PBS Officials, Conservatives Maintain Dispute Over Radical Islam Documentary

CORRECTION (17:50 EDT, Sept. 12): In the original entry, quotes attributed to PBS ombudsman Michael Getler should have been attributed to Jeff Bieber, vice president for news and public affairs at WETA, the Washington, D.C. affiliate of PBS. We regret the error and any confusion it may have caused.

Where conservatives see "Islamist sympathizers" and "egregious conflicts of interest at work" officials with the public broadcasting system see "respected authorities" plying their trade on behalf of objective journalism.

A central complaint registered against PBS concerns the hiring of two outside advisors charged with the responsibility of reviewing films that were under consideration for inclusion the "America at a Crossroads" series this past April.

Martyn Burke, director of documentary films at ABG Films, and Frank Gaffney, president of the conservative Center for Security Policy, and Gaffney's colleague Alex Alexiev, also with CSP, collaborated together in producing the documentary for the series entitled: "Islam versus Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center."

The filmmakers claim PBS officials suppressed their film and decided against including it in the 11 part "Crossroads" series on the basis of ideological differences. The documentary highlights the struggle of Muslims in Europe, Canada and America who speak out against extremists. See (http://www.freethefilm.net/) for additional background.

Robert MacNeil, of MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour fame, described the film as being "highly one-sided" and "alarmist" during an appearance on National Public Radio (NPR) earlier this year. This sentiment was shared by other high level PBS operatives including Leo Eaton, the Crossroads series producer for WETA, the PBS affiliate in Washington D.C.

"Moderation and extremism depends on where you stand," Eaton argued in a written note addressed to Burke. The film failed the "most basic Journalism 101 test," he wrote because it presented a "one-sided narrative."

For his part, Burke said in an interview anyone called out for advocating radical behavior in his film was then given his say so at length. The over-arching purpose of the documentary was to tell the story of moderate Muslims and to help viewers understand why their views are not widely circulated.

"We began with the premise that they [moderates] are speaking out, but they are speaking out with great difficulty and often putting themselves in great peril," Burke said. "Wherever I could I went to people who were opposing the moderates and we let them speak. We did not cut them down in the editing to skew their worth."

The "Crossroads" series was conceived and financed through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) with $20 million in federal funds. 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.

But Tomlinson resigned in 2005 after an inspector general's report criticized some of his activities. What began as a promising endeavor disintegrated when the project moved within the purview of WETA, the PBS affiliate in Washington D.C., Burke explained.

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, Burke claimed. PBS has acknowledged expressing reservations over the role Gaffney and Alexiev were assigned in the filmmaking process.

The "strong advocacy positions" CSP held on the very issues covered in the film were cause for concern, Bieber explained in a written response. While PBS eventually agreed to keep Gaffney and Alexiev on board as executive producers, their role made it necessary to maintain "careful scrutiny of the film to insure it was indeed fair and accurate," he wrote.

But instead of working to elevate standards PBS sought significant modifications that would ultimately dilute the film's central message, while at the same time incorporating changes that portrayed Islamic extremists in a favorable manner out of step with reality, Burke contends.

Worse still, he noted, the same PBS film producers raising concerns about a potential conflict of interest involving Gaffney and Alexiev then proceeded to hire outside advisors with unsavory ties to Islamist extremists.

Burke, Gaffney and Alexiev all objected to the hiring of Aminah McCloud, director of Islamic World Studies at DePaul University as adviser for the Crossroads series at WETA. Burke describes her as a "radical professor" and as an "adviser" to Louis Farrakhan, the former leader of the Nation of Islam.

The film team's worst fears were confirmed, Burke said, when McCloud showed a rough cut of the film to the Nation of Islam.

"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, Gaffney and Alexiev also expressed misgivings over the hiring of Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Alexiev, for instance, has claimed in previous editorials that Safi has made radical statements about U.S. foreign policy.

But PBS has defended the hiring decisions and ardently disputes the charges leveled against their advisors.

"Dr. McCloud and Dr. Safi are two respected authorities on Islam..." Bieber wrote. "To state they sympathize with Islamists is truly outrageous."

There are also potential conflicts of interest associated with MacNeil's film "The Muslim Americans," Gaffney said in an interview. Both McCloud and Safi are featured in the documentary, which the ABG team suspects was commissioned right from beginning for purpose of being used as a substitute for "Islam vs. the Islamists."

PBS officials deny this is case. Instead, they claim, the MacNeil film covered topics they felt were left out from other documentaries.

"Not only did they [PBS] suppress our film, but they put in MacNeil's film, which was unmistakably pro-Islamist," Gaffney said. "It's hard to dispute the idea that there was an agenda here hostile in the extreme toward the idea of courageous anti-Islamist Muslims telling their story."

The code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) does emphasize the need to avoid conflicts of interest. This includes both "real or perceived" conflicts (http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp).

Given the unambiguous policy perspective of Gaffney's organization, PBS officials felt it was appropriate for them to voice concern over the role Gaffney and Alexiev were slated to play.

Although he set down deliberate markers concerning film content, and editorial direction, right from outset, the "creative process" was greatly fueled by having diverse viewpoints included, Burke explained. "Islam vs. the Islamists" packaged together in manner consistent with vision CPB initially had in mind, he added.

"I'm not going to fire anyone from the right or the left unless their politics start skewing the truth as we understand it," said Burke who describes himself as a `Truman-Kennedy Democrat'. "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 the film team inquired about McCloud's activities and her involvement with the Nation of Islam, PBS officials acknowledged there had been a "breach of ethics." But at the same time, "as a point of clarification" Bieber, claimed in his written response that she only showed a two minute clip for the purpose of verifying facts as opposed to the entire rough cut. The "breach of ethics," did not impact the film, Bieber concluded.

When the film team inquired about McCloud's activities and her involvement with the Nation of Islam, PBS officials acknowledged there had been a "breach of ethics." But at the same time, "as a point of clarification" Bieber also indicated that she only showed a two minute clip for the purpose of verifying facts as opposed to the entire rough cut. The "breach of ethics," did not impact the film, he concluded.

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