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Report on meeting with NBC 5 Chicago

New York Times, Thursday Nov 1, 2001

Purpose of Meeting

  1. "Uprising" is inappropriate as a comparison and is historically false.
  2. Present documents proving that at least one assertion from the mini-series Tell NBC 5 that this assertion is demeaning to a large number of good people.
  3. Offer help to NBC 5 in understanding the emotional impact of this upon Polish-Americans.

Summary

Today, our group of sons and daughters of Polish war veterans had our meeting with some top managers of the Chicago operations of NBC; the subject, of course, was the mini-series "Uprising", and the way it is being presented. The meeting went better than we dared hope.


This upbeat appraisal might seem too generous, considering the things that we did not get: the mini-series isn?t cancelled, there is little likelihood that the promotional material for the remaining days will be changed, and in fact, there was not even a guarantee that the web-site could be changed.


We knew, going into the meeting, that since these Chicago managers have no authority over such matters, the network level issues would remain unresolved. The Chicago managers did give us what they could: an assurance that they would escalate the issue to their superiors; that?s nice, but such a response could be expected even if they just wanted to get rid of us. The thing that leaves us upbeat about this meeting is that, rather than trying to get rid of us, these managers seemed genuinely interested in our input. We met with more people than we expected, from higher ranks than we expected, for a longer and more probing discussion than we expected.


People and Places

The meeting was requested by Alexander Danel, Mark Dobrzycki, Margaret Zapalski, and Mark Sokolowski. The issue concerns us at a public level, since each of us is active in the Polish-American community, and it also concerns us at a personal level, because this is about the honor of our parents. Among the leadership roles represented are: Board Member of "Polish Resistance Foundation" (Margaret) and Board Members of "Americans of Polish Descent" (Alexander and Mark.) Attending the meeting today were Danel, Dobrzycki, and Zapalski.


The NBC representative greeting us was Carol Cooley, which made sense since she was the person with whom we had first spoken, more than a week earlier. (We made that initial contact through a mutual friend.) Carol Cooley has been with NBC for 18 years and has rank; she is director of special events. She took us to the fifth floor, which we later learned is where the executive offices are, and we settled down in the spacious and luxurious conference room there. We were immediately joined by Cheryl Pearson-McNeil, the director of station relations. After about an hour of discussions, Larry Wert, president and general manager for NBC 5 Chicago, joined us. The meeting continued with all three of the managers in attendance for another hour. The total discussion lasted for over 2 hours. Then we met Toni Falvo, director of research and marketing, who was designated to be our intermediary with NBC. At the ending of the meeting, we took a group photo of the participants (our idea), and then took a tour of the building.


Introduction

We explained that we had come to inform NBC from the standpoint of typical Polish Americans. As sons and daughters of World War II veterans we have access to first-hand knowledge about wartime Poland because we know the personalities and have heard the stories of our parents.


As such, we are not likely to believe false depictions of that history, but it worries us that the mini-series "Uprising" is being nationally broadcast to an audience that does not have our access to first-hand knowledge, and therefore would believe false depictions of history.


To personalize the experience of Poles, each person in our group told something of what our parents experienced during the war. The NBC managers listened raptly to the stories about our parents. Alexander?s father had been in the army when war broke out, fought against tanks, later conducted espionage, was sent to a concentration camp, etc.


Margaret?s father was only eleven years old, but participated in the resistance by gathering notes from slave labor conscripts and by acting as a courier.


Mark Dobrzycki?s father was deported by cattle car to Siberia; he watched as family members died off. The Soviets released him, after which he joined the free army and fought at Monte Casino.


The story of Mark Sokolowski?s father was also told; about fighting in the Warsaw uprising, and going to Auschwitz at the age of 16. At the conclusion of each story, we mentioned that such heroism was the rule for all the Poles of that generation. And when all four stories had been told, we made our conclusion: that this history should not be demeaned or defamed.


Presentation of Documents

The NBC managers asked us whether "sons and daughters" was an official organization; whom could they address communications with. We deferred this question, since we still had some more to say. Note however, that this was the first thing they asked, and that the question of "whom do we address" would prove to be very much on their minds.


Margaret then made the following statement:

We are here to help you understand why this program is personally important to us. When we see our history presented, it?s important to us that information be truthful and factual. We first became alarmed when we saw the offensive line on the web site; then our alarm increased when we saw the T.V. theme repeated in promotions. This material is objectionable because the comparison is inappropriate, and furthermore it?s factually untrue. As the Chicago office for NBC, you can be the eyes and ears of the Network into a large Polish community, the largest outside of Warsaw. NBC needs to understand the emotional impact upon Polish-Americans, and we are here to help you gain that understanding. We are here to ask that this inappropriate comparison be stopped, and the truth be made known. And to that end we are bringing you the documented facts, and with them we bring our emotions, based upon those truths.

At this time, Margaret presented the documents. These were:

  • Statement by "Children of Polish WWII Veterans"
  • Background information on AK
  • Background information on soldiers of AK
  • Timeline of Important Events of WWII in Poland
  • Timeline of major acts of resistance during WWII in Poland
  • Selected Bibliography of Polish history resources
  • "Testimonial" letters/faxes from solicited professors

    • Prof. Zbigniew Brzerzynski
    • Prof. John Kordek
    • Prof. John J. Kulczycki
    • Prof. John S. Micgiel
    • Prof. John Radzilowski
    • Prof. Piotr Wrobel

Note: In actuality, Carol Cooley had already received, on the day before, an electronic copy of the documents, but this was our symbolic presentation. It was also the end of our "script".

Response by NBC 5 Chicago

The NBC managers stated, believably, that they were grateful that we had sought out contact. To our amazement, they told us that the Polish community rarely contacts them, and when there is contact, it?s one of a few of people who consistently file complaints.


A later conversation with Cheryl corroborated that NBC was receiving no positive communications from Poles; she asked us if there was any time in the near future that would highlight Polish cultural events. The irony was that the time period had just ended yesterday, and nobody in Polonia had informed the Director of Station Relations that it was Polish Heritage Month.


Escalation. The managers, led by Mr. Larry Wert, expressed that they had listened with genuine interest. They stated that they had already started the process of escalating our concerns up (to the network heads in New York.) One bit of feedback that had already returned to them was that ours was the first and only complaint that had been officially received by any part of the NBC network about "Uprising". Beyond escalation there was nothing else that the Chicago office could do, since all decisions about the mini-series are in the hands of the network.


Local Damage Control. Mr. Wert sought to find some actions that NBC 5 Chicago could do, for the local Polish community. We expressed a desire on our part to work towards the mutual goal of dampening any potential explosion of emotion in Polonia.


It should be noted that it was very difficult for them to understand why such an explosion might happen; which indicates to us that NBC 5 has been getting no effective, constructive input from Polonia. This validated our earlier proposal that we can be helpful to NBC 5 by providing information and insight.


We assured them that we don?t want such an explosion because it rarely does anything good for Polonia. On the contrary, it can do damage. For their part, NBC 5 Chicago doesn?t want our community to be angry with them.


Therefore, the following immediate action items were devised: (1) A joint press release about our meeting, to be used to open doors within the Polish media and communicate that a deliberative, intelligent, and calm approach has been used to lobby NBC 5, and that they had responded and were looking for more such interaction. (2) Larry Wert mentioned there might be a possibility to provide a "voice vehicle" for getting some part of our information out to the general public in Chicago.


Continuing Effort. Both sides agreed that Polonia had a story to tell, but wasn?t getting it out through the media, and that more exposure was a helpful goal. The following long-term action items were proposed: (3) Keep up communications and build a relationship through which NBC could present the culture and history of Poles. (4) Nominate an appropriate Pole for a "Jefferson Award"; which is presented annually by NBC 5 to a small number of individuals who are community servants; the winners get some publicity for their cause.


Other Impressions

It was practically beyond the comprehension of the managers that the "Uprising" project could have 4 historians working on it for so many years and yet contain historical errors. The fact that we brought extensive documentation and expert opinions to the discussion was probably crucial to gaining the respect of these managers. Their instinct is to believe that by the time something gets on film, it must be true.


The managers are aware and mystified that Chicago?s largest ethnic group has no one giving voice to it through their channel.


The managers were looking for a clue about organizations in Polonia. They don?t know whom they should approach to expand their understanding and contact with Polish issues. Obviously, we surely weren?t going to say "PAC." Without words, but with nods, they indicated an awareness of the fractiousness of Polonia.


Conclusion

The management of NBC 5 Chicago is open to hear the reasonable voices of Polish-American activists, like ourselves.


Author: Alexander Danel


From the Editors

We have asked Prof. Piotr Wrobel, Associate Professor and Chair of Polish History at the University ofToronto, to send us his statement for publishing it on our Web site


Statement by Prof. Piotr Wrobel

I am looking forward to watching the mini-series entitled "Uprising." I have been specializing in the Polish-Jewish history for many years and I teach it at the University of Toronto. My seminar on the "Polish Jews since the Partitions of Poland" is a part of the University?s Jewish Studies Program and I hope that I will be able to discuss the series with my students. Yet, I am surprised and disappointed with an advertising of the film presented on the NBC website. It includes a sentence "Against impossible odds, they [the insurgents] hold off the German army longer than the entire country of Poland?" The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was a tragic and heroic event but, unfortunately, from a military point of view, it was almost completely irrelevant. Comparing it to Poland?s contribution to World War II compromises the series before it has been broadcasted.



Piotr Wrobel
Associate Professor and Konstanty Reynert Chair of Polish History