CPB Office of the Ombudsman

"Valentino's Ghost" Spooks Some Viewers

Joel Kaplan

January 14, 2014

Valentino's Ghost is a provocative and interesting documentary about the portrayal of Arabs in the media. One aspect of the film is to show a strong comparison between the images of Arabs in film and television with that of Native Americans.

Part of the film also illustrates the role of Israel and its U.S. lobbying arm in perpetuating some of those stereotypes.

The film was directed by Michael Singh, produced by Catherine Jordan and Singh, and distributed to public television stations through NETA, the National Educational Telecommunications Association. The film was financed by several foundations as well as the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), which is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB, however, has no direct involvement in CAAM's grant making decisions.

One public television station that picked up the film from NETA and broadcast it last year was WTVS in Detroit. Several viewers of that station have since protested its showing.

"I would like to make you aware of serious concerns that my husband, friend and I had when we viewed Valentino's Ghost," said Ruth Katsnelson of West Bloomfield, Michigan. "This film is full of half truths about 'Jews and Israel.' Is this to turn public opinion against Jews and Israel?"

Those complaining from the Detroit area also said they saw a pattern of anti-Israel documentaries on public broadcasting because Valentino's Ghost ran on WTVS in late summer at the same time the station also broadcast two documentaries from the PBS show POV, "5 Broken Cameras" and "The Law in These Parts." Those two documentaries were roundly criticized by several groups and individuals as being an unfair attack on Israel.

"A long time ago, PBS was the place to go for intelligent programming that was thoughtful, educational, and outside of the mainstream," said Harry Onickel. "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.

"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."

Let me try to clear up one misconception before I delve into the heart of the complaint against Valentino's Ghost. The two POV documentaries are separate and distinct from Valentino's Ghost.

"5 Broken Cameras" and "The Law in These Parts" were distributed as part of this season's POV series. Both PBS ombudsman Michael Getler and I have weighed in on both those documentaries previously (Getler: A Documentary That Ends With a Bang, More on a (Palestinian) 'Point of View'; Kaplan: CAMERA Shoots Again, POV and Palestinians).

Valentino's Ghost is an independent film distributed by NETA and picked up by various PBS stations across the country. WTVS is one of those stations and happened to run the show during the same time period as the POV documentaries.

Dave Devereaux, vice president of broadcast media at WTVS, said the station acquired the film because "we thought it achieved its stated goal of asking people to think about the images they see in the media."

Mr. Devereaux said he did agree to meet with the three people who complained about the film, including Mr. Onickel and Ms. Katsnelson. He has met with them twice.

"We defended the film," Mr. Devereaux said about the meeting. "We did not apologize for broadcasting the film. To us it accomplished its stated purpose. When you see images of Arabs in the media there are political and social forces behind that image."

"We thought the film was very thought provoking and stood on its own and accomplished its goals."

Mr. Devereaux said his one regret is that the station could have done a better job of encouraging comments during the film, particularly on its Facebook page. The station now has heightened sensitivity when it comes to such issues, he said.

For her part, Ms. Katsnelson said she appreciated that WTVS officials met with her and other critics and "we got to the point where they would have a heightened sense of awareness and would consider if they have a POV film coming up they would consider offering an opposing point of view." Ms. Katsnelson provided the ombudsman with a critique of the film produced by Stand With Us, a not-for-profit, pro Israel education and advocacy group based in Los Angeles.

Mr. Singh, the director and producer of Valentino's Ghost, and Catherine Jordan, the film's other producer, also weighed in on the criticism, delivering an 11-page point by point rebuttal of the critique made about the film and saying that there is no evidence to back up the accusations.

Specifically, the producers reject the notion that Valentino's Ghost is a piece of anti-Israel propaganda:

Propaganda means information that is false, misleading or exaggerated. We know of no instance in the film where the content is false, misleading or exaggerated.

What content in the film is "anti-Israel"? She does not provide any evidence to support this accusation. We examine some of Israel's less savory past, to be sure. But that is not an attack on the entire nation of Israel and its peoples any more than an examination of American slavery, or truth-telling about America's invasion of Vietnam, is "anti-American."

The film presents factual history, and if a viewer feels affronted by this airing of Israel's dirty laundry, that is their problem, not ours. Like "anti-American," the term "anti-Israel" is misleading, vague and irresponsible. One of the pillars of democracy is the freedom to criticize a government. The term is a bullying way of stifling discussion and debate regarding American foreign policy, Israeli policy and other important topics.

Mr. Singh and Ms. Jordan then go on to dispute other allegations made about the documentary. Their rebuttal can be found here.

For my part, I have viewed the documentary twice and found it to be a thorough, well-done film which does have an agenda, but I do not find that agenda neither unreasonable nor anti-Israel. I agree with Mr. Singh and Ms. Jordan, who say that:

Every documentary film has an "agenda," be it about national parks, Monsanto chemicals, the Holocaust, or Israel/Palestine. Our agenda is to expose the social acceptability of bigotry against Arabs and Muslims in mainstream American cultural products, and, in doing so, to deal in relevant historical facts while presenting the Biblical images of religious myths and historical cultural biases for what they are: the images of ethnocentric allegories and folktales.

Nevertheless, I also have some sympathy for Ms. Katsnelson and Mr. Onickel who viewed Valentino's Ghost during the same month that the two POV films were aired. For viewers who did not realize that Valentino's Ghost was independent from the POV documentaries, it could strike some as piling on the state of Israel without any films that provide an opposing point of view.

And so I hope that other public television stations can follow WTVS' example and acknowledge that viewers will watch such films through their own personal lenses and would welcome an opportunity to discuss and present different viewpoints.

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