by Mark B Rosenthal
Beginning October 20th, PBS stations around the nation will air a film entitled "Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories". Although protecting helpless victims from brutal abusers is a noble undertaking, distorting the facts to libel an entire class of people is not.
The Strategy For Passing Unjust Laws
This film seems to be the first step in a pattern that's been played out many times in the past few decades:
- Determine what conclusions a study would need to reach in order to stampede legislators into passing the laws you want passed.
- Conduct studies that are carefully designed ignore any inconvenient facts. Popular techniques in this step include:
- using self-selected rather than randomized population samples,
- taking care not to ask any questions that might elicit undesired answers, and
- neglecting to report any results at all from any questions whose answers contradict your thesis.
- Publicize these studies as if they were impartial research, by planting newspaper stories, publishing in journals whose referees are as biased as the studies' authors, getting corporations to fund advertising that masquerades as a "documentary", etc.
- Use yellow journalism to scare the public into demanding that legislators pass a law to fix the nonexistent problem.
In the early 1990s, the American Association of University Women had great success using such strategies. They began by issuing a report entitled "How Schools Shortchange Girls". Diane Ravitch, former Director of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Research and Improvement, calls the AAUW report
"bizarre" for reporting that girls' educational achievement was lagging behind boys at exactly the time that girls had just overtaken boys in almost every area. But it doesn't seem bizarre at all if you assume that AAUW's goal was not to conduct honest research, but rather to drive public policy, sure in the knowledge that journalists wouldn't have the expertise to challenge their conclusions, and that they could get laws enacted to address their fabricated problem quicker than honest researchers could analyze how they'd manipulated their research to come to such a "bizarre" conclusion. And that's exactly what happened. Laws enacted as a result of the AAUW hype resulted in inequitable allocation of resources to programs for girls only. By pitting our daughters against our sons in this way, they denied a generation of boys the opportunity to overcome their deficits.
"Breaking the Silence" seems to be the publicity and hype phase of an even more insidious campaign. The goal this time appears to be stampeding legislators into passing laws that will have the effect of preventing courts from granting any form of custody (legal or physical, shared or sole) to any father over any mother's objection.
The Program's Claims
The hour-long program makes some astonishing claims. George Washington University Law Professor Joan Meier says that in "75% of cases in which fathers contest custody, fathers have a history of being batterers". In her worldview, if a father seeks a relationship with his children in family court, that in itself is tantamount to proof that he's a batterer.
A copy of the "Guest Editor's Introduction" to the August, 2005 issue of the journal "Violence Against Women" was distributed at the prescreening. The film's press release
repeats that article's allegation that Parental Alienation Syndrome has been "discredited by the American Psychological Association," and Meier echoes that in the film, asserting that scientists have declared PAS "junk science". The film also claims that in family court cases where mothers allege battery, fathers are given custody two-thirds of the time.
What the Filmmakers Don't Want You to Notice
Analysis of the claims made in the "Violence Against Women" journal indicates that this research, on which much of the content of this film is based, fails
to distinguish between allegations and actual abuse, and instead blindly assumes all allegations to be true.
A documentary filmmaker has a responsibility to present an issue in an accurate and balanced fashion. In this case, filmmakers Catherine Tatge and Domenique Lasseur provided a soapbox for a number of very angry women and their children to make some very serious accusations. The closing frame of the film says that only one accused father declined to be interviewed. So where were all the other accused fathers who didn't decline?
Michael McCormick, director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, reports that filmmaker Domenic Lasseur called him last spring to arrange to interview an ACFC spokesperson so the documentary would have some balance. But Lasseur later cancelled the interview. That, plus the absence of any other spokesperson to provide balance, suggests that he or someone above him decided that fairness and balance were unnecessary.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data
on child abuse shows that over twice as many children are battered by their mothers (40.8%) as by their fathers (18.8%), excluding cases in which both parents are abusive (16.9%). Likewise the number of children killed by their mothers without the father's involvement is double the number
killed by their fathers without the mother's involvement. Yet the filmmakers mislead viewers by interviewing only children victimized by fathers and denying children victimized by their mothers the opportunity to tell their stories.
Even the title "Breaking the Silence" is disingenuous. A Google search for "domestic violence" turns up 36.8 MILLION documents. This is "silence" like "War is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength".
Filmmakers Tatge and Lasseur use a small handful of cases to create the illusion of a pervasive problem of family court discrimination against women and children domestic violence victims. With a U.S. population of 297 million, it's possible to cherrypick a small non-representative sample to prove nearly anything.
Misleading the Public About Scientists Opinions on Parental Alienation Syndrome
The film's central thesis, that Parental Alienation Syndrome is "junk science" that has been discredited by the American Psychological Association, is itself misleading. Although it's true that Temple University psychiatry professor Paul Fink called PAS "junk science" in a July 1, 2003 Newsday interview
, he explained, "There are lots of people who alienate their partners during a divorce. But it is not a syndrome, a disease or a disorder." So the claim that PAS is "junk science" doesn't mean it never happens; it just means it's not a recognized mental illness. Without Fink's full explanation, most people would assume that calling PAS "junk science" means the phenomenon doesn't happen. Dispelling that misimpression would undermine the filmmakers' point, so the fact that they don't provide the full explanation is worth noting.
The claim that PAS has been discredited by the APA is based on a single sentence from the APA's 1996 report on violence and the family, which simply says there are no data to support PAS.
The Association of Women Psychiatrists (a professional group unaffiliated with the APA) takes PAS seriously enough that their Fall 2003 newsletter
printed an article asserting "The Denial and/or Discrediting of the Parental Alienation Syndrome Harms Women".
And apparently even the APA does not consider their 1996 report to be the final word. At the 2002 APA conference, PAS was considered important enough for them to offer a seminar
worth seven Continuing Education credits, in which they explained what Parental Alienation Syndrome is and taught custody evaluators to identify when PAS does and does not occur.
If the Film's Agenda Becomes Law, Kids Will Pay the Price
"Research" that fails to distinguish between accusations of abuse and actual abuse is unworthy of the name "research". Using such a trick to conclude that nearly all fathers who contest custody are batterers, amounts to libel against all fathers who love their children enough to fight for their welfare.
Those who play this ugly little game in order to stampede politicians into passing ill-considered laws that will make it virtually impossible for any father to ever be granted custody, show a callous disregard for the welfare of two-thirds of abused children - those children abused by their mothers.
Finally, PBS's own Code of Ethics
requires them to "avoid any conduct that might result in the loss of public confidence in CPB's programs ... or might reasonably give the appearance of ... the compromise or loss of complete impartiality of judgment and action." Allowing a speaker to assert that trying to maintain a relationship with your children means you've probably battered your wife, and not including any speaker to point out the hatefulness of that statement, certainly gives the appearance of a complete loss of impartiality.www.ifeminists.net, October 26, 2005.