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The Ombudsman Column

'Ombudsman or Spinmeister?'

The Ombudsman's Column on June 1, titled "At PBS, the Pressure Is On Before the TV Goes On," dealt with two decisions that had just unfolded publicly in which editorial judgments by the Public Broadcasting Service on two future offerings were essentially bypassed by decisions made outside of PBS.

One involved the forthcoming 14 ½-hour series on World War II titled "The War" by Ken Burns. The issue involved Burns' decision to alter the original film to include the voices and stories of Hispanic veterans who were absent in the original. This came after intense lobbying by Hispanic groups and the 21-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus, after Burns had said he would not re-edit the film, and after the heads of PBS, NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting issued a strong joint statement warning against attempts by government or special interest groups to influence content.

The second decision involved a one-hour film titled "Islam vs. Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center" that was originally commissioned by the CPB — 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 by PBS and its lead station on the project, WETA, on grounds that it did not meet editorial standards. There was congressional pressure here as well, with eight House members — seven Republicans and one Democrat — demanding that the CPB either get it on PBS or release it for use elsewhere. While the CPB supported WETA it also said, "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," and so CPB, which authorized $675,000 in production costs, "is moving quickly and aggressively" to find a way to distribute it to the widest possible public television audience. It is currently scheduled to be shown on Oregon Public Broadcasting in August.

The producers of the "Islam vs. Islamist" film — Frank Gaffney, Alex Alexiev and Martyn Burke — took issue with the portion of my column dealing with their film and sent the following response.

Public Television's Ombudsman or Spinmeister?

By Alex Alexiev


On June 1, 2007, the Public Broadcasting Service website posted an article by its ombudsman, Michael Getler, entitled "At PBS the Pressure is On Before the TV Goes On." It was the first response by Mr. Getler to the controversy precipitated by PBS' decision to prevent a documentary called "Islam vs. Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center" from being aired as part of the mid-April roll-out of the America at a Crossroads series. For those of us who made this film — my colleagues at ABG Films, Martyn Burke and Frank Gaffney, and me — Mr. Getler's intervention was eagerly anticipated for a number of reasons.

First, like other, nominally private, non-profit organizations that nonetheless derive a significant part of their income from the public purse, PBS generally falls between the cracks of traditional government oversight institutions like the General Accounting Office or an inspector general. In the absence of such routine, outside oversight, the ombudsman is often the only available mechanism for securing an objective review of the organization's policies, decision-making, conduct and products.

Secondly, Mr. Getler's silence up to that point had been puzzling. After all, the controversy over PBS' refusal to air our film had to a considerable extent overshadowed the Crossroads series' roll-out itself. Nonetheless, in his first review of the initial offerings ("PBS at a Crossroads," April 26, 2007), the ombudsman neither mentioned "Islam vs. Islamists" nor the furor over its suppression by PBS. This was despite the fact that, by then, a series of questions had been raised by members of Congress, media critics and others concerning the network's behavior and that of its Washington station, WETA.

One would have thought that these questions would have been sufficient to warrant the close scrutiny of the PBS ombudsman.

Finally, PBS and its affiliates around the country were hearing from large numbers of public television members and other viewers about the circumstances under which "Islam vs. Islamists" was being kept off the air. At the very least, this outcry should have prompted Mr. Getler's careful attention to the matter.

Yet, when the ombudsman finally did publish his take on the controversy, the product amounted to a highly partisan "spinning" of the facts. Incredibly, it was uninformed by his own viewing of the film. Rather, it relied upon and uncritically repeated criticisms of the film that amplified and validated the views of those at PBS/WETA responsible for suppressing this film.

For example, Mr. Getler did not examine the effort made by PBS and WETA personnel to blacklist members of our production team, namely Frank Gaffney and me. To the contrary, he seemed implicitly to justify attempts to remove us from the "Islam vs. Islamists" project by portraying the film as a creation of just one member of that team — a "leading conservative spokesman," i.e., Mr. Gaffney. Indeed, Mr. Getler treats the documentary simply as "Gaffney's film" throughout the article.

This is factually wrong, and the ombudsman could scarcely have been confused on so central a point. As the PBS/WETA team knew, if the credit for "Islam vs. Islamists" belongs to any single individual, it is unquestionably due Martyn Burke. Mr. Burke served not only as a co-executive producer. He was also the film's writer, narrator and director. This documentary could have easily been made without Frank Gaffney. But it would never have materialized in its present form without the artistic vision, professional abilities and sustained hard work of Martyn Burke.

This misrepresentation underpins, however, a transparent attempt by the ombudsman to portray the treatment of this film not as a matter of censorship but rather as a legitimate bid by PBS/WETA to defend journalistic integrity from right-wing zealots. It is simply inconvenient to recognize Mr. Burke's principal role, as he cannot be dismissed as a conservative, let alone an extreme one.

In fact, such machinations have a delicious irony, especially the insistence by WETA's producer for the "America at a Crossroads" series, Leo Eaton, and its executive producer, Jeff Bieber, that Martyn Burke "fire" Mr. Gaffney and me for being "conservatives." Mr. Burke's film credits actually include a documentary about the blacklisting of "The Hollywood Ten."

Mr. Getler also used selective and, in some cases, downright inaccurate quotations to cast "Islam vs. Islamists" and its filmmakers in a negative light. For instance, Mr. Getler claims our website, www.FreetheFilm.net, is critical of "adherents of the theo-totalitarian ideology known as Islam." The actual quotation on the site reads "adherents of the theo-totalitarian ideology known as Islamism." Changing the last word suggests that we believe Islam itself is the enemy, which we expressly do not believe and repeatedly refute in the film. Had the ombudsman troubled himself to view the film before writing about it, he surely would have appreciated how erroneous and defamatory his misquote is.

No less disingenuous is the use Mr. Getler makes of a couple of reviews of "Islam vs. Islamists" published to date that offered mild criticisms of one aspect or another of the film. In so doing, he ignored the vast majority of the media coverage in dozens of newspaper articles, television interviews and hundreds of blogs that have strongly disagreed with the thesis the ombudsman seems desperate to defend — namely, that this documentary was defective and that the decision by PBS and WETA to keep it off the air was justified. To the contrary, the nearly universal judgment of independent reviewers has been that "Islam vs. Islamists" is captured by such comments as "thoroughly compelling," "riveting" and "could not have been more fair."

Mr. Getler's greatest disservice to those relying on his objectivity is his uninformed yet fulsome embrace of claims by PBS and WETA theme that our film did not meet PBS's "filmmaking and documentary standards" and that we demonstrated an unwillingness to "countenance any changes." It is hard to understand how anybody — let alone someone in such an important post as the PBS ombudsman — could presume to opine on the first without seeing the film.

As to the second, it is simply false that we refused, as Mr. Getler put it, to "accept any changes" (emphasis added). While the terms of our contract with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) gave us complete "editorial and creative control" and we were under no obligation to accept any editorial suggestions, we did so repeatedly. In fact, as our Toronto-based editor, Nick Hector, can attest, "Islam vs. Islamists" went through multiple edits and versions over a period of six-months in an effort to accommodate insistent demands by Messrs. Eaton and/or Bieber for modifications of various kinds. Where we drew the line was when the demands ceased to be about the way in which the story of courageous anti-Islamist Muslims was being told and required that we change the story to cast their Islamist oppressors in a more flattering light.

This was not always easy to recognize since the critiques and suggestions typically employed nebulous and euphemistic terms like "incomplete story-telling," the film's "structure" is defective, "more context" is needed, etc. There was never any demonstrable evidence offered of editorial missteps, misjudgments or factual errors, let alone a failure to meet technical standards. Eventually, it became clear to us that what PBS/WETA did not like about our film, and was determined to change, was its message.

Our serious concerns about such an agenda were communicated to PBS and WETA in a series of memos long before the film was rejected by them. For Mr. Getler to ignore these important facts and to claim blithely that we have refused to make "any changes" is wholly misleading and inconsistent with the responsibilities of an ombudsman.

Reduced to its essence, the opposition to our film on the part of PBS and WETA was, and is, ideological. In a subject matter that should completely transcend left-right politics, the responsible officials at these organizations chose to politicize the making of this film. The PBS ombudsman has completely failed to recognize, to say nothing of address, this reality.

Even more self-evident transgressions escaped Mr. Getler's attention. A prime example was the appointment by WETA of Dr. Beverly Aminah McCloud as an advisor to help select which films would be aired in the Crossroads series roll-out in April. Dr. McCloud had longstanding and publicly acknowledged ties to the Nation of Islam, a branch of one of the Islamist groups whose funding and ideology were subjects of our investigation. She subsequently violated a confidentiality agreement to show a rough-cut of our film to representatives of the Nation of Islam. Then, she was selected to appear as an on-air expert in one of the other films selected to run in the first flight of Crossroads films.

That film, produced outside the Crossroads competition pursuant to a sweetheart deal with the series' host, Robert MacNeil, was entitled "The Muslim Americans." Its subject matter significantly overlapped that of "Islam vs. Islamists." In fact, MacNeil's documentary was one of two films commissioned by the series executives that did so and that, to varying degrees, complicated the making of, or the perceived need to include, our movie. Nowhere are these matters addressed in Mr. Getler's report.

Finally, ABG Films has raised the potential violation of a federal law which requires all advisory bodies of public broadcasting stations to meet openly, pursuant to what is often called a Sunshine Provision in the relevant statute. It appears that, in contravention of that provision, the advisory body on which Dr. McCloud and Mr. Safi served met behind closed doors.

The foregoing suggest that Michael Getler has not only failed to address adequately the topics concerning "Islam vs. Islamists" upon which he chose to focus. There are a number of questions that would seem to be precisely the sort with which a diligent ombudsman should be preoccupied:

— Did PBS/WETA series producers Leo Eaton and Jeff Bieber demand of Martyn Burke that he fire his co-executive producers Frank Gaffney and Alex Alexiev because of their political views?

— Why was Robert MacNeil's film, "The Muslim Americans," on a topic very close to that of Islam vs. Islamists commissioned outside and after the rigorous Crossroads competition had been completed and at the same time as Mr. MacNeil was made the series host and a key arbiter concerning which films were to be aired in the series?

— Who funded Mr. MacNeil's film? By whom and when was it decided that it should be aired as part of the Crossroads series?

— Whose decision was it to hire Dr. McCloud and Mr. Safi, two individuals known for their Islamist sympathies, as paid advisors to a television series that deals with radical Islam? On what basis were they permitted to appear as on-camera interview subjects in a film that was chosen over other documentaries they reviewed for inclusion in the Crossroads series roll-out?

— What, if anything, was done to censure Dr. McCloud after she committed an egregious breach of journalistic ethics by showing an early version of one of the competing films to a subject of its investigation?

— Did the America at a Crossroads advisory panel convened by WETA and PBS meet and/or otherwise conduct its affairs in a manner inconsistent with federal law?

Ultimately, what PBS and WETA say or, for that matter, what we say about "Islam vs. Islamists" is unimportant. It should be up to the American viewing public to decide whether this is a good film or not. All we have asked from the beginning is for the people who paid for this film — the taxpayers — to have an opportunity to judge it for themselves.

We call on Mr. Getler to rectify his failure to date to address the serious issues arising from what appears to be improper, unethical and in some cases corrupt practices by PBS and WETA. We have raised our concerns about these issues repeatedly with the presidents of PBS, WETA and CPB — Paula Kerger, Sharon Percy Rockefeller and Pat Harrison, respectively. Mr. Getler's refusal even to acknowledge these issues, let alone address them properly, raises the specter of a de facto cover-up and a dereliction of his duties as an ombudsman.

Responses to Alex Alexiev

My main response is to ask readers who are interested to read, or re-read, the June 1 column to make their judgments. There is a link at the top of this column.

Additionally, my silence about the film prior to the June 1 column was because it had not aired on PBS and I do not write about the content of films that have not aired, nor do I involve myself in any on-the-air content before it is viewed by the public. I will watch the film, as a viewer, if and when it eventually airs on public television and viewers respond to it. What the column was about were two unusual decisions that had just unfolded in public about "The War" and "Islam vs. Islamists." The column made clear that what is also "interesting about these events is that there are legitimate arguments on all sides about how they are being resolved." There were several other proposed films that received "Crossroads" production money that were not included in the initial series and I didn't look at those either.

The controversy over "Islam vs. Islamists" did not overshadow the roll-out of the "Crossroads" series itself, which was one of the largest projects ever undertaken by CPB and PBS and involved $20 million and 11 parts and was seen by millions of PBS viewers. I did not write about "the furor over its suppression" because it was not clear that PBS had "suppressed" the film. PBS has a right to ask for changes and evaluate whether its editorial standards are being met and producers have a right not to make changes they disagree with. I did get a lot of e-mail from people who said they wanted it aired. At least some of that came from Web sites such as CAMERA.org and IsraelForum.com who asked their subscribers to write or call.

I could have, and should have, named the other members of the production team aside from Frank Gaffney, who is the founder and president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington and is co-executive producer of the film. Experienced filmmaker Martyn Burke is the co-executive producer as is Alex Alexiev, who is also the vice president for research at Gaffney's center. My focus on Gaffney was simply because he is the one who shows up at the center of most of the major news stories and articles about the film and the latest controversies surrounding it, and because he had responded vigorously in a May 24 press release that described the agreement reached the previous day by the CPB and Oregon Public Broadcasting as an attempt to "dump" the film in a local rather than national venue.

The use of the word Islam instead of Islamism was simply a transcription error on my part when typing into the column the description of the film from the producers' Web site that says "adherents of the theo-totalitarian ideology known as Islamism." There was absolutely nothing more to it. Had Alexiev, or anyone else, called it to my attention right after the June 1 column appeared it would have been immediately corrected on the Web.

Alexiev also says it is simply false to say that the producers had failed to accept or countenance "any" editorial changes in the film that PBS had suggested. He claims that "we did so repeatedly." I agree that I should not have used the word "any," given the long history of this film. On the other hand, I think it was clear that what I was talking about in the column were the central, unresolved editorial changes that have been at the core of this dispute for several months and that caused the standoff and eventual rejection.

The column, for example, reported the statement by CPB chief Patricia 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. She 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."

It was also not "disingenuous," in my view, to mention the article on The Weekly Standard's Web site that reported that the tone of suggestions from one top "Crossroads" producer, Leo Eaton, "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." The Weekly Standard is a well-respected magazine and the article was the most thorough about the film I had seen. It was written by one of the editors who had actually seen Eaton's critique. The Standard article, incidentally, was headlined: "Frank Gaffney vs. PBS."

WETA Responds

Alexiev, in his article, also mentions a number of things I failed to address. This is true because this was a column about what I viewed as a series of public decisions affecting two unaired programs that raised questions about the bypassing of the PBS editorial process and that would be interesting for PBS viewers. In any event, I asked PBS and WETA officials to respond to these points. Jeff Bieber, vice president for news and public affairs at WETA, did so. His responses follow. The questions from Alexiev's article are repeated below in italics.

Did PBS/WETA series producers Leo Eaton and Jeff Bieber demand of Martyn Burke that he fire his co-executive producers Frank Gaffney and Alex Alexiev because of their political views?

When CPB first commissioned this film, PBS expressed its reluctance to accept Frank Gaffney and Alex Alexiev as Executive Producers with final editorial control because of their role in the Center for Security Policy. With this organization's strong advocacy positions on the issues they were covering in the film, and because the film was purported to be objective and balanced journalism, PBS and WETA questioned Gaffney and Alexiev's role with final editorial control.

When Leo Eaton and I met with the film's producer, Martyn Burke, we stated PBS' concern and suggested that Gaffney and Alexiev take on an advisory role, with Burke having final editorial control. We never demanded that they accept these positions, we only suggested it based on PBS' initial response. There were clear examples of other executive producers recusing themselves for conflicts of interest including Karl Zinnsmeister (after accepting a position at the White House) and Brian Lapping, after the New York Times reported his friendship with Richard Perle. Eventually PBS changed their position and said that Gaffney and Alexiev could remain as executive producers but that their role would necessitate careful scrutiny of the film to insure that it was indeed fair and accurate.

Why was Robert MacNeil's film, "The Muslim Americans," on a topic very close to that of Islam vs. Islamists commissioned outside and after the rigorous Crossroads competition had been completed and at the same time as Mr. MacNeil was made the series host and a key arbiter concerning which films were to be aired in the series?

The film commissioned from MacNeil/Lehrer Productions was not initiated as a reaction to "Islam v. Islamists." As a matter of fact, early on in the review process to create a cohesive series (long before we rejected Islam v. Islamists), WETA and its advisors felt a gaping hole in the series. No program, including Gaffney's film, dealt with the impact of 9/11 on ordinary Muslim Americans. It should be noted that Gaffney's film dealt with the struggle between moderate and extremist Muslims with only one of its stories taking place in the U.S. All the other films that were being considered also dealt with issues of Muslims as terrorists, extremists, convicts or musicians. We needed a program that examined the impact of 9/11 on ordinary Muslim Americans in areas such as civil liberties, discrimination, balancing adherence to their religion with being 'an American,' and other issues. Whereas the Gaffney's film dealt with a few of these issues, their focus was quite different. Thus we approached The Newshour, which was equipped to take on a quick turn-around project such as this and also approached CPB for funding. After hearing our proposal, both entities agreed to take this on. Robin MacNeil had absolutely nothing to do with this decision.

Who funded Mr. MacNeil's film? By whom and when was it decided that it should be aired as part of the Crossroads series?

Answered above.

Whose decision was it to hire Dr. McCloud and Mr. Safi, two individuals known for their Islamist sympathies, as paid advisors to a television series that deals with radical Islam? On what basis were they permitted to appear as on-camera interview subjects in a film that was chosen over other documentaries they reviewed for inclusion in the Crossroads series roll-out?

Dr. McCloud and Dr. Safi are two respected authorities on Islam who teach at DePaul University and Colgate University, respectively. To state that they sympathize with Islamists is truly outrageous. As to who chose Dr. McCloud and Dr. Safi for inclusion in documentaries, that was up to the individual producers.

What, if anything, was done to censure Dr. McCloud after she committed an egregious breach of journalistic ethics by showing an early version of one of the competing films to a subject of its investigation?

WETA was quite upset with Dr. McCloud's breach of ethics and made our feelings known to her. At that point, our advisors' term had come to an end, thus there was no point in 'firing' her. As a point of clarification, Dr. McCloud did not show the entire rough-cut to the subject in the film but rather showed a two-minute clip to verify the facts. However, it should be noted, McCloud's breach of ethics did not impact Burke's final film. The subject of Burke's investigation did not try to impede with his film nor did the producer change the film. At the point that this information surfaced, the actions taken by McCloud became moot.

Did the America at a Crossroads advisory panel convened by WETA and PBS meet and/or otherwise conduct its affairs in a manner inconsistent with federal law?

The meetings with our advisory group were conducted openly and fairly as we conduct all meetings with advisory groups for documentaries. I do not understand what Alexiev is referring to regarding these meetings being consistent or inconsistent with federal law.