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PBS purges Web content on Israeli disapproval

Cyber-war, in a sense

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The US Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is airing a documentary film this week by affiliate WNET in New York, called "Caught in the Crossfire: Arab-Americans in Wartime," which considers the predicament of Arab-Americans since the 9/11 atrocity. In addition to the film is a companion Web site offering background material for curious viewers.

Unfortunately, a few people disapproved of some of that material, and PBS did exactly what any spineless pandering coward would do; they buckled to pressure (or the fear of pressure) from New York's Jewish and Israeli lobbying groups, and removed content from the companion site which dares to tell the Palestinian story without the mandatory pro-Israel bias.

Some of the purged, non-Kosher information may have been inaccurate, according to this heavily-biased report by Ira Stoll in the New York Sun. But the story's chief implication, that PBS buckled because it feared that some diabolical cabal of well-heeled New York Jews could obstruct its funding and shave its viewership makes this something of a cyberattack -- or at least a cybersurrender.

Now, I don't want to get into arguments with readers about who's right and who's wrong and who threw the first punch in Palestine. The conflict is messy and old and full of complications and interference from geopolitical players, the full effects of which which I don't pretend to understand. I'll say this much: personally I'd be a lot more comfortable with the Palestinian struggle if they'd stick to attacking Israeli military targets exclusively, and leave civilians out of it. On the other hand they are under occupation, they have no homeland, and most importantly, no army with which to attack military targets. They're so outmanned, outmanouvred and outgunned that it's hard to think of what else they could do to fight back.

But here we're concerned with another area where Israel has the Palestinians hopelessly outdone: in the marketplace of public debate, which the PBS self-censorship move illustrates, and, in its own pathetic way, exacerbates. Israel possesses, by Palestinian standards, effectively limitless resources to advance their propaganda. They demonize Palestinian combatants as 'terrorists', lionize their own dead as sacrificial lambs, and justify their aggressive military assaults as a matter of self-preservation. And that's fine; propaganda is what governments do.

But we ought to be permitted to hear from both sides and draw our own conclusions. I may come close to vomiting from NY Times blowhard William Safire's 'Israel uber alles' screed, but my preferred solution to clumsy propaganda like that is opposing propaganda. Keep the marketplace of ideas open to all comers, I say, and caveat lector. This is a fundamental element of civilized life which we simply cannot allow to be subverted by legions of well-heeled lobbyists and their obedient mouthpieces in the mainstream press.

But in this case, there's no evidence that a lobbying effort had got underway; indeed, there hardly seems to have been adequate time to organize such a thing. It appears that PBS was cowed into jelly-like submission merely by the fear of such a terrible inconvenience as alienating New York Jews, who the organization assumes will do them harm.

The PBS explanation is laughable:

"The 'Homelands' section of the site drew attention away from the message of the film. Our goal was to provide background information that contextualized the cultural histories of the people whose lives are chronicled in the film. In an effort to keep the focus on the current experience of Arab Americans, we have removed that section of the site.'

Not only are they too spineless to defend their own content in the face of what may well be completely imaginary threats, they haven't got the cojones to admit it, either. The background material 'drew attention from the film's message' indeed. That's what background information is all about, for Christ's sake. It's an excursus, an appendix. So what they're really saying is, 'we purged the background information because it was background information.' And what they really mean is, 'we took down controversial material which we feared might invite financial and public-relations retaliation from a small, and small-minded, fraction of our patrons.'

Well, if one journalist can frighten them into censoring themselves, perhaps another can shame them into showing a bit of spine. It's worth a shot, I suppose; but I'm not optimistic about a network which has descended in the past couple of decades from airing the superb intellectual contributions of Jacob Brownowski and Eugen Weber to airing the crowd-pleasing psycho-babble of such lowbrow parasites as Deepak Chopra, Suze Ormond and Andrew Weil. ®

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