To air unedited documentary

MPT, WETA

Soldiers' expletives can be heard in `Frontline' report

February 19, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Despite the threat of government fines and no support from the Public Broadcasting Service, several major public television stations - including MPT and Washington's WETA - announced yesterday that next week they will air the unedited version of a searing documentary about the Iraq war. It is the second time in recent weeks that member stations have gone against the advice of PBS, their national programming network.

A Company of Soldiers, a Frontline report scheduled to air Tuesday night at 10, contains 13 expletives - most of them uttered by American GIs in the heat of combat. Because of the language, the producers delivered two versions of the film to PBS - one with the expletives and one without. The producers, who work at Boston public TV station WGBH, recommended the unedited version, saying the language was appropriate to the reality of the danger, stress and death experienced by the soldiers.

But PBS this week endorsed only the edited version, sending it to all 349 member stations. Meanwhile, it made the unedited version available only to stations whose management was willing to sign waivers relieving PBS from responsibility for any fines leveled by the Federal Communications Commission.

Nevertheless, as of late yesterday, such major stations as WNET in New York, Seattle's KCTS and San Diego's KPBS had decided to risk airing the unedited version.

"We do want to be cautious, and we have no desire to be confrontational or to get into a test case as far as the FCC is concerned," said Joe Bruns, executive vice president and chief operating officer of WETA, one of the four most important PBS stations in the country. "But the language that's used in this documentary is within the context of and appropriate to the firefights in which we see these soldiers. ... Therefore, we will air the unedited version."

Bruns, who described himself as a Vietnam combat veteran, said he found the language in the unedited version restrained compared to what he experienced in combat: "I was struck by the professional demeanor of the soldiers."

Despite the lack of support of PBS, Michael Sullivan, executive producer of Frontline, said yesterday that he did not want to be seen as pitted against PBS. The issue, he said, is the confusion within the TV industry about FCC standards on language and content in the wake of Janet Jackson's controversial performance during half time of the 2004 Super Bowl. Both Sullivan and WETA's Bruns cited the decision last fall by 66 ABC affiliates not to air Steven Spielberg's World War II film, Saving Private Ryan, out of fear they would be fined for expletives uttered by characters in combat.

"The problem is the uncertainty about where the line really is in terms of what you can do on television under current FCC interpretation of the indecency law," Sullivan said. "That uncertainty breeds a lot of fear."

He added that because broadcasters don't know what they can put on, they have become overly cautious in the last year, in effect, self-censoring.

In recent weeks, that very charge has been leveled against PBS President Pat Mitchell for refusing to distribute an episode of the WGBH-produced children's show, Postcards From Buster, because it showed the cartoon rabbit visiting a household in Vermont headed by a lesbian couple. Mitchell and PBS had come under fire for the episode from Margaret Spellings, the new secretary of education. In the wake of the Buster controversy, Mitchell this week announced she would resign when her current contract expires in 2006.

"But the only way to find out where the line on indecency is," Sullivan said, "is to test it. We think we have great journalistic reasons for going forward with this language. This is the way the soldiers spoke and shouted in the midst of the terror and fear of battle. It's important to communicate that. ... And it's important to use this case to test the fear.

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