Jan 1 1998

Film Rejection Highlights PBS Bias

Union funding "problematic"; corporate dollars A-OK

The Public Broadcasting Service last year refused to air Out At Work, a film about workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians, because it was partially funded by unions. The rejection was an unsettling example of the obstacles labor advocates face in participating in media discussion. PBS‘s defense of the funding double standard—which penalizes not just labor unions, but anyone who wants to hear vigorous economic debate—is the latest indication of that network’s seeming disdain for the journalistic mission it’s charged with.

Out At Work is a straightforward, compassionate look at the lives of three workers facing bias on the job, ranging from harassment and unequal health care coverage to outright firing based solely on sexual orientation—a practice shockingly legal in 39 states. The producers, independent filmmakers Kelly Anderson and Tami Gold, hoped the film would reach a wide audience as part of the public broadcasting series P.O.V.

But having submitted the film for review, P.O.V. executive producer Lisa Heller received a letter from Sandra Heberer, PBS‘s director of news and information programming, saying that, while it found Out At Work to be “compelling television responsibly done,” PBS would not distribute the film. The reason? It “fails to comport with our normal underwriting guidelines,” which “prohibit funding that might lead to an assumption that individual underwriters might have exercised editorial control over program content—even if, as is clear in this case, those underwriters did not.”

The funders labeled “problematic” were various trade unions, including the United Auto Workers (UAW), United Steelworkers of America and the Service Employees International Union, along with ASTRAEA, the National Lesbian Action Foundation. “Each of these,” PBS said, “could be fairly perceived to have a direct or immediate interest in the subject of the film.”

PBS emphasized that they did not believe that any of the cited groups had any actual influence on the film’s content. Nor were the amounts overwhelming: None of the contributions was more than $5,000, and most were around $1,000. The core of the issue was, in Heberer’s words, the “perception problem.”

Vested Interests

This is not the first time PBS has invoked elusive “guidelines” on underwriting to buttress unpopular decisions. In 1993, the network rejected an Academy Award-winning documentary about domestic violence, Defending Our Lives, because one of the producers was the leader of a battered women’s support group, and therefore had a “direct vested interest in the subject matter of the program.” The rules “protect the integrity of public television programming,” explained Mary Jane McKinven, then PBS‘s director of news and public affairs, in a letter to the film’s producer.

But then as now, the reference to unbendable rules rang hollow to critics who have been tracking creeping commercial encroachment on public broadcasting for years. If indeed such a standard existed at PBS, what could possibly explain the network’s broadcast of, for example, James Reston: The Man Millions Read? That flattering documentary about the New York Times‘ most famous pundit, aired on PBS in 1993, was funded by and produced “in association with” the New York Times. The director and producer, Susan Dryfoos, is a member of the Sulzberger family that owns the paper and the daughter of a former Times publisher. Surely here was a “perception problem” of spectacular proportions?

FAIR put the question in a May 1994 letter to McKinven, and the response was telling. The Reston documentary was acceptable, McKinven wrote, because it “was a co-production of [public TV station] WVIA/Scranton and the New York Times, but WVIA held editorial control.” Also, “PBS determined the film was solid, not uncritical of Reston, and not a commercial on the Times‘ behalf.”

Debate over PBS funding policy can get tangled up with minutiae about budget percentages and coproducer vs. funder distinctions, but this is the key admission. It shows that, at certain times, for some institutions, PBS allows other considerations, like tone or editorial control, to mitigate worry about conflicts of interest. But is Out At Work a “commercial” for the UAW? Did the Service Employees hold “editorial control”? Allowed in the Reston case to override the “perception problem,” such questions appear not even to have been asked in the case of Out At Work.

Built-In Bias

It isn’t just that PBS applies rules about bias more stringently when unions are involved, but that evidently labor groups are seen as inherently biased—their involvement sending up automatic red flags—in a way that other institutions (namely corporations) clearly are not. It’s hard to see how equitably applied standards about perceptions of sponsor influence would allow for such public TV staples as Wall $treet Week, Adam Smith’s Money World and Nightly Business Report. Don’t the investment, insurance and brokerage firms that sponsor these programs have an “interest” in reporting on the stock market? Is it mere happy coincidence that these shows feature a style of coverage that doesn’t challenge the equation of corporate profits with economic well-being?

PBS president Ervin Duggan has tried to argue, in a 1994 letter to FAIR, that public TV’s business shows “provide information important to all Americans, regardless of their economic circumstances, and have no ‘agenda’ but to explain the issues and events they explore.” But an in-depth 1993 study (Extra!, 9-10/93) found that business and financial shows had the narrowest range of sources of any public affairs programming on public TV: Fully 50 percent of sources were corporate representatives, compared with only 2 percent representing public interest groups, including labor.

Asked about that corporate-backed business show lineup, PBS hedges: “It is not forbidden for an underwriter to have any interest whatsoever in the subject matter of a program,” McKinven wrote to FAIR, “but rather to have such a close interest that the program would appear to serve the funder’s commercial or political interests.” A show like Wall $treet Week “deals with myriad industries and business/financial issues, including issues that may relate to those of the underwriters—but not to such an extent that its editorial independence would be compromised.”

But there is a long track record of people trying to get even historical dramas related to workers on PBS being warned against backing from unions, any unions (Extra!, Summer/90). Asked by media critic James Ledbetter whether the Out At Work rejection meant “labor unions could never fund a PBS-distributed documentary about workplace issues,” PBS publicist Harry Forbes said, “I think that’s probably true.” (The Nation, 6/30/97) How is it that unions have an unacceptably close interest in labor issues, but corporations do not have an unacceptably close interest in business issues? That’s a question PBS has never been able to answer.

And on the topic of “political interests”: What exactly does it mean to say that a lesbian-rights organization has a “problematic” interest in a film about discrimination? Does PBS feel the group may have biased the filmmakers in favor of human rights? And don’t right-wing foundations like Olin, Bradley and Scaife have an obvious political agenda? That doesn’t stop PBS from allowing their money to fund conservative public TV programming (Extra!, 6/92).

If PBS Doesn’t Do It. . . .

Mainstream commercial media leave little doubt of their embrace of the weak government, “free market,” “free trade” dogma popular with corporate leaders. As commercial outlets zealously report every uptick in the Dow, scratching their heads over polls showing U.S. workers more anxious than ever, the need for a non-commercial arena for economic debate is acutely felt.

That’s just the kind of space, free from commercial concerns, that public broadcasting was established to provide. So it’s especially galling that while PBS stonewalls critics calling on them to engage such debate, they continue to promote themselves as courting controversial and cutting-edge work. The network’s current slogan is, “If PBS Doesn’t Do It, Who Will?” But the bad-faith exclusion of Out At Work provides further fuel for a growing body of media activists who are asking a different question: If PBS won’t do it, why not create a network that will?