Alabama Conservatives’ War On Public Television

My former colleague Alex Seitz-Wald, now at Salon, has a great, and unnerving story about a battle over the future of Alabama’s public television network, where a conservative board pushed the network to air videos by a discredited evangelical historian, to roll back its long-standing statement in favor of diversity, including sexual orientation, and to fire the network’s executive director Allan Pizzato. Alex writes that the fight, which is consistent with conservative efforts to demand that bogus history and science be accorded equal respect with rigorously tested conclusions, may be a pretext for something much larger:

APT’s chief operating officer, Charles Grantham, also resigned, as did an interim director appointed by the commission, though the resignation has not gone into effect for the latter. Grantham wrote an open letter to the governor on July 19 expressing dire concerns about the future of the nation’s oldest public broadcasting network. “Now a shadow is being cast over APT by its own directors. … It is my belief that the firings were based solely on ideological differences and personality clashes between Mr. Pizzato and some of the commissioners,” he wrote. The letter goes on to note that “some actions might jeopardize the licenses of APT” and concludes, “If something is not done immediately to stop this destructive spiral, it may be that history will record that under the watch of Governor Robert Bentley, Alabama Educational Television died an untimely death.”

Some critics have speculated that this may be the ultimate goal of the activist faction of the commission. Across the country, public broadcasting budgets are on the chopping block. Republicans in Washington tried to strip funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, NPR has long been a bugaboo of conservative activists, and anti-spending Tea Partyers are opposed on principle to taxpayer funding for public broadcasting. “There could be a much bigger, darker picture here,” our source said. The commissioners, several of whom have political ambitions, could “go back to our constituents and say, ‘yes! We got rid of this godless liberal public television,’” the source noted.

Part of what’s sad about efforts like these to either use public television to advance a particular point of view or to eliminate it entirely on the grounds that public broadcasting and public support for the arts is somehow ridiculous, is that they lose sight of what these programs are actually about: equity of access. As James Poniewozik pointed out in a piece last year, cutting funding for public broadcasting doesn’t mean that all stations everywhere will go away. Instead, stations with narrower supporter bases, often those that serve poorer or rural communities, will disappear as public networks in urban areas with a large pool of donors to draw from will survive. The people who are going after public television in Alabama may only see their ability to air David Barton’s arguments that America’s roots are actually Christianist at stake. It’s too bad they can’t widen their focus and see that in the process, they may jeopardize children’s access to educational programing, and a low-priced way for adults to see sophisticated, family-friendly shows that conservatives and fans of good television alike ought to be on board for.