CPB Office of the Ombudsman

POV and Palestinians

Joel Kaplan

October 1, 2013

In August I wrote about numerous complaints I received from PBS viewers who were upset that POV was running two documentaries, "5 Broken Cameras" and "The Law in These Parts" that appeared to be sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians at the expense of the Israelis. Much of the criticism was prompted from a request by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA)---to complain to the CPB ombudsman as well as PBS ombudsman Michael Getler.

At the time I urged those complaining to at least wait until the documentaries were broadcast before lodging any complaints.

Both documentaries have now run and Mr. Getler, has weighed in on them in two reports: A Documentary That Ends With a Bang and More on a (Palestinian) 'Point of View'. Since POV is a national program broadcast by PBS, the show falls under his jurisdiction.

In his commentary, Mr. Getler took issue with both documentaries. The first documentary, "The Law in These Parts", examines the history of military justice in the occupied territories over the past 40 years. Mr. Getler says he does not see the film as anti-Israel but is troubled by its ending.

Mr. Getler is much more critical of the second documentary, "5 Broken Cameras":

It is a very tough, very one-sided portrayal of daily life inside a Palestinian village that is on the frontline of a very controversial Israeli policy of building settlements in the occupied West Bank and constructing separation barriers that seal off these villages and portions of their olive groves. This is a documentary, but not like a documentary on PBS's Frontline, for example, where both sides of an issue are explored. That is the strength of this film, because it is rare that American audiences get such an intimate look at what it is for a family and small community to live under and struggle against such conditions. But it also is its weakness because it opens it up to critics who contend — correctly — that a lot is left out.

Since I also received so many complaints I too decided to watch the documentaries and must say that I agree with many of those who, in my view, prematurely complained. I found both films to be one-sided, particularly "5 Broken Cameras." That film doesn't even give lip service to the Israeli point of view and its filmed interactions with the Israeli army appear to be edited to place the Israelis in the worst possible light.

In the past I have defended public broadcasting against criticisms that various reports were not objective nor balanced when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by pointing out that much of the balance comes in other news reports.

But in the case of POV, that is simply not the case. Of all its documentaries for its new season, there are two that can be portrayed to varying degrees as anti-Israel. But there are no corresponding documentaries that portray the Israeli point of view.

In defending the documentaries, POV said that the purpose of its documentaries is to present films with a definitive perspective, which can be both personal and singular. Cynthia Lopez, the executive vice president of POV said that the films were selected from a pool of 1,300 films each year and are screened by outside evaluators:

"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."

However, Ms. Lopez and POV are missing the point of the criticism. These selections are not made in a vacuum. This is particularly the case when it comes to public broadcasting, which for years has been accused of having an anti-Israel bias.

To select these two films given the ongoing conflict and controversy surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is only going to provoke those who already feel as though anti-Israel sentiment is the rule rather than the exception when it comes to public broadcasting. There is little to no objectivity and balance in these two films and POV should not be citing a film from three years ago about a Jewish family who travels to China to adopt a child as an example of balance.

To the extent that I was critical of those who complained before the films ran, I now say that I agree with much of that criticism.

Here's a sample of other complaints I received from viewers of the film after my first report:

From Arlene Spielberg of New York, who particularly took me to task for my earlier report:

I read your August 20 blog about the two documentaries biased against Israel, and I take exception to the patronizing and condescending tone you use to address CAMERA and those who have written to express their views.

First of all, you make the ill-informed assumption that no one watched the two films, Five Broken Cameras and The Law In These Parts, prior to their PBS broadcast. In case you are not aware, both films played in theaters and at festivals in the last two years, are available on Netflix and Amazon, and for goodness sake, can be taken out from the local library. So for you to state that people have not watched them is presumptuous at best, highly insulting at worst. It is "not helpful" to say that those who wrote to you were "merely parroting talking points from a lobbying group."

Second, I wonder if you would have written so disrespectfully to correspondence received in response to an alert from, say, the NAACP, the National Action Network, CAIR or GLAAD. So I checked your past reports. I saw no such disrespect paid to an African-American gentleman or to any others. But it is OK to talk down to those who support the Jewish state?

Now about the films, which I have seen (one prior to broadcast). If one were to watch these two documentaries, one would walk away thinking that Palestinians are peaceful farmers and that Israelis are land-grabbing thugs and killers. Is that what POV means by "thematic programming?"

While Broken Cameras may have artistic elements, Law In These Parts is a monotonous snoozer that goes from interrogation chair to old footage and back again, ad nauseam. There is no context given for the 1967 war, in which Israel had to protect itself from threats by multiple nations. Of all the quality documentaries out there (1,300 submissions), this has "cinematic language" and "style?" No, it seems it was chosen to make a point: to demonize Israel. As for the statement that the movies "contribute to a broader conversation about a complex, interwoven set of issues of international importance," how exactly do they do that?

Finally, let's turn the whole "pro-Israel" and "anti-Israel" idea on its head. Has PBS ever aired a full-length documentary (let alone two) that is critical of the Palestinians? That shows how parents, the Palestinian media and schools instill hatred of Jews in children before they are even in kindergarten? How the Palestinians use children as human shields and suicide bombers? How their leadership has accepted billions of dollars from the West (much of it pocketed) while keeping their own people in refugee camps? What "the law" looks like inside their territories, where suspected spies are hung in the streets? http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2235635/Gaza-crisis-Six-Israeli-spies-executed-baying-mob.html Where gays are terrorized or murdered and must flee to Israel for freedom? http://bit.ly/JcCNF3.

Of course, if a Palestinian (unlike an Israeli) made such a film, he/she would be jailed or executed. But there are films that deal with these subjects, and I have never seen one on PBS. Am I wrong? Perhaps this could be part of CBP's diversity charter? I have also never seen a full-length documentary on PBS that is critical of Muslims.

I did notice that CPB funds ITVS and that Independent Lens aired the film Storm of Emotions several years ago, which I commend. Of course, there were many more films sympathetic to Palestinians.

May I remind you that you that CPB is funded by the American taxpayer? From your blog title, "CAMERA shoots again" (an attempt to be clever, I suppose. Why not "takes a picture?") to the way you denigrated Americans who have legitimate complaints, the whole tone of your report says, "Why are these people bothering me?" Well, we the people and CAMERA have every right to express our views once, twice or repeatedly, especially when bias is shown repeatedly in public media. If reading our letters bores you, if you feel contempt for us, perhaps a more interested party would take the position of Ombudsman.

Another option: The Jews are a very forgiving people, and a little bit of humility would go a long way, especially before Yom Kippur. Perhaps the Ombudsman would consider apologizing and updating his post.

From Mark Klein, also of New York:

I am so happy that PBS decided to air the POV series with its positive propagandist views of the PA(Palestinian Authority) once again. I had been an early supporter of WNET 13, NYC, unfortunately these one sided shows steels my decision to withdraw my ongoing financial support for my local PBS station. Too bad!

Please DO NOT solicit for funds again.

From Janet Tatz of Montana:

Yet again, PBS has chosen to vilify and falsely portray Israel in the latest series of POV films. Where is the fair and equal treatment and reporting of news/stories from that part of the world. PBS does a disservice to its viewers, members and supporters by continuing to only present the anti-Israel, Palestinian narrative about the situation on the ground in Israel and the Middle East.

I am very disappointed in Public Broadcasting and would not recommend these shows to anyone.

From Evelyn Drieves of New York:

I am writing to express my concern that, of the 15 documentaries PBS is showing in this year's POV series, two are anti-Israel, and there is none that shows a more balanced perspective of the issues in the region.

It is clear from PBS's own description of the issues addressed in "The Law in These Parts" that the issues are presented with an anti-Israel focus, with limited historical context. For example, the film ignores the fact that Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and that since its withdrawal, there has been an absence of human rights (for example, for women, gays, and other minorities) in Gaza. It is clear from the description of the film "5 Broken Cameras" that its perspective too is completely one-sided, ignoring, for example, the acts of terrorism that required the building of the security fence in the first place.

As the recipient of federal funds, PBS is mandated to provide objective and balanced programming. The selection of films in this year's POV series does not live up to this mandate.

The chances for negotiation towards a true peace are enhanced when the perspectives of each side are fully understood. By failing to present the complete picture, PBS is failing to provide its viewers with the integrity they deserve and the honesty that any chance for peace requires.

I appreciate your attention to this very serious issue.

From Harry Onickel of Michigan:

A long time ago, PBS was the place to go for intelligent programming that was thoughtful, educational, and outside of the mainstream. These days, it seems that PBS has degenerated into just another outlet for Israel-bashing. Has condemning Israel become so essential to PBS' mission, that your POV series needed two anti-Israel propaganda films? And this is after running Valentino's Ghost, a film allegedly on the history of media portrayals of Arabs, but was in reality an exercise in blatant anti-Semitism with its "blame-the-Jews" theme.

Both "Five Broken Cameras" and "The Law in These Parts" were created to misinform viewers by demonizing the world's only Jewish country and the only country to be singled out for condemnation simply for existing. While both films show negative aspects of Israel, neither film explains why Israel has had to implement the policies that the filmmakers decry. If the surrounding Arab nations had agreed to live in peace with Israel in 1948, if there hadn't been thousands of deadly terror and rocket attacks from the Palestinians in the intervening years, would there be a separation barrier, or inconsistent laws in Judea and Samaria?

The films are dishonestly edited in order to demonize Israel. Not all relevant information is given about all of the films' "stars'" violent pasts. Some of the standard anti-Israel lies are repeated. Israel destroys Palestinian olive trees? Really? As many times as that charge has been made, there has never been any evidence to back it up. As an allegation against Israel though, it is simple accepted.

If the purpose of PBS is to educate and inform, you failed miserably in this case. If it is to inspire, you are certainly inspiring hatred for the one country in the Middle East that treats all of its citizens fairly, allows them equal rights, and is not currently descending into chaos and/or civil war.

It's time to start treating Israel fairly. We Jews have rejected the position as the world's punching bag.

From Richard Wilkins of New York:

As a publicly funded entity, both by government at multiple levels and private citizen memberships, the Public Broadcasting System has a moral and legal responsibility to present controversial issues in a fair and balanced manner. Few issues surely are more divisive than the Arab-Israel conflict. Yet PBS, in its annual POV series, repeatedly has adopted a strikingly pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel stance. This year's doubling down on that imbalance, presenting out of a total of 15 films, two back-to-back visual anti-Israel screeds: "The Law in These Parts"(August 19) and "5 Broken Cameras" (August 26).

Those who have previewed these films have found them utterly tendentious, both in what is shown and what is not. Footage, where not out-and-out staged, has been very selectively edited to put the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in the worst possible light. Gone are the missiles and rockets flying out of Gaza at civilians in bordering Israeli towns. Whitewashed is Hamas tyrannical misrule in Gaza. Repeated Palestinian acts of terror are simply scanted.

With two broadcast dates, were there any serious concern for balance, one of those films surely should be presenting a mainstream Israeli viewpoint. It's not that there is a dearth of such, well-made, factually accurate, appropriate films. Many deal with now-vanished major Jewish communities throughout the Arab world, such as in Tunisia, Morocco and Yemen. Beyond inevitable lurking political background issues, these are of considerable sociological interest. Why aren't they being shown? Only, one surmises, because of PBS/POV unwillingness to screen them.

This is an intolerable situation that finally needs firmly to be addressed.

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