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Thursday, July 24, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman's Mailbag

I was out of the office last week, attending the annual gathering of news ombudsmen. It was held this year, fittingly, in Stockholm, Sweden, home of the word, and the birthplace of this strange occupation.

According to the Web site of the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO), the first ombudsman was appointed in Sweden in 1809 to handle citizens' complaints about the government. But in remarks delivered to this year's gathering, the former Swedish national press ombudsman, Par-Arne Jigenius, said the first "ombudsman" actually dates back to a royal decree in 1713 by King Karl (Charles) XII, a warrior king and absolute ruler who dubbed the chief of his judicial department the "hoge ombudsman," meaning the highest in rank among the department heads and principal advisor to the king.

So we of the ombudsman's trade have a long pedigree but, alas, nowhere near the power bestowed by the Swedish king almost 300 years ago. Indeed, our small but hearty band of ombudsmen (lots of them are women) within American news organizations is shrinking a bit these days, from a high of about 40 a few years ago to about 35 now as some financially hard-pressed newspapers looking around for budget cuts find us either an easy target or a convenient way to get rid of a pain in the neck. But we are actually growing a bit abroad, where they still read newspapers and have public affairs programs on television, with some 30 members in 14 countries.

You Can Sing but Take Your Hat Off

You can read about, or watch video of, the Stockholm conference, if you like, at the ONO Web site. But this column is really just a catch-up on the mail that landed in the inbox while I was away. There were no big headlines and no major controversies that people other than PBS viewers would be aware of. The heaviest flow of mail from viewers involved scores of people who wrote to say how much they appreciated PBS's annual live airing of the 90-minute National Memorial Day Concert from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol on May 25.

These concerts always stir the patriotic soul and people seem genuinely to love them. Yet something always seems to go a little bit wrong — mostly with the annual July 4th concert when the TV broadcast ends before the stirring orchestral finale and fireworks display ends. This time, everything was going smoothly until near the end of the concert when Rodney Atkins, a popular and award-winning country singer whose baseball-style cap is part of his on-stage appearance and which apparently never leaves his head, sang "God Bless America" with his hat on.

That was too much for a lot of people. Here's a representative letter from a viewer in Burnsville, Minn.:

"We watched the Memorial Day concert from Wash. DC . . . excellent, until the last song, which was beautiful, but someone needs to tell the performer that when you are singing 'God Bless America' he should remove his hat, out of respect!!! And maybe in honor of the occasion, he could've dressed up . . . instead of looking like he just got done working on his car! I realize 'the look' is more causal now, but for something like this concert, where we are honoring those who died for our freedoms, it would be nice to at least try to look nice. He doesn't need formal wear, just maybe nice pants and shirt!? And the least of which, is NO HAT!!!"

I've asked PBS if they had any comment on the matter of attire for concert performers but so far they haven't responded or been able to track down the program producer, who has been traveling. A local programming director, Craig Cohen, at WITF-FM/TV in Harrisburg, Pa., however, sent me a copy of a response he gave to local viewers unhappy over the singer's outfit (and not just the cap). "The individual you refer to is country singer Rodney Atkins. I must admit, considering the context of the concert, that I agree with your assessment — his attire was inappropriate. I do hope you were able to enjoy the concert despite the singer's wardrobe. I also hope," Cohen wrote, "it's clear from our annual presentation of this concert, and the many veterans' stories we tell throughout the year, that the public television community deeply appreciates the dedication and sacrifice of our Armed Forces."

I can understand the offense many viewers took to Atkins' Memorial Day outfit of hat, red T-shirt and jeans. But it didn't register with me at all. That's who he is on stage and the idea that it was offensive, I admit, did not cross my mind at the time. The audience was into it, singing along, as were the other performers who joined him. Maybe someone should have been sensitive to this question beforehand and discussed it with the performer, but I can't imagine that he meant to be disrespectful.

Searching for Historical Truth

While large numbers of viewers engaged over the issue of Rodney Atkins' attire, as sometimes happens, only two people — an author and a producer, in this case — engaged in a tense, emotional and hard to resolve dispute over another recently aired PBS program, "Secrets of the Dead: Escape from Auschwitz."

This program, which first aired late in April, was part of the long-running "Secrets of the Dead" series produced for Thirteen/WNET New York. It told the powerful story of two young Jewish men from Slovakia, Rudolph Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, who managed to escape in 1944 from the Nazi death camp, which was located in German-occupied Poland, and tell the world about the atrocities going on there. Vrba sought especially urgently to warn Hungarian Jews that they were the next human wave to be rounded up and shipped to the death camps. But the film also explores, in part, the controversial decision by the head of the Hungarian Jewish underground at that terrible time, Rudolph Kastner, not to make the report of Vrba and Wetzler public. This is a very complex story and it would take most of a very long column to capture it. You can watch it on the program's site.

The aspect involving Kastner, however, produced a fascinating exchange of letters.

Early in May, Professor Ladislaus Lob, now living in Brighton, UK, wrote to me saying:

"I wish to object to PBS's programme 'Secrets of the Dead: The Vrba-Wetzler Report.' While there can be no doubt about Vrba and Wetzler's great achievement in bringing the truth about Auschwitz to light, PBS committed a grave injustice by suggesting — as an established fact rather than speculation — that Rudolph Kasztner's 'suppression' of the Report in Hungary 'resulted in hundreds of thousands more being deported to the gas chambers.'

"In comparison with such a horrendous accusation it may seem trivial to note that the PBS programme wrongly described Kasztner as a 'freedom fighter', 'head of the Hungarian Jewish underground' and 'leader of the Jewish Council', but this kind of imprecision is symptomatic of an approach that passes judgment without a scrupulous examination of the facts. The historians interviewed did their best to explain that Kasztner — the leading figure in a voluntary Jewish Relief and Rescue Committee — hoped to save the Jewish masses by keeping silent about Auschwitz and by using the rescue of 1,670 as the starting point of a much larger rescue enterprise. The general slant of the programme, however, made him appear a deliberate Nazi collaborator.

"As the author of 'Dealing with Satan: Kasztner's Daring Rescue Mission' (Jonathan Cape: London, February 2008) and one of those rescued by Kasztner, I must declare an interest. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the PBS film and the announcements on the internet blatantly misrepresent Kasztner, casting him as the villain where he may deserve praise or at least the benefit of the doubt. The academic contributors were even-handed enough to recognise Kasztner's good intentions. The programme as a whole, by categorically blaming him for the destruction of the majority of Hungarian Jewry, breached PBS's own Editorial Standards of fairness, accuracy, objectivity and balance."

The Producer Responds

I sent Lob's letter to the producer and, in response, Jared Lipworth, executive producer of the series, wrote:

"As you are clearly aware, Kastner has been a controversial figure since the end of the War, and remains so even in death. Therefore, we were very careful in our film to present the facts of what he was trying to do and why, as well as what the results of his efforts were, without making our own judgments. The film clearly stated that his efforts saved lives, and that many people, including those like yourself who were saved, strongly supported what he was trying to do. However, the film also illustrates the view of his detractors, including Vrba, who felt that his decision not to release the report resulted in many deportations and deaths that might otherwise have been avoided.

"As you say, the historians do a very nice job explaining all sides of the issue and telling the story of what Kastner was trying to do, and we made sure to give them the time to do so and to select bites that explained the different views. We also believe that the narration clearly and objectively builds upon and clarifies what they said. We do not say he was a Nazi collaborator, we say he 'was accused of collaborating with the Nazis,' which is simply a statement of fact, not a judgment. Additionally, we don't state as fact that Kastner's 'suppression' of the report 'resulted in hundreds of thousands more being deported to the gas chambers.' It is in fact one of our experts, the esteemed Martin Gilbert, who says, 'Vrba was a very angry man, because he became convinced that had his report been acted upon by the Jewish leadership in Budapest, they could have stopped hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews, from, as he would put it, from boarding the trains.'

"Gilbert also states very clearly that Kastner's intentions were honorable: 'Bizarrely Kastner saved about the same number of Jews as Oscar Schindler saved. But it was always alleged that he'd, was helping friends escape knowing that everybody else was being murdered, whereas the truth was that he was testing Eichmann's promise, in the belief that the few who were being saved that week were just the tip of the iceberg of the hundreds of thousands who were in fact going to be saved as soon as the Gestapo Allied deal was clinched.'

"Although it may not satisfy you, I would like you to know that we spent a great deal of time working on the most honest way to tell the Kastner story, and while there are certainly other approaches that could have been used, we believe that the film is both accurate and objective."

My Reaction

In general, as I said earlier, I thought this was a very powerful and fascinating story, one that is well known and highly controversial among scholars and survivors of that period but that is not known about more broadly and certainly merits being exposed to the wider audience of PBS. I also thought, as a viewer, that it was well handled. I think Lipworth's response is accurate and proper in countering some of Lob's characterizations and in explaining precisely how comments about Kastner were presented on the program and by whom. These extraordinary episodes unfolded more than 60 years ago. Controversy continues. The complexities of wartime and Zionist politics are involved, and details can be ambiguous. Yet views and interpretations, understandably, are very strongly held.

I would not agree with the professor that the "general slant of the program made him (Kastner) appear a deliberate Nazi collaborator." The comments of those interviewed, and the narration, were actually quite careful, as Lipworth points out, to capture the ambiguity and differing views. On the other hand, unless you paid very close attention to how this dialogue was presented, you could certainly come away with an unfavorable opinion of Kastner and his actions.

Disputes about such episodes will probably go on forever and it is hard for a layman to judge this. But research on Kastner also reveals something that was not in the film and that even Lob doesn't mention, but that struck me as important — Kastner's fate in the hands of post-war Israeli courts.

In 1953, Kastner, who had moved to Israel after the war, was accused by pamphleteer Malkiel Gruenwald as having been a Nazi collaborator. Gruenwald, in turn, was then prosecuted for libeling Kastner by an Israeli government attorney general. But the judge, deciding that Kastner had "sold his soul to the devil," rejected the libel claim. Four years later, Kastner was assassinated by a Holocaust survivor. Those events are referenced toward the end of the film. But soon after that, in 1958, the Supreme Court of Israel, by a 3-2 decision on an appeal in Kastner's behalf, overturned most of the earlier judgment against him in the libel case and supported his motivations with respect to Hungary's Jews. There is no reference to that in the film.

When I asked Lipworth why there was no mention of the Supreme Court position, he said: "These court cases came right at the end of the film as part of the wrap up about what became of each of the major players. We only very briefly mention them at all, and follow the information about Kastner's assassination with a comment from renowned historian Sir Martin Gilbert clearly stating that Kastner had saved as many lives as Schindler and was truly pushing (Nazi SS officer Adolph) Eichmann to free many more. In light of the purpose of this film — which was to tell the story of Vrba and Wetzler's escape from Auschwitz — this felt far more appropriate (and positive) an ending to the Kastner story than a list of court cases, which came to be as much about internal Israeli politics as they were about Kastner. Entire films could be made about Kastner and the post-WWII politics in Israel related to people's activities during the Holocaust, but since our film was about a different topic, we selected the information and details that were most relevant to our story."

That also seems reasonable to me except that, again, only the first court case, involving Israeli efforts to sue the pamphlet writer for alleged libel against Kastner, is mentioned at the end of the film; not the Supreme Court decision supporting him. It seems to me that decision was also worth a sentence or two.


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