by Rick Rockwell
Folks want 2009 to be a year of hope and change. This year is already shaping up as one filled with candor as the country sorts through the radioactive effects of the administration of George W. Bush.
Just this week, led by the forceful testimony of Eric Holder, attorney general designate of the Obama administration, the country is starting to come to grips with how government leaders leveraged fear during the War on Terror to sanction torture. Certainly, many human rights advocates, legal experts and former members of the military have campaigned against the Bush policies on interrogations for years. But this week, as if a veil were lifted, their voices can be heard resounding from mainstream media outlets seemingly everywhere. If only this level of openness and debate had been present seven years ago, or earlier.
Face it, the social and political atmosphere of the times repressed these conversations. When the conservative attack dogs in the media (FOX, Rush Limbaugh, and the right-wing blogosphere) went into frequent frenzies accusing anyone who did not agree with the Bush administration of treasonous thoughts, that has created a chilled atmosphere. (Just look at the list of book titles declaring anyone with even slightly leftist thoughts as a traitor for an example.) We will look back on these years as a black mark on the moral face of America. One can argue, as Bush administration hacks do (like outgoing CIA Director Michael Hayden), that the torture regime set up after 9/11 saved lives. Likely, those who tortured captured Americans in Korea and Vietnam during those wars rationalized their behavior in the same way, that such treatment was a protection of the glorious homeland.
Perhaps the best example of this repressive atmosphere is the reception of the powerful documentary Torturing Democracy. Produced by award-winning documentary producer Sherry Jones, Torturing Democracy is an investigation that makes this case: Pushed by Vice President Dick Cheney, the Bush administration constructed a legal framework to justify and carry out torture, and then used that legal framework to exempt members of the administration for their actions. In effect, Bush and Cheney subverted the Constitution because in their minds in a time of war such actions were justified in guaranteeing security. (Remember, the Bill of Rights does contain the Eighth Amendment which provides there will be no “cruel and unusual punishment.”)
Jones tried to get Torturing Democracy on PBS this past summer, or at the latest, during the fall. Instead, PBS argued with her about the documentary’s title, and then said the first date for a national broadcast would be after Bush was no longer president. The New York Times revealed the dispute in October and noted WNET, the PBS affiliate in New York City was willing to show the documentary. The Times wondered if the documentary would be broadcast in Washington, D.C. while Bush was president. As if it was taking up the gauntlet, WETA, one of the PBS affiliates serving D.C., broadcast the documentary the day after the story ran in The Times. But the documentary received no promotion and didn't even make the TV listings. The result: low ratings. The PBS ombudsman documented all this but fell short of criticizing the network for bowing to political pressure or even for journalistic negligence in not responding quickly to a long unfolding public affairs issue.
Since that time WMPT, another PBS affiliate serving D.C. has run the documentary, but again with little fanfare and only a few weeks before the new Obama administration takes office. As it stands, each of the country's more than 350 PBS outlets will decide if and when to run the documentary instead of the program being broadcast simultaneously nationwide. This, of course, lessens the possible impact of Torturing Democracy. And showing the documentary this late in the Bush years also gives the program more the ring of history rather than a documentary about a current topic.
Likely, Torturing Democracy will get more notice in the coming year. Perhaps it will be a catalyst for contrition as we struggle as a society to wash away the moral stain of this outgoing administration. It’s a pity the public broadcasting system wasn’t brave enough to start this process much earlier.
(The photo is a promotional production still from the PBS documentary Torturing Democracy. The documentary can be seen at the website for Torturing Democracy. To see a trailer for the documentary, please check below.)
War on Terror
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by Rick Rockwell