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PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

Documenting and Debating a 'Genocide'

The year 2015 will mark the 100th anniversary of what many, but not all, historians and many, but not all, countries describe as the genocide against the Armenians carried out by the Young Turks of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Perhaps by then there will be somewhat greater agreement and acknowledgement about what happened in the years around 1915 than there has been until now. Perhaps. But don't count on it.

For the American audience, which is a central battleground for both Armenians and Turks in the struggle over how public opinion views the horrors of that time, the Public Broadcasting Service took a bold — and controversial — step last Monday night, April 17, with the airing of a one-hour documentary called "The Armenian Genocide."

This was a powerful and skillfully-edited production. It included some comments from a couple of Turkish officials denying that what happened to the Armenian people was a genocide. Rather, they described it, as they have for many decades, as a tragedy linked to deportations during a brutal civil war, with lots of Muslims killed as well. It was not, they said, a planned, systematic extinction of a million or more Armenian Christians.

Yet, as the title of the documentary implied, this was no on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand account. This was a film that sought to validate the genocide and nail down the issue with the best evidence the producers could bring to the screen and into American households.

Here are the opening lines: "During World War One, the Ottoman Empire carried out what most international experts and historians have concluded was one of the largest Genocides in the world's history, slaughtering huge portions of its minority Armenian population. In all, over one million Armenians were put to death. To this day, Turkey denies the Genocidal intent of these mass murders."

About 93 percent of the more than 340 PBS-affiliated stations around the country aired the program, most at 10 pm local time. Within the 54 so-called "metered markets" measured by the Nielsen rating service, 35 stations carried it and it was watched in about two percent of all the households who had their TVs on in those markets at the time. PBS officials said the showing was "pretty decent" for a 10 pm broadcast, slightly above average for that time period.

In addition to the documentary, however, PBS also commissioned a follow-up, 25-minute panel discussion labeled "Armenian Genocide: Exploring the Issues." The panel included two scholars, one American and one Turkish, who support the theme of the documentary, and two, one American and one Turkish, who do not and who have been labeled "genocide deniers" by their Armenian critics. The commissioning of a panel discussion to follow a documentary added even more controversy to the situation because it suggested, to many Armenian critics of the decision, that PBS, having stated publicly that it "acknowledges and accepts that there was a genocide," was questioning that acknowledgement by providing a platform for those who disagree with the claim that a genocide took place.

Now You See It, Now You Don't

Only about 60 percent of PBS affiliates aired the follow-up panel, mostly at 11 pm local time, and many of the biggest stations in the biggest markets — New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Washington, D.C, for example — and with the biggest Armenian American audiences, did not air it. Only stations in two of the top ten PBS markets — in Chicago and Houston — broadcast the panel. The viewing audience for the panel, officials here say, was about half the size of that for the documentary.

This is the third ombudsman's column addressed in whole or part to this combination of programs. On March 17, I wrote a preliminary column about the controversy and press coverage that had already sprung up around these programs many weeks before they were actually broadcast. I had not seen them at the time nor had those who were commenting. On April 14, a sizeable collection of letters from viewers and online readers was also featured as part of an ombudsman's mailbag column.

One of those letters excerpted in the April 14 column was from David Saltzman, the Counsel for the Assembly of Turkish American Associations. Among other things, Saltzman sought to remind PBS, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, of CPB's mandate to ensure "strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature." And he cited a portion of PBS's editorial standards assuring "that its overall content offerings contain a broad range of opinions and points of view, including those from outside society's existing consensus, presented in a responsible manner. . ." Saltzman, writing before the programs aired, said he believed those standards have not been met "in the case of controversial Armenian allegation of genocide."

First of all, this is not just an Armenian allegation. As pointed out in the documentary, this is a charge affirmed by The International Association of Genocide Scholars, by Turkish military tribunals after the war, by the U.S. ambassador at the time, Henry Morgenthau, and several U.S. consuls stationed around the country. It was reported by other diplomats and missionaries, by press reports in The New York Times of 90 years ago, by a small but growing number of outspoken and courageous Turkish historians, and by some two dozen other countries. So, while there is a passionate, raw and enduring debate and challenge to whether the actions constituted genocide, it is mostly mounted by Turkey and a relatively small number of other historians, some of whom are Americans.

It seems to me that while there are two sides to this issue, it is not a balanced issue. There is a more substantial body of evidence and historical assessment on the side of what happened to the Armenians, and so I don't feel that PBS — when the documentary and the panel are taken as a package — was violating its own guidelines.

The documentary, on its own, also seemed persuasive to an independent viewer, and also illuminating about the emerging struggle over whether Turkey will face its own history more openly, including allowing the right to challenge the official denials.

The film included denials and explanations by Turkish diplomats and the head of the Turkish Historical Society. And it supplied context for the greater unfolding carnage, including references to sporadic uprisings by Armenians against the Turks in some villages, the killing of perhaps 100 Turkish officials in scattered attacks, and a contingent of five to six thousand Armenians who were fighting for the Russians against the Ottomans and causing the Young Turk leaders at the time to see all the Armenians of the Empire as a threat to the state. But aside from those moments, which are relatively brief, the documentary presented essentially a relentless case that what took place in the aftermath was a genocide. And that was the point and the historical conclusion of the program.

On the Other Hand. . .

Still, there were a number of things about this combination of programs that bothered me.

One is that a sizeable chunk of the funding for the documentary appeared to come from American Armenian individuals or foundations. I have been unable to determine exactly how much. PBS executives say about 60 percent of the funds came from foundations "of broad interests" and the rest from individuals, and that the network does not get into the business of assessing the interests of individual donors. Yet the list of foundations and individuals that appears on the television screen is loaded with names that seem to be of Armenian origin, something that large numbers of viewers noted in letters to me.

Both PBS and the New York-based filmmaker, Andrew Goldberg, who produced and directed the documentary in conjunction with Oregon Public Broadcasting, emphasize that all funders were scrutinized and approved by PBS before accepting the film and that, as Goldberg says, "funders had no involvement in any editorial decisions. And no funder saw the film before it was completed." I have no reason to doubt that.

Still, that list of contributors on the screen was jarring and one wishes, naively I suppose, that PBS did not put itself in such a position with such a controversial and important film and that funds for this relatively low-cost (roughly $650,000) production could have been provided by the CPB or some more clearly identified non-partisan foundations. PBS provided the funds for the panel discussion.

Another is that I thought those stations, especially the big ones with big American Armenian populations, should have gone the whole route and aired the follow-up panel. Many of these stations said, beforehand, essentially that the panel, which was moderated by National Public Radio correspondent Scott Simon, didn't add anything substantive to the points made in the documentary. That may be true because a 25-minute debate with four people and a moderator doesn't allow much time for real exploration, and much of the time was dominated by the two scholars who were featured in the documentary and who are the most articulate historians making the case for genocide — Peter Balakian, a professor of the humanities at Colgate University, and Taner Akcam, a Turkish sociologist and historian who is a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota.

On the other side was Justin McCarthy, a professor of history at the University of Louisville, who is probably the American historian most identified with challenging the notion that while this was a disaster and there were massacres, it was not a planned genocide. And there was a Turkish associate professor, Omer Turan, from Ankara, Turkey. Turan, with halting English in the company of three fast-talking and articulate other panelists, made little, if any impact. I thought he tried to make one interesting observation about material in the archives that, he said, indicated that many of the reports about the Armenian death toll in Swiss, American, French and British newspapers at the time were from the same single source. But the moderator said he wasn't sure he followed that. *

Two Against One

So it was McCarthy basically on his own facing questions from the moderator that put him on the defensive, and accused a couple of times by Balakian of having "worked for the Turkish government to help that government deny the Armenian genocide," which McCarthy said was a lie but which ate further into his time and impact.

As his source, Balakian cited a Reuters news agency story of a year ago. It was never read on the panel but I looked it up and the lead said that, "Turkey has enlisted the help of a United States historian today as part of its campaign to counter damaging, decades-old claims Armenians suffered genocide at Ottoman Turkish hands during and after World War I." It went on to say only that McCarthy had been "invited to address the Ankara parliament today" and he argued that "a complex historical tragedy had been manipulated for ideological reasons, becoming a vehicle for anti-Muslim, anti-Turkish prejudice."

Personally, I thought that being able to watch and witness the face-to-face confrontation and personal sense of only slightly restrained animosity between McCarthy and Balakian was worth the price of the panel. It was better than some of the popular TV talk shows. It was worth hearing McCarthy's side of this debate and to get a sense of the emotions surrounding this issue. I don't think it would change anybody's mind. But McCarthy was able to at least say some things from a different perspective — with more resonance to an American audience than Turan or the Turkish officials in the documentary — including criticizing Turkey for a law that is meant to stop people from defaming the Turkish government by questioning the genocide issue.

There are other American academics who dispute the genocide label, including Guenter Lewy, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts, and Bernard Lewis, a well-known professor of Middle Eastern history at Princeton University. Lewis, for example, has argued that "the issue is not whether the massacres happened or not, but rather if these massacres were as a result of a deliberate preconceived decision of the Turkish government," adding that "there is no evidence for such a decision." Lewy has said that "a large number of Western students of Ottoman history reject the appropriateness of the genocide label," mentioning Roderic Davison, J.C. Hurewitz and Andrew Mango, along with Lewis. Whether any of these contrarians would have appeared on a panel, I don't know. But it would have evened the level of discourse for viewers, at least.

Both the Armenian Americans and the Turks have big and aggressive lobbying machines in Washington and around the country. The Armenians, and several congressmen in New York, California and elsewhere, lobbied extensively to have the local TV station not air the follow-up panel. They claimed it was a platform for the Turkish equivalent of holocaust deniers. The Turks argued forcefully against what they saw as bias in the documentary, and for the panel discussion to be aired.

Did PBS 'Cave' and 'Censor' Itself?

In her preview of the program and panel in The New York Times last Monday, April 17, the paper's chief television critic Alessandra Stanley wrote that "the fact that so many (PBS) stations caved (by not showing the panel) is a measure of something else: PBS's growing vulnerability to pressure and, perhaps accordingly, the erosion of viewers' trust in public television."

In response, the station manager of the local PBS affiliate in Detroit sent a letter to The Times, with copies to PBS officials, stating that, "It is surprising to have a journalist like Alessandra Stanley allege that many public television stations 'caved' when they made the decision that there was no need to run a follow-up panel show after what she acknowledges to be a journalistically sound documentary. Is Ms. Stanley therefore saying that even if a journalist presents the different sides, we must add on forums for further discussion, and if we don't we're caving to pressure?"

Stanley, in her article, concluded by saying that, "The documentary honors the victims of the Armenian genocide and also pays tribute to dissidents in Turkey who are brave enough to speak out despite government censorship. And that makes it all the odder that so many public television stations here censored the follow-up program as soon as a few lobby groups complained."

I have no evidence that PBS stations "caved" or engaged in self-censorship because of lobby groups, and Stanley doesn't present any. Nevertheless, the decision to add a panel of follow-up debate after a highly-regarded documentary involving a hot-button subject that is guaranteed to produce intensive lobbying and pressure from Armenian and Turkish groups and interested lawmakers, and then have a large number of stations not use the panel, is a formula that at least invites suspicion, including mine.

The PBS stations are all independent and make their own judgments, and those can certainly be defended on journalistic grounds, as the letter from Detroit illustrates. But it is also fair game for Stanley to note the contrast, which was also obvious to many viewers.

Not the Holocaust

Many people who wrote to me and to PBS who opposed airing of the panel discussion argued that it was the equivalent of putting deniers of the Holocaust against the Jews on a major TV platform. This is an understandable argument but not a good one, in my view. There is an enormous amount of incontrovertible evidence and documentation of the Holocaust from the Germans, from the allies and their liberating armies, from trials and from many survivors. Germany has documented its own history well and made reparations.

The subject of the PBS documentary deals with events 90 years ago, for which there is evidence but not the kind that accompanies the events of World War II. Furthermore, the action is strongly denied and refuted by the country involved, Turkey, and there are historians, as has been shown, who question not whether terrible things happened but whether there is enough evidence to use that powerful descriptor, Genocide.

Turkey is a Muslim country that is also part of NATO, that is battling to be admitted to the European Union, that is viewed as an important strategic and economic ally by the United States, Britain and Israel. Those countries have shied away from using the genocide word in official proclamations when it comes to the tragic events of the 1915 period. The last American president to use it in an official remembrance proclamation was Ronald Reagan in 1981.

So the showing of this documentary, and the panel, at this time was an important event; a reminder about a very important event that is probably on the most remote edge of awareness, if that, for millions of Americans who don't happen to be of Armenian or Turkish origin.

* This sentence was in the original draft for this column but was inadvertently dropped from the initially-posted version.

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