The Ombudsman's Mailbag
By Michael Getler
December 21, 2005
Welcome to the Ombudsman's mailbag. What follows is a sampling of the letters I have received from viewers in response to the first two columns I have written. This is something that I will try to continue with some regularity, and in a timely fashion, although I can't be sure what the frequency will be at this point. To read all the columns, you can click on the archive link at the right.
There was a good deal of viewer response, both pro and con, to my first column on Dec. 2 about the documentary "Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories." On Dec. 20, PBS announced that it will commission a new hour-long documentary for broadcast next spring that will further examine the various perspectives surrounding the issues raised by this program, which dealt with the impact of domestic violence on children and the role of family courts.
The second column on Dec. 9, about the two-part, three-hour documentary "Las Vegas: An Unconventional History," drew fewer letters from viewers but they were fairly consistent in their reaction and commentary.
A third column, posted last Friday, Dec. 16, was about the challenge to a segment on New Orleans reconstruction work that appeared on the NOW with David Brancaccio program Nov. 18. Thus far, not much mail has been received by me in response, other than a thank you note from the company involved. The NOW broadcast on the evening of Dec. 16 included a correction to its initial report.
The letters follow, but first, Happy New Year to all:
"Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories"
I just read your editorial response to the show "Breaking the Silence" and want to say a heart-felt thank you for your fair-mindedness in simply seeing what was missing in that program.
The situation of divorce and custody, especially in the 'free world,' has become so politicized as to have almost become another political party.
It is rare indeed to see someone with the ability to think, as you have obviously done, without polarized ideas presented by so many prejudicial and outright false programs seen from time to time.
When this program first appeared, I decided that PBS, if not CPB itself, had become an enemy of fathers. After reading your statements, I have changed my mind and have become willing to wait until the smoke clears before making a final decision.
Phillip Pence, Yukon, OK
My children and I thank you for being courageously honest as regards your review of "Breaking the Silence."
Dennis Flatt, Kalamazoo, MI
I appreciated your "Maiden Voyage" article, at least most of it.
But I am concerned that you would actually endorse the concept of "balance" in a program opposing public support of child abuse. "Breaking the Silence" exposed the use of the nation's court system to give children to abusers. What, exactly, is the opposing viewpoint?
As were several other authors, you seem to be misled by folks who have tried to create a controversy where there is none. Like the 'intelligent design' folks who write articles and speeches, then demand that schools 'teach the controversy,' this is an invented conflict unworthy of such journalistic support. There is no controversy about evolution among real experts. And there is no controversy about whether to award children to violent parents among real experts. You are feeding a nonexistent controversy created for ideological purposes.
Fathers' rights groups have nothing to complain about. BTS does not advocate for mothers against fathers. It advocates for non-offending mothers against abusive fathers. Who, exactly, would you have interviewed to represent the viewpoint supporting abusive fathers? Certainly not the fathers' rights organizations who are complaining, because they will not tell you that they represent abusive fathers. They will tell you they only represent good fathers. But good fathers are not the issue here.
So why, exactly, would good fathers create such a 'controversy' over a program that opposes child abuse inflicted by abusive fathers and incompetent courts? Have any of the columnists or ombudsmen who have written about BTS asked these groups, if these are such good fathers, why are they not outraged that abusive fathers are getting custody? Why are they not outraged that children are being abused? Why are they not outraged that some courts are so incompetent that they place children at further risk of harm? Have you heard any such objections from the pressure groups who object to BTS? Doesn't it even tickle your journalistic curiosity enough to ask why any legitimate interest group would stake out a position that in effect endorses child abuse — or at least vehemently objects to a documentary opposing child abuse? Doesn't it even raise a hint of journalistic suspicion that the objectors do not loudly lament that children are being harmed by other men? In your quest for context, didn't it even flicker to ask whether the ones raising hell are the ones causing it?
And I am sorry, but a demand for a neutral point of view on some topics — child abuse, animal abuse, slavery, the Holocaust — is a shallow excuse for critical thinking, and an endorsement of the modern inanity that all ideas are created equal.
Finally, if you are really interested in digging into the gory details of custody litigation or the thoroughly discredited Parental Alienation Syndrome, for starters you can check the resources cited below, in a copy of a response I wrote to my local PBS station. (If you want the attachments mentioned, you will have to send me a real e-mail address.) I can't blame you if you really don't want to dig this deep into an esoteric area of the law. But then again, if you don't, perhaps you ought not be second guessing bona fide experts on an area so critical to the survival of battered women and their children.
Mike Brigner, Dayton, Ohio
Associate Professor, Paralegal Program at Sinclair Community College
Your review of the this program that was aired on PBS was very thoughtful, but as a lawyer familiar with family law and the limitation of our courts and judges, I know how hard it is to get people to pay attention to issues raised by mothers on behalf of their children.
Perhaps "Breaking the Silence" was limited in some peoples view by being a piece of advocacy, but effective advocacy is sadly lacking in the legal system.
Could it be that institutions that are heavily weighted towards men — such as the Catholic church and the legal system — undercut women's ability to protect their children? Is there a connection between the powerlessness of women and the abuse of children?
If PBS is not to be tainted by the political corruption at CPB, let there be more advocacy, not less. Let PBS be relevant and not a public relations enterprise.
Where can we turn to tell our stories?
Do challenge the information. Probe the allegations and start a dialogue.
Just don't shut down new information because it's controversial and organized groups don't like it.
Patricia Kane, Esq., Stamford, CT
The Kane Legal Group LLC
I'm writing to ask that PBS issue and publicize a retraction of its support of "Breaking the Silence" which it conferred on that program by virtue of its broadcast.
PBS is such a great organization that provides unparalleled programming.
You can only strengthen your hold on quality programming by acknowledging when a mistake has been made.
I happen to agree with one tenant of "Breaking the Silence" in that what the courts are doing in the area of family law is remarkably destructive.
It doesn't help anybody, however, to frame the debate as Mothers versus Fathers. If the issue is protecting children against abuse, it should be framed as between protective parents and abusive parents.
Thank you, Mr. Getler, for your assiduous examination of the program and its deficiencies. At the risk of splitting hairs, can I just reflect that your emphasis that most of the emails critical of the program seemed to have been generated by Father's rights groups implies a response fashioned by special interest groups instead of being motivated by genuine parental concern for children. I read what the "Father's Rights" groups say, but I am a parent just as capable as any other parent to work for the interests of my daughter.
One of the major thrusts of the Program was that Fathers who seek shared custody of their children are abusive, or in other words, invalid as a parent. When my efforts on behalf of my daughter are suggested to be the result of an organized bureaucratic campaign, I also feel marginalized as a parent. I wonder if you could have expressed your thoughts as well by not tying the response to the program to an organized effort. My objection to the program is that it labels me as abusive because I fought for shared custody. All like minded people such as myself are asking is that we instead be simply viewed as: a parent.
Thank you for your attention. Thank you for your great work.
Steven Vogl, Hampton, NH
Thank you for your commentary on the program "Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories." I agreed with much of what you said, and I appreciate that someone at PBS has taken what appears to be an objective look at a very un-objective program. The issue of child abuse is obviously an important one — and one that the courts too often get wrong. However, I do not believe that it is helpful to air these issues in a manner that is clearly biased and that appears to promote an anti-father attitude. I am a long-time contributor to my local PBS stations. I am not contributing this year because of "Breaking the Silence." Your comments, however, make me hopeful that I will make a contribution next year as PBS makes efforts to correct what I believe was a gross error in judgment. Thank you again for your comments.
Thomas C. Meyers, Cambridge, MA
I very much disagree with your assessment of Breaking the Silence. As a domestic violence advocate working with women who have been in court over many of these same issues, I have to tell you that the problem is very real. Much of it has to do with the fact that law guardians have no checks and balances — in effect, nobody can fire them. If they take a pro-abuser position, there is little appeal from their judgment. Children do have problems in this area.
Beverly Dodson Houghton
I was very disappointed that you were so easily misled by the misinformation you were given regarding Breaking the Silence.
I found nothing offensive to loving fathers in the film, but much rightfully offensive to abusive and battering fathers. Do you believe that it is one-sided to present abuse of children as a bad thing?
I believe it is consistent with our laws and with our values that we do not support as a society child abuse of any kind. The problem that courts are too often placing children with child abusers is one of the best kept secrets in America, and I was so relieved to watch this national program shedding light on this terrible secret that has also been exposed now in several books, magazine articles, and newspaper articles.
There may be controversies about WHY this repeatedly documented phenomenon is happening, but there is no controversy in the professional community about the fact that this is happening far too often. This problem has NOTHING TO DO WITH FATHERS. This problem has to do with the personality of abusive and violent perpetrators, who represent a SMALL minority of the loving fathers in our country. But the loving fathers of the world should not join with these abusive men, but expose them, and denounce their abusive tactics.
The silencing of this program fits perfectly into the way abusive people operate — distract from focus on themselves, attack as the best defense, avoid looking at the interest of abused children, and emphasize their own victim hood. Doesn't it make you wonder why 5 cases of children placed with abusers is such dangerous information that so much energy must be spent on stifling this secret?? While every custody case, has two sides to a story, there are not two sides to the story of child abuse. It is always a crime and tragic. Even if these five cases were the only cases in America, it would be tragic. That would say nothing about men in general, only about abusive perpetrators. Unfortunately as a custody evaluator, forensic psychologist and child abuse expert, I know that those 5 cases are the tip of the iceberg. Whether you succeed in stifling this brave expose on the problem children face in family court, the problem will continue to come to the public's attention, as the number of children and loving parents who are suffering because of this problem is overwhelming. Our website gets 2 to 3 news cases a week from men and women who are watching children crushed by a family court system ill equipped to understand child abuse.
Joyanna Silberg, Ph.D, Baltimore, MD
Leadership Council on Child Abuse — Interpersonal Violence
Thanks for your thorough and balanced analysis of the Breaking the Silence documentary. I am a divorced father of 3 kids who has battled for 5 years to be a meaningful part of my kids lives. My experience is that the Family Court system is biased against fathers. Efforts to reform the system legislatively to level the playing field are routinely opposed by women's rights groups and anti-domestic violence activists who often argue that any change in law promoting joint custody or making it harder for moms to move away with the kids makes it easier for fathers to continue to abuse. While this may be true in some cases I have to believe that it is only true in a small fraction of custody cases and is used to prevent the majority of loving fathers from being involved with their kids in a meaningful way.
Greg McCann, Canton, OH
Thank you reprimanding PBS for its involvement in the fraudulent "Breaking the Silence" documentary. You have done a great service to families, fathers, and ultimately PBS itself. By not letting deliberate politicking and blatant attempts at social engineering go un-noticed, CPB has taken the first step towards rectifying a deep wrong that has been perpetuated on the public. Even still, the next steps must be taken.
Now, PBS should be forced to make a PUBLIC APOLOGY and to FIRE — in a very public manner — those responsible for creating and airing "Breaking the Silence." This bogus documentary, and its airing, was not merely a mistake. It constituted a deliberate attempt to commandeer tax-payer funds and the good name of PBS to further a narrow and radical political agenda.
Those responsible for this "documentary" had every intention of creating a false and misleading thesis. A thesis that deliberately and unfairly demonized men and fathers, with the ultimate goal of destabilizing the American family and gaining political clout for themselves and like minded individuals.
Unless those responsible are held fully accountable, this type of politically motivated journalistic fraud will surely be attempted in the future. In deed, do we know how many times it has occurred in the past, and what types of dubious policy changes have been implemented as a result?
Thank you for your time and efforts.
"Las Vegas: An Unconventional History"
Thanks, Mr. Getler, for your thoughtful analysis of the issues raised by the Las Vegas "American Experience" sponsorship. It's nice to read you again, and your well-balanced arguments showed the kind of good thinking I'd expect of you — with one exception.
You take some comfort in the fact that there were few complaints about the funding arrangements and the possibility (or perception) of conflict. Indeed, when the credits rolled, so did my eyes (as they did when Greenspun was identified in such a bland way; I mean, one could do quite an entertaining program on the influence his daddy had on making the city into VEGAS, baby). But was I driven to tap out a scornful note? Um, no.
These days, I'm pretty much scorned out on Iraq and its perpetrators and its horrid toll; retail politics (DeLay, Abramoff); threats to the First Amendment; the manifold depredations of the so-called Christian right; my mom's experience with the shockingly designed Medicare prescription drug "benefit". . . . Well, you get the picture.
Please don't be too happy that I only squirmed instead of squalled.
John Teets, Riceville, TN
This may be an unusual way for a PBS station General Manager to offer feedback, but as a viewer I shared the concerns of others that the Las Vegas Convention Authority and the Greenspun Foundation were inappropriate underwriters for the Las Vegas special on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Thank you for reviewing the situation. I trust that neither had any control over the content, and I did enjoy the program. But I also couldn't help thinking, as I was watching it, that it was a positive look at the city today, and that the Convention Authority had a vested interest in getting that message across. I would have vetoed the idea that a family foundation (like Greenspun) could fund a production on which a member of the family was one of the key interviewees.
I had a similar concern about another recent PBS program. RX FOR SURVIVAL was an excellent miniseries, but an initiative of one of its underwriters, Merck, was featured on one of the episodes. The segment came across as a very positive look at the project. You may want to take a look at that situation, too.
We have a lot of internal discussion when we accept an underwriter for a local program at my station, and we will turn one down if we feel there will be any question in viewers' minds about content influence. I have been surprised at these recent underwriter approvals by PBS.
Name verified but withheld at writer's request.
I saw the piece, and liked it. It was a typical example of the sort of excellence we expect from American Experience.
At the end, when I saw that it was sponsored by UN-Reno and the convention and visitors bureau I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
I work in the industry, and I dream of someday working for Frontline or American Experience. The long form journalism I see on PBS has always stood as a beacon of credibility, insight, and big J Journalism.
When I saw the sponsorship slate on the piece I felt betrayed. Loosing a hero is always painful, and I feel like I've lost one. It's like the first time I found out Pete Rose bet on baseball. Et tu WGBH?
Aidian Holder, Green Bay, WI
As an author, journalist and 18-year resident of Las Vegas, I had to write to you about your statement last week about the PBS American Experience documentary on Las Vegas. Let me tell you, you might have received few complaints and comments about the film, but "Las Vegas" provoked quite a bit of discussion out here (by the way, the film got an important fact wrong — Las Vegas did not draw 37 million visitors until last year; it drew 33.8 million in 1999, which the producers could have easily checked online here: http://www.lvcva.com/press/visitor_stats.jsp. . .
I fully agree with you that WGBH made a mistake in accepting financial aid from the LVCVA, Greenspun Media and other Las Vegas-based funders that have a vested interest in boosting tourism and investments in Las Vegas. . .
I'm telling you, I was crying out for a real documentary, like a serious, Ken Burns-style treatment of the town, that wouldn't fall into the trap about the town's myths, and then use mostly perpetuators of those myths as talking heads (using, for one example, one of the funders, Brian Greenspun, as a talking head, made it look like he bought his way into the film). But that's not what was produced, and I have to say that I can't think of a worse film from the American Experience series than this one. Funny, that one of my all-time favorite ones, "Seabiscuit," was produced by Mr. Ives. He and his crew are very good, but were disappointing this time.
Jeff Burbank, Las Vegas, NV