One of the America at a Crossroads films got a big thumbs-up from a well-placed viewer last week. The problem is that Islam vs. Islamists is caught in a standoff between public TV and the film’s lead producer, noted think-tank pundit Frank Gaffney Jr.
It’s a classic writer-versus-editor dispute, with the creators’ passion greatly magnified by post-9/11 politics and CPB’s decision several years ago to commission vocal political figures to make some of the programs.
CPB, PBS and overseeing execs at Washington’s WETA say they want a version of the doc about militant Muslims to air someday. But Gaffney’s team—instead of making further changes suggested by WETA and PBS—went public with their beef and sent at least one copy of the program to Capitol Hill.
The rave review came from Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.) during the March 21  hearing on CPB funding held by a House appropriations subcommittee, on which Walsh is ranking minority member.
Gaffney, outspoken defense advocate, National Review columnist and ex-Pentagon official, is founder and president of the Center for Security Policy.
His team, one of 21 that got Crossroads grants from CPB, includes novelist and former CBC documentarian Martyn Burke (director of the Gates-versus-Jobs movie Pirates of Silicon Valley) and Alex Alexiev, v.p. for research at Gaffney’s center.
Gaffney didn’t reply to Current’s questions about his plans for the film.
Eleven Crossroads films debut in a major PBS broadcast event April 15-20. They include point-of-view films, such as those featuring moderate Muslim writer Irshad Manji and heavyweight war advocate Richard Perle, a mentor of Gaffney’s; an investigation of the Muslim Brotherhood by Newsweek’s Mark Hosenball and Michael Isikoff; and specials from Frontline and the NewsHour.
More than four years ago, CPB set a goal of creating “high-impact initiatives.” Officials said they wanted public TV to generate excitement around the nation’s water coolers. Then-Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson was also agitating for more conservative opinion on PBS. Michael Pack, hired as its program chief in 2003, attached the $20 million project to a subject area that’s still hot: 9/11 and its aftermath.
Though CPB shaped the Crossroads call for proposals and chose the grantees, it stepped aside and hired Washington’s WETA to coach the producers and get their work accepted for distribution by PBS. As usual, the producers retain editorial control but have no guarantee that PBS will pick up their programs or that stations will air them.
Gaffney’s project got CPB funding a year ago, but PBS left it out of the initial Crossroads series announced last month.
Rep. Walsh, who represents Syracuse, N.Y., and part of the Buffalo area, said Gaffney’s film is an important and timely one that explains why moderate Muslims haven’t loudly rejected Islamic terrorists’ jihad.
“The answer,” Walsh said, “is that there is a concerted and substantial effort on the part of radical Wahhabist Islam to silence these voices with physical intimidation and verbal intimidation.”
The film documents this situation, the congressman said, but, “based on what I heard, there has been a longstanding and concerted effort to ensure that the American people, who paid for the production of this documentary, cannot see it.”
Not so, replied CPB President Pat Harrison. “We want to see this film get over the finish line,” she insisted. “This is a first-time filmmaker. Sometimes people who write a book or make a film resist any kind of editing.”
PBS President Paula Kerger concurred: Islam vs. Islamists has not been rejected, she told Walsh. “The film you have is not finished.”
WETA overseers accentuate the positive. “We felt that it was an important subject and he had potentially fabulous stories,” says Series Producer Leo Eaton. Jeff Bieber, an executive producer of the series and WETA’s news v.p., agrees: “We felt they had very good stories, good characters, but lacked sufficient structure.” But he adds: “The writing was alarmist and overreaching, without providing adequate context to justify the tone and the degree of generalization.”
The producers, in a memo (PDF) they sent to the PBS and WETA boards, as well as to Rep. Walsh and others, objected that WETA gave them “insulting” notes accusing them of “‘dramatic hyperbole,’ ‘shoddy journalism,’ ‘subjective and claustrophobic terms,’ ‘menacing music,’ ‘sweeping generalizations’” and more.
If Gaffney’s team fixes problems in the film, it could air as a standalone doc, Eaton tells Current. With so many Crossroads projects, leaving some out of the 11-part series is not a negative comment about them, he said. Bieber points out that some are planned to air as standalones, including WETA’s own Crossroads production, Inside the American Empire with Robert Kaplan.
“The process was exactly the same for all films,” Eaton said. Series host Robert MacNeil, PBS programmers, Bieber and others contributed to Eaton’s notes suggesting changes that could put it on the PBS schedule.
In the case of Islam vs. Islamists, Eaton says, WETA promised Gaffney that it would give the film to PBS without specific recommendations. PBS sent it back for more work.
The Gaffney team’s March 6 memo described Eaton, a British producer long active in production for PBS, as an obstacle to the film.
At the House hearing. Rep. Walsh summarized the charge: “PBS hired a producer—with family ties to a British Islamist group—who has overtly tried to change the context of the film.”
Gaffney and his co-producers were more specific in their memo. The “unwarranted and intemperate attacks” in Eaton’s notes on the program may be explained by the influence of Eaton’s father, Charles Le Gai Eaton. They describe him as “a Muslim convert held in high regard in Islamist circles in Britain.”
That assessment is “laughable,” Eaton says. “My father is as far as possible from the fundamentalist view of Islam.” The elder Eaton is a former British diplomat and author of Islam and the Destiny of Man. [State University of New York paperback on Amazon.com].
PBS, CPB and WETA say they want revisions so the film can air.
Length has been an issue. “The film you are talking about has great merit,” Harrison told the House subcommittee last week. “WETA has said this, PBS has said this. The problem is we have two hours of material,” Harrison said. “We must get it down to one.”
Eaton says CPB contracted the Gaffney team to produce a one-hour show but they offered two alternative hours.
How well the series turns out has implications beyond the $20 million project and what ends up on air. CPB President Pat Harrison told the House panel that CPB may adapt and reuse the process it used to bring diverse viewpoints into future programming.
“The intent behind America at a Crossroads,” she said, “is one that will, I think, provide us with a template for other issues down the road.”
This article has been altered from the print version to correct the program title.
Web page posted March 26, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee