Some stations airing Stop the Church anyway
PBS and P.O.V. drop the latest hot potato
| A review of the film | Cardinal seeks boycott of KCET | Broadcaster pleased with cancellation |
Originally published in Current, Aug. 26, 1991
By Jack Robertiello
At least two public TV stations plan to air a controversial documentary about a clash between gay activists and the Catholic Church, which PBS canceled less than three weeks before its scheduled airdate. The documentary, Stop the Church, had been scheduled to air this week on the series P.O.V. before PBS and the program's chief executive rejected it.
John Grant, PBS v.p. for scheduling and programming administration, said he removed Stop the Church because of its "pervasive tone of ridicule" toward the Catholic Church, a charge producer Robert Hilferty called "near-libel."
In his statement, David M. Davis, P.O.V.'s president and executive officer, said he withdrew the video "simultaneously, but for different reasons" than those of PBS.
"To be effective in presenting challenging and potentially controversial work, we need to give stations time to prepare," Davis said. "Tongues Untied put staffs of many stations through tremendous stress. In the aftermath of that broadcast, it would be irresponsible, with so little notice, to expect stations to handle the level of press interest and viewer response Stop the Church is likely to generate. I felt another controversy at this time would break their backs and undermine their confidence in P.O.V." Davis was unavailable for further comment. P.O.V. Executive Producer Marc Weiss declined to comment.
KCET in Los Angeles and KQED in San Francisco announced plans to present the 24-minute video, KQED on Aug. 30  and KCET in September or October. KCET's broadcast will include background on the controversy and a discussion involving supporters and opponents. Station officials at WGBH, Boston; KBDI, Denver; and a handful of other stations say they want to view the video before deciding whether to air it.
About 15 people demonstrated in support of Stop the Church Aug. 22 at PBS headquarters in Alexandria, Va., according to PBS spokeswoman Mary Jane McKinven.
McKinven said claims by AIDS activist group ACT-UP that they had tied up PBS's telephone and fax lines were untrue.
Prompted by call
Grant said that he, PBS Executive Vice President Jennifer Lawson and the PBS programming staff screened the piece after receiving a call from an unidentified station employee, even though the video had been approved by Glenn Dixon, PBS's director of news and public affairs programming.
After the viewing, Grant judged that Stop the Church ridiculed the Catholic Church and was "irresponsible," and he canceled it.
Hilferty said it was "strange" that PBS would drop a video it had approved more than seven months earlier. "How much time do they need? They've had my tape on the schedule for seven months. This is just cowardice on the part of P.O.V. and PBS."
A short film called "Binge" will replace Stop the Church among the five shorts originally scheduled for this week's P.O.V. program.
Grant said canceling the video was an "extremely difficult decision" but the tone of ridicule in Stop the Church "greatly overwhelms the critique of the Catholic Church's policy." He admitted the late cancelation raised questions about how programs were selected or rejected by PBS, and said if the video had been dropped three or four months ago, the move "would be considered good program policy."
Grant said the opening of Stop the Church set the tone for the 28-minute piece. A satirical song from the 1960s, "Vatican Rag," is accompanied by video clips that "go well beyond satire, to ridicule the Church and its members," he said. Statements made by Cardinal O'Connor appear out of context and are inaccurately paraphrased, he said.
"I regret having to take such an extreme measure, but I feel that it's in the long-range interests of both the series and the independent documentary itself," Davis said in his statement. "Our public television stations need to feel that they can trust P.O.V."
Churchman immune to attack?
"To say this ridicules the Church is just absurd," Hilferty said. New York Cardinal John O'Connor has spoken out in New York against gay rights and against birth control in schools and has encouraged Catholics to perform acts of civil disobedience against clinics where abortions are performed, which makes the church open to political attack, he said.
Harry Chancey, programming v.p. at WNET, said the station has received "a considerable number" of calls protesting the cancelation of Stop the Church. Debates over Stop and Tongues Untied have pushed officials there to evaluate how best to decide the limits of what the station should broadcast without interfering with viewers' rights to see a program and form their own opinions, he said.
In trying to head off a controversy, producers and PBS may instead have stirred one. Some inside PBS and others who have seen the video say that the topic--a demonstration against New York City's Catholic hierarchy that disrupts mass in America's best-known Catholic church--may be controversial, but that the video does not ridicule Catholics. Rather, they say, it is the intrusion of church leaders into public policy debates that makes them targets for satirical attack.
For the second time this summer, P.O.V. has dominated critical discussion of public television programs. In July, a majority of PBS stations declined to carry Tongues Untied. Support from television critics pushed Tongues to the front of a controversy about arts funding, censorship and minorities' access to public TV. Davis cited the pressure of that controversy on public stations as a reason he agreed with PBS's pull-back on Stop the Church.
But others say these are only the latest in a series of retreats by public TV stations away from controversial programs--a move critics fear indicates a self-censoring reflex at PBS and stations. "Imagine! PBS cancels a program after receiving one phone call," said one independent producer. "A vote of one is sufficient to make them cower." The producer spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Programs with popular points of view--such as Audubon Society specials and other programs with ecological themes--are aired and heavily promoted, while programs whose points of view are more controversial--such as South Africa Now, America's Defense Monitor and P.O.V.--have been dropped in the past year by programmers under minor but organized pressure.
The demonstration in December 1989 at St. Patrick's Cathedral held by ACT-UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, made headlines in newspapers and television stations in New York, with more than 100 demonstrators entering the cathedral and ultimately being arrested. The New York Times estimated that more than 5,000 people demonstrated outside the church. Hilferty's video chronicles planning sessions and the demonstration itself.
Because many public broadcasters may not have a chance to see Stop the Church themselves, Current offers this critique by our reporter who did.
By Jack Robertiello
Most of Robert Hilferty's documentary Stop the Church is an inside report on gay-rights activists' planning for a symbolic protest against the leader of the Catholic Church in New York City, ending in footage of a "die-in" in the aisles of St. Patrick's Cathedral.
But because the video gives little time and almost no detail to the history of the activists' complaints, to Catholic Cardinal John J. O'Connor's pronouncements and actions, to the church's great political power in the city, and to the history of escalating conflict between the AIDS activist group ACT-UP and the church, the opening moments of Stop the Church unreel as a condescending, contemptuous diatribe against a major American religion.
That's not what makes up the balance of the video, so it is unfortunate that the opening sequence would polarize uninformed viewers so quickly.
In a series of interview clips with unidentified New Yorkers that include one positive and one neutral comment about the church, six angry, articulate speakers condemn Catholicism in direct language. While activists planning the protests repeatedly emphasize that O'Connor is the target, not Catholics or their religion, these clips early in the video hit right at the church. Says one: "The Catholic Church is a tiny, anachronistic, feudalist leftover which practices ritual sacrifice on the bodies of gay men, lesbians, women and people of color."
Another speaker calls the church "arrogant, sterile, retrograde, blind..."
And another asks rhetorically, "Do you know anyone besides Catholics who likes the Catholic Church?"
It's difficult to imagine any religious group not rising up in arms if abused on national television this way. The producer might never regain his audience after the opening hostilities.
With some adequate background, viewers might be led to some understanding of the argument between gays and the Church hierarchy. Instead, we're forced to decide, on the basis of our existing prejudices, whether we support the protesters because of their emotional fervor, or the church as we understand it.
Cardinal O'Connor's actions have built hostility among gays for years. He has repeatedly taken on gay and abortion rights groups, condemned their activities and, gay groups say, their very existence. "The church is our enemy," says one protester, but the viewer sees little evidence of that, only repeated remarks on that theme.
It's obvious something has enraged the protesters, but the viewer is not really let in on the secret. All we get are quick glimpses of tabloid headlines about O'Connor's conservative pronouncements. Adamantly opposed to sex education, distribution of condoms and other efforts to curtail the spread of HIV infection, the cardinal has an extensive record and enormous power in the heavily Catholic city. Instead of documenting it, Hilferty preaches to the ACT-UP choir, and leaves us out.
If you don't live in New York, read New York newspapers or have an interest in gay political affairs, you're likely to find Stop the Church excessive and perplexing.
Cardinal blasts airing of documentary
Like some viewers, he's no fan of point-of-view shows
Originally published in Current, Sept. 9, 1991
By Steve Behrens
Cardinal Roger Mahony fired a rhetorical H-bomb at KCET, Los Angeles, last Thursday for scheduling the "despicable" point-of-view documentary Stop the Church.
Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles, accused the public TV station of "giving encouragement to all the hate-mongers in our midst who would burn, loot and vandalize houses of worship or disrupt religious services in the name of one cause or another."
It was the latest and loudest of the varied local responses to a pair of heated documentaries scheduled for public TV's P.O.V. series.
Some angry viewers had sent complaints to the FCC protesting the airing of the earlier P.O.V. program Tongues Untied. And thousands of people have called their local stations this summer applauding or objecting to it or Stop the Church.
The complaints to the FCC aren't likely to result in fines or other sanctions to the stations, according to public TV attorneys, but the furor is causing station decision-makers to think about point-of-view programs. Should they risk seriously offending one group of Americans by letting another group have its say?
"I still think [Tongues] was worth broadcasting," says Alan Cloe, director of programming at WFYI, Indianapolis. "It has certainly caused us internally to do a lot of evaluation to see what things are worth." WFYI was hit with complaints at the FCC and more than 400 negative phone calls, and refunded nearly $4,000 in memberships.
The public reactions to Tongues and Stop the Church were different, city to city, and so were the decisions made by local programmers. "It's our job to know who our [local] audiences are," comments Chancy Kapp, the program chief at North Carolina PTV. The network took the opposite course from many stations: it scheduled Stop the Church, though it had refused to carry Tongues.
"The language and to some extent the graphic imagery [of Tongues] were just not appropriate to broadcast," says Kapp. But she says she was startled when PBS canned Stop the Church. "We looked at it and decided to run it. ... We didn't have any problem with the subject matter in either case."
KBDI, Denver, may have been the only station that aired Tongues a second time--in pledge week no less. In combination with a documentary on Robert Mapplethorpe it drew 250 new members, says Diane Markow, director of programming and production.
Though 70 percent of the population had a chance to see Tongues in the second half of July, that was only in the larger metro areas. Only 118 transmitters, 36 percent of the total, carried the show, down from the 212 that usually carry P.O.V., according to PBS's John Fuller.
Nearly two-thirds of stations, apparently in smaller cities, didn't carry Tongues, and few if any rushed to get their own copies of Stop the Church.
Sheldon Siegel, president of WLVT-TV, Allentown/Bethlehem, Pa., applauds PBS for pulling the latter and saving stations from "the no-win public-relations nightmares" that result from airing such videos. [Letter from Siegel]
WPBA, Atlanta, asked viewers to call with comments about Tongues and received 1,100 calls--56 percent favoring the 11 p.m. broadcast, says Joanne Cox, program director. If PBS schedules an equally controversial film in the future, "I would look at it and probably run it," she says.
In Tampa, public reaction lopsidedly favored WEDU's decision to drop Tongues, says spokeswoman Christina Beyer. Though picketing by two dozen gay activists drew heavy press attention, Beyer believes she was able to tell the public WEDU had pulled the show because of "streety" language and not because of its gay topic.
In Madison, Wis., the university-operated WHA and five other state-owned stations, which otherwise air the same Wisconsin PTV schedule, split apart on Tongues, with only WHA airing it.
Both programs had gay topics and aroused strong emotions in many viewers, but Robert Hilferty's Stop the Church was scheduled to air six weeks after Marlon Riggs' Tongues, and was handled quite differently.
"Wrapping" is no shield
KCET brought down the cardinal's wrath because it, like several other stations, decided separately to air Stop the Church after PBS and David Davis of P.O.V. decided to pull it from the series.
KQED, San Francisco; WGBH, Boston; North Carolina PTV; and Wisconsin PTV are among the licensees that have aired or plan to air the documentary. WGBH ran it with an audience advisory after midnight Sept. 2, following the P.O.V. installment in which the video had been scheduled to appear.
KCET didn't just air Stop the Church; it wrapped the 24-minute video in a discussion of censorship and other issues it raised. KCET's hour-long program aired Sept. 6, the day after the archbishop's attack. Former CBS News President Van Gordon Sauter and communications professor Tracy Westen discussed media issues, and AIDS activists jousted with Catholic spokesmen about other issues. Senior Producer Jeffrey Kaye was assigned to host the package, and Martin Burns and Joseph Angier to co-produce it.
Several other public TV stations asked to screen the program for possible airing in their cities, says KCET spokeswoman Barbara Goen.
Responding to Cardinal Mahony, KCET said the controversy about taste, censorship and TV's role "has become the major story" and would be the subject of its Sept. 6 package.
The cardinal's reference to "hate-mongers ... who would disrupt religious services" was a reference to the 1989 sit-in by AIDS activists at St. Patrick's Cathedral that is chronicled in Stop the Church.
Mahony suggested withholding donations to KCET and said he would hold it "morally and possibly legally responsible for every future act of terrorism against churches, temples and synagogues."
Wisconsin PTV also plans to air Stop the Church in a wraparound program similar to KCET's. Examining the concept of point-of-view programs, Wisconsin's production in October will also feature excerpts from Tongues and from Son of Sam and Delilah, a third gay-related film pulled from the New Television series. Marc Weiss, executive producer of P.O.V., will be one of the guests, says Station Manager Byron Knight.
KTCA, Twin Cities, earlier used the technique of "extending" the discussion of Tongues by holding a live roundtable discussion on-air for an hour after the film ended at 11:30. Riggs, the filmmaker, participated live by satellite from California, says Tom Holter, KTCA assistant director of broadcasting.
In "safe harbor"
Though a number of people sent complaints about Tongues to the FCC, the broadcasts appear to be protected, even if they were judged "indecent," by a commission rule that allows no penalties for indecent broadcasts in a "safe harbor" period between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. PBS scheduled Tongues for 10 p.m. and many stations aired it later than that, says Nancy Hendry, PBS deputy general counsel. "To the best of our knowledge, all broadcasts occurred within the safe harbor," she told Current.
Opponents could also contend that Tongues was "obscene" rather than merely indecent, but Hendry is confident a court would not find the Marlon Riggs program obscene.
Todd Gray of the law firm of Dow, Lohnes & Albertson, which represents several stations, says FCC staffers believe the show was aired in safe harbor and was not indecent anyway.
The FCC has tried to close the safe harbors and ban all on-air indecency, but the full bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals on Aug. 28 rejected the commission's latest appeal in a continuing battle.
Some 20 of the many complaints sent to the FCC included videotapes or transcripts of Tongues. Letters complained about use of "the 'F' word," the "assault" of "immoral" behavior being brought into the home, the spending of federal money for P.O.V., and the portrayal of blacks, who were prominent in Riggs' film.
A coalition of groups including the Eagle Forum of Indiana petitioned the FCC to fine or revoke the license of WFYI, asserting that the station had violated communications law by airing an obscene program with frontal nudity, men engaged in sexual activity and obscene language.
Of all the objectionable public TV programs, "this is the worst," says John Price, an Indianapolis attorney leading the coalition.
"We will no longer tolerate 'art' being used as a Trojan horse to portray on television and in pictures obscenities that eyes should not see and ... ears should not hear," Robert Kellow of Waretown, N.J., wrote to the FCC.
"If this show had been in a movie theater or a video rental store," wrote a Cincinnati viewer, "... the sheriff would have confiscated it."
Getting the point?
Some Americans still don't--and may never--appreciate the free-speech objective of airing point-of-view programs that do not represent the broadcasters' own opinions.
KCET's press statement insisted that the station "does not endorse hatred and bigotry in any form. Nor does our broadcast of 'Stop the Church' imply endorsement of the film or its point of view."
"Many people have experienced [TV] as a guest in the home, and expect the networks would not present programs that are offensive," says Chuck Furman, assistant general manager of WGVU, Grand Rapids, which drew 80-percent-negative calls and a complaint to the FCC about Tongues. "When we provide a forum for a point of view other than mainstream, we have to anticipate there will be a problem for our other subaudiences. It was something we feel we have to live with."
"There's a gap between what the professional [broadcasters] understand and what the audience understands," says Chancy Kapp of North Carolina. "The audience doesn't get it; they don't get it."
"There seems to be a strong American need to ask, 'What about the other side?'" says Kapp. Some viewers tell Kapp they like to see controversial shows to make up their own minds, but add, "How can I make up my own mind if I've only seen this piece?"
Marc Weiss, the executive producer who put the two films in P.O.V., doesn't favor "boring" formal attempts to balance viewpoints as a rule, except when the subject is hot and the discussants articulate, he says.
The controversy over the films and the resulting press discussions of free speech have helped people understand the idea of point-of-view programs, he contends.
"It's an important effort to educate the public about that. You can't roll over and say, 'Oh fine, we can't show anything that will get people upset.'"
Research assistance: Nancy Wolfe
A letter to the editors of Current
Out of my face!
To the editors of Current:
Broadcasting Magazine (Aug. 19, 1991) makes some striking points in its article about the P.O.V. film Stop the Church being pulled from the PBS schedule.
Tom DiMaria, who distributed both Stop the Church and Tongues Untied, laments that PBS stations' reaction to these programs will make producers think twice about offering them. Thinking twice about thrusting these programs down the throats of PBS-member stations wouldn't be such a bad idea.
John Grant of PBS speaks for the vast majority of stations when he states that PBS should not be an open conduit for whatever program comes.
All too frequently, in the past, PBS felt obligated to spew everything out to the local stations, leaving us to face the no-win public-relations nightmares that inevitably followed.
No one argues these producers have a perfect right to produce and distribute these programs. Some pay cable and local movie houses would love to present these gems.
I have the highest regard for Dave Davis, president and c.e.o. of P.O.V. His empathy for our local station dilemma in pulling Stop the Church in the immediate aftermath of Tongues Untied is appreciated by most PBS managers. His decision to override his executive producer was a courageous and correct one.
His statement that P.O.V. has traditionally taken risks, and his confidence that this will continue, makes a few of us a little uneasy. Neither PBS nor P.O.V. has the right to take risks with our licenses or the trust that our communities have placed in us as responsible broadcasters.
Sheldon P. Siegel
To Current's home page
Earlier news: P.O.V. presents Tongues Untied, another gay man's point-of-view documentary full of rage.
Related story: Marc Weiss developed P.O.V. as public TV's summer showcase for independently produced films.
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