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Wednesday, October 1, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

It's Back

What is broadly described as the "Armenian Genocide" — the epic saga of what many, but not all, historians and many, but not all, countries describe as the genocide against the Armenians carried out by the Young Turks of the Ottoman Empire during World War I — will never be forgotten. Nor should it be. Nor, it appears, will PBS's role in presenting this century-old controversy be forgotten.

More than two years ago, in April 2006, PBS aired a one-hour documentary titled "The Armenian Genocide" by independent New York filmmaker Andrew Goldberg and Oregon Public Broadcasting. It was, as I wrote at the time, "a powerful and skillfully edited production" that was no "on-the one-hand, on-the-other-hand account. This was a film that sought to validate the genocide and nail down the issue with the best evidence the producers could bring to the screen and into American households." I actually wrote three columns about this program, the last one, on April 21, 2006, includes links to the two earlier columns.

The reason for three columns is because the issue remains intensely controversial among some — Turks, in particular, and a small but committed collection of historians who dispute the mainstream view and the appropriateness of the term genocide. The issue is so controversial that PBS convened a televised panel of four scholars on opposing sides charged with "Exploring the Issues" that appeared immediately after the 2006 documentary was broadcast. Many stations, however, including some big ones with lots of Armenians in the local population, chose not to air the panel that included an American and a Turkish participant who disagree with the genocide label.

As I said in that last column in April 2006, it seemed to me that this was not what one would call a balanced issue and that there is "a more substantial body of evidence and historical assessment on the side of what happened to the Armenians." This was a sophisticated documentary that made clear its assessment but also drew at least some attention to the other side of the story so it did not, in my view, violate PBS editorial guidelines. The panel that was tacked on could have added more perspective from the Turkish side, but it was only 25 minutes and I thought it was poorly handled.

The point here is not to go over this unending controversy but I bring it up, in shortened form, because late in November, PBS's Frontline World posted online a film called "Turkey: A Family Erased," a 12-minute documentary about an Armenian American family in search of its ancestral Armenian home in what is now eastern Turkey. The film is touching in ways that such films can be, and the young Turkish children they find in the village are as warm and charming as any. But the father makes clear at the outset that his ancestors were victims of a series of massacres at the hands of the Turks in what he calls the first genocide of the 20th century.

So, as was the case with the first documentary, members of the Turkish American community and the Assembly of Turkish American Associations have mounted another large e-mail campaign (much of it sent to me) and a protest letter to PBS criticizing this as "little more than a paid advertisement for a single view on a genuine and unfinished historic debate."

I'm not going to go over all of this again but you can watch this short film on the Frontline World Web site and you can also read well-stated criticisms, and responses by Frontline World that include references to my earlier columns, as well as a commentary by the filmmaker, George Kachadorian.

There are some things about this new online film that bothered me, but I don't think it violated Frontline World's editorial guidelines for what it calls these "Rough Cut" films. Its guidelines state: "Rough Cut videos will adhere to the same rigorous journalistic and production standards as all FRONTLINE/World reports, but they may be more idiosyncratic, more personal, more unconventional than our usual television documentaries." This film is certainly more idiosyncratic and personal than what one might expect.

The film is about the family of the filmmaker, an American of Armenian descent. One of the things that I found bothersome about the 2006 documentary for television was that the names of families and foundations supporting and paying for that film seemed to be overwhelmingly Armenian American. Another thing that was troublesome about the 2006 TV production — more specifically about the panel that was added on — was that congressmen in New York, California and elsewhere where there are large numbers of Armenian Americans lobbied hard, and with some success, to have the panel excluded from the broadcast. The TV documentary, as I said earlier, was a sophisticated production. This 12-minute film is not. It states its case, through the family, unequivocally.

Frontline World answers that observation this way: "While we recognize that some may dispute official estimates of the Armenian dead, and that there remains plenty of room for scholarly inquiry into the deeply complicated events of that time, we think Kachadorian's piece, in its unqualified assertion of genocide, is squarely within the current scholarly consensus on the issue. We await future opportunities to tell more stories — from all possible angles and viewpoints — that help us reckon with this difficult history."

That's a fair response. Nevertheless, this sort of home movie on Frontline World surprised me and it struck me as odd that PBS, having broadcast an earlier, careful and scholarly documentary, plus an unusual follow-up panel — both of which attracted national attention, controversy and thousands of e-mails on all sides — would come back to this topic in this fashion.


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