PBS BUYS A LOT OF ARGUMENTS FOR $20 MILLION
LAST August, Richard N. Perle, the former Bush administration adviser who advocated strongly for the Iraq invasion, found himself surrounded by antiwar demonstrators on the Mall in front of the Washington Monument.
He didn’t want to be there, but for “The Case for War,” a documentary laying out his arguments, his producers insisted that he confront his most emotional critics, with television cameras rolling, to add journalistic balance. He clearly looks uncomfortable in the film, to be shown on PBS in two weeks. “It wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience,” Mr. Perle said in an interview. “What you don’t see is a long period where they are hurling epithets at me.”
For six consecutive nights beginning April 15 PBS will turn over two hours of prime time to “America at a Crossroads,” a series of 11 programs, including Mr. Perle’s, meant to engage debate over contentious post-9/11 issues, from the origins of Islamic fundamentalism to the perceived tradeoffs the United States has made between security and liberty.
Getting past the epithets hasn’t been easy. The series was conceived in 2004 by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the entity that administers federal money for public radio and television, to prove to Congress that public television was worthy of its more than $300 million annual subsidy. Even now Congress is debating the White House’s request to cut public broadcasting’s funds by 25 percent.
The corporation financed the series with $20 million in federal money, an enormous sum for chronically struggling independent filmmakers. But, perhaps inevitably, such a charged project became caught up in the nation’s culture wars.
At a “Crossroads” briefing in New York in March 2004 filmmakers angrily vented concerns that the series was being politically manipulated. Their ire was directed at Michael Pack, then the corporation’s senior vice president for television. He had been brought in the year before to diversify the voices on public television, a mandate that included financing more conservative programming to balance a lineup that his superiors perceived as overly liberal.
Skeptical PBS programmers, who have autonomy over their schedule, had to be persuaded to show the series, even as relations with the corporation deteriorated amid revelations that its chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, had improperly monitored PBS for the political leanings of some guests. Mr. Tomlinson was forced out in November 2005. Delays while a new team did its own due diligence pushed the air date back.
Given all that was happening behind the scenes, the project was “inevitably going to be seen in a political context,” said Robert MacNeil, the longtime PBS journalist.