WASHINGTON (Sep. 11)
Despite four months of the kind of controversy and hype that filmmakers only dream about, the Public Broadcasting Service’s broadcast of the controversial film “Days of Rage: The Young Palestinians” and its wrap-around programming reached only average-sized viewing audiences, according to PBS officials.
While the ratings were not outstanding, some Jewish leaders are concerned that American Jewry’s campaign against the documentary has created a notoriety that could backfire and actually serve Arab propagandists.
Although Jewish leaders said they had no choice but to protest the film, some fear it will be distributed around the country as the “film the Jews tried to stop.”
“Days of Rage” aired Sept. 6 in most national markets, after months of protests by Jewish groups that the film presents a one-sided attack on Israel’s handling of the Palestinian uprising.
In response to the outcry, PBS “bookended” the documentary with short films showing Israeli points of view and a panel discussion with Jewish and Arab-American leaders, as well as experts on the Middle East.
PBS also aired a disclaimer before and after the broadcast, saying it could not substantiate accusations that “Days of Rage” producer Jo Franklin-Trout had accepted funding for the documentary from an Arab organization, in violation of PBS rules.
The national audience of 5.9 million viewers who watched all or part of the two-and-a-half hours of programming was “typical as far as this subject matter goes,” said John Fuller, director of research for PBS.
HIGH NUMBER OF PHONE CALLS
The program’s projected Nielsen rating, said Fuller, was similar to that for the previously aired documentaries “Arab and Jew” and “Sword of Islam.”
The ratings remained higher for introductory segments and the 90-minute documentary itself. Viewers tended to flip the channels during the 40-minute panel discussion that followed the documentary.
PBS received an unusually high number of telephone calls in response to the program, many at the prompting of “viewer response” solicitations that appeared on screen in some markets.
By far, the largest volume of such calls was received by New York’s WNET, the original sponsor of the broadcast and the target of some of the most urgent appeals from Jewish groups.
The station received 378 negative calls during the broadcast, versus 106 positive, officials there reported. By Monday, the station had received 759 calls, with 505 protesting the showing.
In Philadelphia, the PBS affiliate received 49 positive and 57 negative calls, and in Miami, the local station fielded 36 complaints and six approving calls.
That ratio was reversed in other cities, however. In smaller markets, viewer response was “3-2 positive to negative,” according to Mary Jane McKinven, PBS director for national press relations.
The PBS affiliate in San Diego fielded 96 positive versus 66 negative calls, for example, and of the more than 200 calls received by the Minneapolis affiliate, 95 percent were positive, McKinven said.
POSITIVE CALLS IN ATLANTA
In Atlanta, where 75 percent of the 400 calls received were positive, local affiliate WPBA presented a half-hour panel discussion of its own on Sunday called “Atlanta Reacts to ‘Days of Rage.’”
The producer of that program, Conne Ward-Cameron, said in a report that many of the positive calls were from those who felt “the Arab point of view is seldom represented on TV.”
A participant in the Atlanta panel discussion, however, said the positive calls were the result of organized appeals from “people who espouse the Arab cause.”
Rabbi Arnold Goodman of the Ahavath Achim Congregation in Atlanta said only die-hard Middle East watchers among his congregation saw the program, and few bothered to call in to complain.
Still, Goodman was concerned that Jewish protests turned the film into a “hot property.”
“Arab groups will distribute the film to college campuses as the film the Jewish community fought to block. That’s the risk we took,” he said.
Martin Raffel, who coordinated meetings between Jewish leaders and PBS officials as Israel Task Force director of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, said Jewish groups were faced with a “classic dilemma” over whether to protest and thereby publicize the film. But he said that it was “impossible not to respond.”
“The way we handled it was appropriate. We didn’t launch a campaign to censor the broadcast or encourage members of the community to punish PBS by withholding contributions,” said Raffel.
CAN’T ‘HIDE THINGS UNDER THE RUG’
“The Jewish community can never hide things under the rug — not anti-Semitism, and not Arab propaganda,” said Seymour Reich, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Reich, who took part in the PBS panel discussion afterward, said the Jewish community had “no choice but to label the so-called documentary as propaganda. We told PBS that it can’t get away with showing films so distorted and unbalanced.
“Certainly there was hype, but it was warranted,” he said. “We haven’t seen the last of ‘Days of Rage.’ “
Reich, who also is president of B’nai B’rith International, said he had “alerted” the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation that “Days of Rage” will be distributed on college campuses.
Tom Teepen, editorial page editor of the Atlanta Constitution and a participant in the Atlanta panel discussion, also said the documentary deserved to be challenged. Still, he wondered if protests had gone too far.
“I don’t think it’s ever appropriate to let a program that fundamentally misrepresents a situation slide by unchallenged,” said Teepen. “But persisting often tends to have a reverse spin effect and incite interest in it.”
Teepen said that PBS had “erred grievously” in airing a program that contained as many historical inaccuracies as did “Days of Rage,” an opinion shared by many mainstream media critics.