07/05/04 — Gumbel: Can ignorance be blamed for dumb things he says?

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Gumbel: Can ignorance be blamed for dumb things he says?

Is television commentator Bryant Gumbel as biased as he has been accused of being? Or is he downright stupid?

Based on a show Tuesday night on PBS, he is one or the other.

In an early segment of the show, he seemed to be merely stupid. In a later segment, it got worse: It became clear that he is biased.

In the early portion of the show, Gumbel was introducing a segment about military Reservists and National Guard members. He said it was untrue that the war in Iraq was being fought by an all-volunteer military force. Actually, he said, the U.S. forces included many Reservists and Guardsmen.

These men and women had volunteered to join the Guard and Reserves, he said, but they had not volunteered for combat duty.

It is obvious to anyone with even minimal intellect that the purpose of the reserve forces is to back up the active-duty forces when needed. If not, why would we have a reserve? Why would reservists be training for combat? The members of the reserve know when they volunteer to join that they are volunteering to do whatever is needed, including go to war.

Could Bryant Gumbel really believe that the United States would maintain reserves just to stay home and train, and never use them? That was the stupid part.

Later, when interviewing guests on the show, Gumbel began a question with an introduction that went something like this: We can all agree that President Bush has alienated more of our allies than any other president in history ....

Oh, really? Well, millions of Bush’s advocates wouldn’t agree. Some of them don’t believe the countries that Gumbel obviously referred to — including France and Germany, presumably — were really our allies in the matter of Iraq. It is becoming clear, they maintain, that some of our “allies” had economic reasons for discouraging the United Nations from enforcing its resolutions concerning Iraq.

In fact, it might have been the behavior of these so-called allies that caused Saddam Hussein to block U.N. weapons inspections. Saddam might have thought that as long as influential U.N. members and staffers were illegally profiting from the Oil for Food program that existed then, he could cancel the agreement and nothing would ever be done. And it was canceling the agreement that led to the war.

That is just speculation, of course, but this is not: To say we alienated allies is editorial opinion, not fact. To insert the statement in the preamble to a question is cunning. Here, Gumbel showed his bias, and he indicates he is more sly than stupid.

It is not unusual for partisan commentators to present themselves as neutral. In Gumbel’s case, however, the offense is more egregious because his medium is the tax-supported Public Broadcasting System. The federal government gives PBS $86 million a year, and it is terribly wrong for Americans to be taxed to pay for programming that is politically biased, whether it is liberal or conservative.

Furthermore, PBS comes to us through WUNC-TV. WUNC gets some of its funding from the state treasury, and it appeals to viewers for donations to supplement the tax money. Programming like Bryan Gumbel’s show undoubtedly discourages many potential donors from pitching in.

Someday the Congress and the Legislature might decide, as many people now believe, that government has no business in the media, and the cash spigot might be turned off.

Then we would have to reassess whether Gumbel and his ilk are very smart.

Published in Editorials on July 5, 2004 11:20 AM