CPB Office of the Ombudsman

CAMERA Shoots Again

Joel Kaplan

August 20, 2013

The ombudsman's e-mailbox has been filled the last two days with complaints about several documentaries that the PBS show POV plans to air.

The problem: the documentaries had yet to be aired though the complainants seem to already know that they will be biased, anti-Israel and in violation of public broadcasting's mandate for objectivity and balance.

Once again it is CAMERA—the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America—that has motivated its membership to complain to both the CPB ombudsman and PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler.

One of the mandates of an ombudsman is not to engage in censorship or any form of pre-broadcast review. Our charge is to handle complaints of bias or unethical behavior after a story or documentary is broadcast.

So it is premature to weigh in on the multiple complaints we have received about the upcoming documentaries; just as it is probably premature for viewers to complain about documentaries that they have not yet seen.

Here, however, are samplings of the complaints that have been generated by POV's planned documentaries:

From Joel Levitz of Los Angeles, California:

Hello and Shalom (Means Peace Through Strength, Unity and Action)

I am a retired US federal civil servant (career) and spent most of my adult life enforcing the US tax laws. I am an activist for Israel's thriving and survival.

Partly as a result of an email from Camera, a US Zionist group, and my own experiences, I am writing to strongly suggest PBS change its policies most especially re: the M.E conflict, and the Jewish Arab conflict in particular.

All sides in these various conflicts should have a voice, whether in the USA or throughout the world, however, PBS has a responsibility to reveal the truth and facts of this 100-year long war.

When it focuses on one side, and doesn't allow its viewers to understand the entire picture, the whys of what Israel is doing and the goals of the Palestinians within Israel, the disputed territories and in neighboring countries, it is not only doing a terrible disservice to us, but encouraging the type of violence we are now witnessing throughout the region.

From my perspective Israel is the only democracy in the region, and while its people are strong willed and minded, they do not kill one another with dispatch as we are seeing in virtually every Arab country and a few Muslim countries.

In essence, the Arabs are a dysfunctional people, supported by one industry, oil, which they know the world needs and will pander to them, in the M.E. conflict with Israel.

But in the end, where is this headed? Will you at PBS be satisfied when Israel is forced to really defend itself, thanks partly to any sympathy your programs have generated?

I ask you, if the shoe were on the other foot, had Israel lost but one war, would the Arabs have shown any sympathy, or tolerance or respect for them?

From Renne B. Schick of Florida:

As long as the preponderance of Anti-Israel information programs continue, I will discontinue my yearly contributions to PBS and inform as many others who feel the way I do. You are a public station and if you show mostly one viewpoint on such sensitive issues, you are no longer deserving of voluntary contributions.

From Ziva Giliya of Maryland:

PBS, a recipient of federal funds through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is required to sustain "strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature." In addition, according to the PBS Web site, "PBS' mission is to create content that educates, informs and inspires."

I wonder, why the PBS promotional video for the documentary series POV selected fifteen new films to broadcast in the 2013 season which two of them are anti-Israel. Neither of the two selected movies stands on its own journalistically, both being one-sided, manipulating the truth, and full of omissions of basic facts.

Both focus on Israel's "occupation" of disputed territories without providing any context or historical background so viewers can understand the situation "The Law in These Parts" leaves out important facts about devastating terrorism challenging Israel. "Broken Cameras" is obviously edited to misrepresent reality and entirely ignores the reasons why the security barrier had to be built.

No mention that these territories were won in a defensive war in 1967, after attacks from Egypt and Jordan. No discussion about the fact that Israel has been facing an existential threat, corrupt Palestinian leaders deprive their own citizens, and absence of human rights, women's rights, gay rights, and minority.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is certainly very controversial, and therefore must be presented with balance. I am troubled by this lack of balance and biased broadcasting toward the Palestinian perspective. Why didn't PBS allow all sides to present their points of view and select a movie that advocates for Israel as well?

Unfortunately, in this season of POV, PBS fails to educate, misinforms, and certainly inspires hatred of Israel.

From Gary Feldman of New York:

I am writing in disappointment due to PBS' unbalanced programming, specifically regarding the airing of "The Law in these Parts"; and "Broken Cameras."

My understanding of the PBS and CPB missions are to present educational content that is both fair and balanced, representing both sides of issues.

Yet both these films represent a very one-sided view of the Middle East scenario. These films are unbalanced, incomplete and misleading, omitting key historical facts. Moreover, PBS is airing 2 films that show one side of the argument, and is not providing any other film or point of view. The result is that PBS appears to be espousing a bias towards forwarding the "Palestinian" agenda, rather than accurately reporting facts or a balanced point of view.

Some examples of the historical facts these films omit include:

1. Israel's administration of the Gaza strip ended in 2005, unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, and removed Jewish residents from the area.

2. There have been thousands of missiles and rocket terrorist attacks from Gaza directly into Israel since the withdrawal. "Broken Cameras" in fact leaves out this fact as to why a security barrier was built in the first place.

3. Thousands of Israeli casualties resulting from said attacks plus multiple suicide bombings.

4. The fact that the "occupied" (itself a biased, propaganda term since the territories are not occupied any longer since Israel withdrew; the more neutral term is "disputed territories") territories were only in dispute as result of Israel defending itself against unprovoked attack.

Why is PBS choosing to show a one-sided, biased view of a complex issue and not providing the other point of view?

This is unacceptable and possibly illegal given the Corp for Public Broadcasting funding it receives.

I trust you will take appropriate action immediately to prevent PBS from becoming a biased propaganda tool.

From Shira Nahari of Everson, Washington:

I am aware that PBS is a listener-supported station. However I am finding it necessary to reconsider contributing. The reason is that your programming lately is just plain one-sided, anti-Israel.

I am referring to these 2 particular programs:

"The Law in these Parts" which airs tonight, August 19, a film that ignores critical facts about the terrorism Israel faces and the terrorists who commit it, and on August 26 "Broken Cameras," which totally misrepresents today's situation and entirely ignores the reasons for building the security barrier.

Both films focus on Israel's "occupation" of disputed territories without providing any context or historical background so viewers can understand the situation.

Do you even watch what you put on the air?! Do you really support this kind of propaganda against Israel?! Can you tell me why 13% of your documentaries fall in this category when there are thousands of subjects to choose from (including medical advances, pollution, political corruption, architecture, famous crimes, literature, internet dating, the life of Michael Jackson, etc.)?

I also object to tax dollars being used to support this unbalanced, incomplete and misleading series! Since the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is mandated to provide funding only where there is "strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature" something is very wrong here and need correcting!

In closing, I demand that my local station refuse to air both films unless viewer advisories are aired immediately prior to each and/or that the network also presents opposing points of view -- in accordance with your supposed policy.

From Sara Miller of Forest Hills New York:

I am disturbed that PBS has chosen to violate its own policy and show two anti-Israel "documentaries" with no balance. Both "Broken Camera"; and "The Law in These Parts" are completely biased, leaving out all the relevant information about the endless terrorism Israel has faced and, in "Broken Cameras" editing out all the violent protestors to make them look peaceful. In fact, the anti-Israel activists at Bil'in have committed acts of violence, but the film was so heavily edited that all those parts were left out. It is not a documentary; it is an attack on Israel. Neither film gives any context about why the security fence was built--to stop the near-daily terror attacks that killed many Jewish and Arab Israeli civilians--and how effective this nonmilitary measure has been. There is no context to explain how Israel gained control over the West Bank and Gaza in the first place (in a war of self-defense after various Arab provocations and belligerent statements) nor any mention of how Israel took every last Jew out of Gaza in 2005 in exchange for nothing but more rocket attacks. Shouldn't this kind of information be included for any sort of accuracy?

I am disgusted that PBS has chosen to violate its own standards and show these one-sided, biased films instead of something fair. PBS should be required to aim for some sort of balance in its coverage of Israel, which it certainly is not doing.

From Joshua Zatcoff of Gilbert, Arizona:

I have been a PBS supporter for years, and have even been a member who has donated money (to WGBH in Boston); but this one-sided bias is an outrage.

The PBS promotional video for the documentary series POV declares, "The most interesting films are films that take very strong points of view and bang them up against each other" By that definition, two of the POV documentaries scheduled this season are not interesting at all, presenting only one point of view - the anti-Israel point of view.

Furthermore, of the fifteen new films being broadcast in the 2013 season, two of them, over 13 per cent, are anti-Israel. Of the thousands of documentaries released in recent years on all subjects - medical advances, pollution, political corruption, architecture, famous crimes, literature, internet dating, the life of Elvis - why is PBS selecting two in one season that are anti-Israel? And airing them in successive weeks?

Neither film explains that these territories were won in a defensive war in which Israel faced an existential threat. Neither film mentions that, in exchange for peace, Israel has made repeated offers of statehood to Palestinian leaders who continue to incite hatred against Israelis and Jews rather than prepare their people for co-existence and cooperation. Neither film paints a fair picture of the security threats Israelis face nor the extent of the Palestinian terrorist attacks they have endured.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is certainly controversial and must be presented with balance. Two anti-Israel films out of fifteen documentaries is not only unbalanced, it's outrageous.

From Dr. Barbara Parks of Virginia Beach, Virginia:

I am outraged at the inclusion of 2 anti-Israel documentaries ("The Law in These Parts" and "Broken Cameras") in PBS's POV series for 2013. The CPB is mandated to provide funding only where there is "strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature." The Israeli-Palestinian conflict certainly qualifies as controversial. Out of the thousands of excellent documentaries PBS could air, the fact that 2 of 15 are anti-Israel demonstrates a blatant bias that is outrageous and unacceptable. These films are one-sided and riddled with omissions of basic facts and context. I have urged everyone I know to refrain from donating to PBS in the future and to contact Congress about this egregious use of federal funding.

From Stanley and Ilona Galant of California:

It has recently come to our attention that PBS will show two anti-Israeli films out of a total of 15 documentaries over the next few weeks on POV without context or opposing views, which to our mind is irresponsible journalism at its worst. With all the problems in the Muslim world, including the killing of thousands of innocent men, women and children by their governments, you choose the Palestinian narrative with distorted facts. What's your point? What do you achieve by this? With Palestinian terrorists in and out of Israel proper ready to destroy the Jewish state, it is a miracle that they are given the benefits of democracy, including membership in the Knesset and the Supreme Court. In fact, given a choice the Israeli Arabs would prefer remaining in Israel rather than in an independent Palestinian state, which is corrupt, and violent, bringing death and destruction all around them.

We are therefore canceling all support of PBS and its affiliates. Anti-Zionism, a code word for anti-Semitism, lives on in PBS.

From Dr. Todd Goldblum of Albuquerque, New Mexico:

I understand that PBS will be airing two back-to-back documentaries on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unfortunately, these documentaries have extreme anti-Israel sentiment and provide the view from only one side. PBS is required by federal law to maintain "strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs of a controversial nature." I can't think of a more controversial topic than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict!

PBS has a long history of only showing the Palestinian viewpoint. Because of this, viewers will never know that:

1. Israel has made multiple attempts to negotiate for a two-state solution, offering nearly all of the West Bank, Gaza, and parts of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians as their homeland. Every offer was denied, even to the dismay of other Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Instead, Israel suffered horrific terrorist violence.

2. Hamas and Hezbollah have anti-Semitic charters calling for the destruction of Israel and annihilation of Jews. Palestinian children are presented with anti-Semitic textbooks and propaganda on a daily basis. Teaching children to hate and commit violent acts against another ethnic group is child abuse.

3. Since Israel has had a presence in the West Bank (Jordan "occupied" the West Bank until 1973) infant mortality has plummeted, and the standard of living has skyrocketed, bypassing most Arab countries.

4. Israel, despite a population of only a few million, leads the world in scientific innovation, technology, health care, energy and water conservation. Most of the products we use such as our cell phone and computer come from Israeli technology.

5. Israel is a world-leader in humanitarian relief, rescuing thousands of people from Ethiopia and other parts of Africa. When disaster strikes in Haiti or Japan, Israel is one of the first countries to help out.

It is ironic that these documentaries are airing now, just as both the Israelis and Palestinians are sitting down at the negotiating table once again. Ghaith al-Omari, head of the American Task force on Palestine and former advisor to Abbas, has repeatedly called for both sides of the conflict to make positive and constructive efforts toward peace, instead of rehashing negative and deconstructive comments. PBS is certainly making it harder for both peoples to achieve peace with such inflammatory material, which demonizes the Jewish state.

I meet every year with my US representative and senators. I certainly will share with them (as well as friends, family and synagogues) the evidence that PBS repeatedly and purposely violates federal law of balanced, objective reporting and as such should receive reduced funding. I find it ethically and morally repugnant to use our tax dollars to sway the public toward one viewpoint by presenting only one side of a very painful, controversial conflict. Honest reporting presents both sides of an issue equally and objectively so viewers can think and decide on their own.

From Paul Warner of Kansas:

As a longtime supporter of PBS, I wish to protest your continually airing one-sided anti-Israel programs. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and one of the few friends of the US, in that area of the world. Israel, a tiny country that has had more than its share of suicide bombings, murders and terrorism and is desperate for peace, but needs a sincere partner with which to negotiate a just and lasting peace. It is unfortunate that the group that refuses the right for Israel to exist is the group that PBS seems to feature and support. Featuring this type of story lessens the chance for the Palestinians to recognize Israel's right to exist, reducing any chances for peace. Thus, terrorism scores again with PBS in their corner, so what impetus is there for the Palestinians to negotiate seriously and with sincerity?

Programing [sic] such as this, will only delay peaceful coexistence in that area of the world. This is not what the thinking majority of the American public, many of whom are PBS supporters, expect from PBS.

From Prof. D. Lubinsky of Atlanta, Georgia:

The Middle East is in turmoil, with over 100 000 dead in Syria, and 1000 dead in recent days in Egypt. Isn't it strange then that two of your new 15 PBS documentaries focus on neighboring Israel, with an extraordinarily one-sided anti-Israel slant? The two are "The Law in These Parts" and "Broken Cameras."

Neither tells anything about Israeli concerns; or that Israel built its security barrier after repeated suicide attacks. Both ignore the core issue in the conflict: repeated Arab refusal to accept a permanent Israel behind any boundaries. Neither tells the story of repeated military wars waged to destroy Israel that after their failure was followed by ongoing political, economic, and psychological warfare. Neither makes any attempt to compare the human rights situation in Israel to the far worse ones in all of its neighbors.

How long will it take to tell the other side?

Such as:

(1) The history of Jewish refugees from Arab lands - their descendants form half of Israel's populace. There are films such as "The Forgotten Refugees." A very recent film "TINGHIR-JERUSALEM: LES ECHOS DU MELLAH" was made by Moroccan filmmaker Kamal Hachkar about the Jews from Morocco. See e.g. www.harif.org. Other recent films there are "The Lost Jews of Egypt" or "The Silent Exodus."

(2) The incitement and anti-Semitism across the Middle East that dramatically reduce the chances of peace. "The Grand Deception" discusses incitement amongst other topics. Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian PM, still rejects ever recognizing any part of Israel as a Jewish homeland, and is still naming town squares after people like Dalal Mughrabi (whose only claim to fame was the murder of 38 civilians, including 13 children).

(3) The fact that Israel repeatedly made territorial concessions - handing over the Sinai, Gaza, parts of the West Bank, and none have brought peace.

Above all, how long will it take to stop acting as a conduit for the Palestinian cause, and to show the other side?

Since POV is a PBS program, I am confident that once these documentaries air, Mr. Getler, the PBS ombudsman, will be happy to examine any specific examples of bias in that programming. I am also amenable to hearing such complaints.

However, it would be helpful if those people complaining about the documentaries actually watch them and that they bring forth specific complaints, not generalities about bias or anti-Semitism.

Given the amount of anger these POV documentaries have generated, perhaps there are some problems there; ones which the producers would need to address. But it is not helpful to simply parrot talking points put together by a lobbying group with the hopes that a large number of complaints will lead to action.

I have always investigated complaints—even if they come from only one individual—but it is most useful if those complaints have a degree of specificity that none of the above complaints contain.

Nevertheless, here is the response from Cynthia Lopez, executive vice president and co-executive producer of POV:

As the title of the series indicates, POV (point of view) presents films with a definitive perspective, which can be both personal and singular.

Both "The Law in These Parts" and "5 Broken Cameras" were selected by POV after going through an extensive and rigorous editorial advisory committee process. POV receives approximately 1,300 films each year. Each of our films are screened by outside evaluators (media professionals and documentary specialists) and support for a selection must be strong in order for the film to make it to the next editorial review panel. Then over the course of many weeks, a final slate of films is chosen for further review. An editorial committee of PBS programmers and independent media professionals is convened to make programming recommendations.

As we curate the line-up, we look very carefully at the overall schedule for a range of storytelling styles, themes, issues and for unique access to the central characters featured in the work and to the filmmakers credentials. Critical reviews and festival response to a film is also taken into consideration. Varied approaches to cinematic language and documentary styles also influence our consideration of each film. We may also look for thematic links, and how films can speak to each other within the schedule.

Prior seasons of POV have featured films that have thematic links. For example, in 2011 POV featured "If A Tree Falls" and "Better This World" one after the other as both films examine the issue of domestic terrorism in a post 9/11 environment. And in 2010, POV aired 3 films consecutively that highlighted various stories about adoption. These films were "Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy" by Chinese American Filmmaker Stephanie Wang-Breal, which looks at the international adoption process by following a Long Island Jewish family who travels to China to adopt an 8-year- old orphan; "Off and Running" by Nicole Opper, the story of an African American child adopted by a gay Jewish couple and her struggle to establish her racial identity; and "In the Matter if Cha Jung Hee, filmmaker Deann Borshay's personal investigation into her 1966 adoption from Korea and the mysterious girl whose place she took as Cha June Hee.

"The Law in These Parts" by Israeli filmmaker, Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, is an inquiry into the evolution of the system of military administration in the Palestinian Occupied Territories over the past 40 years. The film portrays the filmmaker's point-of-view using candid interviews by those that created the legal infrastructure. Mr. Alexandrowicz is transparent about his cinematic approach and that the piece represents his personal perspective. The film won the World Cinema Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. The director's previous work has been showcased at the Cannes Directors' Fortnight, Berlin, and MoMa (NYC).

"5 Broken Cameras" was made by a Palestinian filmmaker named Emad Burnatin collaboration with Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi. It is a deeply personal narrative from one village in the Palestinian Territories that was nominated for an Oscar in 2013. The filmmakers' previous works has been featured on Israeli and French broadcast television and at the Jerusalem Film Festival to critical acclaim.

While both these films are quite different from the other, both in terms of aesthetics and perspective, there are thematic links between them. Taken together, these two films provide unique inside views that contribute to a broader conversation about a complex, interwoven set issues of international importance.

POV would of course accept any film that portrays a different point of view than that explored by "The Law in These Parts" and "5 Broken Cameras." We welcome others perspectives, as long as a proposed film meets all of our standard editorial requirements.

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