On Sunday afternoon, January 26, twelve days after Turner’s enthusiastic endorsement of the series, I received a very different kind of memo from Jeff Bieber. It was six pages of complaints about a show on Chemical and Biological weapons. “This is really a bunch of short segments … tied together by Cronkite. There’s not a over-arching storyline.” “Where are the writers … This is appalling.” “They need to get rid of all the oversimplifications, vague statement and unattributed opinion.” “Silly, meaningless writing about learning lessons from World War I.” “… the absence of appropriate experts/government officials is really alarming.”
Two days later, on January 28th, a little after 11:00am, Robert Wussler walked into my office and said, “You’re though. You and your wife and Tom DeVries and Rick King. I want you out of here.” I told him he was making a colossal mistake, but Robert’s mind was made up. He never responded to an email I sent the next day urging him to reconsider. I emailed Charlie Curtis, the head of NTI (Nuclear Threat Initiative), but I never heard from anyone at NTI.
If I had seen the end coming could I have acted more intelligently to ward off the attack? Did I play my cards wrong? The card playing analogy is a good one, because Jeff Bieber, the mid-level WETA manager who with Suzanne Arden engineered the coup against us, once said after a particularly contentious editorial meeting, “I’d love to play poker with you sometime.” Maybe for him it was largely a game and no hard feelings. He seemed genuinely glad to see me when we bumped into each other later at a CPB meeting. Anyway, he certainly bluffed me out. I thought for a long time he was an ally.
On Thursday, January 30th, I called Dewey Blanton, the Public Affairs executive at WETA, and asked Dewey if anyone had worked out a statement to explain my being replaced. He said he had only heard about it the previous afternoon and everyone was still in shock. Dewey asked if the firing could be explained as “editorial differences.”
A week later, I got back an approved statement from Dewey, which read, “Chris Koch made valuable contributions to this production, and we greatly appreciate his tireless work and the breadth and depth he brought to “Avoiding Armageddon.” As the production progressed, particularly in light of changing world events, we felt we needed to install a new team to bring the project to completion. Frank Sesno and Chris Guarino are respected news producers and journalists and we feel they can build on the strong foundation Chris Koch has provided to complete this major series for PBS.”
Guarano introduced himself to the remaining Avoiding Armageddon staff by announcing that he had brought Monica Lewinsky to CNN. He had never produced a long form documentary. Bieber and Guarano had previously collaborated on a show called Gridlock! – not the kind that ties up Washington politics but the kind that makes you late to Falls Church at rush hour. Guarano’s partner, Frank Cesno, has journalistic credentials, but nothing exceptional and nothing in public television. He went on to become a PBS star.
An hour after I was fired, I was still packing up my desk when Marlene Adler, Walter Cronkite’s personal assistant called me. Mr. Cronkite wanted to speak to me. I explained that I’d been fired. Adler was shocked. “Walter wanted to tell you how much he liked the scripts. He didn’t even feel the need to have his own editorial review.” Our version of Avoiding Armageddon was good enough for Walter Cronkite but not for PBS.
Loosing the series six weeks before delivery was like a death, or as one of my women producers said, “a late term miscarriage.” I wrote to Ted but he never answered me. In what still feels like a gut-wrenching free fall from a high cliff, my phone stopped ringing entirely. I went from sixty emails a day to absolutely none. I was “Out-of-Power” … a communicable disease in our nation’s capitol … I was contagious and had to be avoided .
I wrote a press release, but unlike my days at Pacifica, I did not have the support and contacts to mount a battle in the press. I had a divisive staff in a power-hungry town of people without many ideals. I called Current, the public broadcasting magazine. There were no interested in what turned out to be radical editorial changes in the series. I did one short radio interview criticizing the editorial changes in the scripts and received a “cease and desist” letter from Ted Turner’s lawyer threatening dire consequences if I persisted in what the letter called “product disparagement.” The “product,” which was owned by Turner under the work-for-hire contract I signed, was the series we’d spent over a year and half producing.
“… your statements and actions further constitute defamation and product disparagement under established statutory and case law. Pursuant to the terms of the Agreement, SWP is entitled to full indemnity for your numerous breaches, as well as all other legal and equitable remedies against you as a result of your breach thereof, including, without limitation, the right to immediate injunctive relief and monetary recovery. Please be assured that our client will take all actions to stop your inappropriate actions in violation of the agreement, and to the extent false material is provided or disseminated to any third party by you, such actions will be pursued vigorously to the greatest extent permitted by the Agreement at law and in equity.”
Copies of the letter were sent to Wussler and Arden, but interestingly not to Ted Turner. The lawyers for “Mouth of the South” were telling me to shut up.
A castrated version of Avoiding Armageddon was finally broadcast. I watched two shows, and it was like seeing an old friend after a frontal lobotomy. The pictures were the same, but the heart and intellect were gone.
PBS rewrote the shows with an agenda that was the opposite of what Ted Turner said he wanted in our first meeting. They dumbed the series down and made it national instead of international. PBS cut three fundamental ideas: 1) People and nations must be accountable for their actions; 2) America needs an informed and engaged citizenry; 3) Solutions are complex but understandable and they must be international.
In the final show, PBS boiled the whole series down to one simplistic, reassuring solution. “If we had to choose one word or phrase that best sums up all of our efforts to stem the threats of nuclear weapons, of chemical and biological agents, of all forms of terrorism, it would probably be: ‘Homeland Security.’”
CIA director George Tenet told us the opposite, “Homeland security begins with front line security.” It was another line that PBS cut from the final version.