Why is that White-Bearded Man Interrupting Ted Koppel's Town Meeting?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow 2/11/2005

Dear Friends,

It started this way: I was invited to bring a religious voice to Ted Koppel's Town Meeting show on January 27 to address the Iraq war. It was held in the same place, St. John's Church across from the White House, as his Town Meeting had been held in March 2003, two weeks before the invasion of Iraq.

But at the show itself, the producers asked for a written card summarizing the comments I intended to make. They had invited me knowing in general what my views were. So with honesty but perhaps a whiff of naivete I wrote that I intended to speak about a power-addicted Presidency that is bringing down plagues upon our heads, reminiscent of the archetypal power-addicted Pharaoh whose downfall is at the heart of our tradition.

Nothing doing! They made clear I wouldn't get to speak at all.

I don't take kindly to being silenced, especially when I have been specifically invited to speak, and to spend five hours on a train at my own expense to bring my voice.

And especially when I discover that what had been called a Town Meeting has been rigged to silence almost every voice ready to call for an end to the occupation of Iraq.

And when I discover that the rescinding of my invitation to speak was connected with a decision to give much more time to "the military" - but not to surviving soldiers, or the families of the fallen, who wanted the war to end.

So I spoke anyway. Out of politeness and some measure of respect for Koppel's past work, I waited till a commercial break to stand up and say my piece, off camera. But I think we should all be aware how much even this last sector of what was relatively independent network news has become flackery for the Pharaoh.

Back to when I was invited:

I was told the invitation was sparked by the full-page "Tent of Abraham, Hagar, & Sarah" ad that we had placed in the NY Times, signed by almost 500 Jews, Christians, and Muslims, calling for an end to the US occupation of Iraq (among other things).

I was asked to make sure that twenty of "our group" Shalom Center members and friends attended as audience members, with a chance to ask questions. From the people I wrote, I got back responses that indicated about a dozen people would be able to come.

I was told that in March 2003, the pre-war "Town Meeting" had been entitled, "Why now?" And I was told the title this time would be, "What now?"

But now the plot thickens:

The night before the show, I was called by the person who had invited me. With what she said was great embarrassment, she rescinded the invitation. She said that Koppel had decided to greatly increase the military presence on the show, and so what she kept calling the "theological" presence had to be reduced.

She said that now only five of our folks could attend (there was to be a list at the door), of whom I would count as one. She said she would make sure that I got to ask a question even though I would not officially be on the "Front Row." I considered just canceling my trip - going back and forth from Philadelphia to Washington takes most of a day - but decided the voice of religious opposition to the war was too important to just give up.

When I got to the church itself, first thing I noticed the title of the show, printed on all the leaflets, was "Why Stay?"

"That's a big difference from 'What Now?'" I thought. "I wonder what's up?"

For the rest of what happened, click here. You will find three different and independent reports on what happened my own and those of two others who were present, whom I did not know.

Before them, you will find my post-event letter to Ted Koppel, in which I explain why his behavior and that of his staff toward all the participants (including me, an invited guest) in what was billed as a "town meeting' on the Iraq war, violated his obligations as a host and as a professional journalist.

My letter urges him to make public redress and, most important, to produce a more honest "town meeting" where a much broader spectrrum of opinion on the war can be expressed, including strong opposition to continuing the occupation.

Click here to read my story and letter to Koppel or the stories of others who wrote about this event on their weblogs.


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