By Michael Getler
April 10, 2007
I was away last week and a good deal of mail piled up in my inbox; so here is a catch-up column of viewer commentary. A lot of the correspondence was about the continuing controversy surrounding the forthcoming seven-night, 14½ hour documentary epic of World War II by renowned filmmaker Ken Burns that premiers on Sept. 23. The controversy concerns the absence of Hispanic veterans among the more than 40 men and women whose interviews are included in the documentary.
This was the subject of an ombudsman's column last month. At the time, the mail, and much of the public commentary, was sharply critical of Burns and co-producer Lynn Novick. But in recent days, there has been something of a shift, or reaction, and several e-mails have been received from viewers who take a different view and oppose interference with the artistic vision of the producers.
(STOP THE PRESSES — Late in the day on April 11, one day after this Ombudsman's Mailbag was posted, PBS announced it will create additional content for the forthcoming "The War" series by Ken Burns. Here is some of what PBS said:
"Recently, PBS engaged in a number of conversations with members of the Latino community about their concerns regarding inclusion in Ken Burns's upcoming film THE WAR. Following these discussions, PBS, Ken Burns and his co-director/producer Lynn Novick, have decided that Florentine Films, the production company of Mr. Burns, will create additional content that focuses on stories of Latino and Native American veterans of the Second World War. PBS supports this decision by Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick and believes the additional content will make the viewers' total experience of this outstanding series even more powerful. The new narratives, which will be incorporated within the footprint of the series without changing the existing film, will be included in the DVD, Web site and educational outreach materials. Florentine Films, in consultation with PBS, will assemble a production team, including a Latino producer, to create the additional content, and will work with this team to insure that the new segments are consistent with the production values and sensibilities of THE WAR.")
What follows, first, is a sampling of the letters on both sides of the controversy over "The War." Then come letters from viewers critical of the way that NewsHour host Jim Lehrer handled an interview last week with the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus. Then there are some additional letters, and explanations, relating to the concluding segment of the four-part Frontline series "News War" that wrapped up late last month and that was also the subject of earlier ombudsman columns on March 29 and March 7. Finally, a couple of viewers raised a couple of questions about Tavis Smiley, the host of the popular late night talk show on PBS. PBS and Smiley's producers offer some responses, and I offer some thoughts as well.
This is a very long mailbag, mostly because the Ken Burns/Latino controversy continues to generate a lot of correspondence and I feel obliged to record at least a generous sample of viewer comments on both sides of that issue. But there are bold-faced sub-headlines throughout that will help you move to the other topics as well.
'Stand By Mr. Burns'
I'm a Latino who supports Ken Burns and his vision. Having had two Latino uncles who served in WWII (one KIA, the other WIA) I feel qualified to comment on the controversy regarding THE WAR. No one should be allowed to pressure any artist into bowing to their wishes and accommodating what they believe should be included in their work. I'm angered and embarrassed by this attitude. I ask PBS to stand by Mr. Burns in this matter.
Eugene Bencomo, Miami, FL
I just read comments on Ken Burns' new PBS documentary about WWII and its lack of inclusion of Latinos. While it may be Burns' greatest work yet, it cannot and admittedly is not all inclusive. Yes, much has already been made of the Japanese-American internment and yet it is included again. I am of Italian-American decent. Almost no one ever speaks of or even knows of the Italian-American internment. Italian-Americans fought in WWII against Italians and still faced shame and discrimination when they returned to America. Yes, there are thousands of stories that will go untold. Such is the history of war. I congratulate Burns and PBS on six years of research to bring even this small part of our history to life. If Latinos feel so slighted, what prevents them from telling their story? Keep up the good work. The more PBS produces, the more we learn and ask.
Tom Massotti, Stamford, CT
While I support the idea of trying to tell stories of various groups who fought in the war, this trend of asking an artist to change his work is worrisome to me. At what point do we stop? Unique experiences are not solely based on your race or ethnicity — they can be based on your family, upbringing, and the community you are from. Knowing Mr. Burn's previous work, I'm sure he has taken great strides to tell as many stories as possible that fit within the story he is trying to tell.
Jenna Munson, Berkeley, CA
The very idea that an artistic work should be modified to cater to the complaints of some group is absurd. If PBS or Burns even considers this, it's a very slippery slope they are on. Would then all content be subject to signing off by every racial, religious, ethnic, geographical, or socio-economic group before it can be aired? I strongly urge PBS to ignore their complaints, lest they lose any credibility they have left.
James Barnes, Buffalo, NY
Please let Ken Burns develop his show on WW2 as he sees fit. Enough already with this crazy interference by special interest groups. If you do give in please be sure that veterans of the following groups be included: Irish, English, Scottish, French, Italian, Swiss, Albanian, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian, etc, etc. That would be crazy to do, right? This is getting crazy. Leave the guy alone.
Robert Southard, S. Setauket, NY
I am dismayed at the negativity created by the culture police when they criticize Ken Burns' documentary for not including Latino contributions to the war effort in WWII. A racist could not have made the film "The Civil War" which contained many sensitive and incredibly moving moments about slavery. Nor could a racist make an insightful film about jazz where one of its major themes was racism and its negative effect on our country. Were these people asleep when Ken Burns' film about baseball was aired? Its constant point was how blacks and other minorities were excluded from the game and the hypocrisy that represented. These self-appointed guardians of political correctness should be more careful throwing around the word "racist."
Paul Baccus, Sacramento, CA
I am certain that Ken Burns did not intend to slight Latinos or, for that matter, persons from Italian, Ukrainian, Hungarian or any other heritage that contributed to VE/VJ in WWII. Prior to the US Atty General's order in October 1942, as Italian-Americans my father and his family, who were all US Citizens, were considered enemy aliens. It took exactly eight weeks for my father to be drafted into the 82nd Airborne after that restriction was lifted. He served in No. Africa, Sicily, and Normandy and was discharged in 1945 honored with a Purple Heart. Frankly it was another time and I don't deny that most ethnic groups have had their difficulties (Japanese-Americans come to mind), I see no overriding need to single out Latinos/Mexican/Guatemalan/San Salvadoran/Columbian etc. — Americans for special status in Ken Burns Documentary on WWII. Let's honor all those who served and not make this about anything but what it was Americans (no hyphenated second anything) who served and died for their country.
Robert Tine, Las Vegas, NV
If I understand Mr. Burns' approach to the subject it focused on veterans from four towns/cities. To include every ethnic group in this country in his vision, he would surely have had to expand his movie dramatically. To single one group out as slighted in Mr. Burns' documentary would seem to ignore the melting pot that we are supposed to be and would skew what apparently is his whole approach to the documentary, i.e. the war's impact on the people — both veterans and those waiting for their return. Personally, I am wearied over the strident calls of "what about me?" that seem to have overtaken this country. I hope that PBS will not lose sight of Mr. Burns' creative concept and not give in to this hue and cry. If so, I might have to start lobbying for inclusion of Franco-Americans. I say, "Enough already!"
Fort Myers, FL
Much hoopla is being generated by various Latino special interest groups across the country regarding the fact that Mr. Burns did not extensively include a segment about the Latino experience in the war. I would like to say that I hope that this is a slippery slope PBS never allows itself to travel down. To compromise the artistic integrity of Mr. Burns' film to satisfy the demands of ANY single group would be a detriment to this project. One has to wonder where the line in the sand is on this issue. Neither Mr. Burns, nor PBS, should feel compelled or required to represent every ethnicity, nationality, sex, religion, or any other such creed in each and every project. To do so would be ridiculous and nearly impossible. This is not to ignore or downplay the contributions of any particular group, but again, it is simply unrealistic to believe that each and every group can be included.
The flap about Burns' documentary is selfish, self-centered and a sign of what most of us are growing extremely tired of hearing. Do you know, I could be inflamed about the fact that my parents and grandparents were of German decent in this country during the war? Did Mr. Burns cover them? And furthermore, Mr. Burns has never contacted me for my personal experiences in relation to being among one of the first trades women in this country. Oh, me! Oh, my! The rest of you just aren't aware of my very real experiences, and you don't care. Oh, me! Oh, my! Seriously now. This is ridiculous. Please don't succumb to the political agenda.
Stand firm for artistic integrity . . . do not allow a documentary of this importance to become part of the Hispanic political blackmail game that is going on in this country.
Cathy Cloud, Elizabethton, TN
If PBS knuckles under to the pressure groups, I won't even consider watching it or contributing a dime to PBS. Whatever happened to freedom of expression in this country? Is it only for non-whites anymore? Don't cave to them. It's supposed to be about the war, not a specific race.
James Rhodes, Hereford, AZ
I am very upset that PBS is considering forcing changes to Ken Burns' documentary! It is unconscionable to even contemplate any such thing! Think about the precedent you would be setting, as well.
Ron Pritchard, Dixon, IL
Where do you draw the line? Italian-Americans, and probably German-Americans, also had a unique WWII experience since the US was at war with their parents (or grandparents) homeland, and as 1st or 2nd generation Americans, they, like Hispanics, were (and in many cases still are) only partially assimilated. Also, American Indians have a unique experience, since the US resulted from the defeat of their ancestors (they are also only partially assimilated). This is just off the top of my head. If I wanted to waste time thinking about it, I'm sure I could come up with other neglected groups to whine about. It's ridiculous. This documentary is about Americans in WWII, not hyphenated Americans.
New Brunswick, NJ
How About Bald Vets?
I see that PBS is on the verge of requiring Ken Burns to revise his WW II program to make the Latinos feel better about themselves. Many made heroic contributions. So did overweight, bald people like me and I demand that our accomplishments be noted by Mr. Burns as well!! Sound ridiculous? You bet! About as ridiculous as your censorship and revisionist history attempts.
James Sanders, Baton Rouge, LA
I certainly understand why you would feel duty-bound to encourage the media and the public to better investigate, understand and promote the role of Latinos in the building of our country, and why you would want to. Latino contributions are significant, numerous and critical in the history of the nation we have become and still are becoming.
Now I read that Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez (as well as a number of the people she speaks for) is offended by the lack of Latino coverage in Ken Burns' latest offering "The War" and desires the film go back into production to include Latino contributions. There are some genuinely good reasons why Ken Burns should not go back into production. Time and money are two critical concerns which haunt every artist. There's never enough of either to see the job done the way it would be done in an ideal world and this particular work took more than six years. Continuity of content and theme of the work also apply. Additional changes imposed by an outside source when a work is seen as complete by the artist invariably compromise the integrity of the artist's vision, which — based on the majority of this artist's published body of work — has little to nothing to do with race. If it were his intent to create a portrait of Latino contributions in the "Forging of America," I'm sure that race would be significant, but only insofar as its intent was to highlight the contributions of a certain group of people.
I wonder if those decrying this current work would be so quick to express outrage over a work which did not highlight the contributions of Americans of German descent, of Irish descent, of Italian descent, of Bulgarian descent, of Syrian descent, of Turkish descent or of Native American descent, in an effort to speak strongly and proudly about Latino contributions to the effort. I think it's less than honorable to make this particular artistic expression about race. I think the Latino community would be better served by engaging Mr. Burns and PBS in an effort to gain financing for a project dedicated to highlighting the very real and honor-worthy contributions of that community in the building of the America we live in today.
John Belt, Sanger, CA
I seem to be out of touch here. It does seem that WWII was during America's Jim Crow era and in that light showing the conditions that "colored" troops served their country under would be germane to the history of WWII. Another issue that would have merit would be the difference in how Japanese-Americans were treated as opposed to German-American or Italian-Americans; the Japanese-Americans were in internment camps and the others were in uniform (of the USA). That is an integral part of WWII and American history.
In what way were American-Hispanics singled out for derision or otherwise segregated? There were Canadian-Americans, French-Americans, Native-Americans (some of whom also played a "special role" but many were simply GI's), all sorts of Americans — what special claim do the Hispanic-Americans have in that history, other than they served as honorably, more or less, as everyone?
These race-wars in America need to end. No one should be grouped into any "special" category, for any racial reason at all. As the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King so admirably stated, " . . . I have a dream where one day all people will be judged by the quality of their character and not by the color of their skin . . . " The point I hope to be making is that we are all Americans and all of those who served in WWII have a great debt owed to them by the entire world, not just by the American people of subsequent generations. Unless a group was singled out for special or improper treatment then there should be no need of mentioning the ethnicities of every single group of people who served. Unless I am missing something here (and that is always possible) then I do not understand why any group would want to be singled out for special status unless they are also willing to have that status be used in any way that society wants.
Aime Watts, Dublin, NH
No Latino Vets in Sacramento?
I am writing to express my deep hurt and disappointment over the FOURTEEN HOUR World War II documentary by Ken Burns that excludes the sacrifice, suffering, and deaths of Latino service men and women. It is unacceptable to release this documentary and its related materials without recourse to add footage to include Latinos! Two of my uncles suffered and sacrificed in this war. Their lives and our entire family's lives were dramatically altered by experiences. How in the world could Ken Burns be in Sacramento, California, and not come across Latino people or their stories? It appears to me that he decided the Latinos are not relevant enough.
I believe PBS and Mr. Burns must apologize for their glaring omission and immediately take action steps toward fair and balanced inclusion. The release of this documentary must be postponed! PBS and Ken Burns must stop touring now and go back to the drawing board to address this unacceptable version of HIS-story. This documentary is not a true history because it is incomplete. Please be certain to INCLUDE Latinos in lead positions at the advisory and production levels as you go forth to make corrections to this PBS/Ken Burns W.W. II documentary laden with invisible Latino heroes and heroines.
E. Guerrero, Fort Wayne, IN
I just read about the Latino community being concerned that they have been left out of one of your historical documentaries done by Mr. Burns. I understand that the work Mr. Burns does is quality work BUT this issue of leaving out participants of color in US history is perpetrated by our school system and should not happen to Latinos, Blacks, Native Americans, or Asians, all of whom have participated in making America the great country that it is today.
Leslie Johnson, San Anselmo, CA
I just saw an article about how the upcoming Ken Burns documentary on World War II does not feature a single interview with Latino veterans. As an Anglo Navy veteran married to a Mexican-American woman whose father served in the Navy during World War II, I find it incomprehensible that such a large ethnic minority group could be completely ignored. I realize the film traces how four communities were affected by the war. Surely in Sacramento, of all places, there are many Latinos who could have been interviewed. It took Ken Burns six years to make this documentary. Fine. He needs to get it right, so maybe it needs to take him seven years.
Jac Polsgrove, Tucson, AZ
I am in complete shock to learn that the one documentarian for whom I have the highest respect and admiration and whose work on the American Civil War I have so thoroughly enjoyed had not given even a passing thought (in six years of research and production) to the participation and sacrifice of our Hispanic Americans during World War II. I would have preferred to learn that the omission had been intentional rather than what now seems to be the cold blade of indifference that cuts even deeper than bigotry. To excuse it and beg off an honest attempt at properly correcting this horrendous slight by claiming it would be too late and too difficult to find Latino veterans and related footage is even more insulting to these Latino veterans that bled just as red as the others depicted. Further, proposing a separate film on Latino Veterans — even if by Ken Burns — further distances and dilutes the equal sacrifice of these brave and patriotic Latinos that died and were wounded during the same epic struggle; not a separate different place, different time, but then, there and during.
Joseph M., New York City, NY
On multiple occasions, I have commented, within my survey responses, on the omissions of PBS documentaries and other programming that do not show the full picture or scope of involvement of ethnic groups other than the usual suspects, i.e., whites. I must also admit that PBS has made some progress in this area, but as the new firestorm presented by the Hispanic community, there are still noticeable problems that must be addressed.
As a Black man (African American), I have serious problems with the Hispanic argument when one can see obvious and consistent omissions of "Black" people in presentations on their community. By accident of language and/or location, Black people are divided into language or location-based groups, that too often generates a perverse attitude of some kind of aloof "superiority" relative to those that are identified here as "African Americans." It still lingers to this day. So, Ken Burns, welcome to the blowback of ethnic omissions, even after 6-7 years of research to get 14 hours to be just "right"! The unsung still remain in the shadows of others.
Larry A. Barton, Cape Coral, FL
Six Years and No Thoughts
PBS seems to be married to the idea that they do not want to interfere with "the vision" of the director of the project — in this case Mr. Burns. However, as someone who has also been a journalist, I find the producers of "The War" to be grossly negligent at the least, or grotesquely ignorant at the worst, if in the six years that they researched and produced this documentary they didn't realize that Latinos fought and died bravely in all the battlefields of World War 2. I think the journalistic values PBS should be helping to perpetuate are those of truth and integrity and by deliberate or accidental omission of Latinos from the documentary Mr. Burns fails to be truthful.
Josh Anguiano-Vega, Riverside, CA
Growing up in San Antonio, TX, I knew many Hispanic WWII veterans. I remember in just three blocks there were two Silver Star recipients. I now live in northern New Mexico and reading the obits I see the many Hispanic WWII veterans dying. Not including the Hispanic contribution to WWII is an egregious journalistic mistake. As a Viet Nam veteran (voluntarily, not drafted) I am personally embarrassed for Mr. Burns. I remember one trip to Saigon back in the days where I saw and talked to so many Hispanic soldiers, I thought I was back in San Antonio. Hispanic veterans have always been ignored. I always thought PBS was above the fray, sadly I'm mistaken.
Antonio Ortiz, Taos, NM
The uproar in the Hispanic community over Ken Burns' "The War" is not about journalistic integrity, political correctness, the clout of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, PBS' right to air the documentary, or the predominantly vanilla perspective of the work. Rather, it is the complete omission of the contributions and sacrifices made to the war effort by a generous but humble community . . . The objection, Mr. Getler, is that this is revisionist history at its worst through the crime of omission. Unlike the recent efforts by Japan to delete references in textbooks of their atrocities during the war, Burns omits any reference to Hispanic participation and sacrifice without exception. Hispanics did not exist. This distortion of History is magnified tenfold because the perspective comes from a critically acclaimed documentarian.
Certainly as much as Latino involvement, I think that GREAT CARE must be taken NOT to overlook the contribution of American Indians to the war effort. Here in Oklahoma, MOST of the adult Indians are veterans and many of them combat veterans. The 45th Division (Oklahoma National Guard) played a substantial part. I continue to find that people I knew for years were war heroes, Medal of Honor or Purple Heart winners, frequently by reading their OBITUARIES! These guys deserve further recognition while they are ALIVE!!
George Downs, Bartlesville, OK
Burns' omission of Latinos from his film is just so much "greatest generation" nonsense like "we whites did it all." As a kid following the war with news clippings and pasting them in a huge cheap booklet I couldn't believe that the services were all segregated — no blacks. How did I miss that as a simpleton American? I vigorously protest THE WAR not being revised. Almost assuredly we will hear "our greatest generation." A Bronx cheer to that.
Ronald McLoughlin, Tucson, AZ
I am saddened at Ken Burns' lack of historical accuracy. Many Latinos served in WWII. They faced segregation and prejudice at home; yet they still served and died for our country. Five of my uncles served during the war. They endured many days of combat in the Pacific and European Theatres.
My uncle Baldamar Ortiz, from Texas, spoke very little English. He enlisted to protect this country. He figured that if I am going to live here, I should fight just like everyone else. As he learned language, he made it through basic training. He served as a BAR infantryman for his platoon and became an expert with the M1 rifle. He served in the 29th Infantry Division and landed at Omaha Beach at H Hour minus 1 minute. In the first wave he encountered heavy German fire and lost many good friends. He fought in Normandy and in the Battle for France. He received three Bronze Stars during his tenure in Europe. As an honor, he was personally selected by Dwight Eisenhower to serve on his private security force during the occupation of Germany.
Even during his stellar service in the army, he faced racism. If he was white, he probably would have received higher medals for his service or be recommended for promotion. If he were alive today and saw Burns' documentary without reference to the sacrifice of Latinos, he would just look down and say I guess things have not changed that much and then walk away to be with the memories of friends lost.
I thought I would write this email to you solely as an attempt to have the World War II PBS series be inclusive. Instead I write this email to honor to my uncle (and other Latino Veterans) . . . something he would not have done himself. His actions and character speak far greater than any words I can pen. I ask that Ken Burns and PBS ask themselves one question: Is it right to leave out Latinos like my uncle? If not, there is always time to correct the record.
Ray Mendoza, San Jose, CA
Mr. Getler, as a person of mixed heritage (Hispanic/Irish) I know firsthand that it took all of us to build America and it is important that we remember the contributions made by many ethnic groups. I applaud the comments that you have made so far. I encourage you to say more and do more to make sure that PBS and Ken Burns are motivated to do more than just acknowledge that there is more to be said in "The War" to make it a complete and comprehensive document of America's sacrifice for freedom and the principles embodied in our Constitution.
Art Sepulveda, San Antonio, TX
A More Controversial War
I listen to the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer every night and I was surprised last night to hear his interview with Gen. David Petraeus — Jim let him go on and on about how Al Qaeda was attacking in Iraq — repeatedly! Iraq is in the midst of a civil war. Doesn't Jim realize this? Why wouldn't he challenge him on that? He must have asked him 6 ways from Tuesday about undermining the troops, blah, blah, blah, but not one word about this ridiculous Al Qaeda assertion. Less that 10% of the attacks are thought to be by Al Qaeda. Please be a journalist, Jim!
Cindy Scott, Henning, MN
Jim Lehrer's NewsHour on 4/4/07 devoted much, if not most, of the show to an interview with General Petraeus, during which he delivered a gentle but persistent endorsement of what has occurred so far during the execution of the "surge." Among other views, he described the serene stroll by Senator McCain through a bustling marketplace in Baghdad, although it is well known that he was accompanied by a company of riflemen and several helicopters — a fact which the general dismissed as not significant. He did not mention that civilian deaths outside Baghdad have reportedly increased, deaths of American soldiers have increased, as have deaths of Iraqi policemen, and that the Iraqi government has not achieved any "benchmarks" that we know about. I am surprised that your news show would present such a slanted and unchallenged perspective on this "war." I expect this from the cable TV world, not from you.
Frank Ryan, Salem, MA
Have just finished listening to Jim Lehrer's interview with General Petraeus. I found it disappointing and let me tell you why. He accepted without challenge the General's terms of reference. Petraeus used code words throughout the interview: dealing with the "enemy," our Iraqi "partners," and many more. All unchallenged. These are words that are part of the debate in the country but one would never guess it from the way Lehrer conducted the interview.
Another basic point that needs to be made. All of the General's remarks dealt with the way the military was controlling areas in Baghdad. It doesn't take much imagination that placing troops in strategic areas, building concrete barriers around bazaars, keeping out vehicles, etc. will bring some stability even if only temporarily. It says nothing about the political process; who is holding the levers of power; what about polls that indicate over and over again that the majority of Iraqis want the Americans out of the country; the sheer weight of the American military presence constantly making its influence felt. In a word the interview was narrowly focused and avoided the nitty gritty questions that should have been at the center of the interview.
Hyman Kuritz, Albany, NY
In his interview this evening with General Petraeus, Jim Lehrer missed several opportunities to ask the general, 1) At present, what would you say is your mission in Iraq? 2) Who these days seems to be the enemy your troops face?
Jack Norman, Columbia, IL
News War IV; Some Explanations
(Ombudsman's note: The following letter is from Greg Barker, the producer/director for the Part IV segment of Frontline's "News War" series. That segment was the subject of the last Ombudsman's Column on March 29.)
Thank you for watching my film on the Arab media in such detail. I can certainly understand your puzzlement at the film's less investigative approach compared to the rest of News War, and also compared to my most recent films for FRONTLINE, Ghosts of Rwanda and part 2 of The Age of AIDS.
You might be interested in the film's origins — it was a FRONTLINE/World, not a regular FRONTLINE, and in keeping with World's in-house style, was commissioned as a 20-25 minute "road-trip" through the Arab media scene. We extended it to 40 mins only during the edit, due to the wealth of material we gathered during our short, two-week filming trip.
As on all FRONTLINE/Worlds, the budget and schedule were very tight — a fraction of the time and money we have on a regular FRONTLINE. Start-to-finish, this project had a ten-week schedule, compared to upwards of 18 months for Rwanda or AIDS. And resources one takes for granted on a normal FRONTLINE — a research staff, the time to follow an investigative angle or to film extra interviews late in the editing process for clarity and balance, just weren't an option this time.
I hope this clarifies a few points, and thanks again for keeping us on our toes.
Greg Barker, London, England
I completely agree with Capt. Pascual's comments on Al Jazeera English. It is ridiculous that Al Jazeera isn't available in the U.S. Let's see if we can change that.
William Rudman, Castro Valley, CA
Michael Getler's quote from Mr. Pascual at the conclusion of A Relatively Disappointing Finish, speaks for me . . . Loud and Clear. It is ludicrous that we cannot see Al Jazeera English. As usual, the perspective of the Right is equivalent to not just close minded but mindless. If we approached the dissemination of information for the purpose of supporting freedom of choice, making wise choices and building effective community in our schools or in business for that matter using the "right" way of thinking, we would have disaster. And fear not, we are nearer every day to Disaster FOR America in the world.
Gold Bar, WA
I saw three of the four Frontline pieces and can't agree more with the new American anchor for Al Jazeera English that Americans are ignorant about how we are perceived in the world. In fact, I think many Americans are poorly informed because the press isn't doing its job anymore bringing "hard" news to the living room. It's become too much of a ratings game (read money) that appeals to the celebrity addicted, voyeuristic, or prurient nature of viewers.
Secondly, many Americans don't care. They don't read nor do they watch informative programs such as Frontline. They'd rather watch 20-somethings eat worms. Other social dynamics include a 40% functionally illiterate population, young people having little or no interest in politics and most "news" being conveyed via television in 10-second soundbites.
As a former broadcast news staffer, it saddens me and my former colleagues to see this breakdown in newsgathering and editing to entertain, not inform. I wish PBS would carry Al Jazeera, Russian and Chinese TV, etc. for those of us who don't have cable and who depend heavily on PBS and BBC, not to mention newspapers and newsmagazines, for our hard news. Some of us do want to be informed and do want to change the political landscape we suffer right now. Adding more foreign press information would be very helpful.
Barbara K. Anderson, St. Louis, MO
Thank goodness for PBS! I watched Frontline last night concerning the news war. We would be lost without PBS and its "real news." I do support my local station but I must do more as real issues are being lost to the public.
About Tavis Smiley
Two viewers raised different issues regarding Tavis Smiley.
One was from Marc Robins, a journalism major at the Boston University College of Communication. He asked about "the recent decision to have Tavis Smiley moderate two presidential forums. I have recently found that he has a history of financial ties to the democratic party and would like to talk to you about whether or not this is against PBS' journalistic standards, or if they are aware of this." Asked for more detail, Robins said: "Mr. Smiley has made $2,500 worth of contributions to Democratic candidates for congress — Julia Carson in 2000 and 2004 and Jesse Jackson in 2000. Though not a substantial amount of money compared to contributions made by high profile donors, it still raises the question of whether the moderator of two presidential forums can be non-biased?" And he asked "if he had broken any PBS rules (if there are any) for campaign contributions?"
The forums Robins referred to involve two "All-American Presidential Forums on PBS" that will be moderated by Smiley and will be held on June 28 and Sept. 27. The first will involve all confirmed Democratic candidates and will be held at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and the second will be with Republican candidates and will be held at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md. A press release said that these forums "mark the first time that a panel exclusively comprised of journalists of color will be presented in primetime."
When I asked PBS about the issues Robins raised, Lea Sloan, vice president for media relations, said: "Tavis Smiley didn't forfeit his rights as a citizen when he stepped in front of a camera. He can vote in elections and support candidates of his choosing as a part of his private life. If a PBS series host uses his or her role on public broadcasting in a way that is unfair or inaccurate or endorses particular candidates, then he or she would run afoul of our Editorial Standards & Policies."
Karen Hunte, an executive director of program development at KCET in Los Angeles, the PBS affiliate where Smiley's talk show originates, said: "Regarding the Presidential Forums question about impartiality — we believe that Tavis is a perfect moderator for both debates. He is in fact moderating and not asking the questions. The questions will be asked by professional journalists: Duwayne Wicham (USA Today), Michel Martin (NPR) and Reuban Navarrette (San Diego Tribune)."
Here's my two cents worth: First, Tavis Smiley is a force; an original who is hard to categorize regarding what it is that he does. In general, I don't think that "journalists" ought to make political contributions, and certainly journalists who cover politics absolutely should not do so. But Smiley, although clearly a public figure, has said he does not consider himself a journalist, but rather a talk show host, commentator, author, public speaker and activist. On the other hand, he asks his nightly guests a lot of questions and that's also what journalists do. He owns his own show and is not a PBS employee. But he gets some funding from PBS and they obviously distribute his program. In a perfect world, I'd say he should not give to candidates and that if he does he should not moderate forums. But there are no existing PBS rules that clearly apply here unless a conflict of interest can be demonstrated, perhaps by performance.
Smiley, Part 2
The second e-mail concerning Smiley came from Peter Holman, a viewer in Lynchburg, Va.
"I almost never comment on items aired on TV or radio but I heard comments made on the Tavis Smiley show aired on 3/28/07 that totally disgusted me and I think are inappropriate. Tavis Smiley compared George Bush and Dick Cheney to Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein, the implication being that the President and Vice President are mass murders. I think this is going too far. These kinds of statements are mean spirited, not appropriate for a so called "neutral" interviewer, and show complete disrespect for America and the Americans who live here . . . For Tavis Smiley to compare Dick Cheney to Adolf Hitler demonstrates to me that Mr. Smiley is the most ignorant man on this planet. His comments were meant to disgust people, they were insensitive and uncalled for. Yes we have freedom of speech in this country but that doesn't mean there are no consequences for that speech. Tavis Smiley should be fired. It's one thing to have a difference of opinion but this goes over the line and I don't have to tolerate it."
Smiley's show that night included an interview with Anne Lamott, the best-selling author of "Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith," and the discussion, as producers of the Smiley show describe it, "was about religion, heaven, etc." They sent along a transcript of the statement in question and Neal Kendall, executive producer of the show, wrote: "As you can see, Tavis was simply referring back to Anne Lamott's contention that everyone, regardless of their deeds, will get into heaven. Tavis responded with a follow-up question — and only referenced Dick Cheney in his question, as you can see, to bring it back to her initial point. He's not comparing Cheney to anyone on that list, just creating a list of people he and some people might not like to see go to heaven."
Here's the transcript:
Lamott: "I think Saddam Hussein will go to Heaven. I think I will go to Heaven. I think even Dick Cheney will go to Heaven. But I think when you go there, you have to clean up your mess. I think you will be welcome, and God is gonna say, 'You are my child. You are made of the same stuff I am made of. You made an awful mess. We gotta clean things up, and then you can eat.'"
Lamott: "And whereas I haven't made quite as big of a mess as Dick Cheney 'cause I have no power, so I hope I will be immediately escorted to the dessert room. So that's my hope. Now the other thing is that of course you can avail yourself of grace. You stop. You breathe. You give up. You surrender. And I think that you take the action, and the insight follows."
Lamott: "I don't think that you get — you break codes or have great insights that lead you to grace. I don't think you do grace. I think it's something you receive. And I think that when — and I know that God draws very, very close to the suffering and that when we're suffering, all we have to do is to say, 'I'm really out of good ideas.' I always say to God, 'Okay, what?' (Laughter) Like some bitter 17 year old."
Smiley: "I'm a huge Anne Lamott fan, as any of our viewers know, and almost never do I disagree with you. But I'm going to disagree with something you just said a moment ago."
Smiley: "Because if everybody, seriously, if everybody goes to Heaven anyway, why the heck am I trying so hard? If I gotta hang out with Dick Cheney, to your point, and Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler and Mobutu Sese Seko — and I could run a long list of them — if I gotta hang out with these thugs in Heaven, then what's the point of me trying so hard? I don't believe that."
My two cents: Well, you can read this the way the executive director did, or the way the viewer did. Smiley, quickly and clearly, referred to Cheney as someone specifically mentioned by Lamott, before he went on to list the other characters, including Hitler. But I don't think Smiley left much doubt about what he meant — or that the viewer could be faulted for what he said he heard — when Smiley then talked about hanging out with "these thugs." For the record, although only one viewer wrote to me about this, I'm glad Peter Holman called attention to this exchange.