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TV REVIEW : ‘Stop the Church’: All Parties Do Their Part

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Curious that it would happen this way, but, broadly speaking, everyone acted correctly:

* KCET Channel 28 was correct to air a controversial film showing a 1989 demonstration by gay activists angrily denouncing the Catholic Church for its positions on AIDS and homosexuality. Despite charges to the contrary, the film basically does little more than document a militant, sometimes abusive protest and the rage and frustration behind it, with raw power compensating for cinematic coarseness. Moreover, a 90-minute package KCET aired Friday night--the 23-minute “Stop the Church” bundled up in 57 minutes of background and discussion--turned out be rather interesting.

* Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, was correct to express his opposition to the documentary by denouncing KCET for airing it. Anyone angry about Robert Hilferty’s film and its condemnation of church policy on AIDS and gays has a right, perhaps even an obligation, to speak out strongly and forcefully.

Debate: That’s the American way.

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Censorship: That isn’t the American way.

Getting down to specifics, though, what an absolute mess this has become since PBS spinelessly yanked “Stop the Church” from “P.O.V.” (“Point of View”) shortly before it was to air nationally on that documentary series, which is specifically designed to feature the opinionated work of independent filmmakers.

“Stop the Church” is certainly opinionated in the way it captures members of the militant group ACT UP attacking and ridiculing some church policies and disrupting a service in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, acts certain to enrage many Catholics and others.

Mahony charged in a press conference later shown during the Friday night KCET program that in scheduling the Hilferty film on its own, Channel 28 was giving in to “blackmail” by gay and AIDS activists who had threatened to disrupt the station’s crucial August fund-raising drive if “Stop the Church” were not shown.

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In a press conference that also was included in the Channel 28 program, KCET president William Kobin branded Mahony’s charge “totally untrue,” although acknowledging getting “extreme pressure” from both sides in the controversy.

Whatever the truth, KCET’s decision to air the film surely was not made in an isolation chamber sealed off from threats of economic reprisal. What this entire episode dramatizes is just how vulnerable PBS and its stations are without permanent long-range funding. When your existance depends on contributions, foundation grants and periodic government stipends--and this lifeblood can be clotted by a decision to air or not air a controversial program--the instinct to survive by being inoffensive is overwhelming.

Just look at what KCET has run up against, with Mahony not only criticizing the station, but coming within a millimeter of advocating a boycott while engaging in hyperbole that at least matches that of the film he finds so offensive. In his press conference, he said we should now hold KCET “morally and possibly legally responsible for every future act of terrorism against churches, temples and synagogues.” This is a joke, yes?

With Jeffrey Kaye skillfully moderating, meanwhile, the background and two discussion periods that KCET inserted after “Stop the Church” went well, even though one panelist did compare the film to the famous video showing Rodney G. King being savagely beaten by police. Maybe there’s something in the air.

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Both sides of the controversy were equally represented on the panels, despite a refusal to participate by the Archdiocese and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). The gay group stayed away in protest of KCET’s decision not to invite Hilferty or representatives of ACT UP. This gesture by GLAAD in behalf of balance would have been more effective had not Hilferty’s film itself all but excluded the voice of the institution it castigated.

At one point Friday night, a point was made by Van Gordon Sauter, former president of CBS News, about the imbalance of “P.O.V.” in favor of politically liberal filmmakers. Very true. But “P.O.V.” has claimed that is so because it gets very few submissions of films voicing politically conservative themes. If anyone has evidence to the contrary, let’s hear about it. Diversity is what public television should be about.

Kobin said KCET decided to air “Stop the Church” ultimately because viewers have the right to make up their own minds. That’s a noble stand, one that KCET would do well not to forget.


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