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Conflict of interest.

The television audience for last year's Academy Awards presentation must have been startled when Debra Chasnoff stepped up to the microphone to accept the Oscar for best short documentary film. Amidst the glitz and glitter of Hollywood's annual orgy of self-congratulation, amidst the award-recipients' ritual recitations of thanks to colleagues and cousins and preschool piano teachers, Chasnoff chose to issue a terse and serious message: Boycott GE!

That's what her film is all about. It's called Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons, and Our Environment, and its target is GE, the multinational colossus, military contractor, producer of nuclear power plants, and proprietor of RCA and NBC. Given the clout wielded by GE, given the political thrust of Chasnoff's documentary, you can imagine that Deadly Deception must be a remarkable piece of work to be singled out for a top award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

And you'll have to imagine it, unless you're lucky enough to have caught Deadly Deception at one of its limited engagements. Though the film would seem to be a natural for showing on public television, it has been turned down by PBS, which is becoming more and more timid as it comes under concentrated fire from the Right.

The public-broadcasting network promotes itself as the place "where all our voices can be heard, all our stories can be told." That claim would have been something of an exaggeration even in the early days of PBS, after Congress established it to provide an alternative to commercial broadcasting by airing diverse and innovative programming. Today, traumatized by attacks (and threatened funding cuts) from the likes of Republican Senators Bob Dole of Kansas and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, PBS tends to run for cover at the slightest hint of potential controversy.

The drumbeat of criticism directed at PBS comes from right-wing organizations and individuals, as well as members of Congress. Reed Irvine's bullying Accuracy in Media charges that PBS often airs "blatantly pro-communist propaganda." The Heritage Foundation calls for privatization of the "unnecessary and wasteful" PBS. And David Horowitz, who has moved across the entire political spectrum since his days as an editor of Ramparts in the 1960s and who now lodges with the ultra-conservative Committee for Media Integrity, accuses PBS of running fifty or a hundred times as many documentaries from the Left as from the Right.

One way to respond to this sort of barrage is to stand and fight - and, in doing so, to build a constituency for useful, if controversial, broadcasting. Another is to retreat, and that, unfortunately, is the way PBS has apparently chosen. The result is a serious setback for makers of valuable documentary films and for the PBS audience.

Jennifer Lawson, executive vice president of PBS for national programming and promotion services, denies that the refusal to air Deadly Deception has anything to do with pressure from corporate underwriters or right-wing critics.

"We declined to distribute [Deadly Deception] because it violates our underwriting guidelines. We do not permit the producer of the program to be the subject of the program," Lawson recently told reporters. The problem, it seems, is that INFACT, the GE boycott coalition, helped finance Chasnoff's film, creating a potential conflict of interest. That argument might carry more weight if PBS didn't derive much of its program funding from such corporate underwriters as GE.

Another documentary denied airtime by PBS - Building Bombs, nominated for a 1990 Academy Award - was turned down by PBS because "it just wasn't up to snuff," said Lawson. "We look for clarity of message [and] quality of program." And she added that Building Bombs "did not give adequate voice to both sides of the issue." Are we to assume, then, that future PBS documentaries on the Holocaust will be balanced by the Nazi point of view, or that industrial polluters will have to have their say in any environmental documentary?

An ad hoc Coalition vs. PBS Censorship took out a full-page ad early in January in the show-business newspaper Daily Variety to protest the rejection of Deadly Deception and Building Bombs. The signers, who included such luminaries as Jane Alexander, Ed Asner, Francis and Eleanor Coppola, Jack Lemmon, Michael Moore, Haskell Wexler, and Robin Williams, called on PBS "to fulfill its responsibilities as a public broadcaster and put these programs on the air." I'm proud to sign my name to their appeal.
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Title Annotation:Public Broadcasting System refuses to air controversial TV documentaries
Author:Knoll, Erwin
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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