. Hayden responded: “I didn’t lie and I didn’t mislead Congress.”)

I just turned on the NewsHour to watch a discussion about the nuclear deal with Iran. Very disappointing to see Judy there with four old white men. Please diversify!!! If you ever want to expand your viewership out you need to realize Susan Rice is not the only non-white, non-male expert on the subject.

J. Johansen, St. Paul, MN

(Ombudsman’s Note: That’s true, but she is the president’s National Security advisor and laid out the administration’s case clearly.)

I just listened to "Will the Iran nuclear agreement work?" which was a collection of so-called experts concerned with the validity of the Iranian nuclear agreement. I was dismayed by the misinformation and ignorance displayed by the guests. Only Sandy Berger made any sense at all. The rest parroted the right-wing, pro-Israel wing of the Republican Party. This is shameful journalism on PBS' part. Why was there not one 'expert' that was enthusiastic about the deal? Why was there no factual background of the Iranian situation? Why were words like “the greatest state-sponsor of terrorism in the world" allowed without comment or factual and historical refutation? PBS should do better than this.

Ted Tripp, Apalachicola, FL

(Ombudsman’s Note: I thought Berger was enthusiastic.)

Posted July 16, 2015

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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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