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Crossroads docs reveal new facet of balance issue

One film is hawkish, so CPB shopped for contrasting view

Originally published in Current, July 11, 2005
By Jeremy Egner

CPB announced the final batch of preliminary grants in its ambitious America at a Crossroads programming initiative June 27 — delayed in part by late efforts to balance a film sympathetic to conservative foreign policy with one more critical of its consequences.

After approving The Case for War, a film on controversial neoconservative policy guru Richard Perle, to be filmed by award-winning producer and longtime Perle associate Brian Lapping, CPB in April issued a request for a doc to offset the first film.

CPB programmers hope By All Means Necessary, produced by frequent Frontline contributor Sherry Jones and Christina Lowery, will fit the bill. The second film will “critically examine how the implementation of the so-called Bush doctrine has alienated traditional American allies, tarnished America’s image abroad and possibly made the world more dangerous.”

The addition of the second film, reported by the New York Times June 29, extends CPB’s balance controversy into a less-known long-term CPB project that’s already unpopular with some public TV programmers.

But Michael Pack, CPB’s senior v.p. for television and a former independent producer, has from the start made no secret of his desire to include a wide array of perspectives in the project, which is intended to bring “new voices” to pubTV and explore the ways in which the 9/11 attacks have affected this and other countries.

“I personally, as a filmmaker, feel public television has lost its controversial edge,” he said at May’s Input conference in San Francisco.

The Crossroads project will spend $20 million over three years in multiple stages. Of the 440 proposals received, 34 have been given grants for research and development and roughly half of those will be produced, CPB said. The proposals were reviewed by project staffers and a bipartisan panel of policy experts. A panel of system veterans will also advise CPB on how it should present the project to stations, says panelist Byron Knight, overseer of the University of Wisconsin’s statewide networks.

CPB hopes to tie broadcast of the projects to next year’s fifth anniversary of 9/11. A list of previously announced projects now in development is available at Current.org.

PBS execs hope that any “controversial edge” brought back to pubTV will stay within the network’s recently updated editorial standards, which call for all journalistic programs to clearly reveal how they reach their conclusions.

They also share the concerns of programmers who say the Crossroads docs are exploring issues that would be suitable for core PBS series, or have already been covered by them.

"There’s the potential for redundancy,” said PBS programming co-chief John Wilson. “As they’ve told us about the R&D projects, we’ve told them, ‘That could be a good Frontline or Wide Angle.’ They’ve made note of our comments but still have a clear idea that they want to see the series stand on its own.”

The Public Television Programmers Association has been more critical of the initiative. It sent a letter written by board President Garry Denny, associate director of programming at Wisconsin Public Television, complaining that Crossroads will recycle themes and waste money that could be better spent strengthening core PBS shows [letter as published in Current, May 31].

It cited CPB’s own published strategy for primetime pubTV, which aims to, among other things, expand science and nature programming, reinforce Masterpiece Theater and Mystery and “fill knowledge gaps” in history and performance genres.

"The $20 million ... would be better spent as an investment in the core series and future specials in the NPS,” Denny wrote. “Further, the seven priorities outlined in CPB’s recently published framework leave little room for interpretation, and it would appear that programs birthed from America at a Crossroads do not serve those goals.”

"We're already covering these issues and the audience isn't asking for more, as identified by CPB’s own research,” Denny told Current. “It’s kind of like, ‘Here’s what our right hand is doing and here’s what our left hand is doing,’ but there’s no communication between them.”

Ken Ferree, acting president of CPB prior to last month’s hiring of Patricia Harrison, told Denny that Pack would respond to the letter, but he hasn’t to date, Denny says.
CPB did not respond to requests for comment in time for Current’s deadline.

Avoiding the fray

At the May conference in San Francisco, Crossroads senior consultant Jim Denton, an international policy and communications advisor, agreed that incorporating a wide range of viewpoints should increase controversy rather than dampen it.

But Jones, whose doc was selected to offset the Perle film, has no interest in getting caught in a “political crossfire,” she said. “I don’t feel like what we have proposed is going in some way tit for tat” with the other film.

In the RFP that led to selection of Jones’s doc, CPB suggested that producers “consider featuring a central figure in the film who could articulate the counter position to the administration’s post-9/11 foreign policies.” But Jones, who has produced 25 Frontline docs and is now working on projects for ABC News and CNN, did not look for or propose a specific ideologue, she said.

"I consider myself a broadcast journalist and am not advocating a point of view,” she said. “I’m approaching this, like always, as an assignment to research and report.”

Washington-based producer York Zimmerman Inc. was also among the handful of filmmakers who received the RFP, though it didn’t respond because of time constraints, said managing producer Miriam Zimmerman. But the producers found it odd that CPB “told us how to make the film” by suggesting a central figure and “told us specifically that it was to counterbalance the Perle film,” Zimmerman said.

"In light of the recent media coverage of politics at CPB, we didn’t want to get drawn into the fray,” she said.

Does the dueling doc approach jibe with PBS’s editorial standards? “If something purports to be journalism, it needs to deliver on that standard, with an open-minded approach that hasn’t drawn any conclusions in advance,” Wilson said.

"We’ve worked hard over the years to articulate what we mean by journalism standards,” said a senior pubcasting executive who requested anonymity. “Nowhere does it say that if we air something questionable then we better create a different program that counterbalances it. That’s not journalism.”

However, the decision to air the Crossroads docs, journalistic or otherwise, will ultimately belong to the stations, said Denny. Pubcasters “owe it to the audience” to gauge whether the docs serve the station’s mission or duplicate themes covered by other shows, he said.

Wilson said PBS hopes to use a single host or graphic continuity to give the films a consistent feel — something that audiences crave, according to CPB’s research.

He also expressed hope that by the broadcast dates, controversy over partisan politics at CPB will be history.

But even if it’s not, he insisted PBS has stations’ collective back.

"All of the films will have gone through our editorial review process,” he said. “They won’t be on the air if we can’t defend them.”

Web page posted July 12, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee

Michael Pack in panel discussion

EARLIER ARTICLES

CPB hires Michael Pack to head TV programming, 2003.

CPB announces two earlier batches of grantees for America at a Crossroads programs.

Public Television Programmers Association states its doubts about Crossroads in an open letter in Current.

RELATED ARTICLE

Public gets a glimpse of imbalance monitoring ordered by Tomlinson.

LINKS

CPB's America at a Crossroads website with descriptions of programs and selection process.

Neoconservative Ben Wattenberg interviews Richard Perle about "The Making of a Neoconservative" on PBS program Think Tank, 2003.

Wikipedia on Richard Perle.

CPB biography of Michael Pack.

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