Detecting More Than History?
By Michael Getler
July 13, 2007
"We interrupt this program to bring you . . . a political message." That line wasn't actually broadcast on PBS this week, but that's what several viewers thought happened while they were watching the July 9 airing of the "History Detectives" series. And they have a point.
I've said several times in these columns over the past 18 months or so that there is always something new to discover about how things happen on public television. Today's lesson is how to shoot yourself in the foot — at least in the minds of a fair number of viewers — by injecting something debatable, political and seemingly irrelevant into a program that people seem to enjoy because it is different, imaginative and not political.
"History Detectives" is a co-production of Lion Television and Oregon Public Broadcasting. It is now in its fifth season on PBS, with about a dozen programs a year, each with three different segments. The program appears to be very popular, with about four million weekly viewers, according to PBS. It devotes itself "to exploring the complexities of historical mysteries, searching out the facts, myths and conundrums that connect local folklore, family legends and interesting objects." About 75 percent of the stories investigated are contributed by viewers, and a four-person team experienced in historical investigations tracks down the clues and facts. In my view, the concept for the program is among the most creative and imaginative on public television.
I recall only a few occasions during my time here when I would get a critical e-mail or two from a viewer taking issue with the way something was presented. But a portion of the July 9 show produced a heavy flow of critical mail. The opening segment of the program, by "detective" Elyse Luray, focused on a vintage, post-Civil War photograph showing about 20 older white soldiers in uniform standing shoulder-to-shoulder with two uniformed black soldiers. As the program pointed out, in Reconstruction-era America, such associations were frequently taboo. So what brought them together for this picture? Detective Luray went to work. The bond, it turned out, was the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal order organized for war veterans. So far, so good.
But then immediately following this, another member of the "History Detectives" quartet, Wes Cowan, an anthropologist and owner of an auction company that specializes in historical Americana, delivered a brief commentary that started off talking about the historical battle for veterans' benefits. But he ended up talking about Sen. John F. Kerry's role in 1971, when, as a young Naval officer, he was a leader of those veterans who turned against the Vietnam War, and how, in 2004, a group known as the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and funded by a wealthy Republican campaign donor smeared Kerry's military record and possibly cost him the election."
This comment provoked the letters posted below. Following the viewer letters is a response from Christopher Bryson, executive producer with Lion Television, on behalf of the producers of "History Detectives." Then come some observations from me.
Finally, below all of this, is a letter from Jerry Colbert, executive producer of "A Capitol Fourth," the widely-viewed concert and fireworks display broadcast on PBS on July 4. Colbert wrote in response to the ombudsman's column last week about viewer reactions and my assessment.
On the 'History Detectives'
Regarding your otherwise wonderful piece on the GAR — I was both appalled and dismayed that you included a snippet in your backgrounder on veterans groups on John Kerry and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. In that piece you stated, as if it were historical fact, that the Swift Boat group "smeared John Kerry" and "likely cost him the election." The "smear" is a matter of interpretation and historians and political observers have many ideas about what "cost" Mr. Kerry the election. My dismay comes from the questions this raises about your show, which I love. If you are so sloppy and partisan about current history, is everything else you present on this show similarly slanted and shoddy? I am proud to tell you that both my great grandfather and my great-great grandfather were GAR veterans and I'm pretty sure they would share my disgust that you used a story about their beloved army as a prop to make a nasty and inaccurate little political point.
Sherry Sylvester, Garden Ridge, TX
This was a fascinating story that added a very important piece to our understanding of the social dynamic following the Civil War. But I was troubled by the subtle, and not so subtle (and totally irrelevant) infusion of current liberal political thought that the producers injected into an otherwise compelling story.
Elyse was careful to note that Cazenovia, NY, was "fairly liberal," code words for "that's why the Black vets were allowed in the GAR chapter and photo," thereby implying that had "conservatives" been in charge back then, there wouldn't be such a story. I suggest a quick read of Catton's "The Coming Fury." It was the Northern conservatives (the brand new Republican party led by A. Lincoln) that led the fight against further spread of slavery, were willing to go to war over the issue, and eventually gave American Blacks emancipation, in the face of massive and eventually deadly opposition led by Southern (and many Northern) Democrats.
Wes Cowan's wrap-up was breathtakingly inane. Apparently he cannot get over the '60s, the Viet Nam war, John Kerry's (thank goodness) failed political aspirations, or Republicans of means contributing to groups he doesn't like. How did he manage to say so little in so much space, and why was he allowed to take such a political cheap-shot, trivializing an otherwise important and well crafted history piece?
Bob Flood, Front Royal, VA
I was watching the recent episode of "History Detectives" which featured an old photo of Civil War veterans taken at a reunion of the Grand Army of the Republic. I was enjoying this story, until near the end, when Mr. Wes Cowan began his poisoned pontificating. He brought up the hapless Senator John Kerry, and could not help but mention his defeat (by over 3 million votes) to George W. Bush in the 2004 Presidential election. Mr. Cowan's voice took on a noticeably venomous tone when he stated that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth "smeared Kerry" and "may well have cost him the election." Mr. Cowan, I defy you to name just ONE allegation made by John O'Neal and the Swift Boat vets that has been found to be untrue. To this day, John Kerry has a standing invitation to debate John O'Neal, but continues to run from the opportunity to face his nemesis. Every fact the Swift Boat Vets have brought up about Kerry has withstood the test of public inquiry. I am a Vietnam Veteran who was flying combat missions over North Vietnam in 1972 at the same time Jane Fonda was having her photo taken with the NVA gunners on the very AA guns used to kill American pilots. I believe that you would have a much better program if you would stick to historical facts, and leave out your suffocating left-wing political bias. However, that is probably asking far too much from the likes of P-BS.
John Kuehnert, Norman, OK
I enjoy History Detectives considering it one of my favorite shows, however, the narrative following the GAR segment concerned me. The remarks concerning John Kerry and the Swift Boat veterans were misleading and had nothing to do with the story. I felt the comments were inappropriate as they appeared to be nothing but a political commentary without the disclaimer. The "wealthy businessman" is also a Vietnam veteran who has taken issue with John Kerry for years. Again, I enjoy the show each week but take exception with last night's remarks about John Kerry.
Paul Michna, Magnolia, TX
I enjoy watching the History Detectives . . . most of the time. Last night's episode is pushing it, however. Wes Cowan made a comment about how the Swift Boat people "smeared" John Kerry and may have cost him the election. If Wes wants to talk politics, tell him to get on a different show. The Swift Boat folks didn't "smear" anyone. They told the truth as they know it, and if that "smears" John Kerry, too bad. Kerry, after all, brought the whole topic of Vietnam up himself in the first place. But regardless, Wes' comments were over the top and I hope you dump him for someone else, or label him as a commentator, not an investigator. We conservatives are the ones who need a return to the "fairness doctrine" to counteract folks like Wes who get paid with public funds to spread his opinions. ENOUGH!
Richard T. Hedlund, Weddington, NC
I was watching History Detectives last night and wanted to provide some feedback. The segment on the Grand Army of the Republic and veterans was well done. My enjoyment of the show was marred by the blatant attempt to politicize the show with the commentary after the mystery. The comments were over the top and very prejudicial. First there was the commentary that the American Legion had supported Mussolini (out of context and did not have anything to do with the previous commentary). A good student of history is aware that much of the country had conflicting opinions in the 1930s and early 1940s. Throwing one comment about the times without context is insulting.
Then there were the comments about Senator John Kerry, the last presidential election and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. That segment was blatantly political and inappropriate. Why and how Kerry lost the election would take an hour to discuss and the issue of the Swift Boat Veterans is only a part of it. Duly noted was the lack of comment about President Bush's controversial service during that era and the attacks on him.
It would take too much space for me to point out all the problems with your comments (suffice it to say they were one sided at best and inflammatory at worst). I watch PBS because of the quality of the shows and the attempt at fairness and neutrality. If I want to watch a political show, either liberal of conservative, I will do so. I dislike when anyone mixes in their political agendas in the middle of a show that is nominally educational and entertaining. Please cease and desist and keep your entertainment shows neutral, or have the honesty to say that they are political forums and not educational or entertainment.
John Wylder, Lake Oswego, OR
I was disappointed with the episode of "History Detectives" that aired on Monday, July, 9. At the end of the first segment about the photo of the GAR reunion with black soldiers, a comment was made that John Kerry was "smeared" by the Swift Boat Veterans in 2004, and possibly lost the election because of it. This is not true, the group pointed out many of Kerry's discrepancies in his service with the Swift Boats in Vietnam. He never did answer their charges and refused to release his military records from the period, which would have cleared many things up. This seems to be another example of the liberal bias of PBS. In the future, please confine yourselves to telling about history, not rewriting it.
Bob Abraham, Los Angeles, CA
And More . . .
The recent segment re: a picture of a GAR chapter with two black men circa 1890s was excellent. The problem I had was with the Epilog. The commentator described how the GAR was replaced by the VFW. The next statement described how conservative elements of the VFW supported Mussolini in the 1930s. The next discussion was how the vets in the Viet Nam era supported the anti-war movement, led by young John Kerry. (Naturally there were no vets that supported the war or opposed communism). Then the man stated that John Kerry would be President if the "Swift Boat" vets didn't smear Kerry's record. My view is that the vets set Kerry's phony war record straight. My suggestion: The stories are good but let's cut out the left-wing propaganda in the Epilog.
Ed Barnett, Desert Hills, AZ
Last evening, 7/9/07, my husband was watching a PBS History show. I was reading a book when my husband stepped into the kitchen. We both stopped what we were doing, and both were shocked, when the narrator said something to the effect that the Swift Boat men SMEARED John Kerry and may have been the cause of his not being elected. Then the narrator mentioned that we should be mindful of the respect deserved by those who served. Somehow he seemed to ignore the fact that all of the Swift Boat men served honorably in Vietnam . . . perhaps the reason he forgot was because they didn't go into the jungle with a camera crew as did Kerry. I resent the sneaky, arrogant, elitist and manipulative way PBS pushes their political agenda, but if I weren't paying for it, it wouldn't be so disgusting.
Joanne Conti, Coatesville, PA
I was watching the History Detectives this evening, 07-09-2007, only to have my intelligence assaulted by Wes Cowan's comments following the section dealing with the Grand Army of the Republic photo and history. He managed to segue from a discussion of the Civil War group into the American Legion and finally to the last presidential election where, in his words, " . . . the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smeared Senator John Kerry, possibly costing him the Presidency." This was a blatant venting of his political views and added nothing to the program in question. This sort of interjection was most unwelcome and betrays a bias on Mr. Cowan's part that is offensive to literally millions of Vietnam Veterans who believe John Kerry to be a liar at best and traitor at worst.
I fought in that damn war, and know many Swifties. If Mr. Cowan, who, I suspect, has never heard a shot fired in anger, wishes to debate the military career of John Kerry vs. the Swifties, or defend Kerry's campaign of lies concerning those of us who served with honor in that very difficult situation, then I'm his man. Otherwise, he needs to keep his mouth shut and his onerous opinions to himself!
J. Johnson, Arlington, TX
I have been watching and enjoying PBS programs almost every night since we canceled our cable television subscription a few months ago. My wife and I particularly enjoy History Detectives and this is what has compelled me to write.
I was saddened to see distinctly liberal political viewpoints during the wrap-up commentary tonight featuring the Civil War photograph and the Grand Army of the Republic. During the wrap-up, information was presented about the plight of veterans. Comments were made about Senator John Kerry that are clearly supportive of the Democratic Party. Particularly insulting were the statements about his war record being "smeared" by Swift Boat Veteran's for Truth, and how it was financed by a "wealthy Republican contributor," which "may have cost him the election." This segment was entirely out of place in the wrap-up, and was not the time or the place to make one-sided arguments about a contentious political subject. The wrap-up session would have been equally as effective (or more so) without these comments.
I know you can make the argument that there will always be some point that people don't agree with on any show you broadcast. But the issue of John Kerry and Swift Boat Veteran's for Truth is clearly a political issue that has so many sides it can't be properly argued or presented in a single statement. Presenting it as such is irresponsible programming. When watching a television show that is paid for and supported by the public viewers, it would be nice to exclude commentary that is obviously supportive of one or another political viewpoint (unless the show is clearly advertised as such). Please remember that many "wealthy Republicans" are watching the shows and enjoy PBS. Hopefully this type of misplaced, irresponsible political commentary won't keep them from supporting their local PBS station.
Jeff Nine, Albuquerque, NM
I take particular offense with the comment made during the 7-9-07 airing of History Detective about American Servicemen smearing John Kerry's record. All these fine men did was come out and tell the truth.
Wm Barker, Waukon, IA
Are the increasingly personal editorial comments after each story segment really necessary? I thought the purpose of this feature was to direct the viewer to other resources, related topics, etc. Mr. Cowan's attack on the American Legion over alleged "smear campaign" vs. (apparently his favorite) presidential candidate Kerry was, in my opinion, totally out of line and irrelevant to the story.
Kal Besenczky, Scottsdale, AZ
The Producers Respond
The following letter is from Christopher Bryson, executive producer with Lion Television, on behalf of the producers of "History Detectives."
In the interstitial following our story about a photograph of Civil War veterans we sought to take a broader look at the history of veterans' involvement in American politics. We wanted to include but not limit ourselves to discussion of how those groups have fought for veterans' rights. (The story preceding the interstitial was itself anchored to a political mystery, how and why a photograph of mostly white Grand Army of the Republic veterans included two African Americans in an era when segregation was in full force.)
To not have included mention in our interstitial of the involvement of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in the 2004 election, we felt, ran the risk of ignoring the role of veterans and veterans groups in significant recent history.
In stating that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth "smeared Kerry's military record" we carefully and believe accurately summarized and characterized a great deal of objective reporting by established media organizations, respected media watchdog groups, and an official Pentagon investigation, regarding whether Kerry had accurately represented his war record, and whether his service medals were justified.
We wrote our interstitial based on reporting by, amongst others, the Washington Post, the Center for Media and Democracy, the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, historian Douglas Brinkley ("Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War"), and the Navy Inspector General.
The record is clear. As a young man John Kerry did what the men in our Civil War story did, he went to war for his country, and in his case was awarded medals for his bravery. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was organized in advance of the 2004 election and funded by operatives with close ties to the political machine seeking the re-election of President George W. Bush. The media campaign by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth which attacked Senator Kerry's military record was reported and judged to have been a successful political effort to undermine Kerry's deserved and honorable credentials as a decorated veteran. In this regard it can accurately and fairly be described as a smear. (At the time Senator John McCain judged the group's attacks "dishonest and dishonorable.")
A take-no-prisoner's strategy is now common in American politics, practiced by Democrats and Republicans alike. We want our show to be entertaining and to be enjoyed by viewers. We seek to illustrate how history is relevant today; how the present is connected to the past. And we favor neither Republican nor Democrat. But our show is about American history, and is therefore of necessity sometimes dealing with some of the most incendiary and conflicted episodes of our past. We believe fair-minded media organizations including the History Detectives television show can best serve the public by describing that political history accurately.
When I say, as I did at the top of this column, that these viewers have a point, I mean that, in my view, this comment of Cowan's, and the way it was presented, seemed to me to come out of nowhere, be irrelevant to the segment viewers had just watched, and jumped out as sort of a gratuitous political shot that seemed to distract from what is almost always an entertaining program removed from this kind of thing.
Also, the Swift Boat assault on Kerry in the '04 presidential campaign was a long-running and very controversial battle, not given to one-liners. And, as some viewers put it, there are lots of reasons why Kerry lost. There are undoubtedly large numbers of people who would agree with the characterization of the Swift Boat campaign as a smear on Kerry — who was awarded three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and Silver Star while serving in Vietnam — while many others see it differently.
In the end, the Navy's Inspector General said that "our examination found that existing documentation regarding the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals indicates the awards approval process was properly followed" and that "the senior officers who awarded the medals were properly delegated authority to do so" and that "Senator Kerry's awards were properly approved."
Years earlier, during Kerry's Senate re-election campaign in 1996, when controversy also arose regarding the Silver Star, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who was Under Secretary of the Navy at the time, said, "We did extraordinary, careful checking on that type of medal, a very high one . . . I'd stand by the process that awarded that medal, and I think we best acknowledge that his heroism did gain that recognition." Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who was commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Vietnam at the time and who signed the Silver Star citation, said, "It is a disgrace to the United States Navy that there's any inference that the (medal) process was anything other than totally honest."
Having followed this over the years, I felt, personally, that the evidence supported Kerry's record, citations and performance in battle. But the issue here for me is the appropriateness, or rather the lack of it, of Cowan's commentary.
More About That July 4th Production
The following letter is from Jerry Colbert, executive producer of "A Capitol Fourth."
I am writing in response to your column of July 6, 2007 regarding production of "A Capitol Fourth" and the feedback you received about our presentation of the fireworks. I want to assure you and our loyal viewers that we take these concerns very seriously. In fact, based on last year's feedback, we more than doubled the time devoted to the fireworks display accompanied by patriotic music. Furthermore, we worked with the National Park Service to create a "TV" finale increasing the number of fireworks bursts at the end of our broadcast so that the television viewers at home would not completely miss out on a grand finale. We also continue to make our credits transparent so that viewers can see as much of the display as possible (other programs usually use a black screen to roll the credits on) and this year reduced its size to provide more screen for the display.
However, the fact remains that the National Park Service controls the start and end time of the fireworks show, which runs from 9:10 to 9:30 p.m., with the result that the grand finale takes place after "A Capitol Fourth" goes off air at 9:27 p.m. We have always endeavored to broadcast as much of the display as allowed in the air-time allotted to us by PBS. Over the years, we have requested that the National Park Service begin the fireworks show earlier and that PBS provides more time to cover the grand finale. Both of these options would provide a solution; both have been declined in the past.
Capital Concerts clearly understands the desire of viewers to watch the fireworks in their entirety and we greatly regret that we have been unable to do so. However, we feel that we are being unfairly criticized for factors outside of our control. Over the coming months, we will once again share these viewer comments with the National Park Service and PBS in the hopes that the public's strong feelings on this issue will bring about a change in policy.
We also wanted to respond to viewer inquiries about the religious content of one of the songs performed by Grammy-winning gospel superstar Yolanda Adams. As we develop the show content, we aim to celebrate our nation's birthday through a wide variety of popular American music. Gospel has a long history in our country and is based in church music which typically does include religious lyrics. We appreciate viewers voicing their concerns to us on this matter.
It is our great pleasure to be able to share America's premier Independence Day holiday celebration from our nation's capital with viewers across the nation. During its 27 years on air, "A Capitol Fourth" has consistently remained one of the most popular shows on PBS, attracting more than 10 million viewers annually. It is a great honor to produce this special event that not only celebrates the birthday of our nation but the ideals we are founded on.