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PBS Ombudsman

Loose Talk on a Talk Show?

I hope you all had a good Memorial Day holiday, one that combines a day that is supposed to be reflective about the sacrifices of our fellow citizens in the armed services, with a long, relaxing spring weekend away from the workplace.

Judging from the ombudsman's e-mail box here at PBS, however, a fair number of viewers not only were not relaxed, they were angry: upset over comments made by talk show host Tavis Smiley on his program May 25, and by the annual National Memorial Day Concert from the U.S. Capitol grounds on May 30 that several viewers — including the chief of Vietnam Veterans of America — felt virtually ignored the veterans and lost comrades in the Vietnam War.

There were also many viewers who wrote to say that they thought this year's concert was the best ever. But on the matter of Tavis Smiley there was only criticism.

Virtually all of that seemed clearly to be powered by conservative media-watch and news websites and on-air conservative commentators such as Glenn Beck. Those reports and all the e-mail began appearing on May 28, three days after the actual broadcast, which apparently none of the e-mailers saw at the time.

But whatever produced this brief but very heavy flow of critical mail, Smiley's remarks seemed to me, as well, to be puzzling, questionable and worthy of challenge. And they were, indeed, challenged on the air at the time by his guest, Somali-born author and activist, and former member of the Dutch parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In response to my inquiries, Smiley also e-mailed an explanatory statement.

Smiley produces an array of interesting guests and is a forceful, probing interviewer. Hirsi Ali is an eloquent and provocative thinker and writer, born Muslim but now an atheist who lives in the U.S., admires aspects of Christianity, and who warns in her books and public appearances against the jihadist, or extremist and violent, aspects of Islam that some Muslims pursue. She has been and still is the target of death threats.

Whatever one thinks about how this discussion unfolded and one or two of Smiley's observations, this is a fascinating interview, I thought, and well worth catching up with if you haven't seen it.

The Exchange

Here's a segment of the transcript that has become the main focus of criticism:

Tavis: I guess I'm trying to understand where the evidence is that suggests that all of us who happen to be Christians or enlightened in some other way need to take on Muslims here in the West.

Ali: Okay, I think first and foremost what we have to acknowledge is we're not going to get a monster with horns, blue in the face, looking like a dragon called jihad coming in and terrorizing us. The people who are engaged in terrorist activities look like you and me. They look like everybody else here. Major Nidal Hasan, the military guy who in November shot 13 of his colleagues and injured 32, he's going to be on trial pretty soon, I think this week, the young man, Faisal Shahzad, in Times Square who tried to blow innocent people that he doesn't know up, these guys are acting on conviction. Somehow, the idea got into their minds that to kill other people is a great thing to do and that they would be rewarded in the hereafter.

Tavis: But Christians do that every single day in this country.

Ali: Do they blow people up (unintelligible)?

Tavis: Yes. Oh, Christians, every day, people walk into post offices, they walk into schools, that's what Columbine is — I could do this all day long. There are so many more examples of Christians — and I happen to be a Christian. That's back to this notion of your idealizing Christianity in my mind, to my read. There are so many more examples, Ayaan, of Christians who do that than you could ever give me examples of Muslims who have done that inside this country, where you live and work.

Ali: Well, I think you and I disagree, not so much on is there extremism in Christianity — I fully acknowledge that. There are people who want to take the Bible and use passages from the Bible as justification for violent behavior. I'm not denying that in the least. But mainstream Christians in the 21st century are more like you. I'm an atheist, I'm not a Christian, but they are more like you — accepting of other religions and tolerant . . . There are today — I don't want to say, and it's been established, not all Muslims are terrorists, we must emphasize that, but almost all terrorist activities that take place today in our time are done and justified in the name of Islam.

Thoughts: Mine, Viewers', Smiley's

I thought Smiley went off course here in a way that was guaranteed to be inflammatory. He seemed to be equating the occasionally deranged individual in this country with religiously fanatic suicide bombers and those like Maj. Nidal M. Hasan at Fort Hood in Texas. While there are no doubt people who kill in the name of different religions, I don't think he made his case, or even came close.

The only specific case he cited was the Columbine High School massacre outside Denver 11 years ago. But that had nothing to do with Christianity. A lengthy look back at that killing spree that took 13 lives was taken last year in USA Today. Referring to the two teenage killers, it described Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold "as a sort of In Cold Blood criminal duo — a deeply disturbed, suicidal pair who over more than a year psyched each other up for an Oklahoma City-style terrorist bombing, an apolitical, over-the-top revenge fantasy against years of snubs, slights and cruelties, real and imagined."

Hirsi Ali had been on Smiley's show before and right from the start of the May 25 broadcast he made clear that he had been "waiting for months to continue that dialogue" about her view of Christianity that had started in that earlier meeting. So one would think that Smiley would have been better prepared to make what was certain to be a controversial case.

Here Is a (Small) Sampling of the Letters

I am appalled at the statements made by Mr. Smiley regarding his uneducated and false attempt to apply a moral equivalence of Islamic Terrorists who are generally self-proclaimed Islam terrorists who kill in the name of Allah to murderers who may or may not happen to be Christian, Jewish or a Muslim who in NO-way are self-proclaimed religious terrorists. To compare them this way is disgusting, unprofessional and perpetrates disinformation to those who are not well educated on the issue. I expect a full apology from Mr. Smiley and your network which I understand is in part government funded for this outrageous and slanderous claim.

Douglas Kihm, Salt Lake City, UT

What is wrong with Tavis Smiley? How can he claim that Christian terrorists are more numerous that Muslim terrorists? Who is the Christian equivalent to the 9/11 bombers? Is there a Christian equivalent to the shoe bomber or the underwear bomber, who both tried to kill an airliner full of passengers and anyone unlucky enough to be on the ground nearby? How about some truth and honesty?

Roseville, MI

I am ashamed that PBS would sponsor the uninformed or outright lying as was perpetrated by Tavis Smiley on his recent program. In stating that Christians murder more people that fundamentalist Islamists, and that the do so on a daily basis, and attributing post office and Columbine massacres to Christianity is . . . Sinful.

Mike Ship, San Antonio, TX

Having just watched a video of Tavis Smiley's interview with Ms. Ali, I cannot believe that this so-called host has a job. He continually accused Christians of being murdering terrorists, citing the shooting at Columbine and the bombing at Oklahoma City as evidence to support his statement. These killings are not "Christian" in anyway, and for PBS to have a host claim that they are is insulting (at best). This man should be fired immediately, or at least suspended from his role as a host. His guest continually questioned the assertions that he made.

Pete Bielski, Severna Park, MD

Those were some rather astonishing claims against Christians and the Tea Party Tavis Smiley mentioned in his interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Perhaps he could leave his bias aside next time he has a guest on to discuss Islamic issues who obviously comprehends the far greater level of danger in America from Muslim terrorists than Christians.

Shiremanstown, PA

Please ask Tavis Smiley to give examples when he makes broad statements on his show, and to please give accurate examples. He said on a show earlier this week that there were as many or more Christian terror acts in this country as there were radical Islam terror attacks. He sited the Columbine shootings. He needs to check his facts. Those boys were atheist not Christian at all. He should be able to provide one example but he could not and did not. Please have him issue an apology for his ignorance.

Ruth Wilson, Atlanta, GA

Where do you GET these brainwashed people? Tavis Smiley, who considers himself Christian says "Christians do this [blow people up] every day. His point was that Muslims kill so few people; as if he couldn't list the last 20-30 times MUSLIMS blew people up, or destroyed them in terrible, AKA, terrorists ways. I can, as far back as the Cole Bombing, both World Trade Center bombings and multiple attacks upon malls during the Bush admin! But I can't recall A SINGLE CHRISTIAN terrorist; Columbine was done by atheists. The guy shooting-up the Jewish Center wasn't Christian either — and he was an Obama fan! Same for the guy flying the plane into the IRS.

Brian Fahrlander, Evansville, IN

In reviewing Mr. Smiley's show from 5/25/2010 and the interview with Ms. Ali, I find that his comments are lacking in foundation and baseless. Indeed a misinformed bias was on display. The Columbine High School tragedy cited by the host was clearly perpetrated by 2 adolescent atheists, not Christian terrorists. His stance that he could site instances that occur "everyday" as terrorist acts carried out by Christians in this country, is obviously without merit and untrue. His narrative of the tea party incident again demonstrates his prejudice. I did not know that because you are white and a tea party member that you must be a Christian terrorist. While it is possible that derogatory names calling may have occurred, it was completely prejudicial and biased to assume that such language was used by a Christian. And to compare a politically charged incident with a jihad terrorist action is professionally negligent. People die! People die when a jihadist takes action. The comparison is not even close by any estimation. Mr. Smiley should at least acknowledge his statements were clearly over the top, rectify the misinformation, and perhaps issue an apology.

Ogden, UT

Here's Smiley's Statement

"Since some members of the public have responded to excerpts from my conversation with the author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I would like to clarify my point of view and the context in which that conversation took place.

"Ms. Hirsi Ali and I were talking about violence perpetrated in the name of religion or by people who claim to be religious. We agreed that there is extremism in Christianity just as there is in Islam and other faiths. We agreed that people have always found ways to use religion to justify heinous acts. Where we disagreed was that followers of any one religion are predisposed to violence. Unfortunately, history has shown us that believers of all stripes have been misguided.

"As a follower of that first-century Palestinian Jew named Jesus, I abhor violence in the name of religion. It is intolerable under any circumstances. I have always been very open about being a Christian and, indeed, for every program of my career, on both television and radio, I have always signed off with the biblical admonition to 'keep the faith.'

"I have faith that the American public will continue to support diversity, pluralism, and tolerance, rather than finding artificial ways to divide us."

And the Band Played On

Sunday evening marked the 21st annual broadcast on PBS of the National Memorial Day Concert from the West Lawn of the Capitol. It is a very popular, 90-minute broadcast — produced by Capitol Concerts, Inc., and led by Executive Producer Jerry Colbert — that includes a significant chunk of dramatizations, speakers and film clips that make it more than a "concert."

This year, there were three main themes. One was to "honor the sacrifices, suffering and love of a new generation of young military widows whose fallen spouses served in Iraq and Afghanistan." Another marked the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, paying "tribute to the heroic service of the soldiers who fought and perished in this 'forgotten war.'" And the third was to also pay homage to the World War I and II service members who did not come home. There were more than 115,000 U.S. war dead in WWI and more than 400,000 in WWII.

Those are all worthy themes, of course, and marking the 60th anniversary of the war in Korea — which has indeed been aptly labeled as the "forgotten war" even though some 36,000 U.S. servicemen died there and 105,000 were wounded — was especially timely. And, as I said earlier, I received many more letters this year than in previous years saying that this was the best concert ever.

On the other hand, there was only a relatively brief mention, included in a wife's personal recollections, of the war in Vietnam, a still controversial war in which some 58,000 U.S. servicemen and women died and which has largely come to define an extraordinary era in modern American history and in the remembrances of many millions of Americans. So for them, this concert was not a big hit. You can only do so much in 90 minutes, and when you have set themes, some things obviously get left out. But still, skipping over Vietnam is a huge leap; and one certain to not go unnoticed by the Vietnam generation in the viewing audience.

What follows is a sampling of the letters, and a response that I got from Colbert, executive producer of the concerts.

A Vet Leader Speaks Out

I am writing to you as president of Vietnam Veterans of America, our nation's only congressionally chartered veterans service organization dedicated to working on behalf of Vietnam veterans and their families. Every year, our membership has looked forward to viewing PBS's Memorial Day Concert, broadcast nationwide from the Capitol, with appreciation for its mission "to unite the country in remembrance and appreciation of the fallen and to serve those who are grieving."

This year, however, we were dismayed to find that the Vietnam War was overlooked — Discussion, statistics and film clips centered on WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and the Global wars on terror. Absent from the programming were tributes to the 58,000+ men and women who died answering their nation's call to duty during the Vietnam War. Many amongst our membership are expressing their concern that this terrible oversight is a reflection of the unpopular nature of the Vietnam War. To quote one member, "This is just one more example of how we are ignored and always swept under the rug." And to quote another, "Do they not remember how many lost their lives over there. It was not their fault that it was an unpopular war. They had to do their duty. It's as if it never happened."

Needless to say, this is an insult to those who served during our nation's longest war and to those whose loved ones are memorialized on The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., as well as those memorialized by the In Memory Plaque, dedicated to those veterans whose postwar deaths are attributed to their Vietnam War service.

In keeping with our founding principle, "Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another," our hearts and hands go out to the newer, returning veterans — many of whom are our sons and daughters. We know there is still much work to be done to insure that those who served receive the care and benefits they have earned. We remain committed to making this happen.

John Rowan, National President, Vietnam Veterans of America

Other Voices

I watched the Memorial Day tribute on PBS and was stunned at the way the Viet Nam war was passed over. The combat fatalities for WWI, WWII, Korea and the current war in Iraq and Afghanistan were listed but nothing was said of the 58,000 plus who gave their lives in that nasty little war in Southeast Asia. I am a Viet Nam veteran who cares very deeply about my brothers who served and sacrificed and particularly, how we were treated when we returned to the US. The segment that connected the widows of that war and the current war was very appropriate but no tribute was paid to those who paid the highest price. What's up? Are we trying to sweep that conflict under the rug?

Dick Duncan, Longmont, CO

The Memorial Day Concert aired yesterday was hardly a concert. The musical numbers were excellent, but the program was like a war movie. It should have been titled, "War Scenes Accompanied by Music." While we are indebted to those who serve us in time of war, we would not have tuned in to such a program. We thought it would be like the 4th of July concerts.

Matt Sloan, El Paso, TX

Thank you for the Memorial Day special. We watched it last night and had tears of gratitude and love for our soldiers and their families. It was a wonderful tribute to them. Excellent programming!!

Deborah Parker, Pagosa Springs, CO

Your Memorial Day program blatantly and grievously ignored the 58,000 men and women who died and those who served in Vietnam! Featuring a single widow from that war and a single name on the Vietnam Memorial without even mentioning the gross loss of lives does not do those who served there justice in any way. But, Vietnam vets have been spit on before! As a veteran of that war I consider this an immense and disgusting sleight. The US Army should be ashamed of itself for sponsoring the show without this recognition.

Fredrick Johnson, Bothell, WA
(Vinh Binh Provence, Republic of South Vietnam, 10/67 to 10/68)

I just finished watching the moving 2010 National Memorial Day Concert. It brought tears to my eyes. However, it also moved me to anger. While you gave fitting and moving tributes to WW I, II, Korea, and the Gulf Wars, the omission of Vietnam was glaring! We sacrificed 57,000 of our nation, among them my friends and comrades. I and many like me gave up years of our lives to serve in an unpopular war because we felt a sense of duty to our country. I feel like I've been slapped in the face. Shame on you!

Steve Huber, Chandler, AZ

The Memorial Day Concert was very good but as a Vietnam Veteran I was extremely disappointed in absence of any mention of the sacrifice of the 58,236 killed and the 153,452 wounded US servicemen. The Korean War may be the forgotten war but the media in this county continues to punish us that served our county during the Vietnam War. Someday I hope you at PBS will acknowledge and honor our sacrifices too.

Ken Naumann, Maryville, TN
(1st Lt., US Army Retired)

The PBS Memorial Day Tribute was by far the best ever. Very uplifting and relevant.

Spokane, WA

Can't help but comment regarding how the wonderful, emotional Memorial Day Concert from the Capitol was often sullied by the publicity shots of [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi, who is the most anti-war and anti-service member of the US Congress. Memorial Day is not about politicians. Producers destroyed the day.

David Durr, New Bern, NC

More on the Concert . . .

I have just watched the Memorial Day PBS special and I and my Vietnam veteran husband were heart struck that the Viet Nam Veteran continues to be overlooked by this country. I kept telling him they will do something for Viet Nam Vets next and nothing happened. He knew that it would not be mentioned. I am stunned that WWI, WWII, the Korean War were highlighted, and I respect that these Veterans led the charge for honor and duty among our armed forces. When the memorial skipped Vietnam and went right to Iraq and the Middle East then backpedaled to connect the Vietnam widow with the Iraq widow with just a brief view of the Vietnam Wall, I knew that the Viet Nam Veteran was getting left out again. I am truly sorry that the producers of this memorial chose to leave out Vietnam and I pray that future memorials will pay due homage to these dedicated American Veterans who should not be continuously overlooked. God Bless America.

Gary and Joan Davidson, Wilbraham, MA

I am a Viet Nam veteran and can't help but wonder why your Memorial Day Concert ignored the Viet Nam conflict. I am as offended tonight as I was in 1969 when I returned to find our service in Viet Nam was unappreciated. One million served and 58,000 gave their lives and PBS totally ignored us, skipping from Korea to Iraq.

Robert Wagner, Bethesda, MD

Did I blink during the National Memorial Day Concert tonight? How on earth could I have missed the tribute to the men and women who fought and died during the Vietnam War? If it was there, it was not a fitting tribute. I only heard a mention of this "police action." I lost friends and so did friends of friends. The brave men and women who fought in Vietnam deserved more, especially the families of those who were wounded or not able to return at all.

Kathryn Yandel, Chicago, IL

Kudos and thank you for the veterans show with Gary Sinise and all the actresses that you had! Great job. Thank you and we were touched.

Steve Hills, Jacksonville, FL

I'm livid, Mr. Getler, and I'm very thankful to find that there is an actual person I can contact and share my frustration with this evening's programming.

I just watched the Memorial Day concert and while every war in recent time — WWI, WWII, Korea and now Iraq and Afghanistan were highlighted and veterans singled out for their service — The Vietnam War was omitted. With the exception of Blythe Danner's comments (which were part of a play) there was literally no mention. A 15-year war with more than 58,000 killed in action — and another 300,000+ wounded and NO mention? The live audience likely had hundreds of Vietnam vets in attendance. What were they thinking as they walked to their cars? Were their sacrifices not just as important?

I was just in my living room thanking God I didn't reach my Dad to remind him of this evening's concert. I find it completely unacceptable and at this moment unforgiveable. Who reviewed the script? Did no one notice the glaring omission or was this actually intended?

Cumming, GA

As I watched the PBS special Memorial Day show I was touched and for a period I was reconnecting to the patriotism of my youth. WW I, WW II, Korea, and Iraq & Afghanistan. I was surprised that they had skipped Viet-Nam but thought they were saving the tribute until last. Then the Joint Chiefs of Staff came on stage and Admiral Mullen spoke the closing words of how America would always stand by and support their Veterans. Then the show was over!! I was stunned and confused and I thought What just happened?

I struggled all night to understand the rationale and logic behind the obvious decision to omit any mention of those who had served and the 58,000 who had died fighting a war of such difficulty. After forty years of putting the memories of the times behind me I was confronted with the memories of the times and of the war. I felt devastated and betrayed. I fought the many battles of mind and circumstances of the war, over and over. PBS & military dignitaries, was this some social experiment? Were the powers of PBS such anti-war advocates that they dared to discredit the Viet Vets? Was this another instance of being denied by the people and government I had served? The questions continued on through the night and this morning there was still no way to reconcile the disrespect I felt.

At 17, I joined the Marine Corp to serve my country. This was 1965. During the time I served, there were assassinations of political leaders, riots, flag burning, draft dodging, anti Viet-Nam demonstrations, Jane Fonda, and more. When I came home in 1969 after two tours, I was portrayed as a drug crazed baby killer, criminal, and overall a bad person for my service . . . After much internal work I was able to let it go. That was until last night. It all came rushing back and I am heartsick. . . Many of us left our youth in the rice paddies and Jungles of Viet-Nam. Many more have left their lives.

Bruce Hanawalt, Colorado Springs, CO
Sgt. USMC 1965-1969

The Executive Producer Responds

Jerry Colbert, executive producer of the National Memorial Day Concert, had this to say:

"The mission of our event is to honor the sacrifice and the service that all our country's service men and women have made. We have received several hundred positive responses already since Sunday night's broadcast from viewers who were profoundly affected by the concert and moved by the healing it provides.

"We regret that a number of Vietnam veterans and their families felt that their individual contributions were not honored during this year's event.

"We did, in fact, specifically include the story of Glenda Carter, a widow whose husband lost his life in Vietnam, in tribute to all who served during this era. Distinguished actress Blythe Danner told Glenda's story — set against the backdrop of a photograph of her husband, Bruce Carter as well an image of Bruce's name on the Vietnam War Memorial, in a segment that looked at the sacrifices and suffering of a whole generation of young women who lost their husbands to war.

"The following is an excerpt of the script read by Blythe Danner on Sunday evening:

'It was 1968, and I was 19 when I buried Bruce. The Vietnam War was so unpopular, our own soldiers were not supported or even welcomed home. There was little sympathy for their families or widows. We all learned to be silent; to stuff the pain away. We had no tools to deal with grief.

' . . . For 30 years, I pretended that it didn't happen. I'd be okay for a while, but there were also cycles of depression, despair, and even a suicide attempt.

' . . . I forced myself to talk to a therapist about Bruce — how I kept reliving the trauma of his death, feeling overwhelmed and scared all over again. She diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — PTSD. It was a relief to finally know what was wrong . . . that meant I could learn how to deal with it.

'On the internet, I found other women who lost their husbands in Vietnam. I found Marines who had known Bruce, and through them, the families of the six other Marines who had died with him. I found a kinship of brother and sisterhood. I was no longer alone.'

"The fact that Glenda Carter is now able to reach out to a new generation of young war widows and help them through their grief and suffering reflects a real turning point in her life and represents a healing effect for the suffering from the Vietnam War. This is why we felt it was critical that Glenda Carter's story be included in this year's National Memorial Day Concert. We appreciate your feedback and thank you for your service to our country."

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