No Fairness Doctrine for PBS

How Taxpayer-Funded Broadcasting is "Surging" Left Under Democrats

3. ITVS, the "Independent Television" Service

2005-PBS-ITVSThe Independent Television Service was established by Congress in 1988 with legislation directing the CPB to establish ITVS with "a national coalition of independent producer groups."  In 1991, ITVS opened its doors in Minneapolis, distributing approximately $6 million annually to independent producers. Currently, CPB awards $15 million a year to ITVS, a one-sided, left-wing "independent" filmmakers’ organizing center. Not every film that receives subsidies is a liberal and political documentary, but there is no doubt that ITVS funds are used to subsidize and develop an allegedly "independent" community of left-wing filmmakers marching to their own ideological drummer.

ITVS saw its purpose to be "a catalyst for change, a way for independent producers to participate in and define the cultural dialogue of public television." Today, that "cultural dialogue" is being defined from Nancy Pelosi’s congressional district, at 651 Brannan Street in the city of San Francisco. Its "Statement of Values" not only lauds freedom of expression as a human right, it adds "An open society allows unpopular and minority views to be publicly aired," "A civilized society seeks economic and social justice," and "A just society seeks participation from those without power, prominence, or wealth."

TextBox6ITVS lives up to its leftist values by adding political activism. It has a community-organizing emphasis. It shows its films not just on PBS stations through the series Independent Lens, but also organizes free community showings in theaters. It also has hired organizers to "leverage" its leftist films to "build stronger connections" and spur on a more aggressive fight for "social justice." (See box.) 

This leads to often open partnerships with left-wing organizations. For example, a documentary about migrant workers called Los Trabajadores has a list of "national partners" in activism, including the AFL-CIO, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund. On the ITVS website, filmmaker Heather Courtney was pleased that her film was a starting point for pro-illegal alien activism: "Many community-based day labor and immigrant rights groups are using Los Trabajadores to organize immigrant workers and as a general educational tool to help fight misconceptions. It’s also being used in high school and university classes."

Unlike conservatives like Frank Gaffney, liberal ITVS grantees can be quite explicit about their partisan activism. Chris Christopher, co-producer of the Independent Lens documentary July ‘64 about race riots in Rochester, New York, proclaimed: "I love all the work that I do and feel fortunate that people offer me interesting work – primarily advising Democratic candidates and creating social messaging campaigns for not-for-profit organizations."

In a 2002 interview with Current, a trade publication for public broadcasting insiders, ITVS chair Sally Jo Fifer proclaimed that diversity, and not pounding away at one single viewpoint, was the goal: "Bringing diverse opinions to the audience, creating a thriving citizens’ debate — those are not the priorities of commercial media outlets. They’re going after the consumer and have the pressure of selling products. Public television, on the other hand, is thinking about what Americans need to hear and bringing diverse viewpoints, and independents are a strategy to achieve those objectives."

But in reality, "independents" wasn’t the right word. These filmmakers may be outside a corporate or studio system, but any glance of the ITVS grants shows there are no conservative filmmakers in America today making anti-Michael Moore films that celebrate capitalism or anti-abortion films or films against illegal immigration with government subsidies provided by ITVS. It isn’t bringing "diverse opinions" or sparking anything resembling a "debate." They are funding films by left-wing filmmakers with almost zero conservative viewpoints or interview subjects contained within them. Not every film funded is an explicitly political film. But it’s hard to find a political film that’s been ITVS-funded with a conservative message.

In fact, ITVS is dependent on a coterie of liberal Democrats to keep the money flowing. Fifer told Current in that same 2002 interview: "In Congress, there’s now a realization that ITVS serves a vital role by bringing independents to public television. We have a number of specific supporters on the Hill, including Nancy Pelosi, Lynn Woolsey, George Miller, Barbara Lee, Tom Lantos, Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, who’s the ranking minority member of the CPB reauthorization committee." Other than Massachusetts liberal Markey, Fifer’s entire list of House boosters is California liberals.

The liberal tilt has been a problem since the first ITVS grants were announced in 1991. Author and PBS historian Laurence Jarvik reported in the 1995 book Public Broadcasting and the Public Trust that 13 films, or 80 percent of the grants, went to projects that came explicitly from the left, including Endangered Species: The Toxic Poisoning of Communities of Color (environmental racism), Black Is, Black Ain’t (racism in pop culture), An Act of War: The Overthrowing of the Hawaiian Nation (anti-U.S. history from the "native Hawaiian" viewpoint), Imagining Indians (about negative media imagery of American Indians), and Memory of Fire (a "reassessing" of Columbus and his "discovery" of the New World).

Favored celebrities on the left, even obscure ones, were lionized in the first group of films, as in Warrior: the Case of Leonard Peltier, the Native American leftist convicted of killing two FBI agents at point-blank range; Post No Bills, about the left-wing poster artist Robbie Conal, who glued his ugly paintings of Reagan administration figures all over the nation’s capital; and Passin’ It On, the first of a pile of documentaries sympathetically exploring the radical cause of the Black Panthers.

This tradition of very one-sided filmmaking subsidies continues to the present day. Many of the ITVS films are shown on PBS stations through the series Independent Lens. The ITVS website is currently promoting the Ralph Nader documentary An Unreasonable Man as one of its highlights for December 18. One of the filmmakers, Steve Skrovan – also a longtime scriptwriter for the CBS sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond and a blogger for The Huffington Post – lauded Nader as an amazing American leader: "There’s a penetrating intelligence and analysis that I think history is going to show. His diagnosis is correct. I think it’s a good time to reevaluate his message and really listen to it because it’s been consistent and it’s based on a lot of experience." Skrovan was blunt about his point of view: "We’ve been given a lot of credit for being balanced and fair-minded, and we appreciate that, but that was not actually our intent. We’re telling the story from Nader’s point of view. We’re clearly biased."

Some filmmakers have a striking lack of objectivity in their work because they’re making films starring themselves and their personal struggles or chronicling the work of their relatives or friends. PBS officials have no public record of eschewing ties that many media outlets would find disqualifying if it were a news report instead of an allegedly "independent" film. A brief look at the ITVS catalogue demonstrates a list of films that oppose Bush administration policies, celebrate leftist agitators, and promote "progressive" sexual politics. The years listed on the films below correlate with their debut on PBS stations.

Opposing Bush and His Policies

Counting on Democracy (2002) was described as a tale of "race, political payback, voter fraud and justice deferred," charging that in the presidential race in Florida in 2000, 175,000 "people of color" were banned from voting or had their ballots thrown out. ITVS funded the Gore-should-have-won film, but PBS executives blanched from airing it nationwide just before the 2002 elections, as filmmakers hoped. Many PBS stations aired the film after the election. But, matching the usual ITVS pattern, this taxpayer-subsidized lament was shown at free screeenings in the summer and fall of 2002. In Florida, screenings were hosted in July by state Rep. Hank Harper, a Democrat from Palm Beach. In October, in Detroit a town hall meeting co-sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Raymond Murphy and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators included a showing of the film.

Rising Water: Global Warming and the Fate of the Pacific Islands (2002) was hailed by the Philadelphia Inquirer: "It’s ironic that while the leading economic countries contribute the most pollution, the effects may be first felt by countries that pollute very little. This program looks at the effects of rising water levels, due to global warming, on Pacific islands. Some of the islands are losing valuable land, and in the future entire islands may disappear." In April of 2002, the film’s public screening occurred in Cincinnati, co-sponsored by the Cincinnati Film Society – and the Sierra Club. The ITVS website for the film links directly to the Sierra Club under the headline "What You Can Do."

En Route to Baghdad (2005) chronicled the life of United Nations diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, assassinated with a bomb in Baghdad by insurgents in 2003. But criticism of the American liberation of Iraq from the UN’s point of view dominated. "I think the doctrine of preemptive action died in Baghdad," proclaimed UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.  French socialist and U.N. diplomat Bernard Kouchner declared: "In the face of extremism and terrorism, which for me has nothing to do with Islam, we can no longer rely solely on the image of the U.N. flag."

As much as the film lionized its protagonist, the bombing is almost hailed. "What I see now is like a post-modern victory for Sergio because now they recognize the whole process lacked legitimacy," claimed Ghassan Salame, a UN senior adviser on Iraq.  Salame demanded a "new chapter where those who went into the war recognize their error, their huge mistake, and the huge mistakes they have done since the war has ended in disbanding the Army, and disbanding the police, and de-Baathification, and comparing Saddam to Hitler and Baghdad to Berlin, all this bulls–t that we heard since the war has ended."  Notions of any conflict of interest with the U.N. or filmmaker Simone Duarte didn’t get in the way of ITVS support. Duarte, like Vieira de Mello, worked for the U.N. in East Timor. Her film won an award from the U.N. Correspondents Association and was shown at the United Nations Association film festival in Monterey, California.

The Cats of Mirikitani (2006) followed Jimmy Mirikitani, an elderly homeless artist in New York City. Variety’s review explained what begins as a "straightforward" film "winds up as an indictment of U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans" during World War II, and filmmaker Linda Hattendorf makes parallels between Japanese-Americans and post-9/11 America, when "reports on racist attacks against Muslims in the U.S. raise frightening specters of his past."

Motherland Afghanistan (2007) is a very personal film: filmmaker Sedika Mojadidi followed her doctor father around as he tried to deliver babies in harsh conditions in Afghanistan, beginning in a maternity ward named for Laura Bush. Even New York Times TV critic Virginia Heffernan found the show to be an exploitative attack on the Bush administration. One scene where a pregnant woman arrived with bruises on her neck was critiqued: "Having suffered seizures caused by preeclampsia, she was taken by her family to a mullah, who beat her to end them. Now she is unconscious, and her baby has died in utero. Dr. Mojadidi pushes her head around on the examining table to show the camera the blue marks on her throat. This seems exploitative."

Heffernan lamented: "We’re left thinking we had to look at this for our own good, that examining an unconscious woman’s private bruises doubles as -- what? A searching critique of the Bush administration’s effort at post-9/11 nation-building? This is an extremely bad-faith way to structure a polemic, and it leaves the viewer stuck with nothing but unease and, worse, a sense that the unease cannot be a product of the film. It must be her own fault."

Celebrating Leftist Agitators

Maggie Growls (2003) explored the life of Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, and their work for causes like "peace, health care, jobs, housing, ageism, sexism, racism, media stereotyping, family security, the environment and campaign reform." The Philadelphia Inquirer delighted in its interviews with "a wide range" of leftists, "from [Ralph] Nader and historian-columnist Studs Terkel to Harun Fox and Louis Thomas, inmates at Graterford who are members of the only prison chapter of the Gray Panthers." Naturally, the film became a routine part of Gray Panther fundraisers.

The Weather Underground (2004), like the aforementioned Nader film, was slated for national broadcast on Independent Lens after it aired in theaters and earned a nomination for the Academy Award for best documentary film. The violent revolutionary offshoot of the student left, plotted terrorist activities like setting off a bomb at an officers dance at Fort Dix, "the idea being that there are no innocent in this war of aggression," explained Mark Rudd, one of the Weathermen. They took responsibility for bombing two dozen public buildings, including the Pentagon and the Capitol, eventually landing on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. The New York Times reported that "the filmmakers raise some disturbing and highly relevant questions about the psychopathology of terrorism while maintaining a basically sympathetic attitude toward the group’s goals." The film wasn’t as one-sided as some other PBS films. Ex-Weatherman Brian Flanagan confessed: "When you feel you have right on your side, you can do some horrific things." But filmmaker Sam Green also explained: "I see them as being more Boston Tea Party than al-Qaeda. I don’t think it’s accurate to lump those two together."

Negroes With Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power (2006) dwelled on Robert Williams, one of the early Black Power activists who missed the big civil rights movement of the 1960s because he was in exile in communist Cuba and China. He fled the country after he was accused in 1961 of kidnapping a white couple during racial disorder in Monroe, North Carolina. While in Cuba, he wrote the book Negroes with Guns, which inspired Black Panther founder Huey P. Newton, and helmed a communist propaganda program broadcast into the United States called "Radio Free Dixie." He was called "the Negro Che Guevara." After falling out with Fidel Castro, his years in communist China earned him a return to the United States as the Nixon administration sought information on how to conduct diplomacy with dictator Mao Zedong.

Sunset Story (2005) focused on two women living in a Los Angeles retirement home for radicals, complete with a bust of Soviet revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and a portrait of Stalin-defending singer and actor Paul Robeson. The filmmakers were inspired by a cheerful story in the New York Times on the home, which reported the home also carried "an extensive collection of books on Marxism, Trotsky, Mao, and the Rosenbergs’ trial." The two protagonists in the film complain about the food and they protest against HMOs and Social Security funding cuts.

Trudell (2006) glorified Native American leftist John Trudell, activist and poet, who explicitly attacked the rapacity of capitalism: "The great lie is that it is civilization. It’s not civilized. It has literally been the most bloodthirsty brutalizing system ever imposed upon this planet." He added: "The issue is the earth. We cannot change the political system, we cannot change the economic system, we cannot change the social system until the people control the land, and then we take it out of the hands of the sick minority that chooses to pervert the meaning and intention of humanity." Trudell also claims asking him to celebrate Columbus Day is like asking most Americans to celebrate Osama bin Laden Day. Celebrities like Jackson Browne and Robert Redford appear to hail Trudell. Redford compared him to the Dalai Lama.

Granny D Goes To Washington (2006) explored the crusade of ninety-something New Hampshire grandmother Doris Haddock, celebrated by many national media outlets for her advocacy of "campaign finance reform." The PBS press release touted Haddock’s "feisty, unrelenting advocacy for participatory democracy, this five-foot-tall great-grandmother is a character of courage and charm, toughness and humor, who has commanded the interest and respect of lawmakers and citizens alike."

"Progressive" Sexual Politics

– Jane: An Abortion Service (1998) chronicled an underground abortion movement in Chicago before abortion was legal nationwide, hailed for how it "powerfully documents a group of courageous women who were willing to translate their politics into action by providing safety and dignity to women of all backgrounds [seeking abortions]." According to ITVS, "was broadcast nationally on select public television stations in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Roe v. Wade (January 22, 1973)." Filmmaker Kate Kirtz reveled in her feminism: "For us and others of our generation who grew up with choice, it’s hard to comprehend both the reality of living with illegal abortion and the atmosphere that fostered as direct and radical a group as JANE. This film is a way to get us talking about our past and our power at a time when feminism has become a dirty word and choice remains fragile in the extreme."

And Baby Makes Two (1999) explored single mothers by choice. The Independent Lens website promoted it as "a candid and emotional documentary about a group of thirty and forty-something single women in New York City who are actively pursuing motherhood without the participation of spouses or boyfriends."

– Scout’s Honor (2001) aired in June as part of the PBS documentary series P.O.V. (where films are hailed for their "point of view.") Filmmaker Tom Shepard set out to embarrass the Boy Scouts of America for failing to allow openly gay Scouts. He boasted of the political potential of his film: "The Boy Scouts could be a really useful organization in the new century. Are they going to cling to these antiquated policies of the past or jump on board with contemporary society?" In an hour, viewers saw about a minute of fleeting snippets of conservatives such as Pat Buchanan, Rev. Lou Sheldon, and anonymous talking heads opposing the film’s liberal heroes. Not even reviewers from liberal newspapers were buying the that PBS was achieving "balance" with the film. "Conservatives may bristle while watching it," acknowledged The Washington Post. "This isn’t a news documentary but a sympathetic examination of the personalities involved in trying to change the Boy Scouts’ rules," reported The New York Times.

Daddy & Papa (2003) promoted the cultural revolution of gay parenting, "the growing number of gay men who are making a decision that is at once traditional and revolutionary: to become dads." PBS seemingly had no objections to filmmaker Johnny Symons being "too close" to his subject as he explored his own adoption of two boys. Symons stressed the usual hope for liberal impact: "My filmmaking is motivated by social activism. I love the opportunity to change people’s belief systems, or to reveal that something that seems clear-cut is in fact quite complex....I also hope the film will inspire more gay men to become parents, and encourage more social workers, judges, and politicians to use their positions of power to make this possible." ITVS reported the film was used by the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services to promote gay adoptions, and screened for three classes of juniors and seniors in a Norristown, Pennsylvania high school, followed by a discussion on adoption and families.

The Great Pink Scare (2005) chronicled an arrest of 15 men in Northhampton, Massachusetts, including three professors at Smith College. The arrest was described by ITVS as "a McCarthy-like witch-hunt against homosexuals....Through interviews, archival film and commentary, audiences learn the fates of the Smith professors, who never recovered from the scandal." Once again, the subject was not only political, but personal. Filmmaker Tug Yourgrau explained "My father taught at Smith College in 1960 when Arvin was arrested; I was about 11 at the time. We’d held a fundraiser in our home for Arvin, I remember looking down the stairs with my two brothers in our pajamas as the people arrived." He hoped the film would "remind us that government does not belong in the bedrooms of consenting adults, and that we must ever be on guard against those who would demonize gays and lesbians."

The Amasong Chorus: Singing Out (2004) chronicled how a "lesbian/feminist choir" in Champaign, Illinois triumphed "in an area best known for cornfields and conservatives." Filmmaker Jay Rosenstein laid out his one-sided agenda boldly: "I hope it is a link in the chain that helps continue the process of normalizing lesbians and gays as part of the mainstream." Before the film aired on Independent Lens and became a regular part of gay and lesbian film festivals, Rosenstein had to be voted in as the first male presence allowed at the feminist choir’s rehearsals.

The Education of Shelby Knox (2005) began the summer season of P.O.V. complete with a media tour touting a liberal conversion story: "Shelby, a devout Christian who has pledged abstinence until marriage herself, becomes an unlikely advocate for comprehensive sex education, profoundly changing her political and spiritual views along the way." From fighting against abstinence-only sex education, Knox then becomes an activist for gay students. The film synopsis explains she declares herself a liberal Democrat, shocking her Republican parents. "But when an organization whose slogan is ‘God Hates Fags’ comes to Lubbock to protest the gay kids’ lawsuit, Shelby, along with her mother, joins a counter protest, carrying a sign that reads ‘God Loves Everybody,’ and affirming a belief that will guide her into adulthood: "I think that God wants you to question," Shelby says, "to do more than just blindly be a follower, because he can’t use blind followers." The film was funded not only by CPB, but by the Playboy Foundation, among other foundation donors, and became a hit at Planned Parenthood centers.

Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (2006) celebrated a San Francisco riot in 1966 when police raided a popular late-night hangout for "transgendered people in the city’s impoverished Tenderloin district." ITVS hailed it in promotional materials as "the first known instance of collective, queer resistance to police intimidation in United States history." Filmmaker Victor Silverman was thrilled to win a local Emmy in San Francisco for the film: "The riot really marked the beginning of a broader movement to support freedom of gender expression. ... The Emmy is a great honor for us and a real recognition by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences of the importance of recovering the lost history of transgender militancy."

A film about "the lost history of transgender militancy" would sound to many Americans like the definition of wasteful government spending. But taxpayers subsidize filmmakers to chronicle the most obscure and exotic topics, because their complete lack of appeal to a broader public is precisely what defines these little movies as edgy and "independent." In funding filmmakers to go out and make one-sided left-wing films, public broadcasting subsidies serve, in effect, as ideological pork-barrel spending.

Conservatives not only have to raise their own funds if they wanted to make a film about broader movement subjects (the history of American conservatism) or narrow ones (a personal film about Christian home-schoolers) – they end up paying for the left admiring itself in the mirror instead. In reality, few of these conservative films have been made, in part because the federal government isn’t providing tens of millions of dollars to make it happen. But whether these left-wing films reach a broad audience on national television or just a narrow audience in small left-wing circles in isolated communities, ITVS is a never-ending spigot for one side of the political divide.