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PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

The Ombudsman's Mailbag

Here's another Ombudsman's Mailbag. This one includes a sampling of viewer and online reader response to the last three ombudsman's columns and the issues they dealt with.

The column posted on April 6 dealt with the Federal Communications Commission's intention, based on the complaint of one viewer, to fine a PBS-affiliate in California for airing, before 10 p.m., a version of a widely-acclaimed and widely-seen series on "The Blues" that contained what the FCC deemed "vulgar, explicit" expletives. The column of March 24 dealt with the "Pledge Period" then underway and the reaction it was provoking with some PBS viewers. The column on March 17 was about the pre-broadcast controversy surrounding a new documentary on "The Armenian Genocide" that is scheduled to air on Monday evening, April 17, and will be followed by an equally controversial panel discussion.

On the FCC Decision . . .

Thanks to the FCC, you don't have public broadcasting of the type of programs we receive on Bravo and Showcase in Canada. I don't believe I am morally destroyed by a few lewd words but support the view of the dissenter. Just because only one complains doesn't mean that the rest of us don't support him. A TV viewer should be able watch TV with his children without being embarrassed by the programming.

Ralph Bittner, Langley, Canada

I hadn't realized that my local and favorite television and radio station was under attack. I'd like to know how best I can contribute to the prevention of the muzzle/chilling-effect of punitive censorship.

Scott Ellington, Foster City, CA

Whatever happened to 'sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me'? However much individuals like to pretend Americans are somehow 'plastic' and not human, words may be offensive, but they are used, children hear them from a very early age and all I can think is, Get used to it! You don't have to use language that you don't like — but it's there and stop pretending the world was meant for you — it's all of ours.

Tillie Krieger, Spokane, WA

Thoroughly enjoyed your posted column on the FCC . . . hard to believe someone with an even handed viewpoint can survive in the PBS environment. Keep up the good work!

Robert Orcutt, Fredericksburg, VA

I agree there seem to be some suspicious aspects to this situation, namely that given the millions of viewers who saw this piece only one person complained. On the other hand why was this piece aired before 10 pm? Had that been done there would have been no issue and no action from the FCC. I am most certainly no prude but if I had young children I would have been upset that this piece was shown before 10 pm. I am led to conclude, as you did, that there is more to this situation 'than meets the eye'.

Bob DAmico, Cleveland, OH

I agree with the viewer's objection. Profanity doesn't belong on any PBS program. There is too much in our movies and TV today and my wife and I have all but turned off the television other than some sports and our PBS station. Please keep your standards out of the gutter. I am concerned about the advertising we are seeing lately, though I understand why with our glorious administration in office. Hopefully the funding will return after the next election.

Dan Phillips, Shawnee Mission, KS

To the one who complained: If offensive, watch something else and stop being an advocate for all. The complaining petitioner needs to "get a life".

David Petersen, Kansas City, MO

I would sure like to know more about this individual who seemed to know exactly how to make the proper moves to get the FCC to take action and slap a fine on a small station in order to prove that the agency is performing its assumed duties.

Little Rock, AR

On Those Pledge Drives . . .

Let me join the chorus in complaining about the low caliber programs used to stimulate pledges. PBS and its member stations should set an example and maintain high standards. The fundraising programs are demeaning and have no educational value. They should cease!

Harvard, MA

Recently I attended the "Wealth Expo" held in downtown SF and sponsored by the "Learning Annex". I received my tickets as a "thank you" gift after having donated to KQED-TV. I am writing to you to express my sense of bewilderment and disdain for KQED's involvement with this real estate spectacle.

It is painfully obvious that KQED has not done their "homework" in regards to the programming they air and the organizations which they help support. This is extremely troubling to me as a supporter and should be troubling to KQED as one who boasts of providing and supporting quality programming.

The "Wealth Expo," which aptly should have been titled "Buy! Buy! Buy! AND Buy!! Expo," consisted of one sales pitch after another with very little knowledge disseminated. The total amount of real estate information added up to much less then what could be purchased in a $30 book bought at any bookstore or searched at over the Internet. The backgrounds and quality of many of the speakers appeared to be somewhat questionable. The only necessary qualification to become a real estate "expert" seems to have been to have declared bankruptcy in your past finances. Does this really sound like quality financial/real estate instructors to KQED? While there may have been some honest sellers interested in teaching people about real estate, it was impossible to tell them apart from those who were attempting to get rich off of people's ignorance.

Gene Takahashi, Alameda, CA

I've read the posts giving feedback of your pledge drives, and was particularly struck by the negative remarks about Wayne Dyer. It appears some see his inclusion in PBS as your advocating a 'religion.' I see religion and spirituality as two different things . . . one coming from guidelines set down by someone else, and one that encourages finding truths through self awareness. Hardly the same thing. I enjoy what Dr. Dyer has to say, though he's often self absorbed. But then, who isn't?

Trish St. Clair, Seattle, WA

I have recently viewed "Rich Dad, Poor Dad." I am shocked that PBS would contract a man who casually dismisses the value of higher education. In addition, the content of his message on achieving wealth (what little there was), is questionable, and perhaps borderline irresponsible. Please do a better job of maintaining higher standards for the benefit of your viewers and for the preservation of PBS as a source for quality enlightening entertainment.

Dod Poe, Towson, MD

Let me add my voice to the chorus. How do I know when PBS is doing a pledge drive? It's when they take off the programs I'm interested in and put on shows I'm not interested in. All the while they're running these schlocky programs and begging for money, they keep telling us about PBS's outstanding high-minded fare, which they think nothing of knocking off the air for weeks at a time in order to make a buck. I do keep my membership current, but increasingly I wonder why I bother.

Lawrence Goldman, Greenwood, MS

Am glad to know there are so many other people who feel as I do that the infomercials trying to get me to sign on to PBS are a boring waste of time. I usually send money in before the drive begins to help shorten the pledge drives.

Tillie Krieger, Spokane, WA

I just read your column about all the pledge week pitches and what people say about them: I usually don't enjoy pledge week very much, but what do people expect? And I did find one of the pledge week programs, the one that included most of the folk singers from the 60's, to be some of the best television I've seen in years. It was something to write home about and I really did call my sister and tell her it was on — thank you all at PBS for that one — it was wonderful . . .

Diana Strelow, Portsmouth, VA

Terrific. Thank goodness someone is getting the message that running infomercials in place of Fareed Zakaria's Foreign Exchange and other quality programming is an outrage. PBS appears to have completely lost its way and is in dire need of help. Who is running the show there?

Nick S., Medford, OR

The infomercials for Wayne Dyer are particularly noxious. I'm 34 and grew up on PBS. But it's become a shill organization for weirdo snake-oil salesman gurus.

A.S., White Plains, NY

The pledge drive thing drives me crazy in a different way. I am 46 years old, but everything on PBS during the pledge drive is for people older than me (my 15-year-old daughter calls it the Old People's Station). The investment guidelines are for the retired. The Rick Steeve's is for old travelers. Those old music shows are for people past 60 or more. I realize PBS gets more pledges from this crowd and has to go after them. But you are losing me by all this programming. More importantly, you are have lost people like my daughter. One thing I think PBS has always missed is that younger artists — movies and music makers and poets — will go on your PBS at almost no cost. So instead of spending so much on all these production companies that shill out old folks programming, have a little balance. My God, if American Idol does those huge numbers, couldn't you guys do something similar with short films?

Fort Worth, TX

I enjoyed your writing on the pledge drive criticism and thought that I would respond. Although not upset enough to write to you about the pledge drive period, I would echo the concerns of others that you are turning people off of PBS through the pledge drive, especially young people. I am not sure to whom the programming during these past weeks has been aimed, but it certainly has not hooked me, a woman in her thirties who donates to NPR every year. I think it would be much more effective to have pledge drives during the normal program schedule, rather than have these odd and unappealing specials. It has gotten to the point that I simply have stopped clicking to see what is on my three PBS stations because I am sure it will be either a) a boring man on a stage or b) an odd or outdated concert. I want to watch Mystery or Masterpiece Theater, not old concert footage of John Denver. Viewers, such as myself, need to be reminded how much we value the normal programming that we watch in order to open our wallets. Your pledge drives, unlike NPR's pledge drives, do not succeed in doing this. Perhaps a special edition of Frontline could be played, or a particularly addictive Masterpiece Theater program, or a Mystery special that you are sure will reel viewers in. Additionally, I would suggest that you need to attract younger viewers to becoming members — we might not have as much money to give or estates to donate, but we are the future of PBS.

S. Raines, Baltimore, MD

You know I wasn't going to complain about PBS until after I read all the comments people made about the station. And you know they are right! Every one of them. When I started watching PBS, I thought about donating but instead thought well, I'll watch it for a year and found that it would be a waste of my money. They need to incorporate better shows throughout the year NOT only during the 3 times a year they "beg for money"!

J.W., Franklin, ID

I read your post of 03/24/2006 about the fund-raising programs. I am in agreement with the criticisms of "Rich Dad, Poor Dad," and also of the Wayne Dyer Show. I agree that these are a subversion of the public television mission, and are offensive to those who care about PBS and our country. Thank you for your forthright contributions. The discouraging thing is that it is unlikely to do any good, because these programs have enormous benefit for the individuals involved, and they fill time during the drives.

Richard L. Garwin, Yorktown Heights, NY

I was once a subscriber/patron/member whatever to PBS, but you have lost me forever. You drove me away from WETA radio by dropping classical music and I'm now so fed up with your inane infomericals, I'm off PBS TV. Once upon a time, you had dignified pledge drives. The only thing that you seem to "drive" these days is your patrons away. I have put up with at least THREE WEEKS of your ridiculous infomercials. This weekend was the last straw. If you want to run pledge drives with programs, do it with shows we watch . . . NOVA, Frontline, Eastenders, etc . . .

Alexandria, VA

On the "The Armenian Genocide" and Follow-up Panel

I read with great interest your story about the panel discussion to follow the documentary about the Armenian Genocide. The problem is one of finding and reporting the truth. If you put on some crackpot historian from the midwest who doesn't know the truth, but who wants to be on TV, then you are doing the nation and the Armenians who were stripped of their land and belongings and then marched to their death a great injustice. Documents have been found that have proven the Turkish government ordered these atrocities. Knowing this, it is irresponsible for PBS to pass off ignorant people as authorities of the subject. There are those who deny the Jewish Holocaust including the present Iranian government, but because of our own GIs accounts of the death camps we know that it happened. To give liars and fools a podium on national television is a big mistake and great care should be taken that the documented truth not be lost to them. The only reasons the US has not officially recognized the genocide is the political repercussions that it would cause with Turkey, not because they don't think it happened.

Lawrence Darpinian, Modesto, CA

I have just read your column entitled "Coming Soon to Viewers Like You: The Armenian Genocide." Thank you very much for the detailed discussion of the issue and your concerns. I certainly believe that PBS is doing a great service by exploring issues that others do not, whether I like the topic or not. However, given the intensity and the importance of the debate, I believe that PBS should provide the American public with a more balanced view on the Armenian issue. As far as I understand from your description, "The Armenian Genocide" documentary seems to be heavily influenced by the political and economic strength of the Armenian community in the U.S.

I will not spend much time to describe how disappointed I am to see that PBS fails to incorporate the views of the Turkish side to this discussion. In particular, by accepting "The Armenian Genocide" title, which seems to assume that the issue has already been settled, PBS fails to provide the American public with deeper insights regarding this highly contested issue. Moreover, the very fact that the Armenians do not want the airing of the follow-up panel should alert PBS regarding the importance of having this panel discussion. In order to protect "the public's trust in the editorial integrity of PBS content and the process by which it is produced and distributed," PBS should "shield the creative and editorial processes from political pressure or improper influence from funders or other sources," as stated in its own Editorial Standards.

Washington, DC

Is it actually a coincidence that you have published the "Ombudsman's Mailbag" every month except March? My guess is that, to save PBS from further embarrassment about the shameful act of giving voice to Turkish Historians' denial of the Armenian Genocide in a panel discussion that accompanied a recent documentary dealing with the subject, you conveniently neglected to publish our opinions. Sure, you wrote some pithy response alluding to our comments, but you should let our opinions be read.

Ty Smith, Sacramento, CA

The fact of the matter is that an overwhelming amount of the funding and support for this documentary is from the Armenian community. This should be a huge red flag as to how balanced this "documentary" is. Consider that at the same time, the much briefer panel discussion (which allows the dissenting opinions of two respected scholars) received an onslaught of Armenian protest, and this despite still incorporating the Armenian point of view. I find it difficult to believe then, as New York's WNET suggests, that the documentary is unbiased and complete in its analysis. True, we all have yet to see either program. ut I ask you — even if the panel merely repeats the claims of the documentary, why not air it anyway? The answer is likely that two members of the panel disputed the documentary's claims. And by not airing this discussion, WNET and certain other PBS stations have likely censored themselves to please the lobby of the well funded and organized American Armenian community.

Toronto, Canada

I am quite pleased to see that the PBS has recognized the importance of bringing to light one of the most important events of the 20th Century. However, I am equally distressed at your lack of regard for the hundreds of thousands of Assyrians and Greeks who perished in the same Genocide. Proportionally, the Genocide of 1915 or the Seyfo (as Assyrians call it) brought greater calamity to the Assyrians (also called Chaldeans and Syriacs) in the Ottoman Empire. It must be noted that two out of every three Assyrian living in what is now called Iran, Turkey, and Iraq perished directly as the result of this Genocide. It would be a great injustice if only the names of one of the three equally important Christian communities in the Ottoman Empire is noted in your reviews and television programming.

Wilfred Bet-Alkhas, Washington, DC

To me the use of the word Genocide is correctly associated with the Nurenberg trials. It was the findings and judgment of a court similar to any other judgment passed by a court after hearing the charges and defense offered by recognized officers of that court using evidence to support the positions of the parties. To imply that a country is guilty of genocide without a proper trail is clearly a "politicalization" of justice.

Chris C., Scio, OR

It was a pleasure to read your fairly balanced comment on the documentary and the follow up. Thanks for trying to understand the issue with your own reasoning rather than depending on the others' and more importantly supporting the freedom of speech for everyone no matter if it is Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist or something else.

Duru A., Boston, MA

In case of Armenian genocide, PBS feels that a historically settled matter needs panel discussion after a related documentary has been aired. However, documentaries such as FRONTLINE that deal with events of greater controversy require no follow-up debate. PBS's argument is bogus.

Jack Yaghoubian, Sherman Oaks, CA

The decision to have a panel discussion is not a bad idea. I wish that rather than including total deniers, you would have considered moderate Turks who are objective and willing to review the issue. Bringing a panel of deniers only fuels the argument that the State Department's influence on "Free Media" remains as strong as ever.

Vatche' Nazarethian

Your column, while providing interesting background information, completely misses the point that thousands of Armenians have made to your station. You are giving airtime to people who deny a genocide which, as you have shown and agree, is accepted to have taken place. You would never, ever have a couple of Neo-Nazis sitting on a panel with Holocaust scholars arguing that there was no Holocaust. You are giving them legitimacy whether you intend to or not. You are giving them a chance, in a few minutes of airtime to make allegations that would require scholarly texts to rebut, something nobody could hope to accomplish during an on-the-air panel. Freedom of speech is the right of a person to say something. Justin McCarthy has the right to say what he likes, but when you put him on PBS, you have instantly given him something he does not deserve: credibility.

Raffi Kojian, Orange, CA

One wonders how far outside the norms of scholarly discourse people need to drift before organizations such as PBS stop using the excuse that it is necessary to broadcast every opinion, no matter how contrary to reality it may run. Would PBS give air time to people who deny the Holocaust? Would it give air time to people who deny Darwin's Theory of Evolution? Would it give air time to people who think that humans never walked on the moon? Would it invite a panel discussion by people who think that Elvis Presley is still alive? Is it really necessary to broadcast a lie to counter every truth?

Bruce Boghosian, Lexington, MA

By calling the program "Armenian Genocide" are not the program-makers becoming the judge and also the jury? Why not let the historians decide after they study all the archives. Armenians killed many innocent Turks in Erzurum while the Turkish army was fighting with the enemy (WWI). The so-called documentary has been financed by Armenians. How could it be unbiased and impartial? Does it mean whoever has the money can change the history? This program should not even be aired on PBS.

Minneapolis, MN

I will be watching the "Armenian Genocide" documentary with great interest. I am very proud of PBS for showing the documentary and allowing many of its members to see, maybe even for the first time, the horrific events of the genocide and it's tragic aftermath. I am however very disappointed about the decision to allow the "discussion panel" to follow the documentary. For me personally, all this does is demoralizes and de-humanizes, all those who lost their lives and suffered unspeakable horrors. It's a disgrace to their memories and a great dishonor to its descendants.

San Francisco, CA

A Summing Up

What follows are excerpts from a lengthy letter from David Saltzman, Counsel of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations. His initial reference to PBS policy refers to widely-quoted remarks in the press in recent weeks from PBS officials that the network believes the genocide "is settled history" and "acknowledges and accepts that there was a genocide."

Our concern is that PBS' publicly stated policy supporting the genocide thesis prevents PBS affiliates from making an objective assessment whether to broadcast the post-film discussion, which, at least in part, challenges the genocide thesis . . .

Few episodes in history are more controversial than the historical treatment of the suffering brought on by the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, an event which saw the birth of more than 20 new states. Many of these states include as central elements of their national lore some form of heroic struggle to wrest themselves free from "The Terrible Turk." This lore, in many cases has bred lingering anti-Turkish prejudice that applies not just to the Turkish state, but to all who are ethnically Turkish . . .

From the Turkish American perspective, the oft-told stories of suffering during the late Ottoman Empire tend to extricate and isolate the Armenian experience from the complex circumstances of the day. One is thus given the impression Armenians were all good and Turks were all bad and that Armenians suffered alone . . .

PBS, by establishing an official position on a matter of historic controversy, provides cover to PBS affiliates who bow to pressure brought on by government officials and panic-stricken proponents of the genocide thesis. WNET/WLIW (in New York) are not alone. Already PBS affiliates in Los Angeles, Boston, Orange County, CA, Miami, FL, Fresno, CA, and Mountain Lakes, NY have determined not to air the post-film discussion. Thus, two of the three largest PBS markets will not see the discussion. Orange County, Boston, and Miami are also among the largest 20 U.S. metropolitan areas served by PBS . . .

We remind PBS that no person, living or dead, or any foreign state or sovereign body has been tried for the crime of genocide stemming from the Armenian allegation of genocide despite the opportunities to do so that continue even today. Yet the accusation of the crime of genocide permeates all presentations favoring the genocide thesis . . .

Turkey unequivocally denies the genocide allegation made against it in such films, statements, and legislative resolutions. Whether the facts of the Armenian tragedy in eastern Anatolia during World War I constitute genocide as defined by the Genocide Convention is a matter that experts have yet to debate in the arena deemed competent by the treaty itself — the International Court of Justice ("ICJ") at The Hague. Any future such adjudication will be poisoned by the one-sided treatment of the issue by quasi-governmental bodies such as CPB and PBS.

What follows are excerpts from a letter from Peter Balakian, a professor of the humanities at Colgate University, who was an advisor on the documentary and appears in the panel discussion that follows.

The fact remains that PBS would not run a fair and rich documentary about the Armenian Genocide — one that included nearly a dozen Turkish voices — without running what many in genocide studies consider to be an unethical privileging of denial.

This is not a free speech issue as much of the scholarly community has made clear. The deniers are free in this country to express themselves without fear of prosecution or harm but this does not guarantee them the right to elite forums. The leading authority on Holocaust and genocide denial, Professor Deborah Lipstadt, has written:

"Denial of genocide whether that of the Turks against the Armenians, or the Nazis against the Jews is not an act of historical reinterpretation. Rather, the deniers sow confusion by appearing to be engaged in a genuine scholarly effort. The abundance of documents and testimonies that confirm the genocide are dismissed as contrived, coerced, or forgeries and falsehoods. The deniers aim at convincing innocent third parties that there is another side of the story. Free speech does not guarantee the deniers the right to be treated as the other side of a legitimate debate, when there is no credible other side; nor does it guarantee the deniers space in the classroom or curriculum, or in any other forum."

Like many others, I fear that PBS resorted to the post-show panel as a kind of fire insurance because of the negative experience it had with Turkish government harassment in 1988 after airing an Armenian Genocide documentary, as you note in your column. While this was no doubt an uncomfortable experience, many institutions and organization around the world in recent years have ceased paying attention to Turkish harassment, and many of us hoped that PBS would not feel that sense of intimidation this time, with this particular documentary.

Lastly, I find (PBS's co-chief programming executive) Ms. Atlas' explanation for the post-show program a bit disingenuous. She claims that its goal was not to provide a "platform for those who deny the genocide," but to "explore how serious historians do their work and look at evidence." However, by inviting two professional deniers (who have worked closely with the Turkish government) on a PBS program, a large platform was indeed provided for the repulsive lies that constitute denial. And, in the twenty-five minutes we had, there was not even a remote possibility that the show could explore how historians work. As fine a job as (panel moderator) Scott Simon did hosting it, the post-show could not help but be more than a staged "bake-off," and sadly, a forum that abused the reality and memory of one of the major human rights crimes of our time.

Having made these points, I still applaud PBS for putting on "The Armenian Genocide," which is a landmark documentary. And, I appreciate your thoughtful wrestling with this issue.

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