Objectivity and Funding In Public Broadcasting

WEIGHING in at a cost of $5 million for five hours of programming, "Israel: A Nation is Born" is an extraordinarily expensive documentary. The series features Abba Eban, the noted Israeli cultural ambassador, and claims to be a history of the region that represents all sides of the decades old conflict. Not everyone agrees with that assessment.

The series was offered to public broadcasting stations several weeks ago through WNET-TV after PBS rejected it. However, its producer - Moreshet Israel - has just withdrawn distribution rights from the New York station. The producer also has told individual stations within the system that they must now agree to what some station managers call "an unprecedented set of demands," or cancel plans to air the series. The new requirements specify when the programs may be aired, what may be said during station b reaks, and what else may appear in programming surrounding the series.

This puts public stations in a difficult position and is symptomatic of the complex problems that public broadcasters have faced when airing programs about controversial subjects.

In this case, if they pull the programs they risk the outrage of the powerful Zionist lobby and the potential loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars. If they agree to the demands, they allow a special-interest group to control public air waves.

The pressure to air the programs is enormous. In San Francisco, KQED-TV has already been hit by an avalanche of protest from the Jewish community as the result of a recent article in the Jewish Bulletin, which it says unfairly accuses the station of canceling the series.

In reality, KQED delayed the broadcast from January to March in order to put together a week of programming on the Mideast that includes documentaries from Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab perspectives and a live "Town Hall Meeting" of local leaders and scholars.

At the same time, Moreshet Israel changed the rules in midstream. In late December it informed stations, through a "cease and desist" letter from its attorney, that they must agree to air the programs only during prime time and that video tapes of the program and the book upon which it was based must be promoted and sold during the broadcast. The executive producer, Zvi Almog, has also made it clear that any station wishing to present other perspectives on the history of the region in conjunction with br oadcasting the series would not be allowed to air the programs.

"To use my investment as a focal point for hostile and inflammatory programming was not my intent," said Mr. Almog. He also compared the plans of some stations to package the programs - with either roundtable discussions of the conflict or documentaries from an Arab perspective - as akin to allowing the Ku Klux Klan to comment on "Roots."

THEREIN lies the problem for KQED and other stations that had made similar programming plans. The pressure point is, of course, financial.

When WNET in New York aired "Israel: A Nation is Born" during its recent membership drive, it gained a reported $250,000 and almost 2,000 new members. Stations are well aware of the boost the series may offer to their sagging budgets. An enraged community, on the other hand, may instead withdraw financial support.

The financial and other issues raised by the Moreshet Israel series may affect the public broadcasting system for some time. During the past decade, public broadcasting has been sapped of vitality and resources by the federal government, the recession, and special-interest groups. Producing programs is rapidly becoming too expensive for either stations or independent producers, who usually have few financial resources.

Stations have come to rely more heavily on corporate funding. Once-subtle underwriting announcements have become lengthier messages that sometimes include video of the sponsor's product. The commercialization of public broadcasting may be close at hand.

Independent producers, for their part, turn to non-profit organizations or individuals with an interest in the subject for funding. Recently stations have begun to refuse to air documentaries because of a perceived conflict of interest.

What has evolved is a thorny problem of distinguishing when the producer, funders, and subject are so closely bound that a documentary becomes an "infomercial." Following the money and determining its influence on a production would be incredibly time consuming, if not impossible.

That seems to leave one alternative: airing various viewpoints in a package and allowing people to come to their own conclusions about controversial subjects. In the case of "Israel: A Nation is Born," this may not happen. Stations must either meet Moreshet Israel's demands or they will be unable to air the programs at all.

The end result may be that Arab and Palestinian viewpoints, already scarce in the US media, could be reduced further. Tomorrow it may be that only issues of concern to monied or commercial interests will be aired on public stations.

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