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PBS Ombudsman

A Heads-Up to Producers from a Viewer

The following is definitely not a proper, pre-Christmas offering. But, as is frequently the case, a single viewer raises an interesting, critical observation that is worth addressing even if seasonally untimely.

At issue here is an episode of the popular, often fascinating and long-running PBS series "Secrets of the Dead." The hour-long episode in question is titled "The Airmen and the Headhunters" and was broadcast, most recently, last month. It is an absolutely amazing story about how a small group of World War II American airmen, shot down by Japanese gunners over Borneo in 1944, survived in the dense jungle they parachuted into and the Japanese efforts to find them.

I'm certain only very few people are aware of this story and I'm posting this column, aside from the editorial issue involved, so I can include the video because it is so fascinating and, in my view, definitely worth watching. However, it does come with an ombudsman's warning that it includes some graphic images — brief shots of shrunken, severed heads, to be precise — that may be jarring to some.

Watch The Airmen and the Headhunters on PBS. See more from Secrets of the Dead.

This program first aired in 2009, then was re-broadcast in 2010 and again in November of this year. In those two years, I've never received a single complaint about it. Rather, those broadcasts all sparked lively and interesting historical discussions on the program's website.

But a viewer in Niagara Falls, Canada, watching via the Buffalo, N.Y., PBS member station, wrote to claim that it was "callous and cruel" of the program's producers to show "disturbing and graphic images of human heads . . . without warning."

What follows is an exchange between the viewer, who asked that his name not be used, and the program producers, and then my thoughts. These exchanges are long, but I felt they were worth recording.

First, however, it is important to understand that the airmen survived only with the help and protection of the primitive Dayak tribe in Borneo, who hated the Japanese and whose culture included headhunting, and an eccentric major in the British army who devised an audacious rescue plan.

The View of the Viewer

"I'm writing you this e-mail to convey my absolute disgust and anger at the disturbing and graphic images of human heads shown on Secrets of the Dead: Airmen and the Headhunters. Like many PBS viewers, I have mental health issues, and seeing such trash could lead me and others to suffer permanent mental breakdown. I think that it was callous and cruel of that program's producers to show those images without warning. I'd like to request that you launch an investigation of the journalistic standards of the episode. I really believe that someone must stand up to producers who only crave sensationalism at the expense of their viewers."

After forwarding this complaint to the program's producers, here is the response I got from Stephen Segaller, vice-president for programming at WNET in New York:

"While the images of severed heads in the Secrets of the Dead program 'Airmen and the Headhunters' are vivid, they are central to the telling of the story. The program explores the efforts of the Dayak people to save American soldiers who were trapped by the Japanese on the remote Pacific island of Borneo during World War II. The practice of 'headhunting' and the preservation of heads of defeated enemies was a ritualistic aspect of these people's culture and religion. The heads were prized and played a role in the group's ideas about masculinity. In the decades prior to World War II, Christian missionaries and the colonial government in Borneo managed to all but eradicate the practice although not all Dayaks converted to this new system of beliefs. And once the Dayaks decided to launch guerilla strikes against their Japanese occupiers, Western forces encouraged them to return to traditional warfare practices that included headhunting.

"The images used provide an anthropological look at this remote group of people, give an understanding of what their society was like and how they lived their lives. Every effort was made to ensure the images did not glorify violence and were not exploitative. The film goes into great detail to explain how headhunting practices were a part of the Dayak people's lives. Secrets of the Dead strives to offer viewers glimpses into the lives of vastly different groups of people-whether those differences be a product of geography, history or culture. To overlook this element of the Dayak culture, particularly in a story about war, would have been a disservice both to viewers and to the Dayaks themselves who courageously risked their lives to save American GIs.

"We do understand your concern about such graphic images so please know that we did take care in our choice to include them. Our ultimate decision to do so was made on the basis of the context in which the images were used and the opportunity they provided to teach Western audiences about this relatively unknown tribe and their way of life. Finally, the fact that the program had the title 'The Airmen and the Headhunters' might have alerted viewers of a sensitive disposition not to watch, or to be forewarned."

Another Round

I thought that was quite a reasoned reply, but the viewer said he found it "completely unsatisfactory." Here's what he said:

"To begin with, Mr. Segaller notes that the program title should have alerted the viewer to the graphic nature of the program. I have two responses to that assertion. Firstly, I saw the images of human heads at the very beginning of the program before the program title was even displayed. Thus I had no opportunity to exercise my discretion. Secondly, and more importantly, an explicit warning should be given to alert viewers to graphic content. This is standard practice for most news and television production organizations. Using Mr. Segaller's logic, one should expect to see images of a dismembered corpse when viewing a special about serial killers or other sociopaths. This is absolute nonsense, of course. It is reasonable to expect to be warned by the producers.

"Moreover, I reject the reasons that Mr. Segaller gave for the inclusion of graphic images. I do not believe that those images are necessary at all, let alone for the reasons he outlined. The images do not help you understand the conflict between the American/headhunter alliance against the Japanese with any more clarity than had they been omitted. Furthermore, those images do not foster cross-cultural understanding of headhunter culture and rituals with any more depth and, in fact, detract tremendously from approaching the subject with a clear mind. The images of human heads are gratuitous, appalling and impede the pursuit of understanding and the production of equanimity. In summary, I find Mr. Segaller's arguments entirely inadequate, and to be rather blunt, somewhat disingenuous."

My Thoughts, and Some Additional PBS Thoughts

Personally, I did not find the program, and the brief patches showing severed heads, at all disturbing. I don't particularly like to see such images, but in the context of the very powerful story being laid out, it struck me as relevant to a tale in which nothing is remotely relatable to our personal, contemporary experiences. One sees ghastly things all the time on television. Also, the series is, after all, called "Secrets of the Dead," the clue-containing title, "The Airmen and the Headhunters," was, according to Segaller, widely listed in advance, and there have been other PBS programs on "Nova" and "Secrets" dealing with subjects such as human sacrifice and mummification, he pointed out.

There is, however, an issue here about whether a viewer, who may be repulsed or offended by such images, should have been specifically warned beforehand. The first glimpse of two severed and shrunken heads was presented for a few seconds during the introductory segment of the program even before, as the viewer points out, the title came on to the screen.

Here's the relevant section of the PBS Editorial Standards and Policies:

L. Objectionable Material

"Responsible treatment of important issues may sometimes require the inclusion of controversial or sensitive material, but good taste must prevail in PBS content. Morbid or sensational details, or material that is gratuitously offensive to general taste or manners (e.g., extreme violence, racial epithets, strong language, nudity, sexism), should not be included unless it is necessary to an understanding of the matter at hand. Questions of taste cannot be answered in the abstract, but when specific problems arise, they must be resolved in light of contemporary standards of taste, the state of the law, and the newsworthiness and overall value of the material. If PBS concludes that the exclusion of such material would distort an important reality or impair the content's artistic quality, PBS may accept the content provided it carries appropriate notice to the viewer. Conversely, PBS may reject content that, in its judgment, needlessly contains objectionable material that compromises the content's quality or integrity."

The key phrase here is "provided it carries appropriate notice to the viewer."

In dealing with potentially controversial material, PBS relies heavily on the individual program producers, and the editorial guidelines in general provide producers considerable discretion. Program reviewers within PBS sometimes recommend that "viewer discretion advisories" appear on screen before a certain program but, again, it is largely up to the producers and the advisories are not mandatory.

In the case of "The Airmen and the Headhunters," it did not strike the producers at WNET or the distributers at PBS, back in 2009, that a warning was needed.

"I don't think it occurred to us, to be honest; I guess none of us found it objectionable," said a WNET official. No objection was forthcoming from reviewers at PBS at the time, either, although one program reviewer explained that PBS normally screens programs before they are packaged, so a reviewer would be unaware the heads appeared in the introduction at the very beginning of the program. The reviewer added, "I generally tell producers to avoid shocking material upfront — with or without a viewer's discretion advisory."

The official added: "I understand [the viewer's] concern. We try our best to consider the audience's reaction when we screen and rate programs. Looking over my original screening report, I see that I was more concerned with confirming the edit of potential FCC actionable image of a topless native woman than I was with the graphic images of the shrunken heads. Please feel free to tell [the viewer] that I appreciate his feedback and will keep in mind possible audience sensitivities when I pre-screen programs. Given [the viewer's] reaction, it might have been better to rate this as a 14 [which indicates stronger material]. However, there was no reason editorially for me to request these images be removed from the episode."

So, one could argue that some advanced warning should have been given before these images were shown, and that there was, indeed, a technical violation of the guidelines. In my view, it comes down to an editorial judgment call, and I would agree with the judgment at the time that this did not appear to either the producers or the PBS reviewers as something that required a specific warning to viewers or was not relevant to telling the story.

Nevertheless, the viewer has provoked what I believe was a useful and challenging exchange and provided one more thing for producers and PBS to at least think about as they go about their appointed rounds.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Happy New Year to all.

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