I attended an extremely disturbing event Thursday night. It was hosted by WETA, the PBS station in Washington DC, and was part of the national launch of an 11-part PBS series, “America at a Crossroads,” to begin airing April 15. It featured clips from the series followed by a panel discussion with some of those involved in the films, moderated by Robert MacNeil. The panel discussion represented a “wide” spectrum of opinions: all the way from, at one end, suggesting that all Muslims are terrorists to, at the other end, suggesting that some Muslims are not terrorists.
In other words, from what we were shown on Friday, it appears that much of the series contains subtle, intellectually “acceptable” Muslim-bashing. While the title of the series claims that it is focusing on America, many of the clips seemed to be focusing, over and over again, on Islam, largely examining “bad Muslims” (the majority) with a few “good Muslims” thrown in (often consisting of those who bash bad Muslims).
One entire program in the series, funded with federal money dispensed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), is dedicated to Richard Perle, the neoconservative strategist who pushed for “regime-change” in Iraq and is now promoting it once more in Iran. While his opponents are also included in the segment, Perle is given the opportunity to rebut each one; the film was produced by his associate Brian Lapping. The title of the program, “The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom,” seems to indicate a perspective that few facts would support. While only short clips were shown on Friday, Perle’s approving, and welcomed, presence at the screening seems to indicate a happy CPB-PBS-Perle relationship. Happy for Perle that is; not for those of us who are less than pleased at manipulations that destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives, at least, and whose agenda appears to be an Israeli American empire based on a mutilating sword, and whose deathly swath cuts many ways.
At the other end of Friday night’s “A” through “C” gamut of views was Michael Isikoff, whose rebuttal of Perle’s claims about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction was deservedly applauded by the audience. Isikoff’s own clip portrayed him as a crusading investigative reporter, a la Dustin Hoffman in “All the President’s Men.” However, it turned out that Isikoff’s form of crusading reporting was not to uncover presidential malfeasance but to expose “dangerous Muslims,” i.e. those who oppose tyrannical regimes or who dare to suggest that Hamas and Hezbollah are resistance movements opposing brutal Israeli aggression.
Practicing the reverse of A.J. Liebling’s dictum that the duty of journalism is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” Isikoff’s offering in this series appears to be to go after arguably the most attacked community in the US today. A few miles away from where Isikoff was being feted by PBS for his work in exposing “Muslim terrorists,” Sami Al-Arian (who has never been convicted of any crime, but who has spoken out passionately in favor of Palestinian rights) is spending his fourth year in prison, largely in solitary confinement. Perhaps Isikoff will now turn his investigative skills to examining the role of Israel and its partisans in Al-Arian’s persecution and in the Crossroads series itself. He may wish to begin with CPB’s head, Cheryl Halpern, a former chairwoman for the Republican Jewish Coalition, who, according to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, currently sits on the board of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (a spin-off of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), whose husband is a member of AIPAC, and whose family has business interests in Israel. Her predecessor at CPB was similarly solicitous of Israel, as are so many of the neocons now associated with the organization.which brings me to my next point:
It is interesting that in an 11-program series focused largely on the Middle East, no mention is made of the core issue of the region: the enormous injustice perpetrated in 1948 when Israel ethnically cleansed most of the indigenous population, and its ongoing and ruthless efforts in this direction today. While the series focuses on the activities of people who are opposing past and present dispossession, it appears that no mention is made of the oppression they are resisting. It is a little like describing the actions of someone being attacked by wolves without mentioning the wolves.
The issues in the Middle East and 9/11 have far more to do with the usual causes of war, competition over territory and resources, than with religion. Nevertheless, there are religious dimensions to the conflict, and it would certainly be valuable to explicate these. Yet PBS ignores the fact that there are three major religions centered in the Middle East, not just one, and that the major ethnic-cleansing at the region’s core was done in the name of one of the two religions ignored in the series. If one of the religions is going to be examined, with much of the focus on its alleged warts, it seems to me that the other two should be exposed to equal scrutiny. Why was this not done?
Fundamentalist Jewish settlers are among the most fanatic and violent populations in the Middle East, and they proclaim that their violence is endorsed, even required, by their religion. Growing numbers of Christians endorse and fund this violent dispossession of the world’s original Christians and others, and also claim to base their activities on their religion. Similarly, violent Jewish and Christian extremists operate in the United States, some cells defined, even by the US government, as “terrorist.” While at least six out of PBS’s eleven programs focus on Muslims and their connections to violence, not a single program focuses on Jewish extremists who torture farmers, attack children regularly, and whose core beliefs include the proposition that a non-Jew is “not worth the fingernail of a Jew.” Similarly, there is not a single program examining American Christians who advocate violence at home and abroad, and who eagerly anticipate mass slaughter, in the name, they say, of their religion.
Moreover, with all this attention on Islam, one would at least expect some depth from a $20 million, publicly funded series that spends so much time on this subject. Sadly, however, despite a surface appearance of balance, there is much to suggest that PBS has actually provided little more than tokenism. In Washington DC there are numerous scholars on Islam, many of them living and working within a short distance of Friday’s event. Yet, PBS gave us a panel in which two Jews and one Christian informed us about Muslims. While I suspect that no one would accuse the panelists of undue humility, I sincerely doubt that even one would claim to be an Islamic scholar. In addition, for the only program of the series in which a Muslim is the main “expert” on Muslims, PBS has chosen to utilize a woman whose new-found media fame, and resultant fortune, have come from attacking Muslims.
Let me emphasize that I am not accusing PBS of hate speech. I fully anticipate that the 11-part series will contain many uplifting and accurate statements about Islam and Muslims. My expectation is that the series will be skillfully produced, its approach will be intelligent, and its tone will be tolerant. (One of the shows that received Public Broadcasting Corporation funding for the series, by neoconservative Frank Gaffney, a member of the Project for a New American Century who previously worked under Perle, was deemed too openly “alarmist” and has been postponed for further editing. A second program, by yet another neoconservative, Robert Kaplan, is also being held for broadcast later.)
Overall, I expect that the series will provide what appear to the general public to be nuanced and thoughtful answers. My concern is simple: that it will so rarely, if ever, ask the right questions. Most of all, I am worried that in its many hours of programming, the wolves, and these are many and diverse, will be missing.
In some ways, the title of the series is quite correct; America is indeed at a crossroads, but of a very different nature than the series discusses. Either we will continue to let our mainstream media, from the “public” to the commercial, from the liberal to the conservative, manipulate Americans into fear and hatred of Muslims, thereby enabling Israeli and American aggression; or we will stand up and oppose this media manipulation, and refuse to allow the resultant policies of barbarism.
During the question and answer period following the screening, I briefly raised a few of the points mentioned above. (Robert MacNeil responded that PBS probably should have included something about Israel-Palestine; Isikoff misconstrued what I said and then disagreed.) Afterwards, several people came up to tell me they agreed with my comments. One man who expressed deep concern at the targeting of a minority population explained his own experience with such activities: he had fled Nazi Germany at the age of seven.
Instead of undertaking a thinly veiled prosecution of Muslims in which it found some of the accused “not guilty,” it would have been valuable for PBS to do what it claimed: examine ourselves and the divergent paths from which we must choose. Either we will continue in the direction promoted by Perle, Gaffney and others, and continue destroying more and more of the globe, and quite possibly ourselves; or we will turn back to efforts to build a nation and a world in which ethnic agendas and outmoded tribalisms give way to universal principles of justice, equality, and coexistence.
In my opinion the second path is not only the direction that morality decrees, it is also the only path that will ever provide the safety from violence and cruelty that we all seek for ourselves and our children.
If you agree, I hope you will let PBS ombudsman Michael Getler (http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/) know: 703-739-5290. He’s never returned any of my phone calls (even in his previous incarnation as ombudsman at the Washington Post); maybe he’ll return yours.