Martyn Burke Strikes Back at PBS

Canadian novelist and veteran documentary filmmaker Martyn Burke is not someone you’d expect to get into an ugly ideological spitting match with the folks who run PBS.

Burke, who lives and works in the heart of the Hollywood creative community, considers himself neither conservative nor liberal. But "Islam vs. Islamist," the documentary he made about how moderate Muslims are being silenced and intimidated by Islamist extremists, will not be part of "America at a Crossroads," PBS’s new 11-part, six-night series about post-9/11 America that begins Sunday night at 9.

Executives at WETA in Washington, D.C., the public station overseeing the series for PBS, say the documentary was cut from the "Crossroads" lineup because it wasn’t completed in time and because it was “alarmist” and not objective. PBS says it may run it at a later date.

Burke, however, says his documentary, made with $700,000 in Corporation for Public Broadcasting money, was interfered with and then dropped because he refused to fire his two co-producers, Frank Gaffney and Alex Alexiev, who run the Center for Security Policy think tank.

Burke says he is telling his side of the story because "of a long litany of unbelievably unprofessional things" that have happened and because PBS series producers violated "the basic tenets of journalism." I talked to Burke by telephone on Thursday, April12,  from his home in Santa Monica, Calif.:

Q:  Is this what you get for taking $700,000 from the taxpayers to make a documentary?

A: Probably. I think I’m paying for my sins of working on the public purse right now. But, no, we took this on because we just wanted to ask one simple question after 9/11: Where are the moderate Muslims and why aren’t they speaking out? We took this for a very serious purpose. We thought it was a question that needed answering and the answer we found was that the moderate Muslims have been generally intimidated, in many cases, through coercion, ostracism or sometimes outright fear of physical violence. That is what we wanted to show.

Q: That’s what “Islam vs. Islamists” is about?

A: Yes. We portrayed a number of moderate Muslims in Denmark, in France, in Canada and in the United States — the U.S. being one community in Flint, Mich., and one in Phoenix. We chose moderate Muslims. We hired a  team of journalists, some of the best we could get our hands on, who are reporters from major newspapers in France, Denmark and Toronto. We had a Pulitzer Prize nominee and a woman profiled in The New York Times for the excellence of her team. We were just about making a documentary on this topic but we found ourselves enmeshed in politics unlike I have never seen before.

Q: A lot of people don’t realize that documentaries are not meant to be balanced and neutral — they always have a point of view. So what is the slant or agenda of “Islam vs. Islamists”?

A:  One of the absolutely growing elements of hysteria from WETA within PBS was that we have a point of view. We said, “Of course we have a point of view.” Our point of view — based on the research, based on the reporting and the discussions with all these world-class reporters that we had engaged on this topic — was that there is a large community of moderates within the Muslim world who are afraid to speak up and we’re showing why. It’s because of the attacks of the Islamists.

What PBS/WETA attacked us on was they wanted us, in our opinion, to become virtually apologists for the Islamists, those who are the fundamentalists in this world.
 Basically, the attitude of this one small group — and again I have to say within WETA — was that the Muslims we were portraying as the moderates were in some way, in their view, not true Muslims because they were Westernized; they believed in democracy, which by the way the Islamists do not and will openly say that.

But they (the group within WETA) felt that the Islamists … somehow represented a truer strain of Islam. We said that is not the case as we have found it. And it became a sort of battle, with them saying to us, “Well, you control this. It is your film, but”  – and it was a huge, capital-letter “But” – “if you do not do what we want, we will throw you out of the series.”

Q: What did they want?

A: They wanted to portray the Islamists in a way that would represent them as being the truer strain of Islam, the truer representatives of Islam. And we said they represent a very virulent, aggressive form of Islam, that is one strain, but the moderates within Islam — and there are millions of them — have an equally valid voice within Islam. They did not want that balance.

Q: What are your politics and are they relevant in this?

A: First of all, you have to know that I am a card-carrying Canadian — a green card-carrying Canadian — and that my wife is a liberal and a member of the ACLU. I am basically an avid observer of the American political scene. I have been accused as being a "red Tory" up in Canada, which is as close as I can come to my politics. There are parts of both major parties that I would attack, that I would not subscribe to. Basically, I made a huge point of trying to keep politics, as it’s understood in the United States, completely out of this film.

I have socialists, conservatives, liberals amongst the moderate Muslims we are portraying. I didn’t care what the politics of the people we are portraying are — I couldn’t have cared less. Just as long as they were qualified as a moderate Muslims speaking out against the Islamists within their own religion, that was all that we took as a criteria. Their political beliefs had no place in this, nor did it have a place behind the cameras.

Q: You don’t consider the critiques of your film from the PBS/WETA people — that you had written an “alarmist” or unfair film — to be constructive criticism but censorship, is that true?

A: Yeah. What started happening was that we received these increasingly almost hysterical critiques from WETA. … They demanded that I fire my two partners (Frank Gaffney and Alex Alexiev), who had brought me into this film, because my partners were conservatives.

I made the point that I had done a documentary about the Blacklist Era in Hollywood, about the Hollywood Ten, and about the liberals and leftists who were blacklisted in those days, and I was not about to be party to a blacklist from the other side. I didn’t care whether it was liberal or conservative, I was not about to blacklist or fire anybody because of their political beliefs.

I was asked a question I never thought I’d hear in America — “Don’t you check into the politics of the people you work with?” My answer was, “No. I do not. I check into their journalistic integrity. I check into their pursuit of the truth as they understand it — a truth that can stand up to criticism and scrutiny."

That’s what I check into. I don’t check into "Are you a Democrat? Are you a Republican? Are you a liberal or are you a conservative?” That to me is absolutely abhorrent to a free pursuit of journalism in this country.

Q: Did you know what the politics of Gaffney and Alexiev were?

A: The answer is yes. How I got brought into this was 20 years I was inside Afghanistan with the Afghan rebels who were attacking the Soviets. I went inside and slept in caves and trekked up and down mountains. I was on the border with Alex Alexiev, who was over there at the time researching a lot and he knew more about the Islamic situation and more about the Soviet situation than anyone I ever met. He was an amazing research resource. I didn’t see him for 16 or 17 years and then I got a call from him. He says there is a chance to do a film about moderate Muslims within Islam — a topic I was fascinated about.
I said yes.

Frank Gaffney was a partner on this. I met Frank Gaffney for the first time and my question to myself was, “Am I going to find myself as part of an agenda-driven film, because if so, I was not going to be party to it.” Frank Gaffney and I and Alex Alexiev and I talked, and basically there was no agenda driving this film other than as rigorous an examination of the situation as we could make it. Not once did I feel a political agenda from Frank Gaffney or from Alex Alexiev during this film. The only politics I ever felt came from WETA. Had I had felt there was a political agenda driving this film, from neoconservatives or anything else, I would not have gone into it.

Q: How do you think this squabble will end, versus how you’d like to see it end?

A: I can’t really answer that. We feel like a ship on the sea right now, waiting for dawn to find out where we are. There are tremendous discussions and negotiations going on in Washington. We have told Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the financiers of this film, “Please get PBS to air it or release it.” There was a letter that went out this morning, as a matter of fact, to that effect, to Pat Harrison, the head of Corporation for Public Broadcasting, saying please do exactly that.

Q: One of the WETA execs said your film was dealt with in a “fair and professional manner.” Do you agree?

A: No. I have worked for networks all over the world. I have worked in France, Britain, Canada and the United States. This was the most unprofessional dealing I have ever had and the most politically biased. In some ways, it’s just raw politics taking precedence over journalism. It’s that simple.