Public television’s attempt to illuminate a dark period of European history is demonstrating that in the world of documentaries, few topics are black and white.
“The Armenian Genocide” began airing this week on dozens of PBS stations, including nine in the nation’s top TV markets. Through tattered photos, letters and celebrity voiceovers, the documentary created by New York-based filmmaker Andrew Goldberg depicts a Turkish campaign of expulsion, rape, and murder that led to the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million ethnic Armenians between 1915 and 1920.
To the filmmaker and most historians, the documentary covers settled history, although Turkey continues to deny that it committed what many consider the first genocide of the 20th century.
PBS said it accepted Goldberg’s film based on the “recognition that the overwhelming majority of historians have concluded that a genocide took place.” But to appease a small contingent of critics, the network commissioned Oregon Public Broadcasting, a partner on the film, to produce a panel discussion comprising two historians who back the film’s premise and two who dispute it.
Three stations, three approaches
PBS affiliates, which make their own programming decisions, took different approaches with the programs, in some cases creating even more unhappiness on both sides.
One of the nation’s premier PBS stations, WGBH in Boston, aired Goldberg’s film but declined to show the panel.
“We chose to air ‘The Armenian Genocide’ based on its merits and because we felt it was balanced and presented both sides of the story,” said Lucy Sholley, the station’s director of media relations. “We felt the documentary stood on its own.”
KCTS in Seattle aired the film and the panel discussion. Program manager Eric Maki said in a statement that the station wanted to give viewers as much information as possible to “make an informed decision” and “better understand the world around them.”
KCET in Los Angeles, home to about two-thirds of the country’s 1.5 million Armenian Americans, declined to show both programs. A spokeswoman said the station is airing programs on Armenian issues throughout April and had earlier decided to show a French documentary called “Le Génocide Arménien.”
On Monday, the day the French film aired, Goldberg screened his documentary at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre before an audience estimated at 1,000.
“I didn’t want this story to not have a chance to be shown to the Armenians in Los Angeles,” he said. “It’s a story that many of them had taken part in, through their involvement or just being connected with it.”
Panel adds to controversy
The PBS decision to host a panel featuring genocide skeptics has angered Armenian activists.
“We commend PBS for airing the Goldberg piece. It’s a good opportunity to educate their viewers with regards to the Armenian genocide. But we felt that the panel that followed it in some areas was completely unnecessary,” said Elizabeth Chouldjian, spokeswoman for the Armenian National Committee of America. “It was misleading. Essentially, it presented the issue of the genocide not as a fact, but as a debate.”
Chouldjian’s organization and others waged a letter-writing campaign that flooded PBS and congressional offices with requests that the network drop the panel.
The network stood its ground, however, saying the program’s “intent is to examine the question of how historians can come to such radically divergent conclusions about these events. An important part of the mission of public television is to engender responsible discussion and illuminate complex issues.”
More to the story?
The Turkish government and some historians maintain that Armenians who died during the violent last throes of the Ottoman Empire where victims of a civil war, not genocide.
Goldberg’s film presents a slanted historical account, according to some viewers who wrote into PBS stations and a scholar who participated in the panel discussion.
“If you only take one side and report their deaths, it seems like genocide. But of course it wasn’t that,” said Justin McCarthy, a professor of history at the University of Louisville.
McCarthy, who acknowledges holding a minority view, believes Goldberg’s film takes a selective snapshot of history and fails to address the deaths of many Turks at the hands of Armenian militants.
"It was an inhuman, bestial time,” he said. “There were wide-scale, mutual massacres across eastern and other areas of (the Ottoman Empire) — a mutual-extermination kind of war.”
An isolated ally
Over the years, Turkey has become more isolated in its position.
Led by France, many European countries have stepped up pressure on Turkey to acknowledge the Armenian genocide as a condition of joining the European Union. United Nations human rights panels have repeatedly called the Armenian deaths “genocide,” as defined by international treaties.
As Goldberg’s film shows, American diplomats deployed to the Ottoman Empire during WWI described “systematic” atrocities committed against Armenians. The word “genocide” doesn’t appear in the dispatches, because it wasn’t coined until decades later by Holocaust survivor Rafael Lemkin.
But among the holdouts for Turkey today are the U.S. and U.K., which have strong economic and military ties to the nation.
Under recent Republican and Democratic administrations, the U.S. has avoided using the “G-word,” instead calling the Armenian deaths a “tragedy” or “atrocity.”
As they come of age, a growing number of Armenian Americans are demanding the government recognize their ancestors’ deaths as genocide. Filmmakers and Grammy-nominated bands with Armenian roots, such as System of a Down, have staged benefits calling attention to the issue. The band and other activists are scheduled to meet with members of Congress next week to again press their case.
Is change near? Another look at history casts doubt: Nearly every year federal legislation is introduced. All of the measures have either died in the House or languished in the Senate.