America at a Crossroads
The trailer announcing the arrival of America at a Crossroads, public television’s “unprecedented documentary series” exploring the issues that motivated and arose out of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is a stunner.
The four-minute spot, set to a world music sound-track of operatic intensity, dazzles with lightning cuts and sweeping shots of mosques and Manhattan, masked terrorists wielding assault rifles and Marines on the march, zealous politicos, bomb and torture victims and explosions, explosions, explosions.
It raises goosebumps and portrays America at a Crossroads, conceived by CPB in 2004 and given $20 million from public broadcasting’s federal appropriation, as a great, sprawling kaleidoscopic survey of the most violently insistent issues of the 21st century. (Montgomery & Co. Creative in Culver City, Calif., produced the spot.)
The seamless mélange of disparate, clashing personalities, styles and themes not only promotes the 11 films that fill 12 primetime hours on PBS, April 15-20, but serves as a visual metaphor for the project’s lengthy and often contentious development. The film’s caretakers at Washington’s WETA — given oversight of the project by CPB last spring, after the filmmakers had begun work — are now more focused on the films themselves than the project’s past controversy.
“There were some bumps along the way, but it’s worked out to everyone’s benefit,” says Sharon Rockefeller, president of WETA. “It’s the most important mission-based public television series in years . . . we’ll define for every American what is going on the world and what America’s role is in the war on terror.”
This first batch of Crossroads films aims to illuminate topics including the history of Islamic jihad (Jihad); soldiers’ wartime experiences (Warriors, Operation Homecoming); the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy (Gangs of Iraq, The Case for War); and the uneasy lives of Muslims in America and abroad (Faith Without Fear, Europe’s 9/11, The Muslim Americans, Struggle for the Soul of Islam: Inside Indonesia).
Other films explore the tension between homeland security and civil rights (Security Versus Liberty: The Other War) and an influential Egyptian-born Islamic group that the U.S. suspects of supporting terrorism (The Brotherhood).
Current summarized the initial Crossroads docs in a separate story.
“These are the kinds of series that really pop through the media clutter,” says Jeff Bieber, a WETA v.p. who shares executive producer credit with Dalton Delan, the station’s chief programming officer. “And when we can do them on topics of such critical importance, it shows the
public that PBS is still relevant.”
Crossroads began as 440 producers’ proposals and evolved through whittling grant rounds and countless confabs among PBS, CPB, WETA, producers and outside advisers. It courted controversy from the start.
Liberal media activists suspected CPB, with its White House-appointed board, was pursuing a political agenda. Some public TV programmers, meanwhile, initially expected it to be a waste of money that could be better spent on ongoing series, which had already covered the topics Crossroads planned to tackle (see May 2005 commentary by Wisconsin programmer Garry Denny, president of Public Television Programmers Association).
CPB’s commissioning of The Case for War, which outlines foreign policies promoted by Richard Perle, an intellectual architect of the war in Iraq, particularly agitated critics who thought PBS shouldn’t give an unmediated hour to a key Bush administration thinker. London-based producer Brian Lapping, the original e.p. of the Perle doc and another funded by CPB, stepped down last summer after press reports publicized his longtime personal friendship with Perle. Phil Craig, a regular with Lapping’s production house who also oversaw Europe’s 9/11, took charge of the Perle film.
“The whole issue probably arose out of concern from people who thought I was intruding upon their space and looking for basis to criticize it,” Perle told Current last week. “Does anyone question the relationship between Bill Moyers and his producers?”
More recently, another Crossroads producer, Frank Gaffney Jr., complained to members of Congress that PBS was trying to suppress his film, Islam and Islamists, when it asked him to make edits he didn’t like (March 26 article).
But while the development process has had its hiccups, the project’s crafters say the spread of films will offer a balanced, provocative examination of vitally important topics.
“I’m less concerned about the process than I am about the result,” says Robert MacNeil, the public TV vet brought on last year to host and help shape the project. “My editorial judgment is on the line as well as [WETA’s], and the films’ quality is such that I have no anxiety about it.”
PBS will present at least some of the remaining films—a total of 24 got production money from CPB—as standalone specials under the America at a Crossroads banner as they’re completed and meet the network’s editorial standards.
Two are at least tentatively scheduled. From Kansas to Kandahar, which follows an Army unit’s deployment, is slated for June. Inside the American Empire, featuring Atlantic Monthly correspondent with Robert Kaplan, is tentatively scheduled for September.
Says Michael Pack, the independent producer and former CPB TV programmer who dreamed up Crossroads: “I think the final product, with its wide range of perspectives, proves that the process was not politicized.”
Viewers will ultimately judge the programs by their merits, MacNeil notes. Watching them all would be a long slog. Even Crossroads’ producers acknowledge that 12 hours in a week is a lot to ask of an audience. “That’s what TiVo’s for,” quips Leo Eaton, series producer.
The first 11 films are very diverse. The Perle film and Faith Without Fear, which stars outspoken westernized Muslim author Irshad Manji, are notably opinionated. But the producers picked films for the series that work together to reflect overarching themes and scheduled them to give viewers a politically balanced slate on any given night, Eaton says.
“We took all the films and did a Rubik’s Cube approach,” he says. “We tried to carry through a thesis from beginning to end.”
The first film, Jihad, sifts through the historical seeds of 9/11. The next four examine elements of the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, culminating with the Perle doc April 17.
“By the time you get to Perle, you have a very negative view of what’s happening in Iraq,” MacNeil says.
The four ensuing films explore the nexus of Islam, politics and Muslim life in Europe, Asia and North America. “We were attacked by Islamic fundamentalists and it put the fear of God in us,” MacNeil says. “We need to know exactly who are our enemies and who are not.”
The last two films next week ponder hazier fronts of the administration’s War on Terror, including the tension between security and American values, including civil liberty, and how the nation should deal with groups that Americans find suspicious and many Muslims revere.
“So you begin with the seeds of 9/11 and end with the sort of murky world that we have to deal with as a result,” Eaton says.
Crossroads emerged from CPB at a time when the corporation’s politics were under intense scrutiny, thanks to efforts by Kenneth Tomlinson, its Republican board chairman, to adjust the political coloration of PBS programming.
Under the circumstances, it was no surprise that The Case for War, featuring neoconservative Bush adviser Perle, became a favorite target for CPB critics.
“I think some people think public television belongs to them and they don’t regard me as one of them,” says Perle, currently a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “I think they see my project as an intrusion.”
The film is told from Perle’s point of view and outlines his interventionist foreign policy philosophy, which helped shape U.S. strategy on Iraq. But the WETA team — acting as e.p.’s for the series, tuning the films for PBS acceptance — pushed to include sequences of Perle talking with smart, forceful critics of his beliefs. WETA was pleased with the results.
“One thing I’ll say for Richard,” Eaton says, “he’s not afraid to confront his critics, and no one else who backed the Administration policy has been prepared to do that.”
“There’s no question that the neocons were important in crafting the radical shape the policy took,” MacNeil says. “I see no reason why we shouldn’t hear from one.”
Not everyone agrees. Some viewers have been eager to argue with Perle during discussions at Crossroads screenings, and at least one had to be removed after disrupting an event at New York’s 92nd Street Y in January.
Other Crossroads films, such as Faith Without Fear, which urges Muslims to choose moderation and tolerance, inspired contempt in other quarters. Muslims protested at a screening in Detroit where Irshad Manji, the film’s central figure, was speaking. It could have been worse: Series producers nixed her plan to include in her film the Islam-skewering Danish cartoons that sparked riots in the Middle East. “We felt it was provocative for the sake of being provocative,” Bieber says.
In other cases, it was the producers who did the protesting. Gaffney called in to WAMU’s nationally distributed Diane Rehm Show last week — MacNeil was the guest — to repeat his complaints that PBS was suppressing his film.
The series producers and CPB still consider Islam and Islamists, which MacNeil described to Current as “heavily slanted,” to be a work in progress. Gaffney didn’t return calls for comment.
There have been other eyebrow-raising moments. WETA reprimanded one of Crossroads’ outside advisers for showing clips of a film to colleagues without the producer’s permission.
Karl Zinsmeister, Warriors’ original producer and an editor at the American Enterprise Institute, recused himself from the project last year when President Bush hired him as a domestic policy adviser. His wife, Ann, took over as e.p.
“It’s a little frustrating that the programs getting the most attention are the ones that are controversial,” says Richard Robbins, whose Operation Homecoming dramatizes soldiers’ war stories and airs the same night as Warriors. “I sort of wish our noncontroversial film was getting more exposure.”
WETA says the films are provocative individually but they’re balanced as a group. Others remain unconvinced.
“The problem with PBS is that some doors are open and others are barred,” says Jim Naureckas, who edits Extra!, the magazine published by FAIR, the progressive media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Crossroads exemplifies PBS’s broader tendency to limit its controversial content to the right-wing variety, he says.
“There’s not a contingent in Congress asking for controversial left-wing views, so the argument for diversity and a wide range of viewpoints only works in one direction,” he says. “So what you end up with is a spectrum that goes from Richard Perle to Jim Lehrer.”
In other words, don’t expect the Crossroads films to dispel all complaints about either the project or public TV’s politics.
That’s fine with Pack, the project’s architect. He set up Crossroads to be controversial, he says, in the sense that it would confront viewers with ideologies and opinions they might not share.
“With these issues on which Americans are making generational decisions, it’s very important that they be more than fully informed,” he says. “They should face a full array of perspectives.
MacNeil, for one, thinks Crossroads will meet its ambitious goals.
“Yes the conception and gestation of this have been unorthodox, to say the least,” he says. “But I think the baby’s going to be beautiful.”
The series trailer was produced by Montgomery & Co. Creative as stated above. Current regrets that the company name was misstated in the paper's print version.
Web page posted April 11, 2007, revised April 13
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee