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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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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.