By Michael Getler
The year 2015 will mark the 100th anniversary 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
For the American audience, which is a central battleground for both Armenians and Turks in the struggle over how public opinion views the horrors of that time, the Public Broadcasting Service took a bold ? and controversial ? step last Monday night, April 17, with the airing of a one-hour documentary called “The Armenian Genocide.”
This was a powerful and skillfully-edited production. It included some comments from a couple of Turkish officials denying that what happened to the Armenian people was a genocide. Rather, they described it, as they have for many decades, as a tragedy linked to deportations during a brutal civil war, with lots of Muslims killed as well. It was not, they said, a planned, systematic extinction of a million or more Armenian Christians.
Yet, as the title of the documentary implied, this 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.
Here are the opening lines: “During World War One, the
About 93 percent of the more than 340 PBS-affiliated stations around the country aired the program, most at 10 pm local time. Within the 54 so-called “metered markets” measured by the Nielsen rating service, 35 stations carried it and it was watched in about two percent of all the households who had their TVs on in those markets at the time. PBS officials said the showing was “pretty decent” for a 10 pm broadcast, slightly above average for that time period.
In addition to the documentary, however, PBS also commissioned a follow-up, 25-minute panel discussion labeled “Armenian Genocide: Exploring the Issues.” The panel included two scholars, one American and one Turkish, who support the theme of the documentary, and two, one American and one Turkish, who do not and who have been labeled “genocide deniers” by their Armenian critics. The commissioning of a panel discussion to follow a documentary added even more controversy to the situation because it suggested, to many Armenian critics of the decision, that PBS, having stated publicly that it “acknowledges and accepts that there was a genocide,” was questioning that acknowledgement by providing a platform for those who disagree with the claim that a genocide took place.
Now You See It, Now You Don't
Only about 60 percent of PBS affiliates aired the follow-up panel, mostly at 11 pm local time, and many of the biggest stations in the biggest markets ?
This is the third ombudsman's column addressed in whole or part to this combination of programs. On March 17, I wrote a preliminary column about the controversy and press coverage that had already sprung up around these programs many weeks before they were actually broadcast. I had not seen them at the time nor had those who were commenting. On April 14, a sizeable collection of letters from viewers and online readers was also featured as part of an ombudsman's mailbag column.
One of those letters excerpted in the April 14 column was from David Saltzman, the Counsel for the Assembly of Turkish American Associations. Among other things, Saltzman sought to remind PBS, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, of CPB's mandate to ensure “strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature.” And he cited a portion of PBS's editorial standards assuring “that its overall content offerings contain a broad range of opinions and points of view, including those from outside society's existing consensus, presented in a responsible manner. . .” Saltzman, writing before the programs aired, said he believed those standards have not been met “in the case of controversial Armenian allegation of genocide.”
First of all, this is not just an Armenian allegation. As pointed out in the documentary, this is a charge affirmed by The International Association of Genocide Scholars, by Turkish military tribunals after the war, by the
It seems to me that while there are two sides to this issue, it is not a balanced issue. There is a more substantial body of evidence and historical assessment on the side of what happened to the Armenians, and so I don't feel that PBS ? when the documentary and the panel are taken as a package ? was violating its own guidelines.
The documentary, on its own, also seemed persuasive to an independent viewer, and also illuminating about the emerging struggle over whether
The film included denials and explanations by Turkish diplomats and the head of the Turkish Historical Society. And it supplied context for the greater unfolding carnage, including references to sporadic uprisings by Armenians against the Turks in some villages, the killing of perhaps 100 Turkish officials in scattered attacks, and a contingent of five to six thousand Armenians who were fighting for the Russians against the Ottomans and causing the Young Turk leaders at the time to see all the Armenians of the Empire as a threat to the state. But aside from those moments, which are relatively brief, the documentary presented essentially a relentless case that what took place in the aftermath was a genocide. And that was the point and the historical conclusion of the program.
On the Other Hand. . .
Still, there were a number of things about this combination of programs that bothered me.
One is that a sizeable chunk of the funding for the documentary appeared to come from American Armenian individuals or foundations. I have been unable to determine exactly how much. PBS executives say about 60 percent of the funds came from foundations “of broad interests” and the rest from individuals, and that the network does not get into the business of assessing the interests of individual donors. Yet the list of foundations and individuals that appears on the television screen is loaded with names that seem to be of Armenian origin, something that large numbers of viewers noted in letters to me.
Both PBS and the New York-based filmmaker, Andrew Goldberg, who produced and directed the documentary in conjunction with Oregon Public Broadcasting, emphasize that all funders were scrutinized and approved by PBS before accepting the film and that, as Goldberg says, “funders had no involvement in any editorial decisions. And no funder saw the film before it was completed.” I have no reason to doubt that.
Still, that list of contributors on the screen was jarring and one wishes, naively I suppose, that PBS did not put itself in such a position with such a controversial and important film and that funds for this relatively low-cost (roughly $650,000) production could have been provided by the CPB or some more clearly identified non-partisan foundations. PBS provided the funds for the panel discussion.
Another is that I thought those stations, especially the big ones with big American Armenian populations, should have gone the whole route and aired the follow-up panel. Many of these stations said, beforehand, essentially that the panel, which was moderated by National Public Radio correspondent Scott Simon, didn't add anything substantive to the points made in the documentary. That may be true because a 25-minute debate with four people and a moderator doesn't allow much time for real exploration, and much of the time was dominated by the two scholars who were featured in the documentary and who are the most articulate historians making the case for genocide ? Peter Balakian, a professor of the humanities at Colgate University, and Taner Akcam, a Turkish sociologist and historian who is a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota.
On the other side was Justin McCarthy, a professor of history at the
Two Against One
So it was McCarthy basically on his own facing questions from the moderator that put him on the defensive, and accused a couple of times by Balakian of having “worked for the Turkish government to help that government deny the Armenian genocide,” which McCarthy said was a lie but which ate further into his time and impact.
As his source, Balakian cited a Reuters news agency story of a year ago. It was never read on the panel but I looked it up and the lead said that, “
Personally, I thought that being able to watch and witness the face-to-face confrontation and personal sense of only slightly restrained animosity between McCarthy and Balakian was worth the price of the panel. It was better than some of the popular TV talk shows. It was worth hearing McCarthy's side of this debate and to get a sense of the emotions surrounding this issue. I don't think it would change anybody's mind. But McCarthy was able to at least say some things from a different perspective ? with more resonance to an American audience than Turan or the Turkish officials in the documentary ? including criticizing
There are other American academics who dispute the genocide label, including Guenter Lewy, a professor emeritus of political science at the
Both the Armenian Americans and the Turks have big and aggressive lobbying machines in
Did PBS 'Cave' and 'Censor' Itself?
In her preview of the program and panel in The New York Times last Monday, April 17, the paper's chief television critic Alessandra Stanley wrote that “the fact that so many (PBS) stations caved (by not showing the panel) is a measure of something else: PBS's growing vulnerability to pressure and, perhaps accordingly, the erosion of viewers' trust in public television.”
In response, the station manager of the local PBS affiliate in Detroit sent a letter to The Times, with copies to PBS officials, stating that, “It is surprising to have a journalist like Alessandra Stanley allege that many public television stations 'caved' when they made the decision that there was no need to run a follow-up panel show after what she acknowledges to be a journalistically sound documentary. Is Ms. Stanley therefore saying that even if a journalist presents the different sides, we must add on forums for further discussion, and if we don't we're caving to pressure?”
I have no evidence that PBS stations “caved” or engaged in self-censorship because of lobby groups, and
The PBS stations are all independent and make their own judgments, and those can certainly be defended on journalistic grounds, as the letter from
Not the Holocaust
Many people who wrote to me and to PBS who opposed airing of the panel discussion argued that it was the equivalent of putting deniers of the Holocaust against the Jews on a major TV platform. This is an understandable argument but not a good one, in my view. There is an enormous amount of incontrovertible evidence and documentation of the Holocaust from the Germans, from the allies and their liberating armies, from trials and from many survivors.
The subject of the PBS documentary deals with events 90 years ago, for which there is evidence but not the kind that accompanies the events of World War II. Furthermore, the action is strongly denied and refuted by the country involved,
So the showing of this documentary, and the panel, at this time was an important event; a reminder about a very important event that is probably on the most remote edge of awareness, if that, for millions of Americans who don't happen to be of Armenian or Turkish origin.
Source: PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) website, The Ombudsman Column
Posted by Michael Getler on April 21, 2006