David Potorti, author of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows: Turning our Grief into Action for Peace, had been asked by a producer to appear on WUNC-TV's Bookwatch, then was disinvited because D.G. Martin, the show's host, thought the book was too political.
Potorti, a former writer for The Independent, is co-founder of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group whose members lost loved ones in the 9-11 attacks. He says he was scheduled to tape an interview about his book April 19 for the upcoming season of Bookwatch, but was told last week by one of the producers that he probably won't appear.
Martin, a former University of North Carolina vice president and onetime Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, says after reading Potorti's book, he decided it wasn't right for the Bookwatch format.
"While I thought it was a great book and agreed with the politics of it, it was a little bit too much a book about a particular political movement and not so much about the 9-11 survivors," he says.
When asked if his own service in the U.S. military (he's a former Green Beret) had anything to do with his decision, Martin says he agrees with criticisms Potorti and other members of Peaceful Tomorrows have voiced about the Bush Administration's war in Iraq.
In fact, Martin adds, "I worried that David and I together feeling the same way about this war would compromise the public perception of objectivity that our program has."
What has Potorti--and one of the show's underwriters--worried is the perception that the mission of Families for Peaceful Tomorrows is somehow a threat to objective debate about the war.
"I've never had a conversation with the host of the show (Martin) where we talked about the content of the book," Potorti says. "It's just an assumption that I'm going to go into a diatribe against the Bush Administration. But what's wrong with raising issues? You could follow with someone who was totally pro-Bush.
"The problem isn't getting to go on WUNC-TV or not," Potorti continues. "The problem is that keeping people like me off in this remote area makes us seem like a fringe group--like we really are damaging this country in a time of war like it says in the crazy e-mails we've been getting."
The recent e-mail flood stems from a story about Potorti's group that appeared last month in a conservative online tabloid and was then picked up by the likes of the Wall Street Journal. The tabloid erroneously reported that Families for Peaceful Tomorrows is funded by Teresa Heinz Kerry and by extension, the Democratic Party. (See "A Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy? Not Quite," The Independent, March 17, http://indyweek.com/durham/2004-03-17/news.html.)
When asked if there's any merit to the idea that keeping Potorti off the book show feeds a growing climate of intolerance on the war issue, Martin says, "I think that's a real important point. I did worry about it." He says Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh, Bookwatch's underwriter, "jumped all over me about that aspect." Bookstore owner Nancy Olson confirms she has voiced concerns to the station.
Martin says he wasn't pressured by higher-ups at WUNC-TV to reject Potorti's book. "I don't make the final decisions on books for the show but they listen to my recommendations," he says. And despite flak from Olson, Martin says he's comfortable with his decision because Families for Peaceful Tomorrows has been featured in news shows broadcast on the station. "At least WUNC has recognized its responsibility to air the point of view that David has," he says.
WUNC isn't the only public TV station where concerns about objectivity on the war issue have affected programming. The Village Voice reported recently that Jim Lehrer, host of PBS's NewsHour, made a rare on-air apology for a March 2 discussion about Iraq that he said "ended up not being as balanced as is our standard practice." Lehrer was referring to comments made on the show by journalist Christian Parenti, who criticized the government's granting of reconstruction contracts to politically connected firms like Halliburton and Bechtel.
The media activist group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, has launched a letter-writing campaign asking station officials to explain why Parenti's comments earned an on-air apology, while inaccurate statements government officials have made about the Iraq war have gone unchallenged.
For information, go to www.fair.org/activism/newshour-parenti.html.