PBS slow to embrace program on torture

By ELIZABETH JENSEN, New York Times

“Torturing Democracy,” a documentary examining the Bush administration’s detention and interrogation policies, will be shown on WNET in New York on Thursday and on a grab bag of other public television stations nationwide in coming weeks. But some of the country’s viewers will have to watch online if they want to see the program anytime soon because PBS decided that no national airdate was available until Jan. 21, a day after a new presidential administration takes office.

The film’s producer and writer, Sherry Jones, rejected that offer and, with the help of Bill Moyers, a PBS mainstay, has been appealing to stations individually to find time on their schedules before 2009. Stations serving about 85 percent of the nation’s viewers have agreed to carry the program on some date. But a major gap is Washington. Mary Stewart, a spokeswoman for that city’s largest public station, WETA, said, “It’s a show we are looking at, but we haven’t scheduled it yet.”

Ms. Jones said, “Since it is a story about policy, driven from Washington, that is something I wish were different.”

She has done award-winning work for the PBS program “Frontline” and Mr. Moyers’s production company, among other projects. Her 90-minute “Torturing Democracy” can be seen at torturingdemocracy.org. It explores the evolution of United States policy and internal administration battles over the use of coercive interrogation techniques on military detainees, including suspected terrorists. Interview subjects include former government and military officials and former detainees; several current administration officials declined to participate. In one interview Richard L. Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state, describes for the first time on camera his experience being waterboarded during Vietnam-era military training.

On WNET and on some other stations the program will be followed by a taped half-hour panel discussion among the Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz; Carol Rosenberg, a reporter for The Miami Herald; and Philippe Sands, director of the Center for International Courts and Tribunals at University College, London.

Stephen Segaller, vice president for content at WNET called the documentary “flawlessly journalistic in its adduction of evidence,” and said the panel discussion would examine “issues that arise from those facts.”

Ms. Jones began talking to PBS about the film early this year, and PBS executives received a version on May 5. On Aug. 28 PBS, which relies partly on federal funds, offered the January airdate, citing “scheduling difficulties,” Ms. Jones said, adding, “I take them at their word, but PBS is in the business of producing programs in the public interest and my hope had been that scheduling would not have prevented this from airing in a timely manner.”

Several factors prevented a summer airdate, including scheduling of the animated sitcom “Click & Clack’s As the Wrench Turns” and the political conventions, and a desire not to compete against the Olympics, Lea Sloan, a PBS spokeswoman, said.

PBS executives also asked Ms. Jones to make changes to the film, including adding the panel discussion. By the time that happened, the fall schedule was set, said John Wilson, the PBS senior vice president for programming. He called the film “ultimately an impressive work of journalism,” and said, “our goal was to have it in a good slot.” That the first date offered happened to be the day after the Bush administration is to leave power “absolutely is coincidental,” he said. “It was the date that offered itself up.”

Ms. Jones said that she “agreed to every change that was requested of me, except one,” that of changing the documentary’s name, which would have been expensive. Had she known that “despite all of that, the airdate was still not going to be until after the first of the year,” she said she would have decided much earlier to circulate the film independently of PBS.

She noted that Congress had been holding hearings on the issue since June, and Jane Mayer’s book “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals,” was published in July. Ms. Mayer, a consultant for the program, cites some of its interviews in her book.

“It’s been very frustrating,” Ms. Jones said. “There’s something of a public discussion going on and there’s reporting that ought to be out there.”

PBS, Mr. Wilson said, has shown programs examining Bush administration controversies, including “Bush’s War” on “Frontline.” “I don’t think there’s a track record here that you can say we’re unwilling to speak truth to power,” he said.

Mr. Segaller of WNET, who had some input in the documentary’s revision, said PBS was in a no-win situation and would also have been criticized had it decided to show the program before the Nov. 4 election. He added, “I suspect that when we air it and other people air it there will be some criticism, attacking its motive rather than its content.”

Nonetheless he called it “a fundamentally important issue and a film that is fundamentally journalistic.”

article originally published at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/16/arts/television/16pbs.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey