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KCET Owes Its Viewers an Apology

This is one of those columns in which the author’s biases understandably are an issue. So, for the record, here are mine. I am:

* A Roman Catholic.

* A functional absolutist on questions involving freedom of speech and conscience.

* An unqualified advocate of legal and social equality for gay and lesbian people.

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I can hear you muttering into your coffee cup now: “There’s a neat trick.” Well, I won’t deny that the simultaneous commitment to all three of those things requires a certain degree of mental agility. On the other hand, you don’t exactly have to be a contortionist, either.

In any event, I undertake this exercise in full disclosure by way of introducing this argument: Los Angeles’ public television station, KCET Channel 28, was wrong last Friday when it elected to air a crude, anti-Catholic documentary film entitled “Stop the Church.” Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, Los Angeles’ Catholic archbishop, was right when he denounced that decision and demanded that the station apologize.

Frankly, criticizing KCET makes me a trifle queasy. After all, in the jungle of American mass communications, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is about as close as you get to something that is warm, furry and . . . well, harmless. After all, if you turn public television on after 3 p.m., the chances are overwhelming that you are going to see one of two things: Someone speaking in an British accent or strange animals--probably copulating. Sometimes these two continuing themes intertwine in a kind of grand coda, and what you see is two strange animals copulating while an unseen person does voice-over narration with a British accent.

Occasionally there are lapses, as in PBS’ inexplicable canonization of that anti-Semitic old fraud, the late Joseph Campbell, who despite his avuncular manner, was the red-brick-and-ivy equivalent of Louis Farrakhan.

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Then there is “Stop the Church,” which was too much, even for PBS’ rather undemanding officials, who refused to show the film as part of the network’s “P.O.V.” (Point of View) series of independently produced documentaries. The film records a protest undertaken by ACT UP, a small group which engages in direct action on behalf of people with AIDS. In this instance, the group--outraged by Cardinal John O’Connor’s opposition to the distribution of condoms and safe sex information in New York’s public schools--disrupted a Mass at which the prelate was the celebrant.

In a society that has accorded constitutional protection to religious practice, the disruption of any church service is a deeply repellent act. “Stop the Church” not only presents this act in an uncritical light, but also heaps its own share of abuse on the Catholic Church. On camera, people go unrebutted as they accuse the church of various crimes against humanity, including “ritual sacrifice.” Sacred images are appropriated for purposes of crude caricature. An unidentified man is shown laughingly desecrating the Communion wafer, which is the center of Catholicism’s holiest sacrament. In our own time, Catholic people have died rather than witness such sacrilege.

For these reasons and because of what it termed the film’s “pervasive tone of ridicule” and failure to meet basic standards of aesthetic quality, PBS refused to air “Stop the Church.” However, after considerable local agitation, including a threat to disrupt its August fund-raiser by jamming telephone lines, KCET elected to show the documentary. In the process, it offered a number of elaborate justifications, none of which are convincing.

In this instance, KCET has failed to distinguish between a valid work of art or journalism which happens to have a provocative dimension, and a mere provocation which happens to take the form of an expressive act.

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“Stop the Church” is, as Cardinal Mahony has charged, an approving depiction of a “hate crime"--the intolerable disruption of a religious service by a mob. Would KCET air a similarly laudatory portrayal of a group of animal rights activists who disrupted the Shabbos at an orthodox Jewish synagogue to protest the ritual of kosher slaughter? Would it broadcast a light-hearted look at a gang of thugs who disrupted services at a predominately gay church in alleged defense of “family values”?

The answers are obvious and obviously damning. So, too, is the response to the repeated contention by KCET spokesmen that “Stop the Church” simply portrays an act of “civil disobedience.” Civil disobedience is the honorable opposition of individuals to unjust law or government action. ACT UP’s disruption of Catholic services, like Operation Rescue’s harassment of patients at family planning clinics, involves something quite different: a mob’s obstruction of other private citizens in pursuit of their legal and constitutional rights.

To endorse such action as civil disobedience is to endorse the view of the racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan organizer Thomas E. Watson, who defended the agitation that led to the lynching of Leo Frank by saying, “When mobs are no longer possible, liberty is dead.”

What, then, about the cardinal’s suggestion that people who object to this film ought not watch or contribute financially to KCET?

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Boycotts also make me uneasy. They have a badly checkered history, and have more often been instruments of bigotry than of benevolent social purpose. Perhaps more to the point, in a society as diverse as ours, they almost always provoke a backlash and, therefore, are ineffective. At last report, KCET had received about as much in new contributions from people who object to the cardinal’s position as it has lost from those who agree with him.

On the other hand, Cardinal Mahony’s insistence that KCET owes viewers an apology for its callous lapse in editorial judgment seems to me entirely correct. It is correct because the decision by a public broadcasting station to air the uncritical depiction of a hate crime affronts America’s unique conception of moral progress.

“Insofar as we can recognize moral progress,” philosopher Michael Walzer has written, “it has less to do with the discovery or invention of new principles than with the inclusion under the old principles of previously excluded men and women.”

Bigotry and mob action always have opposed this process. But, in our century, the beneficiaries of progressive inclusion have been women, Jews, African-Americans, Roman Catholics, Asian-Americans and Latinos. The struggle by and on behalf of gay and lesbian people still is being waged. But decency and history are on their side.

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