Watch Me Take The Bar
Watch Me Take The Bar
This blog, originally started as a chronicle of my taking the bar, is now a look into the mind of an attorney in solo practice in Port Clinton, Ohio.
Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Theory and Practice of Kum Buh Yah

Michael Getler
Ombudsman, PBS

Dear Mr. Getler:

I'll begin this note by saying I feel bad for you. It appears that, on your first day on the job as ombudsman for PBS, you were faced by a plethora of letters from fathers' rights advocates.

I'd've probably either quit, called in sick, or marched straight to my boss' office to demand a raise. A big one.

However, I'd've done everything I could have to resisted doing what you did: Inviting them to hold hands and sing Kum Buh Yah.

A few months ago, PBS aired a program called Breaking the Silence. It was about how family courts often fail children and will place them with their abusers.

It was incredibly well done. I didn't get to write a post about it because I was busy doing chants to the Almighty to be kind to me what with the bar results coming out, but I can tell you that, as I watched it, I kept nodding my head going, "Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Uh-huh."

One of the things shown in the program was the taped phone call played on the air of a little girl calling her mother begging to be picked up. This was particularly poignant to me because, within half an hour, a friend and I had our phone conversation interrupted by the operator for an emergency call because my friend's 10 year old son, who lives with his father, was hiding in the corner of a closet after he was screamed at because he hadn't double-spaced a paper he was writing for school. I got to listen to my friend's end of the conversation as she reassured him that double-spacing was not rocket science.

So, yeah, you might say this program was dead-on.

Not surprisingly, our friends at the father's rights movement didn't like this documentary. One of the things that has allowed us to have the public perception that mothers get whatever they want in court is that so much of this is done behind the scenes and in secret. (Which is another post I've got in the pipeline.) So, when it was exposed how awful the system can be and is, it's not surprising that those who often have a vested interest in keeping the system hidden would complain.

PBS, sadly, has managed to mirror what court systems too frequently do; namely, upon hearing complaints, deciding that (a) there must be some validity there or (b) we need to pacify them and give them away. Another friend of mine describes it this way: "We keep thinking if we give him Poland, he won't want Czechoslovakia. And we forget that Czechoslovakia is next."

So, Michael. You have apparently decided to give the fathers' rights movement half a loaf with their complaints on "Breaking the Silence."

Your column on this notes, by the way, that this show aired on 77% of PBS stations, and so was probably viewed by less than 1% of the American population. I'd guess that's probably a pretty good bet; first of all, most people don't consider PBS "must see TV" at its sexiest, and most people aren't looking to forego ER for a show about child abuse. So, we can bet that a relatively small number of people saw this. (I did think it might not be a bad idea to make every judge and attorney who wants to set foot in family court watch it.)

Nonetheless, the fathers' rights groups have seized on a program that hardly anyone saw. (In Toledo, they aired it at 2 AM.)

Wow, what are they trying to hide??

OK, let's start with the fact that as you say, "the abusers are not seen or heard from in the film, but they are all fathers."

Oh, damn, here we go again. I think the implication here is why didn't we deal with the women who abuse?

Well, I hate to break it to you, but 95% of domestic violence cases involve men. (That leaves, for those of you not gifted in math, another 5% of them which involve women.) Domestic violence is always wrong, no matter whether perpetrated by a man or a woman. But, when we've got a problem which is 95% one way and 5% the other, perhaps we ought to try to get the 95% down some and then work on the other.

Then we go to the quote by a director of a facility for domestic violence, who said she thought "the program lacked balance."

So, we should have gotten someone on to say that giving custody to abusers was a good thing? As I recall, the allegations made by abusers were reported in the program.

And that the program "dealt with extreme cases."

So, what, the people in extreme cases deserve just as much justice as those in, well, non-extreme cases? Or am I forgetting that part of the pledge of allegiance that says, "with liberty and justice for all except those in extreme cases."

Frankly, "extreme cases" probably means there's extreme abuse or manipulation. I should hope we're dealing with extreme cases.

Anyway, de minimis non curat lex, Michael. Look it up. It means the law is there to deal with extreme cases.

(Oh, and by the way, if we knew how many of these "extreme cases" were out there, we'd probably be nauseous.)

Perhaps my favorite comment from this person was that the cases in the documentary "seemed to date back several years."

Altogether possible. Cases can go on for years on end. My friend's divorce was filed three and a quarter years ago. When she filed for divorce, Laci Peterson was still alive, Nick & Jessica were planning their wedding, and we were commemorating the first anniversary of 9/11. (I want to go back and see who else filed that day and chart where they are. I'm willing to bet there are Peale who, in that timespan, have gotten divorced, gotten remarried, filed and gotten a divorce.)

That these cases drag on for so long is a form of abuse. First of all, it gives the abuser time to wreak more havoc on the family situation, which is exactly what happened, and to further victimize the victim. Secondly, realize that, while three and a half years may not mean much to you or I, it's a HUGE chunk of a child's life. Third, realize that this costs money, and is incredibly draining on all of us.

(The next person who tells me it needs to be harder to get a divorce in this country is going to be in for a long explanation, lemme promise you.)

There appears to have also been an objection to Parental Alienation Syndrome. Now, frankly, I'm going to avoid this minefield pretty much altogether. However, let me say that a case that was discussed on "Breaking the Silence" involved a mother being court-ordered to put a daughter into daycare so she'd be less likely to bond with the mother. I tend to think that is alienation.

Apparently, one of your writers, John Dennis, thought that the program was "filled with misinformation and emotional baiting, the characteristics of propaganda not journalism." (Either you didn't include, or more likely, he didn't say, what part of the program was misinformation.) "Shame on you," he continued, "for perpetuating popular myths to a wide audience instead of crafting a program that courageously tackles the pressing social issue of custody in a factual and informed manner."

John, baby. I love how you call these things "popular myths." Let's look at this:

"Popular" -- usually meaning that a lot of people believe it. So, you're saying a lot of people believe that abusers get custody of their children? You must be hanging out on a planet where people are far more informed than I am.

"myths" -- something that is not true, but has become legendary. The biggest myth I am aware of is that mothers get whatever they want in family court. This program showed that to be inaccurate. So, "Breaking the Silence" was actually deconstructing a myth. Perhaps it was just a myth you were comfortable with.

All right. Now, Michael Getler, you have problems with the program. First, we didn't see enough of the father's rights people, although I sort of like what the program's producer said about not giving voice to a destructive political agenda. But I get where you're coming from (although I think some of the frivolous allegations made in custody disputes were at least enumerated.)

Your next problem is that some reference is made to events that occur in the mid-1990s. After you consider that it means the injustices perpetrated were so horrid that people are still ticked off about them in the mid-2000s, and you consider that the ripple effects of these atrocities echo down the years for children and down the generations for their progeny, go back and remember what I said about divorces that go on for three and a half years (and counting.)

The next large journalistic problem you identify with "Breaking the Silence" is that there aren't enough sub-titles to identify Richard Ducote, who's an attorney, or Lundy Bancroft.

You know, that annoyed me, too. I missed seeing who Ducote was the first time they mentioned it and they waited too long. A pox on their houses. But the fact they were short on telling us that we were listening to an attorney who's an expert on the guardian ad litem system or someone who's involved in programs to combat battering does not mean it was a flawed documentary. It means they should have told us who the people were.

The most major criticism you make -- and the only one that seems to have any merit -- is that the producers did not discuss on the program WHY they didn't use any opposing viewpoints. But you have to spend a great deal of time reenumerating all of the allegations and making them sound like they have merit, before, towards the end of your column, saying, "So, I am not claiming here that PBS editorial guidelines were clearly breached, although many critics argue precisely that point..."


Stop the music.

You won't say that they clearly breached all of this? The best you can say is that the program was tilted?

Not even slanted?

But we're spending all this time making people hear all these flaws and beating a horse that doesn't exist?

Wait. Wait. Wait.

I've seen this movie before. I know how it ends.

This is family court redux! Where we go through a year and a half of no investigation and then get there and are surprised to find that one parent was a good and attentive parent, the other never showed up, but since the divorce has been filed, he's shown some interest, so we give him custody. (Look for the quote about sponges.)

You're inviting us to hold hands and sing kum buh yah with people who do not deserve to have their hands held. They deserve to be told that this is a problem. I'm sure there are men out there who have been unjustly screwed over in court, and I am deeply sorry for their loss. If one of them calls me, I will gladly represent them.

I am sick and tired, however, of the assumption that domestic violence is something that we shouldn't talk about, or that we should allow the abuser to assign away at least 50% of the blame to someone else (usually, the victim; in this case, PBS.)

It's like saying that a bank teller is as guilty of the stickup artist.

Was the documentary perfect? Perhaps not. Is there a perfect documentary, book, record, person? No.

Is this a crucial topic we don't understand nearly enough about? Absolutely. Was I delighted to see that it finally received some airtime, albeit at 2 AM on 77% of some PBS stations? Yes.

Am I surprised that your inbox was full of email from angry mens' rights advocates (as you point out, most of it was mass generated?) Not in the least. There are abusers, as well as attorneys and judges who have a great deal invested in making sure that flaws in the system are not exposed, for the benefit of their reputations and their revenues.

Congratulations to PBS for having the courage to air this crucial documentary.

And shame on you for feeling the need to give half a loaf to people who hardly deserved a slice.

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