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
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…:
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.