Alabama firings expose rift over PTV mission, editorial standards
Pizzato resisted pressure to air videos advocating religion in government
It's not clear what objectives the political appointees of the Alabama Educational Television Commission had in mind when they came out of an executive session on June 12 and voted 5–2 to fire the state-operated public TV network's top managers.
Allan Pizzato, executive director of Alabama Public Television for 12 years, and his deputy, Pauline Howland, were ordered to clean out their desks and immediately vacate the station's Birmingham headquarters. The dismissals triggered a series of unintended consequences that included an exodus of nine lay leaders from APT's fundraising organizations, as well as Howland's reinstatement on a temporary basis two days later. After the dismissals the commissioners realized that they needed her knowledge and expertise to complete work on APT's 2013 budget.
The fissure also exposed an internal struggle over the commission's push to schedule programs from the religious right for APT broadcast, and a revision of the network's mission statement.
Last week, a Birmingham law firm retained by Pizzato laid the groundwork for legal proceedings. Commission members received certified letters instructing them to preserve documents in anticipation of potential litigation, said attorney Mark White of White Arnold & Dowd.
Alabama Public Television operates nine public TV stations and WLRH-FM, an NPR station in Huntsville. The AETC holds the broadcast licenses on behalf of the state government, which provides roughly half of APT's revenues. Each commissioner is appointed by the governor to represent one of the state's congressional districts, according to Skip Hinton, a former APT director who now heads the National Educational Telecommunications Association.
Commission Chair Ferris Stephens, an assistant Alabama attorney general, wouldn't explain events leading up to the dismissals or describe plans for how the state network will be run under new management. "Allan had been there for a while," he said. "We wanted some freshness there. Some zest."
APT's interim executive director, Don Boomershine, is a retired businessman with no prior broadcast management experience. He declined Current's request for an interview.
In a brief interview shortly after losing his job, Pizzato also declined to discuss details of his departure. "All I can say is that it was an irreconcilable difference in opinion of the future direction of the station," he told Current. "I serve at the pleasure of the board. They want to take it in a different direction, and that's up to them."
But minutes from recent AETC meetings reveal that commissioners had been working behind the scenes to pressure APT's professional staff to broadcast programs from evangelical historian and conservative activist David Barton. In addition, the commission completely overhauled APT's mission statement, dropping all references to the network's commitment to diversity.
During the same meeting that ended with Pizzato and Howland's ouster, the commission replaced APT's "Mission, Vision, Values and Diversity Statement" with a new one emphasizing educational services and twice mentioning the station's role in promoting "a strong work ethic" in Alabama [see texts of both versions].
Two sources with direct knowledge of the mission statement rewrite said AETC Commissioner Rodney Herring wanted to remove a section emphasizing diversity, specifically the phrase "sexual orientation." But the commissioner who led work on the revision, retired educator Bebe Williams, refuted that account.
The earlier APT mission and values statement described diversity considerations as "much broader than race and gender," and specified that they include "disability, religious belief, age, culture, sexual orientation, physicality, education and socio-economic status."
Minutes from AETC's March 20 meeting reveal that Pizzato was chafing under pressure to run overtly religious programming. Commissioner Herring, an Opelika chiropractor who joined AETC last year and serves as its secretary, had suggested that APT air videos featuring the historical theories of Barton, whose WallBuilders organization works on "educating the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country," according to its website. Commissioners also discussed the possibility of broadcasting programs on creationism, the minutes show.
AETC involvement in program decision-making had been so persistent that Pizzato had spoken in recent months with several public TV colleagues about his concerns. "Allan told me he was struggling with some influential stakeholders who have a very different understanding of the core mission of public broadcasting and the inherent responsibilities," said one public broadcaster who declined to be identified due to the confidential nature of the conversation. "He was determined to work with them on achieving an understanding."
This kind of meddling in program decision-making was exactly what pubTV leaders hoped to prevent as they drafted the "Local Public Media Organizations Code of Editorial Integrity," a CPB-funded initiative led by the Affinity Group Coalition and Station Resource Group recommending principles, policies and practices of editorial integrity. A report was shared with public stations in February through its website (pmintegrity.org) and continues to be widely discussed throughout the system.
Local stations must have the editorial independence to make decisions about how to best serve their communities, said Ted Krichels of Penn State Public Broadcasting, a member of the steering committee working on the code, and "to be able to do so without being unduly influenced by particular points of view or interests."
"That trust is the foundation of public broadcasting," Krichels said. "If we don't have that, there's no reason for us to exist."
Alabama PTV played a leading role in writing the first systemwide code, "Statement of Principles of Editorial Integrity in Public Broadcasting," in 1985. Those principles, formally adopted by at least half of pubTV licensees, were intended to guide decision-making by professional pubcasters facing outside pressures or ethical quandaries.
APT's mission gets a rewrite
APT is governed and guided by three entities that have different yet supportive roles.
- The Alabama Educational Television Commission (AETC) is the licensee and oversees the network on behalf of the state. Each of the governor's nominees to the commission must gain approval from the Alabama Senate. Commissioners serve staggered 10-year terms, a provision intended to protect the state network from political meddling, said NETA's Hinton. The majority of AETC members were appointed by Gov. Robert Bentley or his predecessor, Gov. Bob Riley, both Republicans.
- The Alabama Educational Television Foundation Authority includes all seven AETC commissioners, who appoint five additional board members to serve four-year terms, although they can be reappointed. The foundation receives, invests and spends grants from CPB and the state government, as well as private contributions and underwriting revenue for the radio station. Four of the five non-commissioner board members of AETFA resigned within days of Pizzato's termination; the remaining board member has not been active recently due to family illness.
- The APT Foundation was created in 2007 as a nonprofit private fundraising organization. Its nine members included chairs of both the foundation authority and the commission, as well as Pizzato and Howland. Its remaining five board members resigned within a week of the June 12 dismissals. Birmingham attorney Joseph Mays Jr. is among those who left the foundation authority, which he had chaired. He served on the board for more than 12 years, but decided to resign after learning that Pizzato and Howland had been fired, and talking with several commission members. He declined to discuss those conversations.
The foundation authority board also lost its co-chair, retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Vanzetta Penn McPherson of Montgomery, who praised Pizzato's leadership in an interview with Current. "He had a sterling reputation as a public television executive and administrator," McPherson said. "He was an innovative manager and beloved by his staff." She noted that Pizzato was named 2011 CEO of the Year (Nonprofit) by the Birmingham Business Journal.
McPherson is particularly upset by the revised APT mission and values statement, and said that Herring was behind the rewrite. McPherson said Herring specifically objected to the statement's reference to diversity in sexual orientation. One APT insider with direct knowledge of the considerations that went into the rewrite confirmed McPherson's account, but requested anonymity to speak candidly.
Herring told Current that he had spoken with Pizzato about the use of sexual orientation in the statement. "I asked him if it was appropriate to ask an employee about such a thing" as his or her sexual orientation, Herring said. "Allan said, 'No, that is inappropriate.' So I wasn't sure it needed to be part of a mission statement. I think a person's private life is just that — private."
Williams, the commissioner who led the rewrite process, acknowledged that Herring "had talked about" the reference to diversity in sexual orientation, but said the commission authorized the rewrite for other reasons. "We wanted legislators to know that education is our main goal, so we wanted to put the emphasis on that," Williams said. She described the diversity clause as "redundant because all that was already in the law."
A former CPB executive who specialized in diversity programming described Williams' view as "really shortsighted." "As soon as an organization looks at diversity simply as a legal obligation, it begins to go backwards," said Cheryl Head of the public media recruitment firm Livingston Associates.
Workplace diversity has grown beyond legalities to become a "business imperative" for companies to compete in attracting employees, Head said. "Having front-and-center that specific language on diversity signaled that APT is an embracing, open, accessible organization."
Head, a former director of diversity programming for CPB, has reviewed diversity statements of many public stations and described APT's as "just superb" in its "elegant, specific and broad" language.
"It's a shame" the commission did away with it, she added.
A question of appropriate programs
The biggest point of contention between APT managers and members of its governing board appears to have been whether evangelical Christian David Barton's programs were appropriate for broadcast on APT.
Public records from two recent commission meetings reveal Pizzato's efforts to deflect pressure from Herring to schedule shows produced by Barton's Texas-based company WallBuilders LLC.
During the commission's March meeting, Herring "presented some programs by author David Barton with the suggestion that they air on APT," according to the minutes. His motion "that Allan report on the progress of the David Barton/ WallBuilders DVDs and that he report on the progress of the show on creationism at the next meeting" was approved. The minutes also report that Herring acknowledged receiving an email from Pizzato "regarding programming on evolution and creationism."
Barton, who frequently appears on political commentary programs hosted by conservative Glenn Beck, is associated with the Tea Party movement.
Herring likes Barton's positive view of American history, he told Current in an interview.
"Lots of other programs cover the negative stuff," Herring said. "This makes you feel good about being American."
One of the shows Herring suggested for broadcast was A Spiritual Heritage Tour of the United States Capitol, in which Barton describes religious symbolism in the Capitol building as he makes a case for adopting principles of Christianity in U.S. governance.
Current reviewed an audio version of that two-hour show, available as a download on the WallBuilders website. While Barton's narration during the tour takes a professorial tone, his voice becomes passionate when he discusses his opposition to the separation of church and state, and his strong conviction that America, both past and current, is a fundamentally Christian nation.
Near the show's conclusion Barton says: "The more one learns of this building, of how religion was openly embraced and practiced here, of how strongly and how openly religious our Founding Fathers and early leaders actually were, the more illogical it is to assert that America's history requires her to maintain a secular, religion-free government and public society. Such simply is not the case."
"Grave concerns" over content
Pizzato asked a group of APT staff members to watch the Barton videos and give him feedback in April, according to Howland, who participated in the review process. The programs "talked about how our government forefathers were very religious men," Howland said, "how the country was founded on religious principles and how we need to go back to that." The content "was very much advocating that position."
Pizzato and his staff had "grave concerns" that the Barton content was inappropriate for public broadcasting due to its religious nature, Howland said.
Pizzato also sought advice from the station's attorney in Washington, D.C. Todd Gray of Dow Lohnes confirmed he spoke with Pizzato about the Barton programs but he declined further comment.
In a brief interview with Current, Pizzato declined to discuss the programs or describe how he responded to the commission's request that APT broadcast the Barton videos.
But minutes of the June 12 meeting, which have not yet been formally approved by the commission, reveal that he proposed a different set of programs for broadcast. Pizzato unveiled a new show, In the Public Interest, which would "tackle issues that have been of some concern to the Commission." Pizzato also offered to run a 1992 documentary on creationism, Voices for Creation. Creationism also was a potential topic on In the Public Interest, Pizzato told commissioners.
Soon after, the minutes say, commissioners went into executive session to discuss Pizzato's "general reputation, character and job performance." About an hour later they returned to announce that they had voted to oust Pizzato and Howland.
Both Stephens, the AETC chairman, and Herring told Current that Pizzato's concerns about the Barton programs were not a factor in his firing.
Commissioners had planned to discuss broadcast of the Barton programs at the end of the June 12 meeting, but they dropped the agenda item after firing both directors, Howland said.
Herring told the Associated Press that the Barton material "is appropriate for public television, according to the attorneys we have consulted," adding that there would be no change in programming on the station for at least "two or three months."
Barton has been described as a "fast-talking, self-promoting, self-taught, self-proclaimed historian who is miseducating millions of Americans" by People for the American Way, but the leftie advocacy group isn't alone in its objections to his historical theories.
Academic Michael Coulter investigated the facts behind Barton's historical reporting in Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President. Coulter is a professor of humanities and political science at Grove City College, a Christian school in western Pennsylvania. He teamed up with Warren Throckmorton, a fellow for psychology and public policy at Grove City, to write the book. Coulter told Current they "wanted to critique Barton the way that academics always critique each other. We found his claims problematic in many places." Barton's depiction of Thomas Jefferson was particularly problematic, Coulter said. Barton "wants to portray Jefferson in a more favorable and orthodox traditional Christian light than he actually was. Promoting Christianity is clearly one of [Barton's] agendas."
As Coulter sees it, Barton fails to understand facts and ideas in their context. "Some of these errors or misconstrued ideas may seem small, but I think they're important."
"I would want anything on public television to be carefully vetted," Coulter said. "Whatever gets shown on public airwaves should not be something that others could judge to be propaganda. . . . Barton just hasn't been subjected to the same kind of scrutiny."
WBHM-FM in Birmingham provided research assistance for this story, and Current intern Rhys Heyden helped with reporting.
Copyright 2012 American University