PBS: Thou shalt not scrutinize Islam

I’ve been meaning to write about this. I happened to catch Frank Gaffney on C-SPAN a few weeks ago talking about a documentary he helped produce, which was at first selected and funded by PBS and then dumped because of politics. The film is called “Islam vs. Islamists: Voices From the Muslim Center”. It’s an analysis of the struggle for the soul of Islam between moderates and extremists, offering a perspective on the enemy we face as a nation (ie. the islamist extremists). It was supposed to be part of the PBS series “America At A Crossroads”, but was not included when the series finally aired.

The story that Gaffney tells is that each of the films that was funded by PBS was approved by a selection committee. Hundreds of proposals came in. Only a handful were selected for funding and production. “Islam vs. Islamists” was one of those selected. The documentary filmmakers for each of the selected documentaries then went out and made their films. The expectation was that each of them would ultimately be aired by PBS as part of the series. This was the case for every film, except for “Islam vs. Islamists”. It was funded and completed, but not aired. The reason sounds like a sordid tale of internal corporate politics.

The way Gaffney tells it, the selection committee was originally made up of a diverse panel. I can’t remember all of the names on it, but I remember he said that Mara Liasson, a journalist for NPR, was part of it. They selected “Islam vs. Islamists” to be funded and produced, along with the others. During the filming process the political game began. The former head of PBS was ousted by a political battle, with antagonists alleging impropriety unrelated to this project, though the controversy over this film may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back (no pun intended) regarding his tenure. Robert MacNeil (for those who remember the “MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour”, before it became “The News Hour With Jim Lehrer”) and some others who worked within PBS protested this film to the top brass. I think Gaffney said MacNeil alleged that the film was unbalanced and did not meet the editorial standards of PBS. The selection committee, which had originally approved “Islam vs. Islamists” was completely replaced with new people, some of whom had strong ties to radical islamist organizations. MacNeil offered to make a different documentary to replace “Islam vs. Islamists” in the series. His film was approved and ultimately aired (though I forget what it was called). According to Gaffney, MacNeil’s piece did not air the voices of moderate Muslims, but instead featured only the extremists, and cast them in a sympathetic light. Gaffney said that for all practical purposes it was “a propaganda piece” for the islamists.

According to Gaffney he was not involved in the day to day activities of filming “Islam vs. Islamists”. From how he described his role, he sounded like a producer, providing support for the film’s production. He is now championing it so that people can see it. Yet, during production, the filmmakers were asked about their association with Gaffney and other conservatives, by the PBS staff. One asked the director, Martyn Burke, “Don’t you pay attention to the political affiliations of those you work with?” His answer was “No”. Gaffney was struck that the question was even asked. It suggested a built-in bias and suspicion against conservative thinkers on the part of those working at PBS. Maybe the true intent was to ask about associations with Gaffney, who has worked for a think tank that is focused on opposing the islamists.

In the C-SPAN interview Gaffney also got into a possible contradiction in his story. A documentary film about Richard Perle and his views on the War on Terror was made and included in the “America At A Crossroads” series. Perle is often branded a so-called “Neo-Conservative”. He’s also been tagged as an “architect of the Iraq war”, a distinction he denies in the piece. How come the piece on him was aired if there was a bias against conservatives at the network? Gaffney delved deeper into the problem. He said that the crux of the controversy was that PBS had already made up its mind about Islam: that the people whom Gaffney calls “the islamists” are the only true Muslims. The people whom Gaffney calls “moderates” are not true Muslims, but outsiders to the religion who are just critics of Islam. Though I don’t think Gaffney talked about it, I suspect multiculturalism played a part in this. The sense I got from listening to Gaffney was that some at PBS felt uncomfortable with “Christians” (I don’t know if everyone involved was Christian) scrutinizing Islam, that it would not be a fair portrayal of the religion. The overall message that came through was “We cannot judge, and we cannot know what Islam is, unless we were Muslims ourselves.” The Muslims that PBS brought in to be a part of the process had close ties to extremists, according to Gaffney. So they set the standard for PBS for who a real Muslim is.

PBS offered to air “Islam vs. Islamists” if the documentary filmmakers would agree to “portray the ‘islamists’ in a fairer light”. Gaffney said that in the documentary as it was, the extremists got their due. He said, “We let them speak in their own words.” He said that PBS just wanted them portrayed in a more sympathetic light, which is what they got in MacNeil’s piece.

Gaffney had tried to obtain the rights to “Islam vs. Islamists”, so that he could try to find other networks that would air it. I’m not sure if he sued. I remember Gaffney saying something about breach of contract. In May PBS announced that it had released the film to Oregon Public Broadcasting, that it would be made a part of their library, and that any PBS station could get it upon request. This apparently thwarted Gaffney’s attempt to get the film rights. He said that it also consigned the film to a black hole. He said that normally most PBS stations broadcast what the national PBS headquarters sends to them. PBS distributes the programs nationally. This “available on request” scheme, he says, ensures that the film will likely not be seen by most PBS viewers. There have been a few private screenings of this documentary.

Gaffney seemed passionate about the notion that one of the things he hoped would be accomplished by people viewing this film is that people would hear from the moderate Muslims, whose voices are so often silenced. If we are going to win the War on Terror, it’s the moderates who are going to need our support. He saw this action on PBS’s part as a setback in that goal.

I personally would like to see it. I think one of the strongest arguments in favor of broadcasting it is that taxpayer money was spent to create it. We should have the right to see it.

Here is an interview with Martyn Burke that I was able to find on the web. He tells some of the same story Gaffney did.

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5 Responses to PBS: Thou shalt not scrutinize Islam

  1. ChenZhen says:

    Great post. On the one hand, one wants to put as informative and objective doc together as possible, on the other, one doesn’t want to be responsible for starting a riot. The fact that this was such a seemingly agonizing decision is in itself very telling.

  2. PIBoulder says:

    @ChenZhen:

    Re: Not wanting to start a riot

    Yes, I’ve been hearing that explanation a lot whenever some network doesn’t want to say something about Islam or Muslims. So much for freedom of speech, eh? Isn’t that one of the rights our govenment is supposed to protect? I can understand private networks censoring something for editorial reasons: it’s just not a message they want to send out. The hitch here is that PBS and its productions are partly paid for by public money. Maybe we have so little confidence in our government that we don’t believe it can even protect speech.

    You would think that with some of us feeling so squeemish about how we’re conducting the War on Terror that we would check ourselves and take a look at how vulnerable our rights are, not just from the government, but from the jihadists as well. At least our government operates under the pretext that it’s supposed to protect those rights. The jihadists have no such pretense. Yet what I see happening is the opposite of good sense: Some of us complain endlessly about how we’re conducting the war, how the government is taking away our rights, and remain silent about jihadists, or at least toe a party line that the extremists won’t get upset over, because we feel directly threatened by them.

    I’m noticing a behavior pattern in our society. In times of uncertainty, when given a choice between dealing with something over which we feel we have less control, and something we feel we have more control, like our government, we expend a lot of energy trying to wrest control of the thing we feel we have more control over, even if attempting to do that is an unproductive waste of time, and won’t solve our problems.

  3. heroyalwhyness says:

    It appears that this documentary may be airing on Fox News Saturday at 9pm eastern.

  4. Mark Miller says:

    @heroyalwhyness:

    There’s been some confusion about that. Fox News originally said they were airing the “documentary PBS banned”, but it’s not the documentary Gaffney was talking about. The gist I get is that Gaffney and Co. actually produced two documentaries. One was called “Muslims Against Jihad”, the 2nd hour of which was aired on Fox News on Sunday evening (they decided not to air it on Saturday in order to cover the story of the pregnant woman who was murdered). The other was a “supplemental” film called “Islam vs. Islamists”. This is the one that was supposed to be aired on PBS, but was sidelined due to events I talk about in my post. That has not been seen yet, except at a few private screenings. Both were produced by ABG Films.

    During the Fox News show that aired “Muslims Against Jihad”, E. D. Hill interviewed Gaffney and Burke. What they showed of the interview was a brief summary of what took place at PBS. At the end of the show Hill said that OPB was planning on distributing “Islam vs. Islamists” to local PBS affiliates in August, or sometime in the fall. So perhaps people will see it then.

  5. […] 12 (PBS affiliate) shows “Islam vs. Islamists” A while back I wrote a post criticizing PBS for not showing “Islam vs. Islamists: Voices From The Muslim Center”. PBS released the […]

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