At PBS, the Pressure Is On Before the TV Goes On
By Michael Getler
June 1, 2007
Normally, the Ombudsman's column deals with viewer observations about programs that have aired on PBS affiliated-stations around the country. On one or two occasions in the past 18 months, it has also dealt with controversies that have arisen publicly about programs that were still months away from airing, such as the battle between Armenian and Turkish interest groups that preceded the showing of the documentary "The Armenian Genocide" in April 2006. In that case, I wrote a couple of times about the controversies but not, at the time, about the film, which I didn't watch until it aired nationally.
In recent weeks, however, two events have unfolded in advance of future offerings that may present the most serious challenges to the integrity of the internal PBS editorial process, and public trust in that process, in quite a while. At least that is my view as an outsider watching this develop.
So this is a column devoted to those challenges. It does not involve substantive assessments of the programs involved because, like viewers like you, I have not seen them, and won't until they air. Rather, it deals with political and financial pressures, issues of artistic freedom, and with the question of who controls the editorial process and who protects it.
What is also interesting about these events is that there are legitimate arguments on all sides about how they are being resolved. It's also not the objective of this column to assess what is the right outcome. Again, it is the events leading up to and surrounding these decisions that seemed to me worth pulling together for public pondering.
The two events involve decisions made about: 1) the epic, seven-night, 14½-hour series "The War" by renowned documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, which is scheduled to air in September, and 2) a one-hour film titled "Islam vs. Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center" that was originally commissioned by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — the body that provides federal funding for PBS — for its series titled "America at a Crossroads" that aired in April. But that film was rejected in its original form by PBS and its lead station on the project, WETA (just outside Washington, D.C.), on grounds that it did not meet editorial standards.
There are major differences in the facts and actions surrounding these two cases. But what they have in common is that both involve direct, and ultimately successful, challenges to PBS and CPB by groups of federal lawmakers with special interests in these films, and both ended with outcomes that bypassed the editorial decisions previously made by PBS.
First, the Continuing War About 'The War'
The saga of the long-running battle by Latino activists and lawmakers unhappy over the absence of Hispanic veterans in the Ken Burns documentary about World War II is, by now, pretty well known. It has been going on for several months and attracted a lot of publicity. (Good accounts ran in The Washington Post and Current.) But the way it ended on May 10 came as a surprise.
Burns and PBS had proposed two earlier solutions to the Latino complaints that involved adding material within the allotted time slot for the programs, but not altering the original, and already completed film. That was unacceptable to the umbrella group of some 14 national Hispanic organizations. Then, the 21-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus got involved. It voted unanimously to give total support to the activist groups and, on May 2, members of the caucus actually met with representatives of Burns' corporate sponsors, including General Motors, Anheuser-Busch and Bank of America. As reported in Current, CPB spokesman Michael Levy said the caucus members didn't directly threaten boycotts against Burns' sponsors, but they described the purchasing power of the Hispanic community and referred to past boycotts.
Immediately after that meeting, on May 2, the heads of the CPB, PBS, National Public Radio and the Association of Public Television Stations issued an extraordinary public statement warning that "any attempt by the government or interest groups to influence content, especially before a program has aired, raises serious Constitutional, statutory and policy concerns." The quartet of public broadcasting leaders said that "editorial independence is deeply rooted in American values of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which are protected in the First Amendment to the Constitution" and that the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 "reinforces the need to prevent interference with program content."
Throughout this process, as Burns sought to make what turned out to be unacceptable compromises, both he and PBS stuck to the notion of keeping the film, and Burns' artistic vision of it, intact. On May 5, in an interview with the New York Times, Burns is quoted as saying that to re-edit the film "would be destructive, like trying to graft an arm onto your child. It would destroy the film."
Arm Replacement Procedure
But on May 10, after another meeting with Hispanic groups, Burns agreed that new narratives and voices of Hispanic World War II veterans will be included in the film. The role of those vets "is one that lends itself to the universality of this film and merits being included," he said. PBS said it was "pleased that Ken Burns has been open-minded and receptive to input from the Latino community. We think what Ken is doing is the right thing. We're listening to the public but, at the end of the day, it's Ken's film."
So that's one way to look at it. It is Burns' film and he gets to make the content decisions. Burns, as one independent documentary filmmaker outside of PBS put it, is more than just a filmmaker. He is a historian as well and perhaps, like a good historian, when new information is provided — and there are undoubtedly many good stories to be told by Hispanic veterans — you find a way to expand the story line. "And that's the way this should be looked at," said this outside filmmaker. "Not that Ken folded to pressure groups, but that as a historian he realized he was not doing justice to his story." So that would make a good ending for everybody. And it would validate the decision of the Hispanic organizations to press on all fronts for changes that, eventually, are seen as for the better by Ken Burns, according to his statements.
On the other hand, the May 2 warning by the leaders of public broadcasting was sharp and clear. Yet the pressure on the sponsors may have worked, although there is no real evidence. And some commentators portray the potential downside in very stark terms. Writing in The Washington Times, Scott Galupo writes: "Take a bow, Hispanic activists. Not only did you persuade Ken Burns to tamper with his already completed . . . documentary, but you have also set a precedent under which filmmakers will never be certain whether their work is their own or the virtual property of pressure groups."
He adds a quote from Nina Gilden Seavey, the director of George Washington University's Documentary Center, that was also reported in other accounts. "To find that Ken and PBS have just bowed to the demands of any special interest group is really a travesty against journalism. To my mind, that is the death of independent filmmaking on PBS."
Even before the final Burns decision, Rod Dreher, on Dallas News.com, wrote on May 3 that, "What the Latino activists have done, thanks in part to pressure from Hispanic members of Congress, was to force a compromise, however slight, of a distinguished filmmaker's artistic vision for the sake of identity politics. This is a terrible precedent. PBS has opened the doors for any special-interest group to force its political agenda onto a work of art and historical storytelling."
And an editorial on May 14, after Burns changed his mind, on the McClatchy-Tribune News Service, said that the Hispanic Caucus had committed an "egregious congressional interference with the editorial affairs of public broadcasting" both by "threatening public television's funding and by requesting meetings with the series' corporate underwriters, who are facing boycott threats." The Caucus, the editorial said, has every right to insist on balance and responsiveness to public opinion, but that right needs to be "exercised responsibly." But the Caucus, it said, had crossed an important line that will have serious repercussions. "Make no mistake, filmmakers will be far less willing to work for public TV if they risk politicians stepping into the editing booth."
However one feels about this, it seems clear that something important happened here and that, for better or worse, it could happen again.
In Fact, It Has Happened Again
One week after Burns decided to alter his film, the CPB stepped into what has turned into an intense dispute pitting PBS and its lead affiliate station, WETA, on one side, and the producers of the "Islam vs. Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center," on the other. That's the documentary that had been intended for the "America at a Crossroads" series.
Here's the way The Washington Post story by Paul Farhi began. "In an unprecedented move, the agency that oversees public broadcasting has stepped in to arrange distribution for a TV documentary on Islam that PBS has rejected as unworthy. The federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting helped find a new distributor" for the film "after seven Republican members of Congress and one Democrat demanded that CPB ask PBS to air it or release it elsewhere."
CPB and PBS officials say it isn't unprecedented for CPB-funded shows not to be distributed by PBS, and claim this took place with "several films" produced by ITVS, the Independent Television Service. And CPB spokesman Michael Levy also told Farhi that the congressional pressure played no role in the CPB decision.
But WETA officials, while stressing that there was nothing improper about the CPB action, said that they viewed it as unprecedented, in their memories, in terms of the "style" of the CPB involvement and that the Board "shopped it around" to find a taker after both PBS and American Public Television rejected the film unless some changes were made.
Also, while the CPB decision may have been free from the congressional pressure, as CPB claims, there was a lot of it. Aside from the letter to the CPB from the eight representatives — Republicans Trent Franks, Todd Akin, Barbara Cubin, Peter Hoekstra, Edward Royce, Peter T. King and James T. Walsh and Democrat Brad Sherman — Sens. Joseph Lieberman (Ind-Conn.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) along with Reps. Franks and Sherman wrote a letter of invitation to the entire Congress for a private screening of the film late in April.
The film was produced by a team led by Frank Gaffney Jr., founder and president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, which describes itself as both a not-for-profit and non-partisan educational corporation. Gaffney, officially a co-executive producer of the film, is a leading conservative spokesman and columnist on national security issues. A former senior Pentagon official during the Reagan administration, Gaffney is well known and well connected in Washington and he has led an escalating campaign against the PBS/WETA decision and to get his film aired.
The campaign's Web site says the film tells the story of "courageous anti-Islamist Muslims in Western Europe, Canada and the United States and the extraordinary challenges they face in taking on adherents to the theo-totalitarian ideology known as Islamism.* What is happening to these moderates — who are being ostracized, intimidated and, in some cases, threatened with death — offers critical insights into the dangers that both they and we are facing."
The film was one of 34 films that CPB commissioned more than two years ago as part of a $20 million competitive grant project to explore the post-9/11 world. The films were then whittled down to 21 for production funding. In January 2006, WETA was selected as the producing/presenting station for what was to be the eventual "America at a Crossroads" series. The Gaffney film, according to CPB chief Patricia de Stacy Harrison, "moved forward because the role of moderate Muslims in the future of Islam was and continues to be an important issue worthy of examination." Gaffney and his team got $675,000 in grant funding.
But "Islam vs. Islamists" didn't make the final cut for the 12-hour, 11-part "Crossroads" series — the work of 10 different documentary filmmakers — that aired late in April. Both PBS and WETA had problems with it, but Gaffney, unlike Burns, has declined to make any of the suggested changes. PBS and WETA have the right to ask for changes and Gaffney, as a producer, has a right to say no, as Burns did for a long time. But Burn's critics were from outside rather than internal.
Gaffney has sought to make the case that it is ideological and political bias on the part of public broadcasting that is keeping his film off the air. He is also not satisfied with the deal that was recently struck by CPB to get it on at least some PBS affiliates, but I'll come back to that. PBS and WETA officials call such charges ridiculous. WETA spokeswoman Mary Stewart has said, "We had no problem with the concept or ideology. It was about filmmaking and documentary standards. We had no problem with the argument laid out in the film."
Gaffney told Farhi of the Post that: "I am a person they regard as a conservative, and they regard the airwaves as a liberal domain." He told Jennifer Harper of The Washington Times that, "This is a well-documented, textbook case of the abuse of taxpayer funding by elements in the public broadcasting system to advocate their agenda and ensure that people who have a different agenda don't get on the air. The public ought to be allowed to see a film which PBS doesn't want them to see."
In summarizing the various collective critiques by PBS and WETA officials, plus those of "Crossroads" host Robert MacNeil, these officials said of their suggestions: "In every instance they were predicated on the stated judgment that the content of the piece was potentially very strong, but that its presentation was flawed by incomplete storytelling, a limited focus that does not adequately corroborate the film's conclusions, and a general lack of attention to the obligation of fairness, which requires that viewers have access to additional context and relevant information about a complex subject. These flaws would need to be addressed in order to bring the work into compliance with PBS's editorial standards." They argue that "the editorial deficiencies . . . could be remedied in a way that would strengthen, not diminish, the cogency" of the film's findings.
No Thanks, No Changes
What is most puzzling about this stand-off is the unwillingness of the producers to countenance any changes.
In answering the congressmen who want the program aired, CPB chief Harrison, who is a former co-chairman of the Republican National Committee and served as an official in the Bush administration before coming to CPB, said that, "Despite several attempts by PBS and WETA to engage the filmmakers of 'Islam vs. Islamists' to make certain edits to the film to comply with PBS standards, they refused to do so. Other Crossroads series filmmakers faced similar issues, but they worked successfully to comply with PBS standards." Eleven films were not included in the primetime series, but all of those can be shown as so-called "stand alone" films, she said, and five have already completed those procedures. This was also the hope for the Islam film, she said, "until the filmmakers abandoned the editing process and declared their film to be finished."
While support for showing Gaffney's film as is has been fairly widespread among generally conservative commentators and among some others as well — including Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), which has agreed to air it as part of the deal worked out with CPB — the unwillingness to make changes has also struck some of Gaffney's defenders as a mistake.
For example, in a comprehensive piece on the situation in The Weekly Standard, assistant editor Sonny Bunch writes that the tone of suggestions from one top WETA producer "was more helpful than radical, with the producer trying not to destroy the documentary so much as streamline it. While Gaffney was within his rights to push back against changes he did not like, his outright dismissal of some suggestions seems unwarranted." Bunch mentions criticisms about the narration (that it should be the characters rather than the narrator that carries the story) and "menacing music" that have been mentioned by others as well. Considering that the "Crossroads" series included a segment produced by Richard Perle, another hard-line ex-Pentagon official, Bunch writes it would also "seem odd for 'Islam vs. Islamists' to be singled out for suppression."
A supportive editorial in The Washington Times says, "There will be legitimate criticism of this film. The haunting music which overlays the words and images of terrorist sympathizers is at times a bit overpowering. The lines are often less than clear distinguishing Muslims who may be sympathetic to Islamists and those who are not." But the Times concludes that the film is "hard-hitting. Some will consider it biased. We don't. The American people are grown up. They can handle it."
Getting Around the PBS Corner
Having explained to the eight congressional representatives that Gaffney simply refused to make certain edits to his film, CPB's Harrison also responded to their request that some other distribution be found. "As the steward of the federal appropriation for public broadcasting as well as the principal underwriter of the film, we are committed to having the film seen by public television audiences," she said, and so CPB "is moving quickly and aggressively" to find a way to distribute it to the widest possible public television audience.
That led to an agreement last week with Oregon Public Broadcasting to distribute the film as Gaffney produced it. Steve Bass, president and CEO of OPB, told John Eggerton of Broadcasting & Cable that he had seen the film and that it does lack context but that, "When something like this becomes an object of controversy, and is a program that people haven't seen, you are generally better off putting it out there. And I think it plays to public broadcasting's strength, which is that we are a collection of local institutions that make our own editorial decisions." He said it was a practical decision because it was clear the producers would not make changes, and so whenever it airs it will be followed by a panel discussion of the film.
But a press release afterward on Gaffney's Web site said that, "Unfortunately, while this announcement was momentarily perceived as a victory by many who have been outraged by the suppression of this movie by PBS and its Washington station, WETA, in reality it amounts to nothing more than a desperate effort by CPB to dispose of the film in the face of mounting pressure from Congress, the media and the public to allow its immediate, national distribution." The statement said it is unclear how many stations will air it under the CPB/OPB plan, and it viewed the addition of a post-film panel as some kind of "remedial" discussion.
As for the outcome thus far, Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy told Dinesh Kumar of Communications Daily that CPB's role in such episodes is ill-defined. "CPB is supposed to be a heat shield, not really a producer. That role has been redefined over the years to give CPB the ability to create programming." With the Islamist film, he said, that if the CPB were "unhappy" with a PBS editorial decision it should "appeal to the Congress and to the public. It should not try to act as a distributor and bypass the PBS editorial process."
As for the involvement of the Congress in this case, a top WETA official said that type of involvement "could be very serious. Ultimately, it is in the absolute interest of the integrity of public broadcasting that it not be subject to making editorial decisions based on politics, underwriters, special interests or other outside pressures. Obviously, we don't operate in a vacuum, but you have to have the ability to stand up and resist them."
In these cases, PBS did resist. But other outcomes prevailed.
*Due to a transcription error on my part, Islamism was misspelled in the original column. It has now been corrected.