The Ombudsman's Mailbag
By Michael Getler
July 11, 2008
Welcome to another collection of viewer responses to what they saw and heard on PBS in recent days. This week, most of the mail, and certainly most of the heat, was generated by Part II of a three-part series titled "The War of the World: A New History of the 20th Century" written and narrated by Scottish-born historian Niall Ferguson. This series airs on consecutive Monday evenings, so it will conclude next week, July 14. I published some letters from viewers last week and some brief observations of my own based only on that first segment. There will undoubtedly be more to say after all three parts have aired.
At this stage, however, viewers who have written to me, or called, don't see much virtue in Ferguson's provocative analysis of the violent century just ended. In fact, with one partial exception, they really dislike this series and don't seem to care much for Ferguson, either. Here is a lengthy sampling, without comment from me, of the letters this week.
And a Personal Beef
Below these letters from viewers is also an ombudsman's comment about something that has nothing to do with PBS but has a lot to do, in my opinion, with broadcast ethics, the use of doctored photographs in a particularly degrading fashion, and a mainstream press that didn't seem to take much notice.
But first . . .
Allies 14, Ferguson 0
It was with interest that I began viewing the series presented by PBS: "War of the World" to gain some new insights regarding the origins of WWII. In reality, it was a package of oversimplifications and evident intentional oversights that added up to a very unbalanced and inaccurate presentation of Allied/Axis behavior that was presupposed to validate an extreme racist climate on both sides. I will not say, as history will support, that there was no racist elements in America's response to the Pearl Harbor attack and Axis declaration of war, but I would strongly submit that contributing elements such as the well publicized Bataan death march, conducted by Japanese forces after the fall of Corregidor and the unmentioned Japanese warriors code of Bushido contributed to the non surrender and not execution of attempting suicides than an intent by allied forces to racially exterminate an enemy based on race. The author blithely ignored and did not mention the fact that the United States of America accepted losses exceeding 40% to use daylight precision bombing against German and Japanese military targets versus the British that bombed at night with much less precision and greater loss of civilian life to save losses in aircrews and limited material (read aircraft/aircrews). Carried all the way to the end, this is a gross misrepresentation of facts that cannot be supported with any other explanation other than the desire for sensational advancement by the author and general attempt to portray the greatest generation of America as a group of racially motivated cold blooded killers. Shame on him and PBS for presenting such a travesty of public broadcasting power.
I thank God for the men and women that chose to fight bravely during the world's darkest hours to bring the light of freedom to the world.
Steve Snyder, Richland, WA
I was very disturbed by this program. Were it simply a waste of time, it would not have been as bad. But it made me quite angry. I saw it as stupid/short-sighted and self-righteous. Niall Ferguson the history scholar, because his points are either obvious, ill-conceived, and preachy, comes off as a self-righteous academician who totally misses the point of the history he covers. Bottom line is his inferences are wrong. Excerpts I scribbled such as: "We threw away all moral restraint to get rid of the Axis" . . . and, "We adopted practices we despised." This last spoken, I believe, as he described and showed pictures of American soldiers killing wounded Japanese soldiers. And, as we heard about and saw pictures of the destruction of Dresden, "Was all this carnage necessary?" Yes, we 'took' Stalin, one of the most murderous villains of our world, as an ally. So what else is new? Hitler was at the time the direct threat to us. Neither Mr. Ferguson nor any of us alive today were in the position to make those decisions that had to be made. So what's the point of his criticism?
Is all of this to say humans are imperfect? That war brutalizes us? What is his point? He criticizes 'us' and our allies of some of the same brutality we accused and still, retrospectively, 'accuse' those old enemies of. Likely, to be more kind to him, he is a scholar who must publish. He, as any dedicated scholar, is passionate about his work. So it was a big coup to get this production on PBS. But he was at least short-sighted and obnoxious to anyone who — with any education — easily sees past his 'thesis.' But, for my money, the production was a total waste of supporters' money. I doubt anyone who watches PBS was in any way informed by this production.
But Mr. Ferguson had to drive this obvious point home in his supercilious tone and took an hour to do so . . . with our money. Whoever was responsible for bringing this claptrap on PBS should be fired. AND, the well-known idea that war brutalizes humans — which explains much of what we saw — was left out. As the mythical blonde says: "Hello???"
I kept waiting for something of value. But there was not much of value . . . except as it made me think and get angry enough to write this counterpoint. Any historical new stuff could have been presented in 15 minutes. It might have been worth it were those obvious points been added: War brutalizes us. We are not gods. We, as nation-states, feel threatened when attacked and feel compelled to attack back. The so-called 'War on Terror,' from our, perhaps, more evolved condition now, tries to differentiate between innocents and combatants in some foreign country from which terrorists strike . . . and plan to strike further. So we try to minimize collateral damage. It is a dilemma that seems inevitable in our human society at humanity's current state of 'moral evolution' and technology. Everyone knows this. BUT . . . as a Jew, who has seen films of the Nazi killing many, many times in my lifetime, crying each time, and having met many survivors . . . this time, instead of feeling in any way influenced by Mr. Ferguson's 'insights', out of my tears the angry words, 'Never again!' emerged from depths inside of me. Inevitably war is with us. Inevitably it brutalizes those who 'serve.' Inevitably, yes, sadly, our zeal to beat and destroy those who would destroy us will occur and IS justified. We know no other way that could be effective. The choice to use the A-bomb on Hiroshima, or send unknown numbers — surely thousands of our men to their death to try to win the war, is an insane dilemma. In retrospect, it's easy to moralize.
So Mr. Ferguson comes off as a preachy intellectual whose presentation misses the point I'm sure he knows. I may never give to PBS again. Real charities that reduce real human suffering are clearly more deserving . . . especially after this fiasco.
Ira Katz, Coram, NY
I am in the process of watching Niall Ferguson's lectures on the Second World War. It is the most vile presentation, and distortion of the facts of this terrible war I have ever viewed. It can only be described as nauseating. To state that the fight against the Nazis was a victory only of a lesser evil against a somewhat greater evil is abominable.
The presentation of the Japanese as hard done by, ignoring their enormous maltreatment, mutilation and slaughter of both soldiers and civilians is to put it mildly a further abomination. I am speechless that PBS would ever have considered airing this diatribe, let alone without a proper rebuttal.
It is not only among conservatives that this program will "cause controversy". I am a Jew, and a staunch liberal democrat: a Jew, I add, whose mother's family was virtually destroyed in Poland, both by neighbors and by ordinary German soldiers. My very young cousin a child of several years of age was bayoneted by German soldiers and my grandfather was shot in the back of his head by his neighbors of two decades.
I for one will never support PBS again in any fashion. I think my email deserves a response, but I doubt you or PBS has the courage to provide one.
Sidney Kahana, Stony Brook, NY
I cannot believe that you would broadcast such an absurd, biased view of World War II like "War of the World, Part 1." I'm sure Niall Ferguson, the "Scholar" never, ever considered serving in the military to see what it's like to be a patriot first hand. Does he forget that the Japanese attacked the United States without any provocation? Does he not recall the "Bataan Death March"? A horrific war crime! How about the continuous and atrocious bombing of England by the Germans? The Japanese and Germans were ruthless and he tries to put his pathetic twist on how the "true heroes", the American and British troops, fought bravely to bring free countries conquered by the Japanese and Germans, who ruthlessly ruled and killed their populations. Please stop broadcasting this fallacy and apologize for allowing this travesty to air!
Chief Master Sergeant (Retired) Michael Corson, Shamong, NJ
The Bomb Saved Thousands of American Lives
Tonight (July 7) I saw an episode of War of the World that I found absolutely appalling in its attempt at moral equivalency between the "evil" of the Axis war powers and the "lesser evil" as it disgracefully characterized the Allied forces that saved the known world from the depredations of the fascists. Particularly amazing and outrageous was how the narrator blamed the Allies for the post-war slavery and oppression of Europe by Stalin and his murderous communist regime, without even mentioning that it was FDR's weakness and idiocy in the peace accords that divided Europe and condemned millions to communist rule for decades. And then at the end of the program the narrator insisted, while actually asserted that the Allied victory was really no victory at all, that he wasn't actually positing the moral equivalency between our great nation and the totalitarianism of Hitler and Stalin — when in reality that is what the whole lying program was asserting! Try telling the nations we liberated that the Allies didn't achieve victory! Do you think we are fools? My father served on a Navy destroyer escort in the battle of Okinawa. He is gone now but would be blown away by the attempt of this program to paint our valiant GIS as morally bankrupt as the freaking Japanese who forced the Bataan Death March.
The atom bomb was the only way to end the war; how dare this program accuse us of totalitarian tactics when the bomb saved tens of thousands of American lives. And then our boundless Christian generosity made the nations we defeated among the most prosperous on earth when any other victorious country would have annihilated their enemies!
Shame on you. You will never get another nickel from me and I will work to revoke your taxpayer funding. This is just too damn much.
Joy Overbeck, Kiowa, CO
I cringed while watching the new series you are showing, "The War" — For Heaven sakes this was WAR — this series seems to be trying to make us look like the "bad guys" just like every other liberal rag of media news we get today — Personally I am sick to death of it. Disgusting series!
I cannot express how disgusted I feel after just seeing your The War of the World program! More biased misinformation, very skilled and truthful looking at times. Why in the world you need all these lies?!
A Brit, representing the most bloody and inhumane empire of all times, tells us a prejudiced history of XX century wars! And he starts NOT with Anglo-Boor War in S. Africa, THE 1st contemporary imperialist and totalitarian war, which truly shook the world by British ability to disregard human life, esp. of those they considered lesser, and to shed human blood in mass murder of civilians or POWs (as if their actions in India, Sudan, etc. were not enough). It was that war which moved the world to make first war rules conventions! Instead, cowardly and misleading, he starts with Russo-Japan war of 1904. And he presents it as a racial war of white European Russians against Mongoloid Japanese. SHAME on him and you! Russians, whose famous proverb says "scratch a Russian, and a Tatar will come out", never had that purely British agenda. Think: can you name a single people that disappeared within the Russian empire? And now consider all the peoples, not individuals, but ethnoces as a whole, that were exterminated by England from Cornwall and Ireland to Americas, Africa, South Asia, and Australia and Oceania! Several FAMILIES of nations/ethnoces were killed off by the British Crown!
When presenting WWI, he avoids mentioning that Britain actually intrigued madly to smash continental empires against each other.
When talking about fall of Turkish Empire, he completely screened the role of British Empire, how they used Arabs to dismantle the Ottomans, and then turned around, betrayed the Arabs, and established British colonies in place of Turkish ones from Palestine to the Gulf. And when the Arabs tried to rise and revolt, the Brits were drowning them in blood, and more blood!!! What kind of people are behind the series!?
If my disgust was not big enough, at the end you/they promoted next film, about WWII, where they/you will equal Hitler's Nazi Germany with Stalin's USSR. Are you Idiots (in Dostoevsky's meaning)? Have you lost your mind, soul, any sense of moral??!! It's sad and really disturbing.
E K, Port Jeff., NY
A No-Wing Nut?
In Part 2 of The War of the World, Mr. Ferguson referred to Adolph Hitler as a "right wing demagogue." How, I wonder, does one go about determining that Hitler was a right winger, rather than a left winger, or maybe a no winger. I suspect it has more to do with Mr. Ferguson's own left wing politics than anything else. It is sad that PBS stoops to air such biased programming.
I have just watched your episode [two] of the War of the World, and feel compelled to protest the ludicrous conclusions masquerading there as history. The author(s) obviously had the agenda of defaming the British Commonwealth and American efforts in WWII, and shamelessly subverted the truth to that end.
The authors went beyond ludicrous to fantasy when they ignored the ancient Japanese warrior tradition of suicide-over-surrender and blamed their fight-to-the-death attitude on a few marines shooting wounded Japanese. Americans learned early that the shame of capture would drive wounded Japanese soldiers to detonate a grenade when approached; and the horrible burns illustrated in the battlefield "atrocity" film made a bullet a merciful end (Matt 7:12). The scene of naked Japanese prisoners was not an example of American brutality, but mercy & ingenuity, for this was the only safe alternative to shooting them. The only evidence the authors sited for Americans shooting prisoners came from Charles Lindberg, a leader of the anti-war America First movement.
Equally ridiculous was the author's attempt to lay blame for Stalin's many atrocities upon Britain and America, simply because they shared common, Axis, enemies with the Soviets. You must bear in mind that these allied soldiers you are slandering are our fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers. Although the Ken Burns WWII history you aired last year freely discussed our mistakes, it didn't twist the truth. Please don't show any more of the current series.
Brian Schacht, Manotick, Ontario
I must say that the series "War of the World" does offer some analysis of depth. I don't buy the common notion that soldiers fought battles to stop Nazi domination, Fascism, or the imperialism of Japan. Those are abstract concepts. I was impressed with the notion that the European and Pacific theaters of conflict escalated into more and more violence — targeting civilians, execution of prisoners and that justification for violence was discovered in the concentration camps.
David Petersen, Kansas City, MO
I am here in Dallas, it's a bit past 4:00, and I'm watching pure and adulterated b------- on your station. I don't know who the hell this little pathetic Englishman with his revisionist history is, but it is incredibly offensive. Perhaps this is open mindedness on your part? I find it to be anything but. I had in mind to support this local station, but on occasion, your programming is patently offensive. Little wonder that it is programmed at such an hour.
Larry Muse, Dallas, TX
War of the Worlds is further proof of PBS's far left leanings. An analysis of history cannot be selective for the purpose of communicating a biased message valued so dearly by the network. Ollie North's critique of the program says all I need to say except that now PBS has driven the final nail in its own coffin. I now know without a doubt that I will never contribute to PBS. Why waste good money?
Bruce Capitell, Birmingham, AL
I cannot believe that PBS allowed to Niall Ferguson to broadcast the clear historical error in "A Tainted Victory" that aired here Wednesday night that suggested that the Japanese fought the way they did because Americans executed prisoners. That's not just a point-of-view issue. That's just plain incorrect.
Was there some brutality on the part of Americans in World War II? No doubt. However, the Japanese let it be known from the beginning how they would conduct the war, and when we started our offensives at Guadalcanal and Tarawa, it was clear they were going to fight to the last man. By the time the Marines got to Peleliu, they had worries from experience that wounded Japanese would clutch hand grenades and detonate them as Americans neared. They had to shoot wounded Japanese to make sure they were dead. I'm sure many of those cases were unjustified, but the brutal nature of the war was determined earlier by the Japanese, not the Americans.
To suggest that the Japanese on Saipan and Okinawa all killed themselves because of Marine brutality on Peleliu is totally wrong. Saipan happened before Peleliu for one. Second, my father was a Marine at Saipan and Okinawa, and he said his fellow Leathernecks were absolutely stupefied by what took place at the end of the Saipan battle and would have stopped it if they could.
I have no problem with a program on the brutality it took on our part to win the war, but to have such an obvious factual error to smear the Marines is very poor on the part of Niall Ferguson and should have been caught by PBS before the program aired. Again, no censoring of opinion, but factual errors like this should be below the standards of our Public Broadcasting System.
James R. Riffel, San Diego, CA
I understand and acknowledge the left bias of PBS. This in my opinion has gone way too far. I just caught the last 30 minutes of the War of the World. How is it that a show that is so slanted as to call the U.S. led forces terrorist. Stating that it is now not clear who won the war? Showing Japanese soldiers wounded and seemingly unarmed being shot while the narrator describes the U.S. soldiers as being no better than Hitler's death camp commanders. The film failed to say that the Japanese would bobby trap themselves so as to kill the soldier who attempted to move them. Many of our brave men were killed or wounded by such cowardly acts, as in today's suicide bombers in the Mid-East. I am trying my best to teach my family to live and do right. It is difficult enough without them being exposed to supposed history and false reporting of facts. PBS and the stations who show this should be ashamed. Freedom of the press is one of the foundations of our great country. I and our country must have the freedom to point out when our government makes mistakes or does wrong. This is not one of those times. Yes we worked together with one of the worst tyrants in history, yes innocent people were hurt and killed, but to suggest that the USA is no better than Hitler's Nazi rule is unforgivable. I support the right to make this film. I at the same time encourage PBS to pull it, or at the very least give equal time to refute its content so that children and others watching can learn accurate history without the anti-American slant. I am glad I screened this before allowing my family to view it. I will use my freedom of choice and choose to not watch any more of this show.
Steve Sandberg, Louisville, KY
No Friends of Fox
Now, back to the item near the top of this column. The situation I am referring to involves the Fox News Channel broadcast "Fox & Friends" on the morning of July 2. On that program, co-hosts Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade labeled New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg and his editor, Steven Reddicliffe, as "attack dogs" because of a June 28 news story in the Times that Steinberg, who covers television, had written about new cable channel ratings. This story reported on soon-to-be released cable news ratings that showed Fox in the top spot with those viewers of great interest to advertisers, but that for the first three months of the year, CNN had vaulted over Fox. And the reporter cited "a more ominous trend for Fox" in these numbers which showed that CNN and MSNBC "have added viewers at far more dramatic rates."
That seems like pretty standard stuff for media reporters and readers. But the Fox program hosts referred to it as a "hit piece" ordered up by Reddicliffe, a supposedly disgruntled former editor of TV Guide, which was owned by Fox News' parent company, News Corporation. Steinberg and Reddicliffe were labeled on the screen as "attack dogs" and photographs of the two men were shown that appeared to have been altered in a degrading and unflattering way.
The liberal Web site Media Matters for America seems to have been the first to report this and to publish the doctored photos, along with actual photos of the two men. The journalism magazine Editor & Publisher then followed up that same day with an online account, as did United Press International. MSNBC also mentioned it on the Dan Abrams Show that same evening, but that is not unusual because there is a continuing on-air feud between MSNBC and Fox. The New York Times did a follow-up story on July 7. Canada's The Globe and Mail reported on it on July 9. And the Columbia Journalism Review took a shot at Fox and its photo "stunt" also on July 9.
What struck me — and what provokes me to write about it as an ombudsman even though it has nothing to do with public broadcasting — were two things: the altering of photos in a way reminiscent of the worst kind of propaganda techniques and the fact that the episode was hardly reported on by other major news outlets or commented on editorially.
As the Globe and Mail described it, "Steinberg's teeth were yellowed, his nose and chin made more bulbous, and his ears jugged." Both he and Reddicliffe were given huge black rings under their eyes, and Reddicliffe's hairline was made to recede. Writing in that paper, Sinclair Stewart quotes Marc Raboy, who holds a chair in ethics at McGill University in Montreal, as saying that had it happened in Canada it would probably mean a complaint filed to the telecommunications commission or have the issue brought before a press council.
Visions of 'Vintage German Propaganda'
Writing in the Times, media reporter David Carr wrote of Steinberg's image as shown on Fox & Friends: "In a technique familiar to students of vintage German propaganda, his ears were pulled out, his teeth splayed apart, his forehead lowered and his nose was widened and enlarged in a way that made him look more like Fagin than the guy I work with." That erstwhile propaganda technique was precisely what popped into my head immediately upon seeing these images.
I don't know the motivations for this action. As far as I can tell, no explanatory statement has been issued, but on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor" program on July 7, host Bill O'Reilly described the "Fox & Friends" episode as "poking a little fun at Steinberg for misreporting the situation as he does all the time, and they used an unflattering caricature of him."
Then O'Reilly showed the caricature that the Times used of him that accompanied a review of his book last year. "Notice the horn in there," O'Reilly said. The Times' caricature uses comic-book style balloon strokes to connect various drawn facial images of O'Reilly and the balloon strokes do, in some aspects, look like a horn.
But the Times' illustration was a drawing, a clear caricature, a collage. The point about the "Fox & Friends" episode is that they took actual photographs — not a caricature — and altered them in a demeaning fashion and the viewer would have no clue that the real people did not look like that.
Fox News has made a name for itself as an energetic and innovative news operation. It has a large and devoted following. Even if one gives the benefit of the doubt to the program hosts and assumes that the motivations were not sinister, the network should not condone or allow such techniques, and the rest of the press ought to report on this sort of particularly inflammatory distortion.