The subject of an acclaimed documentary is a controversial relationship between some evangelical Christians in the United States and political groups in Israel. But the film’s PBS air date came and went without its screening. What happened?
On Monday, March 29th, the PBS prime-time television slate was supposed to feature the documentary film, “ ‘Til Kingdom Come,” presented by Independent Television Service (iTVS) on the popular Independent Lens platform.
There was great anticipation, as the pre-airing buzz was rich with strong reviews for a production by highly regarded Israeli filmmaker Maya Zinshtein. The documentary first aired on Israel’s public television channel. It’s also been available on select streaming services and in some theaters in the United States.
The documentary’s subject matter is controversial: The spiritual and financial relationship between some evangelical Christians and key political leaders in Israel. It shows how certain evangelicals, who had also enjoyed access to former president Donald Trump, believe an end-times prophecy that hinges on devastating worldwide conflict with its flashpoint in Israel.
These evangelicals believe that conflict in the long-troubled region is paving the way for a Second Coming. The prophecy in play ends with the ascension to heaven by Christians. Jews and non-believers who do not convert to Christianity are left to other fates.
The film suggests that some Israelis — some politicians and some settlers in disputed territory— look past motive and appreciate the financial aid from American Christians.
The point of view I got from the film is that reliance on one interpretation of a singular biblical passage is dangerous when it dictates strategic, secular foreign policy.
There was great anticipation for the film’s debut. Zinshtein’s previous work of long-form broadcast journalism, “Forever Pure” won an Emmy for Outstanding Politics and Government Documentary in 2018. That film also appeared on PBS, under the Independent Lens banner. A New York Times reviewer wrote that “‘Til Kingdom Come” was “revelatory,” and praised Zinshtein’s “patient, observant approach.”
But the air date, scheduled to occur on the third day of Passover, came and went without “ ‘Til Kingdom Come.” It’s unclear when the documentary will be seen on PBS.
I’ll get to that.
First, some disclaimers:
Listed in the film’s opening credits, among its supporters, is the Enterprise Fund of the International Documentary Association. I recently served as a journalism adviser to the fund. Also, “ ‘Til Kingdom Come” screened at the 2020 Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival in Washington, D.C. I was once an editor at 100Reporters, the nonprofit investigative journalism organization behind the film festival.
That said, I had not seen “ ‘Til Kingdom Come,” in its entirety, until this week when I rented it from an online streaming service.
AN UNFORTUNATE EDIT
OK, let’s get to what happened in the run-up to the film’s PBS premiere.
The problem that pushed PBS executives to press “pause” on the film comes down to an edit of the words of former President Donald Trump. Widely available video shows that what’s presented in the documentary as a single sound bite does not line up with how Trump actually delivered his message.
Near the end of the film, Trump is shown speaking at a White House ceremony unveiling his plan for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. He was accompanied by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As Trump reads from a teleprompter, the screen view toggles between an audience of U.S. and Israeli politicians and religious leaders:
“The United States will recognize Israeli sovereignty over the territory that my vision [camera cuts away to audience] provides to be part of the State of Israel, including [cutaway to Trump, now filmed from a different angle reading from teleprompter] the West Bank described so vividly in the Bible.”
The source of the footage is unclear, but the event was open to the press and the major U.S. networks, including PBS, have footage. But it is not clear whether all of the cuts in this scene in the documentary come from the same roll of footage.
Here’s what Trump actually said at the event, according to a transcript:
“ … And the United States will recognize Israeli sovereignty over the territory that my vision provides to be part of the State of Israel. Very important. And, crucially, the proposed transition to a two-state solution will present no incremental security risk to the State of Israel whatsoever.”
Later in the same speech, Trump says: “There are many Muslims who never visited Al Aqsa (Mosque) and many Christians and Jews who never visited the holy sites in the West Bank described so vividly in the Bible. My vision will change that. Our majestic biblical heritage will be able to live, breathe and flourish in modern times. … ”
The edited sound bite makes it appear as though Trump delivered a crucial statement in one sentence. The filmmakers did not put words in Trump’s mouth. In his long address, he said everything that is portrayed in the film. The problem is that the words were actually delivered over a longer oration, and used in different contexts.
A CUT TOO DEEP
The result of the edit was an over-condensation of Trump’s words, and an altered meaning.
It is a common journalistic practice to trim extraneous words in quotes. For clarity and space, we sometimes cut stumbles, pauses, and jumbled syntax.
But we take care to preserve the speaker’s meaning, and the context of a quote. That did not happen with the edits in this scene in “‘Til Kingdom Come.”
I can’t speak for the reason for the cut. Even if the intent was to clean up Trump’s message and fit it neatly into a single sound bite, the action was overly aggressive and ill-advised. If fact-checking had been done before the film’s completion, it missed an edit that should have triggered a deeper examination of how the raw material was used.
For me, this is reason enough to review the entirety of the film in search of other scenes, other edits, that could be called into question.
Here’s the blunt statement issued by PBS executives after they suspended the planned broadcast:
“After further consulting with our producing partners at Independent Lens, we have decided to postpone PBS’s broadcast of “’Til Kingdom Come” while an independent review of the film is conducted.”
PBS executives are not saying anything more until the independent review is finished.
THE CASE FOR FACT-CHECKING
I hope the film eventually airs on PBS. It is a strong film that asks important questions about a volatile mix of politics, money and theology. Time and again in world history, that mix has yielded tragedy.
Viewers also want to see the film. One was upset enough to write to me, hoping I’d relay his concern to PBS executives:
“I was deeply disappointed when at the last minute the film "Til Kingdom Come" was pulled on Mar. 29. I had several people around Chicago ready to watch it. I am a regular supporter and viewer of PBS and want to register my complaint with the President/CEO and Board of Directors. I understand there was a minor question about a quote attributed to former Pres. Trump that was in fact consistent with his policies on Israel and his administration's support. The Director of the film agreed to make this correction but it still has not aired nor been announced. I fear additional censorship of the film and it seems that is the correct term. The film previously aired in Israel and ten other countries including England, Germany, Australia plus a synagogue and church in the US, all giving positive reviews. Who do my friends and I write, call, concerning this unfortunate incident?” -- Rev. Don Wagner, Orland Hills, Illinois
The question is whether the film can survive the deeper review ordered by PBS.
A FRAGILE TRUST
Sound journalism practice requires us to check, and recheck, our facts, and challenge our assumptions. We use footnotes throughout the editing to support crucial statements.
This is essential because just one slip-up, even one misspelled name or misused quote, allows critics to suggest: “What else is inaccurate?”
PBS enjoys the trust of its viewers, more so than most national broadcasters. PBS executives, producers and journalists earn that trust by making sure that public affairs programming is authentic and accurate, even if it upholds one point of view over another.
The standard-bearer for fact-checking and critical self-review is Frontline, from Boston’s GBH (formerly WGBH). Before a film gets Frontline air time, producers deploy fact checkers and a lawyer to review source material and how it’s used.
Yes, footnoting and fact-checking can be cumbersome. But this is a no-brainer, as even middle schoolers are asked to “show your work” and supply bibliographies with classroom papers.
Because of the filmmaker’s record and reputation, I am confident that the whole of “‘Til Kingdom Come” will stand up to the review now underway. We may yet be able to see the provocative documentary — exactly the kind of edgy, accurate public affairs programming we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on PBS.