Avoiding Armageddon became a crusade for me after 9/11 when our family lost my brother’s stepdaughter, her husband and two children on American flight 77. The crusade ended when I was fired, an act that gave my broadcasting career a unique kind of symetry. I’d lost my first job in broadcasting for trying to tell the truth about the war in Vietnam. My broadcasts, speeches and lectures hadn’t changed anything. The war dragged on for another ten years. I lost what turned out to be my last job in broadcasting almost forty years later by trying to tell the truth about a coming war in Iraq.
It’s little consolation that no weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq and that everyone finally had to admit Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with Al Qaeda. It says reams about our ruling elites that no reporter, editor or publisher lost a job for being wrong. Some publications, like The New York Times, eventually apologized for its mistakes. No government official lost a job. Right or wrong the consensus marches on!
There were other losers. Ted Turner, his vision and $9.7 million spent trying to get it on the screen. The audience, of course, but who cared about them? The most troubling thing of all at the time was that Suzanne Arden, Robert Wussler, Jeff Bieber and WETA, Pat Mitchell and PBS, none of them really cared about the quality of the reporting, the craft behind the story telling or the provocative ideas that we thought Americans needed to hear. They never even thought about that stuff. They just wanted something conventional that comforted people in power and wouldn’t create any problems for PBS. “We don’t want another Bill Moyers,” Coby Atlas had warned me. Of course, it’s impossible to tell the truth without angering the powerful.
At the time, it was hard not feel bitter. Then my brother told me that although terrorists murdered his whole family on 9/11, he wouldn’t let them destroy him with bitterness and anger.
My brother and his wife became activists again, both politically and in small but very meaningful ways — working here in the U.S. with young kids to teach them to read, providing micro-credit to families in developing nations, helping to start a midwifery clinic in Afghanistan and protesting the war with Iraq. They had become disengaged while their grandchildren were growing up. After the kids were killed, they returned to working for a world in which everyone has a future.
Marty Schram ended the companion book to the Avoiding Armageddon series with my brother and his family’s story and that final, healing sentiment. Unfortunately, those thoughts were not considered appropriate for a public broadcasting audience already in the midst of the war.
Most people missed the series entirely. Ratings were poor and press reviews were polite at best. A couple of friends called to say they saw one of the shows, but they didn’t even notice that our names were not on the credit list. (I insisted they be taken off.)
When I talked with the few people who saw the series (or parts of it) they told me they didn’t think the shows were that bad. The awkward bridges, the confused order, the broken stories, the easy generalizations and the deplorable discussions that followed didn’t bother them. Expectations for the quality of PBS documentaries were depressingly low. None of it really mattered very much in the scheme of things.