Bombs Away! Russians Strike ISIS Oil but PBS Gets Blasted

Posted by Michael Getler on

Last Thursday evening, Nov. 19, the PBS NewsHour did a timely and important segment on how “the Islamic State militant group…one of the richest terrorist armies in history” makes its money. A key source of that money, they reported, is oil.

Economics Correspondent Paul Solman began the segment, setting the stage with what some presidential candidates are saying and pointing out that there is a debate over just how much money ISIS actually has. Then, at 2:22 minutes into the segment, Solman says, “But just yesterday [Wednesday] Army Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman for the joint task force, said the stepped-up offensive against ISIS’ main source of revenue is paying off. For the first time, the U.S. is attacking oil delivery trucks.” Then Col. Warren, in a film clip on screen, says: “We destroyed 116 tanker trucks, which we believe will reduce ISIL’s ability to transport its stolen oil products.”

That may be true, but the bombing camera video shown at the time, according to numerous online sources, came from Russian, not U.S., aircraft and drones attacking the oil facilities and trucks, and was released by the Russian Defense Ministry. The film also uses some Cyrillic-alphabet lettering along the edges.

The foul-up did not go unnoticed and rather quickly resulted in several online critiques and numerous emails to me and messages posted on the NewsHour’s own website. The critical reporting focused on stories and headlines such as, “PBS uses Russian footage to depict US airstrikes on ISIS oil fields,” from RT, a Russian-government supported global news operation. Indeed, RT reported that the use of Russian film was first taken note of by the Moon of Alabama website and picked up by others such as Sputnik, also supported by the Russian government, and Global Research, a Canadian-based site.

Viewers began writing to me on Friday, and I passed along the first couple of emails to the NewsHour on Friday afternoon and early Saturday morning.

This afternoon, Nov. 23, the NewsHour posted an editor's note on its website stating that: "Due to an editing error, a sequence in a report last Thursday about funding for ISIS included footage of Russian air strikes on ISIS oil resources, instead of the US air strikes referenced. Keen observers in the NewsHour audience picked up on the mistake and alerted us to it. The NewsHour regrets the error."

The NewsHour also explained to me, later, that the editing error “involved two similar looking pieces of video” and says that a correction will be made on this evening’s program. That is understandable and all to the good. Mistakes, or “editing errors,” happen. But I’m all in favor of a little more explanation than is usually given for viewers or readers when news organizations make mistakes, and, in this case, I also am still puzzled by why this one took so long—three and a half days—after the segment aired and when there is a half-hour version of the NewsHour that airs on Saturday and Sunday evenings.

I’m aware, although viewers may not care much about it, that the weekday editions are produced by WETA outside Washington, D.C., and the Weekend NewsHour comes out of New York’s WNET. I was told they don’t share editing servers and that affected the access and confirming process. I confess to not understanding why that should affect checking out the story more quickly and responding or at least getting something online, but in the meanwhile a lot of nasty comments piled up.

A fair number of viewers these days who write to me assume the worst and that anything they consider a misstep on the program reveals some secret and sinister agenda. That is almost never the case but failure to respond in a timely fashion, whenever possible, can reinforce those attitudes. The NewsHour believes that the time it took to re-check this and get an editor's note up was not unreasonable. My opinion, and that's all it is, is that it took too long for such a hot button issue.

Here Are the Emails I Sent to the NewsHour on Friday and Saturday

Regarding the PBS report What’s made the Islamic State one of the richest terrorist armies in history? at 2:29 - while Army Colonel Steve Warren is talking about purported US air strikes against oil trucks - a video appears showing trucks and facilities being bombed. A viewer could be excused for thinking this was video of a US air strike. It's not. The video is of a RUSSIAN AIR STRIKE. Is PBS now in the business of manufacturing "news" like Fox? Does any video of US air strikes against oil trucks exist?

I've noticed a pattern of PBS "reporting" (can't call it journalism, it's not) the blatant lies of the administration regarding Syria a) without challenge and b) without balance from the Russian/Syrian/Iranian point of view. You know, those who are ACTUALLY FIGHTING these terrorist vermin, instead of sponsoring them. Please let me know when PBS will issue a correction or retraction for this terrible piece of reporting.

Pat Driscoll, Eugene, OR

~ ~ ~

Very funny. You are using Russian video of bombing oil trucks as US strikes! Trust you?

Provincetown, MA

Posted on Nov. 23, 2015 at 3:49 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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