On Nov. 29, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting issued a report on the Public Broadcasting Service documentary "Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories." (The CPB oversees the tax-funding and content of PBS.)
The documentary, which addressed domestic violence and children, is accused of being anti-father, factually inaccurate and politically motivated. Using the words "slanted" and "no hint of balance," in the report, CPB Ombudsman Ken A. Bode concluded, "The producers apparently do not subscribe to the idea that an argument can be made more convincing by giving the other side a fair presentation."
Bode wondered whether PBS had been used as "the launching pad for a very partisan effort to drive public policy and law." If so, the documentary violates PBS' mission statement to be non-partisan and "provide multiple viewpoints."
On Dec. 2, PBS's own internal ombudsman offered a separate analysis, "I thought this particular program had almost no balance...turning it...into more of an advocacy, or point-of-view, presentation."
"Breaking the Silence" claims that U.S. divorce courts routinely award custody of children to abusive fathers over the objection of mothers. It states, "All over America, battered mothers are losing custody of their children."
The theme is stated provocatively; a custody lawyer for mothers declares, "For the father to win custody of the kids over and against the mother's will is the ultimate victory short of killing the kids."
The documentary's message is clear: the family courts must be overhauled.
Critics argue that the producers Tatge-Lasseur cherry-picked a few extreme cases that they then presented them as typical.
But even the 'evidence' embodied by those extreme cases has been assailed.
The documentary is accused of mischaracterization. For example, Sadia Loeliger is featured as a heroic mom and survivor of domestic violence. But the extensive court documents, findings and reports reveal Loeliger to be guilty of multiple acts of child abuse which led to her losing custody of two daughters.
Police documents reveal she was arrested and jailed for felony domestic violence. No similar documents exist regarding the accused father.
The documentary contains blatant misstatements. For example, it claims the American Psychological Association came out against Parental Alienation Syndrome, by which one divorced parent is said to brainwash a child against the other. Actually, the APA takes no stand.
Indeed, Tatge-Lasseur subsequently altered their website to state simply that PAS is not recognized by the APA, a statement which is out-of-sync with the film.
The producers are accused of misusing data. "Breaking the Silence" offers no substantiation for its claims but Tatge-Lasseur's website has a resource page. A 1990 Report of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Gender Bias Study Committee is clearly key to the claim that abusive fathers commonly receive custody.
They found that "fathers who actively seek custody [8.75 percent of fathers] obtain either primary or joint physical custody over 70 percent of the time."
As Boston Globe columnist Cathy Young accurately observed, "This is a highly misleading claim [as used in the documentary] which implies that men usually win custody battles when they go to court. In fact, the majority of these cases are uncontested -- the fathers have sole or joint custody with the mother's consent."
Moreover, it is not clear that a 15-year-old study conducted in one state is relevant to today's nationwide family court system, which has changed dramatically over recent years.
Mischaracterization, misstatement and misapplied data are damning, but they do not add up to the additional concern raised by Bode. Was the tax-funded PBS used as "the launching pad for a very partisan effort to drive public policy and law?" Other explanations for the apparent bias, like incompetence or ideological blindness, could be to blame. The charge of political partisanship requires a higher standard of evidence.
What would constitute such evidence?
The accused father claims he provided extensive proof of Loeliger's child abuse to Tatge-Lasseur six months before the documentary aired. If the producers willfully ignored that proof, then they are wide open to accusations of partisanship and dishonesty.
Feminist and domestic violence groups organized state-by-state campaigns around the airing of "Breaking the Silence" with the goal of changing legal policy.
If PBS participated in any of the campaigns, then it is guilty of political partisanship.
Consider the Alaska event organized by Paige Hodson of Custody Preparation for Moms. Hodson announced, "We have not yet chosen our date, but since we got the PBS affiliate's [KAKM] go-ahead today, we can now pick any date we want and start planning. The local PBS station has said they will help us advertise and promote our event because we will then in turn promote viewing of their screening date on 10/20." [Archived page here.]
The depth of PBS' (or its affiliates') involvement in partisan politics may be difficult to judge. An internal PBS memo recently leaked and circulated on the Internet instructs PBS affiliates on how to stonewall those who call or email in protest. PBS' final review of the documentary is still pending, but the memo is hardly a propitious sign.
I believe PBS should lose all tax privileges and funding, but you need not be a radical to want a straight answer to a simple question from a publicly accountable agency.
Did PBS participate in a partisan push to change the law?
Wendy McElroy is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute and her books include the Independent Institute volumes, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century, and Freedom, Feminism, and the State.
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