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PBS Ombudsman

Some Timely, or Untimely, Ghosts?

Two programs on PBS last week revived some ghosts; memories of people and events of years past that might still have relevance these days. In one case, that possibility made a few viewers wonder whether airing such a documentary at this time was a mistake.

The first program I'm referring to is a repeat of the documentary that was first broadcast back in January titled "Oswald's Ghost." Part of the highly-regarded "American Experience" series, this film deals with Lee Harvey Oswald and the history, the investigations and the culture of conspiracy that continues to surround one of the most extraordinary events of our lifetime — the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The second program, "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story," is a product of Frontline, one of PBS's, indeed one of all of television's, premier documentary and investigative series. It aired for the first time on television last week and told the story of one of the youngest, toughest, most influential and controversial political strategists of our time who died of a brain tumor in 1991 when he was just 40 years old.

I did not get much mail on "Oswald's Ghost," perhaps because it had made its debut 11 months ago. Viewer observations at the time, along with a brief comment by me, were included in a mailbag back in February. But this time, the handful of phone calls and e-mails I got were precisely about the wisdom of repeating the showing of this film about a presidential assassination literally within days of a historic election of the nation's first African-American president-elect.

Here's how a viewer in St. Paul, Minn., put it: "I am appalled that you would show 'Oswald's Ghost' in the aftermath of an election which carries with it such hope for the future. Why bring up that dreadful episode in our history at a time when we are all celebrating and are so proud to have elected an extraordinary man? His safety has been at the back of our minds all through the campaign. And now you run a film that shows just how to harm him. What sorry judgment. What were you thinking, PBS?"

When I asked PBS programming officials about this, I was told: "This film is timed to coincide with the upcoming 45th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination (November 22, 1963)."

Well, that certainly is a reason, but it doesn't seem to me to be a very compelling one. The 45th anniversary of anything is not marked very often and since the film made its debut in January, the anniversary link doesn't hold up well. Beyond that, there is, in the re-broadcasting, the question of judgment, common sense, and, as the writer from Minnesota suggests, the fear that "has been in the back of our minds all through the campaign." Maybe those three or four viewers who wrote or called are being overly sensitive, but I agree with them; not a good time to re-broadcast this film.

He Had Rhythm; Dems Had Blues

"Boogie Man" is a clever title for the 90-minute program about the late Republican political strategist Lee Atwater. He was a real, guitar-playing, rhythm and blues musician. And he was an engaging personality linked to a hardball, attacking political style with an unflinching and unblinking focus on winning. He was a genius to his supporters, an evil genius to his critics. And win, he did; playing a central role in the election victories of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and influencing those who followed. This is a hard-hitting film that turns a timely spotlight on negative campaigning and the use of so-called "wedge issues" as part of political strategy, something that many of us have witnessed over many election cycles and will undoubtedly see again.

First, a bit of background. The Atwater film was not actually produced by Frontline. It was an independent documentary produced by InterPostive Media and filmmakers Stefan Forbes and Noland Walker that first was shown in dozens of theaters around the country in September and October. Frontline acquired the rights to broadcast the film on television after it had been produced for movie theaters. Forbes worked with Frontline to produce the broadcast version which, Frontline says, differs slightly from the theatrical release but not in any substantive way. It was mostly, they explain, a matter of trimming about 7-10 minutes from the film but with no major deletions. It is unusual for Frontline to acquire films in this manner, although officials say there have been a handful of such occasions in the past. They said that the interest in Atwater as an influential figure, plus the spotlight it shed on campaign politics and its arrival during a historic campaign made it appealing.

There have been many reviews of this film, mostly of the version that appeared in theaters in September and October. So far, all the reviews of the film that I've read have been quite favorable. Here is a sampling from the Chicago Sun-Times, the New York Times and Baltimore Sun.

All but one of the letters to me, however, were sharply critical, viewing the production as a "hatchet job," as one viewer put it, and a biased attack on Republicans.

That may be understandable since Atwater was at the center of Republican politics for much of his brief but meteoric adult life. But it is precisely because Atwater was so quick, so daring, so successful and so influential and controversial that he, more than any other campaign strategist of that era, is worthy of special focus. I came away from this program feeling that producers Forbes and Walker clearly wanted to record the downside of a winning-is-everything strategy. But I found Frontline's treatment of Atwater's story to be fair and well-documented. This stuff happened. There are lots of voices, including several Republican strategists, on all sides in this film and they add up to a pretty comprehensive portrait that captures the complexities and contradictions of one of the most important figures in modern American politics. And it also does a pretty good job of spotlighting the press's failure to do a better job of challenging campaign assertions and innuendoes.

I thought Tucker Eskew, who has worked in the 1984 Reagan-Bush campaign, for President George W. Bush and was an adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign this year, said it well in the film: "It's so much easier to blame dirty tricks than it is to acknowledge hard work. Did he give his opponents ammunition to criticize him for negative tactics? Yes. Does that obscure the fact that he outfoxed them at every turn? Not to those of us watching closely." Later, Eskew said, "I'd watched politics fought like war under Lee Atwater. I think it had some bad effects on the country. He'd had to struggle for everything he'd gotten in his life. He wasn't going to stop."

Here Are the Letters

I enjoy PBS' historical programming (American Experience etc) and so turned on Frontline tonight. I consider myself an independent (libertarian) and although I remember the name Lee Atwater, couldn't remember the details of his political life. I was appalled at the hatchet job PBS did to this man. I guess their view was that he was pure evil. The man may have used some unpopular methods of getting his candidate elected. Both parties seem to have picked up a few tips. I was truly shocked that PBS would produce and broadcast such a mean and vicious attack on a man. I've seen kinder documentaries on Hitler and Saddam Hussein. Shame on PBS!!!

Karen Pryor, Fayetteville, GA

I was struck by the report on Lee Atwater and how back then, the press was reporting both sides of a campaign. The election this year did not cover both sides and was obviously biased to Obama. Obama got free passes on many controversial topics. I also thought that the program was a veiled or NOT so veiled attempt at slamming Republicans. By the way, we conservatives are praying for another Lee Atwater.

Richard Garven, El Paso, TX

It's always interesting and enlightening to watch a gang of cowards kick around the body of a dead man who can no longer defend himself. It's not a matter of whether Atwater was a good man, or something else . . . and I am certainly no admirer of the man, it's about who PBS is and how they have behaved here. I'd like to see the footage of the Republicans who participated in this show that fell on the floor. Now that would be enlightening! One thing that can be said . . . the Republicans were willing to criticize one of their own. Not something I have ever seen the Democrats or PBS ever do. How you at PBS rationalize engaging in exactly the same behavior you accuse Atwater of {character assassination} . . . is a sight to see! The hypocrisy of those who support a man like Howard Dean as Democratic Party Chairman and criticize Atwater is stunning, and says much about the Democratic Party and PBS . . . You should all be ashamed.

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Your story on Lee Atwater made me sick to my stomach. You liberals are just like a bunch of sub-teens. Not ever admitting the truth but using evasion to cover the facts. i.e., playing the race card to divert attention from the facts. (It's not dirty politics when it's the truth.) You fail to mention the horrendous, deadly and sickening liberal media bias.

Dale Bennett, Fort Worth, TX

Can you honestly say that "Boogie Man" was a fair and accurate portrayal of Lee Atwater? Shame on you and PBS. If PBS was presented with a similar film about Terry McAuliffe, you know that PBS wouldn't even consider it. It's disgusting to think that my tax dollars help support the distribution of this biased garbage.

D. H., La Puente, CA

As a Canadian I speculate the world's problems are directly related to Atwater. The wars we face are a direct result of Atwater and him receiving a paycheck to get the Bushes to screw up our world. Never mind 9/11, this man has defaced the American system and doesn't even deserve to be acknowledged . . . I'm glad that Frontline has the truth for the millions of deceived people who now understand another demented spin doctor.

Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Just watched "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story," and I'm so angry I could spit. This story, like all stories, has two sides, but I'm only getting one side: the side of the haters on the Left — PBS. I know PBS gets a significant amount of taxpayer dollars, so I would imagine it should be even handed in its assessment of presidents and other political figures, but PBS consistently lambastes the conservatives, with special venom for those who have died, Atwater in specific.

PBS is a propagandist tool in the hands of the Liberal wing of Democrat politics. I resent half-truths and revisionist history taught about our best leaders. Ronald Reagan was savaged by PBS, and has long been the focus of hate and derision by PBS. I saw more of that tonight in the Atwater story. It's clear the producers were his enemies and are merciless to him in Boogie Man.

James Shaw, College Place, WA

Frontline Responds

Here's a response from Frontline story editor, Catherine Wright, to those critical viewers who wrote to me:

"We are sorry that you felt the film was an attack on Lee Atwater, or in any way inaccurate or biased. We respectfully disagree. Though Lee Atwater was and remains a controversial figure in politics, his hardball campaign tactics have since been used by political consultants both Republican and Democratic. The film presented thoughts on Lee Atwater's life and legacy from a number of different people on both sides of the political aisle, including Republican strategists like Tucker Eskew, Ed Rollins, and Roger Stone, who worked closely with Atwater and considered him a friend, and Democratic politicians like Tom Turnipseed and Michael Dukakis, who found themselves targets of Atwater's campaign strategy.

"We agree that the film turns a critical lens on the kind of political tactics developed and perfected by Lee Atwater, and as journalists we consider that our duty, but we also feel it is a fair portrayal of those tactics and the impact Lee Atwater had on the campaigns he directed, and on the broader political campaign landscape. We stand by the film."

(Ombudsman's Note: I'll be away from the office next week. Hope you all enjoy the Thanksgiving Holiday.)

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