When the anchor of public television's main news
program goes out of his way to tell viewers that he's setting the record straight
about a recent historic event, the people watching are apt to assume that they're
getting accurate information. But with war intensifying in Iraq, a bizarre episode
raises some very troubling concerns about the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."
Here'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 authorities' closure of a newspaper that had served as a megaphone
for the anti-occupation Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr. "The immediate problem
we have to remember is we started this ... with the aggressive policies towards
Sadr that came from us, shutting down his press," Col. Sam Gardiner said.
The program's anchor spoke next.
Jim Lehrer: "The reason we shut down his press is because it was calling
for violence and anti-American "
Col. Gardiner: "Sure."
Lehrer: "I just want to get that on the record."
But Lehrer's comment ostensibly setting the record straight
was at odds with the available factual record about Sadr's newspaper. In sync
with other news accounts, the New York Times had reported two days earlier
that "the paper did not print any calls for attacks."
I contacted the NewsHour and asked whether Lehrer'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 "the pro-Sadr newspaper Al
Hawza was shut down ... for allegedly printing false information that incited
violence against the coalition." And an April 6 New York Times piece
said that the Sadr newspaper "was closed last week after American authorities
accused it of printing lies that incited violence."
The NewsHour spokesperson, Lete Childs, told me: "I hope these two articles
help you understand the citations for Jim Lehrer's statement to Col. Gardiner."
But the two articles that the NewsHour cited only seemed to underscore the
disconnect. Apparently, the NewsHour staff hadn't been able to find a single
source to back up Lehrer's on-air statement that "the reason we shut down
his press is because it was calling for violence." And the NewsHour did
not provide any explanation for why, in sharp contrast to the flat-out report
in the New York Times that "the paper did not print any calls for
attacks," Lehrer had gone on the air and claimed that it did.
I reached the reporter in Baghdad who'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 "calling
for violence." Schodolski replied: "I have no other citations than
the reasons given by the CPA itself." 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 Sadr'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 "incite violence." That was very much in keeping with
what the April 5 New York Times reported that while "the
American authorities said false reporting, including articles that ascribed
suicide bombings to Americans, could touch off violence," nevertheless
"the paper did not print any calls for attacks."
Lehrer's refusal to correct his evident error is especially striking because
he had emphasized his incorrect statement on the air by immediately adding:
"I just want to get that on the record." (My request to a NewsHour
spokesperson for a direct comment from Lehrer did not yield any statement from
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:
"The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer stands behind the 'Iraq: What Now?' discussion
segment from April 7 and will not be making a correction."
Journalists should scrutinize U.S. government spin, not contribute to it.
Here we have what some people believe to be the nation's most credible news
program compounding a factual error by refusing to make a correction.
First-rate journalists change history. But not this way.