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Where’s PBS?
The Florida fiasco changed this country. Why won’t PBS show the untold story?
BY DANNY SCHECHTER

PLEASE HELP get the word out on Counting on Democracy. Pass this story along. Find out if the program is being aired in your community, and if not, why not. Local PBS affiliates WGBH and WGBX can be reached at (617) 300-5400. Counting on Democracy will be screened at the Hamptons International Film Festival, in East Hampton, at 2 p.m. on Sunday, October 20. Tapes are also available for screening in schools and communities. Screenings have been arranged in Philadelphia, New York, and New Jersey.

If you have suggestions or comments, contact dissector@mediachannel.org

IN A TYPICAL understatement, the New York Times called the 2000 vote in Florida the most "flawed and fouled up election in American history." Everyone knows who won, but few realize how many voters lost, or that a whopping 175,000 ballots went uncounted in balloting that turned on 537 votes when the Supreme Court stepped in. Even fewer know about purges from the voter rolls or how the recount in key counties was undermined, if not deliberately delayed, and, in effect, sabotaged.

When it was over, George W. Bush’s new administration asked Americans to forget Florida, to "move on" and "get over it." Much of the media did just that — never fully investigating the charges of voting irregularities and claims of disenfranchisement by minorities. (Even the Justice Department sued three Florida counties on voting-rights issues.) After September 11, the "newspaper of record" quipped that the Florida debate shifted from "Who won?" to "Who cares?"

In truth, millions do care. Many were shocked when new ballot machines misfired once again during Florida’s 2002 primary. Others commented that voter turnout had fallen to 30 percent nationwide. One TV journalist suggested that there might be a "voter boycott" under way. Many of these problems surfaced for all to see during the 2000 election, which was covered and mis-covered like a horse race, as if only the main candidates had stakes in its outcome. Later, the networks were forced to apologize to Congress for "serious mistakes" in their screwed-up, deceptive, and inept election-eve forecasting. When it was over, they dropped the story like a hot potato with no follow-up. Their long-delayed "media review" was an incomprehensible mishmash interpreted by some newspapers, but not all, as validating a Bush verdict. Many media analysts criticized the big-media consortium for misrepresenting their findings and "burying the lead," which showed a narrow victory for former vice-president Al Gore.

Since then, more than a year after the election, the federal government sued three Florida counties for voting-rights violations. Other cases were heard in the Florida courts. At the end of August, a tiny item moved on the Associated Press wire: "The NAACP’s lawsuit over Florida’s disputed 2000 presidential election appears headed for a close as the state and two counties — the only remaining defendants — have agreed to a settlement, attorneys said Tuesday.... Attorneys would not discuss terms of the settlement.... The class-action lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights groups argued voters were disenfranchised during the Nov. 7, 2000 election; it included allegations that blacks were kept from voting in some counties." Since then, the primary voting in several counties was fouled up when new machines intended to replace the old, discredited system "misfired."

These developments were reported but not widely followed up. They were hardly bathed in national television coverage. The media had moved on.

But big questions have continued to nag at the national conscience. That’s why my colleague Faye Anderson, an African-American political consultant and one-time Republican, and I put together a new film called Counting on Democracy, which takes a new look at the untold story in the context of the historical fight for black voting rights.

The film is narrated by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, gutsy actors who worked on earlier films with Martin Luther King Jr. about the struggle of the 1960s civil-rights movement for voting rights. Our film is not about Gore or Bush. It’s about the still-outraged voters of Florida and all Americans who watched what happened there with disgust and embarrassment.

In making the film, we tried very hard to avoid strident voices and conspiracy theorists, instead building the argument that a "tyranny of small decisions" was responsible. We sought out credible figures, including civil-rights leaders and top journalists with Newsweek and the New York Times. We even featured the president of the Associated Press. We tried to interview leading Florida Republicans too, but they all refused, perhaps believing (correctly, it may turn out) that the film would be perceived as "biased" if they were not part of it.

We did manage to talk with two top officials of the GOP, including the man who ran the Bush campaign’s recount-stopping strategy and a GOP former governor. We also showed an interview with Florida director of elections Clayton Roberts and testimony by Governor Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris. On the Democratic side, we spoke with members of Congress, the lawyer who argued Gore’s case before the Supreme Court, and the head of the Gore campaign — who admitted they made big mistakes that cost them the election — among others. But the main characters were voters, labor organizers, and American Civil Liberties Union monitors. The film indicts Bush and Gore equally for compromising their commitment to small-d democracy to get elected.

After a yearlong battle of our own, we raised the money to make the film. We did so in the spirit of a comment made by Alex Jones of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, who wrote in the New York Times: "The answer is tough investigations of what happened in the voting and the vote counting, uncompromised by the false notion that avoidance of controversy will be healing. The answer is also tough reporting on what happened in Florida that does not confuse fairness with the unsatisfactory practice of quoting one strident and then its opposite in every story."

Counting on Democracy was hailed at the Taos Talking Picture film festival. "This tale of race, political payback, voter fraud and justice deferred could have come out of a Hollywood thriller. But no — this is the story of the 2000 Presidential election in Florida," proclaimed written materials distributed at the screening before an enthusiastic crowd. It was praised in Florida’s Palm Beach Post, a paper that knows the story well; and it was licensed by the Independent Television Service (ITVS) for airing on public television.

The ITVS, born out of US producers’ fight for Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) funding at a time when PBS was spending a small fortune to buy overseas shows from BBC, enthusiastically embraced Counting on Democracy. It paid for its completion and offered it to PBS for airing. Films with an ITVS imprimatur often have an inside track because they have gone through a due-diligence process by public-television professionals. We rushed to complete it in time to be seen before the 2002 elections. The film is timely, with updated information about reform efforts in both the US Congress and Florida to fix our broken electoral system.

But PBS doesn’t want it. In early August, it decided it will not screen Counting on Democracy. Here’s what ITVS told us: "They felt strongly that the program was not journalistic in that it tried to appear to be unbiased by including a Republican, but he was mocked and made to look silly. They felt it was ‘full of cheap shots’ and the narration was overly simplistic. They felt that ‘due to the subject matter,’ care needed to be taken to present a more balanced look at the subject matter — even if the show ultimately had a point of view — and that wasn’t the case."

It is hard to respond to such a vague attack. As someone who has made over 200 magazine shows that aired on PBS stations, produced 50 segments for ABC’s prime-time 20/20 newsmagazine, and directed 10 major documentaries, I think I know something about journalistic standards. And I beg to differ. Suffice it to say, we have "creative differences." As for our featuring only three Republicans, we told PBS before it made its decision that other Florida Republicans refused to be interviewed. It didn’t matter. To PBS, their absence just proved "bias" on our part.

I must admit that I was not surprised by their mechanistic thinking and nitpicking, which one political insider I know rightly labeled an "alibi." It felt like I was playing out a variation on that scene from The Shawshank Redemption where inmates line up for parole hearings to collect their annual rejection, knowing full well that the decision to reject them has already been made. PBS is not known for its courage in broadcasting. For years, activists have fought against the banning of many independent documentaries that take on controversial issues. Rather than offer an outlet for hard-hitting independent work, PBS invariably features blander fare built around "storytelling" or high-priced historical documentaries rather than topical muckraking, save for Bill Moyers’s fine new NOW series — and many PBS stations won’t even carry that.

Our company, Globalvision, has experienced PBS’s rejection mania before. Our award-winning human-rights series Rights & Wrongs (which aired on selected local PBS stations, not nationally) was rejected because, get this, "human rights is an insufficient organizing principle for a TV series" (unlike cooking!). Some stations considered our work "not corporate-friendly." Others branded us, falsely, as one-sided left-wingers while continuing to broadcast right-wing fare with no such hesitation. Even Bruce Springsteen was denounced by a PBS exec as a self-promoter when PBS rejected a nonprofit film I produced on the making of Springsteen’s anti-apartheid song "Sun City" in 1986. The film later won the Independent Documentary Association prize, the top in the industry. PBS later aired another "making of" documentary, but it was on a commercial project, Raiders of the Lost Ark. That program was produced by the for-profit company that made the blockbuster movie.

It turns out PBS has another idea for how to treat the Florida-election issue too. No, not with a competing investigation or an exposé that shares our focus. Oh, no! PBS has opted instead, literally, to treat the issue as a joke, with a satirical show. Counting on Democracy is out; counting on comedy is in.

Again, here is what ITVS told us: "CPB did commission a documentary on the Florida recount. It is completed and will be on the PBS national schedule in October. The title is WHO COUNTS? ELECTION REFORM IN AMERICA. The show is very, very different from COUNTING ON DEMOCRACY. Here is a short description:

"Comedian and ‘Saturday Night Live’ cast member Darrell Hammond and former CNN Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno headline Who Counts? Election Reform in America, to be broadcast on Thursday, October 17, 10 p.m. on PBS.

"Who Counts? will combine original comedy and reporting on the 2000 presidential election — with balloting issues in Florida as a key element — in looking at election reform today. Darrell Hammond will portray Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton and himself in all-new material written and produced especially for the one-hour program. He will be interviewed in character by Mr. Sesno, who will also narrate." A reporter for the Orlando Sentinel told me that fully one-third of the PBS stations in Florida will not even carry this film. One-third will "bury it" in off-times and one-third will run it. And only two stations in Florida — WGCU in Fort Myers and WLRN in Miami — are carrying Counting on Democracy. Only two, despite a powerful endorsement in the Palm Beach Post. Overall, only 23 of 349 PBS stations are presently committed to carrying the program. (As of press time, Ron Bachman director of programming for WGBH, was working to obtain a copy of the documentary to screen, according to WGBH spokeswoman Lucy Shollui. "The station has aired Schecter documentaries in the past. He is not an unknown quantity," Shollui added.)

Leaving aside PBS’s false characterization of our documentary as biased and the surrealistic logic that prefers making fun of Florida to explaining what happened there, it’s possible that a more insidious scandal is at work here — like the one that came to light the very week we learned our film was being censored. This episode shows how PBS operates — in the shadows. It concerns an earlier PBS financial payoff to an aggressive conservative zealot who a decade ago crusaded against our South Africa Now 156-piece TV series that criticized apartheid week after week. According to the Los Angles Times, this man was successful in getting the PBS affiliate in Los Angeles, KCET, to drop the show and then later claimed victory in his own publication for muzzling it. (Protests by the black community later forced it back on the air.) He had labeled Nelson Mandela a "Marxist" and baited us with similar language for our tough reporting on South Africa’s fight for freedom.

His name is David Horowitz, a 1960s revolutionary leftist turned 1980s revolutionary rightist. He surfaced as an activist-adviser in George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. Years earlier, he was widely known for his well-publicized attacks against progressive PBS programming and even the middle-of-the-road documentary series Frontline. For years, Horowitz lobbied right-wing congress members and senators to pressure public-television stations. He also orchestrated calls for defunding PBS, which he denounced as part of the irresponsible "liberal media." He savagely attacked Bill Moyers for profiting from public television.

IT NOW TURNS out that while he was mouthing off publicly against PBS, he was meeting privately with former PBS president Ervin Duggan, demanding money to produce a right-wing version of Frontline. Current, the public-broadcasting trade publication, reported on August 5 "how Horowitz’s campaign against liberal bias on public broadcasting opened the door to talks with CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting) leaders about corrective right leaning programs." Duggan was posturing as a man of the middle, writing op-eds for the LA Times denouncing militants of the left and criticism of the right. At the time, he had been considered a "liberal" because he had worked in the Johnson administration and was an FCC lawyer.

Although he had no prior TV experience, Horowitz says he and his partner received $250,000 for a "treatment" from CPB. According to his account, CPB and PBS later committed $1.3 million to the project. Duggan later turned against Horowitz, as many who know him tend to do — just as he has turned on almost everyone he’s ever worked with. Horowitz still praises Duggan as "fair-minded" because "he brought us into the system."

Was this payment a payoff to quiet the hornet’s nest of rightist pressure he was stirring? He claims he drew up the project’s proposals and was poised to profit personally. How do we know? No media outlet has exposed this political deal-making and evident cave-in. PBS never told us about it either. At the time, Duggan was giving speeches denouncing both the right and the left to appear evenhanded. He turned us down when we asked him to support our human-rights series.

We only know about this wheeling and dealing now because David Horowitz himself has gone public about it, and not simply for purposes of self-aggrandizement. He is suing his former partner in the venture, claiming that he "enriched himself at my expense." This story was published on page one of Current in the very week PBS put the kibosh on Counting on Democracy, no doubt fearing it might rankle the White House, "due to the subject matter," to quote PBS. Of course, its rejection was couched in terms of journalistic standards and concerns about "fairness," as it always is.

Maybe it’s time to call for an investigation of PBS, starting with the slimy details of the Horowitz affair. At a time when Americans want transparency and accountability in their institutions, why not ask how many other right-wingers and Bush backers were offered similar deals? That probe might start with queries about programs made by Fred Barnes of Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard, who also became a filmmaker overnight on PBS and CPB largesse. There are many others.

How does what happened in Florida fit into all this? It shows how political PBS is, and how unwilling to carry programs its executives think go too far. How many other important stories unwanted in the dumbed-down commercial media are also being axed by PBS, the only TV-programming service with a mandate to serve the public interest? In their first-year anniversary coverage of the fiasco in Florida, the editors of the Economist, the world’s leading newsmagazine, ran what they later called a "joke." They apologized to readers for declaring President Bush the winner in Florida because "the election is STILL too close to call." No one has apologized to the voters of America for what happened in Florida, a story you still may not have access to, thanks to PBS’s refusal to broadcast it.

That "joke" is not so funny. It is an insult.

Danny Schechter is the editor of Mediachannel.org, where this story originally appeared.

Issue Date: October 24 - October 31, 2002
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