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PBS NewsHour’s Disgraceful Practice — NOT honoring (some) of our fallen troops

Several years ago I emailed a question to the PBS NewsHour nightly news program, perhaps to their ombudsman but not sure. I got no reply. My question pertained to the segment they had at the end of each nightly program when names had been released for deaths of U.S. troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, during which they showed (in silence) photos of troops who had been killed and their names, rank, age and home town. They called it their “Honor Roll”, as they still do.

I wasn’t sure about something, and I wanted to find out. I asked them when they started this “Honor Roll” segment. I asked because I wanted to know if they began the segment only after there were deaths in the Iraq war, as opposed to starting it before the Iraq War, when there were only deaths in Afghanistan. I cynically wondered if it were the former, thinking perhaps they felt a need/desire to show the cost in lives of the Iraq War to a greater extent than for the war in Afghanistan,  because they felt “the public” considered the Iraq War more controversial (and therefore should have more information on the costs so as to decide whether or not it was a bad idea and if we should end it) and/or because they themselves were ambivalent or opposed to the Iraq War (or wanted Bush to look bad or less good).

Last night for some reason I Googled again, and found my answer in this January, 2006 piece by the (then new) NewsHour ombudsman http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/2006/01/here_in_silence_are_eight_more.html, discussing a recent change to the “Honor Roll” segment.

It turns out that not only did they indeed only begin the “Honor Roll” segment with deaths from the Iraq War, they actually EXCLUDED troop deaths from Afghanistan initially and focused it only on deaths in Iraq! An “Honor Roll” for troops who gave their lives in battle was limited to those troops who died in one war, excluding other troops who died at the same time in another war! And it was not until almost 3 years of the “Honor Roll” that they started to include the fatalities in Afghanistan. 3 years to realize it was wrong and make a simple change to correct such an indecency, not to mention an outrageously biased journalistic practice repeated several times every week as a regular, well-defined part of the program!

And although ombudsman himself ends up in the right place, concluding that it was wrong to exclude the fatalities in Afghanistan, he himself seems to think there’s some reasonable case to the contrary, based on the more controversial nature of the Iraq War (polls showing a more divided public), and even based on his concern that including the troops who died in Afghanistan would aid Bush in getting the public to see the Iraq War as another “battlefront in the same war on terror”, whereas in his view “The war in Afghanistan is, indeed, a war on terror. The one in Iraq has become one but was much more a war of choice at the outset in the view of many people.”

And the ombudsman really lets the producer off the hook by not asking an obvious follow-up question when the producer apparently told him, “The NewsHour’s Honor Roll began airing on March 31, 2003, 11 days after the war with Iraq began. Our intention then, as it has been all along, was to honor the men and women who died fighting a war on behalf of the United States. Period. There was no political statement behind that decision.” Well, then why, for almost 3 years, night after night, in this “Honor Roll” for troops who gave their lives for our nation, were deaths of our troops in Afghanistan excluded??!!

All the producer apparently said was “the idea of an Honor Roll did not occur to us until the Iraq War began, and we did not connect the two campaigns. In retrospect, perhaps we should have, but the fact is, we did not.” File that under “You Gotta Be Kiddin’ Me (A–hole)”. Yes, Ms. Producer, you did “connect the two campaigns”, in the sense of contrasting them — one good, one bad — in your own mind and/or in a substantial portion of public opinion, and in your honoring the fallen from one war (whatever your motivations) while excluding, as a matter of policy and daily practice, the fallen from the other war.

I want to end by saying, first of all, that I am NOT among hyperpartisans on either side who constantly scream about some sweeping, consistent bias in the mainstream media against one’s side. I think such complaints are more reflective of the beholder’s biases and selective knowledge (and some misconceptions) than of the mainstream media in general. And by the way, I very strongly recommend to everyone in the world this book, http://www.amazon.com/True-Enough-Learning-Post-Fact-Society/dp/0470050101 (and if you find yourself thinking “This author is clearly right half the time and clearly wrong half the time”, it’s you — and that’s exactly what he’s talking about).

Second, I think NewsHour is the best nightly news program on television and has been for decades.  I was a bit reluctant to post this diary, particularly in an environment that I assume is generally hostile to PBS, because I think NewsHour is an outstanding and a very important program, particularly in this age of growth of hyperpartisan media and sensational food-fight, talking point fests masquerading as substantive debate programs. I think the case I write about above is a terrible exception to what I think is generally an exceptionally good program that generally makes a good-faith effort to present different points of view in a substantive way. (As an aside, I also think the much newer Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN on Sunday mornings is also outstanding.)

But I nevertheless do think this case warrants attention as an egregious policy and practice in terms of a lack of basic decency as well as (probably) a lack of neutrality for  a news program that is supposed to be neutral, not least because of taxpayer funding.

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