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PBS Ombudsman

Wait 'Til Next Year

* This posting was revised on Friday based on new information

I'm away from the office until Oct. 21. So this isn't a column, and that headline isn't about baseball.

Rather, it is about a new 90-minute documentary film (that I haven't seen) titled "Torturing Democracy" that has stirred up some pre-broadcast controversy. It was aired Thursday night, Oct. 16, on the PBS affiliate in New York, WNET/Channel Thirteen. It also will be broadcast on Oct. 30 by the big PBS station in Boston, WGBH, and by some other affiliates around the country in coming weeks.

But until now, it was not clear when or whether it will be seen on PBS's flagship affiliate in the nation's capital, WETA. A New York Times news story on Thursday provided an account of the distribution and timing uncertainties surrounding the film. A WETA spokesperson at the station was quoted in the story as saying the program is being looked at but not yet scheduled. But late on Thursday, officials at WETA told me it had been decided that the film would be shown tonight, Friday, Oct. 17 at 10pm.

Normally, programs that are approved by PBS are distributed to all affiliates as part of the National Programming Service. The Times story pointed out, however, that PBS officials said that no national air date was available for this program until Jan. 21, 2009, a day after a new administration is sworn in, and that the film's producer, Sherry Jones, had rejected that offer. Jones, the Times reported, was appealing to individual stations to find time on their schedules before 2009. All PBS affiliates are independent and can air whatever they choose, and other distribution channels are available. That seems to be what is happening. Late on Thursday, PBS officials told me that "the producer of 'Torturing Democracy' and WNET have decided to distribute the program via the Executive Program Service" and that "there are no plans for it to be distributed by PBS any time in the future."

Sorry if this seems confusing. I had received a few e-mails about this after the Times story and a mention of the controversy on a Web site. What I was trying to do quickly on Thursday before I left, when an earlier version of this was posted, was simply to call attention to the Times story so readers of this column would at least be aware of this unusual situation while I was away. But new developments unfolded rapidly.

Here Are the Letters

I have heard that PBS has decided to delay its showing of a piece on U.S. torture policy until after the present administration leaves office, although affiliates have the option to do so. I also understand that the piece by Sherry Jones has been available for about a year and was ready to be presented in May 2008. If so, that is very unfortunate for us, as American citizens, since we must be given timely and well-informed data in order to hold our elected officials accountable while in office. Moreover, its pre-debate release may well have led to questioning of the Presidential candidates re torture policy. Finally, delaying full exposure of this piece until 21 January 2009 appears to be cynical and self-protective move by PBS. Please look into this and let us know the truth.

Richard McCaffrey, Ester, AK

After reading the NY Times article this morning on the documentary "Torturing Democracy" I urge you to make every effort to air this documentary as soon as possible, preferably before the election.

Dennis Allison, Palo Alto, CA

Could you please respond—publicly and prominently—to these reports of censorship:

Scott Horton reports today that PBS may have refused to nationally air a controversial documentary on the use of torture by the U.S. government in order to protect its funding. On Thursday evening WNET in New York will air an important new documentary by Emmy and Dupont Award winning producer Sherry Jones entitled "Torturing Democracy." It appears on WNET and several other affiliates independently because PBS would not run the show. According to producer Sherry Jones, PBS told her that no time slot could be found for the documentary before January 21, 2009—the day after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney leave office.

Richard Bohlander, Yardley, PA

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