Trying to keep Md. market safe from peaceniks

TV/RADIO COLUMN

TV: MPT, concerned for viewers' sensibilities, decides to delay airing a documentary about World War II-era pacifists.

January 16, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

A new PBS documentary profiles pacifists who refused to fight in World War II, and calls them heroes. The hourlong program, The Good War, and Those Who Refused to Fight It, was broadcast on scores of public television stations around the country last night. It will be shown on many more later this month.

You won't see it on Maryland Public Television for a while, however. MPT officials are delaying its broadcast by at least several months. Given the intense national reaction to the terrorist strikes, MPT vice president Zvi Shoubin thought the public might not be receptive to a program that glorifies those who would not take up arms against Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan.

MPT senior vice president for content Eric Eggleton categorized the decision as unremarkable, although he avoided discussing its rationale in detail.

"It's a subjective call," Eggleton said. Shoubin had to select the January lineup back in November, Eggleton noted, even as U.S. armed forces were waging war in Afghanistan against those allied with those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I don't think it's rare that shows don't get taken by all stations. It's not like ABC, CBS or NBC," where all programs offered by the networks are aired by affiliates, Eggleton said. A future Frontline episode focusing on pornography will be seen later in the evening on MPT than its suggested airtime, he said.

He said MPT would likely broadcast The Good War sometime between early April and late June. PBS officials did not return calls seeking information about how many other major stations are not picking up the documentary.

The program, jointly produced and directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Tejada-Flores, follows the experiences of 10 conscientious objectors through World War II. According to a script provided by Ehrlich, those interviewed cite different reasons for their objections. Several people invoke religious tenets; others said their opposition to violence arose from other sources.

Ehrlich and Tejada-Flores are unreconstructed anti-war protesters from the 1960s who have continued their activism over the years. But in their program, they do not appear to slight the sacrifice and service of those who entered the military. Instead, the two decided to tackle the dilemma at the heart of their belief: What does the pacifist do in the face of evil?

One of the subjects replies: "Look, if you guaranteed me a shot at Hitler, you wouldn't have to draft me. But to shoot at another draftee, one who I don't even know, one that I have nothing against, no."

"There's no question that Hitler was a terrible problem," says another. "You were a [conscientious objector] knowing that you didn't have another answer."

Sixteen million Americans served in the armed forces during World War II. According to the documentary, 42,000 others rejected that path. On May 15, 1941, U.S. pacifists arrived at Patapsco State Park near Elkridge to register for civilian service at the nation's first camp for conscientious objectors. Many were saddled with "make-work"; others were jailed, derided or found their later careers in ruins. Ehrlich says they are patriots who did not want to kill anyone.

MPT's hesitation is, in some ways, understandable. Timing is everything in humor, the comedian Dennis Miller said the other day. "And it's not always timing in the nanoseconds," he said: Sometimes, it's days and weeks. So, too, it can be for shows that raise questions more seriously.

But The Good War is to be broadcast this month by stations in New York City and Washington, where emotions are likely to be most raw. (WETA will broadcast it at 11 p.m. on Jan. 28. The later time was dictated by the station's desire to repeat episodes of Ken Burns' series on Mark Twain, which WETA helped subsidize.) According to the PBS Web site, public stations are also showing the documentary this month in historically conservative towns of Mobile, Ala., Odessa, Texas, and Flint, Mich.

How did it play in Peoria? Viewers there, too, had a chance to see it last night. But not here. Not for a while, anyway.

A lot on his plate

Keith Olbermann, long known as a person able to chew gum and walk at the same time, is poised to assume high-profile duties with ostensible competitors ABC News and CNN. Olbermann has been signed by ABC radio to do two daily commentaries initiated by Howard Cosell: Speaking of Sports each morning, and Speaking of Everything each afternoon.

"You know, the pictures are much better on the radio, because he paints such beautiful ones with words," said Chris Berry, ABC News' vice president for radio.

Meanwhile, CNN hired Olbermann to be a contributing commentator to CNN's NewsNight with Aaron Brown, the 10 p.m. weekday newscast. Olbermann's also been tapped to be a substitute host for Jeff Greenfield's savvy 11 p.m. program Greenfield at Large. Keep an eye out for Olbermann elsewhere on the cable network, too, as its reconfiguring continues.

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