Another Update: On the PBS NewsHour Friday: "Terence Smith speaks with Karen Everhart of Current newspaper about the persistent controversies plaguing PBS and Mitchell's decision to leave.
Visit pbs.org/newshour/media after 9p.m. Eastern time for more information on this segment."
I had planned to write Monday about the next two Frontline documentaries which both focus on the military in Iraq: A Company of Soliders which follows the 8th Cavalry's Dog Company airs on Tuesday, February 22nd. A Soldier's Heart which looks at the mental impact of the war airs a week later on March 1st (as well as previous excellent shows including Truth, War, and Consequences and Rumsfeld's War) . And I still will.
But PBS has decided to send a version of A Company of Soldiers censoring the language of the soldiers on the hard feed (an uncensored version will be available on a soft feed which requires stations to record it). Frontline issued a statement today (which is in full below) saying they believe "this is the moment for public television to stand firm and broadcast 'A Company of Soldiers' intact, as it was intended. We believe what is at issue is not the particulars of this case, but the principle of editorial independence. Because overreaching by the FCC is at its heart a First Amendment issue, all programs are at risk, whether art, science, history, culture, or public affairs." A Soldier's Heart has similar language, so I imagine PBS will do the same thing (unless there is enough of an uproar).
I wrote about the impact of the FCC crackdown in POV's broadcast of Wattstax marred by bleeps (which has a bunch of background links) last September on TVBarn and Blogcritics. If the bill passed by the House becomes law without any provision for smaller fines for public broadcasting, it will have an even more chilling effect.
I watched the beginning of A Company of Soldiers and the language is completely appropriate. It would be distracting to have bleeps while soldiers are being attacked. I hope most PBS stations will respect the soldiers and their audience and use the uncensored soft feed. At the very least, they should run the uncensored version late at night, so people can record it.
In San Francisco, A Company of Soldiers will air at 10 pm which is during the FCC safe harbor. That, along with FCC ruling on Saving Private Ryan mentioned in the Frontline statement should make it clear no station would be fined.
I've watched the program and bleeps would distract from powerful scenes in a realitistic and moving documentary.
Rep. Bernie Sanders spoke against the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act and included a statement from the President of VT Public Television on impact the FCC crackdown has had on their station.
From a good piece in the Seattle Times by Kay McFadden:
Kurt Wimmer, an attorney specializing in [the] First Amendment...advised ABC affiliates on airing "Saving Private Ryan" and recently counseled "Frontline."
He concluded that the contents of "A Company of Soldiers" are valid in the context of news.
"It seems to me that if you have the use of the F-word and S-word in the heat of battle, it's not indecent because they are not sexual or excretory," Wimmer said. Moreover, "This is actual news footage; it really occurred; it is critical to the integrity of the show."
Those words, he added, are "part of life. It almost seems unpatriotic to say you've got to sugar-coat a war that we are paying for and that people are dying for."
Also, from an article in the LA Times (free registration required):
Some PBS member stations said they would air the program after 10 p.m., when children were presumably not watching.
In Los Angeles, KCET will air the edited version at 9 p.m. Tuesday, but viewers who want to see the original broadcast will have the chance to do so at 11:30 p.m. on Feb. 26, according to spokeswoman Laurel Lambert.
KPBS in San Diego will air the unedited show at 10 p.m. Tuesday, according to General Manager Doug Myrland.
Stations in other markets are taking a more conservative approach.
Executives at Mississippi Public Broadcasting and at WKNO in Memphis, Tenn., said they would show only the cleaned-up version of "A Company of Soldiers."
"It's something we actually appreciate," Mississippi Public Broadcasting Executive Director Marie Antoon said of PBS' decision. "We have had [viewer] complaints sent to the FCC because of PBS material."
WGBH and PBS have also disagreed about airing an episode of Postcards from Buster. Dept of Ed vs. Buster the Bunny is a vlog (12.3 MB QT) interview with a senior editor of the show.
Full disclosure: I interned at the Center For Investigative Reporting and worked on a Frontline documentary there on General Motors in 1993. I also worked as a researcher on CIR's Frontline profile of Rush Limbaugh which aired just over a decade ago (and should be repeated soon with a brief update). I haven't worked with the producers of these documentaries. And ofcourse the above doesn't reflect the views of Frontline. This does:
Today FRONTLINE issued the following statement regarding our upcoming broadcast of "A Company of Soldiers."
Response to PBS’s Hard Feed of Edited “A Company of Soldiers”
Date: February 17, 2005
Several months ago, FRONTLINE set out to make a film that would bring the real and raw experience of U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq into the homes of public television viewers. That program, “A Company of Soldiers” will air on Tuesday, February 22. This is a film about young men at war, often in combat, and always in danger. As you might expect, the language of these soldiers is sprinkled with expletives, especially at their moments of greatest fear and stress. As we edited the program, we were judicious, but came to believe that some of that language was an integral part of our journalistic mission: to give viewers a realistic portrait of our soldiers at war. We feel strongly that the language of war should not be sanitized and that there is nothing indecent about its use in this context.
As we have done in the past, we brought the matter of language to the attention of PBS and indicated our desire to create two versions of the program—a version with the language left intact for a hard feed, and an edited version to be soft-fed to stations for whom such language has always been a matter of local sensitivity. This has been standard practice for years with FRONTLINE programs with language issues.
PBS, citing FCC indecency rules, has decided to hard-feed the sanitized version and provide a soft-feed of the intact version. We have always understood that the decision to broadcast is a local decision. We respect the right of every station to make its own decision, based on its own audience. We recognize that recent actions by the FCC have put a burden on individual stations, exposing them to fines and legal costs. As you deliberate about this program, there are some things we would ask you to consider.
Our attorneys, including outside counsel, have advised us that the expletives in “A Company of Soldiers” do not violate the FCC’s indecency rule. They have concluded that the uses of the f-word and others in this film do not cross the FCC’s guidance against “gratuitous” use. They are not meant to “titillate” or “pander” to the audience. And as you know, there is a “safe harbor” after 10 pm for such language for those stations who regularly air the program at that hour.
You no doubt are familiar with the recent case of ABC’s broadcast of the film “Saving Private Ryan,” which contained repeated instances of similar language, used in the same context as this FRONTLINE. It was widely reported that a majority of the FCC commissioners decided they would not support viewer complaints about the language in “Saving Private Ryan,” and outgoing Chairman Michael Powell concluded that the agency should not take action against the ABC stations that aired it because the language was part of accurately portraying the story about the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II.
Some of you may have heard Chairman Powell’s remarks at a gathering of public television colleagues earlier this week, suggesting that context is indeed key to these decisions, and that for public television the greater risk is in self-censorship.
For these journalistic and legal reasons, FRONTLINE believes this is the moment for public television to stand firm and broadcast “A Company of Soldiers” intact, as it was intended. We believe what is at issue is not the particulars of this case, but the principle of editorial independence. Because overreaching by the FCC is at its heart a First Amendment issue, all programs are at risk, whether art, science, history, culture, or public affairs.
We believe the risks of an adverse outcome are small and the principles we stand on are large. Editorial decisions should be free from influence by the government and should be made in accordance with the standards, practices, and mission of public broadcasting.