Could CPB have avoided the public collision of wills over one of the America at a Crossroads documentaries that tainted its $20 million project in 2007 about the post-9/11 world?
Determining that, in effect, was the assignment that Cheryl Halpern, then chair of the CPB Board, gave more than two years ago to the corporation’s semi-autonomous inspector general, Kenneth Konz.
Back then 10 members of Congress also had asked CPB and its IG to determine what kept the program, Islam vs. Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center, from airing among the first batch of Crossroads shows on PBS.
The lead producer of the film, Frank Gaffney, a defense think-tank president and former Pentagon official, had gone public with his dispute. He refused to make changes to the film that presenting station WETA said were necessary to meet PBS editorial standards. After noisily going public with his fight with PBS, Gaffney’s rank in the punditsphere rose considerably; he’s now a regular combatant on MSNBC’s Hardball.
Konz’s report, dated Sept. 30, said his yearlong investigation could not answer some questions about management of the project because his staff and CPB could not locate plans and evaluation documents Konz had expected to find there.
He contends CPB must follow the Public Broadcasting Act requirement that it “make available for public inspection” production grant and RFP guidelines and reasons for grantee selection.
He takes CPB’s failure to do so “very seriously,” he told Current.
“CPB’s policy on retention of documents has been very lax over the years,” he said, “and we didn’t recognize how big of a problem it was until we tried to find these.”
The corporation agreed on this issue in a response by Ted Garcia, CPB senior v.p. CPB has a document retention problem, Garcia wrote, and is developing a more stringent companywide policy.
Crossroads’ chief architect, James S. Denton, no longer at CPB, told Current the documents were prepared and retained in great quantity — in fact, he has copies of many. However, investigators didn’t interview him.
The IG’s yearlong investigation got even less information from PBS and WETA, the presenting station that CPB hired to oversee Crossroads. They refused to cooperate, citing the Public Broadcasting Act’s protection against outside interference into content. The IG’s report said PBS and WETA raised concerns the review would establish precedent for similar probes.
PBS and WETA also declined to discuss details with Current beyond their remarks to the IG. Michael Pack, CPB’s former senior v.p. for TV and widely credited with the idea for Crossroads, declined to comment for the article. Gaffney did not return several telephone calls. A number of former and current PBS and CPB insiders did discuss events on the condition that they would not be identified.
The report also questions CPB handling of the competitive bidding for the oversight and packaging work that WETA did. While CPB sought bids from five major producing stations, the scope of the job multiplied enormously after WETA won it. Although the station initially bid $616,720 to coordinate series development, packaging and broadcast, the report says, the grant award was just over $1 million. The IG could not determine why. CPB ultimately gave WETA nearly $5.9 million for a wider range of services, including promotion, outreach and building the series website — although those tasks were supposed to have been bid separately.
CPB rejected the IG’s advice on this point. “CPB retains the right to modify in its contract the services sought under the RFP as circumstances evolve,” Garcia wrote.
The IG’s report, posted inconspicuously on CPB’s website, a click beyond documents from past years, uses the Islamists flap as an example to preach better planning, management and documentation practices. These shortcomings aren’t new, Konz said. The IG office’s five-year plan expects to give higher priority to “weaknesses in CPB’s procurement and contract administration activities.”
Indeed, a notable earlier IG report, which helped force CPB Chair Kenneth Tomlinson off the board in November 2005, found CPB lacked or had ineffective internal controls on contracting, had incomplete records and didn’t enforce its mandate to prevent partisan favoritism.
Roots of the blowup
The new IG’s report also cites factors peculiar to the mid-decade period and the Crossroads project that may help explain how the Islamists blowup occurred.
In 2004, Tomlinson, then CPB chair, was publicly arguing for more conservative voices on PBS. Secretly he was arranging for the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial board to have its own weekly show on public TV, the IG’s office found in its 2005 investigation that toppled Tomlinson. CPB had put its $70 million national TV production budget in the hands of Pack, a filmmaker who specialized in conservative themes.
By law, CPB couldn’t produce programs directly. The congressionally chartered nonprofit is “prohibited from . . . producing programs, scheduling programs for dissemination, or disseminating programs to the public,” according to the Public Broadcasting Act.
But the corporation could and did choose the 20 producers who would get Crossroads production grants out of 430 applicants who laid out their plans and viewpoints in production proposals.
Between CPB’s request for production proposals in March 2004 and the award of production grants in January 2006, the IG noted, nearly two years elapsed. Starting in 2006, CPB handed the productions to Washington’s WETA to oversee completion and guide the producers through the PBS acceptance process — a role akin to the executive producers and presenting stations customarily used to shepherd independent productions to PBS.
The IG questions whether CPB stretched its role beyond what Congress intended, commenting, “we do not believe the legislative history envisioned that CPB would be exclusively working with producers to develop films for national programming over a 21 month development process.”
The long period, packed with distractions related to Tomlinson’s fall, contributed to delay of the broadcasts, which Pack had hoped to schedule for the fifth anniversary of 9/11 in September 2006. The broadcasts debuted seven months later.
During the 21 months after CPB sought proposals, the IG suggests that Gaffney’s production company, ABG Films, had many extra months without guidance by an executive producer — including a preliminary round in which CPB gave R&D grants to 36 producers so they could develop more detailed proposals.
“We believe CPB’s decision not to hire [WETA as Crossroads entry station and coordinating producer] earlier in the process (e.g., at the onset of the RFP . . . ) contributed to the difficulties in completing Islam vs. Islamists . . .”
In 2005, before Islamists had received its final grant, the IG notes, PBS officials had objected to funding a project with such close links to an advocacy group.
Though the IG doesn’t speculate about this, if CPB had hired an outside e.p. before picking the R&D grantees, it’s likely that PBS’s objection would have been heeded and the Islamists project dropped, or restructured without direct ties to Gaffney and his think tank.
Or maybe the producers would have revised their film to meet WETA’s journalistic and production objections.
Greg Diefenbach, the experienced public TV production exec who succeeded Pack as CPB’s TV production grantmaker just seven months before the initial Crossroads broadcasts, told Current he believes that earlier outside involvement might have prevented the public blowup.
Had there been a stronger relationship between the supervising producer and the Islamists team, “they could have gone through the normal frictions of any postproduction process and would have arrived at a film that met PBS approval,” he said. “Gaffney and his team chose not to. They sat down and said, ‘No changes.’ They stopped the train.”
Diefenbach’s successor at CPB, Ted Garcia, disagreed in the corporation’s initial response to the IG’s draft report. “In view of the well-documented and high level of tension between the producers of Islam vs. Islamists and WETA,” Garcia wrote, “CPB does not believe that there is any factual basis for believing that retaining WETA at an earlier stage in the process could have lessened the amount of editorial conflict. …”
Most of the 20 Crossroads productions funded by CPB moved to broadcast without public disputes. CPB gave only a few of the grants to producers with obvious partisan connections. (Karl Zinsmeister dropped out as producer of another Crossroads doc, Warriors, in 2006 when President Bush hired him as his domestic policy advisor.)
Public TV aired the first batch of 11 during a week in April 2007, getting generally positive reactions from critics. In the Washington Post, famously hard-to-please TV critic Tom Shales said the “magnum opus tackles some of the toughest subjects of our time,” . . . “asks plenty of salient, crucial questions — and works slavishly to find sane, satisfying answers.”
But Islamists wasn’t in the package that aired that week under the PBS logo.
Behind the scenes, conflict
The conflicts behind Islamists weren’t as frightening as those in the film, which shows peaceful, moderate Muslims in Europe and North America threatened and condemned by zealots. The Islamists seek to establish sharia law, including harsh punishments and limits on women’s rights, wherever Muslims live.
PBS found the film unbalanced, presenting moderate Muslims making reasoned defenses of their brand of Islam while Islamists appear menacing, often accompanied by sinister music. Clips in the film show two people stoned to death for violations of Islamic law.
Off-screen, the major players in the film’s contentious history were at odds over other issues during the run-up to Crossroads.
- Tomlinson, Pack and other partisan CPB leaders said they wanted a major broadcast event that would open up public TV to new voices, notably conservative ones.
- Gaffney, founder and president of the Center for Security Policy, a Washington think tank that advocates “Peace Through Strength,” had a chance to break into PBS — not debating some point with a corresponding progressive but presenting an hour or two of his case against Islamists.
- PBS routinely rejects programs paid for by advocacy groups with a direct policy interest in the program’s subject, and its officials frowned on a program produced by such a group’s leader even if CPB had paid the bills.
CPB’s view of the dispute shifted significantly after Konz’s 2005 report triggered Tomlinson’s fall.
Between its public announcement of Crossroads in March 2004 and the PBS broadcasts beginning three years later, CPB had three presidents and an acting president, the IG’s report notes.
The CPB Board got a new chair — Cheryl Halpern replacing Tomlinson. She and Patricia Harrison, CPB’s new president, were prominent members of Tomlinson’s party but they distanced themselves from his excesses and his legacy. Halpern and Harrison eased out the creators of the Crossroads project.
In December 2005, CPB declined to renew the contract of Denton, a foreign affairs specialist (now head of the nonprofit that publishes the World Affairs journal) who shaped Crossroads as a consultant. And Harrison made it worthwhile for Pack to leave in February 2006. Before coming on staff, CPB had given Pack a $500,000 grant to make the doc Winning Modern Wars but told him in early 2006 he would have to get back to work on it to avoid losing the money.
“A new way of doing business”
Crossroads was intended to be “a new way of doing business at CPB,” the IG report says. Exactly right, Denton told Current. He and Pack wanted to open public television airwaves to voices usually absent — outside producers with a wide range of points of view. And that included conservatives.
One whose Crossroads proposal made it through the grant process was Gaffney. His group explains on its website: “We as a nation must also work to undermine the ideological foundations of totalitarianism and Islamist extremism with at least as much skill, discipline and tenacity as President Reagan employed against Communism to prevail in the Cold War.”
Gaffney and his colleague at the center, Alex Alexiev, brought in experienced filmmaker Martyn Burke to jointly propose Islamists. Burke told Current he had met Alexiev “on the Afghan-Pakistani border in the late 1980s when I was dressed as a Mujahideen,” filming a documentary on the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
Their film contrasts two sides of Islam in the Western world: the threat of radical Islamists who agitate to establish religious courts and sharia law in the West, stripping women of equal rights, and the moderate Muslims who oppose regression with reasoned arguments, at risk of retribution by the militants.
PBS was troubled by Gaffney’s involvement from the get-go, according to PBS and CPB insiders. The network felt the film “too closely echoed the publicly expressed views of the think tank,” the IG report agrees. “This raised questions whether the film satisfied PBS’s National Program Funding Standards and Practices for independence and freedom from . . . improper influence from funders or other sources.”
If the program echoed views of a left-wing advocacy group and was produced by its president, PBS would have objected as well, an insider said. PBS had “problems with Gaffney . . . check his website,” a CPB team member scribbled on a 2005 memo at a meeting with network officials.
PBS execs also had pushed to oversee and air Crossroads through established series such as Frontline, Wide Angle and P.O.V. Much of the material in the Crossroads films already had been covered in those programs, PBS contended, but the films with new material could bolster the ongoing series.
Tempers sometimes boiled over in meetings, according to several sources.
CPB was not eager to see its big expenditure vanish into the PBS schedule instead of making a noticeable splash. Its reps continued to push for a big standalone Crossroads series, though 20 hours exceeded even the 18 of Ken Burns’ Baseball that caused some eye-rolling at stations.
PBS, for its part, preferred not to have programming leadership come from CPB, a former CPBer said.
In January 2006 CPB announced final production grants to 20 docs, including Islamists. CPB simultaneously announced that WETA would oversee the producers as they edited their programs for PBS’s review. Almost three years had passed since the CPB Board first heard the Crossroads idea, and it was just eight months until the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Even a month earlier, in a draft letter to potential hosts, CPB was citing that as the target airdate. The grants were announced, and eight months remained to produce and complete 20 documentaries.
Islamists was among CPB’s final grantees announced in January 2006, but had disappeared from the list of Crossroads films before PBS released its April 2007 broadcast schedule.
In a memo to the boards of PBS and WETA on March 6, Gaffney said Islamists “has been the subject of an ideological vendetta on the part of individuals responsible for the series at PBS and WETA who have, from the first, worked to prevent it from being aired on PBS.” The producers quoted a letter to them from Leo Eaton, the experienced producer hired by WETA to supervise the series, that accused the team of “shoddy journalism,” “sweeping generalizations,” an “incendiary thesis” — even “menacing music.”
In an article on the National Review website in April, Gaffney bitterly criticized “myriad efforts” by PBS and WETA to “force us to change the character, structure, and content of Islamists so as to make it less ‘unfair’ to the Islamists.”
“These changes are not to be confused with constructive editorial suggestions,” he added. “We received a number of those, and repeatedly incorporated them into the finished film. Rather, they were incessant demands from PBS and WETA that the film be redone so as to tell at greater length the story of ‘conservative imams’ and others who oppose the anti-Islamist Muslims we set out to profile.”
Gaffney also vented on Capitol Hill, asserting that CPB had spent $675,000 of taxpayers’ money on a film they would not be allowed to see. Ten members of Congress signed letters in May and June asking CPB to investigate.
Gaffney could no longer work with WETA, he told Diefenbach at CPB.
But Diefenbach couldn’t intervene because the law restricts CPB’s role. “The issue with Crossroads was that CPB could never have any editorial input in it, from Day One,” Eaton told Current. “If they’d brought a supervising producer in, that would be editorial input.” He had to keep CPB from influencing content in any way, hoping to protect the public’s investment by salvaging the show.
Eaton had anticipated problems with Islamists. “We were familiar with the producers because the controversy already had been discussed in the press before WETA got involved,” he said.
“We always believed [Islam vs. Islamists] could have been a very strong part of the Crossroads series,” Eaton said. He characterized his discussions with Burke as “very commonplace exchanges” in which he provided “very, very detailed thoughts and suggestions and ideas” to improve the film. “Our task was not to tell them how to make the film, but to help them make a film accepted by PBS.” Would that assistance been more valuable earlier in the process? “Possibly, possibly not,” he said.
Gaffney was not involved in the final negotiation on edits, Eaton said.
Burke has decades of experience with overseers at other networks, many of those years with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. — which has editorial standards very similar to PBS, he noted. He was puzzled by the intensity of the conflicts during this editing process. “We found ourselves with an entire journalistic and philosophical construct imposed upon us by Leo Eaton,” Burke said. “It became a matter of being asked to do something journalistically wrong. We just could not do it.”
“In three decades in the business I’ve never seen anything like this, and I cannot explain it,” he said.
What happened with the producers at WETA in Arlington, Va., remained in Arlington, out of oversight by the IG’s investigators. CPB’s contract with WETA gave investigators access to fiscal data about the project but not documentation of creative processes and conflicts, said Deputy IG Bill Richardson. PBS and WETA said records of editorial decision-making were off-limits to funders, including CPB.
High expectations, subsequent complaints
Michael Pack may be politically conservative, but he’s also an independent producer, and he enthusiastically touted the openness and transparency he wanted in the project.
While Crossroads’ first objective was “to inform, enrich and engage national dialogue” on challenges in a post-9/11 world, says the IG report, its “secondary objectives” included “setting a new standard of openness, transparency, balance and competition” in CPB’s grant process. In four public forums beginning in March 2004, Pack and Denton spoke of the new, inclusive way CPB was handling the project. That led to high expectations and subsequent complaints, Richardson said.
Garcia wrote in response: “The OIG draft appears to measure each of CPB’s actions in connection with this initiative against a standard of absolute openness and transparency, which was never CPB’s intention and which would be both impractical and contrary to business interests.”
But the 1967 Act does require transparency so that “subsequent to any award of funds” by CPB for programming, the public has access to grant and solicitation guidelines and reasons for funding.
Denton contended that Crossroads decision-making was plenty open and documented. The IG’s complaints about lack of documentation are “laughable,” he said.
The Crossroads team, including two producers with TV news credentials, carefully kept all records from concept to funding, Denton said. “Thousands and thousands” of sheets of paperwork were filed, laying out CPB’s overall strategy and timeline. Each of the 430 proposals had a binder that followed it through the culling of multiple evaluations. Denton turned over copies of many documents to Current, including overall plans for the series, timelines and film evaluation forms.
He generated much of the paper flood himself — including, he said, exactly what it seems the IG was after: papers specifying why films were chosen. “The evaluation review process itself was carefully reviewed by CPB executives during several staff meetings and it was personally approved by the CPB president at the time,” he said.
Another CPB insider familiar with the process said the justification for recommended grantees were fully and routinely detailed in the team’s concurrence process, with signoffs up the line to Harrison before grants were approved. Concurrence was handled on paper, though now it’s an electronic process, the source said. It notes each film’s competitive edge, reviewers’ comments, budget recommendations and other data supporting the grant.
Richardson said the IG’s team did not find those documents. “We told [CPB] we’d take the information in whatever form they had,” he said. “I feel we did our due diligence for anything to shed light on what we were trying to evaluate. We even worked with IT folks to look for records in every conceivable place,” and requested the return of some items from an outside archive.
Where are these reams of paperwork? “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were documents we didn’t see,” Richardson said. “Whatever happened, we can’t speculate.”
Garcia, in CPB’s response, said the corporation is developing companywide documentation rules. He added that “due to [staff] turnover and an inadequate retention policy,” CPB has been “unable to locate” Crossroads grant procurement decision documentation.
With 20 docs in process, CPB added one more in October 2006, and gave the IG another procedure to critique.
On the advice of PBS and WETA, CPB asked MacNeil/Lehrer Productions to produce a film presenting the moderate Muslim viewpoint. The IG said CPB should have posted an RFP. But the decision was made “relatively late in the Crossroads process,” making an RFP impractical if not impossible, Garcia responded for CPB. However, CPB “considered and approved the project in the manner it approves television production grants generally, including an extensive proposal and budget review process,” Garcia said.
By then the start of Crossroads broadcasts had been delayed until April 15, 2007.
Gaffney and WETA couldn’t agree on changes to Islam vs. Islamists that would have made it acceptable for distribution by PBS, but the program did make it to air. Oregon Public Broadcasting took the hot potato out of CPB’s hands in May 2007 and offered it to stations, with or without a half-hour follow-up discussion produced by OPB. Burke was quite pleased with OPB’s handling of the film. “They were as good a partner as I have ever had in broadcasting, public or private,” he said. Fox News Channel also ran it on Oct. 20, 2007.
Pubcasting stations in 121 markets covering 69 percent of U.S. TV households ultimately aired Islamists, according to TRAC Media Services.
The rest of Crossroads didn’t set the audience on fire. It drew an average rating just above 1, slightly below PBS’s primetime average — where public affairs programs generally score. The IG’s report calls Crossroads “the highest rated public affairs series on public television during the 2006-2007 season.” Critics and award juries recommended Crossroads docs. Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience was nominated for a documentary Oscar and took two Emmys. Jihad: The Men and Ideas Behind Al Qaeda won a duPont-Columbia Award. Six scored CINE Golden Eagle Awards.
The IG’s off-screen review of Crossroads still hangs over CPB. The report makes six recommendations that “remain unresolved,” the report says:
- formally study the Crossroads experience along with PBS and other parties, considering earlier hiring of an overseeing producer,
- know resource needs, timelines, risk-control techniques and other plans before starting such a big project,
- establish procedures for keeping records of program procurement decisions,
- set procedures enabling CPB’s communications office to answer public questions about such decisions,
- list project officers’ responsibilities to document procurement activities, and
- work with WETA and other producing stations to identify metrics for evaluating entry stations’ performance.
The IG’s office is awaiting CPB’s formal response to the published report, due by the end of March. If the IG finds the response unsatisfactory, he could take the issues to CPB’s top management and the CPB Board. “I suppose I could even take the issue to Congress if we needed to,” he said. “But I probably wouldn’t do that unless I knew something similar to Crossroads was coming along.”
Timeline of events going back to 2004.