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The Ombudsman Column

The Ombudsman's Mailbag

Striking a Chord

It probably should not have been surprising that a great many viewers wrote this past week about the annual National Memorial Day Concert performed last Sunday, May 28, from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. The Public Broadcasting Service has brought this extraordinary, 90-minute mixture of music, patriotism, reality and remembrance into millions of households since the first one in 1990. Ever since, it has been among the highest-rated performance programs on PBS. The concerts are actually produced by Capital Concerts, Inc., under Executive Producer Jerry Colbert.

Yet, this was the first time that there was an ombudsman's office to write to and I was surprised that so many people took the time after the concert to express their thoughts to this office. Perhaps it was the fact that this concert took place while the U.S. was, again, at war, or perhaps it was just that people welcomed some unifying event.

The great majority of those who wrote did so simply to say thanks to PBS. But the PBS audience, like the country, is independent-minded and cantankerous, at times, and so there were also a fair number of letters that found fault with aspects of this program, and with the programming that followed it in many areas of the country.

Some viewers, for example, felt that veterans of the war in Korea, the "forgotten war" that took more than 36,000 American lives (see note below), was largely forgotten in this program. They have a point.

Last week's concert, while paying broad tributes to all vets of all wars, was designed to honor, especially, the "citizen soldiers" of the National Guard who play such a key role in Iraq. And it also included a special tribute to the flight crews of the Army Air Force in World War II, 30,000 of whom were killed and 90,000 were wounded. Previous concerts have also had special points of focus, such as the D-Day commemoration.

Other viewers felt that the role of African-Americans in last week's performance, and in America's wars, fell far short of the visibility and recognition it deserved. They, too, it seems to me, have a point. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell made an introductory speech, but some viewers said he doesn't count in their eyes. The military is probably the most diverse institution in the country but you couldn't really tell from watching the screen.

Some others objected to programming that was aired following the concert, or on Memorial Day, by many stations. These viewers said this programming was not what they wanted put in front of them on that particular holiday. Some concert broadcasts were apparently followed by a replay of a filming of the Congressional picnic on the White House lawn that was viewed as incongruous with the day's solemnity.

Others objected to the replay of an "American Experience" documentary titled "Two Days in October" that tells the parallel stories of a Viet Cong ambush that nearly wiped out an American battalion in Vietnam in October, 1967, at the same time as a student anti-war protest on a Wisconsin exploded into violence for the first time.

While I would agree that the picnic scenes do seem incongruous and strange, I would vote for airing "Two Days in October" anytime as appropriate. That documentary is based upon the book, "They Marched Into Sunlight," by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss. I disclose that Maraniss is a friend and former colleague of mine at The Washington Post. But this, in my view, is a powerful, poignant and very real portrait of what was going on at the time — when there was still a draft, when some served and some did not in a war that was becoming both increasingly deadly and controversial.

Here's a sampling of the letters:

A Concert That Hit the Right Notes

We just finished watching the Washington Concert and greatly appreciate it as an excellent tribute to our armed forces. We also appreciate the fact that it did not take sides in the question of our present wars. The program was most moving and able to touch the hearts of the United States population. Congratulations!!!

Rev. Lawrence Ruegg, Walworth, WI

I was most impressed by the Memorial Day Concert. It expressed the hope and faith that we all share in God and in the hope for good that our country has represented and the desire to avoid conflicts that are unnecessary. Three cheers for its organizers, sponsors, and producers.

Dick Farnsworth, McLean, VA

The Memorial Day Service from Washington was awesome. The producers did a great tribute to our servicemen and country. May God bless the PBS network.

Selma, AL

Bravo to PBS! The National Memorial Day Concert was a great celebration of our armed service men, women and families' spirits, sense of duty and honor and love of country. I only wish this program could be shown in the schools. Far too many of the younger generation do not understand the sacrifices given for their freedom and comfort. Thank you for the inspiration you gave us.

Linda & Larry Zagray, Miami, FL

I wanted to let PBS know that the Memorial Day Concert broadcast yesterday was without a doubt the best ever!! Bring all those folks back for next year. They are the best!

Sutherlin, OR

I just wanted to comment on a show aired on Sunday evening before Memorial Day. I am Vietnam Vet (Disabled). I watch little by way of TV as it is so full of garbage. HOWEVER your tribute to America and its servicemen aired on this program was simply FANTASTIC, A GREAT job by the production people, technicians, and camera folks also. Oh to have that type of programming back on the air again. Simply a TERRIFFIC job. THANK YOU.

Ryan Jost, South Range, WI

Your Memorial Day concert was perfect. No politics, no ego driven stars. Just dignified healing and remembrance.

Lore Scurrah, Satellite Beach, FL

The National Memorial Day Concert was the best ever — touching, poignant — I cried through a good part of it — and appropriately patriotic. Thankfully gone were most of the jazzy tunes that have no place in such a solemn presentation. Many thanks. Please pass this along.

Charles Merwarth, Pittsboro, NC

We are shocked and awed!! You finally got the message! This was the BEST National Memorial Day Concert ever!! No "PC" stuff just recognition, respect and honor!

Tracy & Robert Young, Gualala, CO

I want to thank whoever is responsible for the wonderful National Memorial Day Concert. It was wonderful and the best yet. Thank you so very much.

Nancy A. Cheffings, Eugene, OR

Just finished watching the PBS special — the National Memorial Day Concert. What a mixed message! I couldn't tell which parts were concocted by the TV station and influence of national (international) TV, and which aspects would have existed without TV coverage, but here's how it came across to me: We salute and remember the fallen and maimed and traumatized, who suffered and died because they were trying to protect "our freedom" by being sent to distant lands because, uh, well, it was very bad, in every war, but somehow their sacrifice was needed because, uh, well, we are very sorry and also awed by their dedication to achieving, uh, some kind of peace that we have not achieved yet . . . but (three years into another war, with thousands dead and many more thousands maimed and traumatized) maybe "peace" is just around the corner, not that we know where the corner is or what "peace" would allow us to bring all the soldiers home. The TV coverage included footage of battlefields, doomed soldiers, sad heroic memories, patriotic songs, prayers because only God has any chance of improving things or healing the wounded and saddened, but no real evidence that "our freedom" was any better because of their efforts.

By the end of the show, I was even more convinced that NOBODY has ANY GOOD REASON why we are fighting and dying and leaving so much waste and sadness in our wake, at home and abroad.

Eve Sutton, East Palo Alto, CA

Last evening I viewed the Annual Memorial Day Concert. As a combat veteran and as a patriotic supporter of the military I found it to be a moving tribute to our fallen comrades. As the concert moved to a close I was extremely disappointed. As "America the Beautiful" was sung I was "treated" to a long listing of the names of producers, camera operators, and seemingly everyone who stepped foot behind the scenes. This detracted from the entire program and made me wonder if those people were really intending to honor our war dead or if their primary purpose was to get their names flashed on the screen. This was disrespectful to a beautiful, patriotic song and to those who died in service to our country.

J. Dierickx, Radcliff, KY

This year's Memorial Day Service was excellent. Regardless of your view of any particular war, the remembrance of true sacrifices of those in uniform and their families is a unifying paradigm. I get my health care at Walter Reed and I see those who lived, but often were burned or without legs, arms, and/or eyes. My only issue is that the other two uniformed services (the U. S. Public Health Service Corps and the NOAA Corps) are never mentioned. Currently, there are PHS active duty members serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. Part of it is PR (we have none) — and we are very small (only about 6,000 strong). We were militarized from WW II through Korea, but I don't think people remember that.

CDR Tom Doss, Jefferson, MD

I am writing to express my dismay and anger about the "Memorial Day Concert" shown on PBS last night. It was not a "concert"! Rather, it was a shallow pageant that overflowed with sentimentalism and political overtones. It was not up to PBS standards by a long shot. Frankly, I found the broadcast's lack of subtlety and lack of acknowledgment of the full reality of war (as opposed to sentimental glorification of the dead) very frightening. "You'll Never Walk Alone"? How low has this nation sunk? "By the little that satisfies the soul, judge the extent of its loss." (Hegel)

Rev. Anne Richards, New York, NY

I watched the entire National Memorial Day Concert and thoroughly enjoyed the content and presentation honoring our Service Personnel's sacrifices in this War on Terror and our past defenses of liberty worldwide. Our comments were requested at the end of the program and this I offer as a recommendation for future consideration. Specific respect was directed to our troops currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is fine, however; shouldn't we also acknowledge the sacrifice and service being experienced by all of our active duty personnel wherever they serve? Our troops in Japan, Germany, and even stateside are serving and could conceivably find assignment to a "War Zone" imminent. I'm certain that it was an error of omission which can be noted to not become the norm.

Richard Obrosky, Broken Arrow, OK

Thank you for the Memorial Day Concert. My father died at age 94 in February. I am still mourning his death. Tonight your program gave me some closure and made me so proud. My father was shot down in a B17 and spent nearly 2 years in Stalag 17B. I grew up hearing about the camps and the missions. You honored the Air Force and showed clips of the bombing raids and the prison camps. You honored my Dad tonight and all he stood for.

Alexis Rothrock, Herndon, VA

Not Quite in Living Color

I have just finished watching your Memorial Day special. While I enjoyed the special I am quite upset with the celebrity selection as well as the selection of armed forces stories told. Not one African-American was honored or performed. Colin Powell does not count considering his former position with government. Let us not forget that African-Americans have assisted this country in every battle there was. Crispus Atticus was the first to die in the American Revolution. The North would not have won the Civil War had it not been for the slaves. Many of our men died in WWI and WWII. My own cousin, Dorey Miller, was the one to fight back and save lives when Pearl Harbor was bombed. My uncle lost his toes in Korea. My brother and father fought in Vietnam. Your program reminded me of the way the soldiers were treated from the very beginning by this country. Ignored!!!!! While I speak on the lack of African-Americans there were no other minority races represented. We have all built and fought for this country. Your ending with a Caucasian man and his daughter left me with the question is this supposed to be the face of America? It is not the face of America. America has many faces and they should have all been represented. Hopefully next year (if you decide to put on another show) it will be representative of all the men and women who have fought and died for this country and who continue to do so. I hope that you take this comment into serious consideration. Thank you.

Laurin Flynn, Greensboro, NC

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of watching the Memorial Day Concert on channel 21. I enjoyed the program however I was disturbed by the fact that all the clippings about the service persons who gave their life for freedom were depictions of white persons only. Many Black, Latino, and other ethnic groups also gave their lives. I think it's time for us to stop pinning medals on one select group and acknowledge the sacrifices that others have made to keep this country free.

J Goinzalez, New York, NY

I am writing you to air a constructive criticism as a result of watching the Memorial Day Concert May 29, 2006 on PBS Channel 44. I was greatly impressed by the musical contents presented as well as the performers who participated. It was well prepared and something to be proud of as my father was a US Army Veteran of World War II.

What concerns me is lack of African-American representation and participation. I will preface that my concern is based on appearance. I felt that the lack of African-American inclusion was a result of pre-conceived notions that African-Americans participate when the musical contents is of an improvisational nature. We, as a country must do better. There are many musicians of African-American origins that would be more than willing to participate in a "team" effort of ensemble playing that requires formal training and music literacy. Also, African-American soloists that have the ability to work in orchestral environment should be considered. I feel that the individuals who prepared this program felt that due to the "structured" format, there was a reservation as far as African-Americans were concerned. The fault lies somewhere between the lack of national expectation and media coverage of African-American artists. We must rid of this notion of illiteracy within the African-American community. I wonder if there was African-American representation in planning this event. A very good concert but lacking in the musical contributions of all Americans.

Paul A. White Jr., Boston, MA

And a "Forgotten War"

Just wanted to tell them that the Memorial Day program tonight was a wonderful tribute to the service men and women . . . One thing they forgot to mention was the Korean War . . . the forgotten war . . . all the other wars were mentioned and it is a shame that the service men and women that served in Korea were not recognized . . .

Summit Station, PA

While I enjoyed your Memorial Day presentation, I do resent the fact that the Korean War was ignored. Tribute was paid to the veterans and casualties of WWII, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Are you pretending that Korea never happened? Some 56,000 soldiers died there. No war is a walk in the park. But to ignore the veterans who served in Korea is to ignore the very purpose of the tribute you are presenting on Memorial Day. Korea came to be known as the Forgotten War — and apparently PBS has also forgotten about it. I assure you that those of us who were there certainly have not.

James Mulligan, Marysville, WA
Former S/Sgt., 3rd Infantry Division

I felt it was very important to give you my immediate views regarding the Memorial Day Remembrance Program tonight May 28th. Each time I heard a particular war mentioned I listened intensely for the Korean War and World War One to be given their individual honor for their sacrifice and valiance. You see I lived with my four children and my husband and their Dad for eighteen years. Jack was a Purple Heart Veteran and a Prisoner of War for a short time back in 1952. John Kelley, my former husband was a hero of the battle of Pork Chop Hill at twenty years old . . .

I was an entertainer at Fort Devens with the USO organization and sang in the base hospital and witnessed young men without limbs, eyes, arms etc. and they are not all deceased but are currently very much with us. Are they forgotten because they came between World War Two and Vietnam? I hope not . . . In Korea there were over 33,000 victims. Iraq is a terrible war but it was created by President George Bush and the numbers of casualties are under 5,000. Why not give credit to all the different war heroes? In Washington D.C. there is a memorial to the Korean War Veterans. World War One I am not sure if not why not? It is time that a sentence or two could be set aside to mention them individually.

Mary Iverson, New Port Richey, FL

As a wife of a Korean War Veteran I was dismayed to see that memories of that war were glossed over and only a brief mention as it was lumped together with WWII . . . Sadly you indeed gave credence to "the forgotten war" . . . I called my husband and said "Hon, the Korean War is next" . . . we waited and waited and almost missed the single comment. Did I enjoy the balance of the program??? Indeed I did . . . Did I enjoy the honor and glory to soldiers past and present?? Sure I did . . . I am proud of those who have served and are serving . . . I am proud that my husband put his life on the line for our country . . . in the KOREAN WAR.

Karen Stuart, Solon, OH

This is not a prepared speech, I just sat down here & started to write how I feel about all the past National Memorial Day Concerts. I think they do a good job, EXCEPT, they never give the KOREAN WAR equal time or credit!!! I am not putting down anybody else or war but in the Korean War we had 54,246 Americans KILLED, 105,758 WOUNDED, 8,177 MISSING, 7,140 PRISONERS of WAR, 3,000,000 KOREAN CIVILIANS KILLED [estimated]. All this happened in THREE YEARS. THAT is almost the same number Killed, Wounded, POWS of 12 YEARS in Vietnam. Chances of surviving the Korean War were very slim compared to other wars since WWII. The winters in Korea were almost evil!!! When the GIs first arrived they did not have the proper equipment for this climate. The summers were unbearably hot, almost evil, we also had a monsoon season there . . .

Eugene T. Kemen, Kenosha, WI

Ombudsman's note: Many viewers, in writing about the Korean War, used the figure of roughly 54,000 dead service members. Many historians have used that number as well. But in 1993, the Pentagon changed its reporting procedures and said there were 33,686 battle deaths, 2,830 non-battle deaths, and 17,730 other Defense Dept. deaths worldwide during that period. A Pentagon news release on May 18, 2001, associated with events honoring the 50th anniversary of the war — which actually began with an invasion of South Korea by more than 90,000 North Korean troops on June 25, 1950 and ended with an armistice on July 27, 1953 — says that over 36,000 Americans were killed, more than 103,000 wounded, over 7,000 became prisoners of war, and the remains of 8,000 dead have not yet been recovered.

A Different Kind of Tribute

Last night, Memorial Day evening 2006, I tuned into American Experience — it was a fine show, but it was completely inappropriate to show on Memorial Day. The program was critical of the Vietnam War, which is fine on any day other than Memorial Day. Can't you folks give people one day to mourn the war dead without bringing in the complexities and reality of war??? After this, I understand why so many are critical of PBS and encouraging their representatives cut funding to PBS.

Gloucester, MA

I find it quite amazing how PBS can pervert and distort the meaning of a simple national holiday to honor our veterans.

The holiday is meant for us to take a small break and remember those that served and lived — and those that served and died — for our freedoms. Then, we should be thankful for the opportunity they have given us, and look forward to seize the opportunities before us that were bought by their service.

It should be a solemn, yet hopeful day.

But instead, your network chose to perform your usual America-bashing through an in-depth review of the Madison WI student protests, battle failures in Vietnam, and the veteran bonus protests — all issues long ago resolved. It was a depiction of our holiday more resembling one of Cuban propaganda, but not one from a US network that, unfortunately, gets some of my wages to feed it to me.

Brian Bullington, Larenceburg, TN

I thought on Memorial Day I could turn on PBS and watch some shows celebrating our veterans. What I saw were anti-war shows of the Vietnam War. This was disappointing.

Michael Hanika, Enterprise, AL

I condemn your station and all involved with showing and glorifying a damn "so called documentary" of a bunch of draft dodging low life idiots on the day of memorial to our brave men fallen in battle for this country. Maybe they fought for the rights of men all over the world to speak freely, but be damn those that attempt to place them in dishonor as this show does.

Bill Jones, Little Rock, AR

I just viewed on the Wisconsin channel (21), the "Memorial Day" special. It spoke of the riots on the Madison campus, along with both sides of "Viet Nam War." I was in Viet Nam (1st/46 196th), and was also a college student prior to my being drafted into the Army . . .

The people that protested at the Madison Campus and Kent State were not willing to fight for the freedoms that allowed them to attend college and live in a free country. We have the right to religious choice, while today some people would like to rewrite all our inspirational countries songs and even take God out of our vocabulary. Again we are today (2006) finding the same elements trying to tear apart the support for our troops over seas. Can you truly hear the young men over there? They want to make a mark that will stand for all generations to witness. They take pride in their duty to country. There is a price that must be paid by some, and the ones that are not called upon, need to show respect. We could see the battle grounds shifted to our own home land if we don't show that we value "Freedom!" After all, "9/11," was the real thing!!!!

Dennis Braun, Rockford, IL

No Mood for a Picnic

Just watched the Memorial Day concert. It would have appropriately ended with Taps (I realize PBS may not have planned the event). However, whether intentional or not, the conjunction of the Memorial Day commemoration with the immediately following Congressional Picnic on the White House lawn was a trenchant comment. I hope the scheduling was planned to highlight the incongruity.

Salem, OR

I want you to know incensed over the scheduling of programming on Memorial Day. As is my custom, I watched the live Memorial Day program from The Capitol. The stories regarding the great sacrifices of our military personnel and their families resulted in my tears throughout the entire program. To my shock, this was immediately followed by The Congressional Picnic. There was The President and The Congress, who were partially responsible for much of the misery portrayed on the previous program, having a gay old time, frolicking and gorging themselves on gourmet food. It was disgusting!

At first, I was mad at The President. But then I realized it wasn't his fault. The program was pre-recorded. I don't know when the picnic was held. Shame, shame on PBS for such callousness. I can't imagine how the families who have lost loved ones felt about the picnic program.

Phil Hooks, Finksburg, MD