By Michael Getler
June 22, 2007
Two recent PBS "documentaries," both of which have been the subject of previous Ombudsman's Columns, continue to draw a good deal of mail — some of it about the films and some of it about my columns.
I put the word "documentaries" in quotes because they both have drawn some criticism for being something other than what we normally think of and label as documentaries. I think this is especially true of the film titled "Wall of Separation," which aired earlier this month and which was the subject of last week's column. The film was about the separation of church and state and Thomas Jefferson's famous metaphoric description of it as a "wall of separation." The theme that the producers clearly wanted to convey, I wrote, is that "God is the necessary foundation of society's laws and government." I also wrote that this film, "while including some differing views, does indeed leave one with a sense of advocacy and pursuit of a point of view — which challenges not only Thomas Jefferson's assessment but a string of Supreme Court decisions." But this was not labeled as a point-of-view film.
It also, according to available but preliminary PBS data — which is not a complete picture — has been shown by only five of the 131 so-called "metered-market" stations where viewership around the country is measured, and is said to be scheduled by approximately seven additional stations in the next few weeks. Despite this thus far small exposure, it has generated a good bit of mail and controversy.
The other "documentary" was titled "Six Days in June," which also aired early this month. This was about the 1967 war between Israel and its surrounding Arab neighbors and was meant to mark the 40th anniversary of a war that still shapes the geography, lives and politics of the Middle East. This was produced as an international film by Instinct Films in Canada and the version of this film shown in many countries around the world produced many good reviews and was in keeping with what are commonly viewed as documentaries.
But there was a version of this also produced for American audiences by PBS and WGBH in Boston that the Toronto Star newspaper, which had seen both the PBS and the international version, described in a headline as a "whitewashed version of history." The PBS/WGBH version, it was reported by the Star, and earlier by Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper, left out scenes and descriptions of the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians by the Israeli army and the razing of old Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
In my column I wrote, among other differences in the PBS version of the film, that the absence, in a two-hour film, "of at least some focus on, and accounting of, the dimensions of loss and what happened at the time to Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Jerusalem is obvious." I also wrote that the deadly Israeli attack, during the war, on the USS Liberty, a US Navy intelligence vessel operating off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula, should have been included in all versions. It was not in any of them.
(Correction: In the column about the "Six Days in June" film, there was a reference to the earlier story in the Globe and Mail that had praised the international version of the film shown in Canada for "not shying away from the deaths of 6,000 Palestinians during the war, something that's clearly described in every version except the one for PBS." The Canadian producers of the film say that was a misunderstanding in the interview with the reporter and that the producers were referring to the 6,000 Palestinians expelled from three of the villages.)
Here are the letters — first, on the "Wall of Separation" and the Ombudsman's Column about it.
About That Wall
I am not a historian. But, I am a student of history. I know enough history from the Roman Empire to the Reformation to understand that the founding fathers of the United States of America had all come from countries that had a state sponsored religion. Catholicism throughout the dark ages, Lutheranism with Martin Luther, Calvinism with John Calvin, the Church of England, etc. All of which advocated persecution, even to death, of religious minorities. That is just documented history. They knew of the terrors a state religion inflicted on its people if they were a minority; Bible believing Christian or Jew. That is why we have the First Amendment of our Constitution. No establishment of a state religion. Any denial of this fact is just pure ignorance of history itself. It has nothing to do with interpretation but history itself. If anyone does want to dig a little deeper into United States history they will find that the founding fathers were Christian men and that the bedrock documents of this great nation, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, are based most definitely on Judeo — Christian principles. People should not be one sided or ignorant but rather study history. If not, they will be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Jason Sippola, Sharon, PA
Finally a program that is well balanced. Of course I am writing about: "Wall of Separation." PBS has finally come out of the dark ages of only showing programs the leftwing wackos are interested in. But I am speaking of most historical programs too. Never before could we in the center watch programs on PBS, because most had a left wing agenda. Keep up the good work, and don't be swayed from the leftist remarks.
James Adams, Lincoln, NE
It wasn't that long ago when PBS was a left wing organization, and only showed programs that dealt with leftist views. Finally, we that are on the right or in the middle get to see programs that we are interested in, such as "Wall of Separation." Yes, there may be some that complain anytime you air a program without leftist views, don't listen to them, there are many more of us out there, and we are known as the silent majority.
Don P., Hutchinson, KS
It seems to me that you are seriously missing the point of what concerns viewers about the program "Wall of Separation." You say: "My sense is that people can take from this film whatever they wish." But this isn't consistent with what you say you saw in the film yourself: a strongly expressed far-right evangelical point of view. This program was not presented on POV; it was presented as a documentary. You don't seem to understand what is shocking your viewers: What people find shocking is that PBS is running *right wing propaganda films*. Why is the shoddy scholarship of this film so different from, say, the nonsense peddled as "intelligent design"? What possible reason does PBS have for even touching this stuff? It isn't because of the show's quality.
Actually, I'm glad PBS is endorsing religious right propaganda. The right in this country has for years wailed that PBS was controlled by the liberal agenda. Speaking as a liberal, I never was able to understand this, as I have watched PBS public affairs programming for years and have encountered very little that I either agreed with or even enjoyed watching all that much. Now that you all have proved that you are bending over backwards to suck up to the conservatives, we all can finally agree, conservatives as well as liberals, that you need to go.
Roy Treadway, Fort Worth, TX
I have read your editorial in response to your readers' concerns over the documentary "Wall of Separation." Your words did not reassure me that PBS, with the adoption of this program, is working to maintain its formally high standards in educational programming. In fact, I am more concerned now than I was before I read your article. My children turn to your station for wonderful educational programming. My husband and I enjoy your science programs and up till now, we have trusted that the information provided in those programs is accurate and as up-to-date as possible. But if you judge this program to be accurate, I no longer feel I can trust your station's judgment.
As a scholar who has spent a great deal of time reviewing the works of our founding fathers, I am horrified that you would accept at face value the statement: "But what would surprise most Americans is the discovery that this is not what the Founding Fathers intended when they established the nation and wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights." I do not deny that there was debate over this very topic, and that is interesting to explore in and of itself. But this press release is giving the very false impression that providing religious protection to our citizens by preventing governmental influence was NOT the intent of our founding fathers. Forget misleading. That is simply false. If PBS insists on feeding its viewers lies and distortions, then I can not be a supporter. Please reconsider this decision.
Laurie Rodriguez, Santa Clarita, CA
Your editorial, which seeks to forestall further criticism of your decision to run "Wall of Separation," is utterly unconvincing to me. This show, as "controversial" and "interesting," as it may be, is utterly inappropriate for PBS. Let this Evangelical propaganda piece, no matter how delicately clothed in reason and debate it may be, go elsewhere for an audience. (Like church camp.) I do not want to be preached to when I tune into PBS. It is one of my few refuges from an insane world.
Terri Hunt, West Linn, OR
After three careful viewings I find this to be highly sophisticated propaganda, with some inadvertent historical information to give it verisimilitude. First listen to the words of the narrator as the relevant sentence of the Constitution appears on the screen. Then tell me what the next words after "oath" are based on the voiceover. They are not "to God" as described by the narrator, but rather they are "or affirmation . . ." The impression that the Constitution contained the words to God was clear, and is not true. For an argument on the nonexistence of a Wall of Separation based on the explicit meaning of the words in this document, such legerdemain is beyond the bounds of POV and borders on flagrant deceit. This was far below the standards of PBS.
Al Rodbell, Encinitas, CA
I was taught that though God is important to this country, the Founding Fathers determined to keep Him well out of politics and to keep politics well out of the Church. When did that change? and Why is it not a problem?
Contrary to Mr. Getler's assertions, the "Wall of Separation Between Church and State" is NOT the "common view" in our culture today, despite being championed by none other than Thomas Jefferson along with the other Founding Fathers. The common view is becoming that of the religious right, thanks to the indifference of the press in general — now including PBS — who do not present the traditional view that there should be a scrupulous observance of the separation of church and state. Instead they pander shamelessly to those who are attempting to revise history and present a false account of the thinking of the Founding Fathers, in order to impose their narrow beliefs and outmoded practices on others.
Of course, the now discredited PBS chairman, Tomlinson, gave the signal for the far rightwing slant this documentary was to take, when he requested it. According to Barry Lynn, the completed production presents a faux two-side debate. Instead of this, PBS should have presented a clear, forceful statement advocating the complete separation of church and state in the Bill of Rights. The wall of separation is at the heart of the American form of government and it is something to be strongly defended — or we will wake up some morning in a theocracy and we will have lost something infinitely precious. It seems ridiculous even to have to write this.
Carolyn Clark, Mount Laurel, NJ
No Christian Monolith
One of my chief complaints whenever the church and state issue arises is the assumption that Christianity is one monolithic religion when it obviously is not. Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic, Episcopalian, Congregationalist, Pentecostal, etc. abound. Whose religious "values" are thought to be at risk? Are Fundamentalists or anyone else being denied their guaranteed right under the Constitution to worship as they see fit? The answer is no.
Are there issues with our culture — yes. Will they be solved by the implementation of a theocratic government? History and current world events would say no. If that is the case, then what we have is one religious group wanting the power (the government) dictating their "values" to everyone else. And that is not permissible under the Constitution. Less we forget, our Fore Fathers had a very clear understanding of religious warfare and persecution. The history of Europe and the American colonies are full of examples. Religion does not guarantee morality. Treating one another with respect and consideration does.
Regarding the Church-State e-mails you posted at the bottom of your column. As a Christian man a cold shiver run about my body when I read and hear some of the letters and speeches written about Christians. I can never understand why people can be so hateful of an organization that commands its members to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Is it the 10 commandments they dislike? They seem awfully reasonable to me. In fact some of them are state and national laws. I've given it a lot of thought. I believe it all comes down to guilt. They don't like to feel guilty about their sin. Making us look bad makes them feel good. Guilt is a powerful emotion.
Robert August, Manvel, TX
The sub rosa, insidious influence of the religious right has tainted the judicial system; the environmental efforts of the EPA; much of our country's foreign policy, especially in the middle East, including Israel; the education of children, especially in scientific matters; even the historical record, presently exemplified by the documentary "The Wall of Separation." Can't PBS see the danger? That IS Frightening!
Elizabeth Davis, Belmont, MA
I was disappointed in the negative comments on your documentary, "Wall of Separation." The "Founding Fathers" accepted that men are self-serving and tend to abuse power. The laws they created were designed to guard against that tendency. The fact that they believed that men have unalienable rights that must be protected is what distinguishes us from all other forms of government. The idea that those rights were ordained by a "higher authority," to which all shall be accountable, also distinguishes us from all other governments. Despots believe they are the ultimate authority and their goals supersede the rights of all individuals. The founders weren't promoting a religion; they were promoting an attitude toward humanity in general that has created the best government for personal growth, safety, and happiness. As for the Ten Commandments, they have always been the standard for moral behavior that defines civilization, and most religions have similar guidelines. The founders' belief was; let them worship who, where, or what they may — but never at the expense of another and never by mandate. I am grateful that they believed in a higher authority and in moral behavior.
In presenting these facts, you were not promoting a religion, and neither were they.
Annie DeMille, Cedar City, UT
I believe PBS is participating in propaganda. Jack Hafer is not a producer of unbiased, or factual productions. Independent, thorough reporting is what I like about PBS. If I wanted to have crazy, extreme Conservatism on my TV, I would watch another network. I certainly would not want to turn on PBS and see these fantasies being presented as truth. I think the directors of PBS are trying to destroy it.
June M. Gates, Meridian, ID
I am sitting here with my jaw on the floor. Talk about 1st amendment violation. I can't believe that publicly-funded PBS allowed such an obvious push by the religious-reconstructionist-right in broadcasting a private filmmaker's view in their film, "The Wall of Separation." This broadcast features a false, poorly-argued, and ultimately, undemocratic notion of "the separation of church and state." Where is the "public" in PBS? I am so shocked and, quite frankly, horrified by this. How could you do this PBS? How could you?
Lisa H., East Aurora, NY
If we disconnect from the founders' philosophical insight what then shall we use as justice? The mind of mob majority? Also, when we have such a strong group of opposers to our Western way of life overseas who use their religion to justify every move they make, now is not the time to succumb to the whim of majority thought, but philosophy that has stood the test of time through the ages . . . that of a higher power . . . namely God. If you study what the original writers of the constitution's intent were independent of this documentary . . . the conclusions still become clear . . . any good American historian will prove this point. The documentary is not pandering to any one viewpoint . . . once one has learned his/her history of each of the constitution signers. In fact that was part of school curriculum for a long time . . . I think well into the 1920s.
L.R., Kenmore, NY
No . . . No . . . No.
This is revisionist history and you are doing a disservice to this country — while serving as a useful tool for those with a decidedly un-American agenda — by allowing this to be presented as another "side of a debate."
If I tell you that the sky is red, does that automatically entitle the color of the sky to an "open-to-debate" status? I should hope not, but that is clearly what has happened with this "pov" addition to PBS.
Thank you very much for furthering someone else's agenda. I hope you and your affiliates receive enough new donations from the Religious Right to make up for the losses you will suffer from the distraught majority of your viewership and financial supporters who (a) expect more; and (b) will respond to this outrage.
Morris Berg, Nashville, TN
You wrote: My sense is that people can take from this film whatever they wish. Wrong answer.
When you have the steady, continuous, almost subliminal chant (which you call heavy handed hammering away . . . by the narrator) that is the oft-repeated undertone of the film, it becomes a PROPAGANDA piece, not legitimate programming. In addition, fundamentalists have no sense of irony, metaphor and simile. That is clearly shown in your quotes and summaries of the film and is a fact of life. They are literalists after all and literalists don't have the software to run irony, metaphor or simile. They also don't have any sense of humor and neither do our own Christian Nationalists. Their idea of humor is to use words to ridicule, humiliate, bully, harass and hurt people.
Then you mention a number of concepts: God, Christianity, the Creator, the Bible, the Ten Commandments. Oh, wait. For instance, WHICH Ten Commandments: there are two in Exodus and one in Deuteronomy and in the New Testament, Jesus shortens the list to six and also adds the "love your neighbor as yourself" stuff which fundamentalists seem to always miss — whether they are promoting slavery, segregation, some new god-awful war, or turning a serious immigration issue into a vehicle for subterranean racist jihad against brown-skilled people.
The big picture is this: It is the intention of these dangerous Christian Nationalists to demonize and destroy confidence in the Constitution, the courts in general and the Supreme Court in particular. These people are the Christian American equivalent of the Taliban. Maybe Taliban lite since killing doctors who performs abortions is OK but beheading them it not.
The fact that Christian Nationalist Clarence Thomas of the Supreme Court is interested in killing the separation of church and state is perhaps the most eloquent and scary evidence of the true nature of these Darbyites, Fundamentalists, over-the-top Baptists and so-called Apostolic churches, these Political Christians as opposed to Jesus Christians. So, NO the propaganda shouldn't have made it past the first editorial gatekeeper. But I have just provided you with enough topics to last an entire season that would be well-explored by a producer who doesn't have his own religious axe to grind.
Thom Prentice, Austin, Texas
A lie is not the same thing as an opinion. The claim that the Founders based our government on the Ten Commandments is not a legitimate opinion, it is a bald lie which cannot be defended by any shred of documented evidence. The producers of this feature clearly intend it to be a weapon in their struggle to subvert religious liberty and establish the sort of theocracy our wise Founders meant to avoid. Our government is secular; religiously neutral for a reason. Washington, Jefferson et al were educated, enlightened men, well aware of the abominations brought into being by the blending of Church and State. I am appalled that PBS would support this sort of dangerous nonsense. I will never trust your judgment again.
Alan Rowlands, Portland, OR
I watched the "Wall of Separation" & read your article & letters. I found the film to be very intelligent, fair in quoting from many sources traced to the 'founding fathers,' as it presented the historical evolution of thought and legal precedent that has brought us to the most recent court decisions. Today we seem to only want to fight over every idea that's different from our own! I think the film points out this present unwillingness to compromise that permeates our government and our society.
Josephine Bluntzer, Corpus Christi, TX
I just finished watching "Wall of Separation" on my local PBS station WOSU 34. I am very disappointed to see PBS broadcasting such a one sided and factually inaccurate piece of advocacy film making. I have read quite a bit about and by Jefferson (including "The Jefferson Bible") and I can tell you that he was intentionally mis-portrayed in this program in order to negate the historical authority of his written statements on "the wall of separation between church and state." This was a propaganda film that rehashed the distortions of history that I have seen being promoted on Christian web sites like World Net Daily. Why is this on PBS?
Kevin Goudy, Granville, OH
My issue with this production is that many of the modern Christian views stem from the evangelical movement of the 1800s. The film does not clarify that our founders were, according to historical records, mostly deists and classical liberals who had seen what happens when government and religion mix and sought to avoid it. This reminded me of watching "news" networks that present mostly one-sided opinion based on modern evangelical Christian reconstructionist views.
J. Weaver, Fort Washington, MD
About That War
The recent airing of "Six Days in June" has caused me to lose trust in and respect for PBS. This selective view of history was outrageous. For a number of reasons, American citizens are primarily fed a pro-Israel view of not only history, but the current situation in the West Bank and Gaza. If more Americans knew the truth our policies in the Middle East would me more even-handed.
Ray Howard, Virginia Beach, VA
PBS: I am not surprised by the revelations that the "Six Days in June" program aired on PBS included the pro-Israeli slant not found in the version aired outside North America. The U.S. media too often follows American foreign policy which international observers simply can't believe. Recently PBS showed how this worked in the media in the run-up to the second Gulf War. Can PBS do the same with respect to issues now raised about the "Six Days in June," that is, provide some balance that exists in the historical record?
Bob Smith, Chilliwack, British Columbia
Thanks for the column, Versions of a War. Here I am at 65 and either do not remember, or never heard about, the attack on the USS Liberty. So I would say, from my perspective, leaving out any mention of the event deprived me deprived me of an opportunity to learn something about which I knew nothing before. The story of the versions here smacks of anticipatory self-censorship (a tautology, perhaps, like "pre-recorded"). Self-censorship out of concern for the opinions of, not advertisers, but "contributors" and "supporters" — the advertisers' correlative in the world of public broadcasting. And the feds, too, I suppose, though CPB's contribution is supposedly de minimis.
Bill Wilt, Waltham, MA
Read article on the Six Day War. Interesting commentary on the inclusions and the exclusions. I did not remember about the Liberty. As one who has always thought the Jews had no right to take and occupy and claim as their own lands long occupied by the Palestinians, however tragic their losses to the Nazis, how about another "documentary" on the Palestinian experience of having their land and livelihood taken from them and experiencing the same oppression under the Jews that the Jews experienced under the Nazis.
Michael Monahan, Yakima, WA
I see others have also commented but here is my two cents. I watched your program on the "6 day war" last night as a former Navy man that was in Vietnam on 6/8/67 I found it misleading? I only missed a few minutes of the program but I saw no mention of this, http://www.whatreallyhappened.com/ussliberty.html. I was not impressed with PBS but got what I expected.
Douglas Page, Pelham, NH
Good, But . . .
The documentary titled "Six Days in June" covering the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967 is good in terms of archival footage and the systematic events. But it fails to give a balanced view by claiming that Israel was just defending itself, when in fact it was the first to attack Egypt. The omissions are very glaring when it comes to the brutal post-war occupation of Jerusalem and the cleansing of Palestinians. I have no problem in showing the in-humane side of the Arab leaders, but by not showing what happened after Jerusalem was captured and the ensuing tragedy from the Palestinians side which is so glaring to this day is very unfortunate.
It also makes me feel the need to question PBS as an alternative to the corporate media in the US. We all know the un-written rule in the corporate media to blackout any real criticism of Israel and thought the last hope would be PBS. But for the past decade or so that has come into question with onslaught of special interests within PBS. This indeed is very sad development for people who think human-rights and its cause are more important than nations.
I would like to add that I understand that civilian lives are being lost on the Israeli side too and are no less in value than that of Palestinians. But, by pursuing a heavy-handed approach the Israelis are pushing the already volatile Middle-East Muslims into the extremist paths.
Karthik Thirumalai, Kiamesha Lake, NY
Ok. Just watched six day war last night on PBS. Looked like a pretty good film and seemed unbiased. But as I say, I don't trust PBS any more. How much was left out? What was the selection process in the editing? These documentary films can be very slick in how they package a particular version of events. How they play up to sympathies and reinforce people's opinions and attitudes. The very creation of Israel, for example, was a terrible social injustice which Arabs and Muslims still feel extremely outraged about. Begin and many of the founders of the Israeli state were terrorists. The Arabs were lied to and betrayed. Sold out by the Western powers and the Palestinians are innocent victims. It was their land that was brutally taken from them. They are the ones who still suffer from a brutal occupation and persecution by the state of Israel. Israel is still presented as a victim surrounded by hostile powers out to destroy it and therefore excused and justified in the actions it took. The film therefore fits into the overall dialogue about Israel, its founding and existence. Played to the sympathies of poor Israel and how great and justified Israel is.
There is a great injustice being done here. Propaganda films do not help in arriving at justice. I do not think the film on PBS about the six day war was a propaganda film of and by itself except when seen without this larger context. It's like seeing a film about the seventh cavalry under Custer or watching coverage of Bush's, and now the Democrats, war on Iraq from embedded reporters. Don't care about how much of the in's and out's you cover in the film, it is still from the perspective and with the sympathies of the parties doing the victimizing. Can't help but slide into slant and bias. My compliments to you for even reviewing this matter and bringing up the fact that there are several versions about the six day war.
Tom Felt, Tucson, AZ
The documentary entitled "Six Days In June" was interesting, however, like others I wonder why to this day PBS and other media outlets tremble in fear when it comes to the subject of the USS Liberty. The History Channel had one showing of the incident and then it mysteriously disappeared from the schedule and the video is no longer available. Seems rather odd.
Jon Warner, Sheridan, WY
That Did It
As an American Jewish woman, I was so upset by "The Six Day War," which aired on PBS June 8th, that I have sworn off all television. Not because of commercial journalism. Nope. Because of PBS's promotion of divisive propagandist noise. The American Heritage's definition of propaganda is: The systematic [deliberate] propagation [to publicize] of a doctrine or cause. The parentheses are from the same dictionary's definitions of the preceding words. A few of the numerous 'facts' the 'Six Day War' 'documentary' stated: The Jews were terrified by the Palestinians who sought to 'annihilate' the Jews. The Israelis are referred to as the 'Jews'. Israelis were 'defending' the land where 'they had lived since the time of King David.' The Israeli's were engaged in a 'holy war' (oh, yes, this is really said).The Palestinians were fighting a 'jihad'.
Here are some thoughts about these facts. Jihad means 'holy war'. Jihadists are terrorists because they are not a national army. To say that one side are terrorists and the other side believe they are fighting a holy war because x, y & z, is accurate. To say they both believe they are fighting a holy war is accurate. The many nuances are dangerously important and yet are never clarified. Another point, 'annihilate' implies images of genocide to too many people for PBS to use this word inappropriately. Why use concentration camp and Hitler era references? Saying that Arabs in the Middle East want to annihilate Israelis is very divisive and hardly speaks for all Arabs. There are numerous times in history that Arabs all over the world have wanted, worked and sacrificed for true peace. Also, Jews aren't the only people living in Israel. To keep referring to Israeli's as Jews is ridiculous. Israeli's are as diverse as Americans. This program suggests that the Jewish nation is made up of persecuted, innocent victims.
The Israelis were engaged in horrific acts. As were Arabs. A child who knows nothing about history will find statements which promote black and white thinking to be very troubling. Adults intuitively know that they can't trust certain information in the media. Their guards are already up. Why can't PBS just say in the beginning that the following program is one version of one man's views about the "Six Day War"? That one statement is the difference between the growing alienated public and a successful, diverse, and respected PBS.
K.S., Tucson, AZ
Although I am a strong supporter of Israel, PBS made a major mistake in broadcasting "Six Days in June" with no mention of the Israeli Defense Forces attack on the USS Liberty in the midst of the conflict. The producer's explanation that it wasn't shown or even mentioned during the two hour program because the Israeli's admitted the tragic mistake and the US "officially" accepted their apology is a lame excuse.