Review finds factual flaws in ‘The Liberators’

WNET extends hold on documentary, pledges tighter checking

By Karen Everhart Bedford

After a seven-month investigation of the factual accuracy of ”Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II,” WNET announced Sept. 7, 1993, that some portions of the documentary were ”seriously flawed” and that the New York station would continue to withhold the film from PTV distribution until it is corrected.

Judging by the producers’ reactions, the film is unlikely to return to the public airwaves. In a statement issued by Bill Miles and Nina Rosenblum, the filmmakers stood by the oral testimony presented in ”Liberators,” criticized WNET’s review for not being conducted independently, and accused WNET and PBS of censorship. Miles Educational Film Productions holds the copyright to the film. Both Miles and Rosenblum declined request for interviews.

”Liberators” was produced by Miles’ company in association with WNET, and aired last November on the PBS series, The American Experience (Current, May 17). During a December screening at New York’s Apollo Theater, the film was hailed for promoting harmony between the city’s African-American and Jewish communities.

But the documentary had a short honeymoon. Jewish and veterans groups challenged its assertions that two all-black battalions liberated the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps. In February, WNET and the American Experience jointly withdrew ”Liberators” from PTV distribution, and WNET hired a review team with ”complete autonomy” to review the film’s historical accuracy.

”What we have discovered is a difference in journalistic standards,” said Harry Chancey, v.p. of WNET’s program service. ”We essentially parted company with the producers on what is required to substantiate facts.”

Emmy-award winning documentarian Morton Silverstein led the three-member review team, which found the producers’ research to be ”at a level of paucity,” said Silverstein. The team could not substantiate the film’s assertion that the all-black 761st Tank Battalion and 183rd Combat Engineers liberated Buchenwald and Dachau, and found that the film omitted information about concentration camps the 761st did liberate. The study also found incorrect dates and misleading use of photos.

The producers neither adhered to the customary journalistic practice of verifying oral testimony they collected nor sufficiently utilized the advice of historians with pertinent expertise, Silverstein said.

Had the producers followed up on ”research that has existed for half a century,” Silverstein added, they could have substantiated their claim that the 761st did participate in liberations. Elements of that unit were present at Gunskirchen Lager, an Austrian concentration camp, during its liberation; the review team also found evidence that the 761st participated in the liberation of a camp northeast of Nuremberg, Germany.

”Liberators” makes passing reference to a camp at Lambach, but the documentary does not elaborate on the 761st’s role in either verified liberation. By military definition, the ”liberator” of a camp is the first division to reach it, along with any follow-on divisions to arrive within 48 hours.

As for Buchenwald, the review team found what Silverstein believes is ”very strong evidence that members of the 183rd were at Buchenwald,” but it was not sufficient ”to categorically state that the 183rd was there during the 48-hour period of liberation.” The team can substantiate the unit’s presence at Buchenwald ”sometime within the week” of its liberation day, April 11, 1945.

Silverstein, whose many credits include ”Banks and the Poor,” was assisted in the WNET review by Diane Wilson, a former NBC and WQED researcher, and Nancy Ramsey, who has written for The New Yorker and Fortune.

A role for oral history

In their response to the review team’s findings, Miles and Rosenblum said that oral testimony is ”an essential way to inform the historic record, especially in light of the omissions concerning the contributions of African-Americans to the military in World War II.” Because such testimony is often impossible to verify, ”that is the reason for collecting oral testimony which must be included, not censored, in the historic record. We support the report’s conclusions that African-Americans played a critical role in the liberation and we abhor this attempt to limit public information and dialogue.”

Miles has achieved recognition as a senior documentarian for his work presenting African-American history, particularly in the military. His films include ”Men of Bronze” and ”The Different Drummer: Blacks in the Military,” both of which aired on public television. Rosenblum’s films include ”America and Lewis Hine” and ”Through the Wire.”

Will tighten procedures

Expressing regret that WNET did not detect the film’s ”deficiencies,” Chancey described two changes in its production standards and practices that are designed to ensure accuracy in all future projects. ”We will request documentation of all assertions of fact before giving the green light to independent producers,” he said, and the station will add a warranty clause to its contracts that ”holds [filmmakers] responsible for documentation of their assertion of fact.”

Both measures are already in place for future contracts, Chancey said, and WNET is reviewing documentary projects in the works ”to make sure everything can be substantiated.” WNET also requested that its name be removed from the film’s production credits on videocassette copies of ”Liberators.”

”We have a responsiblity as a public television station to guarantee the accuracy of the material that we present … and use the public television airwaves to distribute.” The procedural changes are ”nothing more” than WNET saying ”this is how we will attempt to live by that trust with our audience with every program.”

”We are not raising the standard to the unattainable, but reestablishing the standard as appropriate,” Chancey added.

Judy Crichton, executive producer for the American Experience, commended WNET ”for doing a review that is as thorough as this. I am saddened by the findings but it was essential that the review be done.”

”Where we have tightened our own processes is in terms of being far more careful about work in progress,” said Crichton.

The history series, which already has standards that require producers to work substantively with academic advisors, initially turned down an opportunity to pick up ”Liberators,” but later was asked by WNET to reconsider the film, according to Crichton. ”Because of the power of the story, we agreed, and when we came in, it was what we call an ‘acquisition’=one of the very few films not produced from the start, not commissioned by the American Experience.”

”We were under the assumption that similar standards were being applied,” she explained. ”If there is any remaining fault in terms of American Experience, it is that I did not personally push the producers harder than I did to confirm that those standards were met,” added Crichton. ”I was under the impression during the time I worked with the producers that they were being met.”

Renewed faith ”a little”

For the most part, critics of the film expressed satisfaction with the results of WNET’s review.

”The outcome shows what I thought it would show,” said Kenneth Stern, a researcher for the American Jewish Committee whose investigation of the accuracy of ”Liberators” damaged the film’s credibility. Continuing to withhold the film is ”absolutely the proper thing” to do. ”If the film is flawed, it shouldn’t be shown.”

” ‘Pleased’ is the only word that comes to mind,” said Robert Abzug, professor of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, who Miles Educational Films cited as its historical advisor although his most substantive involvement with the project was critiquing the text of the companion book.

Abzug was impressed by his contact with the review team, but he admitted being doubtful about what their final conclusions would be. ”I worried that various other input would moderate what conclusions they were heading toward.” When WNET announced its findings publicly, ”it renewed my faith a little about decision-making in public television.”

A World War II veteran who tried to inform WNET that ”Liberators” was historically inaccurate before the film aired nationally, retired Col. James Moncrief, expressed ”very mixed feelings” about WNET’s announcement. ”At long last they’ve admitted the errors and made a public statement about it,” he said. Moncrief said he sent two letters to the station prior to the film’s national airdate, even though he didn’t know to whom he should address his correspondence.

”What I’m concerned about more than anything else, is that PBS has done nothing toward admitting their participation in the falsification. They’ve stonewalled.”

PBS did issue a statement on WNET’s review, characterizing the situation as ”regrettable” and expressing support for the review, its findings and WNET’s decision to continue to withhold the film.

”PBS’s mission is to provide reliable information at all times,” said PBS in the statement, attributed to no particular spokesperson. ”We apologize to our viewers for the inaccuracies in the film, and especially to those who felt compromised by these flaws. We resolve to give our programs more careful scrutiny in the future.”

Accuracy is one of many qualities that PBS programmers evaluate when they screen all programs for distribution, said PBS spokesman Harry Forbes. ”Obviously, given the limitations of time, resources and staffing, every program can’t be analyzed down to the smallest detail.”

”It is very much true that when you have a known commodity like the American Experience, Bill Miles and WNET, we assume that everything is being checked,” Forbes added.

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