Controversial PBS Series: 'America at a Crossroads'

In "The Case for War," the third installment of PBS's sprawling, 11-part, $20 million documentary series "America at a Crossroads," former Bush administration adviser Richard Perle spends the better part of an hour explaining why going to war in Iraq was the right thing to do. "The Case for War" has infuriated many public broadcasters and media watchdogs from the moment that plans for it, and for "America at a Crossroads," were announced in March 2004. Its critics accused the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the federal entity that helps fund PBS, of letting the Bush team hijack public television for its own ends. And they attacked Perle for pushing a neoconservative agenda with taxpayer money.

But when I watched "The Case for War," mostly I just felt bad for the guy. At one point, Perle wades into an antiwar rally in Washington, D.C., and is immediately swarmed. "It got pretty vicious," he tells NEWSWEEK. "When someone shouts, 'You're a weapon of mass destruction' or 'You're worse than Hitler,' how do you respond to that?" Throughout, however, Perle is unfailingly calm, even a bit downcast. To appease critics and give the film some objectivity, he also debates the Iraq question with several intelligent people who had the luxury of hindsight. (Other opponents of the war declined invitations to appear on camera, Perle says, including Noam Chomsky, actor Tim Robbins and "that fat guy who makes those documentaries." He means Michael Moore.) He comes across not as a frothing neocon caricature but as a thoughtful man with sincere beliefs who happens to be—at least from our current vantage point—on the wrong side of history. Despite the efforts to make it so, "The Case for War" isn't "balanced." It's the world according to Richard Perle, which is a pretty lonely perspective now. And that's why it's so fascinating.

"America at a Crossroads," which will air on PBS for six consecutive nights beginning April 15, had what its executive producer Dalton Delan calls "a tainted birth." The goal of the series was to prompt discussion about a handful of complex issues facing America in the post-9/11 world, including the struggles of moderate Muslims and Europe's antipathy toward the United States. (A disclosure: one of the films, "The Brotherhood," features NEWSWEEK reporters Mark Hosenball and Michael Isikoff; on screen, they're like our Woodward and Bernstein, only furrier.) But the debate began much sooner than anyone had in mind. "Crossroads" was the brainchild of CPB's executive vice president Michael Pack, a documentarian who had been installed in 2003 with a mandate to bring more conservative voices to PBS. Critics of the series argued that too many of the proposed installments, especially the Perle hour and a film about U.S. troops in Iraq called "Warriors," smacked of administration propaganda.

"Counterbalancing" projects were launched, then scrapped. The series's original advisory board was dismissed and replaced. In January 2006, Washington's public-television station, WETA, was brought in to oversee the project. "We knew that this could be a great series," Delan says. "But in this fishbowl world of scrutiny, trust was important. And any sideshow, perceived or otherwise, would've been a hurdle to that."

One such hurdle was removed just before WETA assumed control of "Crossroads." Brian Lapping, an award-winning British filmmaker and the initial producer of "The Case for War," agreed to recuse himself from the project after his friendship with Perle became public knowledge. When Karl Zinsmeister, one of the producers of "Warriors," accepted a position as President Bush's chief domestic-policy adviser, he also stepped aside at WETA's behest. Longtime PBS news anchor Robert MacNeil was brought in to host the series and tie together its disparate installments. But WETA stopped short of abandoning the Perle film (or any others) due to carping about imbalance. "The Case for War," says Jeff Bieber, an executive producer at WETA, "seemed to represent the kind of programs that PBS traditionally has not done, which is to showcase a conservative viewpoint."

The series is at its best during installments like Perle's, when the perspective it presents is sharp, specific and unfamiliar. "Crossroads" might have had an easier journey to the screen if its producers had forsaken polarizing narrators (such as Muslim author and reformer Irshad Manji in "Faith Without Fear") in favor of dispassionate drones, but what a bore that would've been. And besides, aren't we smart enough to listen to what Perle has to say and decide for ourselves if we agree? To suggest otherwise betrays a dim, even condescending, opinion of PBS's audience. Balance, after all, is an illusory concept. There are portions of "Crossroads" that are biased toward one viewpoint, but the series, on the whole, is not. A film such as "Warriors," which is about the day-to-day valor of a battalion in Iraq, might strike some viewers as naive about the complexities of the war. But its scenes of raw combat and perplexed soldiers calling every Iraqi man "Uday"—a reference to Saddam Hussein's dead son—give it the ring of truth. The next night, "Crossroads" will air a film called "Gangs of Iraq," which is a sobering look at the forces dragging Iraq into chaos. Set amid the same war, the two films couldn't be more different. But that doesn't invalidate either of them.

The biggest flaw in "America at a Crossroads" isn't imbalance. It's ill timing. The series was supposed to air around the fifth anniversary of 9/11, but all the political bickering at the outset thwarted that plan. The result is a series that feels unmoored to any major moment and, in some spots, oddly outdated. "It's not a bad time," says Bieber. "But yes, had this series aired when, say, Congress was debating the surge, that would've been great. Holding it for closer to the 2008 election would've been even better, but that just wasn't possible." Even MacNeil points out the folly of a series called "America at a Crossroads" that makes no mention of Iran or North Korea. "We did our best with the cards we were dealt," he says. Instead, the series kicks off with a two-hour primer on Osama bin Laden and the roots of Al Qaeda. It'd be a worthy curtain raiser if "Crossroads" had aired in 2003. But here in 2007, with bin Laden largely marginalized and Iraq in ruins, "America at a Crossroads" left me wondering if America has already blown through its crossroads, and now there's no turning back.