PBS CHIEF RAPS ENDOWMENT OVER ITS ‘AFRICANS’ ACTIONS
As the controversial series “The Africans” nears midpoint, the battle between the National Endowment for the Humanities and public television escalates. On a visit to local affiliates this week, Bruce L. Christensen, president of the Washington-based Public Broadcasting Service, threw down the gauntlet to Lynne Cheney, endowment chairwoman.
In a wide-ranging interview, Christensen said the endowment, which removed its credits from the nine-part series, is “not the Ministry of Truth” and warned that if the endowment insists upon being in the editing room when a film is cut, “then there will be no NEH funding in public television.
“We don’t allow anyone in the editing room who is a funder of a public television,” he said with quiet anger. “We don’t allow Exxon, we don’t allow Mobil, we don’t allow anybody--IBM or whoever it is.”
The PBS president added: “I think NEH and NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) and the whole educational system of our country have an obligation to see that different points of view are made available. . . . They aren’t responsible for deciding what is or is not propaganda.”
Christensen’s remarks were prompted by an interview with Cheney in The Times Tuesday, in which she said that the endowment would not fund “propaganda.” The chairwoman also said that to prevent a recurrence of a dispute like the one over “The Africans,” “We will be making many more site visits to wherever the film is being produced. . . . In this case (‘The Africans’), I think the trip would probably have been to England where it was being edited. In any case (we would) go out, make a little friendly visit . . . (and) see if things are going according to the plan laid out in the (grant) application.”
The $3.5-million series, to which the endowment had awarded $600,000, was co-produced by PBS affiliate WETA-TV in Washington and the British Broadcasting Corp. After viewing the nine-hour series, Cheney labeled it “an anti-Western diatribe” and demanded removal of the endowment’s logo.
Asked if he believed the endowment was stepping on free-speech rights, either in spirit or by implication, Christensen replied:
“The most troubling thing that I read (in The Times interview) was the idea that they would now begin to make visits to the editing room--'little friendly visits,’ with her clever humor. If that doesn’t have a chilling effect. . . . Let me say it another way: I believe it will have a chilling effect, and may lead to direct interference in the editorial process.”
When it was noted that Cheney also said she didn’t wish the endowment to make production suggestions and that the endowment isn’t a producer of films, Christensen answered that, “The production business is editing. And do they plan to go sit next to the editors of books as they go through the editing of scripts and manuscripts that come in that are funded by NEH? . . . Are they going to sit next to the editor at his elbow, and say, ‘This must go in. This stays out.’?”
On the matter of free speech, Christensen also posed some hypothetical questions:
“If she (Cheney) could have pulled the program, rather than the credits, would she have done that? . . . If the legislation were written, ‘If NEH did not agree with what was produced with the money funded'--rather than being able to pull their credits, they were able to pull the program--would she have chosen to pull the program? Or, would the political pressure have been so great to pull the program, she would have had no other choice?”
Christensen, 43, who took charge of the 314-station PBS in April, 1984, also talked about the system’s decision last week to do an in-house investigation of program policies and practices. The decision came on the heels of a letter signed by Rep. Don Ritter (R-Pa.) and more than 50 members of Congress including Cheney’s husband, Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), to the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, calling for a review of program practices and policies. The government-chartered nonprofit corporation dispenses federal funds to PBS stations and production companies.
Christensen said that he wanted to jump into the fray before the corporation did its own “content analysis,” which it was on the brink of doing in July. At the time, the possibility of a corporation inquiry into program content provoked a firestorm within the public broadcasting community. The corporation has seven members, virtually all of whom are Reagan appointees. (Sharon Percy Rockefeller, wife of Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), was appointed by President Carter and reappointed by Reagan.) There are three vacancies including a chairman.
“The corporation was established to generate and foster programs with differing points of view,” Christensen said, “and if in fact what they’re doing is looking for a kind of homogenization of the program process, then I think it would be a disservice. What I think all of us in public television worry about is that as soon as you get someone who funds the program tied to a political appointment by the President, then you have the capability or the possibility that those folks won’t want to see programs put on the air that are critical of the President.
“In 1973,” Christensen said, “President Nixon in fact tried to kill federal funding for public television through his political appointees to the (corporation) board, and the kind of chicanery that went on at the time. They didn’t do a ‘content analysis.’ Content analysis seems to me a little more sophisticated way of achieving those ends.”
The representatives’ letter, Christensen said, was one of the factors that prompted him to make the review decision. “Other factors certainly include criticism we have from NEH,” he said, “but probably more importantly--and this is difficult to persuade people (of)--as early as last spring PBS was looking for ways to deal with controversial programs.”
Christensen said PBS’ “theme-night approach” dealing with such issues as the Palestinians and Israelis or abortion did not seem to be working well for some of the affiliates. The Mideast program particularly, he said, caused “problems for some of our licensees, so we’ve been struggling to figure out how we deal with some of these kinds of controversial programs.
“There must be a place for controversy in public television,” Christensen said. “That’s what we’re here to provide.”
Major funding for “The Africans” came from the Annenberg/CPB Project, which was created in 1981 to allocate funds, according to its literature, “to explore new ways of developing opportunities for higher education through telecommunications.”
Former Federal Communications Commissioner and PBS board member William Henry will chair the review committee, Christensen said. Henry also will appoint several other board members to serve with him. Outside experts also will assist in the review process. The report is due in December.
“PBS doesn’t have anything more important to it than its programming credibility,” Christensen said. “The highest responsibility we have is to assure our stations that we’re following the practices established by the board and that we’re meeting standards, and that they don’t have to worry about public television programming being the captive of any greater or lesser agenda.”
Asked to comment on the remark by Reed Irvine of the conservative media watch group Accuracy in Media, that having an internal review is “like asking John Dean to investigate Watergate,” Christensen said, after noting that Dean was “the one who finally blew the story on the White House”:
“While I think he (Irvine) probably didn’t mean to imply that, what we expect (to find) is that public television has its own mechanisms, and checks and balances built into it. One of these is PBS’ board, and PBS’ board has the responsibility to guarantee to the member stations and the American public that our programming is, in fact, free of the ideological agenda they accuse us of pursuing.”
Christensen, who has been involved in public television since the early 1970s when he managed KBYU, Brigham Young University’s public-TV station in Provo, Utah, compared various administrations vis-a-vis public television. He said the Nixon years were the most interfering. He also recalled the “Death of a Princess” controversy during the Carter Administration when the State Department insisted the program be pulled off the air for reasons of national security. “Princess,” however, was broadcast.
As for the Reagan Administration: “I think there is a cynicism, not necessarily about public television but about media all the way across the board. . . . The media are simply another element to be dealt with and manipulated. I don’t see public television as having been singled out as ‘those terrible wrong-headed folks over there, we want to eliminate them.’ It simply is: ‘Whenever our story isn’t told the way way we want it, we’ll raise hell.’ ”
Christensen also discussed the matter of “balance” in public television programming--an issue that Cheney often mentions, and which the House members cited in their letter. The letter noted that the “greatest harm” can occur “crossing the line of '. . . strict adherence to objectivity and balance.’ ”
That quote is from the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. However a 1975 suit brought by Accuracy in Media, a U.S. Court of Appeals called the language “hortatory” and left the interpretation of that language to broadcast agencies and Congress.
“To PBS,” Christensen said, “balance means that over the course of the broadcast schedule, you take the programs that we put on the air, you find the diversity of points of view and opinion expressed. . . . It’s not a balancing within every program, every series. . . . From our perspective we look to see that no single point of view is dominant, or dominates to the exclusion of others.”
“What’s interesting in the situation we have now,” he said, “is that at the same time you have ‘The Africans’ on the air, which is denounced as ‘an anti-Western diatribe,’ we have a program called ‘The Day the Universe Changed,’ which idealizes Western values as being the highest achievement of civilization, a program out of South Carolina. . . . “
As for “The Africans,” Christensen said he’s watching the series as it airs. “I guess there are parts of it that I find difficult to understand. I don’t agree with everything (program writer and narrator Ali) Mazrui says, and there are some things I find myself saying, ‘That may be a non sequitur.’ . . . But my basic reaction is: I think it’s interesting.”