I want to give you an up close look at what some of these glamorous television projects are really like with an in-depth look at a public television travesty. The details demonstrate volumes about our media information/entertainment industry. It’s a story about how critical programming decisions really get made, in an interplay of blind ambition, jealous betrayal, indifferent values and staggering incompetence. None of the names have been changed to protect anyone.
How it all began
In 2000, Ted Turner decided to fund a series of television programs that would warn Americans about ongoing threats to world peace. Turner believed that people had become complacent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Everyone assumed that with the end of the Cold War, we could go on with our lives without worrying about dying in a nuclear holocaust. Ted knew most people were wrong. The collapse of Soviet Union actually made the world more dangerous. America and Russia still had about seven thousand nuclear weapons targeted at each other and both had arsenals of chemical and biological weapons. The Bush Administration was continuing Reagan’s absurd initiative to build an anti-missile defense system. The technology wasn’t going to work, and even if it could, weapons of mass destruction could be delivered by car, ship, or in a suitcase.
The crumbling Soviet empire left vast quantities of weapons of mass destruction virtually unsupervised and large numbers of under-employed weapons designers looking for work. Rogue governments and terrorists could acquire the weapons, or the raw material and designers to build them, and strike anywhere in the world. They had the motives and the means to kill thousands … maybe hundreds of thousands of people.
Experts in academia and think tanks were concerned about the dangers. They had written about the unsecured weapons and a new generation of terrorists in academic journals, but the mainstream media wasn’t interested and few Americans had heard of the dangers.
Turner wanted to do the series on CNN, but he lost control of the channel after Time/Warner, CNN’s parent company, merged with AOL in 2000. Turner hired producer George Crile, but he failed to get funding from CNN. Crile cut the series to three hours. By October, 2000, it was down to a single hour. In December, Turner told journalist Ken Auletta, “I am going to produce, myself, ten hours on nuclear proliferation and chemical and biological warfare. I’ll give first crack to CNN, and if they don’t want it I’ll give it to PBS.” By March, it was clear that CNN would not support the series. A former Turner colleague, Pat Mitchell, was by then the president of PBS. Robert Wussler, who had been a top Turner Broadcasting executive, told Auletta they would team up with Bill Moyers and put the series on PBS. “Over the next few years I would hope we would do one hundred hours,” Wussler told Auletta.
The deal with Moyers fell through, my guess is over editorial control. Another PBS producer, Sherry Jones bid on the Turner project. WGBH must have thought about it. Wussler gave the project to Alexandria Productions, a small production house in Alexandria, Virginia, run by Joel Westbrook and his wife Lyne. It was an unlikely choice, but Joel had worked for Wussler at Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta and Wussler owed him a large favor to make up for past grievances.
As an independent, Joel had produced Ancient Civilizations for Time/Life Books, but he had fallen on hard times. He had a lot of slick proposals circulating, but cable broadcasters thought his productions were too expensive. His partners left him under bitter circumstances and he was near bankruptcy when Wussler gave him the contract. I had done programs for Turner Broadcasting in the past and Joel asked me to become his Senior Producer.
How could I refuse. I began my broadcasting career working for Pacifica Radio, at a time when the vision of its pacifist founder was still guiding our programming. Nothing seemed more important to me than preventing the obscenity of war and the unimaginable horror of a nuclear war. Here was a chance, perhaps, to make a difference in our citizen’s understanding of the dangers. I had done documentaries for Turner Broadcasting in the past and I knew of Turner’s personal integrity, commitment to hard hitting journalism and indifference to popular opinion. I knew he’d have my back.
Joel’s wife, Lynn, ran Alexandria Productions and she apparently hoped this gig would restore their financial security. They felt betrayed and cheated by their former staff and they weren’t going to let it happen again. Lynn, a former kindergarten teacher, was flint-hard and seemed perpetually angry. Joel was a proud Southerner, with the kind of pride you have when it’s all you’ve got left. Joel was a decent person, but some inner force seemed crushed and he spent much of his time wandering around the office telling war stories, one foot on top of a desk.
Alexandria Production’s proposal was pretty much like an inexpensive cable series. Weapons of mass destruction were no more on people’s minds than the Ancient Rome depicted in Joel’s last television series. The plan was to interview writers, experts and government officials, travel around the world collecting pictures, buy stock footage and edit the whole thing together.
So little was known about weapons of mass destruction, terrorists, leaking Soviet arsenals and the horrific dangers we faced, that almost anything would have been a revelation to most viewers. The last thing Joel wanted was journalism. He repeated, like a mantra, “We will not commit journalism.”
Then came September 11th, 2001.