Saturday, January 29, 2005

Buster's Blues

Striking Terror at PBS
I have been meaning to critique PBS for caving to pressure from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings -- the newest neo-nanny on the block -- and pulling an episode of "Postcards from Buster," which featured a cartoon character's visit to a real-life lesbian-run household. A tip of the hat goes to Richard Silverstein who beat me to the punch. Silverstein calls PBS's retreat a "craven and unforgivable breach of artistic and cultural integrity." Read on and follow Richard's links to write a letter of protest to your local PBS station for pulling the episode, and a letter of support to WGBH for running it. (If you live in Boston, of course, you need only do the latter)

This sort of thing has become an obsession with the well-funded Christian right. First it was a cohabiting Bert and Ernie, then a purse carrying Tinky Winky, then Barney the purple (heavens!) dinosaur. Now, they've fixed their crosshairs on a hand holding Spongebob and progressively minded Buster.

Are we so numb as a nation to allow James Dobson, Margaret Spelling, Don Wildmon, Brent Bozell and the other blinkered nincompoops to set the moral agenda? Their pseudo-righteous rantings make for mainstream news fodder -- and, frighteningly, have compelled timid politicians and broadcasters to act -- but its time we as a still free people started talking back. To start, take note of It's still in beta, but this grassroots reply to the uber-prigs may be the shape of good things to come. People for the American Way are often out front defending diversity in our media as well, as is our friend Gloria Tristani at the United Church of Christ. Sadly, we can no longer count on the shrinking violets at PBS to do the same.

And that's what is especially worrying about this instance. The involvement now of a cabinet-level administration official has had a profound impact on the Corproation for Public Broadcasting and PBS. Eric Boehlert writes in Salon:
But for PBS insiders and longtime supporters, the skirmish, and the speed with which PBS backed down in the face of threats from the Bush administration, mark a new low point for the broadcasting institution and a dangerous development for the public. Low because the content of the "Buster" episode was so innocuous. And dangerous because it highlights the inside-the-Beltway environment in which PBS is forced to operate, where funding concerns often trump programming decisions, and the fear of upsetting conservatives has become a driving force.
Jonathan Rintels of Creative Voices in the Media put it this way: "If you're a parent, this sorry censoring by Spellings should make you afraid for your children, not reassured. For free expression in this country, a core value every parent teaches his child, is under attack by those in power responsible for our nation's educational system."

Here's something you can do today: Let Margaret Spellings know what you think of her first act as a cabinet member by using this Focus on the Family form to send her a letter. Focus on the Family provided this function so their retrograde members could praise Spellings for being intolerant like them. You can use it to send the opposite message. Here's my letter to Spellings:
Dear Secretary Spellings,

I am writing to criticize your shameful effort to block the airing of the "Postcards from Buster" episode that features a lesbian-run household. It is incumbent upon our media to portray the diversity of lifestyles that make up America's great democracy. Your attempt to cut this episode and appease intolerant and un-American members of the right wing does a grave disservice to our country and Constitution.

Do not waste another cent of taxpayers' money on such silly and narrow-minded endeavors. If this is what we are to expect from you going forward, please resign your post effective immediately.

A free America will not allow you to serve our country in such a disgraceful fashion.
Let her have it and then post a copy of your letter into the comment thread below.

= = = = =
2-01-05 Update
: WGBH which produces "Postcards form Baxter" says at least 24 of the 349 PBS stations plan to air the show; many others are still deciding what to do. WGBH's vice president for children's programming, Brigid Sullivan, says the show is a "direct response to a request" from the Ready to Learn program, which PBS administers on behalf of Spellings' DoE, for a show about "diversity and tolerance in modern America for school-age children."

In the 40 Buster episodes that were made, families have included Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Mormons and evangelical Christians. "The show is about children," Sullivan says. "It's not about their parents. It's about letting children validate children as children, regardless of the family they live in."

Natatcha Estebanez, a co-producer of the Buster show told the Boston Globe: "In the context of the whole CBS controversy, it's easy to say 'OK, we'll back down.' . . . This is not the most creative climate right now in television." Another producer Pierre Valette added, "There was always intensive pride when you walked in the door at WGBH. Now there are just goosebumps."

= = = = =
2-01-05 Update: In a related and equally worrisome development, conservative media watchdog Accuracy in Media has called on public television and radio to give up their $400 million in taxpayer subsidies. AIM Editor Cliff Kincaid says that it is obvious that the liberal media are only against taxpayer subsidies for journalists when they are conservative. This, of course is a feeble attempt to deflect negative coverage away from the payola pundit scandal involving Republican columnists accepting government money to shill for White House policies. Is this just a transparent conservative ploy of drawing false equivalences and deflect attention from the real matter at hand? Watch this development carefully. While it appears ridiculous on the surface, it may become part of their "liberal-media" mantra as defense against the mountain of evidence that suggests our mainstream media is nothing of the sort.


Anonymous said...

I think "that party" should collectively grow up, get their minds out of the gutter, out of everyone else's lives, and start thinking about the REAL problems in this country, like how THEY are going to feed all the "babies" they "save", what they will say when they find out their family member,friend, employer, or heaven forbid their PASTOR is "one of those". Do us a favor and sell your television, give the money to your church! There is so much wrong with American religion! Just another example of corporate evil.

Anonymous said...

Um, which is it? Are you hopping mad about attempts by "neo-nannies" to use the power of the state to influence media content (How dare they suppress gay-friendly cartoons! Write to PBS and demand the stop!), or are you hopping mad about the state's apparent lack of interest in using its power to influence media content (How dare they let these right-wingers blather on AM radio! Write the FCC and demand they stop!)?

Anonymous said...

Why should our tax money pay to make homosexuals look good? We need to stop funding PBS, let them put on shows that people are willing to pay to see.

Timothy Karr said...

The point of this blog is to get people, like you and me, engaged with the current sorry state of our media to the point that we begin to advocate for a better system. That might involve organizing a public broadcast license challenge against a radio station that abuses the public trust by airing blatantly racist content, or it might take the form of a protest against an Education Secretary who misinterprets her mandate to include censoring shows that don't share her intolerant world view. There's no inconsistency here. It's about becoming more aware and enaged with your media system. The first instance involves media that abuses their agreement to be good stewards of our airwaves. The second involves a bureacrat that abuses her rank in order to push an intolerant agenda on PBS by blocking diverse programming. If people become more involved with the system we can foster better, more democratic (Small "d") and diverse content without once having to compromise our cherished First Amendment.

Anonymous said...

I consider myself a progressive capable of independent thought. So while I completely support gay rights-- including marriage, full spousal benefits, and adoptive rights--I nonetheless happen to agree with Margaret Spelling's position on the "Buster" episode. I don't fully agree with her rationale, but, as a father of two, I am rather inclined to think all issues regarding sexuality are best left to parents. Allowing children learn at their own rate, especially with regard to sexuality, is a critical part of their development. We should not be caving in to societal pressure to hyper-educate our children, and political agendas be damned. These are children we're talking about. Using them as a shield in any political battle is disgraceful, because ultimately their needs are swept aside in favor of jockeying for political gain.

But what bothers me most about this issue is that I cannot find a report from any source that specifically indicates the interaction between the characters on the show. That is, what is the dialogue? Is the exchange entirely benign? Is the lesbian partner merely introduced by name, or as a friend, or as a lesbian partner? And finally, why do these issues get debated before anyone has reported all of the facts?

Anonymous said...

You're bunch is the next best thing to 'Tokyo Rose'

Anonymous said...

My email:

Dear Secretary Spellings,
Your effort to block the "Postcards from Buster" episode that features a lesbian household is micro-managed censorship.

In a series featuring diverse lifestyles, it's extremely narrow-minded of you to eliminate this one. Here in a small Michigan town, there are three lesbian households with children. So it is not as if their peers don't know that in the real world such households exist. If this one small town has this diversity, others must, also.

I am 67 years old. Grew up in a small town in the Bible Belt, where we had lesbian households. One couple was friends with my grandmother! She explained to me that there were women who preferred not to marry men. This conversation took place more than 50 years ago!

Why the religious right wants people to ignore such a social fact as lesbian couples is a mystery to me. After all, it's not contagious.

Your censorship of a factual, social truth is not becoming to a thinking American, let alone our national Secretary of Education!