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PBS Ombudsman

A Tortured Path

In last week's mini-posting I mentioned, very briefly, a new 90-minute documentary film titled "Torturing Democracy" that had been offered to PBS but stirred some controversy before it had aired. The New York Times, on Oct. 16, had first reported on the situation under a headline that read: "PBS Slow to Embrace a Program on Torture."

As it turned out, by the next day it was clear that PBS was not only slow to embrace this film, it had decided not to embrace it at all. On the other hand, the film has already been broadcast on a few PBS-affiliated stations — including ones in San Diego, New York and Washington — and many, many more PBS affiliates, 87 percent according to the producers, have agreed to air it, some later this month, some next month, and some before the end of this year. So, large numbers of PBS viewers may get to see this on television but it won't have that little logo in the corner that constitutes the PBS seal of approval. It can also be watched online.

As has been pointed out many times in this column, all 350-plus stations around the country affiliated with PBS are independent and can air not only those broadcasts distributed nationally by PBS that we all are used to seeing — from Antiques Roadshow to Frontline — but also anything else they choose. So it is not unusual to see programs on individual stations that have nothing to do with PBS.

On the other hand, the saga of this particular program is unusual. There is, as far as I can tell, no known villain in this episode. It raises at least suspicions of political considerations on all sides, yet there are plausible alternative explanations on all sides. It may — or may not — be revealing about PBS's decision-making process. As I see it, everybody sort of loses something, including many viewers. I'll explain as I go along.

The Road to Abu Ghraib

This is a hard-hitting, well-documented film, although not flawless, in my opinion. It examines in detail the origin, evolution and practical effects of the Bush administration's highly controversial, post-9/11 policies of coercive detention and interrogation of suspects in the "war on terror." It focuses intensively on how these methods — described in the film as "at a minimum, cruel and inhuman treatment and, at worst, torture" by the former General Counsel of the Navy, Alberto Mora — were used by CIA and military interrogators and how they flowed from Afghanistan to the U.S. Navy prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and then to the infamous Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.

Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State in the Bush administration, Richard Armitage, a decorated Vietnam veteran who experienced the technique known as "waterboarding" as part of his Navy survival training years ago, says on camera, "There is no question in my mind — there's no question in any reasonable human being, there shouldn't be, that this is torture. I'm ashamed that we're even having this discussion."

The producer of "Torturing Democracy" is Sherry Jones, a veteran independent documentary filmmaker who has won eight Emmy Awards, and has a 25-year collaboration with PBS's Bill Moyers and has produced more than 20 films for the PBS documentary series Frontline. She also produced, in June 2004, what is described as the first long-form television investigation into Bush administration detention and interrogation polices for the late Peter Jennings on ABC. In an interview, Jones told me this was the first time that there was no agreement with PBS in 25 years of producing for them.

Jones is based in Washington, D.C., and heads her own firm, Washington Media Associates. The film was produced in association with the National Security Archive, a highly regarded, non-governmental research institute associated with George Washington University that is a leader in the drive to release government documents to the public through such methods as Freedom of Information Act requests. Jones is also a fellow of the Archive.

Jones said PBS knew about this project for almost two years and that she presented the film to them on May 5. She described it as a "fine cut," meaning that it wasn't a "rough" version. It had been annotated, meaning all the points were documented, and vetted by lawyers. She said PBS officials asked for some changes which she said were good ones that helped clear up some confusion in parts of the script. WNET, the New York station most supportive of the film, also suggested a panel discussion be added after the program, and that was agreed. There was also interest among some officials in changing the title, she said, but all the promotion and independent fund-raising for the project had been based on that title and it would have been expensive to change it. She said, however, that if they got an airdate they would try to find the additional funding.

Summer Would Be Nice: How About Next Year?

Jones was looking first for a summer or, if not, fall airdate. But, as the Times first reported, PBS told Jones on Aug. 28 that because of "scheduling difficulties" the first date on which the film could be aired nationally through public broadcasting was Jan. 21, 2009, one day after a new president is inaugurated.

John Wilson, PBS's senior vice president for programming, told me that several factors were involved, including the changes that pushed things back, broadcast schedules that were already set and published, scheduled pledge drives, and heavy commitments to the Olympics and political conventions. Wilson, who was quoted in the Times as saying the film was "ultimately an impressive work of journalism," said that the question was "not just where we can find a slot, but where we can find a good slot, starting at 9 p.m. prime time for what was now, with the added panel, a two-hour program." He said at one point there appeared to be a 10 p.m. possibility in October but that by the time the editorial issues shaped-up the schedule publishing date had passed and "we began to look ahead for the next unpublished schedules," which was January. Jones said an Oct. 19 airdate was offered but then withdrawn.

Wilson said there were no political considerations involved and says that this is "a show that will hold up; be relevant in the new year. So it didn't feel election driven or wouldn't look stale in January." The Jan. 21 date, one day after the Bush administration leaves office, "absolutely is coincidental. It was the date that offered itself up."

Wilson also said that PBS has aired programs such as "Bush's War" on Frontline and many other programs examining administration controversies. So "there is nothing to suggest we haven't done a fair and accurate look at the Bush administration, and you have to work hard to find a conspiracy on this one." I would add that Frontline ran an excellent documentary, produced by Michael Kirk, in 2005 titled "The Torture Question" that covers some of the same ground but takes a different approach, which I'll also come back to.

Jones says she was "pretty disappointed" in the PBS proposal and rejected it. Some PBS officials I spoke with said Jones wanted the program to run before the election. Jones told me she didn't really know what was going on inside PBS but that she had heard some talk about concerns about running it before the election.

Another Trip to 'The Dark Side'

But Jones says she "never argued that it should be shown before the election." Rather, she explained, she wanted it to run near or soon after Congressional hearings were being held on the subject last summer and also when there was a lot of attention being paid to a well-received new book by Jane Mayer, released on July 15, called "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals." Mayer was a consultant on Jones' film.

"As a journalist," she said, "I wanted this to run, not before the election, but when the news was still breaking. I felt if we waited until Jan. 21, this would be viewed as old, recycled news versus being on the news. A day after the Inauguration nobody is going to be paying attention."

Having rejected the Jan. 21 date, Jones turned to the Executive Program Services, which describes itself as "a major supplier of quality programming to Public Television Stations across the nation," to distribute her film.

So, what does this add up to? First, this film is very well and carefully put together and is clearly very tough on the Bush administration on the question of its policies on treatment of prisoners. On the other hand, no matter what you think of the war in Iraq and the war on terror, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have left deep scars on America's image at home and abroad that will have a long historical life. So this is a very important subject worthy of numerous explorations.

If you have followed these developments closely, the general theme of the film will not be surprising. But it puts some new documentary evidence in public circulation and it lays out a string of interviews with former officials, military commanders and interrogators — and with former inmates — that captures this highly controversial episode in our contemporary history in a cool yet extremely dramatic fashion.

Explanation Without Cooperation

There is one area where I would fault this otherwise excellent film: it fails to offer even a brief attempt to get into the heads of those who designed, authorized and sought to legally justify these extreme forms of interrogation and detention. This was impossible to do in this film's format because administration officials declined requests for interviews. But there is enough on-the-record material around to have at least provided some sense, within a 90-minute program, of what drove these top officials and lawyers in the immediate post-9/11 environment to pursue these paths. I thought the Frontline program three years ago handled this aspect better by including interviews that documented the clash of legal ideas, and some of that could have been summarized. I thought this contributed to the strength of the earlier program and to viewer understanding of the enormous controversy over these techniques without diminishing the power of what had taken place.

I have no way of knowing whether political considerations privately entered minds or discussions. My guess is that PBS would have become a political target for some whether it aired it before or after the election. But this film should not have been a campaign issue because both presidential candidates are opposed to the methods used by the Bush administration. Sen. John McCain, in particular, a former POW who was tortured, has been a strong critical force against administration policies in this area and figures importantly in the earlier Frontline broadcast. On the other hand, I think Jones has a point in arguing that the news value and impact of this program would have been greater this year rather than next.

I'm left with the feeling that, given the importance of this episode in our history, this film, somehow, should have been a PBS program sometime in the last quarter of this year. Of course, it is easy for me to say that because I don't have to figure out how to do it. It may be that it will air on most stations anyway. But there is a difference, and an advantage to viewers, especially for a two-hour program, to having it be part of the National Program Service that can be scheduled in advance for prime time and be publicized and promoted nationwide.

For example, in the Oct. 16 article, the Times pointed out that it was not clear whether PBS's flagship outlet in the nation's capital, WETA, would run the program. But later that day, officials there decided to run it at 10 p.m. the next day, Oct. 17. It was, however, like a phantom program, with no publicity and low viewership. Apparently the only ones who saw it were those who happened to be tuned to PBS at the time — about one-fourth the number of households that usually watch the Washington Week program that was two hours earlier.

Maybe it was, in fact, all technicalities. Or maybe there were more serious doubts about the program within PBS than public comments suggest, or a desire not to be seen as piling-on the Bush administration. Maybe there was suspicion of Jones' timing. Or, was PBS too timid, or not sufficiently imaginative, or its decision-making too slow, to have a better outcome?

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