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Frank Gaffney vs. PBS

Behind PBS's "America at a Crossroads" series.

12:00 PM, Apr 17, 2007 • By SONNY BUNCH
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WHEN IT WAS REVEALED last week that Frank Gaffney Jr.'s contribution to PBS's "America at a Crossroads" series was not going to be aired, conservatives around the country knowingly shook their heads and clucked their tongues. Gaffney, a hawkish conservative who founded the Center for Security Policy (CSP), served as a producer on an hour long documentary, Islam vs. Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center, about the harassment moderate Muslims face in America and other Western countries. PBS and WETA (the Washington, D.C. PBS station handling the production of the shows) pulled the show from the series, the stories went, because of the liberal bias pervasive throughout the hierarchy of public broadcasting.

The flap over Islam vs. Islamists was largely driven by a piece in the Arizona Republic which reported that WETA had demanded the firing of Gaffney and another co-producer for their involvement with the CSP, and aired a laundry list of complaints about WETA's involvement during the production. "A WETA manager pressed to eliminate a key perspective of the film: The claim that Muslim radicals are pushing to establish 'parallel societies' in America and Europe governed by Shariah law rather than sectarian courts," the Republic reported, adding that one of WETA's advisors had shown a clip of the film to the Nation of Islam, a subject of the documentary.

PBS has claimed that charges of suppression are ridiculous and that Gaffney's film is being held because it does not purport to the standards necessary for airing on PBS. They say that they have provided him with notes intended to improve the final product, and claim to be awaiting a re-cut film which they can send to affiliates for broadcast at a later date, as they are doing with other episodes in the "America at a Crossroads" series that will not air this week.

What really happened to Islam vs. Islamists is a complicated story.

IN THE WAKE of 9/11, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting attempted to examine the challenges facing America in the age of terrorism. CPB poured $20 million into the project, and threw the application process open to anyone who wished to participate. One of the implicit goals was to find more conservative voices willing to participate in a project associated with public broadcasting. "We would try to get diverse points of view, new filmmakers involved," Michael Levy, a CPB spokesman said in an interview. Jim Denton, a consultant on the series elaborated: "We wanted to be very proactive, to, you know, reach out and try to get 'new voices,' which of course is code for trying to have a little more diversity of opinion than is traditionally expressed on public television." When asked if he meant "specifically, more conservative voices?" Denton replied "Sure, yeah. But not at the expense of fairness and balance. We wanted to have a fair representation of the serious views in America on the sort of post-9/11 issues."

During this time, CPB made serious efforts at conservative outreach. Kenneth Tomlinson became chairman of the Corporation in 2003, and immediately set out to balance the liberal tilt present in most of public broadcasting. Tomlinson went after liberal icon Bill Moyer, describing his show to PBS executives as one that didn't "contain anything approaching the balance the law requires for public broadcasting," while simultaneously proposing the creation of a show for Paul Gigot, the editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal. Around this time he came up with the idea for the "Crossroads" program. In 2005, Tomlinson's efforts to create a more nuanced, less reflexively liberal system were rewarded by attacks in the New York Times and elsewhere which claimed that his actions were tantamount to editorial interference. He was forced out of CPB.

The bureaucratic system governing America's public broadcast system is somewhat arcane. As Gaffney describes it, "CPB can give money, but they can't tell people to put things on the air; PBS can put things on the air, but they can't tell people what to put on the films; WETA, in this case, can help with editorial roles to a degree that CPB and PBS can't, but I think apart from their own air, they can't determine what's aired elsewhere." Part of the complication comes from the fact that PBS does not operate like a traditional broadcast system. Whereas CBS, NBC, ABC, and FOX set national lineups that local affiliates must carry during primetime viewing hours, PBS is far more flexible. Each station decides exactly what content it will air and when--and the majority of programmers remain rigidly liberal.

Before a station manager could decide just what programs they would air, however, the programs for the Crossroads series needed to be filmed. "We received about 440 proposals in June of '04," Levy recalled, which were submitted by "producers from around the world. . . . And those proposals went through a really rigorous review process and selection process that drew heavily on the advice and expertise of a number of individuals." No one could accuse the CPB advisory board of bias; included were conservative luminaries such as Jeane Kirkpatrick and John O'Sullivan, liberal journalists such as NPR's Mara Liasson and the Chicago Tribune's Clarence Page, and other heavyweights such as Vanity Fair's Christopher Hitchens. "We provided research and development funds as we boiled down the 440 proposals to 32 projects," said Levy, "and then production funding from 32 projects to approximately 21, and the 21 were given funds at the end of January in 2006. At that time, we transferred control over the actual process to a managing/producing station, WETA."

IT WAS THEN that the problems began for Gaffney and his crew. "About that time," Gaffney said, "we started hearing that PBS was telling CPB that they would never air a film that I was associated with. . . . We began hearing that there was an argument being made by PBS that if I were associated with the film in a senior role--they would allow me to be an adviser but I couldn't be, as I am, a co-executive producer--because of my day job" with the Center for Security Policy, then the program could not run. "There are guidelines that PBS adheres to, evidently selectively shall we say, that prohibit people who have association with advocacy organizations from being involved in content decisions on their airwaves."

Martyn Burke, a producer working on Islam vs. Islamists with Gaffney, was equally perturbed by PBS's protestations. "We . . . encountered what was a form of blacklisting," Burke wrote to the PBS board of directors as WETA was trying to decide what to do with the film. "During my first meeting with the series producers I was ordered to fire my two partners (who brought me into this project) on political grounds. Having once produced a program on the Hollywood Ten, I was asked in that meeting, a question I never thought I would hear: Do you not check into the politics of the people you work with?" [Emphasis in original.] Gaffney, Burke, and Alex Alexiev (another producer who works with Gaffney at CSP) then provided a raft of evidence that PBS had no problem partnering with liberal advocacy groups, noting in a letter to Michael Pack, the senior vice president for television programming at the CPB, that "PBS and its affiliates also directly partner with and sponsor advocacy organizations and individuals. The network's ITVS, for instance, claims on its website ( that its partners include 'advocacy groups' and 'committed individuals' with well-known agendas such as the Sierra Club, the National Council of La Raza, the National Coalition of Churches, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and many others." Eventually, PBS backed down and allowed Gaffney to remain as a producer.

GAFFNEY'S TROUBLES were just getting started, however. WETA hired a group of five consultants to examine the films, including Aminah McCloud, a professor of religious studies at DePaul University. "This woman," Gaffney explained, "turns around once she gets her hands on the rough cut of the film, and she shows it to the Nation of Islam!" While there is some dispute over McCloud's intentions (several sources told me that she showed only a frame of the film to members of the Nation of Islam, and then only to confirm that Gaffney and his co-producers had misidentified a key figure in the documentary), this move was considered a serious break of professional and ethical standards. "It violates every norm of journalism that you can think of," Gaffney said.

Then there was the matter of Leo Eaton, the man picked by WETA to produce the Crossroads series as a whole. "[O]n our first interaction with [Eaton]" Gaffney said, "[he] announced that he was very interested in this subject because his father was a very prominent Muslim convert in Britain. . . . Well, it turns out that people who know his father compare him to, in terms of his skill and in terms of his agenda, to Tariq Ramadan. In other words, an Islamist." Eaton disputes this characterization. In a letter to the Washington Times, he wrote that his "father, who converted to Islam almost 50 years ago, is a retired British diplomat of impeccable reputation who is now in his 80s. He writes to better explain Islam to western readers and has been publicly lauded in Britain as a bridge builder between faiths." Eaton feels this ad hominem attack on his father was designed to "deflect attention away from real problems inherent in the program as it exists."

Armed with his opinion of Eaton's biases, familial and otherwise, Gaffney took umbrage with a number of Eaton's notes on the series. Those familiar with the project say his notes on Islam vs. Islamist were no harsher than the notes he gave on any of the other projects. Gaffney retorts by saying that there was "an incessant refrain that we're not fairly treating the Islamists in the film. There needs to be more 'context,' as [Eaton] calls it, and we need to explain why we think they're terrorists or they're not terrorists." Gaffney felt that Eaton and other PBS staffers were missing the film's basic message: "The point that the film had been commissioned to make is not the story of the damn Islamists--it's about the anti-Islamists."

IN ORDER to better understand the conflict, and where the movie rests now, it is instructive to take a closer look at the notes Eaton provided. The two sides are far apart on the film's basic structure and some of the extraneous effects (like image juxtaposition and soundtrack choices) used to enhance its tone. In a letter dated December 22, 2006, Eaton opened by saying "I want to begin by making clear that you have editorial and content control of your program--like every CROSSROADS producer--and so have no obligation to accept or act on our notes if you don't agree with them." Of course, as every screenwriter, director, and actor who has ever dealt with a producer knows, you ignore a boss's notes at your own peril.

That being said, the tone of Eaton's suggestions in the December 22 letter was more helpful than radical, with the producer trying not to destroy the documentary so much as streamline it. While Gaffney was within his rights to push back against changes he did not like (particularly to the editorial point of view of the film), his outright dismissal of some suggestions seems unwarranted.

For example, in describing the problem with a segment focused on a Muslim journalist under threat of death from an extremist group, Eaton pointed to the heavy-handed voice-over narration: "This is an example of where the narrator makes a long descriptive point, followed by the character (Sifaoui) who says much the same thing. Where possible, we would recommend that the story be carried by your characters rather than the narrator. As we said before, 'trust your characters to make the case for you, rather than hammering home every point with narration." Another constant in the program is menacing music accompanying the appearance onscreen of any of the radical Muslims. Eaton suggested, "The reality is you don't need to make this a polemic against extremism, with threatening music."

The stories being told by various people in Islam vs. Islamists truly are impressive. The camera captures extremists saying that moderate Muslims are not Muslims at all, and deserve to be killed. Across the Western world, voices of moderation in Muslim communities are frequently silenced by more extreme factions. In the worst circumstances, extremist Imams are trying to force the rule of sharia law upon Islamic communities, creating "parallel societies," with one set of rules for Muslims, and another for nonbelievers.

However, not all of Eaton's suggestions were so narrow. In one note, Eaton wrote that "Aly Hindy's claim that 'this is Islam' needs greater context. Where is this opinion coming from--the Koran, sharia law? In our previous set of notes, we made the point that 'you've put his words into the worst possible light by juxtaposing it with images of the Iranian stoning. Maybe it's justified, but it would have been more interesting to ask Hindy if Islamic Law must always be obeyed. In other words, does he condone such actions?'"

Here, Eaton has clearly missed the film's point: The "words" to which he so sanguinely refers were these: "If a married woman commit adultery with a married man, both of them be stoned to death. Single woman commit adultery with married man, the woman will get 100 lashes, married man will be killed, stoned to death. And the other vice versa. . . . Not controversial. It's Islam, it's not my fault. I'm not inventing anything." Regardless of where Hindy divines his beliefs, his feelings are quite clear. And Eaton seems to be trying to protect the Islamist from himself--juxtaposing Hindy's words with the image of an actual stoning are completely fair--the audience deserves to be shown what will happen should Hindy get his way.

Eaton also wanted the piece toned down to a level that Gaffney and his colleagues is found unacceptable. "Overall," Eaton wrote, "you are positioning your moderates as the 'good guys' against a broad range of 'extremist' opponents who range from ordinary orthodox imams to jihadi terrorists," adding later that "Moderation & extremism clearly depend on where you're standing."

Which is exactly the sort of cultural relativism Gaffney's documentary is trying to fight. In the West it does not matter "where you're standing"--proscribing execution for adultery is a barbaric, anti-Western, and extremist act, and targeting for death those who disagree with the punishment is similarly unacceptable.

Which brings us to the final, most important, point Eaton made in his notes: "This is POV [point of view] rather than objective." This seems to run counter to the very idea of documentary film-making. Consider the words of Frederick Wiseman, one of the great American documentarians, and a filmmaker frequently present on PBS's airwaves: "All aspects of documentary filmmaking involve choice and are therefore manipulative."

THE ULTIMATE QUESTION is whether or not Gaffney's film was left out of the America at a Crossroads special for ideological reasons. Given PBS's history, and Gaffney's initial experiences with the network, his belief that he has been a victim of political correctness run amok is understandable. Gaffney also points to a CPB press release from January, 2006, citing his project's inclusion in the series as proof that he has been removed from the schedule for having an unacceptable viewpoint. Bunk, says Levy. "We put out a press release announcing the 20 or so production grants that we were giving. . . . We had some hopes for what would be in the series, and we used the opportunity in the press release to express those hopes. But they were nothing more than hopes, there was no contractual agreement that those shows would be in the series. We couldn't bind . . . WETA to such an undertaking."

For their part, those involved with the project at CPB, PBS, and WETA still claim that they hope to run Gaffney's episode at a later date. "CPB, WETA, and PBS strongly believe in the film's subject matter," Levy said. "We want to see it broadcast on public television stations across the country. . . . Some of these shows are going to be stand-alone specials." They also vehemently deny that they are silencing Gaffney on political grounds. In a letter published in Monday's Arizona Republic, the series' executive producer, Jeff Bieber wrote that "this film is not being suppressed or denied a broadcast because of political reasons. No one ever questioned the politics of the program's producers. As a matter of fact, we believe that the subject of this film and the good work of people depicted in the film . . . is important." Eaton is similarly on board with airing the program in some form, saying "Along with my colleagues at PBS and WETA, I hope that a revised cut of this film will be forthcoming since I believe it to be an important and timely subject."

Considering some of the other subjects tackled by the series, it would seem odd for Islam vs. Islamists to be singled out for suppression. One of the documentaries, Richard Perle's Case for War, is a point of view film focused on one of the chief advocates of invading Iraq. Another was authored by Irshad Manji, a Canadian feminist (and a Muslim) who has been extremely vociferous in her denunciation of radical Islam. Others films examine the lives of soldiers in Iraq and the founders of al Qaeda. For the first time in many years, conservatives seem to be getting the balance they have been calling for on public television.

Regardless of PBS's reasoning, however, Islam vs. Islamists will be sitting on the shelf for the conceivable future. Hopefully the two sides will reconcile their differences sooner rather than later and get this powerful documentary in front of the American people.

Sonny Bunch is assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.