Civil Rights

Public TV Execs Fall In Alabama

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A shakeup is underway at Alabama Public Television, where two executives have been fired for reasons unclear and four more have subsequently quit. According to the trade journal Current, dismissed CFO Pauline Howland

In Birmingham they love the pledge drives…

said she was "baffled" by the dismissals. But she also recalled how [fired executive director Allan] Pizzato had asked staff in April for advice about a series of videos that [Alabama Educational Television Commission members] wanted [Alabama Public Television] to air.

The videos featured David Barton, an evangelical minister and conservative activist whose publications and media appearances promote his theories about the religious intentions of America's founders. He frequently appears on political commentary programs hosted by conservative Glenn Beck.

The American Heritage Series, a 10-part DVD series offered by Barton's Texas-based organization WallBuilders LLC, "presents America's forgotten history and heroes, emphasizing the moral, religious and constitutional foundation on which America was built." Christian broadcast networks Cornerstone Television and Trinity Broadcasting Networks air the series, according to the website.

AETC Commissioner Rodney Herring, an Opelika-based chiropractor, had provided the series to APT for broadcast consideration.

I should stress that we do not know that Pizzato and Howland were fired for refusing to air the program. I will not be surprised if it turns out that they were, but I also will not be surprised if we learn that there is more to this incident than the dispute over the Barton series. The story is still developing.

Meanwhile, what's really interesting here is that commission that's been sending down suggestions of what to air. What, you might wonder, is that? Is this some insidious new scheme to keep broadcasters under control?

More like an insidious old scheme. Alabama, you may be surprised to hear, was a pioneer of public television. The state government created the Alabama Educational Television Commission in 1953, and the state's first public TV station went on the air in 1955, a dozen years before the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was born. Its second station was launched later that year, making Alabama the first state in the U.S. to have its own public TV network.

That meant Alabama had a public TV network when the civil rights revolution was in full bloom. And how, you might ask, did a set of stations subsidized by the legislature and governed by a commission of political appointees cover the protests? James Ledbetter tells the story in his 1998 book Made Possible By…:

If we don't do it, who will?
U.S. News & World Report

It is no exaggeration to say that in Alabama, the issues of segregation and civil rights could incite some people to violence. The response, therefore, of the AETC was to avoid these issues, in nearly any form….Decades later, PBS would bring to public television viewers compelling images of civil rights marches in Eyes on the Prize and Freedom on My Mind, but while those events were actually transpiring, they were forbidden on southern systems such as AETC.

AETC's blinders strategy was made simpler by the fact that through the mid-'70s, the AETC had no black commissioners, no black professional staff, and no blacks on its program board. The programming offered by National Educational Television [a precursor to PBS] was laden with discussions—sometimes quite provocative—about civil rights and related race issues, and many of those programs carried into the early years of PBS. These programs might well have created controversy in Alabama—and thus they were not aired….

The most outrageous example of the Alabama network's TV apartheid was its failure to cover a burning racial issue in its own backyard: the multiyear struggle to desegregate the schools in Alabama's Macon County. Beginning in 1964, a federal court had ordered Governor George Wallace to desegregate the state's schools, beginning in Macon County, and when he refused, teachers and parents struggled for years to force compliance in the mostly black county. When asked why AETC had omitted ever mentioning what was arguably the most important local issue of the decade, the general manager of the AETC, Raymond Hurlbert, testified before the FCC that he was only "vaguely aware" of the story, and that the AETC had taken "no steps to investigate the legal controversies" it brought up.

Civil rights activists were so disgusted with the network that in the '70s a bunch of them filed to strip the state of its broadcast licenses. They very nearly succeeded, too, though the FCC wound up delaying rather than blocking the license renewals.

Political funding means political interference. Jim Crow Alabama was an extreme example of the rule, but it is hardly the only illustration. The first state to build a public broadcasting network was also the first to show just how poisonous such subsidies can be.

NEXT: Ron Paul: Still Raising Bucks, and How and Why Working Within the GOP is Working For Him

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  1. And all this time I thought that ‘Bamanians considered CMT to be their “public TV”.

    Learn something ebby day.

    Also – RAAAAAAACIST!

  2. If you are going to take tax money everyone deserves a voice. Glen Beck fans pay taxes too. If they want it to be a playground for your views, don’t take tax money.

  3. Governments just love their own radio/TV stations: it provides free advertising to politicians (but not free to taxpayers).

    As Reason has pointed out, not even Republicans want to end subsidies to NPR or the CPB: they want to get them to shape their message favorable to Republicans.

    Those who believe in limited government (this does include a small minority of Republicans, most who’s last name is Paul) would end the subsidies. And when the statists say “we need government radio/TV” they’ll be able to ask “So they can ignore racism the way CMT did, and return us back to the era of segregation?”

    Government radio/TV (I use government because almost all radio/TV are publicly available) doesn’t exist for the public, it exists for the politicians.

    Now if we can just force politicians to watch it, that would be some justice.

  4. “Alabama, you may be surprised to hear, was a pioneer of public television…”

    ****

    Not surprising if you know your Alabama history. Governor Persons – who was in office when the public broadcast system was created – was an “old-school progressive,” and his term was bracketed by Big Jim Folsom, who was about as populist as they come. Setting up state-funded institutions for the “little man” was what sold in the South back then; only later did politicians such as Wallace figure out that segregationism sold even better than populism.

    1. Politicians like Wallace sold both, actually…

    2. Wasn’t segregation created as a way to appeal to poor Southern Whites? Democratics riling up anti-black sentiment in order to accuse their rival Democrats of being insufficiently racist was pretty common until the Civil Rights era.

  5. Thank goodness there’s taxpayer subsidized television to bring everyone the kind of programming that we would otherwise never be exposed to.

  6. Living in Southeastern, PA, there’s been an interesting parallel, both New Jersey and Pennsylvania ended their subsidies to public television and radio due to the recession. In Pennsylvania, where the stations were all independent non-profit corporations, they’ve more or less been doing fine. In New Jersey, where they were organized into a statewide public network, public television has mostly disappeared (the exception being a handful of stations that got bought by WHYY in Philadelphia).

  7. Allan Pizzato and Pauline Howland are no heroes. They were blowing through Alabama Public Television’s money long before the economy tanked. Then, among other things, they abolished a long revered robust statewide news show. The reason? As Pizzato told the staff, he made the decision after “consulting” with the “guys” at his Kiwanis Club meeting, where he says they told him it should be cancelled. “My Kiwanis Club made me do it (?!)” Years earlier, he pandered *to* conservatives, refusing to air a national show that featured a gay character. The reason here? As he told the national media, airing a show with a gay character was like telling kids there was no Santa Claus! HUH?! So now, Pizzato and Howland supposedly risked their (very comfortable) salaries to take an ideological stand in another direction? Oh, spare me. These two executives had no sense of culture or public interest. They were BAD stewards of the public’s money and trust. Allan Pizzato and Pauline Howland are no heroes. They are buffoons.

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