Print This Page

The Ombudsman Column

Coming Soon to Viewers Like You: "The Armenian Genocide"

On Monday evening, April 17, many PBS-affiliated television stations across the country — including nine of the top 10 TV markets — will air an hour-long documentary on "The Armenian Genocide" produced by the independent, New York-based filmmaker Andrew Goldberg.

The new documentary deals with an old, and very sore, subject: the deaths, mostly between 1915 and 1918, of anywhere from several hundred thousand to perhaps 1.5 million Armenian civilians living in the eastern Anatolia region of Turkey during the rule of the "Young Turks" of the Ottoman Empire as World War I engulfed Europe. The program will air a week before the annual "Armenian Remembrance Day" is marked in this country.

PBS officials, in a statement, said they "accepted 'The Armenian Genocide' for the schedule based on its merits and because the information it presents is an important part of recent world history. Implicit in PBS's decision to accept" the film for distribution, the statement says, is PBS's "recognition that the overwhelming majority of historians have concluded that a genocide took place."

Nevertheless, despite that recognition, PBS also went ahead and commissioned Oregon Public Broadcasting to produce a 25-minute panel discussion — which is already taped and scheduled to air immediately after the documentary — that includes two scholars who support the view implicit in the film's title, and two who question, among other things, the accuracy and use of the label "genocide." The panel discussion is called "The Armenian Genocide: Exploring the Issues." It is moderated by National Public Radio correspondent Scott Simon.

The New York Times quoted Lea Sloan, PBS's vice president for media relations, as saying the network "acknowledges and accepts that there was a genocide." But it ordered the panel discussion, she told the Times, to explore more deeply the question of why the Turkish government and its supporters continue to reject the genocide label. A PBS statement later added that "the specific intent is to examine the question of how historians can come to such radically divergent conclusions about these events. An important part of the mission of public television is to engender responsible discussion and illuminate complex issues."

Turkey has acknowledged that millions of people died — Muslims, Christians and Jews — in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, which ended in the early 1920s when the Republic of Turkey was established. But it has also always vehemently denied that a planned, systematic extermination, or genocide, of the Christian Armenians took place. A few scholars, including some in the U.S., also hold this view. Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim country but, unlike most, it has a strong tradition of separation of church and state.

Turkey is also perhaps this country's most important ally in the Muslim world, although its parliament, when the chips were down three years ago, did not allow the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division to use its ports to get to Iraq in time for the invasion. (That action, and the Pentagon's failure to secure Turkish agreement beforehand, remains, in my view, one of the bigger blunders of the war's planning.)

If It's Genocide, What Is There to Discuss?

The addition by PBS of a panel discussion in which people who are described, by their critics, as "genocide deniers" are given air time has provoked an outpouring of outrage from the Armenian-American community. They view it as "perverse," among other things, for PBS officials to acknowledge the historical view of the genocide and then have a panel including those who deny it.

Current.org, the bi-weekly newspaper covering public television in the U.S., reported on March 6 that about 4,000 e-mails protesting the panel show (it's about 6,000 now, according to the latest PBS figures) and 2,000 supporting it had been received by PBS, and that an online petition to cancel the panel had some 16,000 names attached at the time. Pressure to cancel the panel also has come from two Democratic congressmen where there are large Armenian-American communities — Rep. Anthony Weiner from Brooklyn in New York City, and Rep. Adam. B. Schiff, whose California district includes Pasadena and Burbank, just outside Los Angeles.

Several key PBS-affiliated stations have said they do not intend to show the panel discussion. Current.org also reported on March 6 that of PBS stations in the top 10 markets, only those in Chicago and Houston plan to air the follow-up panel.

In New York, the broadcasting director of the high-profile WNET/Thirteen said it would air the documentary, which he described as having "a solid journalistic approach to the subject matter," but that it was decided to reject the panel after it was screened by senior staffers there.

"The follow-up (panel) made no new points to the case outlined in the documentary, added nothing substantive and was, in general a weak program," he said. By the time of their decision, "public opinion and public display had accelerated among other people who had seen neither the documentary nor the follow-up. But we made a conscious decision to stick to our original editorial instincts, despite the pressure we were getting from outside sources both to carry and not to carry either the documentary or the follow-up."

Goldberg, the filmmaker, told reporter Paul Farhi of The Washington Post that he didn't think the panel was necessary, "but I didn't fight it. It wasn't up to me and I had nothing to do with its production." He told Current.org, "I knew that for our film we had done our homework six ways from Sunday. Every fact was quadruple-checked and had been vetted by so many people — historians, journalists — that I knew there was no way that the after-show was an interpretation of our reporting."

Earlier, the Los Angeles Times reported that residents of that city, which has the largest ethnic Armenian community outside Armenia, will not get to see either the documentary or the panel on KCET-TV. Rather, the station has decided to broadcast a new French-made documentary on the subject, "Le Genocide Armenien," a decision that Goldberg described as "bizarre."

Farhi of The Post, who was perhaps the first to call attention to this brewing controversy over the panel, especially, reported that the $650,000 budget for the documentary was partly funded by Armenian-Americans.

Writing, But Not Seeing

In my role here as ombudsman, I've made it a rule to come at issues that are raised by viewers, and as a viewer. I don't write about programs until after they have aired. I watch them as you would. So in this case, I have not yet seen either the documentary or the panel, although both have been recorded for some time now. And with few exceptions, the people raising a fuss — and they are on both sides of this "genocide" issue — haven't seen the actual programs either. The battle is really over whether the panel should be aired at all.

Yet I decided to write about it, in this preliminary stage, because the circumstances surrounding this matter, the decision-making by PBS and affiliated stations, the issues being raised and the pressures being applied by interest groups strike me as concerning free speech and the responsibilities that go with that freedom.

They also remind me just slightly about the journalistic debate in this country a few weeks ago about whether to publish or show those offending cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad to newspaper readers or television reviewers here. This was months after they had been first published by a Danish newspaper and at a time when they had become the rationale for rioting and killing around the world by Muslim extremists and a very big news story.

My feeling about the cartoons, as I wrote in an earlier column, was that readers and viewers who wanted to see them — rather than just have some editor describe them in words — and understand visually what this rioting was all about ought to be able to view them. I thought that those few U.S. newspapers and television networks that did find a way to do that, did so with context and with no disrespect for religion, while maintaining their respect for this country's news values. I thought newspaper Web sites, especially, offered a way to display one or two of the cartoons without putting them in the printed paper so that people who did not want to see them, or who would be offended, would not randomly come across them. I said I thought PBS had also handled the issue skillfully as a news story on the nightly "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."

The forthcoming presentation of "The Armenian Genocide" and the follow-up panel have not been accompanied by violence or threats. But it does involve some questions and background that seem worth noting and thinking about in advance.

A Pretty Solid Judgment

I am not an authority on this subject at all. But from what reading and research I've been able to do in anticipation of the program/panel, PBS seems clearly correct when it states that "the overwhelming majority of historians have concluded that a genocide took place."

The Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, says that, "In what would later be known as the first genocide of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of Armenians were driven from their homes, massacred, or marched until they died."

The online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, says that, "Several facts in connection with the event are a matter of ongoing dispute between parts of the international community and Turkey. Although it is generally agreed that events said to comprise what is termed the Armenian Genocide did occur, the Turkish government rejects that it was genocide on the alleged basis that the deaths among the Armenians were not a result of a state-sponsored plan of mass extermination, but from the result of inter-ethnic strife, disease and famine during the turmoil of World War I.

"Despite this thesis," it continues, "most Armenian, Western, and an increasing number of Turkish scholars believe that the massacres were a case of genocide. The event is also said to be the second-most studied case of genocide, and often draws comparison with the Holocaust" against the Jews in Nazi Germany. "To date 24 countries have officially recognized and accepted its authenticity as Genocide," the Wikipedia reports.

There is also, the encyclopedia states: "a general agreement among Western historians that the Armenian Genocide did happen. The International Association of Genocide Scholars (the major body of scholars who study genocide in North America and Europe), for instance, formally recognize the event and consider it to be undeniable. Some consider denial to be a form of hate speech or/and historical revisionism.

"However, this academic recognition has not always been followed by governments and media. Many governments, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel, do not officially use the word genocide to describe these events, due in part to their strong political and commercial ties with Turkey, although some individual government officials have used the term."

In her widely acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," author Samantha Power lays out the evidence of the genocide against the Armenians at the time that was headline news in The New York Times, and the strenuous but unsuccessful efforts of the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau Sr., to get President Woodrow Wilson to intervene. In that book, Power writes that "America's nonresponse to the Turkish horrors established patterns that would be repeated."

The modern American official approach remains strained. Although some 37 U.S. states have, by legislation or proclamation, recognized the Armenian genocide, and in 2000 a resolution made it through a key House of Representatives committee for the first time, a resolution has not made its way through the full House or the U.S. Senate. *See correction at the end of this column.

In 1981, President Reagan was the last American president to use the term genocide referring to the Armenians in a remembrance proclamation. The first President Bush talked about the "terrible massacres" and President Clinton talked about "a great tragedy of the twentieth century: the deportations and massacres of roughly one and a half million Armenians," and the current President Bush talked about "annihilation, forced exile and murder." But they have stayed away officially from the G-word, although Paul Glastris, editor of the Washington Monthly, wrote in The Washington Post in 2001 that George W. Bush, as a candidate, wrote to Armenian-American groups about the earlier "genocidal campaign."

Last June, Glenn Kessler of the Post reported that the American Foreign Service Association had honored the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, John M. Evans, for publicly characterizing the mass killings as genocide but then withdrew the honor. Evans' comments stirred such a diplomatic tempest, Kessler reported, that the diplomat had to retract his remarks and later even clarify the retraction.

But Was It Genocide?

The American scholar most associated with questioning the genocide is Justin A. McCarthy, a history professor at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. He, along with a Turkish scholar, will be one of the two panelists challenging the genocide designation. McCarthy does not appear in the documentary. He recently told Farhi of The Post that the history of that period is complex and does not lend itself to simple judgments and labels and that calling the documentary "The Armenian Genocide" is "a false description of a complicated history." He said he could not find evidence of 1.5 million Armenian deaths and also said three million Turks died during that same period. "If saying both sides killed each other makes me a genocide denier, then I'm a denier."

My apologies for the length of this column, but it's nothing compared to what's been written about this. And, at the risk of exhausting your patience, what follows is a list of questions I submitted to top PBS officials and their answers. In some cases the answers are slightly abbreviated, with permission.

Q — One assumes that a documentary by a skilled producer will produce the fullest exploration and informed judgment on an issue, that it would be PBS's statement on this long-running, hot-button issue. So why, exactly, did PBS feel the need to do a panel? What was the reasoning behind it?

That assumption is faulty. No one-hour documentary, no matter how skillfully produced, can be said to represent the fullest exploration of such a topic. This is why PBS's editorial standards have long included the goal to seek a diversity of perspectives on controversial subjects in the national schedule over time. In this case, we judged THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE to be a credible documentary on a significant and little-covered event. We worked with the producer through his final editing to ensure that the program met our standards. We, through Oregon Public Broadcasting, vetted its content with a historian and journalist unconnected with the show. While we were satisfied that it was fair and accurate, because the fact of genocide is still contested in terms the documentary could only mention in brief, we commissioned a panel discussion that could explore the issues in greater nuance and detail.

Q — Whose idea was it to have a panel; what was the process that led to this decision, who was involved in the decision and who made the decision?

There was immediate consensus among the Senior Programming Team that a follow up panel was a good idea. The decision to commission the additional program was made as Andrew Goldberg was finishing the program and as we were in contact with him requesting script revisions. The acceptance of the documentary and the decision to do a follow up was essentially one process. The follow-up program had a carefully articulated goal — not to provide a platform for those interests who deny the genocide, but to explore how serious historians do their work, and how they can look at events and evidence and reach such different conclusions. PBS's chief programmers, John Wilson and Jacoba Atlas, are responsible for the ultimate decision in this case.

Q — Did politics enter into the decision, or pressure from the Turks or from anywhere inside or outside PBS? Did it intrude in any way? Turkey is obviously an important ally, is trying to enter the European Union, is a Muslim country.

No, the documentary was completed and PBS had commissioned the follow-up long before we were contacted by anyone about the program. We obviously knew of the international controversy surrounding the subject and the attention being focused on Turkey's position and internal laws, and the fact that the U.S. stance on the use of the term "genocide" differs from that of many other nations. It is true that this larger present day status of the issues that stem from the history presented in the documentary provided a compelling rationale in our minds for providing the public with more information on the subject.

Q — How common is it for PBS to schedule, in advance, a panel to air immediately after a program? Perhaps you could tell me some other instances and when they took place.

There have been several examples in recent years. The P.O.V. presentation of "Two Towns of Jasper" (about the dragging death of a black man in a predominantly white town) was followed by a Ted Koppel-anchored town meeting, which allowed the further exploration of differing and passionate viewpoints engendered by the killing. Each evening's presentation of AVOIDING ARMAGEDDON (a series we ran over four nights) that looked at the dangers of nuclear proliferation) was followed up by a panel discussion led by Frank Sesno allowing the airing of viewpoints not emphasized in the films. TRADE SECRETS, a Bill Moyers investigation of the chemical industry's knowledge of threats to public and workplace safety, was followed up by a discussion with an industry spokesman.

Q — Jacoba Atlas has been widely quoted as saying that this is "settled history." By having a panel, does this not suggest that PBS is leaving room for doubt?

That a question is generally considered "settled" does not mean that it does not warrant discussion. The fact is there are individuals, organizations and countries (including the United States) that do not see the Armenian Genocide as settled. The panel discussion recognizes that fact and provides, in our opinion, information that should be useful to the public understanding of the issue.

Q — Who funded the documentary and the panel?

The documentary was fully funded from outside sources — individuals, foundations and corporations. A list is provided at the end of this document. They are credited on screen per our normal disclosure requirements. As is the case with all PBS underwriters, none of these had access to program materials or influence over the production. PBS (the National Programming Service budget) funded the panel.

Q — Several news articles have reported, according to Colgate professor Peter Balakian, who was also an adviser on the documentary, that PBS threatened to pull the documentary if he and another genocide scholar declined to participate in the panel discussion. True? **See clarification at the end of the column.

This is absolutely not true. If Balakian declined, we would have sought out other historians to speak as experts in Armenian history.

Q — Officials at WNET in New York say they made the decision not to air the panel because after reviewing it they felt it made no new points beyond the documentary. What was the PBS assessment of the panel that went into your decision to distribute it? Did PBS consider it to be a worthwhile, substantive addition to the documentary — and if so, in what aspect — or was it automatically linked to the documentary and a commitment to distribute it included in the original programming decision however it came out?

We do feel the panel is a worthwhile addition to the documentary — if only because it provided the rare, perhaps unprecedented, occasion for experts holding differing views to be in the same room, let alone a TV studio, participating in a discussion about such sensitively held convictions. Scott Simon did a wonderful job of keeping the discussion on track and asking tough questions of all panelists. And the panelists did provide significant detail beyond that mentioned in the documentary in support of their perspectives.

Neither the documentary nor the panel program was designated for common carriage. We respect local stations' decisions to carry both, or one, or neither.

There was no automatic imperative to proceed with distributing the panel discussion no matter how it turned out. The programming content team screened the panel program shortly after the taping and felt it did the job we had envisioned. Additional executive staff screened the show, and concurred.

Finally, we never believed that this documentary or its follow-up would be the last word on this subject, or bring an end to the generations-old dispute. But, as one of the only institutions in America using media to serve the public, we believe we have to take on tough subjects, even if it means taking heat from both (or all) sides of a given issue. The easier approach — one that most of America's commercial media have employed — is to steer clear of the subject altogether. While easier, we do not believe that approach is in the public's best interest.



So . . .

. . . where does this preliminary back and forth about the still unseen documentary and panel discussion leave me? More illuminated but still uneasy about a couple of things, given the intense pressures exerted by both sides.

One is the participation of Armenian-Americans in the funding of the documentary; not because I fear they had any influence or because I don't trust PBS and the producer to prevent any influence, but because it would just be better to not have it. I know money is tight and I don't know how this would get funded otherwise, but there it is; a factor in my head.

Another involves the different assessment of the panel's value by WNET in New York. The panel was funded by PBS and PBS officials offer worthy explanations of why they felt the need for it. My presumption is that the one-hour documentary does explore, at least in some fashion, the case against the genocide label. The officials at WNET, who reviewed the panel discussion, said they didn't think it made any new points to the case outlined in the documentary and added nothing substantive. The producer, Andrew Goldberg, said he didn't see any need for a panel.

So the documentary, that the Armenians don't seem to object to going in, is funded partly by the Armenians. Then the panel, which they clearly don't want, is funded by PBS. So one could argue, as PBS does, that the public is best served by the combination. But if the documentary does indeed explore the other side, and the panel doesn't add anything, as WNET suggests, that would raise anew questions about why the panel was felt to be necessary. My instincts, without having seen anything, are with PBS's desire to have the fullest airing possible of this historic event. But let's wait and see.

* Harut Sassounian, publisher of The California Courier, serving the Armenian-American community, wrote to say that, "Both in 1975 and 1984 the full House adopted resolutions to observe "a day of remembrance for all the victims of genocide, especially the 1.5 million people of Armenian ancestry who were the victims of the genocide perpetrated in Turkey between 1915 and 1923."

** I would like to correct the misrepresentation of my involvement with the Armenian Genocide documentary in your Ombudsman column of 3/11.

In a question you posed to PBS officials you said: "Q — Several news articles have reported, according to Colgate professor Peter Balakian, who was also an adviser on the documentary, that PBS threatened to pull the documentary if he and another genocide scholar declined to participate in the panel discussion. True?"

That is a false description. What I have told several journalists in the past month is the following: I was told (in fact three times) by Oregon PBS producer David Davis that PBS would not run the documentary if a post-show panel with deniers were not made. Mr. Davis made it clear that this was the direct word from Jacoba Atlas at national headquarters. (I had sent her a letter in November appealing to her to drop the idea of a post-show on ethical and historical grounds.)

I never said nor implied that the documentary would not air if I personally were not on the panel. That would be, of course, absurd. Naturally, PBS would find someone else to take my place.

After all my efforts to convince PBS to not produce a post-show failed I decided to go forward with the "debate" because I have experience in discussing this subject on TV and radio and felt I could help shape the conversation in an ethical way and perhaps a way that would expose Turkish denial more fully for what it is . . .

Peter Balakian
Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities Colgate University

Correction and clarification posted March 22, 2006