No Fairness Doctrine for PBS
How Taxpayer-Funded Broadcasting Is
"Surging" Left Under Democrats
By Tim Graham
MRC Director of Media Analysis
Executive Summary |
Democratic takeover of Congress in 2007 quickly made one definitive change in the
national media infrastructure. For the first time since Newt Gingrich became speaker
in 1995, America’s public broadcasting system didn’t have a skeptical majority party
that might sporadically ask questions about PBS using the taxpayer-funded airwaves
for overt liberal activism. In previous years with Democratic control of Congress,
PBS has played a more activist role within the media, dragging the rest of the national
media further to the left and spurring more aggression and ill will against conservative
and Republican leaders. Just as 2007 has been a year of a "surge" of troops in Iraq,
it’s also been a year of "surging" activism within PBS.
same time, Democratic congressional leaders now in the majority have been entertaining
the idea of reviving a federal "Fairness Doctrine" which would require private broadcasters
to comply with notions of balancing out each station’s daily schedule of news, talk,
and public-affairs programming. These same Democrats have been highly offended at
the idea that anyone outside or inside taxpayer-funded broadcasting would monitor
PBS content for fairness or balance.
federal government were going to find a starting place for monitoring the content
of broadcasting for fairness and balance, wouldn’t the logical starting place be
the television and radio stations that are subsidized by the taxpayers?
‘Activists’ Inappropriate for PBS, If They’re Conservative
establishment of a national, taxpayer-funded public broadcasting system was codified
by Congress in the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. Deep in the authorizing language
was an expression of concern that the emerging system should strive for "objectivity
and balance in all programming of a controversial nature." The act created a Corporation
for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to be the primary funder and overseer, and the agency
that’s asked to insure the public broadcasting bureaucracy lives up to that statutory
language on the air. In actual practice, the Corporation’s board of directors and
staff have almost never tried to insure objectivity or balance. Instead, the CPB
usually makes statements in an oppositional, anti-populist lingo of creating a "heat
shield," protecting the elitist manufacturers of PBS content from the scrutiny of
Congress or the people it represents.
Fairness? A Conservative
"This is one of a series of moves that can only be termed a jihad against substantive
journalism by the CPB, the nongovernmental agency that provides federal funds to
public broadcasting. This jihad is directed by CPB chairman Kenneth Tomlinson, but
he has willing and witless allies....All the power in Washington right now is in
the hands of Republicans. So speaking truth to power may appear to the unenlightened
to be exhibiting bias. It is not. NPR is a beacon of light in very murky political
times. We cannot let that beacon be dimmed."
- Celia Wexler reacting on the Common Cause blog at reports that CPB was considering
a plan to monitor NPR news coverage of the Middle East, May 16, 2005.
only CPB board chairman who has ever attempted to balance the scales of PBS content
was Kenneth Tomlinson, who was widely condemned by liberal media outlets and TV
writers for organizing two right-leaning half-hour shows (Tucker Carlson Unfiltered
and The Journal Editorial Report, a roundtable show with the Wall Street
Journal editorial page staff) intended for the Friday night PBS schedule.
They premiered in 2004 and were removed from the PBS air in 2005.
liberal media and turf-conscious liberal communications activists like Common Cause
and Free Press went even more aggressively after Tomlinson when they discovered
he had hired conservative analyst Fred Mann to conduct a behind-the-scenes content
analysis of PBS and NPR programs. Ironically, Tomlinson was subjected to an Inspector
General’s probe and reams of bad press for attempting to do secretly what the CPB
was originally ordered by Congress to perform.
partisan nature of PBS came to a head again this year, when Frank Gaffney’s documentary
Islam vs. Islamists: Voices From the Muslim Center was stripped out of the
national broadcast of a series of films called "America at a Crossroads." Gaffney
and his team sought to tell the story of "courageous anti-Islamist Muslims" in the
West resisting radical, totalitarian Islam and how they are "being ostracized, bankrupted,
intimidated and, in some cases, threatened with death."
"Crossroads" series was originally announced by the CPB in early 2004 (during Tomlinson’s
era) with an eye on airing the shows on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Inside the public broadcasting system, entrenched liberals denounced the series
for its attempt to balance out the usual liberal suspects at PBS with new (less
liberal) filmmakers. Senior executives equated journalism with liberalism, and the
idea of fairness and balance with questionable reporting standards.
"We’ve worked hard over the years to articulate what we mean by journalism standards,"
said a senior executive who requested anonymity. "Nowhere does it say that if we
air something questionable, then we better create a different program that counterbalances
it. That’s not journalism."
- From a story by Jeremy Egner in the public broadcasting insider newspaper Current,
July 11, 2005.
once Tomlinson retired from the CPB board, the permanent liberal bureaucracy kicked
into gear. The series was shipped to PBS D.C. superstation WETA. They promptly expressed
horror that anyone would allow Gaffney anywhere near a PBS production because of
his "day job" with his conservative advocacy group, the Center for Security Policy.
They wanted Gaffney fired as an executive producer. When that didn’t happen, they
censored the film, refusing to air it. It was later handed over to Oregon Public
Broadcasting, for scatter-shot airings on late nights and weekends, a much lower-profile
airing than what the other "Crossroads" films received. In a unique arrangement,
segments from the Gaffney team’s interviews aired on the Fox News Channel on June
21, 2007 (a Saturday night). The original film that was edited for PBS aired on
FNC on Saturday, October 20.
explained the PBS resistance to the Weekly Standard: "[W]e started hearing
that PBS was telling CPB that they would never air a film that I was associated
with....We began hearing that there was an argument being made by PBS that if I
were associated with the film in a senior role – they would allow me to be an adviser
but I couldn’t be, as I am, a co-executive producer – because of my day job" with
the Center for Security Policy, then the program could not run. "There are guidelines
that PBS adheres to, evidently selectively shall we say, that prohibit people who
have association with advocacy organizations from being involved in content decisions
on their airwaves."
is a clear double standard. Exhibit A is Bill Moyers, a long-time omnipresence on
the PBS airwaves. Even as he constantly produces PBS programming, he’s held an activist
"day job" as well, as president of the leftist Schumann Center for Media and Democracy,
a very ideological philanthropy that funds a long list of environmental groups,
not to mention a long list of leftist magazines and leftist media-watchdog groups.
No one inside PBS has ever denied Moyers a program over that arrangement.
there are many other exhibits. NPR’s current FBI correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston,
has a new book out – co-authored by Anthony Romero, the executive director of the
American Civil Liberties Union. The title is In Defense of Our America: The Fight
for Civil Liberties in the Age of Terror, and it was touted for providing
a "a look at the dangerous erosion of the Bill of Rights in the age of terror" (which
coincides with the age of Bush). Despite many liberal newspapers pursuing investigations
of partisanship by Tomlinson, a search of the Nexis news-data retrieval system’s
newspaper database finds no other mention of the conflict of interest inherent in
the ACLU leader-NPR reporter book arrangement.
notion that "activist" backgrounds and "day jobs" are discouraged inside PBS or
NPR is certainly not true when it comes to liberal activism.
Bill Moyers can run a very political foundation. Tavis Smiley can boast of
how he’s created "Brand Smiley" and fans admire how he can "build a franchise as
an activist" out of his public-broadcasting shows, which includes an annual "State
of the Black Union" conference and a best-selling book called The Covenant with Black
America. Federal dollars granted to CPB by the Congress often end up subsidizing
ideological filmmakers and PBS stars and their leftist agendas.
Bill Moyers and his Impeach-Bush Bandwagon
omnipresence Bill Moyers, the former Lyndon Johnson press secretary, is a very famous
affront to the idea that people with ideological "day jobs" are never allowed into
the liberal PBS sandbox. Moyers "retired" from PBS in 2004, only to re-emerge in
the last weeks of the 2006 election cycle with three programs titled Moyers on America
attacking conservatives. "Capitol Crimes" attacked former Rep. Tom DeLay and Jack
Abramoff, "the majordomo of Republican Washington." He warned Republicans were losing
their evangelical Christian base with "Is God Green?" The third was devoted to a
socialist critique that corporations are ruining the Internet, a cause dear to the
PBS-defending liberal groups such as Common Cause, Free Press, and the Center for
the Democrats recaptured the House and Senate, Moyers returned in 2007 with another
reincarnation of Bill Moyers Journal. Its first program on April 25 was a
special 90-minute show called "Buying
the War," which laid into the liberal media for not being full-throated enough in
opposing the Iraq War before it began. Moyers didn’t allow a single conservative
to challenge the idea of a Bush-pleasing media. Moyers did feature far-left media
critics like Eric Boehlert and Norman Solomon to echo his conspiracy theory that
the major media were pawns of the neoconservative architects of war. But then, Moyers
also added major media players, from disgraced CBS anchor Dan Rather to former CNN
boss Walter Isaacson, to agree with him that they were all woefully lacking in anti-war
Rolling Stone interview, Moyers said this program underlined how the truth-tellers
against the war faced a "slime machine" of conservatives. "[T]
and the O’Reillys and the Limbaughs and the Mike Savages would come down on them,
slander them, discredit them, so good reporting lost its power to break through
because of this avalanche of opposition and venom directed at them."
13, Moyers aired a completely one-sided hour promoting the idea that President Bush
and Vice President Cheney should both be impeached. The guests were leftist writer
John Nichols of The Nation magazine and Bruce Fein, who Moyers identified
as "a conservative who reveres the Constitution." In fact, the "conservative" Fein
was a harsher opponent of Bush and Cheney than the man of the left. Fein compared
Bush to the Nazi regime, the wardens of the Soviet gulag, the architects of America’s
Japanese internment policy in World War II, and King George III, the enemy of the
American Revolution. Fein and Nichols both argued that impeachment would not be
an act of partisanship, but of statesmanship. The trio harrumphed that Speaker Nancy
Pelosi was failing to be statesmanlike by cutting the Bush presidency short for
the good of the nation. Moyers concluded with a commentary underlining how PBS was
created to disturb the peace for liberalism (see box).
Why PBS Was Born: Leftist Teach-Ins
"[T]hose of us in public television have an obligation to make sure viewers like
you stay in the loop. I wish we had carried the congressional debate this week in
full -- all of it – in prime time. When we broadcast teach-ins on the Vietnam war,
and the Watergate hearings during the trial of Richard Nixon, it was a real public
service -- the reason PBS was created. We should keep Iraq in prime time every week
-- the fighting and dying, the suffering, the debate, the politics -- the extraordinary
costs. It’s months until September. This war is killing us now, body and soul."
- Bill Moyers offering a commentary at the end of his impeachment edition of Bill
Moyers Journal, July 13.
was Moyers in the Clinton impeachment process in 1998? He was absent from television
for most of the year due to an illness-related break, but on October 6, the day
after Congress took up impeachment, he marked his return to PBS with a Frontline
documentary attacking both parties from his far-left perch for not passing a leftist
campaign-finance bill. He was not a voice for impeachment, and certainly not a voice
for devoting more PBS air time to the impeachment debate.
Ombudsman Michael Getler arrived at the obvious conclusion on the PBS website. He
found "there was almost a complete absence of balance, as I watched it, in the way
this program presented the case for impeachment proceedings against President Bush
and Vice President Cheney."
always sensitive to criticism, quickly wrote a letter of opposition to Getler: "I
respect your work and your role, but I disagree with you about ‘balance.’ The journalist’s
job is not to achieve some mythical state of equilibrium between two opposing opinions
out of some misshapen respect -- sometimes, alas, reverence -- for the prevailing
consensus among the powers-that-be. The journalist’s job is to seek out and offer
the public the best thinking on an issue, event, or story. That’s what I did regarding
the argument for impeachment. Official Washington may not want to hear the best
arguments for impeachment -- or any at all -- but a lot of America does."
added that PBS was created to disturb the "official consensus" and praised his two
pro-impeachment guests for making "a valuable contribution to the public dialogue,
as confirmed by the roughly 20:1 positive response to the broadcast. Of course I
could have aired a Beltway-like ’debate’ between a Democrat and a Republican, or
a conservative and a liberal, but that’s usually conventional wisdom and standard
practice, and public broadcasting was meant to be an alternative, not an echo."
Moyers pointed out that Getler himself had seemed to ask for the impeachment hour
in an earlier ombudsman’s column opposing the Iraq War. Getler had written that
"all future steps should be vigorously explored in public by an independent press
in a way that goes well beyond a Republican saying this and a Democrat saying that
on a talk show, or the panel discussions of a predictable on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand
was not alone. The ombudsman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Ken Bode,
wrote an opinion piece for the Indianapolis Star listing "Bush administration
crimes," and agreeing that "The crimes are real and probably impeachable, and the
monarchial arrogance of the Bush-Cheney administration is monumental," but in political
terms, "the timing is wrong."
on his CPB blog, Bode later acknowledged "I expected to hear a debate directed toward
both sides of the question proposed in the title of the program. In fact, they were
clones of one another, both arguing in favor of the proposition, each ready to complete
the other’s sentences. The program was one-sided and devoid of balance....for those
who believe PBS programming leans inexorably to the Left, it was confirming evidence."
could anyone who looks through the jungle of verbiage surrounding this impeachment-promoting
show not be struck by the left-wing tilt of the public broadcasting system? No one
inside PBS would argue this is an example of objectivity in programming. Some would
argue that this willingness to take the debate boldly to the left of the "official
consensus" of elected officials is what makes public broadcasting worthwhile.
Tavis Smiley Campaigns Against the GOP.
Smiley, who began his professional career as a political activist and aide to longtime
Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, a Democrat, was never a paragon of objectivity before
gaining a national PBS talk show in 2004. In describing Smiley’s tenure as host
and producer of the show BET Tonight on Black Entertainment Television from
1996 to 2001, writer Debra Dickerson explained on the liberal Web site Salon.com
that "Safe in the knowledge they’d be pelted with loving softballs, everybody who
was anybody in black America did his show, including then President Bill Clinton
and candidate Gore." In 2000, he jumped into the election-year debate over capital
punishment on Geraldo Rivera’s CNBC show by declaring that George W. Bush was "nothing
more than a serial killer."
PBS authorized Smiley, who hosts a nightly national talk show out of Los Angeles
PBS station KCET, to organize two nationally broadcast presidential debates focusing
on black issues on the campuses of historically black colleges. The difference between
the two debates was stunning. The June 28 Smiley forum for Democrats was polite,
devoid of challenging conservative questions, and barely raised a ripple in the
Tavis Smiley, Unfiltered
"There are, there are some issues on which if you are a voter of color, certainly
if you are an African-American, you have a hard time choosing. For example, both
of these guys support the death penalty. As far as I’m concerned, Bush in Texas is nothing more
than a serial killer."
- Then-BET talk show host Tavis Smiley on CNBC’s Rivera Live, October 24,
the four leading Republican candidates told Smiley they could not attend the September
27 forum for Republicans, since it came right before the end of the third-quarter
campaign fundraising deadline. When the front-runners told CNN they didn’t want
to attend a CNN-YouTube debate in September, the cable news network rescheduled
their event for November. Smiley did not reschedule. He not only insisted on his
date, he set up four empty podiums on the stage to underline the no-shows and declared
that Republicans were both unfit for office and strategically appealing to racists
by not attending his debate.
only was that debate loaded with liberal (and even explicitly anti-Republican) questions,
Smiley began the debate by asking the Republicans who attended to denounce the Republicans
who did not: "Please tell me and this audience, in your own words, why you chose
to be here tonight and what you say to those who chose not to be here tonight."
was an attempt to spur denunciation of the no-shows, and the attempt worked, and
the responses were spread across the network coverage. Mike Huckabee was "embarrassed"
for the no-shows, and Sam Brownback called it a "disgrace for our country." New
candidate Alan Keyes was a lonely voice saying he thought it was "a little unfair
to assume that they didn’t show up tonight" to send a negative message to blacks,
since they also skipped a Values Voter debate in front of a religious-right audience.
But his remarks didn’t make the network news.
did not mince words after the debate, either. He wanted to know: "How will they
be held accountable? Will they be made to pay?" He hoped his decision to show four
empty podiums would become a TV commercial for the Democratic Party.
own PBS show on September 28, Smiley asked professor Michael Fauntroy: "Today every
media outlet who I saw covering this was really trying to advance the conversation
to talk about what happens next. That is to say, will black folk and brown folk
remember this? Has it been forgotten already since last night? How will they be
held accountable? Will they be made to pay?" He then turned to Hazel Trice Edney
of the National Newspaper Publishers Association and pressed the same agenda of
if in fact this story is not going to die, if this drama created last night by these
four front-runners of Giuliani, Romney, McCain and Thompson not showing up, if that
thing lives, it’s going to live, one can argue, because black media allows it to
live. They’re going to make it a breathing, growing organism. If it works, it’s
going to be because black media said, ‘You didn’t come see us in October; don’t
look for us in November’....But if in fact black and brown voters are motivated
by the Democratic Party between now and next November, if the footage of those four
empty podiums becomes a television commercial, as I suspect it will for the Democratic
Party and for the Democratic nominee, if the troops really get rallied, they could
in fact deny whoever the Republican nominee is going to be, they could in fact deny
that person the White House." Tavis Smiley used his PBS show as a partisan soapbox
for Democratic electioneering, for denying the GOP front-runners the White House.
also invited Jack Kemp to his PBS program on September 24 to denounce the front-runners,
and he ended by declaring: "Two things, for the record, I should say. One, nobody
should ever be afraid of Tavis, that’s number one -- nothing to be afraid of here.
Number two, there are three journalists of color who will be joining me in asking
these questions, so it’s not just me anyway." But everything Smiley did and said
clearly suggested to the GOP that they should fear the wrath of turning down a Smiley
imbalance between the two debates was quite clear in several other notable ways:
Smiley’s friend and black-radio icon Tom Joyner greeted both sets of candidates
with very differing tones. At the Democratic debate, he was enthusiastic: "I am
excited and honored to be here tonight as we make not just African American history,
but American history." At the Republican debate, he made it clear that the GOP made
him wince: "I’m excited to be here, but I admit I’m a little bit out of my comfort
zone. I’m kind of feeling like Dan Rather at CBS premiere week."
Contest Winner’s Question.
Both debates began with a question from a contest winner, drawn from the audience
of the Tom Joyner radio show and selected from questions posted at blackamerica.com.
At the Democratic debate, Crecilla Scott Cohen asked a generic big-picture question:
"In 1903, the noted intellectual, W.E.B. DuBois said, ‘The problem of the 20th century
is the problem of the color line.’ Is race still the most intractable issue in America
and especially, I might add, in light of today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision which
struck down the use of race as a factor in K through 12?"
at the Republican debate, the winning questioner baldly asserted that the 17 Republican
presidents since Lincoln have done nothing positive for American blacks. Lucille
Victoria Rowels asked: "Even though a majority of individuals who have served as
president since Abraham Lincoln have been Republican, I believe that most black
Americans who will vote in the year 2008 are not able to name even one Republican
president in the 142 years since Lincoln’s death who have left a positive and significant
legacy for black Americans. If you are elected president in 2008, what positive
and significant legacy, if any, will you leave for black Americans?"
is an obviously hostile question, even though several candidates tried to praise
the question to please the audience. Amazingly, just minutes before, Smiley complained:
"Finally, some of the campaigns who declined our invitation to join us tonight have
suggested publicly that this audience would be hostile and unreceptive. Since we’re
live on PBS right now, I can’t tell you what I really think of these kinds of comments."
But the whole forum underlined the unreceptive hostility.
In addition to Smiley’s asking the candidates to denounce no-show Republican candidates
and the contest-winning Republican-bashing question, two other inquiries underlined
how the GOP put obstacles in the way of what the questioners implied was progress.
was this question from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial-page editor
Cynthia Tucker: "Recently a push to give the District of Columbia voting representation
was defeated because of heavy Republican opposition. In addition, many voting rights
advocates are worried about rigid voter ID laws, which require photo ID, like a
driver’s license. Are you concerned that some eligible voters will be denied the
right to vote simply because they don’t have a driver’s license?"
Williams of National Public Radio asked: "Today we see a decline in black and Latino
enlistment because of one reason: the war in Iraq. What do you say to the one-third
of the nation that’s minority and overwhelmingly opposed to the continuation of
this war, even as the GOP in Congress continues to block attempts to set a deadline
to end this war?"
closest question to Democrats which carried an uncomfortable implication in it was
the last question on Darfur, in which DeWayne Wickham underlined that in Rwanda
in 1994 "we did nothing as more than a half-million people were slaughtered there."
But Wickham said "we" failed, not that help was blocked by the Clinton administration.
Smiley Media Blitz.
Before and after the GOP debate, Smiley not only denounced the front-runners on
his own PBS platform, but went on a tour of privately held media outlets, condemning
the people who dared spurn his invitation as conducting a "Southern strategy" of
appealing to whites with racial appeals:
the night before the GOP debate, Smiley declared on Out in the Open with
Rick Sanchez: "Well, what they said is almost every person is scheduling. The problem
with that is this though, that when you say no to every black request you receive
to black organizations, to black media -- when you say no to every Hispanic invitation
you receive to organizations and to Univision and other Hispanic media -- when you
say no to every black and brown request you receive is that a scheduling problem
or is that a pattern? They’re trying to go, these front-runners, these Republican
front-runners, trying to go through this entire primary process and never have to
address voters of color and never be queried by journalists of color. And I think
in the most multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-ethnic America ever, that quite
frankly, is unacceptable."
Today the morning after the debate, Smiley boldly cast his rejected invitation
as a watershed moment in American history: "I don’t think that this is hyperbole
at all to suggest that last night is a watershed moment in how the Republican Party
and its nominee moves forward. That old so-called Southern strategy, that dog just
won’t hunt any more in America."
repeated the message on NBC’s Meet the Press over that weekend: "Everyone
of them gave as their reason for not being there scheduling. The problem with that
logic or illogic, as it were, Tim, is where you say no to every black request you’ve
received, when you say no to every Hispanic request you’ve received, is that a scheduling
issue or is that a pattern? I think it was a missed opportunity. What I’m encouraged
by, though, I think some might expect me to be discouraged this morning or bitter
that they didn’t show up, I think they made a huge mistake, and I think that moment
the other night is going to become a watershed moment in this campaign as it goes
forward because that dog won’t hunt in the general election. You can, you can avoid
black and brown in the primary. It doesn’t work in the general."
the Democratic debate, Smiley was much happier. On CNN’s The Situation Room
on June 29, the afternoon after the event, Smiley praised the candidates: "I thought
it was a good -- a good showing last night.... I believe that the African-American
vote in the 2008 election is going to be the most sought-after and most fought-over
Democratic demographic. And, so, it was a must-attend last night to try to address
issues that are important to African-Americans and people of color. They came last
night ready. It was a good conversation."
Democrats vs. Racist Patriarchy
"But you can’t talk about her just in terms of the political opposition to her [Hillary
Clinton], based upon her vote, based upon who she is, without mentioning that she
does happen to be a woman who is attempting to do something historic. And to the
extent that we live in a society that is patriarchal, she’s going to have to deal
with that. To the extent that we live in a society that racism is still, I think,
one of the most intractable issues, I think Mr. Obama will has to deal with that."
- PBS host Tavis Smiley on Meet the Press, July 1, 2007.
appeared on the July 1 Meet the Press, and underlined how satisfying the
event was for the blacks in the Democratic base: "What makes this conversation the
other night, though, so critical is because I believe, and I think most folks –
most persons, that is, who were watching this agree that the black vote this time
around is going to be the most sought-after and the most thought-over Democratic
demographic in the 2008 elections. And so, as goes the African-American vote on
the Democratic side, certainly may go the nomination. And I must say honestly, having
nothing to doing with being in the media, just as an African-American voter, it
does feel good for a change to be fought over, to know that there are two people
really going after your vote, but that’s going to be a critical fight between now
and next year."
encouraged Democrats to think that increasing black enthusiasm and turnout through
events like his PBS debate could be crucial to defeating Republicans in 2008: "I
think, to the extent that their issues are discussed, to the issues--to the extent
that they are outreached to, they’re going to be very involved. In the last election,
the black turnout last election went up 25 percent, went up significantly in the
African-American community. And so we’re going to see – I mean, 25 percent turnout.
So we’re going to see a huge turnout this time, to the extent that Barack Obama
sticks around for a while, which obviously, with the money he has, he’ll be around
for a while. I think if you respond to their issues, they’re tuned in. It’s going
to be a great race, I think."
ITVS, the "Independent Television" Service
Independent Television Service was established by Congress in 1988 with legislation
directing the CPB to establish ITVS with "a national coalition of independent producer
groups." In 1991, ITVS opened its doors
in Minneapolis, distributing approximately $6 million annually to independent producers.
Currently, CPB awards $15 million a year to ITVS, a one-sided, left-wing "independent"
filmmakers’ organizing center. Not every film that receives subsidies is a liberal
and political documentary, but there is no doubt that ITVS funds are used to subsidize
and develop an allegedly "independent" community of left-wing filmmakers marching
to their own ideological drummer.
saw its purpose to be "a catalyst for change, a way for independent producers to
participate in and define the cultural dialogue of public television." Today, that
"cultural dialogue" is being defined from Nancy Pelosi’s congressional district,
at 651 Brannan Street in the city of San Francisco. Its "Statement of Values" not
only lauds freedom of expression as a human right, it adds "An open society allows
unpopular and minority views to be publicly aired," "A civilized society seeks economic
and social justice," and "A just society seeks participation from those without
power, prominence, or wealth."
Building a ‘Social Change’ Network
"ITVS COMMUNITY is the national community engagement program of the Independent
Television Service. ITVS COMMUNITY
works to leverage the unique and timely content of the Emmy Award-winning PBS series
Independent Lens to build stronger connections among leading organizations,
leading communities and public television stations around key social issues and
create more opportunities for civic engagement and positive social change."
- Text from the ITVS Web site.
lives up to its leftist values by adding political activism. It has a community-organizing
emphasis. It shows its films not just on PBS stations through the series Independent
Lens, but also organizes free community showings in theaters. It also has
hired organizers to "leverage" its leftist films to "build stronger connections"
and spur on a more aggressive fight for "social justice." (See box.)
leads to often open partnerships with left-wing organizations. For example, a documentary
about migrant workers called Los Trabajadores has a list of "national partners"
in activism, including the AFL-CIO, the American Friends Service Committee, and
the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund. On the ITVS website, filmmaker
Heather Courtney was pleased that her film was a starting point for pro-illegal
alien activism: "Many community-based day labor and immigrant rights groups are
using Los Trabajadores to organize immigrant workers and as a general educational
tool to help fight misconceptions. It’s also being used in high school and university
conservatives like Frank Gaffney, liberal ITVS grantees can be quite explicit about
their partisan activism. Chris Christopher, co-producer of the Independent Lens
documentary July ‘64 about race riots in Rochester, New York, proclaimed:
"I love all the work that I do and feel fortunate that people offer me interesting
work – primarily advising Democratic candidates and creating social messaging campaigns
for not-for-profit organizations."
2002 interview with Current, a trade publication for public broadcasting
insiders, ITVS chair Sally Jo Fifer proclaimed that diversity, and not pounding
away at one single viewpoint, was the goal: "Bringing diverse opinions to the audience,
creating a thriving citizens’ debate — those are not the priorities of commercial
media outlets. They’re going after the consumer and have the pressure of selling
products. Public television, on the other hand, is thinking about what Americans
need to hear and bringing diverse viewpoints, and independents are a strategy to
achieve those objectives."
in reality, "independents" wasn’t the right word. These filmmakers may be outside
a corporate or studio system, but any glance of the ITVS grants shows there are
no conservative filmmakers in America today making anti-Michael Moore films that
celebrate capitalism or anti-abortion films or films against illegal immigration
with government subsidies provided by ITVS. It isn’t bringing "diverse opinions"
or sparking anything resembling a "debate." They are funding films by left-wing
filmmakers with almost zero conservative viewpoints or interview subjects contained
within them. Not every film funded is an explicitly political film. But it’s hard
to find a political film that’s been ITVS-funded with a conservative message.
ITVS is dependent on a coterie of liberal Democrats to keep the money flowing. Fifer
told Current in that same 2002 interview: "In Congress, there’s now a realization
that ITVS serves a vital role by bringing independents to public television. We
have a number of specific supporters on the Hill, including Nancy Pelosi, Lynn Woolsey,
George Miller, Barbara Lee, Tom Lantos, Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, who’s the ranking
minority member of the CPB reauthorization committee." Other than Massachusetts
liberal Markey, Fifer’s entire list of House boosters is California liberals.
liberal tilt has been a problem since the first ITVS grants were announced in 1991.
Author and PBS historian Laurence Jarvik reported in the 1995 book Public Broadcasting
and the Public Trust that 13 films, or 80 percent of the grants, went to
projects that came explicitly from the left, including Endangered Species: The Toxic
Poisoning of Communities of Color (environmental racism), Black Is, Black Ain’t
(racism in pop culture), An Act of War: The Overthrowing of the Hawaiian Nation
(anti-U.S. history from the "native Hawaiian" viewpoint), Imagining Indians
(about negative media imagery of American Indians), and Memory of Fire (a
"reassessing" of Columbus and his "discovery" of the New World).
celebrities on the left, even obscure ones, were lionized in the first group of
films, as in Warrior: the Case of Leonard Peltier, the Native American leftist
convicted of killing two FBI agents at point-blank range; Post No Bills,
about the left-wing poster artist Robbie Conal, who glued his ugly paintings of
Reagan administration figures all over the nation’s capital; and Passin’ It On,
the first of a pile of documentaries sympathetically exploring the radical cause
of the Black Panthers.
tradition of very one-sided filmmaking subsidies continues to the present day. Many
of the ITVS films are shown on PBS stations through the series Independent Lens.
The ITVS website is currently promoting the Ralph Nader documentary An Unreasonable
Man as one of its highlights for December 18. One of the filmmakers, Steve
Skrovan – also a longtime scriptwriter for the CBS sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond
and a blogger for The Huffington Post – lauded Nader as an amazing American leader:
"There’s a penetrating intelligence and analysis that I think history is going to
show. His diagnosis is correct. I think it’s a good time to reevaluate his message
and really listen to it because it’s been consistent and it’s based on a lot of
experience." Skrovan was blunt about his point of view: "We’ve been given a lot
of credit for being balanced and fair-minded, and we appreciate that, but that was
not actually our intent. We’re telling the story from Nader’s point of view. We’re
filmmakers have a striking lack of objectivity in their work because they’re making
films starring themselves and their personal struggles or chronicling the work of
their relatives or friends. PBS officials have no public record of eschewing ties
that many media outlets would find disqualifying if it were a news report instead
of an allegedly "independent" film. A brief look at the ITVS catalogue demonstrates
a list of films that oppose Bush administration policies, celebrate leftist agitators,
and promote "progressive" sexual politics. The years listed on the films below correlate
with their debut on PBS stations.
Opposing Bush and His Policies
Counting on Democracy (2002) was described as a tale of "race, political payback,
voter fraud and justice deferred," charging that in the presidential race in Florida
in 2000, 175,000 "people of color" were banned from voting or had their ballots
thrown out. ITVS funded the Gore-should-have-won film, but PBS executives blanched
from airing it nationwide just before the 2002 elections, as filmmakers hoped. Many
PBS stations aired the film after the election. But, matching the usual ITVS pattern,
this taxpayer-subsidized lament was shown at free screeenings in the summer and
fall of 2002. In Florida, screenings were hosted in July by state Rep. Hank Harper,
a Democrat from Palm Beach. In October, in Detroit a town hall meeting co-sponsored
by Democratic state Sen. Raymond Murphy and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators
included a showing of the film.
Rising Water: Global Warming and the Fate of the Pacific Islands (2002) was
hailed by the Philadelphia Inquirer: "It’s ironic that while the leading
economic countries contribute the most pollution, the effects may be first felt
by countries that pollute very little. This program looks at the effects of
rising water levels, due to
global warming, on Pacific islands.
Some of the islands are losing valuable land, and in the future entire islands may
disappear." In April of 2002, the film’s public screening occurred in Cincinnati,
co-sponsored by the Cincinnati Film Society – and the Sierra Club. The ITVS website
for the film links directly to the Sierra Club under the headline "What You Can
En Route to Baghdad (2005) chronicled the life of United Nations diplomat Sergio
Vieira de Mello, assassinated with a bomb in Baghdad by insurgents in 2003. But
criticism of the American liberation of Iraq from the UN’s point of view dominated.
"I think the doctrine of preemptive action died in Baghdad," proclaimed UN Secretary
General Kofi Annan. French socialist
and U.N. diplomat Bernard Kouchner declared: "In the face of extremism and terrorism,
which for me has nothing to do with Islam, we can no longer rely solely on the image
of the U.N. flag."
as the film lionized its protagonist, the bombing is almost hailed. "What I see
now is like a post-modern victory for Sergio because now they recognize the whole
process lacked legitimacy," claimed Ghassan Salame, a UN senior adviser on Iraq. Salame demanded a "new chapter where
those who went into the war recognize their error, their huge mistake, and the huge
mistakes they have done since the war has ended in disbanding the Army, and disbanding
the police, and de-Baathification, and comparing Saddam to Hitler and Baghdad to
Berlin, all this bulls–t that we heard since the war has ended."
Notions of any conflict of interest with the U.N. or filmmaker Simone Duarte
didn’t get in the way of ITVS support. Duarte, like Vieira de Mello, worked for
the U.N. in East Timor. Her film won an award from the U.N. Correspondents Association
and was shown at the United Nations Association film festival in Monterey, California.
The Cats of Mirikitani (2006) followed Jimmy Mirikitani, an elderly homeless
artist in New York City. Variety’s review explained what begins as a "straightforward"
film "winds up as an indictment of U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans" during
World War II, and filmmaker Linda Hattendorf makes parallels between Japanese-Americans
and post-9/11 America, when "reports on racist attacks against Muslims in the U.S.
raise frightening specters of his past."
Motherland Afghanistan (2007) is a very personal film: filmmaker Sedika Mojadidi
followed her doctor father around as he tried to deliver babies in harsh conditions
in Afghanistan, beginning in a maternity ward named for Laura Bush. Even New York
Times TV critic Virginia Heffernan found the show to be an exploitative
attack on the Bush administration. One scene where a pregnant woman arrived with
bruises on her neck was critiqued: "Having suffered seizures caused by preeclampsia,
she was taken by her family to a mullah, who beat her to end them. Now she is unconscious,
and her baby has died in utero. Dr. Mojadidi pushes her head around on the examining
table to show the camera the blue marks on her throat. This seems exploitative."
lamented: "We’re left thinking we had to look at this for our own good, that examining
an unconscious woman’s private bruises doubles as -- what? A searching critique
of the Bush administration’s effort at post-9/11 nation-building? This is an extremely
bad-faith way to structure a polemic, and it leaves the viewer stuck with nothing
but unease and, worse, a sense that the unease cannot be a product of the film.
It must be her own fault."
Celebrating Leftist Agitators
Maggie Growls (2003) explored the life of Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers,
and their work for causes like "peace, health care, jobs, housing, ageism, sexism,
racism, media stereotyping, family security, the environment and campaign reform."
The Philadelphia Inquirer delighted in its interviews with "a wide range"
of leftists, "from [Ralph] Nader and historian-columnist Studs Terkel to Harun Fox
and Louis Thomas, inmates at Graterford who are members of the only prison chapter
of the Gray Panthers." Naturally, the film became a routine part of Gray Panther
The Weather Underground (2004), like the aforementioned Nader film, was slated
for national broadcast on Independent Lens after it aired in theaters and
earned a nomination for the Academy Award for best documentary film. The violent
revolutionary offshoot of the student left, plotted terrorist activities like setting
off a bomb at an officers dance at Fort Dix, "the idea being that there are no innocent
in this war of aggression," explained Mark Rudd, one of the Weathermen. They took
responsibility for bombing two dozen public buildings, including the Pentagon and
the Capitol, eventually landing on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. The New York Times
reported that "the filmmakers raise some disturbing and highly relevant questions
about the psychopathology of terrorism while maintaining a basically sympathetic
attitude toward the group’s goals." The film wasn’t as one-sided as some other PBS
films. Ex-Weatherman Brian Flanagan confessed: "When you feel you have right on
your side, you can do some horrific things." But filmmaker Sam Green also explained:
"I see them as being more Boston Tea Party than al-Qaeda. I don’t think it’s accurate
to lump those two together."
Negroes With Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power (2006) dwelled on Robert Williams,
one of the early Black Power activists who missed the big civil rights movement
of the 1960s because he was in exile in communist Cuba and China. He fled the country
after he was accused in 1961 of kidnapping a white couple during racial disorder
in Monroe, North Carolina. While in Cuba, he wrote the book Negroes with Guns,
which inspired Black Panther founder Huey P. Newton, and helmed a communist propaganda
program broadcast into the United States called "Radio Free Dixie." He was called
"the Negro Che Guevara." After falling out with Fidel Castro, his years in communist
China earned him a return to the United States as the Nixon administration sought
information on how to conduct diplomacy with dictator Mao Zedong.
Sunset Story (2005) focused on two women living in a Los Angeles retirement
home for radicals, complete with a bust of Soviet revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and
a portrait of Stalin-defending singer and actor Paul Robeson. The filmmakers were
inspired by a cheerful story in the New York Times on the home, which reported
the home also carried "an extensive collection of books on Marxism, Trotsky, Mao,
and the Rosenbergs’ trial." The two protagonists in the film complain about the
food and they protest against HMOs and Social Security funding cuts.
Trudell (2006) glorified Native American leftist John Trudell, activist and
poet, who explicitly attacked the rapacity of capitalism: "The great lie is that
it is civilization. It’s not civilized. It has literally been the most bloodthirsty
brutalizing system ever imposed upon this planet." He added: "The issue is the earth.
We cannot change the political system, we cannot change the economic system, we
cannot change the social system until the people control the land, and then we take
it out of the hands of the sick minority that chooses to pervert the meaning and
intention of humanity." Trudell also claims asking him to celebrate Columbus Day
is like asking most Americans to celebrate Osama bin Laden Day. Celebrities like
Jackson Browne and Robert Redford appear to hail Trudell. Redford compared him to
the Dalai Lama.
Granny D Goes To Washington (2006) explored the crusade of ninety-something
New Hampshire grandmother Doris Haddock, celebrated by many national media outlets
for her advocacy of "campaign finance reform." The PBS press release touted Haddock’s
"feisty, unrelenting advocacy for participatory democracy, this five-foot-tall great-grandmother
is a character of courage and charm, toughness and humor, who has commanded the
interest and respect of lawmakers and citizens alike."
"Progressive" Sexual Politics
Jane: An Abortion Service
(1998) chronicled an underground abortion movement in Chicago before abortion was
legal nationwide, hailed for how it "powerfully documents a group of courageous
women who were willing to translate their politics into action by providing safety
and dignity to women of all backgrounds [seeking abortions]." According to ITVS,
"was broadcast nationally on select public television stations in commemoration
of the 25th anniversary of Roe v. Wade (January 22, 1973)." Filmmaker Kate
Kirtz reveled in her feminism: "For us and others of our generation who grew up
with choice, it’s hard to comprehend both the reality of living with illegal abortion
and the atmosphere that fostered as direct and radical a group as JANE. This film
is a way to get us talking about our past and our power at a time when feminism
has become a dirty word and choice remains fragile in the extreme."
And Baby Makes Two (1999) explored single mothers by choice. The Independent
Lens website promoted it as "a candid and emotional documentary about a
group of thirty and forty-something single women in New York City who are actively
pursuing motherhood without the participation of spouses or boyfriends."
(2001) aired in June as part of the PBS documentary series P.O.V. (where
films are hailed for their "point of view.") Filmmaker Tom Shepard set out to embarrass
the Boy Scouts of America for failing to allow openly gay Scouts. He boasted of
the political potential of his film: "The Boy Scouts could be a really useful organization
in the new century. Are they going to cling to these antiquated policies of the
past or jump on board with contemporary society?" In an hour, viewers saw about
a minute of fleeting snippets of conservatives such as Pat Buchanan, Rev. Lou Sheldon,
and anonymous talking heads opposing the film’s liberal heroes. Not even reviewers
from liberal newspapers were buying the that PBS was achieving "balance" with the
film. "Conservatives may bristle while watching it," acknowledged The Washington
Post. "This isn’t a news documentary but a sympathetic examination of the
personalities involved in trying to change the Boy Scouts’ rules," reported The New
Daddy & Papa (2003) promoted the cultural revolution of gay parenting, "the
growing number of gay men who are making a decision that is at once traditional
and revolutionary: to become dads." PBS seemingly had no objections to filmmaker
Johnny Symons being "too close" to his subject as he explored his own adoption of
two boys. Symons stressed the usual hope for liberal impact: "My filmmaking is motivated
by social activism. I love the opportunity to change people’s belief systems, or
to reveal that something that seems clear-cut is in fact quite complex....I also
hope the film will inspire more gay men to become parents, and encourage more social
workers, judges, and politicians to use their positions of power to make this possible."
ITVS reported the film was used by the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Human
Services to promote gay adoptions, and screened for three classes of juniors and
seniors in a Norristown, Pennsylvania high school, followed by a discussion on adoption
The Great Pink Scare (2005) chronicled an arrest of 15 men in Northhampton,
Massachusetts, including three professors at Smith College. The arrest was described
by ITVS as "a McCarthy-like witch-hunt against homosexuals....Through interviews,
archival film and commentary, audiences learn the fates of the Smith professors,
who never recovered from the scandal." Once again, the subject was not only political,
but personal. Filmmaker Tug Yourgrau explained "My father taught at Smith College
in 1960 when Arvin was arrested; I was about 11 at the time. We’d held a fundraiser
in our home for Arvin, I remember looking down the stairs with my two brothers in
our pajamas as the people arrived." He hoped the film would "remind us that government
does not belong in the bedrooms of consenting adults, and that we must ever be on
guard against those who would demonize gays and lesbians."
The Amasong Chorus: Singing Out (2004) chronicled how a "lesbian/feminist choir"
in Champaign, Illinois triumphed "in an area best known for cornfields and conservatives."
Filmmaker Jay Rosenstein laid out his one-sided agenda boldly: "I hope it is a link
in the chain that helps continue the process of normalizing lesbians and gays as
part of the mainstream." Before the film aired on Independent Lens and became
a regular part of gay and lesbian film festivals, Rosenstein had to be voted in
as the first male presence allowed at the feminist choir’s rehearsals.
The Education of Shelby Knox (2005) began the summer season of P.O.V.
complete with a media tour touting a liberal conversion story: "Shelby, a devout
Christian who has pledged abstinence until marriage herself, becomes an unlikely
advocate for comprehensive sex education, profoundly changing her political and
spiritual views along the way." From fighting against abstinence-only sex education,
Knox then becomes an activist for gay students. The film synopsis explains she declares
herself a liberal Democrat, shocking her Republican parents. "But when an organization
whose slogan is ‘God Hates Fags’ comes to Lubbock to protest the gay kids’ lawsuit,
Shelby, along with her mother, joins a counter protest, carrying a sign that reads
‘God Loves Everybody,’ and affirming a belief that will guide her into adulthood:
"I think that God wants you to question," Shelby says, "to do more than just blindly
be a follower, because he can’t use blind followers." The film was funded not only
by CPB, but by the Playboy Foundation, among other foundation donors, and became
a hit at Planned Parenthood centers.
Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (2006) celebrated a San Francisco
riot in 1966 when police raided a popular late-night hangout for "transgendered
people in the city’s impoverished Tenderloin district." ITVS hailed it in promotional
materials as "the first known instance of collective, queer resistance to police
intimidation in United States history." Filmmaker Victor Silverman was thrilled
to win a local Emmy in San Francisco for the film: "The riot really marked the beginning
of a broader movement to support freedom of gender expression. ... The Emmy is a
great honor for us and a real recognition by the National Academy of Television
Arts and Sciences of the importance of recovering the lost history of transgender
about "the lost history of transgender militancy" would sound to many Americans
like the definition of wasteful government spending. But taxpayers subsidize filmmakers
to chronicle the most obscure and exotic topics, because their complete lack of
appeal to a broader public is precisely what defines these little movies as edgy
and "independent." In funding filmmakers to go out and make one-sided left-wing
films, public broadcasting subsidies serve, in effect, as ideological pork-barrel
not only have to raise their own funds if they wanted to make a film about broader
movement subjects (the history of American conservatism) or narrow ones (a personal
film about Christian home-schoolers) – they end up paying for the left admiring
itself in the mirror instead. In reality, few of these conservative films have been
made, in part because the federal government isn’t providing tens of millions of
dollars to make it happen. But whether these left-wing films reach a broad audience
on national television or just a narrow audience in small left-wing circles in isolated
communities, ITVS is a never-ending spigot for one side of the political divide.
These dysfunctional programming
and grant-making policies occur inside public broadcasting because of the nature
of the system itself. Since conservatives see public broadcasting as an enterprise
the federal government shouldn’t be involved in, few conservatives are employed
in it. When conservatives do try to advocate some kind of balance in the system,
the rest of the system (and liberal sectors of the private media as well) attack
them like they are a virus, bent on ruining the system’s potential to liberals as
a megaphone for their leaders and causes. Since its programming is often either
blandly or blatantly liberal, few conservatives watch and monitor it.
Republican oversight during
their time in the House and Senate majority was usually weak, due to concerns about
appearing opposed to Big Bird, or opposed to vigorous journalism. Calls to reduce
funds for public broadcasting have led to blatant anti-Republican lobbying from
PBS and NPR stations. Due to the Democratic majorities now in control of Congress,
hopes for more fairness or balance ought to be slight. But this is what a fairer
and more balanced system would look like:
1. The Corporation
for Public Broadcasting ought to live up to its mandate to monitor content for objectivity
and fairness. Adopting a policy of being a "heat shield" from activists
and elected representatives suggests that fairness to all players in the political
system and all shades of the political spectrum is not in public broadcasting’s
basket of values. When activists are loud enough – such as the perceived lack of
Hispanic veteran stories in the Ken Burns miniseries The War – the system
can still look responsive to public complaints. But the ideological default position
of this "private corporation funded by the American people" is that the opinion
of the people doesn’t matter and the decision-making of programmers and filmmakers
is a private affair.
2. The airwaves
of PBS ought to be for all the people, and not solely for exotic and unrealistic
crusades against Republican presidents and congressional leaders. A government-funded
TV network should be allergic to scolding anchormen calling for the impeachment
of presidents. On television and in his personal lectures at radical-left conventions
and conferences, Bill Moyers has been a full-throated advocate of using the taxpayer-funded
airwaves to destroy conservatism, pledging his "armies of the Lord are up against
mighty hosts." PBS, he has charged, needs to take on the private media, who are
nothing but "sitting ducks for the war party, for government, and neoconservative
propaganda and manipulation." Under that scenario, PBS is not a nonpartisan public-affairs
referee, but the center of a partisan and
3. If PBS
wants to serve as a moderator of our presidential debates, they need to serve both
parties, not delight over one and urge the political exile of the other.
If Tavis Smiley wished to serve as a nonpartisan moderator of presidential debates,
he would have either postponed the Republican debate until he could secure commitments
from the front-runners, or held the event with a smaller field without all the empty-podium
theatrics and a talk-show denunciation tour. High-profile presidential elections
are Exhibit A of journalistic fairness or unfairness. PBS "moderators" ought to
be more moderate in tone and ideology on both the public and private airwaves.
4. If CPB
wants to nurture "independent" film, it ought to fund both left and right, not serve
as a political organizing arm for the left. The federal government is endorsing
"independent" films by subsidizing them, offering a PBS or ITVS seal of approval
to them, making them more likely to be purchased by libraries and school systems
– even if some of these films are also circulated and endorsed by Democratic clubs,
Planned Parenthood branches, and Sierra Club chapters. CPB ought to make more of
an effort like the one they tried with "America at a Crossroads" – reaching out
to first-time filmmakers, even if they are conservative. If liberals with activist
"day jobs" are encouraged to contribute, the same ought to apply to conservatives.
If the government is going to invest in this media enterprise, it ought to invest
millions in both sides, and not just the left.