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The Ombudsman Column

The Ombudsman's Mailbag

Another Opening, Another Show

Welcome to another edition of the Ombudsman's Mailbag. As is frequently the case, the issues that drew the most viewer mail and complaints to me last week are what one might fairly describe as downers; serious but depressing topics. One, once again, was the documentary on "The Armenian Genocide." The other was a segment on the nightly NewsHour that dealt with the possibility of an attack on Iran and that featured, as one of the panelists, former Pentagon official Richard Perle.

But first, a brief commercial from me about PBS; a chance to say something nice, to lift one's eyes, ears and spirits and remind some of us, at least, that there are many simple human pleasures that PBS brings into our homes that we'd be hard pressed to find elsewhere.

I refer here specifically to the broadcast Wednesday evening, April 26, of the PBS "Great Performances" production of "South Pacific" that was performed and taped in New York's Carnegie Hall last June and produced for television by New York's WNET, Channel Thirteen. It wasn't a reproduction of the 1949 Broadway hit by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Rather, it was a concert version with all the glorious music and just enough dialogue to preserve the theme.

Maybe it was just a nostalgia trip for me. Growing up in New York in the '40s, a once or twice a year trip to the Broadway stage was our family luxury. It was always to a musical, and I remember them all very well. The first was "Annie Get Your Gun" in 1945. Then "Finian's Rainbow" and "Kiss Me Kate." And then there was "South Pacific" with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza.

Last Wednesday night it was Reba McEntire, as Navy nurse Nellie Forbush during World War II, and Brian Stokes Mitchell as the French plantation owner on a Pacific Island. Frankly, I can't image that it was ever sung better, or that the words and music, especially the romantic ballads, ever sounded more beautiful. Their voices lifted me, at home, and the audience at Carnegie Hall, out of our chairs. I stood, misty-eyed, clapping my hands vigorously and cheering in front of the TV. I don't do that very often and I was grateful for being transported for two hours beyond the stuff that one normally deals with.

Still, A Flaw Is Found

This is not the kind of program that I usually get complaint mail about. But the next morning there was the following e-mail from a viewer, Mr. P. Anthony of New York City, who made what I felt was a fair point.

"I am once again disgusted with PBS. Tonight I watched the beautifully done 'South Pacific.' Almost before the last note was sung, when I would have enjoyed seeing the talented, hard-working cast take its bows, you interrupted the broadcast with a voice-over and blocked the screen with a sales pitch for the show's video. To me you're as rude as the people who jump out of their seats and head for the exits as soon as the curtain comes down on a Broadway show or concert. This production and your viewers deserved more respect, and I expect better from PBS."

Now, on to Darker Subjects.

On April 17, PBS aired a one-hour documentary titled "The Armenian Genocide." It was broadcast on about 93 percent of the more than 340 local stations around the country that are affiliated with PBS. But only about 60 percent of those affiliates also broadcast a 25-minute panel discussion about the contentious history of that period some 90 years ago. Many of the stations that chose not to air the panel were in major cities where there is a sizeable American Armenian population. Last week's ombudsman's column, and two previous ones on March 17 and April 14, dealt with this controversial subject.

What follows is a sampling of letters from viewers about the program, panel and the column.

I am extremely disappointed to see that PBS has compromised its long respected unbiased coverage of issues by airing a documentary on the so-called Armenian genocide which promoted a one-sided perspective. From the credits at the end of the program it becomes apparent that the documentary has been funded mostly by Armenian individuals and Armenian special interest groups. In addition, I regret that PBS stations caved in the face of Armenian pressures, compromised yet another long standing principle, and decided not to air the discussion panel that was intended to follow the documentary.

Still very controversial, Armenian suffering during World War I must be treated within the larger context of suffering and loss that was inflicted on all populations including the Turks. I am a first generation Turkish-American whose family has witnessed inhumane atrocities committed by Armenians against the Turks, and suffered under it, during the period your documentary covered. I can tell you Sir, there are two sides to this story.

Wealthy and powerful Armenian lobby continues to press on and perpetuates a one-sided emotional account of a systematic massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman government. The strength of the lobby is evident in the funding it provided for the controversial documentary and their ability to squelch airing of the discussion panel. In absence of any meaningful Turkish representation in US, challenge to this view goes unnoticed. However, revisionist treatment of the history by Armenian lobbies will only help to foster continued animosity and diminish the chance of a common respect and understanding taking root in the Caucasus . . .

Acknowledgement of the so-called Armenian genocide by the Turks is simply an unrealistic proposition since a great many Turks still have the bitter memories of the atrocities committed by the Armenian militia against the defenseless Turkish civilians. The path that the vocal Armenian lobby took till now, especially in the US, is to write history by legislation instead of through discourse and objective research. Some of the most recognized public relations firms are apparently employed towards this goal as well. I am hopeful that the truth will prevail nevertheless.

Long Island, NY

When I learned that PBS-Channel 13 (in New York City) had dropped plans to show a panel discussion right after a film on April 17, I felt extremely disappointed. By showing this one-sided film without any consideration given to the opposing views, PBS affiliate Channel 13 suppresses open debate on this issue; Channel 13 that I've held in such high regard because I believed that it values tolerance, democracy, scientific debate, and free speech. As a loyal member of Channel 13, I do protest this decision to misinform the public with a one-sided view as the "truth."

This one-sided view when assiduously repeated again and again especially in such a respected "supposedly-independent" media outlet, might persuade impartial observers, even those such as yourself to the "truth" of the allegations. In your editorial, you say, "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." Morgenthau, however never left Istanbul and employed reports fabricated by his Armenian secretary to persuade the government of the United States of America to enter WWI against Germany. Moreover, Admiral Bristol, the US High Commissioner in the Ottoman Empire and later the ambassador of USA, in his reports contradicted Morgenthau's allegations. These can be found in Professor Heath Lowry's book about Henry Morgenthau ("The Story Behind Ambassador Morgenthau's Story," 1990).

Melike Baykal-Gursoy, Highland Park, NY

Your article on "Documenting and Debating a 'Genocide'" April 21, 2006 is less than objective and careless in part as I discern. I have written to PBS's Ms. Jacoba Atlas also about airing any rebuttal or debate about the Armenian Genocide regardless of its contents or its selected speakers.

The Armenian Genocide is incontestable. The fact is that you over simplify the documentation of this historic event. It was well documented by the Archives of the Central Powers (the Triple Alliance nations) of World War I and especially Germany. The Ottoman Archives were not open to Armenian scholars and western historians for decades. Furthermore, Turkish denialists became more vociferous after Armenian terrorists were active in the 1970s and 1980s. The denialists are state-sponsored, whether they are academics or private citizens. Name any other nation that has supported the Ottoman regime and subsequent Turkish governments' denial of the Armenian Genocide? If there are any nations that support the denial of the Turkish governments' claims they have remained silent and have contributed to genocide by "doubling killing" the victims, to paraphrase Elie Wiesel. I will close my remarks by saying that Andrew Goldberg and the executives at PBS should be applauded for the documentary, "The Armenian Genocide."

Gary A. Kulhanjian, Middletown, NJ
Former member, New Jersey Holocaust Commission

And More . . .

Excellent but sad program on the systematic genocide of the Armenian people. I have watched two different programs this week about the horrible slaying of at least a million Armenians. Years ago when I was a younger person I read about the genocide and thought about how carefully planned it was. Then the Germans killed millions of Jews in another a horrible genocide. We had genocide in Rwanda and now Darfur. What a sad commentary on the human race and even more terrible when the USA could stop the killing in Darfur.

Frances Fife, Seal Beach, CA

Re: The Cave-in on the Armenian (panel) discussion Apr. 21:
I mourn, not loss of the money I sent to Channel 13 over the last 30 years, but the loss of faith. You are just like the rest. At least commercial television don't make believe they present both sides of a difficult question. They are openly avaricious; you are devious.

Don Rogers, New York, NY

I am deeply disturbed by the decision PBS made to air the documentary "Armenian Genocide" but not the panel of historians debating whether the tragedy that took place during WWI, resulting in large number of losses among both Armenians and Ottoman Turks, can be accepted as "genocide." To this date there are different views and by siding with one view, PBS demonstrates biased opinion and jeopardizes a hard earned reputation among its viewers like us. Is PBS becoming another opinioned television network?

Tugrul Ozel, Bedminster, NJ

I regret only being able to view the heat generated by this documentary, and not the items in question. I prefer that all views be aired, even if they have only tenuous credibility, so that thinking persons can reach their own conclusions.

My concern, however, is your critique of the comparison between the Holocaust and the Genocide. The evidence, though less technologically sophisticated than WWII's, is there. It remains only for the inheritor government (modern Turkey) to acknowledge its role, and then allow unhindered study of the subject, promoting greater clarity for the sake of all whose lives have been changed by this event.

Nishan Bakalian, Beirut, Lebanon

And More . . .

I had planned to write my comment to you before I discovered your review of the program on the Armenian genocide. I have no dog in this fight, being neither Turkish, Armenian, or affiliated with anyone in either camp. Your review was most enlightening and thoughtful.

Here is my concern: Though a fan of Scott Simon, I was disappointed by my impression that he clearly seemed to "side" with the Armenian scholars on the panel. His vocal tones, facial expressions, and dialog departed from that of critical skepticism of the positions of McCarthy into being frankly dismissive of them. He participated instead of moderated, and he seemed to me to be the "fifth" panel member. This allowed the Armenian defenders to drift into personal attacks without interference by Mr. Simon. When McCarthy near the end of the panel time finally protested that he thought he came to debate the historical facts, I tended to agree that the moderator made too little effort to keep the panel focused on the available facts. If, as the Turks assert, that millions of Turks died first, and at the hands of the Armenians, Mr. Simon could have focused attention to the location and veracity of the sources of those "facts." If the sources and veracity of those facts are unconvincing and weak, then so is their argument, and it's there for everyone to see and judge. Mr. Simon could have focused the group on the undeniable fact of the expungment of history by the Turkish government, and explored the reasons and avenues of change.

The panel discussion and the documentary itself, was weakened by the absence of scholars of the stature of Bernard Lewis, as well as a moderator who seemed less than neutral. The question arose in my mind, was Scott Simon more concerned about the perception viewers might have of him, than his task at hand of forging a meaningful exchange from panelists with obvious personal tensions between themselves?

Charles Sherwood, Jackson, MS

I am no expert on the matter, just a businessman, however I do feel that the debate should have been aired by all PBS stations. Censoring the debate was, in my opinion, caving in to Armenian interests. In Turkey, most of us feel that the Armenian allegations are not really justified. We feel there is another side to the debate, but the Turkish view is never heard or listened.

Mete Binark, Istanbul, Turkey

It has been said that history is a lie that has been agreed upon. Genocide is, and always has been, a tool of tyrants. Of course the Turks would want to cover up what they did! PBS was right to expose it. PBS did a good job, and your analysis is on point. Who else should pay for the production, but the victims of the atrocity?

John McDaniel, Knoxville, TN

I have read your commentary about the PBS's shameful blunder in airing Armenian paid advertisement called "genocide documentary" last week. Congratulations, we now have two "FAIR and BALANCED" TV stations in the United States. FOX New Channel and the Armenian Public Propaganda Station (APBS). This was a true genocide of PBS's journalistic "ethics" and all the years spent building a reputation of a real source of information, unbiased, non-commercialized (not bought by big corporations) news and commentary organization supported by the people of America.

By not allowing Turkish side to be aired on most of the PBS stations, your station managers, in effect, not knowingly, discredited all the claims by Armenians about the so-called genocide. The documentary was so exaggerated, so embellished, so repetitive and biased.

Umit Sen, Washington, DC

From your report it seems like this program was made by the initiative of American Armenian individuals and foundations and aired at a time of their choice. This alone destroys the equal-time policy. Now, as if there are two sides to this issue — one of genocide supporters and others deniers — is an over simplification of history and a great human tragedy. This sort of program throws no light on an issue since it is prejudiced and it only perpetuates hatred. I believe ordinary Americans, be it Armenian origin or Turkish, know the events that took place to be a great tragedy during the collapse of a great empire during a war and nothing more, where millions perished during the scramble to obtain parts of it. PBS should promote understanding between people of different opinions not hatred and prejudice. Do you think all Armenians believe this tragedy to be a genocide and promote it and perpetuate it? I don't think so. Whenever in an open society such as America issues are discussed from a political perspective we can see a political lobby promoting its own views and libeling its opponents. From the title to the financing of this program it seems to have a political agenda. Americans of all backgrounds like to see on PBS programs that are multifaceted not single-minded accusations.

Mustafa Mersinoglu, Dallas, TX

And Speaking of Things Allegedly Darker . . .

Richard Perle has been a player and an important voice on national security matters in and out of government almost from the time he started as an influential staff assistant to U.S. Sen. Henry Jackson (D-WA.) in 1969. He has also always been controversial. As Time magazine noted in March 1987, friends and critics call him by many names, including the "Prince of Darkness" and "the witty Perle loves them all." I'm not sure about that. The Time article went on to say that Perle, at the time just stepping down as an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, is widely acknowledged as "a major architect of U.S. arms control policy, though to his opponents he is a bureaucratic Machiavelli who deviously torpedoed all reasonable prospects for agreement."

That seems like a century ago. In more recent times, Perle was the head of President Bush's Defense Policy Board until March 2003, when he stepped down as chairman. A few weeks earlier, a sharply critical piece in The New Yorker by journalist Seymour Hersh laid out a conflict-of-interest case against Perle regarding his business interests and his unpaid but influential role in government policy.

Perle — along with the President, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretaries of Defense and State, Don Rumsfeld and Colin Powell, Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Deputy Pentagon Chief Paul Wolfowitz — had become one of the chief advocates and explainers of the war in Iraq. Much of what Perle — and all the others — forecast has not come to pass. But he is quick, intelligent, articulate and informed about government policy. So he was often on television making the case for war.

These days, however, he is seen as widely discredited, to put it mildly, by critics of the war and the administration, who are growing in number. And so it shocked a fair number of viewers to see Perle show up as an invited guest on the nightly NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on April 10 to discuss U.S. policy on Iran in a segment moderated by correspondent Margaret Warner. The segment came after news stories in The Washington Post and The New Yorker, the latter in another article by Hersh, reported that the Bush administration is studying options for strikes against Iran to take out their budding nuclear capability, including possible use of tactical nuclear weapons in such an attack, according to Hersh's account. The other invited guest was Morton Halperin, a former State and White House official, most recently in the Clinton administration.

Here's a transcript of the segment. And here's a sampling of what those viewers who wrote to me had to say.

Did PBS Give a 'Forum to a Fanatic'?

You don't give a national forum to a fanatic like Richard Perle at a time like this. There is a very small element within our body politic that has a very big voice and is driving our national foreign policy agenda in a direction that has nothing to do with America's self interest and which is having a devastating impact on our future. It's time to wake up, public television. It's time to be brave and pick sides. You know what history's verdict will be. With the exception of Sy Hersh, I don't see any Edward R. Murrow's around, do you?

Jon McGovern, Saxtons River, VT

I just witnessed something truly outrageous on Margaret Warner's segment of the NewsHour (concerning U.S. plans of attack against Iran). Even beyond the offense of continuing to feature the completely discredited Richard Perle — chief architect of the Quick'N'Easy Regime Change — she allowed him to launch a personal attack on Sy Hersh, claiming that he's an irresponsible journalist who has been 'wildly off the mark' about his recent predictions. Has this man utterly no shame? Is he just so brazenly dishonest that he doesn't care how many lies he tells? Is he delusional?

BJ Bergstrom, Valdosta, GA

I could hardly believe my eyes when Richard Perle came on as some sort of expert on policy toward Iran on the PBS news this evening. Perle is nothing less than an arrogant and ignorant fool who helped push us into Iraq. To have him as an expert makes PBS look stupid, too. Please spare us from him or I shall enormously devalue PBS news. It's like having David Duke as an expert on race! An insult to intelligent viewers!

Ralph Roy, Plantsville, CT

OUTRAGE! Tonight on the NewsHour I think I saw something incredible. Maybe I was hallucinating, so please bear with me. I think I saw Richard Perle selling an attack on Iran! Was this a bad dream? Could PBS and the NewsHour really do such a thing to its faithful viewers?

Richard Perle — the same guy who sold us on the attack on Iraq. Who promised us atomic weapons would be found. Who promised us deadly chemical weapons would be found. Who guaranteed that Al Qaeda had highly developed training bases all over Iraq.

Now here I (think) saw him on our listener supported network, again trying to sell us on the "great and imminent danger" from Iran! My God — he didn't even bother to invent new phrases to sell another war! How in the world could PBS DARE to foist this charlatan on us AGAIN!!! What is going on here? What IS the agenda at PBS?

William P. Gloege, San Jose, CA

I watched this evening's NewsHour with great dismay as Margaret Warner interviewed Richard Perle for his opinions about the possibility of a pre-emptive strike against Iran. At no time in the interview did Ms. Warner address two crucial facts about Mr. Perle that would greatly affect his credibility. First, there was no mention of whether he still has ties to the defense industry, the very reason that he left the Defense Policy Board several years ago. (PBS/NOW, 2004) If he continues to have such ties, then he has a conflict of interest in discussing the case for war with Iran now. Second, during the build up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he said many of the same things he is saying now about Iran, including that Iraq was, "Capable of using weapons of mass destruction against the United States" (Frontline: Gunning for Saddam). Whether this was deceit, ignorance, or faulty intelligence, why should we believe anything he says now?

PLEASE do not explain simply that he was the only person willing to present that point of view. If that were true, it would be all the more reason not to portray him as a "former Pentagon official" but to clarify for your viewers his history with erroneous statements and any current conflicts of interest regarding the issue at hand.

Patricia Dowden, Seattle, WA

It Surprised Me, Too

I must admit that I, too, was surprised to see Perle — in the aftermath of his performance before and after the invasion of Iraq — show up as a guest on a segment about whether we might be heading into war with Iran. Nevertheless, I thought this was a pretty good and smart discussion, with Mort Haperin as a very able co-panelist. Between the two of them, I thought a lot of points were made that help frame the debate for viewers. However inaccurate Perle's forecasts were about Iraq, he was an accurate reflector of Administration thinking at the time and thus was useful to hear.

I didn't think Perle said anything shocking about the issue. He said, "nobody is thinking — as far as I know — in terms of an imminent attack on Iran's (nuclear) sites" and that "we are not contemplating the use of nuclear weapons." But then he went on to describe Hersh as "wildly irresponsible and wrong . . . to suggest we are" in a story that got picked up around the world. He added a further attack on Hersh for being "wildly inaccurate" in past stories.

Halperin rose to the defense, saying he took Hersh's story "very seriously," adding that Hersh's "reporting over the last few years and all the way back has been extraordinarily accurate and I think it would be a mistake to discount those stories." I agree with Halperin on both points, and feel that Hersh has a much better track record than does Perle.

The NewsHour Responds

PBS officials acknowledge that they had not anticipated Perle's attack on Hersh — even though Hersh has led the way in reporting on Perle's activities and Perle threatened to sue Hersh in British courts but has not pursued that — and that it was unfair to allow this to unfold on TV since Hersh was not there to answer, although Halperin did a good job.

Asked about viewers who cite Perle's pre-Iraq war stance and want to know why the NewsHour provides him with a platform when it comes to another "axis of evil" country, Executive Producer Linda Winslow says, "I don't think it is 'giving him a platform' to include him in a debate, especially when the topic is: are there really plans being made to attack Iran, and if so, why?"

Mike Mosettig, the program's senior producer for foreign affairs, adds this: "The choice of Perle for the Iran segment was not that difficult to make. He favors military action to stop Iran from making a bomb, if diplomacy fails. And he has connections with the people in the administration who are pushing this. I know there was a lot of email reaction from people who opposed this choice. One of their arguments was that Perle was wrong on Iraq. If we start a policy of eliminating guests because they were wrong on some issue, large or small, in the past, we would end up with very few guests." Mosettig went on to say that much of the email looked to him as "coming from a group of increasingly vocal and angry people who have reached such a level of frustration that they do not want to hear anyone who has a view opposite theirs and they certainly are not interested in a debate. We gave our viewers a debate on Monday."

Correspondent Warner says, "given the huge flap that had erupted, triggered by the Hersh and Post stories about administration preparation for a military strike to take out Iran's nuclear program, we wanted to have a straight-on debate strictly about the military option: is it a good idea to strike pre-emptively, why or why not?

"Perle seemed a logical choice at the time because he took the unequivocal 'yes' position and — equally important — because he is close to the hard-liners in this Administration. I think the viewers get an insight from hearing from someone like that, about what is said behind closed doors in some Administration circles. And we thought Mort Halperin was more than equipped to take Perle on, from an equally unequivocal point of view on the other side, with equal standing and experience."