Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A 52-minute documentary film exploring the struggles of moderate American Muslims at the hands of their radical brethren has also become a showcase for the struggles between right and left in the news media.

The producers of “Islam vs. Islamists” say their taxpayer-funded film has been shelved by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in “an ideological vendetta,” and because the production team includes conservative columnist Frank Gaffney Jr., founder of the Center for Security Policy.

“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 different agenda don’t get on the air,” Mr. Gaffney said yesterday. “The public ought to be allowed to see a film which PBS doesn’t want them to see.”

His partner Martyn Burke also accused CPB and PBS of stifling the film “on political grounds.”

CPB says the film simply needs work but stands a chance to be aired eventually as a “stand-alone” program in the future. ” ‘Islam vs. Islamists’ has not been canceled. It is a work in progress,” said CPB spokesman Michael Levy.

“I am incredulous that PBS would invest so much of our tax money into contracting professionals for a documentary on a subject — the struggle for the soul of Islam — which is one of the most vital debates of the 21st century and then censor its release,” said Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, chairman of the Arizona-based American Islamic Forum for Democracy who is featured in the documentary.

“Until mainstream media and mainstream America understands the need to help this debate and expose the plight of moderates who push back against the Islamists within the Muslim community, we will continue to lose ground against militant Islamism,” Dr. Jasser said. “The censorship of this documentary tells us a great deal about the level to which our government is facilitating the ideology of Islamism which runs directly counter to our foundations of Americanism.”

Originally, the film was intended to be shown on “America at a Crossroads,” a six-night series which begins Sunday. The series comprises 11 independently produced films depicting the political and cultural complexities of a post-September 11 nation. Mr. Gaffney and partners Mr. Burke and Alex Alexiev received $675,000 in funding last year, ultimately producing an unvarnished look at Islamic fundamentalist threats and intimidation of some Muslims.

Their work did not go over well with Leo Eaton, the series producer, or Jeff Bieber, executive producer at WETA, where the series originated. Mr. Gaffney received a series of critical “notes” between November and February which said, among other things, that the film would “demonize Islam” and promote public fear of Islamic organizations.

The critique, Mr. Gaffney said in a March 6 rebuttal, “is itself ‘a point of view’ … an apologia for Islamist extremism.”

Mr. Gaffney continued, “This documentary has been the subject of an ideological vendetta.” He later accused CPB and PBS of suppressing the content and message of the film and ignoring the public interest.

Officials counter that there simply wasn’t room.

“We had only 11 hours of airtime with 21 approved film projects. There are other productions which were also not included, and this is just one of them,” said Mary Stewart, vice president of external affairs at WETA. “This is a strong film, but they need to work on it. It does stand a chance of being aired in the future.”

The series, she said, “embraces a variety of points of view.” In particular, Ms. Stewart cited “The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom,” which follows former defense official Richard Perle’s public appearances after September 11 which dwell on the merits of neoconservative foreign policy. That film airs on Tuesday.

“These guys are 100 percent wrong,” one broadcast source said of Mr. Gaffney’s objections. “This is the case of one disappointed filmmaker and his political partner overreacting.”

Still, Mr. Gaffney’s offering has received some high-powered applause. Rep. James T. Walsh, New York Republican, screened then praised the film during a March 21 House hearing on CPB funding. Mr. Walsh also voiced his suspicions about CPB and PBS, saying producer Mr. Eaton has “family ties to a British Islamist group” and “overtly tried to change the context of the film.”

The “Crossroads” series itself has a complicated pedigree.

It was created in 2004 and funded with $20 million in federal grants while Kenneth Tomlinson was president of CPB; a total of 430 proposals from independent filmmakers were received and 21 were accepted for development. Mr. Tomlinson was forced to resign the following year after an internal CPB accused him using a “political test” to staff his top level administration and influence the content of some programming.

Mr. Gaffney, who is columnist for The Washington Times, also had a recent scrape with media-borne complications after he erroneously attributed a quote about the boundaries of wartime treason to Abraham Lincoln in a Feb. 14 column. The quote instead came from Michael Waller in a 2003 article in Insight, a publication of The Times.

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