The Armenian Genocide"
April 28, 2006

Ken A. Bode

"The Armenian Genocide," which aired on most PBS stations on April 17
is a powerful indictment of the Ottoman Empire for its forced
relocation and systemic effort to eliminate its Armenian population.
Produced for Oregon Public Television by Andrew Goldberg of Two Cats
Productions, the hour-long documentary is an impressive gathering of
historical material interpreted by knowledgeable and respected
scholars, leading to the inescapable conclusion that in 1915, with
the outbreak of World War I, there was a brutal and methodical
campaign to slaughter and destroy Armenians, directed by the Turkish
authorities of the time.

That the present government of Turkey does not subscribe to these
conclusions is well known. The official Turkish position is that
local Armenians supported the invading Russian army and also engaged
in sporadic uprisings against Ottoman authorities. Indeed, many
Armenian Christians were killed, but so were many Muslims, in what
Turkey insists was a civil war. There were deportations, Turkey
admits, but no centrally directed genocide. Genocide denial is the
official position of the Turkish government today, backed by that
country's criminal code.

In the documentary, the Turkish view of history is represented by the
head of the Turkish Historical Society, with testimony by Gunduz
Aktan, the former Turkish ambassador and by Prof. Justin McCarthy of
the University of Louisville, whose long-standing view is that there
was no centrally directed genocide. In a pre-broadcast letter to CPB,
David Saltzman, counsel to the Assembly of Turkish American
Associations, raised a number of questions about PBS motives and
responsibilities in promoting "a single version of the truth."
Despite the presence of voices that support his country's position,
the present Turkish ambassador, Nabi Sensoy, issued a post-broadcast
complaint saying that the show was "blatantly one-sided" and
reflected "a self-serving political agenda by Armenian American

On the central question of whether there was a genocide, the
documentary agrees with the view represented by the International
Association of Genocide Scholars that, yes, there was. Samantha Power
addresses this issue in her 2002 Pulitzer prize winning book, "A
Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide." Power devotes
the opening chapter to a review of the treatment of the Armenians in
1915, citing reports from the American Ambassador to the Ottoman
Empire Henry Morganthau who cabled Washington on July 10:

"Persecutions of Armenians assuming unprecedented proportions.
Reports from widely scattered districts indicate systematic attempt
to uproot peaceful Armenian populations and through arbitrary
arrests, terrible tortures, whole-sale expulsions and deportations
from one end of the Empire to the other accompanied by frequent
instances of rape, pillage, and murder, turning into massacre, to
bring destruction on them. These measures are not in response to
popular or fanatical demand but are purely arbitrary and directed
from Constantinople in the name of military necessity, often in
districts where no military operations are likely to take place."
Morganthau warned Washington, "there seems to be a systematic plan to
crush the Armenian race." In 1915, the New York Times devoted 145
stories to the Turkish horrors, and former President Theodore
Roosevelt joined in the unsuccessful effort to persuade the American
government to denounce the Ottoman Empire for the atrocities. Nothing
happened and eventually Amb. Morganthau resigned in despair.

In 1915, genocide was a crime without a name. Over the next three
decades, a Polish Jew named Raphael Lemkin conducted a one-man
campaign to create a universal jurisdiction whereby instigators or
perpetrators of attempts to wipe out national, ethnic or religious
groups would become an international crime that could be punished
anywhere, like slavery or piracy. Exhibit A in Lemkin's campaign was
the Armenian episode. Lemkin appears in the documentary talking about
the genocide against Armenians.

A Number of Questions
Andrew Goldberg's documentary pulls no punches on the question of
whether there was a genocide in 1915, and Coby Atlas, PBS senior vice
president, told the Washington Post that PBS considers the genocide
to be "settled history." However, the PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler,
wrote a thoughtful analysis ending as a skeptic on that point.
Perhaps, mused Getler, over time there will be "greater agreement and
acknowledgment about what happened in the years around 1915 than
there has been until now." He adds that there is simply not the same
kind of evidence for genocide in Turkey as historians have assembled
to document the Holocaust during W.W.II. Getler concludes:

"Furthermore, the action is strongly denied and refuted by the
country involved, Turkey, and there are historians, as has been
shown, who question not whether terrible things happened but whether
there is enough evidence to use that powerful descriptor, Genocide."
This evident disagreement between a top programming executive and the
network's ombudsman affords greater relevance to the series of
pre-broadcast questions submitted by David Saltzman on behalf of the
Assembly of Turkish American Associations. Saltzman inquired how PBS
and CPB achieved the right to proclaim definite positions on historic
controversies. By what standards, he asks, are these judgments made?
What exactly is the PBS position on the Armenian genocide, and by
what process was this position adopted? Given Mr. Getler's doubts
about whether genocide occurred, these are good questions.

In the opinion of Andrew Goldberg, the documentary producer,
unwillingness by the PBS ombudsman to apply the word genocide means,
in effect, that Getler chose the Turkish side. "If you don't use that
word, you are enabling denial," says Goldberg.

This brings us to the PBS decision to add a post-program roundtable,
"Armenian Genocide: Exploring the Issues." The discussion was taped
at National Geographic studios in Washington, D.C., and moderated by
NPR's Scott Simon. Consistent with the PBS position on "settled
history," the objective of the panel was to "explore more deeply the
question of why the Turkish government and its supporters continue to
reject the genocide label."

The very existence of this after-show generated considerable
controversy, including hundreds of e-mails on both sides and an
on-line petition against the discussion that drew thousands of
signatures. Predictably, Armenians opposed the panel discussion on
grounds that it would dilute the firm conclusions of the documentary.
Turks supported it as another opportunity to cast the events of 1915
as something short of genocide.

Perhaps the most unfortunate part of the agitation was that several
members of Congress got involved in urging PBS not to air the panel
discussion. As one party to the documentary put it, "They control the
appropriations. There is an implicit threat in their intervention."

The panelists chosen to explore the issues in the after-show included
two scholars representing the Armenian side, Peter Balakian, author
of "The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's
Response," and Taner Akcam, a professor from the University of
Minnesota. Both were featured as witnesses in the documentary,
Balakian with credits as an editorial consultant and writer.
Representing the Turkish view were Professor Justin McCarthy from the
University of Louisville and Turkish professor Omer Turan.

Organized as it was, the panel amounted to a quasi-academic version
of "Crossfire," with Balakian aggressively accusing McCarthy of being
a paid agent of the Turkish government. Omer Turan's facility with
English was so limited that the moderator, Scott Simon, admitted at
one point that he was lost. All in all, very little was accomplished
by this panel. That opinion was echoed by programmers in many PBS
venues who decided not to broadcast the panel or to do so at 3:00 or
5:00 a.m.

This is not to say that the idea of an after-show panel was a bad
one. This one did not work, but it may serve as a valuable lesson for
the future. The group should not have included members who already
had their say in the preceding documentary, and care should have been
taken to be sure that all participants had an adequate facility with

With issues as deeply controversial as those treated in "The Armenian
Genocide," it should be regular policy for PBS to sponsor and pay for
a panel of reputable, independent scholars able to step back and
offer intelligent perspective and commentary on what the viewers have
just watched. If the experts are chosen wisely, it can only add to
PBS adhering to the requirements of fairness and balance. Then, when
PBS arranges for an after-show, it should assure the quality of the
product and stand behind it with strong encouragement that affiliate
stations run the panel discussion immediately following the

Finally, there is the matter of funding. At the beginning and end of
the documentary lengthy credits reveal that nearly all the support
for this project came from foundations, families or individuals with
Armenian surnames. PBS has assured its viewers that all donors were
properly vetted, though who knows what that actually means? Full
transparency is important, and the list does convey the unfortunate
impression that the documentary, "The Armenian Genocide," was paid
for by one side of the argument.

Public skepticism about our business is so great that PBS should be
cognizant of impressions. For example, when KCET in Los Angeles--home
to one of the largest Armenian populations in America -- decided not
to air the Goldberg documentary, it prompted this response from KCET
viewer Ruth Blandon:

"The word on the street is that you've been paid off by people
interested and invested in maintaining silence about the genocide.
Turkish money, perhaps? Republican money? Someone else's money? The
word is out.

"There have already been many murmurs about corruption at PBS within
a different context. I don't understand your programming choices
which only serve to add fuel to the fire. And I hope you reconsider
your poor choice not to air the Goldberg documentary as well as who
your audience is.

"Shame on you."

My conclusion is that this was an excellent documentary, well
supported with historical fact and expert witnesses. It raised vital
issues that the nation of Turkey remains unwilling to deal with,
because, as Samantha Power suggests in the program, to acknowledge
genocide would put that nation in the sorry company of Adolph Hitler
and Nazi Germany. The contrary opinion of the ombudsman Mr. Getler
leaves PBS in a fog of ambivalence.