Jul 16, 2010

PBS responds to criticism over Schultz bio "Turmoil and Triumph"

Several hundred e-mails landed in PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler's in-box regarding the three-part doc "Turmoil and Triumph: The George Schultz Years," running this month on PBS (image, PBS). Viewers raised many of the same issues that media watchdog FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) did regarding the laudatory tone of the film as well as funding closely linked to the former Secretary of State — particularly by the Bechtel Foundation, where Schultz was president for seven years.

In response, PBS told Gelter in part: "No PBS funder is permitted to exercise editorial control over content. This is the most important consideration in our underwriting policies. . . . It was determined that Shultz's role in the Bechtel Corporation — which is disclosed in the program — did not preclude funding from the related family foundation under the circumstances since subject matter of the program was Shultz's role as Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, not his role in the corporation."

Producer David DeVries told Getler that during the three years of production, "I was completely unaware of who the funders were," and he was "never pressured" to present Schultz in a good light. "The overall positive tone of my portrait of George Shultz was arrived at through my own research and an extensive interview process. It is positive because I legitimately came to believe Shultz has been a dedicated public servant and a great Secretary of State."

Jesse Thorn bans himself on principle

Jesse Thorn, host and creator of The Sound of Young America, speaks up for humor on public radio by announcing that Mississippi Public Broadcasting can't air his program unless and until it resumes broadcasts of Fresh Air, the NPR talk show that MPB Radio dumped because of "gratuitous discussions on issues of an explicit sexual nature." Fresh Air is "one of the best radio shows in the world," Thorn writes, and its editorial standards have been acknowledged with Peabody and Murrow awards.

"This incident is of particular concern to us here at The Sound of Young America not just because we create a show with a format similar to Fresh Air's, or because Terry Gross is a personal hero of mine, but also because much of our show is focused on humor, and that seems to be the real target of the ban," Thorn writes. Comedian Louis CK, whose recent appearance on Fresh Air reportedly spurred MPB's cancellation, "is, in my professional opinion, the single most insightful, 'meaningful' comic working today, and he is no less insightful and 'meaningful' in an interview context." By dissing Louis CK, MPB perpetuates the "age-old falsehood that the work of a comedian, because it's funny, doesn't 'contribute to or meaningfully enhance serious-minded public discourse.'"

The Sound of Young America, a weekly interview-based radio series distributed by Public Radio International, airs on about 25 public radio stations, and MPB Radio isn't among them. Thorn acknowledges that the statewide radio net probably wasn't even considering carrying his show, "but that won't stop us from snipping any potential consideration of carriage that might occur in the bud, should it happen to unexpectedly appear. WE'RE JUST THAT PRINCIPLED."

Thorn created a Facebook page, "I'm banning myself from Mississippi Public Radio," which has garnered 93 fans since it launched today.

Alcoa files request for docs from UNC-TV

Citing North Carolina's Open Records laws, Alcoa Aluminum Inc. wants UNC-TV -- licensed to the University of North Carolina -- to turn over all reporting documents relating to its North Carolina Now segments titled, "Alcoa and the Yadkin River." UNC-TV spokesman Steve Volstad told Current that station attorneys will "abide by the letter of the law," and are still researching the request. There's a great deal of information at stake, including anything related to reporter Eszter Vajda's research into Alcoa's request for a new 50-year lease of four hydroelectric dams in the state.

UNC-TV earlier this month (July 6) provided that information to its state legislature as part of its investigation into the dam lease renewal. UNC-TV attorneys decided that state law required public agencies to turn over information sought by any legislative committee, and they didn't think the request fell under the state's 1999 press shield law that protects journalists from having to disclose information not yet disseminated.

In a July 9 press release, Alcoa President Rick Bowen said, "We don't have any desire to enter into the editorial process or challenge the freedom of the press, but UNC-TV has openly acknowledged that it is a state agency. Given the story's inherent bias, the inclusion of undocumented claims against Alcoa, the fact that the segment aired with a disclaimer at the beginning and end acknowledging that for the first time ever the station abandoned its customary editorial review process, along with UNC-TV's decision to permit Sen. Fletcher Hartsell to use its unpublished video as a blatant political tool, we want to learn more about how this story was developed and who influenced the content."

The release says the request covers "all video footage as well as all unedited, edited and final versions, photographs, compilations, and related materials as well as all communications and/or correspondence sent or received by Eszter Vajda or any other employee or representative of UNC-TV since January 1, 2008."

"Tenth Inning" debuts today at Dartmouth

Documentarian and baseball fan Ken Burns will premiere his latest film, "The Tenth Inning," today (July 16) at Dartmouth College's Hopkins Center for the Arts, reports The Dartmouth newspaper. The original 1994 “Baseball” series ran nine episodes and covered the history of the sport from the Civil War to 1992. The sequel, produced with filmmaker Lynn Novick (both above), focuses on recent developments in the sport. It'll have its broadcast premiere Sept. 28 on PBS.

MPB listeners, blogosphere want to know: What's inappropriate about 'Fresh Air'?

Why did Mississippi Public Broadcasting drop Fresh Air from its radio schedule? The blog "A Unitarian Universalist Minister in the South" set off a blogosphere chain reaction yesterday by speculating that the "recurring inappropriate content" cited by MPB Radio Director Kevin Farrell must be the show's willingness to treat homosexuals as normal people, not the "evil incarnate bent on destroying the American dream, baseball and apple pie, too."

MPB Executive Director Dr. Judith Lewis didn't get into the details in a statement issued late yesterday, after Gawker and the Huffington Post had picked up on the story. "Too often Fresh Air's interviews include gratuitous discussions on issues of an explicit sexual nature. We believe that most of these discussions do not contribute to or meaningfully enhance serious-minded public discourse on sexual issues," she said.

Fresh Air
didn't receive any specific complaints from MPB prior to the cancellation, according to Danny Miller, e.p. "Of course, we are following the speculation on different blogs, but to comment further would just be speculation on our part. In any event, we hope we are back on MPB soon."

The Maddow Blog put former NPR staffer Laura Conaway on the story, and she reported that host Terry Gross's recent interview with Louis C.K. prompted the cancellation. Gross asked the comedian whether he always had sex with his shirt on. A complaint about the exchange came not from an MPB listener, but a caller who heard the show over the phone system of the Mississippi state college and university system, after they had been placed on hold, according to the story.

MPB posted a link to the Maddow Blog report on its Facebook page early this morning, with this blurb: "Here's the article explaining why MPB removed Fresh Air from our line-up." An overwhelming majority of MPB listeners who have reacted to the decision on Facebook have objected.

CLARIFICATION: The July 7 edition of Fresh Air, which included Terry Gross's interview with Louis CK, was the last to air on MPB Radio, but it wasn't the first program to prompt objections, according to an MPB statement issued this afternoon. "Complaints from listeners about Fresh Air have built up over time, so following complaints about [the July 7] show, MPB’s Executive Director made the decision that it was best for MPB to stop carrying the program."