The U.S. is once again involved in a controversial military action — this time using air power in support of a UN-approved no-fly zone over Libya and to neutralize Libyan ground forces endangering civilian population centers — and the “progressive” or liberal press watchdog group, FAIR, once again has PBS NewsHour coverage in its cross-hairs.
FAIR, which stands for Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, has, on several occasions over many years now, issued detailed critiques of PBS’s news program coverage, and not just the weekday night NewsHour. These critiques, along with PBS responses and my assessments, have become the subject of a number of ombudsman columns.
The new critique, posted by FAIR on March 29, involves the array of guests that the NewsHour has chosen to interview about the conflict in Libya. It is much less detailed, and focused on a much narrower period of time, than the previous efforts, but the thrust is generally the same as past complaints.
Here is the way FAIR put it: “If public television’s mission is to bring diverse viewpoints to the airwaves, the discussions about the war in Libya on the PBS NewsHour haven’t lived up to that standard. Over the past two weeks, the NewsHour has featured an array of current and former military and government officials in its discussion segments — leaving little room for antiwar voices, U.S. foreign policy critics and legal experts.”
As is customary with its “action alerts,” FAIR asks its subscribers to write to the ombudsman and about 140 of them did so.
FAIR Cites These Broadcast Segments:
* March 18, interviewed the Obama administration’s UN Ambassador Susan Rice.
* March 21, anchor Jim Lehrer decided to get “perspective on the Mideast turmoil from two former U.S. national security advisers” — Carter’s Zbigniew Brzezinski and Reagan’s Brent Scowcroft. The same day also featured a discussion between retired Maj. Gen. Dutch Remkes and Robert Malley, a Clinton-era National Security Council official now with the International Crisis Group.
* March 22, Charles Kupchan, a former Clinton administration National Security Council staffer, along with a couple of rare guests without U.S. government or military backgrounds: Daniel Dombey of the Financial Times and former Libyan Ambassador Ali Suleiman Aujali, who broke with the Gadhafi regime and is aligned with the opposition.
* March 23, back to the officials-only format, interviewing a pair of former senators, Democrat Gary Hart and Republican Norm Coleman, both of whom support the White House action in Libya, and Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough.
* March 24, interviewed retired Army Gen. Jack Keane and Frederic Wehrey, a former Air Force officer and Iraq War vet now at the Rand Corporation, both of whom supported some U.S. ground troops in Libya. Viewers weren’t told that Keane’s consulting firm, Keane Associates, includes major military companies among its clients (USA Today, 3/10/10), or that Keane is also on the board of General Dynamics, a major military contractor.
* March 28, a discussion of “what’s at stake for the president” featured Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus and Politico’s Roger Simon.
FAIR concluded: “There are many aspects of the Libya War that should be discussed on public television, featuring the views of those outside of elite Beltway circles. The 1967 Carnegie Commission report that gave birth to PBS envisioned it as a ‘forum for debate and controversy’ that would ‘provide a voice for groups in the community that may be otherwise unheard.’ The NewsHour should include those principles in its decisions about whom to include in its coverage of Libya.”
NewsHour’s Non-Response and Previous Response
When I asked NewsHour officials two days ago how they would answer this latest FAIR indictment, my request came at an extremely heavy news period and so I don’t have a detailed response from them to this specific complaint. But last year, when FAIR criticized several PBS programs, including the NewsHour, for a similar allegation of not giving voice to those “who would otherwise go unheard,” NewsHour officials said this:
“As in its previous studies of the PBS NewsHour (1990 and 2006), FAIR seems to be accusing us of covering the people who make decisions that affect people’s lives, many of whom work in government, the military, or corporate America. That’s what we do: we’re a news program, and that’s who makes news … The PBS NewsHour covers the news as fairly and impartially as we can. Period.
“Our mission is to provide information about developments and policy decisions that affect large numbers of Americans. We make it a point to question the decision makers, and when we do we also make it a point to include other views that provide balance and/or a different perspective either in the same program, or one produced soon after. We try to book the most qualified guests we can for every segment … “
I have a couple of thoughts on this matter.
One is that I agree with the thrust of what FAIR has been saying over the years; that not enough diverse voices are being heard on the public airways, and I mean all of network television, not just public television. By diverse, I don’t mean extremists, but people who represent a usually significant, although perhaps minority, percentage of the citizenry and who take a strong opposition view, especially on matters involving use of force.
Indeed, in that ombudsman column from last October cited above, I wrote: “I have made the point in previous columns that [PBS] public affairs programming seems to operate within a rather safe comfort zone that straddles the center. Certainly, that has its place, but there are huge disparities of opinion in this country about everything from the war in Afghanistan to the public option in health care and the strongest voices are not heard very often.”
However, while FAIR is generally on the right side of these arguments, I didn’t find this latest zinger at the NewsHour particularly persuasive. For one thing, it is too selective and all of the segments cited took place after the UN-sanctioned military intervention had actually begun, when the questions immediately became different from those before the attacks started.
In any conflict, the chips go down before it starts. The bombing began on March 18. Before that, the NewsHour conducted interviews with others that are easily described as part of the general foreign policy establishment. But they clearly voiced thoughts that opposed any military action or warned of its dangers.
Richard Haass Says Don’t Do It
The most powerful example came on the March 9 broadcast when the president of the very establishment Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, who was also a top State Department official in the George W. Bush administration, was interviewed by NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Brown:
“Our interests in no way warrant it,” Haass said about the then being discussed U.S. military involvement in Libya. “Libya is far from the most important country in the Middle East. We should be focusing on places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq. Limited interventions would not turn the thing around. No-fly zones and the like wouldn’t be decisive. Interventions that might be decisive would be far, far, far more costly than our interests warrant. One last thing: Who would we be helping? We know we hate Gadhafi, or people do. But are we so sure that those we would be helping are good guys? Do we really think, if we went in, they’d all be reading the Federalist Papers in Arabic translation a couple of days later? We simply don’t know enough about Libya. One of the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, I would suggest, only intervene militarily if you really know the country well enough to know what you’re getting into.
“Let’s keep a sense of proportion,” Haass added at another point. “This is not Rwanda, where 800,000 innocent men, women and children lost their lives. This is something on a far smaller scale. Do we ignore it? No. There’s all sorts of humanitarian actions we can take to keep people alive. But the United States is overextended in two wars. If there’s going to be some sort of humanitarian or large-scale intervention, it would have to be a lot more than a no-fly zone, which quite honestly is symbolic.
“The planes and helicopters that Gadhafi is using are not central to his ability to defeat the opposition. You have got to stop the tanks, the APCs. You have got to stop the mercenaries. You actually do have to put people on the ground. You would have to arm people, but any time you arm people, you don’t know what they’re going to do with those arms. So, no-fly zone, to me, is the worst of all worlds. It’s a little — it’s the little-bit-pregnant problem. It gets you a little bit involved. It won’t turn the tide. And then what? What do you do next?”
Those points still look pretty good to me three weeks or so later.
And Other Warnings
On March 4, retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who formerly commanded no-fly zones over Iraq in the 1990s, cautioned to the NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff that such a zone over Libya “may not be the immediate desired solution” and that “you don’t want to jump into” this.
Even in those interviews that FAIR cited, there are clearly pros and cons presented to many questions about what was then a real conflict rather than a would-be conflict.
This column was originally published on PBS.org on April 1, 2011.