Marine Corps and PBS, semper fi

By Michael Getler, PBS Ombudsman

Most of the mail this week focused on a 90-minute documentary that aired Wednesday evening and was simply titled “The Marines.” The United States Marine Corps is one of the oldest and most widely revered American institutions. No matter what one thinks of American policy or its wars, I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of our citizens are proud of the Marine Corps, its men and women, and its special place in the country’s history and culture.

Yet almost all of the mail that came to me about this program was critical — not of the Marines, but of PBS, and that came as no surprise. Several of the letters are included below.

As a viewer, I would give this film what one might call a mixed review. It succeeds in capturing the ethos and sense of exceptionalism that is so vital both to the individual Marine, to the individual combat unit, and the Corps as a whole. It is illuminating about the logic of its training and the transition from civilian to Marine. So there is value in sticking with it. I’ve always been kind of a push-over, myself, for both the image and reality of the Marines and the absolute value of such a specialized fighting force — along with the other branches, of course — in our democracy.
Friendly Fire

But as a documentary, this film falls well short, in my view, of what one would normally expect. I felt as though PBS was the willing victim of friendly fire from the producers and, especially, the funders on this one and didn’t take any visible action to protect itself. This is really a very well done testimonial and recruiting film masquerading as a documentary.

There is essentially no critical assessment or voice anywhere in this film by outside experts who may have interesting and useful things to say about the Marines and their mission that challenges the relentless gung-ho theme of this presentation. Two widely respected journalists — Tom Ricks of The Washington Post and Rick Kaplan of The Atlantic Monthly — help greatly with perspective and context of the Corps in our society. But if you cough twice during this film — once during a sentence when the narrator refers to the mid-1970s when hundreds of drill instructors were punished for abusing recruits, and once when he says that, on occasion, the Corps’ reputation has been tarnished — you will have missed the only attempts at introspection. The film builds towards an ending of camaraderie, sacrifice, just-the-kid-next-door quality, along with the music, that reminded me of the films I saw during World War II that made me misty-eyed as a youngster.

There is no questioning of leadership or whether it has failed at times, not much discussion of the strains of Vietnam, not even any mention of the murder charges brought just two months ago against four Marines for the killing of some two dozen Iraqi civilians, a case that illustrates both the enormous pressures of the kind of combat faced in Iraq and the seriousness with which the Marines take this event.

That this film is essentially devoid of any note of dissonance or even critical thinking or outside analysis should not be surprising if you hang in there through the credits.

The film is a co-production of WNED-TV in Buffalo, N.Y., and Driftwood Productions, Inc. The credits say, “Funding is provided by The Alfiero Family Charitable Foundation, which celebrates the National Museum of the Marine Corps and Marine Corps Heritage Center.” In an online Q & A with John Grant, the station’s program director, Grant says the idea originated within the station and, in this case, the idea “coincided with the interest of a funding source in Buffalo, so the Alfiero Family Foundation provided the initial production funding. Then PBS liked the idea for such a program and provided the remaining funding.” Sal Alfiero, a successful businessman and philanthropist, served in the Marines from 1958 to 1967. He is listed as a major supporter of the new National Museum of the Marine Corps (which also was featured on a previous PBS nightly NewsHour program and ombudsman’s column) and of “WNED’s capital campaign for digital conversion.”

The Defense Department’s American Forces Information Service also put out a press release on Feb. 20 about “‘The Marines,’ a PBS documentary highlighting the history and heart of the smallest branch of the U.S. Armed Services.”

Here are the letters:

The Marines — what a disappointment. At a time when we need the truth about our nation’s use of force you have chosen to air this propagandistic paean. My whole family worked hard to come to the aid of public broadcasting in recent weeks yet you failed us — and our Marines — by abandoning journalistic integrity which could have done so much with the rich history of the Corps to present an honest and pertinent story.

Tom McDonough, Gas City, IN

The program on Marines was terrific. I am concerned many people will still react negatively due to the portrayal of warriors, culture and spirit. At the same time, I am encouraged by PBS’ willingness to be open and honest about what it takes to be a warrior. Thank you for showing this program. May we never have to go to war; but if we must, pray that we have men and women like the Marines.

Robert De Vita, Milwaukee, WI

Wow, PBS has reached an all time low … what a piece of utter garbage. I can’t believe PBS would follow-up such great, richly layered works as Ken Burns “Brooklyn Bridge,” Frontline and Wide Angle with this simplistic, corny, utterly one-dimensional hour of television. I have seen better work on the Military Channel and CNN than this, my wedding video has more nuance and complexity. I can’t believe you all have deemed this worthy of PBS’s reputation. I am a military historian so please do not interpret this as anti-military by any means. I am just astonished at the shallowness and apple-pie patriotism of this production. Was it shown at boot camp? Are you recruiting? Shame on you.

War-fighting and our military armed forces are worthy of far more than this, your simplistic, adolescent-level rendition of what it means to serve is both shameful and absolutely misleading. Whoever was responsible for this should be fired and sent to Iraq where maybe they can learn something.

Michael L., New York, NY

I have just watched your so-called “documentary” on the Marine Corps and must ask if you are a journalistic organization or a recruiter for the Bush Administration. I took special note of the absence of respect for the U.S. Marines of the Vietnam Era. Your cavalcade of historic Marine engagements mentioned nothing about Vietnam and such engagements as Hue. There are many more, but your failure to mention them seemed deliberate. How else could a documentary on the Marines neglect Vietnam? You had many Marine spokesmen from campaigns before and after Vietnam who were eager to talk of the bravery of their wars. I am a Vietnam veteran who served with the U.S. Air Force. I find your “documentary” to be shameless. I ask your spokesmen who speak to the Marine Corps before and after Vietnam to face the living Marine Corps veterans of Vietnam — or even the dead. Make sure they are not “miked,” as we say in the broadcast business in which I worked for many years, because when they encounter the truth and the realism of the dead they have not the guts to face, they will wet their pants and feel perhaps for the first time the fright they have never known.

Vaughn Roche, LCSW, Salt Lake City, UT

I was just watching the Marines documentary on PBS, and just wanted to let you know that some info they are giving out is wrong. At the beginning they said that the Marines is the smallest of the 4 branches of service. That is not correct. There are actually 5 branches and the Coast Guard, which my wife and I were both a part of, is the smallest. Thank you.

Thomas Cummings, Eau Claire, WI

I love WMHT for its very informative and balanced shows, in general. How is it possible you could put on the show about Marines airing tonight? There must have been some pressure from the conservatives to force you to air this tripe. I note that Sal Alfieri, the sole organization supporting the show, is a contributor to the Bush campaign. Military values of heroism, courage and honor are a fiction promulgated by those who believe in the use of military force, whether wisely or not. These values are the antithesis of truth, honesty and intellectual acuity. Any young person should be educated carefully that the purpose of the military is to kill others. It has no other purpose. It is also a way to drastically increase the odds of losing your life, or of being maimed in some ghastly way. These days, our military is being used with outrageous irresponsibility, as a substitute for effective negotiation, with callous disregard for the lives of our young people, and with incredible mismanagement and corruption. WMHT (and PBS) should be ashamed of this programming.

David McMullan, Delmar, NY

article originally published at http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/2007/02/post.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey