Some (Almost) Closing Thoughts

Posted by Michael Getler on

I will be retiring as PBS ombudsman at the end of this month and hope to post a proper farewell to viewers of PBS and readers of this column in the next week or two. But in the meantime, I wanted to use this space just to toss off some thoughts about recent events and programs that are on my mind but probably don’t fit as a finale.

‘The Great War’

First, if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend tuning in or catching up to “The Great War,” a three-part (part one, part two), six-hour look by PBS’s American Experience history and documentary series at the First World War — a battle that fundamentally transformed America’s place in the world, and life here at home. Executive Producer Mark Samels says that “you cannot understand the world we live in today without understanding the Great War.” That is true, yet knowledge about World War I is woefully lacking among many Americans.

The series marks the 100th anniversary of America’s belated entry into that war, which had begun in 1914 and which ultimately took the lives of more than 10 million people in what historian and author John Keegan calls a “tragic and unnecessary conflict” because “the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms.” The war is probably the single most important event of the past century that Americans, given the degraded state of education over the years in history and civics, know little or nothing about. This series is not so much a history of the war but rather the American role and its impact. It is a series and a history that captures the enduring complexity of this country and its presidents and remains eerily relevant today. This is a solid public service by PBS.

I see these programs when you do, not before, so I’ve only seen parts one and two that aired these past two nights. Here is a New York Times review and an Oregonian review.

The Not So Great War

The enormous human tragedy and civil war that has engulfed Syria in the last five years, killing some 400,000 people and displacing many millions more either in the country or as refugees, goes on. But a sudden and surprising action by President Trump took place on April 6—the ordering of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles to be fired from two U.S. Navy ships offshore at the Shayrat Airbase where planes, or a plane, from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s air force had taken off from on April 4 to drop chemical weapons on Syrian civilians. It was the first direct attack by the U.S. on Syrian government forces in the seemingly endless war there, and it has sparked a great many questions about what, if anything, comes next.

This is a moving target and impossible to write about in this kind of column. New claims and reports are appearing daily. Rather, the point here is to point to some early coverage that I thought was worthy, at the time events were unfolding, and therefore worth catching up with.

One was what I felt was a quick, smart and cautionary piece by Margaret Sullivan, now a media columnist at The Washington Post and a former public editor at The New York Times, commenting on the real-time swoon in much of the U.S. media that accompanied the missile launchings.

Another timely and, I thought, informative and cautionary report done in the immediate aftermath of the attack was a PBS NewsHour segment on April 7 moderated by anchor Judy Woodruff and featuring Gen. John Allen, former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, former Undersecretary of State in the Obama administration Sarah Sewall, and retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, now a writer, historian and professor emeritus at Boston University.

Here is some of what Bacevich had to say:

"Well, what is the thing? What is the action? If indeed, as some people suggest, this is a one-off event, then my guess is, a week from now, we won’t even be talking about it, and it will quickly be forgotten. If, as some people suggest, this shows a more assertive Trump administration, that somehow we’re going to ratchet up the pressure on the Assad regime, trying to produce regime change, then I would be very much interested in hearing more about how that is going to occur and, beyond that, if and when it occurs, if Assad is forced out, then what? What do we think the United States will inherit, and what will the United States do with that inheritance? Recalling the situation after regime change in Iraq and Libya, you know, those seem to be the reasonable questions."

Later, he added this: “…I think it’s important to reflect on how this decision came to be made, at least how we understand that it came to be made. A week ago, the president was largely indifferent to events in Syria. It appears that, when he saw the videotapes of the aftermath of the Syrian chemical weapons attack, he was outraged, and then basically, in about a 48-hour period, he went from being indifferent to deciding we had to attack Syria. And I have to say that strikes me as not so much a change in policy, but really a change in impulses. We have an impulsive president. We see little in our president that suggests that he acts after serious reflection.”

The NewsHour has actually done quite a good, substantive job in extended interviews since the attack on Syria. Another one that brought additional perspective came on April 10 with Woodruff interviewing Retired Navy Admiral Michael Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who talked about the justification for the missile strikes.

Finally, here is a truly contrarian analysis of what has transpired these past several days. It was posted on April 9 and was written by Scott Ritter, a controversial figure for a variety of reasons. Ritter is a former U.S. Marine and served as a UN weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. He publicly stated his contention before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and in the face of much establishment criticism, that Saddam Hussein possessed no significant weapons of mass-destruction capabilities. That, of course, proved to be correct.

Ritter’s piece is very long and I’m in no position to judge its detailed arguments. But it raises some interesting questions, one of which in particular bothered me almost immediately in the aftermath of the U.S. cruise missile strike. Why, Ritter asks, would President Assad “risk everything by using chemical weapons against a target of zero military value, at a time when the strategic balance of power had shifted strongly in his favor? Likewise,” he continued, “why would Russia, which had invested considerable political capital in the disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons capability after 2013, stand by idly while the Syrian air force carried out such an attack, especially when there was such a heavy Russian presence at the base in question at the time of the attack?”

Two Words

Finally, there are lots of things I will miss about this job when I leave and some things I won’t miss. One that I won’t miss is Susan Rice. That is not meant as a personal commentary on Rice, who was President Obama’s national security advisor and who is an accomplished diplomat and dedicated public servant.

Rather it is because she has been the subject of continuing public, congressional, media and not-insignificant viewer scrutiny stemming from her public-explainer role in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, to the very recent controversy over her role or non-role in the “unmasking” of some Americans mentioned in intelligence reports gathered during the 2016 election campaign.

There have been the proverbial ton of stories about this latest episode and I don’t want to summarize them. However, what did interest me, and still does, is whether Rice was truthful in her response to a question posed by Judy Woodruff during a NewsHour interview on March 22.

The first question of that interview went directly to the unusual public statements earlier that day by Rep. Devin Nunes. Here is the exchange with anchor Judy Woodruff:

WOODRUFF: So we invited you on to talk about several things, but in the last few hours we've been following a disclosure by the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, that, in essence, during the final days of the Obama administration, during the transition, after President Trump had been elected, that he and the people around him may have been caught up in surveillance of foreign individuals, and that their identities may have been disclosed. Do you know anything about this?

RICE: I know nothing about this. I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that count today. I mean, let's back up and recall where we have been...

I would like to give Rice the benefit of the doubt on this, but it’s tough. She has acknowledged in subsequent interviews elsewhere that, on occasions, she, as the national security advisor, would ask the intelligence agencies to “unmask” the names of Americans caught up in intelligence sweeps. That is not unusual for someone in her position at the time and is perfectly legal, and she never disclosed any of those names in any interviews. What is bizarre to me is the “I don’t know anything about this” comment after Nunes’s widely reported public appearance.

On the April 4 NewsHour, Woodruff came back to the subject by airing an interview earlier in the day with Rice on MSNBC with correspondent Andrea Mitchell, but those questions were framed by Mitchell to ask if Rice sought those names to “spy on” or “expose them,” which Rice flatly denied. And then, after that clip ended, Woodruff offered this one-liner, referring to the March 22 appearance: “Last month, on the NewsHour, Rice said she knew nothing about the surveillance of the Trump aides or the disclosure of their identities.” I asked the NewsHour if they were pursuing this and was told they have requested to have Rice back on the program.

So, what to make of this? I think The Washington Post’s excellent (in my opinion) fact-checker Glenn Kessler handled it well in his April 6 posting, which said, in part:

“Did Rice mislead on PBS?”

"A separate problem for Rice is an answer she gave during a March 22 interview with PBS’s 'Newshour,' in which she appeared to deny knowing whether conversations involving Trump transition officials were incidentally collected by the NSA. The program aired without the full question posed by host Judy Woodruff, just Rice’s answer. After controversy arose, PBS posted the complete back-and-forth.

"Readers can judge for themselves, but Rice tends to stick to her talking points. This is what got her in trouble — and earned her Pinocchios — when she famously insisted in 2012 that the Benghazi attacks were not planned in advance, even as the Libyan president appeared on the same Sunday programs to say, ‘This was preplanned, predetermined.'"

As for the March 22 NewsHour appearance, Kessler concluded: “The truthfulness of the answer is hard to gauge. If she was just deflecting a question because she didn’t know enough about Nunes’s claims, she did it in an awkward manner. Rice’s quick dismissal raised suspicions because she appeared to say she knew nothing about a practice that we now know she actively used.”

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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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