Herbert Schmertz

Death of a Princess

VTR Date: June 12, 1980

Guest: Schmertz, Herbert


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Hubert Schmertz
Title: “Death of a Princess”
VTR: 6/12/80

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I played a role some years ago in what is now called public broadcasting. And when the public stations were recently so hard pressed for having scheduled The Death of a Princess, the television program that terribly much disturbed Saudi Arabia, I couldn’t help but feel for my former colleagues when their judgment or perhaps their temerity in running the film was questioned quite so strongly by a major source of public broadcasting funding, the Mobil Oil Corporation. Well, my guest today is Herbert Schmertz, Mobil’s public affairs, public relations, government relations vice president, who has never hesitated to raise any number of strong and strongly critical points about many aspects of the media, both public and private. His own new book, Takeover, perhaps itself a docufiction about life in the corporate boardroom, further demonstrates his frankness in describing if not, as some people fouling his own nest.

Herb, thanks for joining me today.

Schmertz: Great pleasure to be here, Dick.

Heffner: I want to turn as quickly as possible to a new fairy tale, the Mobil ad or op-ed piece or editorial, call it what you will, that…

Schmertz: We call them “pamphlets”.

Heffner: Pamphlets. But they appear in newspapers.

Schmertz: Yes.

Heffner: When you talked about Death of a Princess critically in terms of the public broadcasting people running it, you said, “We believe that if a free society is to survive, we must openly and candidly discuss these issues so that an informed public may make rational judgments”. And I’d like to talk about the issues that you did raise here, if I may.

S: sure.

Heffner: One of them, the first one, you say, “If we are going to have a free press, what responsibilities and obligations to the wellbeing of the nation does that freedom impose upon television stations and other media”? And I wonder what your own answer is to your own question.

Schmertz: Well, I don’t…it seems to me that society has given the press a great privilege, and that privilege is embodied in the First Amendment which says that Congress shall make no law affecting freedom of the press. Now, it seems to me that privilege is only going to survive so long as society believes that the press is doing things that are useful to society. If any institution is doing things that are inimicable to society, society’s going to take action against it. So that we’ve seen, for example, masse of legislation against unions, against corporations, against all sorts of institutions, when society has felt that those institutions have acted irresponsibly. What the thrust of that statement in the ad is that if society ever concludes that the press is acting irresponsibly, we could expect that society is going to do something about it. What they will do, I don’t know. And in terms of what it would take to get society to do something, I also don’t know. But I do feel that, just as the press3i s quite ready to tell all the other institutions what obligations it has, what responsibilities it has to society, I think it’s perfectly appropriate for any of us to say what it thinks the press’s obligations are.

Heffner: You sound at first as though you are defending the press better than the press does.

Schmertz: (Laughter)

Heffner: That if an angry public, an angry majority whose will is thwarted may rise up and strike down, it’s the privilege of the press.

Schmertz: Yeah. I wouldn’t defend the press. I mean, we have never suggested any legislation or regulation of the press. We have constantly urged both the print press and television to voluntarily experiment with things that are more responsive to society’s needs. And I think that’s the way the press will survive if it is alert to the needs and desires of society. But if the press, as I say, does things that are irresponsible in society’s eyes, inevitably society will do something about it.

Heffner: Well, Herb, you use the word “privilege”, the “privileges of the press”.

Schmertz: Yes, yes.

Heffner: and I wondered, are you changing Bill of Rights to Bill of Privileges.

Schmertz: Well, the Bill of Rights are a series of amendments to the constitution. Society at the time our nation was established decided that it would add certain things to the Constitution. Those were grants by society as embodied in the First Amendment. It’s clear from the Constitution from a legal standpoint that on any Monday morning society can decide to change that Constitution. The mechanism for peaceful change of our Constitution is there. So that it is a privilege that is granted by society as embodied in the Bill of Rights. It is a right so long as it stays there. But that right can be removed any time society wants to amend the constitution. We’ve had amendments stricken from the Constitution. The prohibition amendment, for example.

Heffner: Yes, but isn’t it true that the Bill of Rights, they they or it was or were in a sense a recognition rather than an addition, or an addition that was a recognition of very basic concerns?

Schmertz: Absolutely right. And I would certainly hope that that recognition would never vanish from our society. But the fact of the matter is that if that privilege or right, whatever you want to call it, is taken advantage of in ways that were not contemplated at the time it was established, then steps are going to be taken to protect themselves by society.

Heffner: That sounds almost like a threat.

Schmertz: No, I don’t think it’s a threat at all. I think it’s a realistic assessment of the situation. I mean, it’s the same as business saying that we must have an absolutely free market unfettered by any government regulation. Well, that in today’s world, that’s probably a nonsensical statement. We know that regulation has come because society has demanded it. I would hope that we would never have regulation of the press, that the press would undertake to be sure that it is acting responsibly. But it does have obligations that it assumes when it gets these rights or privileges.

Heffner: You know, that sounds so much like the new world order of information. It sounds so much like the third-world nations that say, in UNESCO, that the press, the organs of opinion must reflect and be defensive of the institutions of society. Do you accept that?

Schmertz: No, that’s not what I was saying at all. Not by a longshot. But we do have instances where, you know, the traditional fire in the theater in terms of free speech. During wartime, we know that it would be irresponsible to public battle plans where men would be killed if they showed up in the newspaper. So I mean you can identify certain things that have long been traditions that the press does not do.

Heffner: Would you equate showing the Death of a Princess show with a Clear and Present Danger with crying, “Fire” in a crowded theater?

Schmertz? No, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t equate it to that. What I would equate it to is whether it really served any useful purpose and in light of the risks that it cause din terms of relations with a friendly nation.

Heffner: Herb…

Schmertz: and actually it wasn’t so much the airing of the show. It was more the portrayal of the show as something that it really wasn’t.

Heffner: What do you mean?

Schmertz: Well, the, before we spoke out, the accepted version was that this was an accurate portrayal of life in Saudi Arabia. I think after we spoke out and other spoke out it was quite clear that this was a fiction.

Heffner: Well, or course…

Schmertz: And that was an important, important ingredient in what we undertook.

Heffner: Of course, what your argument here or the statement that you make after you go from these questions that we’ll come back to, you talk about the reality of docudrama.

Schmertz: Yes.

Heffner: And you expressed a concern, “Many television reviewers have raised serious doubts about this type of television which so blurs the distinction between fact and fiction that the viewer doesn’t know one from the other”. And yet, Mobil underwrote Edward and Mrs. Simpson. Weren’t you concerned there that there would be that inability to distinguish fact from fiction?

Schmertz: Well, there is that problem, although we never claimed that this was a factually accurate and authentic story. I think the problem with this particular docudrama is it was, there were clearly fictional parts of it. And yet the people who were responsible for it were making very strong claims as to its factual accuracy and authenticities.

Heffner: Wouldn’t you find in anything that Mobil might underwrite or anything that you and I might sit down this evening and look at something in the area of historical fiction, you don’t know what’s history, you don’t know what’s fiction. Would you find that concern surfacing?

Schmertz: I think this show goes further. I have the feeling that this was, that this had a measure of political polemic in it also.

Heffner: Well, that of course is what people were saying about your ad, A New Fairy Tale.

Schmertz: Well, I mean…

Heffner: Would that be fair?

Schmertz: No, I don’t think so. Our ad was done for two purposes. One, to have the public know that if they did watch it that it was a fiction and not a factual documentary. Secondly, to try to urge that perhaps there be some other balancing type of programming which did occur in the one-hour panel after the show. Now those were the kinds of things that clearly helped to put this show in context. Let me just come back to one thing that we were talking about, and that is, you know, the press thing that we were talking about, and that is, you know, the press’ obligation and a lot of the criticism that’s been leveled against us that we’ve been anti the First Amendment by speaking out on this and the rest. I went back and looked at New York Times editorials for the last ten or twelve years and I found a number of instances in which television shows that were scheduled to be aired that The Times editorial said were irresponsible and in fact said probably shouldn’t be aired.

Heffner: You weren’t setting The New York Times up as a paragon of virtue, were you?

Schmertz: No, but the New York Times was quite critical of us in terms of what they perceived our views on the First Amendment were, yet they themselves on occasion have said that television shows should not air, editorially.

Heffner: We are sinners all, you mean?

Schmertz: Well…

Heffner: Herbert, at the end your conclusion in the ad, “We hope that the management of the Public Broadcasting Service will review its decision to run this film”. Meaning you hoped they wouldn’t run it.

Schmertz: Well, not necessarily that, but…

Heffner: Do you think they did exercise responsible judgment?

Schmertz: I think they did a better job after this ad appeared than they otherwise would have. But I don’t think they did nearly…within the context of still running the show, they could have done substantially more to have framed this show and provided a wrap-up report that would have made it clear, number one, that it was a particular personal point of view of one person, that it was a fiction and not an authentic documentary. And so they could have done more of that. But the one-hour panel after the show clearly was better than not having it.

Heffner: In having the panel there were points of view taking very opposite to those that you’ve just expressed. Because there are two points of view.

Schmertz: Yeah, yeah. I mean…

Heffner: Okay.

Schmertz: That’s what the whole thing is about is to get all the points of view on the table.

Heffner: Okay. But I gather you’re saying that there is still some question in your own mind about the judgment exercised in the whole business.

Schmertz: Well, I think that it would have been a better decision not to have run the show.

Heffner: Okay. Now, what do you, holding the purse strings, an awful lot of dough that goes to public broadcasting…

Schmertz: It’s really not that much. Three million dollars.

Heffner: You’re modest.

Schmertz: (Laughter)

Heffner: Three million dollars sounds very large to me. But what, I gather, responsible decision would have been contrary to what was done? Are you continue to back those who made an irresponsible decision?

Schmertz: Oh yeah, yeah. The two issues are totally unrelated. The only people that have raised a question with us about, of continuing funding have been news people. It’s never been something that’s come into our mind. It was never part of the equation of anything we undertook. We never made any phone calls or approaches to public broadcasting behind the scenes to try to even raise any questions with them about this show. He two are totally unrelated, and our funding continues as it has in the past.

Heffner: Okay, then let’s go back to these questions that are raised, that you’ve raised in your ad. I raised the question of the new world information order. And there was something about this that did remind me of this notion that the media should take into account, very actively take into account what society perceives of as its best interest at any one particular moment. Doesn’t that make you a little bit nervous?

Schmertz: I, no, I think it’s the “at one moment” that I don’t agree with. I think that if you take a long period of time, the press has to. If it’s going to remain a free press, has a responsibility for example to be accurate, not to libel people, not to do damage t, you know, various parts of our society. I mean, for example, a good portion of racism that used to appear in the press has pretty much vanished from our press. It is an accepted tenet now I think of responsible journalism that you don’t inject racism into responsible newspapers. It’s just not done. If suddenly a newspaper became virulently anti-black or anti-Semitic or something of that sort, there would be a human cry in this country. Society wouldn’t tolerate it today.

Heffner: Your second point, “What are the implications of the fact that congressional appropriations to public television supported at least indirectly the production of the film, and if shown”, and it was, “the facilities for dissemination”? What were the implications?

Schmertz: Well, the point there is that you and I can easily understand that when a congressional grant is made to something like public television it can have no strings substantively. That the money is given, and at that point those that receive the money have to have the total freedom to do as they please with that.

Heffner: Do you agree with that?

Schmertz: Oh yes. There is no way you can or should put substantive conditions on grants.

Heffner: Except I gather you feel that the people who receive the grants should be aware of the larger sense of responsibility that they bear.

Schmertz: Oh, in no other fashion than if the money came from private sources.

Heffner: Self-censorship?

Schmertz: Yeah, self-policing is really all I’m ever saying. I’ve never, never talked about legislation or government regulation.

Heffner: No, no. I understand. But just formulating it in that way, and it makes so much sense, and I do understand that and I’m not trying to bait you on that.

Schmertz: Self-responsibility is really…

Heffner: When you do raise the question of appropriations, and then you said, “Look, I hope that you’re going to be responsible unto yourself”.

Schmertz: No, I didn’t even say that. The fact that they get government money doesn’t place any greater responsibility on them in terms of a free press than anyone else.

Heffner: So why’d you raise the question?

Schmertz: Because we’re talking about perceptions of foreign governments which don’t understand that one part of the government can be criticizing the show, as the State Department did, and yet another part of the government is at least indirectly providing the wherewithal for the structure to air the show. It’s just a difficult thing for some foreign governments to understand how something like that can happen. That has compounded the problem in this instance.

Heffner: I bet you have at other times said, “The hell with them!” and other countries have misunderstood or refused to accept or failed to interpret appropriately our particular system of rights and what you call privileges.

Schmertz: But that’s not material, because if I’m less sensitive about these things, or if indeed all of the United States is less sensitive about it, that’s one thing. But if another country is particularly sensitive about its religion, far more sensitive and much more defensive about it than we are in this country – I mean, in Saudi Arabia religion is the most important single ingredient, they are much more sensitive and much more defensive about it than we are in this country – that is an ingredient that should be considered, people’s sensitivities. Just as I think it would be, the sensitivities of blacks or others would be considered in television shows here. I mean, I understand that there’s a show at NBC that’s undergoing the same problem, Beulahland, which there are complaints about in terms of the characterization of blacks, and the show hasn’t aired.

Heffner: Just how much would you want a private broadcaster, a public broadcaster, what have you, a newspaper, any kind of publication, including those who put ads in the newspapers, to be that much involved in terms of what they believe should be said, involved with what other countries ‘ customs are and habits?

Schmertz: Well, I think that’s a decision that the journalists themselves have to make. Clearly I’m against prior censorship. Clearly I’m against government regulation. Clearly I, what I’m saying is that the journalist himself has to decide based on his expertise. What I’m saying however is that if we find, the society finds over a period of time that the abuses are so massive and society feels threatened, society’s going to do something. That’s all we’ve ever said.

Let me come back to the government money for a moment. I testified two or three years ago before the Carnegie Commission inquiry into public television that I had very severe questions at that time about government money being used for public television, that i felt that if public television would be much better off if it didn’t have any government money in it, that if it was really being supported by the marketplace. And I think I’ve, it’s been reinforced.

Heffner: Well, in a sense it’s supported by the marketplace as well as by the government. And in the instance of A Death of a Princess, the Acting Secretary of State and an ad from a major contributor to public broadcasting, which is the marketplace then…

Schmertz: Yes.

Heffner: Both of them indicated displeasure with the idea of this broadcast. That’s heavy.

Schmertz: Yeah. But it was displeasure in a substantive sense; nothing to do with the funding end of it. But yeah, I say to people, “IF you believe that government money should be used for public television, would you favor government money for a public newspaper”?

Heffner: Good question. Good question. What’s their answer?

Schmertz: Well, I mean, journalists are appalled at the question.

Heffner: But the reasoning behind it seems to be the reasoning that surfaced or the kinds of things that surfaced with Death of a Princess. Your ad and a letter or a telegram or a notice from the Acting Secretary of State.

Schmertz: Well, I think more indicative was the reaction of the public which, if I, I mean the newspapers were saying that the phone calls to the public television stations were running about ten to one against the show when both the Secretary of State and our ad appeared. Our own mail count indicates a preponderance of support for our position. Now PBS may have other numbers. I don’t know.

Heffner: My understanding is that PBS does have other numbers, but then we all have numbers.

Schmertz: Sure.

Heffner: Let’s go to your number three, the question that you raised, “Does the public regard fictionalized docudrama accounts loosely based on some historical event as accurate portrayals of those events even though fiction is mixed with so-called fact? Many serious commentators, as we said before, have raised questions about the docudrama format”. I’d like to go back to that because you’ve been so much involved with all kinds of dramatic presentations and you’re very much concerned with the news media.

Schmertz: Yes. Yes.

Heffner: Any way around that?

Schmertz: Well (Laughter), I suppose you could say that you shouldn’t do docudrama about living people. Maybe that’s the kind of…

Heffner: Do you think so?

Schmertz: Well, I’ve tended towards that. One of the worst docudramas I ever saw was Washington Behind Closed Doors, where they had the fictional character, President Walter Monkton. And for the average viewer I don’t think they knew the difference between President Monkton and President Nixon. Yet the acts that the fictional character engaged in, as bad as President Nixon’s were, the fictional character engaged in far worse kinds of things. But it was loosely…you know, Jason Robards played Monkton, and he was made to look like Nixon and sound like him, so that here you had a particularly bad incident of recent vintage, Watergate, which was, I thought, very substantially embellished by Washington Behind Closed Doors. I think that’s unfortunate. I thought Holocaust was unfortunate. I thought that Eleanor and Franklin was unfortunate. I’ve never…

Heffner: So the living and dead quality really doesn’t make that much difference?

Schmertz: Not really, not really.

Heffner: What does?

Schmertz: Well, I think the important part of it is to draw the line at docudrama that becomes a political polemic. That’s certainly one line I would draw.

Heffner: Herb, who decides that?

Schmertz: You know, I mean, this is a matter of taste and point of view clearly.

Heffner: I mean certainly it would be all right if you and I decided that…

Schmertz: (Laughter) Yeah.

Heffner: …but suppose someone else does that, about something you do?

Schmertz: Well, I think that if it is a political polemic, the critics and the press have an obligation to tell the public that that’s what it is. Clearly, you can’t outlaw it, and clearly you can’t say that nobody has the right to make those, that’s prior censorship, totally unacceptable. When they are made, and if they are going to be aired, then they should be surrounded by material both in the print and on television that puts that show in context.

Heffner: We have just a few minutes left. I’d like to go back to this question of sense of responsibility. When it came to the Pentagon Papers, I wonder what your view is on their publication where it was said by the highest officials in government that their publication was damaging to the national interests.

Schmertz: Right, right.

Heffner: Now, how did you come out on that?

Schmertz: Well, I don’t believe that it’s the province of the press to be making determinations as to what documents should be declassified, since if something is top secret or secret, I don’t think the press has the competence to decide whether it is, it should be declassified. The court ruled in that case that the material was not damaging to the national security, and on that basis the papers were allowed to publish. But I have great problems with that whole situation for a variety of reasons. First of all, the New York Times didn’t publish all the material right away. Secondly, they didn’t publish it in chronological order; they edited it. They, it went out over a period of time. If their argument before the supreme Court, which they said was that the public has the right to know and even waiting one day is a denial of that right, why did they wait so long?

Heffner: Well, I’m sure that waiting one day is better than waiting ten days, or fifty days or years.

Schmertz: Well, they waited quite awhile while they worked the material over.

Heffner: The court ultimately decided.

Schmertz: And I would really ask a question as to whether their determination as to which material they would publish first and the order of it had any implications.

Heffner: I’m troubled by all of these things too. Let me ask you the question instead.

Schmertz: (Laugher) Good.

Heffner: How do we deal with these things?

Schmertz: Well, we deal with them the way you and I are dealing with them. And if we’re going to continue to have this kind of society in which you and I want to live…

Heffner: You mean in retrospect?

Schmertz: No. I mean they have to be debated and aired and discussed and…

Heffner: That doesn’t happen very much.

Schmertz: Oh, I think that while it may not happen that much in this kind of show, I think that there is an enormous amount of this kind of debate and discussion going on at seminars and meetings with journalists. Journalists are not living in an ivory tower when it comes to these kinds of questions.

Heffner: They seem though, many of them, to be concerned about the questions that you’ve raised. And I don’t mean in terms concerned about their responsibility, but about yours.

Schmertz: Well, my perception of their concerns is that we didn’t agree with a decision made by journalists, and that that’s some sort of crime on our part. And when you don’t agree with a journalist’s decision, they seem to get the wagons in the circle and become very defensive. I mean, they were critical of us in terms of the First Amendment, yet even The Times went on to say that the show was a misrepresentation.

Heffner: Herb, obviously this question of the wagons in the circle is something that we’re going to have to come back and discuss again.

Schmertz: (Laughter)

Heffner: Thanks very much, Herb Schmertz, for joining me today on the Open Mind.

Schmertz: Thank you very much.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”