‘Frontline’ founder says assertions about his role in development of ‘Valentino’s Ghost’ are wrong and unfair

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On December 27, 2015, we ran an article by Terri Ginsberg about Michael Singh’s 2015 documentary “Valentino’s Ghost: Why We Hate Arabs,” that included statements about a conversation Singh says he had during the development of his project with David Fanning, the executive producer and founder of the PBS series Frontline. Fanning wrote to us recently to say that the version of that conversation we published is inaccurate, misrepresents him, and harms his reputation. What follows is Fanning’s letter to us and copies of emails he exchanged with Terri Ginsberg, which she allowed us to pass along. –Editor.

To the editor,

I am writing to express my outrage at a blog post by Terri Ginsberg on December 27, 2015 titled “Valentino’s Ghost makes comeback after 4 years of suppression.”  [link]

It was only recently brought to my attention, and has now been copied in several places.

I have attached [below] an email exchange I had in December with Ms Ginsberg.  I’m upset that she didn’t accurately reflect my response.  Even more upsetting is that she mischaracterized and withheld the alleged “transcript” of a conversation she says I had with Michael Singh.  If she had shared these words with me, I would have responded in much stronger and emphatic terms.  

To be clear, this “transcript” is a fabrication. The thrust of the “conversation” doesn’t represent my personal or professional opinions.  The dialogue has been edited to reflect a point of view that I don’t have.  It’s a slander on me and my years of professional work, and my long defense of journalistic integrity and funding transparency in public television. 

Anyone who has known me professionally or personally will also say that the content and tone of this dialogue does not in any way sound like me, and simply doesn’t reflect my history, opinions and attitudes. 

I’ve thought hard about this account, because it’s so crude and troubling. I have a distant memory of a short conversation with Mr Singh, quite some years ago.  Ironically, I remember I was trying to be helpful. It was clear that he was proposing a film that was not appropriate for FRONTLINE, because it was an essay with a point of view, and not a journalistic enquiry.  Setting that aside, I think I challenged him going forward to be prepared for the difficult task of funding and getting a broadcast for a film like his.

Given that, I’m not sure what purpose Mr. Singh has in now taking our conversation and distorting my words, other than needing to have someone to blame for not getting a PBS broadcast for his film, and to support his charge of censorship and suppression.

This is all especially ironic since Ms Ginsberg says Mr Singh has acknowledged that I agreed “with much of the film’s argument”.  If that’s so, why would I say that I would do everything possible to “block the broadcast” on WGBH and other PBS affiliates?  This makes no sense.  To what end?  Apart from the fact that I had no power to do that, and no interest beyond what is broadcast on FRONTLINE,  I have a long history of supporting outspoken independent films on public television, including the creation of the documentary series POV.

Further than that, Mr Singh’s assertion that I said I would take this alleged action because his film would “piss off my rich Jewish friends” is a crude smear that has no basis in fact.  I would never have said that because it’s not true.  It also  flies in the face of my record of supporting tough reporting on all sides of the issues in the Middle East, including many films challenging the status quo in Israel and the occupied territories.  I certainly did not object to his film because of its “criticism of US-Israeli relations” as Ms Ginsberg asserts in her letter to me.  Remember I hadn’t seen his film or knew much about its content because it was still just a proposal.

Setting aside the rest of this constructed exchange, the final words, “if you quote me, I’ll deny it” are a giveaway:  they’re just too neat, and fit the conspiratorial purpose of this so-called dialogue. 

Shame on Michael Singh for misrepresenting me, and on Terri Ginsberg for not doing due diligence, and giving me a fair opportunity to set the record straight.  The account is an unfair character attack which does damage to my reputation, as well as FRONTLINE and WGBH.  

I trust you will find a way to correct the record.

Yours sincerely,

David Fanning

Founder and Executive Producer at large
FRONTLINE

What follows is the December email exchange between Ginsberg and Fanning:

On Dec 20, 2015, at 5:35 PM, Terri Ginsberg wrote:

Dear Mr. Fanning:

Hope this message finds you well.

I am writing a film review of the 2015 re-release of Michael Singh’s documentary, Valentino’s Ghost.

Mr. Singh has informed me that you were very reluctant to air Valentino’s Ghost on WGBH, or to see it aired on any PBS affiliate station, because of the film’s criticism of U.S. – Israeli relations.  During a May 1998 meeting between you and Mr. Singh, which Mr. Singh simultaneously transcribed, it is noted that while you agreed with much of the film’s argument, you were averse to the possibility that the film might partially be funded by “Arab money,” although you would not have been reluctant to air a Holocaust film funded by Israeli money.  In that context, it is noted that you suggested Mr. Singh accept the “double standard” that exists in the U.S. media regarding Jewish and Israeli vs. Palestinian and Arab perspectives.

 Would you please comment on the above claims?

Thank you,

Terri Ginsberg

*****

From: David Fanning

To: Terri Ginsberg

Sent: Mon, Dec 21, 2015 3:00 pm

Subject: Re: inquiry re: Valentino’s Ghost

Dear Terri Ginsberg,

I am puzzled by your letter.  I don’t have any recollection of a conversation in 1998 with Michael Singh, who I don’t think I know. I hope he understands that with the volume of films and enquiries that have flooded Frontline over the years I must have just forgotten.

More importantly though, I doubt I would have expressed my reluctance to air his film on WGBH or on other PBS stations, because I’ve never had any role in or influence on those stations’ programming decisions. 

As executive producer my responsibility was for Frontline’s national broadcast.  Over many years, the series has very rarely acquired any independently produced films – as a journalistic entity we have initiated, produced, and been editorially responsible for all our programs, with close supervision from their inception to final cut. 

Frontline has a reputation for strong reporting and investigative journalism.  It has never been an outlet for film essays, which I’m surmising Mr Singh’s film might be, although I don’t remember seeing it.

More puzzling though is that I have always been a very strong proponent of those kinds of independent films on public television, especially essay films with a point of view.  I was directly responsible for the creation of POV – I publicly suggested a series like it at a forum at the Sundance film festival in 1986, and as a consequence Mark Weiss and I put together the first meetings that led to its creation.  I’m sure I would have encouraged Mr Singh to take it to POV. I don’t believe “Independent Lens” existed in 1998, but I would also certainly suggest it now.

Finally, as for any discussion about financing – that’s a question routinely asked of all films, especially political subjects.  I could have raised it to him because it’s a question PBS requires of national broadcasts.  I can only assume that I was trying to be helpful and giving him fair warning that those are questions he should be prepared for.  Anyway, if I was giving him advice, I would have assumed that we were speaking informally, and as for a “double standard” I do think that Arab views have been far less represented in U.S. media over the years.

I’m writing this on a plane, on my way out of the country on vacation, where I’ll have limited email access.  I’ll send it when I land.

Yours sincerely,

David Fanning

Sent from my iPhone

 

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well, it does at least appear that Terri Ginsberg’s article jogged his memory wrt recalling a conversation with Michael Singh.

another typically hysterical MW ‘expose of an anthill they construed -in typical high-conspiratorial mode- as a mountain when its nothing but some essay film by an independent filmaker with a distinct POV (who evidently would have been told to take his film to POV) but who instead decided to ramp up some fluffy light charges against Frontline and its producer. Wow. What a win for MW.

The question remains: why isn’t Fanning showing the film?

In my reading, Fanning states with adequate clarity: that he does not remember having the “conversation” with Singh and uses quote marks to cast doubt on the conversation’s ever having taken place — or having taken place as suggested by the ‘alleged “transcript” ‘ , doubly cast in doubt by quote marks and “alleged”. He also says that he did not have the power to decide what WGBH should show and that Frontline mostly did… Read more »

No comment on who said what in 1998, but I’d be interested in whether there have been any Frontline pieces about, say, the expulsions in 1948 as a root cause of the conflict or if they cover the violence, is the emphasis mainly on Palestinian terror as opposed to Israeli. I read the transcript of their recent Netanyahu piece and there were only a few token Palestinian voices. And when you read a transcript it… Read more »