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The Ombudsman Column

PBS Gives ESPN a Headache, and Viewers Mull Muhammad

What follows is a pre-Labor Day wrap-up of two events involving PBS that attracted most of the attention in the past week or so. One involves the relationship between the huge sports network ESPN and Frontline, the flagship investigative series on PBS. The other is a three-hour documentary that aired on Aug. 20 titled "The Life of Muhammad."

The big news about PBS came from ESPN when it was revealed that the network, after 15 months working with Frontline on a two-hour documentary about concussions and brain injuries to National Football League players, was pulling out of the collaboration. The film, "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis," is still scheduled to air on Frontline on Oct. 8. And it will still contain a heavy dose of reporting by the top-notch, ESPN brothers-team of investigative reporters, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada.

This is actually a very big story because of what it might end up revealing about ESPN, which is owned by the Walt Disney Co., and its relationship to sports journalism — whether it is as hard-hitting as some of the sports it covers — and to its important business relationship with the NFL and other major leagues. There has already been a ton of stuff written about this here, here and here, just for openers, and it isn't going to go away soon.

In deciding to pull its name, logo and credit from the films, as the New York Times reported on Aug. 22, "ESPN belatedly focused on the fact that it did not have editorial control of what appeared on 'Frontline' long into a collaboration that has already resulted in nine joint television and online reports that have appeared" on one of ESPN's main programs and online operations and on Frontline's website.

The Times also reported the next day (in an early version of a story by reporter James Andrew Miller that has now disappeared from the paper's website) that the issue came to a head earlier in the month when ESPN, according to the report, "came under intense pressure by the league . . . after a [Frontline] trailer was released on Aug. 6." There were other press reports about the role of the trailer, which is a blockbuster and a head-buster, and the NFL has denied pressuring the network.

At the moment, this is a story about ESPN rather than PBS. Frontline officials have said that the ground rules of the collaboration were always clear — Frontline would keep editorial control of what it televised or put on its websites, and ESPN would have control over everything it televised or posted on the Web.

Frontline's Deputy Executive Producer, Raney Aronson, said in response to a question I asked about the trailer: "We absolutely had [ESPN] sign off on the trailer on April 10. It came in an email from Dwayne Bray (my editorial counterpart) and it was our strong understanding that he had senior management sign off before he said we were good to go. We feel very strongly that the record is correct on this front."

Finally on this subject, one other reason why I felt this was worth recording for those who follow the ombudsman's column is to report that ESPN, to its credit, has hired a top-notch journalist as its new ombudsman and the timing for viewers couldn't be better. Robert Lipsyte, a longtime sports columnist for the New York Times, former television correspondent and prolific author, started in April and is now in the middle of this very high-stakes reporting effort to find out what is really happening within the sports network.

Now, let's dial back 1,500 years or so.

Mulling Muhammad

Even though a steady ingredient of the news we have read and watched for several years now has dealt with the Muslim world, Islam, Islamic extremists and Jihadists, and with the sixth century Prophet Muhammad, it is a safe bet that most Americans actually know very little about Islam and the Arabian man considered by his followers to be God's messenger and "who, in little more than 20 years, changed the world forever."

That is how the producers of "The Life of Muhammad" describe the extraordinary story of Muhammad's journey from the most humble surroundings in Mecca to founder of what is now the world's second largest religion (Christianity is number one) with more than 1.5 billion followers. There were an estimated 2.75 million Muslims of all ages living in the U.S. in 2011, according to demographers at the Pew Research Center.

Rule Britannia

British productions also seem to be something of a religion at PBS, so it is not surprising that this program, which aired on many PBS-member stations on Aug. 20, was produced and first broadcast by the BBC in 2011. It is also not surprising that anything having to do with Islam, given the events of our times, will be controversial and provoke strong opinions. Posted below is a sampling of emails from viewers about the program, all of them critical.

Actually, given the subject matter, the amount of mail and phone calls to the ombudsman about the Muhammad film was quite light, which may mean that many viewers saw this as informative, a useful primer on what is known and cannot be known about this man, and more even-handed than provocative. That would also be my view.

I thought a review by Mary McNamara in the Los Angeles Times captured it best.

"Muhammad never comes alive as a man," she wrote, "but then, that is not the point here. 'The Life of Muhammad' is an earnest, at times anxious, attempt to set the record straight on Islam, to remind Americans that this religion should not be judged by the actions of extremists any more than Christianity should be defined by the Inquisition." The primary goal of the film's Somali-born, journalist-narrator, Rageh Omaar, she writes, is "to separate the beliefs and practices of Islam from those of its bloody-minded zealots."

The film is mostly an effort to re-create Muhammad's life but it does not shy away from his complex relations to his enemies, to Jews and women, to his role in the introduction of a controversial moral code known as Sharia law and the concept of Jihad that has come, for many, to mean aggression and violence but is a term that, the narrator tells us, "would be unknown to Prophet Muhammad" in its modern usage.

There are contemporary segments that deal, rather briefly, with terrorism and 9/11, and there are interviews with Robert Spencer and Nonie Darwish (mentioned in some of the letters), who are strong, present-day critics of Islam. On the other hand, the U.S.-based, pro-Israel, media watch group known as CAMERA has headlined a critique — originally posted in The Algemeiner, which bills itself as "the fastest growing Jewish newspaper in America" — claiming that "PBS Includes Vicious Anti-Semites in Show About Mohammad."

Here Are the Letters

I was interested to watch the series on Mohammed, but really disgusted that the (US?) producers felt compelled to include commentary from anti-Islam activists Robert Spencer and Nonie Darwish. I have no doubt this was either due to criticism from anti-Islam groups or pre-emptive defense against the same. Really shameful. The views of religious skeptics are reasonable in a story about the history of any religion, but these are not scholars but political activists. Would you have an anti-Semite comment in a history of Judaism? An atheist activist speak in a documentary about Christianity. Very doubtful.

Jeffrey Klein, Boston, MA

~ ~ ~

I almost converted to Islam. I didn't know any better. The journalist [in the film] is a Muslim and couldn't help but be subjective and very passionate to present Islam as moderate and just religion. The program presented scholars, historians and Muslim experts who always looked on Islam as a moderate religion, like Karen Armstrong and others. How come the program didn't present scholars that refute the message of Muhammad or question Qur'an and its revelations like they always question Christ and the gospels authenticity? The program even tried to defend Muhammad's pedophilia and polygamy. How come the program didn't present extremist Muslim views, and critical views of Islam; more than the few minutes that were given to two extremists in the café, and critical Muslim views like Robert Spencer's. The program glorified Islam as a just and authentic religion, conversely to how 1.5 billion Muslims live under the harsh Shari'a law, not to say anything about religious minority suffering. Qur'an verses that talk about not trusting Jews and Christians, others talk about fighting until Islam is God . . . is the religion of each one? How come they didn't talk about the Hadith where the Prophet said, A Muslim who converts to another religion should be killed. Is this a just religion? There is not one church in Saudi Arabia? Why do they build mosques next to every church they can in the Middle East? They even built a mosque across from the church where Jesus Christ was born. A Christian is less than a Muslim in eye of the law in a Muslim country. The program should have been called the GLORY life of Muhammad and the GLORY of Islam. I'm disappointed in PBS.

Herndon, VA

~ ~ ~

I watched the show on Muhammad, and I just have to say I agree with Salman Rushdie's description of this person as directed by Satan. The program was completely apologetic for this Wolf in Sheep's Clothing religion, with no balancing or opposing voices. This guy was no prophet. He performed no miracles. Instead he became a mass murderer and created a religion of the sword, which has no respect for women, or for anyone who disagrees with them. Try converting to Christianity in one of their subject countries and you may be put to death. Islam is nothing but a religion of death and I am very disappointed that PBS didn't at least have opposing voices in the program. I guess you guys are afraid if you did so they would bomb your offices in DC. Thanks for taking my comments.

John Martinez, Portland, OR

~ ~ ~

Just watched the last few minutes on the life of Mohammed. The content of those few minutes fly in the face of the Koran that I have read, and I ask you if you have read the Koran? If you do you will be shocked by "the religion of peace." It's anything but that, as modern events are proving and people like the producers of this movie are trying to mitigate it by blaming anyone but Mohammed.

R.C., OK

~ ~ ~

It is so sad that PBS broadcast such misinformation in the series on Mohamed. It cannot be called a documentary. It is a feel good, put Islam in a positive light, superficial look into the life of Mohamed that is insulting to anyone who knows the history. Such propaganda is embarrassing.

M. Chand, Chicago, IL

The Producers Respond:

"The Life of Muhammad" follows the known biographical examination of Muhammad based on a wide range of historical and scholarly texts, examining his beliefs and life, and looks at how his chronicled actions and words have been understood and interpreted by others — both in the past and today. The film examines violence within the historical context of Muhammad's world and explores how some have used Islamic teachings to justify violent acts. It also addresses issues of gender equality in Islam, both historically and today . . . Also, given current events, the historical story of Muhammad is relevant to understanding many issues today.

As the producers of this film, we interviewed a wide range of scholars of religion and Islam and sought to share a diverse group of opinions, utilizing a number of researchers and advisors. The documentary does not embrace or affirm any particular point of view but rather to use these opinions and findings to create a picture of Muhammad's world and teachings.

The film was produced by Faris Kermani, a prominent film director based in the UK . . . For this project, Mr. Kermani worked closely with executive producer David Batty, whose other credits are "Christianity: A History" and "The Story of Jesus."