Tuesday, January 03, 2006

"Breaking the Silence" update

In November, I wrote, on this blog and in my Boston Globe column, about the PBS documentary Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories, which deals with abusive husbands/fathers who win custody of their children after divorce (and suggests that the vast majority of fathers who win custody in contested cases are abusive and that the main reason fathers seek custody is to achieve "the ultimate victory over the mother, short of killing her").

At the time I wrote the column, PBS was reviewing the program as a result of complaints. On December 20, PBS announced the results of the review.

Some fathers' rights groups have claimed the result as a victory because PBS has said that it is commissioning a new film on the subject. But that's a bit of spin. The headline at RADAR (Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Abuse Reporting), "PBS Whitewashes Flawed Documentary," is far more accurate.

Here's the full text of the statement:

BREAKING THE SILENCE: CHILDREN'S STORIES chronicles the impact of domestic violence on children and the recurring failings of family courts across the country to protect them from their abusers. In stark and often poignant interviews, children and battered mothers tell their stories of abuse at home and continued trauma within the courts. The producers approached the topic with the open mindedness and commitment to fairness that we require of our journalists. Their research was extensive and supports the conclusions drawn in the program. Funding from the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation met PBS's underwriting guidelines; the Foundation had no editorial influence on program content.

However, the program would have benefited from more in-depth treatment of the complex issues surrounding child custody and the role of family courts and most specifically the provocative topic of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). Additionally, the documentary's "first-person story telling approach" did not allow the depth of the producers' research to be as evident to the viewer as it could have been.

PBS has received a substantial body of analysis and documentation from both supporters of the documentary and its critics.

It is clear to us that this complex and important issue would benefit from further examination. To that end, PBS will commission an hour-long documentary for that purpose. Plans call for the documentary to be produced and broadcast in Spring 2006. We expect that the hour-long treatment of the subject will allow ample opportunity for doctors, psychologists, judges, parent advocates and victims of abuse to have their perspectives shared, challenged and debated.

Open-mindedness? Commitment to fairness? Please. When I interviewed producer Dominique Lasseur for my Boston Globe column, he told me in so many words that the one-sidedness of the film was a part of its concept and mission. According to Lasseur:

In a lot of the cases where there has been domestic violence and the woman often makes allegations of domestic violence or child abuse, it becomes dismissed because it's he said/she said. In the cases that we featured, they're clearly very embattled issues. I didn't want to recreate on the screen a way for these people to be dismissed, to dismiss the reality of what we were talking about.

And so, by design, we get only the "she said."

Lasseur also said that none of the women interviewed for the documentary had a political agenda or were involved in "organized groups that were a part of men versus women issues," while the fathers' rights activists to whom he had spoken "had a political agenda." Yet one of the experts interviewed in the film, law professor Joan Meier, has an extensive history of feminist commitments (see her resume). Not that there's anything wrong with that, as they say, but surely that's a "political agenda" -- though, evidently, not to Lasseur.

It is worth noting that the day before PBS issued its review statement, Corporation for Public Broadcasting ombudsman Ken Bode posted a scathing critique of "Breaking the Silence." According to Bode:

There was no alternative point of view presented in "Breaking the Silence," and the producer admits it was intended to be that way. It might be difficult to find a clearer breach of PBS editorial standards unless one concludes there is only one side to child and spousal abuse issues in the country's custody cases.

Earlier, the PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, had come to a conclusion nearly as negative:

My assessment, as a viewer and as a journalist, is that this was a flawed presentation by PBS. I have no doubt that this subject merited serious exposure and that these problems exist and are hard to get at journalistically. But it seemed to me that PBS and CPTV were their own worst enemy and diminished the impact and usefulness of the examination of a real issue by what did, indeed, come across as a one-sided, advocacy program.

I'm not saying that there is necessarily another side to tragic cases where a child is abused and handed over to the abuser. But this is a broad issue, often complex, hotly debated and contested, with dueling statistics pouring out of both sides. Yet, there was no recognition of opposing views on this program. There was a complete absence of some of the fundamental journalistic conventions that, in fact, make a story more powerful and convincing because they, at a minimum, acknowledge that there is another side.

This presentation made no concession to the viewer and to the legitimate questions one would have or expect. Not only were no fathers heard from to state their side of the individual stories presented, there was no explanation (with one exception) as to whether the producers even tried to get their views, or if the fathers were asked but declined, or, as we now know from Lasseur's statement, that there was a decision not to give air time to critics or groups holding opposing views.


I am not claiming here that PBS editorial guidelines were clearly breached, although many critics argue precisely that point, some citing references to the Public Broadcasting Act and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting which calls for "strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature." Rather, my assessment is that the totality of the presentation came across as quite tilted to me, as a viewer who understands that the vast majority of fathers do not behave badly and that women are also capable of being abusers, and who is quite open to the idea that there are miscarriages of justice in this field that need to be exposed and corrected. The way this topic was presented actually distracted from the message it was sending because it was so noticeably devoid of any balance.

While Getler feels that PBS editorial standards calling for fairness and objectivity were "bumped up against and maybe breached," Bode emphatically believes that they were breached.

And what is this "depth of research" that the PBS statement refers to? Are there studies that were used in the film beyond the ones listed on Tatge/Lasseur's resources page? (Two of the articles listed there are overviews of public policy rather than studies of actual cases.) Nor does the PBS statement ever acknowledge a blatant falsehood perpetrated in the film: Breaking the Silence states that the American Psychological Association has "thoroughly debunked" the so-called Parental Alienation Syndrome, while in fact the APA takes no position on the validity of PAS.

Incidentally, Trish Wilson (The Countess) reported on November 18 that Breaking the Silence had been shown at the statehouse in Massachusetts, followed by a panel discussion with (as she notes with satisfaction) "nary a fathers' rights activist in sight." In other words, this biased and overwrought film is now being used to "educated" family court personnel -- to promote the notion that there is no such thing as parental alienation, that a mother's charges of abuse against the father in a divorce case should be treated as presumptively true, and that three-quarters of fathers who seek custody of their children are abusers.

Wilson sees the PBS statement as a vindication of the film (rather than a pathetic exercise in covering one's behind), and rightly notes that some fathers' rights activists are spinning the statement; but she commits her own sin of omission, saying not a word about the conclusions of the two ombudsmen. Wilson also suggests, in the comments in this thread, that the PBS statement implicitly exonerates Sadiya Alilire, one of the women profiled in the film: "So all the speculations here about Sadiya Alilire supposedly being a child abuser and husband beater are off the mark." But actually, as I pointed out in an earlier post, the fact that Alilire had a history of assaulting her husband is acknowledged in the documents that Wilson herself has cited as supporting Alilire.

PBS has not acquitted itself well in this case, rallying to the defense of a piece of propaganda masquerading as a documentary. We'll see what the follow-up will bring. RADAR is concerned that" in Breaking the Silence Part II, PBS will simply present biased experts and one-sided research that will reinforce the propaganda-like conclusions contained in Breaking the Silence Part I." One can only hope that this will not be the case.

There has been a lot of discussion on this blog recently of women's career/family issues, and of the need for fathers to take on a greater share of child-rearing tasks -- and for more cultural encouragement for paternal involvement. Vilifying fathers as abusers does not do much to promote such a cultural climate.


Anonymous said...

I watched this documentary with horror and dread. God help you if you are a man and want to spend time with your children! I have two daughters whom I have custody of 50% of the time. I have to say, after going through the whorehouse that is Family Court, I have absolutely no intention whatsoever of getting married again.
I wonder if this is a widespread phenomenon, and if women & men in the 40-50 age bracket will have an unprecedented proportion of their demographic spending the majority of their later years alone.

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