Yesterday, Gwen Ifill, host of PBS Newshour, celebrated the news that the Iran nuclear deal would pass by tweeting, “Take that Bibi,” referencing the Israeli prime minister’s well-known opposition to the agreement.
Not only was it insulting to Prime Minister Netanyahu, an American ally, it demonstrated rank partisanship — something that anyone claiming to be a journalist should avoid at all costs.
The resulting furor caused the PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, to respond. He was not pleased:
So that brings me to the real self-inflicted wound, which was a tweet by PBS NewsHour co-anchor Gwen Ifill on Wednesday—after it became known that President Obama had secured the necessary number of Democratic backers in the Senate to ensure that the nuclear agreement with Iran could not be blocked by opponents—that said: “Take that, Bibi.” That was a reference, of course, to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who has strongly opposed the agreement and came to Washington at the invitation of Republican House Majority Leader John Boehner to argue against it in front of Congress.
Ifill added the comment when she retweeted an illustration from an Obama administration Twitter account that is designed to support the case for an agreement.
As they say in today’s world, her tweet instantly went viral, picked up by bloggers, websites and a large number of Twitter followers and it quickly produced a lot of angry emails in the ombudsman’s inbox.
I asked Ifill and the NewsHour for a response and explanation. She explained, in an email to me and in a tweet to many others, that she was “RT’ing a @TheIranDeal tweet,” and added that she “should have been clearer that it was their argument, not mine.”
One would have to lean way over backwards to give her the benefit of the doubt that she was simply shedding light on the administration’s view of portions of Netanyahu’s arguments. But to personalize it by saying, “Take that, Bibi” is, in my book, inexcusable for an experienced journalist who is the co-anchor of a nightly news program watched by millions of people over the course of any week.
It is not the first time that I have written about Ifill and tweets. Three years ago a tweet supporting a former colleague, who made an inflammatory remark apparently unaware that his microphone had not been turned off, also brought about lots of criticism.
Ifill is a highly experienced journalist, very quick, alert, knowledgeable, and with an engaging on-air personality. She also has a talented eye for the ironies and political turnabouts in the daily flow of news that contributes to her presence. But PBS and the NewsHour are bigger than any individual and tweeting does not appear to be a tool, in these cases, that is appropriate for maintaining credibility, which is the bedrock for news organizations.
Getler basically accuses Ifill of lying in her response to his query, so his admonishment seems mild indeed. But this is PBS, where everyone expects the “journalists” to have a liberal slant on the news, so I guess “inexcusable” is as good as we’re going to get.