Kevin Mooney | Staff Writer | Thursday, August 30, 2007
Martyn Burke, director of documentary films at ABG Films, and Frank Gaffney, president of the conservative Center for Security Policy, produced a documentary for a PBS series - "America at a Crossroads" - that focused on Muslims in America, Europe, and Canada who speak out against Islamist extremists.
Their documentary, "Islam versus Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center," was, after a protracted battle, rejected in April by WETA, the PBS affiliate in Washington, D.C.
The film is going to air on an Oregon PBS affiliate this month, and some other affiliates may run it as well. However, it is now known that PBS had an unedited version of the film reviewed by the radical Nation of Islam prior to PBS's decision to cancel the documentary.
The Nation of Islam (NOI) and its long-time leader Rev. Louis Farrakhan have a history of espousing racism and anti-Semitism. Farrakhan stepped down as NOI's leader in 2006 for health reasons.
PBS's decision to pass the film to NOI for review was a serious "breach of journalistic ethics," said Burke.
"Is there anyone who understands that no functioning journalist - or network, or publication can ever allow this kind of outrageous action?" Burke wrote in an e-mail to PBS officials.
"This utterly undermines any journalistic independence. ... It virtually hands the story to the subject and allows them to become an active party in shaping it. That is advertising, not journalism. Is that not obvious?" he added.
Burke noted that PBS hired Aminah McCloud as an adviser for the "Crossroads" series. McCloud, director of Islamic World Studies at DePaul University, is a "radical professor," according to Burke, and it was she who gave a "rough cut" of the documentary to the Nation of Islam.
Burke, in an interview with Cybercast News Service, further said that the PBS producers and advisers involved in the "America at a Crossroads" series were favorably disposed to the Islamist perspective and this was detrimental to the filmmaking. PBS officials claimed the "Muslim Center" film, a part of the series, was overly subjective and one-sided. They thus decided against airing it as part of the series. ( )
In addition, Jeff Bieber, WETA's executive producer, demanded that Gaffney and his CSP colleague Alex Alexiev - a national security expert who specializes in Islamic extremism - be fired from the filmmaking because they are conservatives, said Burke.
But "I'm not going to fire anyone from the right or the left unless their politics start skewing the truth as we understand it," Burke said. "So, when WETA asked me 'don't you check into the politics of the people you work with?' I said I can't believe I'm hearing this in America."
When PBS officials failed to blacklist conservatives associated with the project, they shifted strategy and began to attack the film directly, Gaffney told Cybercast News Service in an interview. Leo Eaton, the "Crossroads" producer for WETA, and other PBS officials pushed for editorial changes that would dilute the over-arching theme and central message of the film, said Gaffney.
The criticisms Eaton presented on behalf of PBS-WETA in a series of notes called for significant modifications to the content - changes that would portray Islamic extremists in a favorable manner, detached from reality, according to Burke and his CSP partners.
"What began as a struggle to prevent people like me from playing in the left's sandbox at PBS mutated into a concerted effort to ensure that a film that told the story of anti-Islamist Muslims never made it on the air," said Gaffney.
"I am personally committed to preventing PBS from doing business the way it has been doing it up until now. There's no doubt that part of what was going on at PBS with our film was a naked antipathy toward conservatives," he added.
A letter from Sharon Percy Rockefeller, president and CEO of WETA, to Gaffney was dismissive of the concerns the filmmakers expressed over the hiring of McCloud and her subsequent activities.
With regard to McCloud's decision to exhibit a portion of the film to the Nation of Islam, Rockefeller wrote: "I am informed that while she regrets causing you and WETA any concern, she thought it was her duty as an advisor to check out the accuracy of information she believed to be incorrect, both for the benefit of WETA and the show producers."
The "Crossroads" series was conceived and financed through the liberal Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) with $20 million in federal funds. The Burke and Gaffney film, "Islam versus Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center," cost $675,000.
Allegations directed against public television officials that touch on questions of journalistic ethics have caught the attention of key congressional figures who are now seeking an investigation.
In a letter to Kenneth Konz, the inspector general for CPB, three Republican senators and two Republican representatives expressed concern over apparent conflicts of interest that may have affected PBS's decision to not run the "Muslim Center" in the series.
When the "Crossroads" project was initially launched, top officials within CPB, including former Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson, expressed a strong desire to bring in a mix of views, including conservative voices, not traditionally heard on public television.
Tomlinson resigned in 2005 after an inspector general's report raised issues about some of his political activities.
Concerning this mix of views, it "was an initiative that came from CPB that did not necessarily have the concurrence of PBS," said Steve Bass, president and CEO of the Oregon Public Broadcasting System, which is now airing the "Muslim Center" film.
"The fact that you are broadening the pool of people involved in the film series and casting a wider net is almost by definition going to cause some problems," he said.
The creative and political differences that typically beset film projects were further exacerbated in the case "Islam vs. Islamists," Bass surmised, because public money was involved.
"We were attacked for having a point of view, which is astonishing since my understanding is that by definition documentaries have a point of view," said Burke.
"We set out to answer a simple question: Where are the moderate Muslims? What we found is they are speaking out, but they are speaking out in a vacuum and often at great peril and always with great difficultly," Burke added.
In his written correspondence with the filmmakers, Eaton described the film as a "one-sided narrative" that featured the conflict between so-called moderates and extremists in "very subjective and very claustrophobic terms."
For his part, Burke told Cybercast News Service that "wherever possible" anyone in the film advocated radical behavior was permitted to say so at length.
Although he found the film to be "quite compelling" and worthy of airtime, Bass said he felt some of the proposed changes the filmmakers were asked to make could have improved the overall product.
"If I found any fault with it, there were parts of the story that to me needed a little bit more information," he said.
"The film assumed a level of understanding on the part of the viewer that may not be there universally. That's why we decided to add the panel discussion. We think it poses the film in a greater base of understanding with more information," Bass added.
A panel discussion featuring Zuhdi Jasser, co-founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AISD), Rafia Zakaria, an associate executive director of the Muslim Alliance of Indiana, and Ahmed Rehab, the executive director of CAIR in Chicago has been produced to run alongside the film.
But individual stations are free to decide whether or not to include the panel, Bass explained.
Although Burke and Gaffney think the film's treatment at WETA warrants further investigation, they agree "Islam vs. the Islamists" has the potential to reach an even larger audience than it otherwise would have if aired as was originally intended on the "Crossroads Series."
Cybercast News Service attempted to contact Eaton and Bieber via e-mail, but did not receive a response.
PBS 'Sympathetic' to Radical Islamists, Filmmakers Say (Aug. 30, 2007)
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