TELEVISION PBS decision about 'Buster' indicates its delicate state
Programming must help local stations, the network chief declares.
By LYNN SMITH
LOS ANGELES TIMES
In December, PBS President Pat Mitchell predicted in a routine speech that 2005 would be a transformational year for public broadcasting.
She couldn't have known that an animated rabbit would become an agent of change.
Yet "Postcards From Buster," a gentle children's program that was to have shown a real-life Vermont family with lesbian moms in one episode, has in some quarters emerged as a powerful symbol of what's wrong with PBS these days.
And for once, it's not the attacks from the right that rankle. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mitchell said she is particularly troubled by criticism from a broad range of left-leaning advocacy groups and media critics who've taken her to task for pulling the lesbian mothers episode.
"They are our natural allies and friends," Mitchell said by phone from PBS headquarters in Alexandria, Va. "I'd expect them to be more understanding. The sad thing is, the people who want to see public television get better resources are hardly helping by participating in this kind of debate."
First on board
The debate began with a salvo from the Bush administration in the form of a letter from the Department of Education objecting to the "Buster" episode. The secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, asked PBS to consider returning federal grant money if it aired the program.
But Mitchell, concerned about how the episode would play with parents in local communities, said she had already decided not to distribute it to member stations.
She stands by her "Buster" decision, which she said she made in consultation with various member stations. "They depend upon us to distribute programming to them that serves the interest of the community. Localism is at our core. We're not a network that sends out a program and says, 'Live with it, New Orleans or Biloxi.'" She also said, "I can't make decisions as president of PBS based on my personal feelings about something."
Mitchell emphasized that PBS has and will continue to cover gay issues, including gay parenting, in prime-time programming, saying that "children's programming has its own set of principles and standards."
A second look
An internal review for children's programming is already under way. The goal now is to turn what happened with the "Buster" episode "into a positive," Mitchell said.
But what the standards are will have to be worked out in a new era of extra scrutiny. The children's TV institution "Sesame Street," for example, which gets funding from the same Ready to Learn grant that got "Buster" in trouble with the Department of Education, announced its 36th season Thursday with a press release describing "parody segments including 'Desperate Houseplants' and 'Grouch Eye for the Nice Guy.' " Will Biloxi need to be protected from the playful reference to "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"?
"We look forward to having them on the air," Lea Sloan, vice president of media relations for PBS, said of the segments.
Critics on the left want to see even more backbone than that. According to Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, PBS has been "so finely attuned now to the whims of the administration they didn't need to be told" to pull the "Buster" episode.
"It's a scary way to control content in a democracy," said children's programming advocate Peggy Charren, referring to the Department of Education's letter. Charren serves on the board of WGBH-TV, the PBS station that produced "Buster."
These critics say PBS went overboard in 2004 to placate the Bush administration, trimming "Now," the show founded by the now-retired Bill Moyers as a bastion of free-ranging liberal inquiry, from an hour to 30 minutes, and putting on the air conservative commentators John McLaughlin, Tucker Carlson and Paul Gigot. The question now, according to FAIR, a left-leaning media watchdog group, is who will balance them.
"What's been lost is the idea that public broadcasting should operate independent of political pressure," said Peter D. Hart, a public opinion analyst and FAIR's activism director.
It's this perception that Mitchell appears most eager to dispel. Last Wednesday, PBS announced a new outside review panel that has been in the works since last spring and that will review editorial standards in nonfiction prime-time shows. The panel will be chaired by PBS board Chairman Alberto Ibarguen and will include former CNN anchor Bernard Shaw; Marvin Kalb, senior fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy; and John Siegenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.