Politics & Policy

PBS at a Crossroads

Why is a film on moderate Islam being suppressed?

On March 21, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the federal budgets of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) challenged the leaders of those two organizations concerning their handling of the film Islam vs. Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center. The film was produced at a cost of some $675,000 in taxpayer funds for the PBS series “America at a Crossroads,” which will begin airing next week. As one of the executive producers of this documentary, I was surprised, and gratified, by Rep. Jim Walsh’s questions.

The congressman from Syracuse noted that he had seen the documentary, and he wanted to know why, considering how things stand in the world, PBS would not allow it to be viewed by the American people, whose taxes had enabled it to be made.

In seeking an explanation, Rep. Walsh remarked that Islam vs. Islamists “highlights the plight of moderate Muslims at the hands of their Islamist brethren.” He continued: “[It] answers a very important…and very timely question. After the attack on the World Trade Center, the bombings in Madrid in the commuter trains, the bombings in London on their commuter trains, in Turkey and other places…I heard the question asked over and over and over: ‘Where are the moderate Muslim voices? Where are the people of that same religion? Where’s their voice of outrage and condemnation over these attacks?’”

 “The answer,” Rep. Walsh explained to PBS President Paula Kerger and her CPB counterpart, Pat Harrison, “is that there’s a concerted and substantial effort on the part of radical Wahhabist Islam to silence these voices with physical intimidation [and] verbal intimidation. And [the filmmakers] document it in the United States, in Canada and around the world: Denmark, France.”

Then Walsh threw down the gauntlet: “Based on what I’ve heard, there has been a longstanding and concerted effort to ensure that the American people, who paid for the production of this documentary, do not see it.”

The responses to these remarks were, at best, inaccurate and misleading. Two exchanges are illustrative. At one point, PBS’s Kerger told Rep. Walsh that Islam vs. Islamists had “not been rejected for air. The film is still in development and production. The film that you have is not a finished film.” Mr. Walsh replied, correctly, “I spoke with the producer. That film is finished.”

Then CPB’s Harrison interjected: “The problem is…they have two hours of material. They must get it down to one.” The congressman held up the finished, 52-minute show, saying, “I believe this…DVD is an hour long.”

Jim Walsh’s cross-examination laid bare an effort to mask what has been going on with respect to Islam vs. Islamists for over a year: a determined, sometimes vicious effort to have the “conservatives” involved in the project forced out, and to compel the filmmakers to alter their documentary to the point of its being unrecognizable.

It is nothing new to see such behavior from those on the Left ensconced in decision-making positions at the Public Broadcasting Service and many of its member stations and subordinate organizations, like the Independent Television Service (ITVS). Rarely, however, has this conduct been better documented than in this instance. (A collection of the documentation can be examined here.)

For example, the Public Broadcasting Service contended that, if the author of this article were an executive producer of the film, it would be a breach of PBS guidelines barring advocacy organizations from influencing content broadcast on the network, given that, in addition to my being a partner in ABG Films Inc., which produced the documentary, I am also president of the Center for Security Policy.

It was a feeble objection, considering PBS’s history of political bias. We produced a memo for CPB analyzing publicly available information about PBS programming. It concluded: “1) PBS engages openly in advocacy. And 2) the network actually perceives itself as an instrument of advocacy. In virtually all cases, such advocacy is on behalf of causes associated with liberals or the more extreme political Left.” Yet PBS did not drop its objection.

Most probably the objection was spurious, having much more to do with my political beliefs than with PBS guidelines. One of the “Crossroads” producers actually asked our colleague, accomplished filmmaker Martyn Burke, “Don’t you check into the politics of the people you work with?” Imagine the uproar if a conservative (say, former CPB chairman Ken Tomlinson) had asked such a question of a liberal director.

Then there were the myriad efforts by PBS and its “coordinating entry station,” Washington’s WETA, to force us to change the character, structure, and content of Islam vs. Islamists so as to make it less “unfair” to the Islamists. These changes are not to be confused with constructive editorial suggestions. We received a number of those, and repeatedly incorporated them into the finished film. Rather, they were incessant demands from PBS and WETA that the film be redone so as to tell at greater length the story of “conservative imams” and others who oppose the anti-Islamist Muslims we set out to profile. The stated object of this revision was to provide more “context” for the positions taken by the former group.

Our refusal to make such unwarranted alterations — which would have been at the expense of the central theme of our film — led Robert MacNeil, the “Crossroads” series’ host, publicly to justify PBS’s “rejection” of our film on the grounds that it is “extremely one-sided and alarmist.”

That is clearly not a view shared by Rep. Walsh or, for that matter, anybody else outside PBS and WETA who has seen Islam vs. Islamists. Yet MacNeil and his colleagues are entirely comfortable, it seems, with making sure that the American public is unable to decide for itself.

It is no small irony that, in a $20 million, taxpayer-underwritten series like “Crossroads,” whose very purpose is to expose PBS’s audience to a broader array of filmmakers’ stories and perspectives, our film is being black-balled by the Left, which largely decides what will be broadcast on publicly funded airwaves.

To be sure, PBS is making much of the fact that two or three of the series’ eleven documentaries either feature or were produced by “conservatives.” Credit for that fact, however, lies largely with the CPB team that funded and selected all but one of the “Crossroads” films.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which currently controls distribution of Islam vs. Islamists, should cease its attempted suppression of this documentary. If it does not, it can only be hoped that Rep. Jim Walsh and his colleagues will correct this violation of the public trust by public broadcasters.

– Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. is a partner, along with veteran film-maker Martyn Burke, who directed and produced Islam vs. Islamists, and Islamism expert Alex Alexiev, in ABG Films, Inc.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr.Frank Gaffney began his public-service career in the 1970s, working as an aide in the office of Democratic senator Henry M. Jackson, under Richard Perle. From August 1983 until November ...


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