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Independence, Shmendependence

Public broadcasting is getting programming pressure from both sides of the political spectrum, which doesn't bode well for what is supposed to be its statutorily-mandated independence from political pressure, not that that independence has been much on display during recent budget dust-ups with Congress or the Ken Tomlinson trials and tribulations.

First it was the Ken Burns documentary, The War, which got hammered for failing to include Hispanic voices.

It was an obvious oversight, but hardly a deal-breaker for one of the most serious, sensitive, and acclaimed documentarians around. A straightforward explanation before the show would have been appropriate, for example: "Many nationalities made crucial contributions to the war effort. No matter the color or accent or creed of those interviewed, this story is that of all the brave men and women of the Armed Services."

I have shaken the hands of six living Hispanic Medal of Honor winners, and thanked them for risking their lives for us. I understand the Hispanic advocacy groups whose job is to make sure those contributions not be overlooked.

Even so, the ensuing negotiation over how to redress that grievance, with pressure to redo the show, followed by very public negotiations over just how to please the show's critics, then the nitpicking over where to put the "corrections"–before the show, in but not "in" the show, seemed like politically correct overkill and poor precedent for independence, no matter which side of the political spectrum it was coming from.

Then there was the contemporaneous flap over documentary Islam vs. Islamists, which PBS has yet to air because, it says, the producers haven't finished it or, if you ask the producers, because PBS didn't like where its coming from. Some conservatives have suggested that liberals don't like that the show is critical of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and questions whether it is really the "moderate" voice of Arab-Americans. PBS says nothing of the sort.

In fact, this is exactly what it said:

"The premiere broadcast of America at a Crossroads, April 15th - 20th, included eleven films selected from among the 22 productions funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as part of the initiative. 

"The initial series of America at a Crossroads films presented a wide range of perspective and subject, including the challenges confronting the post-9/11 world — including the war on terrorism; the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; the experience of American troops serving abroad; the struggle for balance within the Muslim world; and global perspectives on America’s role overseas. 

"The April line-up was based on a determination of which of the finished films would make the most cohesive series exploring a variety of themes.  Additional films from America at a Crossroads will air individually in the coming months; several have already been scheduled.

"Islam vs. Islamists was never scheduled to air as part of the America at a Crossroads series the week of April 15th, nor were half of the others in the initiative. At the time we scheduled the April series, Islam vs. Islamists had not completed the production and review process for PBS. They still have not [Editor's note: As of last week]. 

"Rather than working within the established editorial process, as did all of the other producers in the series, the producers of Islam vs. Islamists have instead decided to attack the process.

"Islam vs. Islamists covers topics that are timely and relevant, and the film was included in the initiative because of its potential merit.  We sincerely hope that the producers of Islam vs. Islamists will put their energies into completing work on the film."

PBS should clearly reflect the various, competing, voices of the public it serves, but it should not give undue weight or give into political pressure from either side. 

By John Eggerton