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OPB Ombudsman on "The Armenian Genocide"

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  • OPB Ombudsman on "The Armenian Genocide"

    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.