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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag

The inbox this week was filled with still more viewer commentary about two recent broadcasts on PBS that sparked a good deal of controversy.

One involved the May 25 edition of the Tavis Smiley Show in which the host made some very controversial remarks and comparisons between violence in this country carried out by Christians and Muslims. The other was the annual National Memorial Day Concert that many viewers felt slighted the veterans of the war in Vietnam.

Both programs were the subject of last week's ombudsman's column. In that column, I described what had happened and been said on the Smiley program, presented my thoughts about it, printed many letters from viewers and a response from Smiley that I had asked for. On the concert, I posted many letters and a response from Executive Producer Jerry Colbert that I had also requested. I did not make any further comment on the responses that Smiley and Colbert had sent.

The sampling of letters posted below continues this controversy and takes it to another level, with many viewers responding to the follow-up statements of Smiley and Colbert, and others criticizing my comments of last week as either too soft on Smiley or in some way defending what he said.

It is always possible that I don't make myself clear, or clear enough. But, for the record, I thought Smiley's comments to his guest were way off-base, that the example he cited was incorrect, and that he was surprisingly unprepared to support an argument that he, himself, had said he was looking forward to having with his guest. I was not suggesting that there was a good argument to be made.

Here's What I Said:

"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 . . .

"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 Are the Letters

Tavis Smiley made specific charges that were factually incorrect. He did not address the specific charges or attempt to provide evidence of their accuracy but merely mouthed generalities. He did not admit any factual error. Why does PBS give him a platform when he has little or no credibility?

Paul Callahan, Philadelphia, PA

"Puzzling, questionable, and worthy of challenge . . ." well that certainly covers it doesn't it Mr. Ombudsman. What Smiley said is actually uninformed, factually incorrect, and downright malicious. Journalistic integrity??? baah!

C. Vrooman, Ramona, CA

I am writing in regards to the Tavis Smiley/Ayaan Hirsi Ali interview. In the interest of full disclosure, I am an atheist.

How anyone can say that Christians are somehow more "innocent" of murdering other people is beyond me. Even if we do not want to get into the bloodthirsty nature of the Old Testament or the way that the Catholic Church looked the other way as Hitler ramped up his persecution of Jews, Gypsies, gays and political prisoners, even if we choose to ignore the lives lost in the Crusades, witch hunts, and the Inquisition, we are still left with thousands of murders in the United States done by people who self-identify as Christian. Tavis didn't need to point to Columbine, and in this case, it was a mistake, not because it's a bad reference to Christians, but because people don't want to accept that individuals in their own communities that go to church and don't have the "big name" draw of Columbine, kill people. All the people I have seen demanding examples of Christians that kill need to read their holy books and look at local court dockets.

Furthermore, people who get het up about this need to get a grip on the reality of opinion television; Tavis is a commentator, just like Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, et al. Plenty of people make irrational and incorrect statements about atheism and are NEVER brought to task for the effects their false reports have on how the public views atheists. Somehow I think that Protestant Christianity in America, with its megachurches, TV networks, publishing juggernauts and a large corporate network of tithes and nepotism, will muddle through somehow.

Kudos to Tavis for keeping it real, like he always does. I trust that PBS will not let controversy prohibit them from keeping such an outspoken man like Tavis on staff to continue challenging our perceptions and our comfort level. My future support of PBS will hinge upon you continuing to provide an outlet of reason and information (and the occasional controversy) to grow my mind.

San Antonio, TX

Smiley's so-called clarification is totally unsatisfactory. Bogus. He deliberately refuses to address the utterly fraudulent anti-Christian, pro-Islam bias he so emotionally displayed, and instead makes further false claims that he and Hirsi "agreed" on some vague generalities about religion. We're not that stupid, dude. We have seen exactly what you said, thanks to You Tube! I pity the dopes whose only source of information is people like Tavis.

Manni Bello, Ashville, OH

I sat back and waited to see if there would be any response by Smiley to the justified criticism of his intellectually vacant bleatings comparing crimes by deranged individuals to Islamic Terror events.

His response was, in some ways, worse. It appears that Smiley does not even understand why what he said is so weak intellectually and just plain wrong. Adding the comment "Palestinian" Jew when referring to Jesus just announces his complete lack of historical context, and his inability to refrain from exposing where he really leans politically.

I tried watching Smiley's show on and off over the years but have always been unimpressed with his lack of depth on many subjects. He seems like a nice enough guy, but there is a reason why no one watches him.

To you, Mr. Getler, though you clearly see how Smiley essentially made a fool of himself, you still managed to make it seem (by your comments) that if it were not for those pesky Conservative groups and particularly Glenn Beck, this whole "Smiley thing" might have just blown over . . . You might be right. But thank G-d for these pesky whistleblowers, because if we leave real journalism and discovery to the Main Stream Media, we would have NEVER seen this Smiley stupidity exposed.

Sheldon Lapidus, Plainview, NY

Smiley and Me

I have read your and Mr. Smiley's response to others who have emailed or written to you about his May 25 program . . . I think that your answer and Mr. Smiley's were totally inadequate. If any group other than Christians had been libeled by Mr. Smiley, you, Mr. Getler, would have publically eviscerated him. It must be nice to be so sure that your views are correct and the rest of us are too stupid to share your and Mr. Smiley's enlightenment.

Anthony Stokes, Greensburg, PA

Mr. Tavis Smiley needs to apologize to the true church for his false accusations. He is an embarrassment to PBS. It is your duty to get him to publicly renounce his statements, not because they are offensive but because he lied. He also implied in his statement that the lady agreed with him, no she didn't. She agreed that, yes, you do have "Christian" extremist but she clearly said that she disagreed with his saying that Christians blow people up everyday. So not only does he lie in the show then he lies in response to deserved backlash.

Paul N., Houston, TX

Your response and Mr. Smiley's to the outrageous lies he articulated (and yes, I listened to, and read the whole thing in context) is pathetic. I wish Smiley would take his own advice and stop finding artificial ways to divide us — he might try actually researching and stating facts instead of lying to justify his bias. Your response should be to recommend to PBS to require an on-air apology and admission that there is little evidence that Christians kill or threaten anyone in the name of their religion (and no, the fact that the majority of folks in this country are Christian does not mean any crimes committed by them are in the name of Christianity).

Michele Jansen, Chambersburg, PA

Sir, I read your defense of Smiley with great amusement. You acknowledge the outrageousness of his remarks, and contort yourself to make them palatable. You fail. You did not even address his biggest lie and slander, his tea party comments. To this day, no one has brought forth any proof, and many people were taping, of people shouting, "nigger", or anyone being spit on. It is a lie, everyone knows it is a lie, yet this hateful liar gets to pontificate without punishment.

Ron Reale, Fort Lauderdale, FL

(Ombudsman's Note: Here's a video of an incident involving a protester and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., at the March 20 demonstration at the Capitol. You can judge for yourself.)

The Tavis Smiley show (May 25, 2010) with Ayaan Hirsi Ali contained far too many horrid and untrue claims by Smiley. In his response to criticism of that show he dismisses his critics and admits no wrong on his part. That is unacceptable. Since he refuses to accept responsibility for his behavior, PBS needs to let him know his behavior was unacceptable. Failure to do so would indicate a lack of integrity of the whole of PBS. Maybe the PBS critics are correct!?

R. Draheim, Luxemburg, WI

From all the feedback related to Mr. Smiley's interview comments, I can understand where people could be upset. I think his attempt to compare mass killers and deranged individuals in the USA with organized suicide bombers and the like around the world was definitely off base, yet, I believe he may have been trying to equate that those 'individuals' who use their Islamic belief to justify attempts at mass murder in a similar vain as Christians who kill abortion doctors, Christians who attack sex offenders etc. If he wanted to imply that Christians historically share similar events as our current Islamic terrorists, he could have refereed to the crusades, to Christian groups in Lebanon's civil war, to the Irish conflict and so on. I would even suggest that the recent war in Iraq, when President Bush used the word 'crusade' in his rhetoric, justifies the impression that Christians share a predilection towards violence at times inspired by their religious beliefs. America has its share of religious extremists, who may not yet be practicing organized religious righteous violence on US soil yet (to come?), but surely one can see their hand in many places in the world, throughout history.

Montreal, Quebec, Canada

I rarely agree or sympathize with conservative talk show hosts, but if you think about Smiley's comment, there are some points that make sense. Specifically, that Christians are capable of horrible things because they are Christians. The Lebanese civil war saw atrocities committed by the Christian militias against Lebanese Muslims. Children, elderly and women. It was most certainly a complicated war, and the Christian side was not the only side to do this. However, it is important to remember that Christians are not much different in their capacity for terrible acts. Lastly, it is important to realize that the use of suicide attacks was pioneered by the Tamil Tigers, and was picked up as a tactic by Muslim militias and extremist groups when it was obvious that it could be so effective.

Tim Furey, Sterling, VA

More on the Concert

Your [Producer Jerry Colbert's] response to leaving out the Vietnam veterans is unacceptable. You filmed Pelosi more than mentioned the Vietnam War.

PSG Louis W. Larson, Marshfield, WI

I and many others were unhappy that you and your institute left Vietnam out of Sunday's Memorial service. But after reading your explanation of why Vietnam was left out "We did, in fact, specifically include the story of Glenda Carter" — I realized how stupid I am. You covered it completely. More than 50,000 died and you mentioned Ms Carter. The Agent Orange, or all the Vietnamese children I killed, or all the drugs during and after Vietnam must have clouded my memory. Thanks for clearing up my confusion. Semper Fidelis.

Cliff Leonard, Jacksonville, FL
Vietnam 66-67

I am not a veteran. I grew up with the Viet Nam war. I, too, was amazed at the short shrift given to that conflict. The producer can spin it however he wants to. Viet Nam continues to be treated like the black sheep uncle that many Americans seem to want to will away.

T. S., Davis, OK

Mr. Jerry Colbert's response to the reactions of Vietnam Veterans to being left out of the Memorial Day Tribute program is IMO a pathetic example of an apology. It dishonors the name of the 'Public' Broadcasting Service. A 60-second mention of the Conflict in no way honors the service of those who served & sacrificed for their country.

Ronald Serafine, Escondido, CA

Until reading the letters, I did not realize that the concert overlooked the Viet Nam veterans. I watched it Sunday night and thought the segment with the widows covered it. The "wall" was shown and it was clear what war they were referring to. The wall was even held up as an example on how we should honor our vets. Perhaps my mind wandered at this point and I missed what the writers are complaining about. I am of that generation and remembered thinking how many of the friends from grade school in the late '50's that I have lost track of over the years may be names on that wall. I did remember the Viet Nam vet in my private thoughts prompted by the widows reaching across time and generations. If I had not failed my pre-induction physical due to hearing loss I could very well be among them now.

Because these vets were shamefully treated when they actually returned home in the '70's is no reason for oversensitivity today and seeing slights where none are intended. Although the previous treatment explains the oversensitivity it does not excuse it. We have to keep the relentless calendar in mind. The World War I and II veterans are a vanishing breed and no one should begrudge the time to pay tribute to them. The next vanishing breed will be the Korean War vets whom we barely know. Let us praise them now while we still can and give them praise that is long overdue. Nor is it proper to limit tributes to the vets of the wars currently being fought. I believe the intent of the concert was obviously to pay tribute to all veterans of all wars and even though they did not get a big special segment I felt the family ancestors of my great grandfather's generation who fought as cavalry troopers in the Civil War were covered along with everyone else who served. Let us not go overboard with compartmentalizing. Honor the Vet, period.

Patrick Stinson, Annandale, VA

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