When the anchor of public televisionâ€™s main news program goes out of his way to tell viewers that heâ€™s setting the record straight about a recent historic event, the people watching are apt to assume that theyâ€™re getting accurate information. But with war intensifying in Iraq, a bizarre episode raises some very troubling concerns about the â€œNewsHour with Jim Lehrer.â€
Hereâ€™s what happened:
During a panel discussion April 7 on the NewsHour, while battles raged in close to a dozen Iraqi cities, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel referred to the American authoritiesâ€™ closure of a newspaper that had served as a megaphone for the anti-occupation Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr. â€œThe immediate problem we have to remember is we started this ...
with the aggressive policies towards Sadr that came from us, shutting down his press,â€ Col. Sam Gardiner said.
The programâ€™s anchor spoke next.
Jim Lehrer: â€œThe reason we shut down his press is because it was calling for violence and anti-American --â€
Col. Gardiner: â€œSure.â€
Lehrer: â€œI just want to get that on the record.â€
But Lehrerâ€™s comment -- ostensibly setting the record straight -- was at odds with the available factual record about Sadrâ€™s newspaper. In sync with other news accounts, the New York Times had reported two days earlier that â€œthe paper did not print any calls for attacks.â€
I contacted the NewsHour and asked whether Lehrerâ€™s statement had been based on information contrary to what had been reported in the April
5 edition of the Times. If so, I asked for any citation that backed up his assertion. Or, if Lehrer did not have such a citation, I asked if there were plans for an on-air correction to set the factual record straight on the program (which reaches nearly 3 million viewers across the United States each night).
In reply to my inquiry, a NewsHour spokesperson cited two articles: A Chicago Tribune piece, dated April 5, said that â€œthe pro-Sadr newspaper Al Hawza was shut down ... for allegedly printing false information that incited violence against the coalition.â€ And an April 6 New York Times piece said that the Sadr newspaper â€œwas closed last week after American authorities accused it of printing lies that incited violence.â€
The NewsHour spokesperson, Lete Childs, told me: â€œI hope these two articles help you understand the citations for Jim Lehrerâ€™s statement to Col. Gardiner.â€
But the two articles that the NewsHour cited only seemed to underscore the disconnect. Apparently, the NewsHour staff hadnâ€™t been able to find a single source to back up Lehrerâ€™s on-air statement that â€œthe reason we shut down his press is because it was calling for violence.â€ And the NewsHour did not provide any explanation for why, in sharp contrast to the flat-out report in the New York Times that â€œthe paper did not print any calls for attacks,â€ Lehrer had gone on the air and claimed that it did.
I reached the reporter in Baghdad whoâ€™d written the Chicago Tribune article, Vincent Schodolski, and asked if he was aware of any evidence that the American authorities shut down Al Hawza because it was â€œcalling for violence.â€ Schodolski replied: â€œI have no other citations than the reasons given by the CPA itself.â€ My search of the official Web site for the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-led occupation authority in Iraq, turned up briefings and news releases with references to Sadrâ€™s newspaper -- but no backup for what Lehrer had said on the air.
At a March 30 press conference, Dan Senor of the CPA charged that Al Hawza had tried to â€œincite violence.â€ That was very much in keeping with what the April 5 New York Times reported -- that while â€œthe American authorities said false reporting, including articles that ascribed suicide bombings to Americans, could touch off violence,â€ nevertheless â€œthe paper did not print any calls for attacks.â€
Lehrerâ€™s refusal to correct his evident error is especially striking because he had emphasized his incorrect statement on the air by immediately adding: â€œI just want to get that on the record.â€ (My request to a NewsHour spokesperson for a direct comment from Lehrer did not yield any statement from him.)
When I asked whether a decision had been made, one way or the other, about doing a correction on the NewsHour to set the factual record straight, the last piece of stone in the damage-control wall moved into place. I got the message: â€œThe NewsHour with Jim Lehrer stands behind the
â€˜Iraq: What Now?â€™ discussion segment from April 7 and will not be making a correction.â€
Journalists should scrutinize U.S. government spin, not contribute to it.
Here we have what some people believe to be the nationâ€™s most credible news program compounding a factual error by refusing to make a correction.
First-rate journalists change history. But not this way.
Norman Solomon is co-author, with foreign correspondent Reese Erlich, of â€œTarget Iraq: What the News Media Didnâ€™t Tell You.â€