Civil Liberties

Maligning Fathers

PBS whitewashes anti-dad bias.


Last November, I wrote about the controversy about the Public Broadcasting Service documentary, Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories, which claimed that male batterers and child abusers frequently gain custody of their children in divorce cases after the mothers' claims of abuse are disbelieved by the courts. The film caused an outcry from fathers' rights groups. In response to these protests, PBS announced a 30-day review to determine whether the film met the editorial guidelines for fairness and accuracy.

Unfortunately, it seems that the review amounted to little more than a whitewash.

On December 21, PBS issued a statement acknowledging that the film "would have benefited from more in-depth treatment of the complex issues," but also concluded that "the producers approached the topic with the open-mindedness and commitment to fairness that we require of our journalists" and that the program's claims were supported by "extensive" research.

Those claims included some highly inflammatory assertions: for instance, that three-quarters of contested custody cases involve a history of domestic violence, and that wife and child abusers who seek child custody after divorce win two-thirds of the time.

Connecticut Public Television, which co-produced Breaking the Silence, has supplied me with two detailed reports—one from producer Dominique Lasseur, the other from Lasseur and George Washington University law professor Joan Meier, the film's lead expert—on which PBS drew to support its conclusion. To call these reports shoddy and self-serving would be an understatement.

Thus, the reports cite the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's Gender Bias Study of 1989 as proof that fathers who seek custody receive it at least 70 percent of the time—even though this study does not distinguish custody disputes from cases in which the father got custody by mutual agreement. Other sources used to support the claim of male advantage are even weaker: They include the Battered Mothers' Testimony Project from the Wellesley Center for Women, which used a sample of 40 women with grievances about the family courts. No mention is made of much larger, representative studies of divorcing couples (such as the one reported by Stanford University psychologist Eleanor Maccoby and Harvard law professor Robert Mnookin in the 1992 book Dividing the Child) showing that far fewer fathers than mothers get the custodial arrangements they want.

Assertions that abusive men are especially likely to seek custody of children and are likely to prevail in court are backed by similarly slipshod evidence.

Defending the claim made in Breaking the Silence that children are in greater danger of abuse from fathers than from mothers, Lasseur and Meier point to several limited studies that often lump together biological fathers with stepfathers and mothers' boyfriends (who, statistically, pose a far higher risk). Yet even these cherry-picked statistics show that a significant proportion of perpetrators of severe child abuse are mothers—which makes the film's exclusive focus on abusive fathers difficult to defend.

The producer's account of how he went about researching the film reinforces the impression of bias. Battered women's advocates are presumed to be disinterested champions of victims, even though many of them have an ideological agenda of equating family violence with male oppression of women and children; advocates for divorced fathers or abused men are seen as tainted with "antiwoman bias." In the same vein, Lasseur's report is supplemented by a letter signed by "98 professionals" who support the film's conclusions—but a number of those "professionals" are feminist activists, including National Organization for Women President Kim Gandy.

Lasseur and Meier profess to be shocked that anyone could see the film as collectively maligning divorced fathers when it focuses only on abusive fathers in contested custody cases. Yet the film clearly suggests that if a divorcing father decides to fight for custody, chances are he's a batterer who's using the custody suit as an abuse tactic—and that if he's accused of abuse, he's most probably guilty. And that's not prejudicial?

Notably, PBS ombudsman Michael Getler and especially Corporation for Public Broadcasting ombudsman Ken Bode have taken a far more negative view of the film than did the PBS review. On January 4, Bode wrote, "After close review including discussions and e-mail exchanges with those involved with the program or closely affected by it, I found the program to be so totally unbalanced as to fall outside the boundaries of PBS editorial standards on fairness and balance."

The one silver lining in this mess is that PBS has decided to commission another, more in-depth film on the subject of abuse and child custody. Let's hope that this time, it tackles the subject with real "open-mindedness and commitment to fairness."