Rejected by PBS, Film on Islam Revived by CPB

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2007

In an uprecedented move, the agency that oversees public broadcasting has stepped in to arrange distribution for a TV documentary on Islam that PBS had rejected as unworthy.

The federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting helped find a new distributor for "Islam vs. Islamists: Voices From the Muslim Center" after seven Republican members of Congress and one Democrat demanded that CPB ask PBS to air it or release it elsewhere.

The 52-minute film contends that moderate Muslims are being intimidated by radical Islamists in several Western democracies, including the United States.

The dispute over the film thrust CPB into the middle of a politically charged affair. The film's producers claim that PBS and its producing station, WETA, both of Arlington, are kowtowing to conservative Muslims in "suppressing" the film. In an interview yesterday, Frank Gaffney Jr., one of the film's executive producers, said PBS and WETA were predisposed against it on personal and ideological grounds.

"I am a person they regard as a conservative, and they regard the airwaves as a liberal domain," said Gaffney, a former Reagan administration defense official who now runs the Center for Security Policy.

WETA and PBS officials denied this yesterday. "We had no problem with the concept or ideology," said WETA spokeswoman Mary Stewart. "It was about filmmaking and documentary standards. We had no problem with the argument laid out in the film."

To break the logjam over the documentary, CPB this week released the film to Oregon Public Broadcasting, which will distribute it to stations around the country. The Oregon broadcaster also will stage a panel discussion about issues raised in the film that will run immediately afterward.

Although distribution by the Oregon group ensures that some viewers will eventually see "Islam vs. Islamists," it is likely to be far fewer than if PBS had carried it. While PBS doesn't control what public TV stations air, it does provide national distribution, scheduling coordination among public stations and promotional clout. What's more, public stations tend to view programs PBS distributes as high quality.

CPB's role in arranging distribution for a rejected program is apparently unprecedented. Its role is also unusual in other respects. The private, federally chartered agency was set up by Congress in the 1960s to buffer public stations from political pressure. Congress also provides an annual appropriation to public broadcasters.

Yet the timing of CPB's action suggests it was under political pressure. Earlier this month, the agency was asked by eight members of Congress why CPB did not allow the producers to seek another distributor (the Fox News Channel reportedly had expressed interest in the film). The issue also was raised last month during a House hearing on CPB funding.

A CPB spokesman, Michael Levy, said yesterday that the letter from the members of Congress played no role "whatsoever" in the agency's actions. He said CPB had invested $675,000 in the film as part of the "America at a Crossroads" project about the impact of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. It stepped in to ensure that the film was distributed to public stations, he said, especially after a commercial broadcaster had expressed interest in it.

"We are the stewards of the public's investment in public broadcasting," Levy said, "and we made a substantial investment in this film."

However, CPB's actions raised suspicions that it was protecting a project favored by Republicans. The agency in 2005 faced complaints that it was politicizing public broadcasting after its former chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson, repeatedly criticized PBS and National Public Radio programs for an allegedly liberal tilt. Tomlinson helped appoint CPB's current president, Patricia Harrison, a former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee.

"It appears that CPB's leaders -- prominent Republicans -- are engaged in a behind-the-scenes effort to secure an air date for a program appealing to their own conservative constituencies," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit watchdog group. "Congress needs to investigate the corporation's own problems with fairness and balance."

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