PBS Gets Picky


In a recent Nation cover story, Christian Parenti described hanging out with insurgents in Iraq. That got the attention of producers on News- Hour With Jim Lehrer, and on March 2, Parenti said something live that knocked Lehrer off his chair.

Parenti, author of an upcoming book on occupied Iraq, was being interviewed by NewsHour‘s Ray Suarez. He and Middle East history professor Juan Cole were analyzing the recent suicide bombings in Iraq and various groups that might have been involved. Then something went terribly wrong: Parenti suggested that Halliburton and Bechtel have failed to provide “meaningful reconstruction” and that the U.S. occupation might actually be contributing to the instability in Iraq. Lehrer apparently went ballistic. (See the transcript.)

Michael Mosettig, senior producer for foreign affairs and defense at NewsHour, told me, “This was not reportage, this was giving his opinion, and that’s not why we brought him on.” The next day, according to Parenti, Dan Sagalyn, NewsHour‘s deputy senior producer for foreign affairs and defense, called to inform him that top people were upset, that his comments had lacked “balance,” and that Lehrer was planning to run an Editor’s Note acknowledging the mistake. It seems they had violated one of Lehrer’s internal “rules of journalism,” which mandates that producers “carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories” and label it as such.

When I called Sagalyn, he confirmed that he had called Parenti that day, adding, “I said it was too bad what happened happened, and that I would have liked to have him on again . . . but because of this it would be very hard.”

On March 4, Lehrer returned at the end of the show and read the following statement: “For those who were watching two nights ago, a discussion about Iraq ended up not being as balanced as is our standard practice. While unintentional, it was indeed our mistake and we regret it.”

The Editor’s Note surprised Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel. “We think Christian Parenti’s reporting has been thorough and reliable,” she told me. “This is a journalist who spent a great deal of time on the ground in Iraq.” According to vanden Heuvel, Parenti’s comments about the failure of meaningful reconstruction were based on his reporting and firsthand observation. Parenti called the Editor’s Note “excessive to the point of being ridiculous.”

It’s not the first time Halliburton has surfaced on NewsHour. Talking heads often discuss the embattled contractor, though usually in a left-right format like the one featuring Mark Shields and David Brooks. (Typical Shields comment: “Halliburton . . . has become a laugh line on the late-night monologues. That’s not going to go away.” Typical Brooks comment: “It does look bad but . . . it’s not as bad as it looks.”)

As for Halliburton, the company denies wrongdoing. But since shortly after New Year’s, it has been reimbursing the U.S. government millions for alleged overcharges, and last month the Pentagon launched a criminal investigation of allegations of fraud by a Halliburton subsidiary. Mosettig said the March 4 Editor’s Note was Lehrer’s doing. “As far as I know we got no external complaints,” he told me. “Maybe we got two or three e-mails from ordinary citizens after the show ran.”

Executive producer Lester Crystal reiterated that the show aims for balanced coverage. “We have no quarrel with what Parenti said,” he said. “We felt we made a mistake in not trying to get a response.”

Asked if Parenti will be invited back, Mosettig said, “When you have a loose-cannon experience with somebody, you’re going to be wary.” Crystal said, “This is not a bar and not a guarantee to his coming on the program again,” adding that they might have him back, “if he’s done some firsthand reporting that we think is important.”

The liberal media flight club

Last week, some feisty libs began loading up for a year-long shooting match with their counterparts on the right. Simultaneously, the news broke that the Air America talk-radio network will debut at the end of the month and that Salon founder David Talbot has assembled a team of political writers and named Sidney Blumenthal D.C. bureau chief. As if on cue, the White House launched a legal attack on Media Fund and, whose alleged offense is using soft money to place ads designed to unseat George Bush.

It is axiomatic that money equals speech. But does the left have the checkbook to counter the $100 million the Bushies are using to get their message across? According to reports, Air America has raised $20 million to air free speech, while the Media Fund and its partner America Coming Together have collected pledges for $70 million worth of ads, including $10 mil from George Soros. As for Salon, Talbot wrote on his site last week that “we couldn’t have opened this new D.C. bureau” without the support of 74,000 Salon Premium Subscribers, who pay $20 a pop. The other party may have more money, but the Democrats might be able to make more noise.

Questions Left Unanswered

Did Christian Parenti stray from the boundaries of a TV format in which he was asked to talk about bombings in Iraq, or did he speak uncomfortable truths? In an interview broadcast on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer on March 2, Parenti was asked if the bombings would make the job harder for Americans in Iraq. Here is his full answer, which concluded the segment: “I would think so. I would think that we have to look at some of the deeper causes as to why there’s so much frustration. Why are Iraqis so angry and willing to point the blame at the U.S. after this sort of bombing? A lot of it has to do with the failure of meaningful reconstruction. There still is not adequate electricity. In many towns like Ramadi there wasn’t adequate water. Where is all the money that’s going to Halliburton and Bechtel to rebuild this country? Where is it ending up? I think that one of the most important fundamental causes of instability is the corruption around the contracting with these Bush-connected firms in Iraq. Unless that is dealt with, there is going to be much more instability for times to come in Iraq.”C.C.