On his page on the PBS website, PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler agreed with e-mailers on an episode of gratuitious liberal bias – a seemingly out-of-nowhere attack on the 2004 ad campaign against John Kerry by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth – on the show "History Detectives." In a brief commentary, Wes Cowan denounced how the group known as "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and funded by a wealthy Republican campaign donor smeared Kerry's military record and possibly cost him the election." When Getler asked the executive producer Christopher Bryson about the claim, he shot back: "In stating that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ‘smeared Kerry's military record’ we carefully and believe accurately summarized and characterized a great deal of objective reporting by established media organizations, respected media watchdog groups, and an official Pentagon investigation."
Those "objective" reporters included The Washington Post, and the Annenberg Center’s Factcheck.org, which also relied on the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and a Kerry pal’s commentary in the Wall Street Journal. But the "objective" label gets more hilarious when Bryson also cited John Kerry’s incredibly sympathetic liberal biographer and pop-historian Doug Brinkley, and the left-wing Center for Media and Democracy’s online Sourcewatch encylopedia. CMD puts out paperback books with obviously left-wing and partisan titles such as Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq and Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing Is Turning America Into a One-Party State.
Public broadcasting doesn’t do very well in being responsive to public complaints, especially about a liberal bias. (By contrast, a liberal campaign recently forced PBS omnipresence Ken Burns to add an entire Hispanic-heroes segment to his forthcoming documentary on World War II.) Getler has been the PBS ombudsman since 2005, after PBS was outraged that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting named two ombudsmen, the usual media establishmentarian (former NBC political reporter and PBS host Ken Bode, who still blogs occasionally) and conservative journalist Bill Schulz (mostly with Reader's Digest), who was completely unacceptable to the liberal system. He departed after a few blogs.
Getler also has the media establishment credentials from The International Herald Tribune and The Washington Post (he was also an ombudsman there). He began his analysis this way:
"We interrupt this program to bring you . . . a political message." That line wasn't actually broadcast on PBS this week, but that's what several viewers thought happened while they were watching the July 9 airing of the "History Detectives" series. And they have a point.
I've said several times in these columns over the past 18 months or so that there is always something new to discover about how things happen on public television. Today's lesson is how to shoot yourself in the foot — at least in the minds of a fair number of viewers — by injecting something debatable, political and seemingly irrelevant into a program that people seem to enjoy because it is different, imaginative and not political.
"History Detectives" is a co-production of Lion Television and Oregon Public Broadcasting. It is now in its fifth season on PBS, with about a dozen programs a year, each with three different segments. The program appears to be very popular, with about four million weekly viewers, according to PBS. It devotes itself "to exploring the complexities of historical mysteries, searching out the facts, myths and conundrums that connect local folklore, family legends and interesting objects." About 75 percent of the stories investigated are contributed by viewers, and a four-person team experienced in historical investigations tracks down the clues and facts. In my view, the concept for the program is among the most creative and imaginative on public television.
I recall only a few occasions during my time here when I would get a critical e-mail or two from a viewer taking issue with the way something was presented. But a portion of the July 9 show produced a heavy flow of critical mail. The opening segment of the program, by "detective" Elyse Luray, focused on a vintage, post-Civil War photograph showing about 20 older white soldiers in uniform standing shoulder-to-shoulder with two uniformed black soldiers. As the program pointed out, in Reconstruction-era America, such associations were frequently taboo. So what brought them together for this picture? Detective Luray went to work. The bond, it turned out, was the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal order organized for war veterans. So far, so good.
But then immediately following this, another member of the "History Detectives" quartet, Wes Cowan, an anthropologist and owner of an auction company that specializes in historical Americana, delivered a brief commentary that started off talking about the historical battle for veterans' benefits. But he ended up talking about Sen. John F. Kerry's role in 1971, when, as a young Naval officer, he was a leader of those veterans who turned against the Vietnam War, and how, in 2004, a group known as the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and funded by a wealthy Republican campaign donor smeared Kerry's military record and possibly cost him the election."
Getler included a pile of letters from disappointed viewers. While declaring his sympathy for the Kerry position, he found the commentary out of place:
When I say, as I did at the top of this column, that these viewers have a point, I mean that, in my view, this comment of Cowan's, and the way it was presented, seemed to me to come out of nowhere, be irrelevant to the segment viewers had just watched, and jumped out as sort of a gratuitous political shot that seemed to distract from what is almost always an entertaining program removed from this kind of thing.
Also, the Swift Boat assault on Kerry in the '04 presidential campaign was a long-running and very controversial battle, not given to one-liners. And, as some viewers put it, there are lots of reasons why Kerry lost. There are undoubtedly large numbers of people who would agree with the characterization of the Swift Boat campaign as a smear on Kerry — who was awarded three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and Silver Star while serving in Vietnam — while many others see it differently....
Having followed this over the years, I felt, personally, that the evidence supported Kerry's record, citations and performance in battle. But the issue here for me is the appropriateness, or rather the lack of it, of Cowan's commentary.