I had thought that perhaps the tide was turning on those who glorified Che Guevara as a revolutionary man of the people. I was wrong.
Over the weekend Chicago's local PBS affiliate aired a segment of a DVD box set that is being distributed by PBS called The British Beat. The DVD is a retrospective of the British Invasion and features Animals lead singer Eric Burdon donning a giant Che Guevara button down shirt at a 2005 concert where he stumps for PBS on stage. Note that this is a 4 disc box set and PBS could have chosen any number of segments to air for their pledge drive. (video at Webloggin, repeat airing on WTTW Channel 11, Chicago, Sunday, August 19, 3:30am)
The mainstream media, and especially those on the left who sympathize with Fidel Castro have a long history of glorifying Che Guevara. That glorification has been slowly beat back by informed people on all sides of the political spectrum, yet some organizations that should be expected to know better, SUCH AS PBS, ignore history in what can only be characterized as a callous disregard for those who have died horrific deaths and many of whom are still suffering from the legacy of Che Guevara. In fact PBS was scrutinized for airing the exact same Che/Burdon clips on a different round of pledge drives back in 2005. Thus we can only surmise that the executives at PBS don't give two hoots about the murderous facts. (More on that below.)
In 2004, Che Guevara was presented at the Sundance Film Festival as a symbol of freedom when the witless attendees gave a standing ovation to Walter Salles' portrayal of a young Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries. The movie was propped up with much critical acclaim among pro-Castro segments of Hollywood along with film critics in the mainstream media who gave the movie high marks.
But the film was also met with criticism by those who noted that Guevara was responsible for creating Cuba's gulag style labor camps that routinely led to the torturous death of political dissidents, homosexuals and anyone that was branded an enemy of the "revolution". Historians noted that Che enjoyed presiding over summary executions at the La CabaÒa fortress in Havana many of which Che administered himself with a signature bullet to the back of the neck. Rather than celebrate Ernesto "Che" Guevara as a man of the people, critics claimed that a more apt depiction should place him in history next to the likes of Pol Pot. It looked like these discussions were having some positive results as stores started pulling the merchandise off the shelves after being taken to task for their inappropriate nature.
We can separate the people that glorify Che Guevera into three groups, the ignorant masses who are blindly lured into the "chicness" of the pop culture likeness that appears on many store shelves, those who understand the history of Guevara yet tune it out with a nod of indifference, and those who knowingly celebrate Che Guevara for his political ideas and yes, give or take some of his brutal tactics.
Of those groups I put PBS in the callous indifference category. One would expect that the people running the show at PBS would have a keen understanding of history and understand that soliciting for membership funds with glorifying depictions of Che Guevara is no different that raffling off swastikas for consideration IMHO. Yet Chicago PBS affiliate WTTW did just that when they held this weekends pledge drive.
To make matters worse I learned that this is not a one off oversight. It turns out that this Che Guevara touting production has been making the rounds among affiliates since 2005. Reaction to those earlier airings have been critical as evidenced by a complaint letter from Cuban American filmmaker Agustin Blazquez. (PBS Director of Audience Services Sheryl Lahti responded with a stock censorship defense.)
On March 26, 2005, on the Washington, DC local PBS station WETA Channel 26, while watching "Viewer Favorites," I was shocked to see singer Eric Burton - formerly of the group "The Animals" - wearing a Che Guevara shirt while performing on that show.
As a Cuban American, as a writer and a filmmaker, I am acquainted with the Che as a mass murderer who executed, without trial, many Cubans at La CabaÒa fortress in Havana as well as in the Sierra Maestra Mountains before 1959.
It is shocking that an educational public television station is not aware of Che's criminal record and let pass such an insensitive and offensive display of disrespect to Che's victims and the Cuban American community in the U.S. If Mr. Burton had worn a Hitler or a swastika printed shirt, he wouldn't have been presented - rightfully so - in order not to offend the Jewish victims and Holocaust survivors.
No PBS station would dare to show a performer wearing Ku-Klux-Klan apparel, a pro-David Duke or anti-Arab, anti-Islam, anti-Mexican, anti-Chinese or any other minority group in the U.S. It would have been simply edited out without any regard to what its creator intended.
Unfortunately, those considerations do not apply concerning the Cuban American community. Apparently everybody has carte blanche to offend and defame us without impunity in all print media, radio and TV as well as academia. Moreover, I believe there is even encouragement for bashing and scorning Cuban Americans.
But, stupid me, I decided to contact WETA. On March 29, I wrote an open letter complaining and requesting an apology from Sheryl Lahti, the Director of Audience Services at that PBS station with copies to Michael Pack and John Prizer of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. As of this writing I haven't received reply from Ms. Lahti or anyone else from WETA or PBS.
A Cuban American advocate for Democracy and Human Rights in Cuba from New York City who read my letter at LaurenceJarvikOnline http://laurencejarvikonline.blogspot.com, on April 4 wrote complaining about the Eric Burton blunder. The next day he got an email from Danielle Dunbar (firstname.lastname@example.org), WETA's Audience Service Coordinator.
She wrote, "Thank you for watching WETA and for taking the time to write to us about one of the performers you saw in 'My Music: The 60s Generation.' While I am sorry to hear that you object to a portion of the program, I appreciate the opportunity to respond.
"While WETA airs the fundraising special, we did not produce the program. The show was produced by TJL Productions and distributed by PBS. TJL Productions is solely responsible for its content. Nonetheless, as a public broadcaster that produces, broadcasts and values a wide range of programs that cover a divergent range of topics, it would be inappropriate for WETA to engage in such censorship. While you may dislike images of a particular subject, others may respond favorably to the same image. It is not our intent or role to suppress or promote either view, but to present the program as the show's creator intended. How you feel about that is a matter of personal choice. Further, there are no elements to the program that violate any FCC rules or guidelines. 'My Music' has been a very popular program with WETA's members and viewers, and I expect that we will air it again in the future." (all emphasis mine)
I doubt very much that PBS would present anything that offends countless numbers of liberal special interest groups, nor should they. Had they done so you can be sure that the heavens would open wide with fury to smote the very existence of the video and anyone who touched it, never again to be seen on the public airwaves. In this case however PBS followed through with their promise to keep it in the lineup. Such a blatant and ignorant disregard for history provides a disservice to the public for which PBS is supposed to service.
For the record I wrote to PBS and have yet to receive a response.
My solution is simple. Since PBS has a policy of indifference and callous disregard for those who would be offended by the glorification of Che Guevara I have a personal policy of indifference toward the fundraising needs of PBS. This policy of mine may seem callous and judgmental but someone has to be the adult here. We already know that those people don't appear to exist at PBS and if they do they aren't talking or making any of the decisions.
Terry Trippany is the editor at Webloggin