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‘Rage’ Documentary Puts PBS in Its Own Mideast Standoff

The debate over “Days of Rage"--a controversial and provocative public television program about the Palestinian uprising in the Israeli-occupied Left Bank and Gaza Strip--continues to rage.

Title this “Days of Overreaction.”

So much so that a “wraparound” program being prepared to “balance” the strong Palestinian point of view expressed by the oft-delayed “Days of Rage"--now scheduled to air on PBS Sept. 6--may end up being nearly as long and expensive as the documentary itself.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Jo Franklin-Trout, the veteran journalist-documentarian who made “Days of Rage,” said from Washington, D.C. “It’s unbelievable.”

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Unfortunately, it’s all too believable.

“Days of Rage” is surely opinionated, but also well within the bounds of responsible journalism and deserving of being aired in a TV environment that does not dilute its pointed message.

But apparently that will not happen.

The length of “Days of Rage” is 90 minutes. The program that will introduce and then follow it is envisioned at 60 minutes, said Richard Hutton, who is producing the wraparound for New York’s WNET-TV, which stepped in as the documentary’s PBS presenting station after New York’s WNYC-TV bowed out.

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The cost of “Days of Rage"--which features largely unrebutted Palestinian horror stories and accounts of alleged Israeli brutality during the uprising--was $180,000, says Franklin-Trout. The cost of the wraparound “will not exceed $150,000,” Hutton said by phone from New York.

The usual PBS wraparound consists of a half-hour panel discussion. Although its host, guests and format have not been decided, Hutton said the “Days of Rage” wraparound may include two small film packages. “After looking at the show, we felt it made very serious allegations, and a half hour wasn’t enough,” he said.

Earlier this year, PBS seemed to have a different opinion.

Before “Days of Rage” became embroiled in controversy, a PBS press release labeled it part of the network’s “fresh breeze” of programming and an “unprecedented opportunity to hear Palestinians’ reasons for the uprising and their point of view concerning reported Israeli repression.”

Hutton said he was sure there had been other PBS wraparounds as extensive as this one. “None come to mind,” he said, “but I’m sure they are out there.”

Some Jewish groups have hotly protested the plans to broadcast “Days of Rage,” which comes at a time when the political climate surrounding the uprising, or intifada, is becoming increasingly volatile.

WNET reports that 70% of about 2,000 calls and 260 letters it received about “Days of Rage” were critical of the station’s plans to air the program, and the controversy reportedly has hurt WNET’s fund-raising efforts in New York, where 1.7 million Jews live. “Some people will withdraw their contributions,” Hutton said.

Franklin-Trout blamed the firestorm enveloping her program on “heavy-handed pressure” from “advocates of Israel’s current policy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” She added: “I’m really troubled by the fact that an outside interest group can frighten a network to that degree.”

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Gail Christian, director for news and special projects at PBS, acknowledged seeking “pro-Israeli” programming to offer PBS stations as a companion to Franklin-Trout’s program. “But that was a journalistic reaction, not a political reaction,” said Christian, who has publicly supported airing “Days of Rage.”

Journalistic or political, the reaction to “Days of Rage” was intense at a recent gathering of PBS station executives. Franklin-Trout’s program was said to be the hottest topic at the gathering, an informal spinoff from a larger PBS programming meeting June 14 in Marco Island, Fla. The informal session was attended by officials from about 20 stations that occasionally meet to discuss PBS matters.

Unconfirmed reports that the station executives hammered out an agreement demanding that PBS air up to 10 hours of pro-Israeli programs to match “Days of Rage” were firmly denied by two people in attendance, WNET’s Hutton and Stephen Kulczycki, KCET’s vice president of programming.

Hutton, who said he was there to update the stations on the “Days of Rage” wraparound, characterized the session as merely “informational.”

The stations “wanted to discuss the concerns a number of us had and get a sense from WNET how they were going to handle the problem,” Kulczycki said. As for pro-Israeli programming, the stations felt “there had been no film talking about the intifada from the Israeli point of view,” he said.

Now under consideration at PBS is a seven-hour version of “Pillar of Fire,” a documentary series tracing events leading to the 1948 establishment of Israeli nationhood and priced at $525,000 by its American distributor, Stanley Moger, who said that Ted Turner’s TNT cable network is also interested.

The original 19-part “Pillar of Fire” was produced by the state-owned Israel Broadcasting Authority.

However, PBS denies it is considering buying “Pillar of Fire” to assuage critics of “Days of Rage.” Christian said that PBS’ interest in “Pillar of Fire” predated “Days of Rage.” Still in dispute, though, is whether controversy over “Days or Rage” has been a catalyst.

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The shorter version of “Pillar of Fire"--edited to seven hours by England’s Channel 4 for showing there--has been screened and endorsed as “excellent” by Suzanne Singer, PBS associate director of public affairs and science programming.

“I was concerned that because it was produced by Israeli broadcasting, it wouldn’t be objective, but it is,” Singer said. “This series really gives you a very clear understanding why Jews felt they needed a state and why they felt they had a legitimate claim to Israel. They give the Arab point of view, but obviously a member of the PLO might not think it’s as strong as it might be.”

Singer said she would recommend buying “Pillar of Fire” if the matter of the Israel Broadcasting Authority as producer can be resolved. The IBA from time to time is accused of censorship, and last year was charged by some Israelis with sanitizing coverage of the intifada.

Although a prolific buyer of programs from England’s BBC, PBS “pretty much has a rule against buying programs produced by governments,” Singer said. “The Israeli Embassy is getting me material about the IBA so that we can see if it’s set up like the BBC,” she said.

Even if it is, the larger question is whether PBS should buy a program from any nation on a sensitive topic in which that nation has a vested interest. Would it buy a program from the BBC on, say, Northern Ireland?

And with a four-part history of Israel through the eyes of former Israeli diplomat and government official Abba Eban already scheduled for airing on PBS next year, will it also buy “Pillar of Fire”?

“I’ll be real curious to see if they feel the need to put on a panel discussion after that,” said Franklin-Trout.


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