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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'Rage' Documentary Puts PBS in Its Own Mideast Standoff

July 12, 1989|HOWARD ROSENBERG

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."

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.

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."

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.

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