Taking on Big Things: Skyscrapers, the Vatican, Ukraine

Posted by Michael Getler on

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We recently made the switch to a new blogging system built in-house at PBS. With the change also came a new design for the ombudsman’s page. You'll still be able to find all of the same information and use the same functions that the previous design offered such as contact information for our office, a link to PBS’s Editorial Standards, and a place to sign up to receive an e-mail notification each time we post. And you can still access all of the more than 360 previous columns and mailbags in the archive; the ones we posted before the switch will just keep the older look than the ones we post going forward.

So we’ve had a bit of a face lift. But the content on this site and the work we do remain the same.

About Those Other ‘Big Things’

The headline on this week’s combined column/mailbag refers to subjects that got some viewers into something of a snit in the past week or so. Specifically, the main focus was on one segment of a four-part series on “Super Skyscrapers” that began airing on Feb. 26, a Frontline investigative report on “Secrets of the Vatican” that aired the day before, and a discussion on the PBS NewsHour on March 3 about events in Ukraine. There was mail about other things as well but this is enough for our maiden voyage in a new system and I’ll get to those other subjects next time.

What follows is a sampling of the mail from viewers who took issue with these presentations, some comments from me, and some from Frontline. But first, here’s a little background.

One might have thought that the program about the Vatican’s problem would have drawn the most mail. But the big draw for my mailbox was the hour-long segment of the four-hour Super Skyscraper series dubbed “The Billionaire Building.” This refers to a colossal structure known as “One57” that is being built in the heart of Manhattan on fashionable West 57th Street. It has more than 90 luxury condominium apartments built on top of what will be a new 30-story hotel. It will be, according to the PBS description, “the tallest residential tower” in the western hemisphere. That is until next year, when a newer building on Park Avenue is projected to overtake it, according to Wikipedia.



There was something about this segment that really got to some folks, and I must admit that it made me squirm as well. I grew up in the Bronx from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s and there were always wealthy people in swanky Manhattan buildings and mansions. But somehow they seemed more discreet and fit into a diverse urban landscape. That landscape, of course, changed long ago and skyscraper apartment buildings are nothing new. This one is, but I can understand why some viewers felt it was not for the better.

It is also important to say at the outset that, in my opinion, this series was an excellent idea, skillfully produced and well worth watching. It is really about imagination, design, engineering, architecture, construction, labor and urban evolution. It traces the construction of four extraordinary, actually revolutionary, buildings that push the limits, literally, of upward mobility.

The buildings are: the iconic One World Trade Center in New York, the tallest building in the western hemisphere; the Leadenhall Building in London, the tallest and most innovative in that city; the Shanghai Tower, an amazing 120-story “vertical city;” and the Billionaire Building.

For the most part, these are stories of ingenuity and grit, the kind of highly skilled engineers and workers whose faces aren’t much different from those you might have seen toiling in tough jobs in films of earlier, by now historic, undertakings.

But the West 57th Street film ventures much further into the things that the uber-wealthy surround themselves with. It showcases, as the online write-up says, “state of the art interiors—double-height ceilings, full-floor apartments, bathrooms clad in the finest Italian marble and the finest material finishes,” not to mention the $90 million-plus price tag for the top-floor penthouse. So this film has a commercial quality to it much more so than the others and falls into, whether intentionally or not, the debate about extremes of wealth in the city and country.

Also to be said is that this segment—although producing anger in some, it gives a big “middle finger” to the rest of the city, as one viewer put it—is news and worthy of inclusion because it does document something about the way things are and about the amazing course of human endeavor.

The film was produced by Blink Films of the UK. Given the occasional questioning by critics, including me (and one of the letter writers below), of some PBS corporate sponsorships, PBS says there were no underwriters and that the series was a co-production of Blink and PBS.

Here Are the Letters

Having worked in the construction field, I have been enthralled by the Super Skyscraper series. That is until the Billionaire Tower story.  While the innovative window-washing platform was truly amazing, also amazing was the “I'm richer than God” attitude of both the developer and his staff as well as the future residents of the tower. $19 million for the “cheapest” apartment, with no say in its design or finish, is far from comprehension. Like many other “reality” TV shows, being rich seems to convey the impression that “I can and will do anything that I like.” The segment on picking the marble for flooring and bath tubs showed this arrogant mind set. While $2 billion is a wonderful goal for any business, think of the good that could have been done for the city of New York and it's less fortunate.

Eric Koci, West Chester, OH

~ ~ ~

This piece was essentially a glossy magazine ad for the building. As a regular PBS contributor, I was angry watching PBS support what was a promo piece for billionaire housing with an occasional interesting glimpse into construction.

Charles Merrill, New York, NY

~ ~ ~

It seems like the main difference between “Super Skyscrapers: The Billionaire Building” and 2012's “Money, Power & the American Dream” is: “The Billionaire Building” is complete hagiography without even the pretense of context. Wealth inequality spirals out of control while the street-level view of who lost what since 2008 is generally not news at PBS.

Apparently we should just forget about everything but the beauty of the Cararra marble. Billionaires are good for certain sectors of the economy, as long as we aren't talking about the 46 MILLION Americans living in poverty.

PBS must become more aware of the growing perception that it no longer reflects the values of its viewers. Most individual Americans simply cannot afford to donate $3.5 million to your board of regents to get a story that reflects their values, as happened with the unfortunate events surrounding the energy billionaire John D. Arnold. But in aggregate, your viewers likely donate more money than the Kochs and the Arnolds of the world. Where's their story?

Where's the story of people playing by the rules while the future residents of One57 dodge state and federal taxes in the Cayman Islands? Is there a proportionate mountain of misery and displacement to create this wonder...how much does that cost? How similar is this to the near-slavery conditions used to build the Burj Dubai? Do you guys even care about questions like this? Or is the presence of poverty amid great wealth even a story at PBS?

 Neal Wells, Kirkland, WA

~ ~ ~

I just watched a “valentine" called “The Billionaire's Building,” Episode 4 of the series “Super Skyscrapers” on PBS. So fawning was the admiration for this blight on Manhattan that it made me enormously suspicious of the funding for the broadcast.  Were there any contributions by Extell Corp, or any of the Realtors who were interviewed for this program? If so, then I think there was a serious conflict of interest here. This is an enormously controversial building, a veritable “middle-finger” salute to the residents of our small island, and yet none of the controversy was unveiled--instead we got to trek to the quarries of Cararra, the very same ones that the ancient Romans used, as well as (breathlessly) Michelangelo, to view the marble for the bathrooms of One57. This was just the very tip of the iceberg; the entire hour was one long commercial for the building. Who is funding this, and furthermore, what is it doing on the same network that provides us with great journalistic content like “Frontline”?

New York, NY

On to Another Building

I viewed the Frontline documentary last night [Feb. 25] on the Vatican/Catholic church and have to say I was irate. Being that I am a devout Catholic and an active member of my parish and am tired of these programs or news agencies out of New York City bashing the church! Why did your program fail to mention the Catholic Church is the 2nd biggest charitable organization in the state of NY aside from the state itself? The Catholic Church feeds/clothes/helps poor children/ single mothers and battered woman! I know this because my wife and I help in these matters. Will your station be doing shows on the wrongs done by those of the Jewish or Muslim faiths? Answer - of course not because your station and the staff responsible for doing these programs are a bunch of COWARDS! Christians are fair game/shame on you!

Proud and devout Catholic, Fishkill, NY

~ ~ ~

PBS's Catholic bashing is getting long in the tooth. You risk your already biased liberal reputation by not balancing what you say with other similar institutions, or by not showing with equal contempt your distaste for child abuse everywhere. We are in the world, all of us. Sexual abuse is abhorrent and rampant everywhere. Tampa Fl., for example is highly stained with sex trafficking we locals never hear about. Deal with it fairly. But do deal with it. Don't just go for the emotional response any decent person will have.

Venice, FL

~ ~ ~

In Secrets of the Vatican the implication that John Paul II knew the history of Maciel and still honored him as being a good man was not based upon a factual basis. Antony Thomas, in answering a question, stated that "We can't absolutely confirm that..." Since when is something that "can't absolutely be confirmed…" presented as factual? Furthermore, in the Dolan letter from the Vatican, the speaker mentioned that it was upheld by the court yet never mentioned what was the court's decision - is this hiding a bit of information to create a different interpretation? No integrity here.

Alan Syslo, Palm Springs, CA 

~ ~ ~

I am disappointed that PBS did not do a better job in presenting a more balanced documentary about the Vatican in its recent presentation about Pope Benedict and the sex scandal. Yes, there are some abuses, but the documentary implied that the Vatican is beyond hope. And to cite a man recently ordained who will quit his vocation is a poor example. The person was weak in his faith. How many other recently ordained priests show greater maturity? As an ex-seminarian, I know many upright priests.

Joseph Graf, Clarks Summit, PA

Frontline Responds

This 90-minute documentary tells the inside story of the events that led to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI a year ago and also highlights the achievements of Pope Francis as he sets out to reform the powerful Vatican bureaucracy, root out corruption, and chart a new course for the Catholic Church and its 1.2 billion members. In the course of making the film we interviewed dozens of people. We spoke with Vatican insiders, members of the clergy (including two Cardinals, one of them being Pope Francis's close confidante Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga) as well as abuse victims, journalists, police, and prosecutors.

Over the years, FRONTLINE has built a reputation for powerful reporting that tackles the tough, controversial, and complex stories that shape our time. We reported this story, as we do all stories, with a sense of fairness and rigor. We trust that you will watch the program then share your reactions with us on our website, Facebook or Twitter.

And More…

Responding to a critique by William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Frontline added:

The resignation of Pope Benedict a year ago and the many challenges facing newly-elected Pope Francis – including how to handle clergy sex abuse cases, which continue to emerge – are part of what we regard as a major news story.  It is worth noting that two Cardinals in the film speak about the current impact of clergy sex abuse on the Church, and many news organizations have been reporting on these topics in recent weeks -- including some Catholic-oriented outlets that took a much different view than Mr. Donahue and found the issues and film timely and important. Also, as part of our reporting, we featured on our website writings from several prominent Catholics and experts about the need for reform in the Church. Lastly, you may recall in recent months that FRONTLINE has done major investigations of the mistreatment of children on American Indian reservations, the sexual abuse of migrant workers around the country, and the rape of women in Pakistan. So while there is much more to report in regards to sexual abuse, contrary to what Mr. Donahue says, we take the issue very seriously.

On Ukraine

There was no doubt about it. Steven Cohen, professor of Russian Studies at New York University and Princeton, was not behaving like your average professor on the NewsHour last Monday night when he was a guest during a segment dealing with the escalating crisis in Ukraine. Cohen was pumped, unhappy with what he had  just heard from other panelists, including the most recent U.S. ambassador, Michael McFaul, a widely-respected scholar. I must say that whatever one’s views on this dangerous crisis, it was good to watch and hear someone get excited on the NewsHour.

Here are a couple of letters:

Please be advised that Prof. Stephen Cohen has no credibility whatsoever among the community of scholars who specialize in Ukrainian studies. We all agree that his ignorance about Ukraine is exceeded only by his arrogance. You do yourselves and your viewers an enormous disservice in inviting him to comment on contemporary Ukraine. For competent alternatives, please contact the American Association of Ukrainian Studies, the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, or the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. You're also welcome to consult my blog on Ukraine, www.worldaffairsjournal.org.

Prof. Alexander J. Motyl, New York, NY 

Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University

~ ~ ~

I am writing to register a complaint about Professor Steven Cohen's comments broadcast on the PBS NewsHour on 3 March 2014. Dr. Cohen said that the new government in Ukraine was illegitimate and extremist. On what evidence would he base this claim? Such a statement is strongly at odds with the position of all of the EU states, the US, and Canada, which have indicated support for the provisional authorities in Kyiv. Moreover, it is now abundantly clear that the former president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the country to avoid answering before Ukraine's parliament for his government's decisions to use deadly force against demonstrators. Also, there is ample evidence to support charges of fraud, embezzlement and corruption involving tens of billions of dollars. Finally, 371 members of parliament (of 450 elected) voted to remove him from office. In short, Professor Cohen's comments are nothing short of irresponsible. In the context of the extremely dangerous situation, following incursions by Russia's troops into Crimea and threats of invasion of eastern Ukraine, they are also extremely reckless.

Bohdan Klid, Edmonton

Posted at 3:16 PM

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