A painful, powerful program

Once again, PBS’s Frontline is truly on the frontline.

Last Tuesday evening, March 2, the documentary series presented “The Suicide Tourist,” an extraordinary, intimate portrait of 59-year-old Craig Ewert, an American originally from Chicago, and his journey from being diagnosed with the incurable motor neutron disorder ALS — commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — to his medically-assisted suicide in Zurich, Switzerland, where that practice is legal.

His wife of 37 years, Mary, is by his side throughout, and their children are also on camera at times in interviews. But Craig and Mary are the focus of this painful journey, displaying a grace and candor and intimacy about the most excruciating choice one can imagine. It is hard, and uncomfortable, to watch this unfold. I had to take a long walk in the cold after it was over. Yet it was, for me, one of the most riveting hours I’ve spent watching television. As I’ve said before about other PBS offerings, it is hard for me to imagine this being seen elsewhere on commercial television and without commercial interruption so that the engagement of the audience is not shattered and the impact diminished.

The hour-long film was directed by John Zaritsky, who has won numerous honors including an Academy Award in 1982. The program did not produce many reviews that I noticed, although here’s an interesting one from Alex Roberts on TV Soundoff, or many letters to the ombudsman. It did, however, produce a considerable outpouring on the Frontline Web site. The subject, obviously, is very controversial. There are many who believe such actions contradict religious beliefs, that “God has forbidden it” and that “you cannot play God.” Ewert muses about such things, himself. And there are others who would have liked to have seen related issues discussed, such as how afflicted people who can no longer make their views known deal with such choices.

But this was not a film about the issue. Rather, it was an amazingly up-close, poignant recording of the emotions and reasoning and care-giving of one family from soon after the diagnosis, through the fairly rapid deterioration, to the actual death of Craig Ewert. Those final hours involved access to Dignitas, the Swiss non-profit organization that, according to Frontline, has helped more than 1,000 people in terminal — and what to those persons are determined to be unbearable — conditions die since 1998.

There are other nations that permit medically-assisted suicide, and two U.S. states — Oregon and Washington. But only Switzerland allows outsiders to come for this procedure. That has led to criticism by some of what is called “suicide tourism,” from which the film draws its title.

What follows now is a sampling of the e-mails about “The Suicide Tourist” and then another group of letters from viewers who raised an issue, rather strongly, involving talk show host Tavis Smiley.
Here Are the ‘Suicide Tourist’ Letters

Thanks for the Frontline program on the death of the ALS patient. My daughter, who is 44 years old, has ALS, and has difficulty speaking. She is in a wheelchair and has refused invasive care. She has a hospice care nurse for pain management and likely will not live more than 6 months. All her family can do is support her in her decision, as this disease really does terrible things to the human system.

George Oliger, Monmouth Junction, NJ

Thank you for your program on Dignitas last night. I wish we had such a program in the United States.

Rena Down, New York, NY

After having viewed the “suicidal tourist,” aired on PBS 3/3/10, I was really grieved. Can Frontline offer a rebuttal? What about a person like myself who is strongly linked to my faith healing movement from which I found a true source of hope & healing and am a healed overcomer of MS, after I was offered virtually no hope from the medical community.

D. Knapp, Bolingbrook, IL

I congratulate PBS for showing the suicide tourist. It helped your audience to understand why suicide can be the more humane option. It also brings the subject of suicide out of the closet, so to speak.

New Canaan, CT

Loved Dolley Madison. Loved Pluto and Dr. Tyson. Love Antiques Roadshow. Love Eastenders and Are You Being Served. We believe your program about end of life suicide is in POOR TASTE AND SHOULD NOT BE SHOWN. SHAME ON PBS.

Martin & Doana Fite, Houston, TX

I have been a big supporter of PBS for years but today I have a concern about programming schedules. My 2 year old son was watching cartoons at 11:45 am and then as programming changed at 12:00 pm there was an advertisement for The Suicide Tourist. I have no problem with this programming but there should just be a better time to put on the advertising for it. Not at the end of cartoons.

Lysa Zandstra, Ferndale, WA

Tavis Smiley: His ‘Black Agenda’ Has ‘Nothing to Do with PBS.’

Several people wrote to me this week about a forum — scheduled for March 20 at Chicago State University — that was set up and will be moderated by Tavis Smiley. The event, called “We Count! The Black Agenda is the American Agenda,” will feature several prominent African Americans invited by Smiley.

The press release from Smiley’s own event production company, Tavis Smiley Presents, announcing this meeting publicly started out this way: “Some noted Black leaders recently have suggested publicly that President Obama does not need to focus on Black issues. In response to mounting evidence showing African Americans are disproportionately lagging behind on all economic indicators despite assertions of a so-called ‘post-racial’ era, Tavis Smiley said Tuesday he will moderate a national conversation examining whether in fact there needs to be a Black agenda and the accountability of leadership to address issues facing Black Americans.”

The press release was issued on Feb. 23, but nobody wrote to me until this week, perhaps because on Wednesday, March 3, The Associated Press took note of the conference and its political implications in a story that clearly got attention, and to which some of those who wrote to me referred. The story was headlined: “PBS Host Smiley Calls Meeting to Urge Black Agenda.”

Now, that is an accurate headline in the sense that Smiley is the well-known host of his own, popular, late night talk show on PBS for a half-hour five days a week based at member-station KCET in Los Angeles. But PBS has nothing to do with that Chicago meeting.

Smiley has been, and remains, a force across much of today’s media scene: as a talk show host on radio and television, entrepreneur, author, advocate, head of the Tavis Smiley Foundation, and for the past 10 years, until he brought it to a close early this year, host of an annual “The State of the Black Union” conference that was televised by C-SPAN and developed a large following.

Whether it is his high-profile role as a PBS talk show host that most defines him publicly — something that Smiley probably does not agree with — it clearly is part of his celebrity, and I’ve written about him a number of times. On a couple of those occasions, it has been about his involvement elsewhere that some viewers, or just people who hear about it, are critical of and call attention to because of his association with PBS.

When I told him about the mail I was receiving and the association people were making with PBS after stories about the upcoming conference began to appear, Smiley said, in a telephone interview, “I can’t help that. PBS is not my employer. Taxpayers are not funding this and it has nothing to do with PBS. I never gave up my right to host other forums,” he said. “As long as I meet PBS standards on PBS,” that’s what is important, but “it doesn’t let anybody tell me how to conduct my conferences. None of this is a conflict. I actually have a much larger following outside of PBS from all the things I do on other mediums.”

Smiley, indeed, is not a PBS employee. His PBS talk show is produced through Smiley’s own production company and KCET. But, as I reported previously, about one-sixth of the cost of the talk show program comes from PBS funds, according to program executives. And the KCET Web site links to his program’s homepage, which includes Smiley’s video blog, “Take 2 with Tavis,” in which he talked about the upcoming Chicago conference in a March 4 posting.

So what we have here is another example of PBS being linked to things that it really has no part of — or thinks it has no part of, or maybe has just a teensy, indirect part of — because people associate certain figures and programs with the television service. I have written many times about these various situations and I can’t blame some viewers for drawing these comparisons and complaining about them, in part, because PBS doesn’t seem to go out of its way to separate itself from these external associations, or to insist that others make it clear when PBS has no part in such activities.

What follows is a sampling of the e-mails (there were also phone calls) on this subject.
Strong Feelings about Smiley and PBS

The corporation for public broadcasting gets taxpayer funding. That makes Mr. Smiley our employee. “PBS host Smiley calls meeting to urge black agenda.” He’s promoting his divisive “We Count” conference on the PBS website. I don’t want my tax dollars going to support a racist. If he wants to continue this abhorrent behavior on his own time — give him more of it.

Mike Muetzel, New Port Richey, FL

Tavis Smiley is advocating a “Black Agenda” for Washington. This is blatantly racist!! I am disgusted that a PBS journalist (supported by public dollars) would support such a bigoted stand. Public figures such as Tavis should be more sensitive to everyone’s race, not just Black Americans. What if one of your journalists supported a “White Agenda”? He should support a “What’s best for America Agenda”! This man makes it hard for me to continue to contribute to PBS. You need to pull him off your programming as he perpetuates Black Victimization and Entitlement mentality.

Frank Brettschneider, Fort Gratiot, MI

Editorial integrity? Your host Tavis Smiley is now over the line and is an advocate for political favor. Your relationship should end immediately.

Piperton, TN

What is Smiley doing promoting any political agenda on PBS? PBS is funded by tax dollars and should not be an advocate or activist for any political agenda. Stop this now.

North St. Paul, MN

I would like to know why my tax dollars are used to support PBS. You are promoting an agenda. And I don’t think that my tax dollars should support your agenda. I will take this up with my congressman. But as an Ombudsman, do you agree with this? You have Tavis on asking to support a “black agenda.” I thought we were all Americans.

Yorba Linda, CA

Other Stuff

Pluto was great. Excellent show, a new school classic and great for adults as well.

Brett Roseberry, Phoenix, AZ

Tonight’s NewsHour had a segment about Sen. Bunning and his vote against the extension of unemployment benefits. Gwen Ifill referred to it as a “filibuster,” which it is not. Then she mocked his position as an “obstructionist,” with absolutely no mention as to why he voted as he did. Sen. Bunning is a patriot who only asked that the Senate follow its “Pay-go” Policy. Instead of discussing the merits of his position, PBS and the other Liberal media decided to roast this gentleman with no mention of the real issue at hand. So for this, I give you an “F” in Journalism 101.

R. Nolan, Phoenix, AZ

(Ombudsman’s Note: Ifill did use the word filibuster, but in a procedural way in terms of forcing a vote. Actually, in the film clips Bunning made it clear in that segment that he was not filibustering and I thought the clips also made it clear what Bunning was objecting to and why he was voting as he had. She didn’t use the word “obstructionist” but did describe Bunning as “irascible, I think the kindest word even his colleagues would use.”)

Why were only Boies and Olson on Bill Moyers? Was that fair and balanced? Is Bill Moyers’ lobbing softballs enough to satisfy the average PBS’ viewers intellectual capacity to observe a vigorous “debate”? Only those that pass a certain ideological litmus test are given a voice. Please invite Mr. Moyers and others at PBS to invite those who don’t share PBS’ editors’ views to the discussion table. I think we’re big enough to handle it.

San Diego, CA

(Ombudsman’s Note: Both lawyers, although one generally described as liberal and the other as conservative, are united in opposing California’s Proposition 8 ballot initiative that put an end to same-sex marriage in that state.)

I notice that PBS news reporters refer to companies who contribute to PBS as being an “underwriter” of the program. It seems like a strange term to me to use in this context. I believe that underwriting has more to do with issuing insurance or financing a venture. I think it is unusual to refer to companies that contribute money in this way, and that “donor” might be more accurate.

Ellicott City, MD

I find most of the media tend to accept the president’s line that the public option cannot be passed because it does not have the necessary support, and you are no exception. Last night, Feb 25, in your report on the Blair house health care debate, you showed various clips from the proceedings, but it is noteworthy that you did not show Speaker Pelosi asking the president why he had ignored calls for the public option. This is an important question. Nearly 60% of the American people support the public option, which is itself a compromise from single payer health care. Yet those who support single payer health insurance and the public option were excluded from the Blair House conference. To me this is big news and you are failing the American people by ignoring it. On August 18, the New York Times reported that Obama has made a deal with the American Federation of Hospitals regarding the public option. This too should have been mentioned in your report. This is not one-time news. It is a continuing factor in the health-care debate and should be a continuing part of your reporting on the debate.

Deborah Allen, New York, NY

This column was originally published on PBS.org on March 5, 2010.

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