Spinning History

Controversy builds over a missing History Channel documentary
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Did the History Channel pull a documentary because of political pressure? That's what some have suggested since Ottoman Empire: The War Machine mysteriously vanished from the network's schedule on June 22, the day it was to premiere. The program recounts the six-century reign of the Ottomans, the precursors to the modern republic of Turkey.

When the special did not premiere—even after History had run promos just days before and pre-sold DVDs on its Web site—message boards at HistoryChannel.com and Armenian-American blogs erupted with allegations that the network caved to pressure from the Turkish government or other interest groups.

Although none have seen the documentary, the critics suspect that it likely covers the death of more than a million Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks from 1915 to 1923. Armenians regard the killings as genocide, but the Turkish government disputes the characterization and is notoriously strident in advocating its version of history.

The History Channel says that it pulled the program because it was “incomplete and did not meet our broadcast standards,” and that it received no calls from any political groups regarding the special before its scheduled run date.

“The History Channel never bows to political pressure from any interest group,” a network representative says. But critics of the Turkish government smell a rat.

“This has been a pattern of this government's behavior in countries outside of its own,” says Peter Balakian, Chair in the Humanities at Colgate University and author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response.

Balakian says the Turkish government's efforts to stop media coverage of the Armenian issue dates back to 1935, when it pressured the U.S. State Department to shut down a Hollywood movie about the killings.

“They have a history of working at intimidation, and I would hate to think this happened in this case,” he says.

Doris V. Cross, a vice president at Media Watch Armenia, a clearinghouse for historical and scholarly documentation on the killings, says she had not heard of any pressure from the Armenian side, but notes that complaints from Turkish officials to what they consider unfavorable media coverage are “not uncommon.”

“The title—Ottoman Empire: The War Machine—that could've been enough” to prompt protests, Cross says. “The official government policy is that there was no Armenian genocide. This could be one of those cases where it stays on the shelf.”

The situation echoes the controversy last April over The Armenian Genocide, a PBS documentary about the killings. In that instance, Armenian groups and members of Congress protested a planned follow-up program that featured panelists who deny the genocide occurred. Several PBS stations declined to air it.

Producers from Digital Ranch, the production company behind Ottoman Empire, did not return repeated calls for comment.

For their part, representatives of the Turkish-American community deny that they seek to censor content about the Armenian killings.

“The Turkish-American community doesn't believe in viewpoint suppression at all—quite the opposite, it wants multiple viewpoints represented,” says David Saltzman, a Washington-based attorney who represents the Turkish Embassy as well as the Assembly of Turkish-American Associations. “To suppress viewpoints, especially under pressure from politicians and lobby groups, is incorrect and not the American way.”

The History Channel says it has rescheduled the program for an unspecified date in the fall. But Andrew Goldberg, the executive producer of The Armenian Genocide, hopes history isn't repeating itself with Ottoman Empire.

“If the History Channel isn't finished with the film, then by all means they should finish it,” he says. “But if they are caving to pressure from the Turks then shame on all of them.”

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