The Mailbag: Finding Fault in ‘Fault Lines’

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

For four nights last week—July 5 through 8—the PBS NewsHour aired segments of a series from Eastern Europe called “Fault Lines.” It was reported by special correspondent Nick Schifrin in partnership with the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

Schifrin reported first from Eastern Ukraine, where fighters from the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, with the backing of Russia, have been fighting the Ukrainian government to gain autonomy. Then he reported from Ukraine’s Black Sea port city of Odessa, then from Estonia, among the smallest members of NATO, and from Poland, where NATO leaders were meeting to finalize plans to beef-up the military alliance.

The series produced a fair amount of emails to the ombudsman’s office, all of them critical. A sampling of the emails is posted below, some of them shortened in order to keep this posting readable, but the thrust of the criticism in those cases is retained. I passed along several of these to the NewsHour for comment, and that, too, is posted below, along with some brief thoughts of mine at the bottom.

First, Two General Points:

One is that Eastern Europe is one of those enduring, centuries-old, hot-button regions that, combined with the political/military issues that surround it, evokes strong, passionate and historical emotions and reactions. Its geography involves Russia, former Soviet states and satellites, Ukraine, Crimea, and the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It is a region that once spanned from the former East Germany and other  Warsaw Pact allies to what was then the vast Soviet Union. Now, there is a smaller but resurgent and still powerful Russia but one that is bordered by many of the same but now independent countries that have become part of the NATO military alliance.

Second, is that whatever one thinks of this particular series, the NewsHour is, by far, and in my view, the only major nightly news program on television that is committed to serious, daily levels of international news coverage. The program, as I have watched it over many, many years, is consistently devoted to in-depth reporting—seven to ten minute segments rather than 30-second soundbites—on reporting and analysis of events around the world. That, I believe, is badly needed yet in short supply in this country, and is a real public service.

As I said at the top, all the letters printed below are critical. It also makes for a long posting. The NewsHour response, however, is quite brief so I will post that first, followed by the letters and then my thoughts.

The NewsHour Responds:

This series set out to demonstrate the attitudes and experiences  of people in Donetsk, along the front lines of the war in eastern Ukraine, in Odessa, as well as in Poland and Estonia, in the context of the ongoing tensions between the West and Russia. The NewsHour has covered these issues in previous reporting, and will continue to look closely at them going forward. As with any subject this fraught with conflict, some members of our audience may take issue with the stories we have chosen to cover and how we present them. We stand by this reporting, and we appreciate the NewsHour’s audience for sharing its feedback.

Here Are Some of the Letters

After watching the first two episodes in the series on Ukraine I'm not sure that you explain exactly what started the events that are taking place now. I have watched closely from the beginning of this conflict. I don't think you made the case that just as in Crimea, Russia infiltrated Ukraine's sovereign territory and has created this unrest. This was not created by the people of Ukraine; this was created by the Russian government and their fear that this country would not be under their thumb any longer. I wish you would've brought this point the light and made it clear in your report.

Kurt Thompson, Portsmouth, OH


Since when has it become a hallmark of good journalism to uncritically repeat Russian propaganda as if it were fact, as these two journalists have done? They have done a great disservice to the American public by misrepresenting the actual state of affairs in an important situation which has implications for world security. It appears Mssrs. Schifrin and Fannin ascribe to the Walter Duranty school of journalism - fully supported, disappointingly, by PBS and the Pulitzer Center. Even more disturbing, this report follows a consistent pattern of misleading reports on the invasion and occupation of Ukraine dating all the way back to the euromaidan and annexation of Crimea.

Omaha, NE


On July 5th and 6th the PBS News Hour show broadcast two special reports on the conflict in Ukraine. Both episodes contained several misleading, damaging, or simply factually incorrect statements, I am writing today to bring the specifics to your attention so that you can address them in an appropriate way. [Ombudsman’s Note: Niland’s lengthy and extensive critique can be found here] After watching these two reports I want to thank your intention to draw attention to the conflict in Ukraine, however I feel that in the first episode in particular you did Ukraine more of a disservice, and that this is because the reporter naively accepted as fact all that he was exposed to on the choreographed “show and tell” on the occupied territories of Ukraine. Some of the lines in the report that came out of that report will have been greatly enjoyed by those seeking to undermine Ukraine, let us not forget, Ukraine is the victim here, Ukraine has been attacked. The sanction in place against Russia for doing so should be all the evidence one logically needs to demonstrate this reality. This PBS series has significantly complicated global understanding of the conflict. I trust you will take steps to address the flaws in your reporting.

Paul Niland, Kyiv

A ‘Community’ Responds

On July 5, the PBS NewsHour aired a report prepared by Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting grantees Nick Schifrin and Zach Fannin, both well-traveled journalists, as part of a series highlighting the "tensions between NATO and Russia." After viewing the first segment, we responded on behalf of the Ukrainian American community with a letter summarizing the following inaccuracies and omissions:

• No mention of the nearly 2 million displaced persons who have fled the areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia for their own safety, some having been specifically targeted;
• No mention that those unfortunate to have remained under occupation are under a constant barrage of Russian disinformation and propaganda;
• No mention of the clear documentary evidence proving the existence of the Russian military operating in the occupied areas of Eastern Ukraine, even though the report airs that there are "claims" made about "thousands of Russian soldiers."

Furthermore, this entire segment was produced and edited to omit one crucial word - INVASION. Nowhere in the 11-minute report focusing on the areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia was the word "invasion" used. For this omission, we are demanding an explanation from PBS NewsHour producers as to exclusion of the only possible description for the Russian Federation not only blatantly violating the UN Charter with its military actions in Ukraine, but also the Helsinki Final Act, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, and at least 2 bilateral agreements between Russia and Ukraine, not least of which was the so-called “Friendship Treaty.”
The report airing on July 5 finished with Judy Woodruff claiming that on July 6, "Nick Schifrin continues his reporting from the other side." The report which aired on July 6 did not, in fact, report on the "other side" of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. After focusing most of the report on political and governmental reforms in Odesa, a city 350 miles away from Donets'k, Nick Schifrin returns to the Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory along the eastern border, where, yet again, the conflict is portrayed as simply Ukrainians fighting amongst each other. Were this actually a conflict between several thousand radicalized secessionists and what now stands as one of the largest militaries in Europe, there would be no prolonged hostilities. Instead, as nation after nation has attested to, Russia crossed its border with Ukraine, bombing areas of Ukraine from the Russian side of the border, and then deployed significant numbers of military personnel and equipment inside Ukraine to maintain control over a small sliver of land.

Andrij V. Dobriansky, New York, NY
Ukrainian Congress Committee of America

And More…

I am shocked and disappointed by the lack of factual accuracy and journalistic rigor in your piece on Ukraine and the fighting in Donbas. That you allowed such a flawed report to be aired on PBS is a shame. It diminishes your brand and trust of your viewing audience. There are many ambassadors who have served in Ukraine, policy analysts and experts available who would have gladly briefed your clueless reporter. Don't be surprised by the surge of protest that you have set in motion.

A Rogers, Washington DC


To say I was dismayed at the presentation of the series titled “Divided Lines” on July 6th and 7th 2016 with a tidy follow up July 8th 2016 would be an understatement. Sadness and surprise would be a better description. I was amazed at Mr. Schifrin’s non-objectivity. Is the goal here to spread Russian propaganda? You Mr. Ombudsman know or should know that the idea of fascism in Ukraine has been debunked by western observers. Why even show this – or not rebuff the woman who told him that she was fighting fascism. Never mind that Mr. Schifrin did not bother to mention the 2 million Ukrainians that had to flee this “DNR paradise” for fear of being killed by Russian rockets. I guess Mr. Schifrin is not aware of this plight or perhaps does not care. His piece on DNR looks more like something that Russia would show to their viewers.  Mr. Schifrin was not afraid to tell us the story of Estonia and how they remember Russian atrocities and were prepared to fight for Estonia. Ironically the same could have been said about Ukraine, but for some reason he could not show this side of Ukraine. The only thing that Mr. Schifrin could focus on was the corruption in Odessa, never mind that Ukraine is fighting for its survival as a democracy. He did not bother to interview any Ukrainian official to get their view point of the war on their territory (as he did for the Estonia piece). Where was the objectivity promised to us by PBS and why is Mr. Schifrin so biased against Ukraine?

Irene Potoczniak, Houston, TX


Another report full of misleading statements and factual errors aired on PBS NewsHour last night. I demand an explanation as to why neither the report of July 5 nor July 6 did not make clear that Russia invaded Ukraine. Furthermore, the editorial staff needs to explain how a series purporting to document the "tensions between NATO and Russia," fails to present the clear documentary evidence proving the existence of the Russian military on Ukrainian, Georgian and Moldovan territories.

New York, NY

And, How Those Cossacks Loved Their ‘Land and Church’ but Not Much Else

Comments on Nick Schifrin's segments on FRI.8.JUL: The notion of promoting weapons to children in Suwalki, Poland. Will this be a legacy of violence promotion in which we take pride? The "heroic" nationalistic Cossacks of Czarist, anti-Jewish Progrom fame; where is reality in his contributions? It should be embarrassing!

My Thoughts

I don’t have any specific journalistic criticism about what was presented in this series but I do have some concern about what I thought should have been presented more fully. I think if you watch and absorb the entire series you will see that all the basic points and issues are covered and that it also, at the end, sets the stage for a broader shift in U.S. military and foreign policy thinking that is now unfolding and that is turning somewhat away from fighting insurgencies and terrorist groups abroad to reckoning more and onceagain with military and political resurgency in Russia.

But as a viewer, my sense was that the weakest segment was that first one from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine where a low-level struggle by and with pro-Russian activists and fighters still goes on. I thought this segment was good in capturing the situation on the ground but too short on background and context, especially concerning the Russian military seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and how important that was, and still is, on so many levels. The Russian intervention and support factor was in the segment, but it seemed to me as much too limited in both scope and detail, especially as a stage-setter for a series, and my sense is that it was that opening segment, especially, that led to most of the broader criticism.

Writing last month in Foreign Affairs, the magazine of the Council on Foreign Relations, Daniel Treisman, Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles, called Putin’s seizure of the peninsula from Ukraine “the most consequential decision of his 16 years in power. By annexing a neighboring country’s territory by force, Putin overturned in a single stroke the assumptions on which the post-Cold War European order has rested.

“The question of why Putin took this step is of more than historical interest. Understanding his motives for occupying and annexing Crimea is crucial to assessing whether he will make similar choices in the future—for example, sending troops to ‘liberate’ ethnic Russians in the Baltic states—just as it is key to determining what measures the West might take to deter such actions.”


Search Ombudsman Archive

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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