WASHINGTON — Last summer we went to Vietnam to shoot several "War Stories" episodes for FOX News Channel. As one might expect in a communist country where they take red tape very seriously, my producers spent weeks before our trip filling out forms, questionnaires and documents required by numerous government bureaucracies. In the process it became evident that not all the folks in Hanoi were on the same sheet of music — but after several weeks of negotiation we were able to accomplish all that we set out to do and more, thanks to their cooperation. As it turns out, it was easier to deal with Ho Chi Minh's proteges than our own Smithsonian Institution. At least the commies kept their word. Not so with the Smithsonian.
A month ago I described how our award-winning "War Stories" unit had been denied permission to shoot footage of the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. In that column I suggested that the reason for the rejection was "a secret, backroom deal with Showtime — granting the premium cable TV channel, owned by media giant Viacom, exclusive rights to control all but 'incidental usage' of all video footage shot at the Smithsonian."
Three days later, on Feb. 12, the Smithsonian hierarchy "reconsidered" our request and on Feb. 13 Claire Brown, the National Air and Space Museum's spokeswoman, informed my producers that "On review by our senior management it became clear that the program that you propose to film is not a program substantially about the Smithsonian and therefore not in conflict with policy. There is no reason under our policy that you cannot film if we can work out timing and details."
In a later message, Brown advised that, "We will accommodate your filming request on March 12. The exact timing, logistics can be worked out tomorrow after we talk with the folks in that building."
Over the course of the next several days, arrangements for our shoot were consummated with Retired Maj. Gen. Joe Anderson, the center's deputy director; Frank McNally, his public affairs officer and curator Dik Daso. On March 1, my producers, cameramen and I conducted a site survey at the Udvar-Hazy Center and were cordially received by the staff, who made several useful suggestions about logistics. Afterward, Daso sent me an e-mail: "I look forward to the filming on the evening of March 12." Unfortunately, it was not to be.
On March 7, Karen DeThomas in the Smithsonian's Office of Communications sent my producers their 10-page "Access/Filming/Broadcast Agreement," which, among other things, required FOX News to pay $2,657 in access fees and additional expenses for overtime, security and electricity. On March 9, FOX News' attorneys responded, noting that their proposed agreement would unfairly permit the Smithsonian to "own and control" every second of videotape shot by FOX News in their facility. Nonetheless, Brown informed our producers that "we are confident we can produce an agreement … in time for the scheduled shoot Monday afternoon."
It didn't happen. In a series of last-ditch phone calls all day March 12, it became apparent that the "hang-up" had nothing to do with artful phrases in a contract. In a phone call at 5:45 p.m., a Smithsonian representative told our FOX News attorney and my executive producer that, "your shoot would be a violation of our third-party agreement." Though they never mentioned the name of the "third party," it's now apparent: It is none other than Showtime/Viacom — the new "owner" of America's history and heritage.
Last Jan. 29 at the Real Screen Summit in Washington, representatives of the Smithsonian Networks were questioned about their secret deal with Showtime/Viacom. Thomas Hayden, David Royle and Gary Beer assured the audience of documentary filmmakers that the Government Accountability Office had "reviewed and approved the deal and all public policy questions have been resolved."
But that doesn't seem to be true, either. This week I called Sen. Charles Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, with oversight responsibility for the Smithsonian. He responded: "This raises serious concerns about any contracts that the Smithsonian may have entered into that limit people's contact with America's treasures. The American people have entrusted the Smithsonian to keep watch over some of our most valued possessions and no one should be locking out the public."
He's right. This isn't just a slight to FOX News, our great "War Stories" team or to me. It's an insult to Steven Udvar-Hazy, the Hungarian refugee who fled communism to become a successful American entrepreneur — and who donated $65 million to build this magnificent museum. The secret deal with Showtime/Viacom gives exclusive control over images of historic artifacts in more than 150 Smithsonian facilities to a single company. This is an injustice to every citizen whose taxes support these magnificent museums. Worst of all, it's an affront to the courage, perseverance and ingenuity of all who made our nation's history worthy of preservation.
Oliver North is the host of "War Stories" on the FOX News Channel. To find out more about Oliver North, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.