The changes that PBS made in Avoiding Armageddon demonstrate the interplay between events in the real world and what journalists are able to say. WETA’s press release announcing my firing said WETA needed a new team “in light of changing world events.” The only changing world event that mattered was the invasion of Iraq. We had been screening segments of Avoiding Armageddon in the Fall 2002 when Bush was preparing his attack. The administration claimed Iraq continued to possess and manufacture weapons of mass destruction and continued to support terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, which had coordinated the 9/11 attacks against the United States.
Media support for the invasion was important to the administration and they got it. The vast majority of news stories were pro-war, just as they had been for the Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam War in the Sixties. By one count, only 10% of all media stories were at all critical. Pat Mitchell visited the White House over Christmas. I doubt if Avoiding Armageddon came up, but if her visit was like other pre-war visits, Pat got exciting advance knowledge of the invasion, was made to feel like an insider and probably wanted to do what she could to support the war.
Keep in mind, social media was not a phenomena in 1993. All we had were dial up modems that connected us to email through AOL. Our only sources of news were radio, television networks, cable news shows, daily newspapers and weekly or monthly magazines. Given the news coverage, it isn’t surprising that 72% of Americans supported the war and 9 out of 10 Americans believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. A sizable majority thought that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the attacks on 9/11. Patriotism crackled in the air like the flags everyone put up on their cars and pickup trucks. Congress passed a war resolution by a huge majority.
Our Western allies were not so sure. The UN passed Resolution 1441 on November 8th requiring Iraq to readmit inspectors and comply with previous resolutions. Iraq appeared willing to do so and our European allies urged Bush to wait
The Avoiding Armageddon editorial team looked closely at the government’s case, and its claims were ridiculous (as they later proved to be). Colin Powel has called his repeating these lies before the UN in February of 2003 the most humiliating experience of his life. It is a remarkable example of group think that only a few marginal publications and a few researchers doubted the administration’s case.
Our version of Avoiding Armageddon did not support the war. But it was not only our reluctance to accept the government’s case for war, a great deal of what we were saying in Avoiding Armageddon did not fit with a war mood when people are unlikely to be reflective or compassionate. Americans felt under attack.
Here are some specific changes
PBS dropped the idea that people and nations must be accountable for their actions. Americans were confused. We still are. “Why do they hate us?” Some people believed that it was simply envy of our material prosperity and freedom of behavior. In Avoiding Armageddon we tried to show that it’s anger with US government policies. Too often, the United States has reacted to international situations with violence followed by neglect while our multinational corporations have been largely indifferent to local concerns that don’t improve their bottom line.
PBS dropped anything that held us responsible. For example, we pointed out that Iranians (and many others!) still remember the 1953 CIA coup that replaced a popular nationalist, Mohammed Mossedgh, with an American picked shah who instigated a brutal regime enforced with fear and torture. We wanted their oil. Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower agreed reluctantly to the overthrow. The CIA station chief in Tehran advised against it, predicting decades of anti-Americanism.
Twenty-six years later Iranians threw out the Shah but they didn’t attack our embassy at that point. It was only after President Carter gave the Shah what amounted to asylum in the United States, refusing to send him back back to Iran to stand trial, that Iranian students seized our embassy staff as hostages.
You wouldn’t know any of that from watching Avoiding Armageddon. They began, out of context, with angry, seemingly irrational Iranian students parading helpless Americans through the streets. It made your blood boil and your mind go cold.
PBS minimized the fact that the United States supported Saddam Hussein and Iraq during its war with Iran. It dropped any mention of US companies providing Iraq with the chemicals and logistic support to manufacture and use chemical weapons.
PBS cut out any American responsibility for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, ignoring the fact that President Jimmy Carter authorized the CIA to funnel support to the anti-Soviet mujahedeen six months before the Soviet invasion with the specific intention of giving the Soviets their own Vietnam.
PBS ignored the US share of responsibility for India and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, leaving out the atoms for peace program that India exploited along with our willingness to look the other way when Pakistan developed nuclear weapons. They were allies against the Soviets. PBS didn’t mention that we give unconditional support to Israel, ignoring Israel’s “secret” nuclear arsenal.
PBS cut out Jimmy Carter pointing out that the United States is at the bottom of foreign aid giving. “Every time an American through our government gives a dollar, a Norwegian gives $17. All the Europeans on average, give $4.” PBS didn’t want Americans to stop thinking they were the most generous people in the world.
It cut out the Bush’s Administration plans to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons and US withdrawal from a host of international agreements. I know, in 2017 you thought this was all new stuff with the Trump administration.
Most shockingly, from Ted Turner’s perspective I would think, PBS cut out references to former American officials who were once involved with controlling nuclear weapons and who now thought we should give them up … Robert McNamara, Defense Secretary under John F. Kennedy, General Lee Butler, the last commander of the Strategic Air Command, and Paul Nitze an architect of the Cold War.
PBS cut out or minimized the idea that America needs an informed and engaged citizenry
They edited out any mention of anti-nuclear citizens movements, including SANE. The cut the comments of Bertrand Russell and Joseph Rotblat. They dropped any mention of the deliberate contamination of civilians and soldiers in USA and Russia during the early phase of nuclear testing and the citizen outrage that stopped the process. They dropped mention of the large number of bombs actually tested and citizen’s reaction, which lead to one of the largest and most successful citizen protest movements in our history, Women’s Strike for Peace.
PBS ignored citizen concerns about the vulnerability of nuclear power plants to terrorism and leakage or failure. They didn’t mention American problems cleaning up nuclear Waste. They didn’t mention President’s Truman’s fear of WWIII in Korea. They dropped the fact that members own the Joint Chief recommended using nuclear weapons during Vietnam. They dropped comments on the effects of nuclear war on civilians. (After all, Homeland Security will take care off us.)
They cut out all but one comment by local citizens of Anniston, Alabama who were concerned about the effects of incinerating chemical waste in their hometown. They didn’t like the scene of an Israeli family where gas masks had become part of their everyday life. They dropped the veterans of the first Gulf War who had been exposed to dangerous chemicals.
They dropped the idea that solutions are complex but understandable and they must be international.
In our cut of Avoiding Armageddon, we attributed the roots of terrorism to dysfunctional societies, where poverty, lack of opportunity, oppression and misery can lead ordinary people to strike back. One of our examples was a segment that had troubled Suzanne and Bieber during our November screenings, but they couldn’t really tell us why. It was the story of a fifteen year old Palestinian who was torn between being an accountant like his father or a suicide bomber, which is what his Imam encouraged. He had seen his brother killed by Israeli soldiers for throwing stones and he was bitter.
In our telling of the piece, viewers were taken inside that young man’s skin, and they saw the world around him through his eyes. A typical response to our cut was, “oh my god, there but for the grace god go I.” Our story evoked compassion, and I knew that made Suzanne and Jeff nervous, but they couldn’t come right out and say it.
In their recut version, the story was broken up with sound bites and narration. Most of the original fragments were there, but the retelling distanced the viewer and made the kid at best “a case study.” Israeli and American psychiatrists explained how dangerous this boy could be. The emotional involvement, the compassion, was gone. The underlying message of the PBS version was simply, “we better get that kid before he gets us.”
PBS attributed terrorism to a “clash of cultures” about which we can do little except fight back. PBS represented Islam by showing crazed fundamentalists in London. We sent a team to Iran where we found a much more complex society than our media portrayed, including underground musicians and dissidents. The Iran section was cut entirely by PBS.
We also did a story on Islamic fundamentalist in Northern Nigeria. They had rescued people from anarchy, even if the price was a harsh civil code called sharia. Islamic fundamentalists were fulfilling real needs to gain people’s support. In grateful thanks, many parents in these remote villages, with access to the Internet and satellite television, named their children Osama after Osama bin Laden. This was also something PBS didn’t want a public television audience to hear and they cut the entire segment.
What else? PBS cut minority leader of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi’s criticism of the Patriot Act. They ignored entirely the under-funding of homeland security and the bungled intelligence that led to 9/11.
PBS cut out all references to the Joint Congressional Intelligence hearings that focused on 9/11 including critical questioning by Republican and Democratic Senators on the failure of US intelligence. It also cut out references to the Hart/Rudman reports – that predicted a major terrorist attack on our soil in January of 2001 but was largely ignored by the Bush Administration until 9/11. It ignored a follow-up report that highlighted our continued vulnerability.
A WETA executive told the staff at one point that all he wanted to know was “how can I keep my family safe?” Perhaps that is the root of the problem – a failure to recognize that we need to be concerned about families all over the world. Until we do so, none of us will be safe.
I was working on our final on-camera narration for Walter Cronkite the morning I was fired.
“In regions where people have enough, the center holds, and misfits and terrorists, psychopaths and murderous idealists, are marginalized. They appear in every society, and they may kill a few or bomb this or that building, bring down an airplane full of innocents, but their friends, colleagues and family soon turn the killers in to the authorities because most of the people around them have a stake in a functioning society. We need to give all the people of the world a stake, not out of altruism but out of national security.”
Quaint ideas in the age of Trump.