Reports

Breaking the Silence Redux

December 19, 2005

Ken A. Bode

The documentary, "Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories" was co-produced by Connecticut Public Television and broadcast initially on October 20. In the following month, according to PBS, it was broadcast on 235 stations making it available to 77 percent of the nation's TV households. The program brought to PBS some 4,000 e-mails, 3,500 of them negative. It brought e-mails, letters, and phone calls to CPB as well.

I posted my initial thoughts on this program on the CPB Ombudsmen Web site on November 29. Since then we have received various communications from viewers and from those involved with the program, enough response to warrant an additional posting.

MICHAEL LUNCEFORD, President of the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation

Mr. Lunceford contacted the CPB ombudsmen by e-mail and phone. A part of the Foundation's mission is the prevention of violence against women. It made a grant of $500,000 to underwrite the production, "Breaking the Silence."

My original posting cited a number of objections from critics of the documentary. Responding to those objections, Mr. Lunceford made two points.

1. The Foundation has no plan to distribute this documentary the way it did the 2001 program "Breaking the Silence: Journeys of Hope," which was sold through the foundation with an accompanying program guide.

2. After making the grant for the production, the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation had no further involvement with the project. Said Mr. Lunceford: "Our agreement with CPTV was for a program regarding the effects of domestic violence on children. The co-producers CPTV and Tatge/Lasseur had full independence within that topic in researching and producing the program. As you are aware, under PBS National Program Funding Standards and Practices, the co-producers are fully responsible for the program research and content."

AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION

In "Breaking the Silence," Parental Alienation Syndrome, where one parent systematically alienates a child against the other parent, often using manipulations and lies, was characterized as junk science. At one point the film states that PAS "has been thoroughly debunked by the American Psychological Association." I pointed out in my posting that the APA has no official position on the syndrome.

By e-mail, RHEA FARBERMAN, director of public affairs for the Association added the following caveat:

"Mr. Bode -- As a clarification to your statement on the Breaking Silence documentary: you are correct that the American Psychological Association has no official position on Parent Alienation Syndrome. We have, however, raised concerns about its use in child custody cases due to a lack of evidence that such a syndrome exists."

One thing that is clear from this controversy is that Parent Alienation Syndrome has become a factor in custody cases all over the country. How are family court judges supposed to know how to deal with it if the American Psychological Association hasn't figured it out? It may be time for a blue ribbon APA task force to give some guidance to the families, counselors, lawyers and judges in custody cases. It might save a lot of Americans, already in difficult personal circumstances, a lot of pain.

DR. SCOTT LOELIGER

We heard from Dr. Scott Loeliger whose daughter and former wife were featured in the documentary. Loeliger says the producers knew that he possesses documents from a juvenile court proving his wife was the abuser. He asked that his daughter be removed from the program and says that failure by the producers to do so was "a poison pill that destroyed the entire premise of the documentary."

Producers Lasseur and Tatge replied in a letter to CPB that Dr. Loeliger declined their offer to interview him so that his views could be aired. Had he agreed to be interviewed Loeliger would have been the only father represented.

They also say that after speaking to Dr. Loeliger they changed the names of the mother and daughter. What difference does that make? Their faces were still on public television screens all over the country. Did they think that Dr. Loeliger, to whom they caused pain, would mistake them for strangers?

Loeliger says he has received no satisfaction from PBS, CPTV or the producers and still threatens to release the juvenile files and sue.

TATGE/LASSEUR PRODUCTIONS, INC

We also heard from the program's co-producers Catherine Tatge and Dominique Lasseur Productions.

In my original posting I concluded that there was no hint of balance in the documentary "Breaking the Silence." Tatge/Lasseur said that my report was damaging to their professional reputation and even more to the women and children who are faced with the situations described in their film.

In discussing their research and reporting Dominique Lasseur said the following:

"We spoke with members of fathers' rights organizations and did extensive research on their views. We made the decision not to interview them on camera because they would not have provided any balance or fairness to the piece."

It was precisely the lack of balance and fairness that caused so many viewers to contact PBS and CPB. That was also the main thrust of my report. Lasseur now says that was intentional. Simply put, that amounts to a plea of guilty to violating the fairness and balance standards of PBS.

PBS'S NEW OMBUDSMAN

"Breaking the Silence" has passed to the hands of the new PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, and to an official review by PBS itself. In his December 2 report on the PBS Web site, Mr. Getler's overall impression was much the same as my own. These are excerpts:

"...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."
"...there was no recognition of opposing views on the 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."
"...I thought this particular program had almost no balance, and went too far, turning it, at least in my mind, into more of an advocacy, or point-of-view presentation."

I agree with everything Getler says, to a point. He allows that PBS editorial guidelines for fairness and objectivity were "bumped up against and maybe breached," but does not assert they were clearly breached.

I think it is worse than that. 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.

This is now up to PBS and CPTV. Remember, CPB and its ombudsmen never review programs prior to broadcast.

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