March 22, 2006

Dear Mr. Getler,

I would like to correct the misrepresentation of my involvement with the Armenian Genocide documentary in your Ombudsman column of 3/11, “ Coming Soon to Viewers Like You: “The Armenian Genocide.”

You write “PBS threatened to pull the documentary if he [Balakian] and another genocide scholar declined to participate in the panel discussion.”

That is false. What I have told several journalists in the past month is the following: I was told (in fact three times) by Oregon PBS producer David Davis that PBS would not run the documentary if a post-show panel with deniers were not made. Mr. Davis made it clear that this was the direct word from Jacoba Atlas at national headquarters. (I had sent her a letter in November appealing to her to drop the idea of a post-show on ethical and historical grounds.)

I never said nor implied that the documentary would not air if I—personally—were not on the panel. That would be, of course, absurd. Naturally, PBS would find someone else to take my place.

I decided to go forward with the “debate” after all my efforts to convince PBS to not make it failed because I have experience on TV and radio with this subject and felt I could help shape the conversation in an ethical way –and perhaps a way that would expose Turkish denial more fully for what it is.

The fact remains that PBS would not run a fair and rich documentary about the Armenian Genocide– one that included nearly a dozen Turkish voices–without running what many in the genocide studies consider to be an unethical privileging of denial.

This is not a free speech issue—as much of the scholarly community has made clear. The deniers are free in this country to express themselves without fear of prosecution or harm—but this does not guarantee them right to an elite forums. The leading authority on Holocaust and genocide denial, Professor Deborah Lipstadt has written:

“Denial of genocide—whether that of the Turks against the Armenians, or the Nazis against the Jews—is not an act of historical reinterpretation. Rather, the deniers sow confusion by appearing to be engaged in a genuine scholarly effort. The abundance of documents and testimonies that confirm the genocide are dismissed as contrived, coerced, or forgeries and falsehoods. The deniers aim at convincing innocent third parties that there is ‘another side of the story.’ Free speech does not guarantee the deniers the right to be treated as the ‘other side of a legitimate debate,’ when there is no credible ‘other side’; nor does it guarantee the deniers space in the classroom or curriculum, or in any other forum.”

Like many others, I fear that PBS resorted to the post-show panel as a kind of fire insurance because of the negative experience of harassment it had with the Turkish government in 1988 after airing an Armenian Genocide documentary, as you note in your column. While this was no doubt an uncomfortable experience, many of us hoped that PBS would not feel that sense of intimidation this time. Many institutions and organization around the world in recent years have ceased paying attention to Turkish harassment.

Lastly, I find Ms. Atlas’ explanation for the post-show program a bit disingenuous. She claims that its goal was not to provide a “platform for those who deny the genocide,” but to “explore how serious historians do their work and look at evidence.” However, by inviting two professional deniers (who have worked closed with the Turkish government) on to PBS, a large platform was provided for the repulsive lies, known as denial. And, in the twenty-five minutes we had there was not even a remote possibility that the show could explore how historians work. As fine a job as Scott Simon did hosting it, the post show is a staged “bake-off” and sadly a forum that abused the reality and memory of one of the major human rights crimes of our time.

Having made these points, I still applaud PBS for putting on “The Armenian Genoicde,” which is a landmark documentary.


Peter Balakian