For a while there, it was beginning to look like the end of civilization, as we know it. Freedom of the press, the patriotism of the media, crucial economic interests, valued relations with a vital ally, the good will of the Islamic world -- all this and more seemed to hang on the decision of the Public Broadcasting Service to show a "docudrama" called "Death of a Princess," which was known to be offensive to the Saudi Arabian government.
Hadn't the Saudis already visited diplomatic and economic reprisals upon Great Britain for showing the film? Hadn't they lodged a formal protest at the State Department? Mobil Oil (a significant underwriter of public television) and leading members of Congress (also a principal provider of funds) were putting the heat on PBS to think twice. When Acting Secretary of State Warren Christopher passed the Saudi protest along to PBS with a covering letter, it had the look -- to The New York Times -- of a sellout of the Constitution, quite possibly on direct orders from the president himself.
A former chairman of the joint chiefs warned of a return to gas lines. PBS stations were pounded with phone calls from anguished private citizens as between a free press and the right to drive, their overwhelming priority was freely available gasoline. An official at Boston's WGBH, which co-produced the film with a British company, reported "more public attention than anything else on anybody's air, with the possible exception of "Roots.'"
Well, the show went on, as it was bound to do. The First Amendment lives. As of this writing, the Saudi oil still flows. Saudi-American relations remain intact. At public television switchboards, applause heavily outweighed abuse, and record ratings, anywhere from four to 10 times normal, were reported in Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington. The center held.
What are we to make of this? A reaffirmation, it seems to me, of a rule that too many people in American public life have trouble remembering when confronted with a choice between our own values and principles and those of other societies: almost invariably we do better when we hold true to our own, even at the risk that the exercise of free expression in this country may offend a foreign friend or complicate a delicate diplomatic relationship.
The uproar over "Death of a Princess" nicely makes the point. Even as public television stations in South Carolina were deciding to suppress the film as a "courtesy" to former governor John West, who is the current U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, their native son was quietly explaining the American way of life to the authorities in Riyadh, with some success. The Saudi protest, as it finally emerged, reflected considerably more understanding of the American forces at work and the values involved than a quarter-page Mobil ad urging that the film not be shown.
"We recognize your constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and expression and it is not my purpose to suggest any infringements upon those rights," wrote the Saudi ambassador to Washington. Citing "fictitious items and distortions" in the film (which is a quasi-fictional reenactment of a two-and-a-half-year-old story of the executions of a Saudi princess and her commoner lover for adultery), the ambassador simply expressed his "trust" that PBS "not report them to the American public as fact."
As for the Christopher letter, it carefully disavowed any intention of censorship and expressed "no doubt" that PBS would "assure that viewers are given a full and balanced presentation." While there was vigorous debate at the State Department over the wisdom of attaching any covering letter, the recommendation that there be one came from Christopher to the White House, and not the other way around. In any event it had no particularly chilling effect on the people at PBS, whose sensitivity to government interference is, to say the least, acute.
Well before the arrival of the Saudi protest and the Christopher note, WGBH had begun assembling a panel of experts on Arabism and Islam for a one-hour critique right after the film was shown. The film itself was carefully labeled, not once but twice, as a "dramatization," with actors, and not a "news report."
In short, the "crisis" that swirled around the "Death of a Princess" for almost two weeks had much in common with the film itself -- theatrics, playing for effect, tendentiousness and at least some of the essential fraudulence of the "docudrama" art form. The Saudis, it is thought, having vented their wrath on the British, had to say something -- but not too much -- about the American showing of a film they believe to be genuinely insulting to them. So did Mobil, which does very big business with Saudi Arabia, and is eager to do even more. So did Christopher, who had to balance conflicting interests. So, I suppose, did the congressional custodians of our national security.
The real threat to public television would come in the form of some retaliatory cutback in private or federal government contributions. PBS officials show no sign of concern about that.