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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.