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MEDIA-US: Public Broadcaster Pulls TV Documentary on Islamism

Khody Akhavi

WASHINGTON, Apr 18 2007 (IPS) - The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has dropped a documentary film purporting to show the struggles of U.S. “moderate” Muslims against Islamic extremists from a television series airing this week on more than 300 U.S. public television stations.

No sooner had PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) excluded “Islam vs. Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Centre” from the series “America at a Crossroads” than the film’s producers accused the station of suppressing their views as part of “an ideological vendetta.”

“This is a well-documented, textbook case of the abuse of taxpayer funding by elements in the public broadcasting system to advocate their agenda and ensure that people who have a different agenda don’t get on the air,” said Frank Gaffney, one of the film’s producers, as quoted in the conservative Washington Times. “The public ought to be allowed to see a film which PBS doesn’t want them to see.”

“Islam vs. Islamists” was one of 21 documentaries commissioned by the CPB, a private, congressionally charted agency that administers federal money for public radio and television. The effort provided 20 million dollars in grants for independent filmmakers to develop films about the “challenges and opportunities America faces in the wake of the September 11 attacks,” according to CPB website.

The film was not selected because of what PBS executives described as editorial deficiencies.

“In fairness to Mr. Gaffney, we recognise that he believes his film is completed,” CPB spokeswoman Louise Filkins told IPS. “Public broadcasting officials have expressed concerns that the film may not comply with established PBS standards.”

Executives at WETA, the Washington D.C. TV station overseeing the series for PBS, say the documentary was cut because its agenda was irresponsible and lacked the obligation of fairness.

“The writing is alarmist and overreaching without adequate context and specific information to justify the tone and degree of generalisation,” wrote Crossroads series producer Leo Eaton to Gaffney in an evaluation of the documentary’s final cut. “There are awkwardly phrased assertions, convoluted reasoning, and implications of connections between subjects without evidence.”

A series of written exchanges between PBS and Gaffney, posted on the right-wing website familysecuritymatters.org, underscores the fundamental conflict between the station and the film’s producers. According to Gaffney, the problem is not that his film has “a point of view.”

“Rather, it is that mine is perceived to be other than a left-wing one,” he wrote in a memo to Michael Pack, senior vice president of television programming at CPB.

Aminah Beverly McCloud, the director of the Islamic Studies program at DePaul University in Chicago, who advised WETA on the Crossroads Initiative, told IPS that “Islam vs. Islamists” touched on a topic little explored in the media, but that the film lacked coherence and ultimately did not fit with Crossroads main theme.

“It’s not about America, and it’s not about the war on terror. It’s basically the experiences of individuals, with no real explanation of what the topic is,” McCloud said.

“It’s not about a left bias or a right bias, or else Richard Perle’s film wouldn’t have been there,” she added, referring to “The Case for War: In Defence of Freedom,” a film by Bush administration official Perle, that advocates neoconservative policies and was one of those selected by CPB.

The Crossroads initiative developed amidst Republican efforts to diversify the voices in public television by financing more conservative programming to balance a schedule that former CPB chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson saw as overly liberal. Tomlinson resigned in November 2005 after the agency’s inspector general released a report critical of his leadership, including evidence that he had violated the organisation’s ethical code by using “political tests” in the hiring of high-level candidates.

Gaffney, who is also the president of the hawkish Centre for Security Policy, and his co-producer Alex Alexiev, CSP’s vice president, approached Canadian novelist and filmmaker Martyn Burke to make the film with 675,000 dollars in U.S. taxpayer funds.

The right-wing Washington-based think tank seeks to “undermine the ideological foundations of totalitarianism and Islamist extremism,” according to its website. CSP’s advisory council also includes current and former high-level aides in the George W. Bush administration, such as Eliot Abrams and Douglas Feith.

The think tank’s initiatives include “The Islamist Project,” which aims to research and raise awareness about “the threat of Islamofascism.” CSP views “non-Islamist Muslims” as natural allies in the fight against “the repressive, totalitarian ideology of Islamists,” according to its website.

In an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Burke argued that his film became the target of “almost hysterical critiques” from WETA.

“What PBS/WETA attacked us on was they wanted us, in our opinion, to become virtually apologists for the Islamists, those who are the fundamentalists in this world,” he said. “They demanded I fire my two partners (Frank Gaffney an Alex Alexiev), who brought me into this film, because my partners were conservative.”

Crossroads series producer Leo Eaton called Burke’s claims that he was asked to fire Gaffney and Alexiev because of their political opinions “totally misleading.” In a letter to the editor published in the Washington Times, Eaton wrote that both PBS and CPB expressed initial concerns that the editorial focus of the film “too closely echoed” the opinions of the producers, who hold official positions at the Centre for Security Policy.

“It is how Messrs. Gaffney and Burke choose to frame and structure their characters and stories that hasn’t yet met PBS standards,” Eaton wrote. “[They] have chosen to ‘attack the messenger’ rather than trying to correct the message.”

In an op-ed in Tuesday’s Washington Times, Gaffney reiterated his complaint that “Islam vs. Islamists” was being suppressed and went on to equate PBS’s refusal to air the film with the recent repression by government riot police of Russian protesters in Moscow’s Pushkin Square. More than 200 protesters, including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, were arrested during the clashes.

“I have watched with horror as techniques out of Mr. [Vladimir] Putin’s playbook have been applied to prevent the telling of the story of freedom-loving Muslims who – like the Kasparovs of Russia – warn about the ominous rise of totalitarian ideologies in their communities, and what that portends for the rest of us,” said Gaffney.

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