Why Toussaint Morrison split from TPT and PBS

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Toussaint Morrison attending a protest in June.

There are several popular videos on YouTube that compile the ways people have quit their jobs: over the intercom at Walmart, on the air while reporting a story, in a classroom while staring down sleepy students.

And then there is a video shared amongst public media fans, published earlier this summer by Toussaint Morrison, an actor who hosted a PBS Digital Studios video series for TPT—Twin Cities PBS in St. Paul, Minn.

In his video published June 2, Morrison spoke out about his disappointment with public broadcasting — specifically PBS and TPT — for refusing to talk about race in a meaningful way. At that time, the PBS station serving Minneapolis had yet to take a forceful stand in support of the Black Lives Matter movement set off by the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police. Six days had passed since Floyd’s death, and TPT had not made a public statement or expressed solidarity with demonstrators who were seeking justice in protests that spread internationally.

For Morrison, TPT’s inaction was the latest example of the station’s unwillingness and inability to give voice to the concerns of Black people. He had hosted America From Scratch, TPT’s PBS Digital Studios series about civics, and moderated a panel on prison reform and was burned by those experiences. When he learned that TPT staff were concerned that his statements at a May 31 Black Lives Matter demonstration could potentially disqualify him from a role in a new PBS program, it was the final straw.

His video laid out some of this history with TPT and became Morrison’s declaration that he would no longer give his time and talent to media organizations that couldn’t or wouldn’t speak up for racial justice and equity.

“I don’t think I can be Black and work for TPT at the same time. I don’t think I can be Black and work for PBS at the same time. That’s what it is,” he said in the video. “I don’t want to wait for the George Floyd documentary by Ken Burns. I prefer to talk about it right now because we don’t have the time or the life expectancy.”

“I know that you guys can do better,” he said. “I wouldn’t be saying this if I didn’t care.”

Toussaint Morrison condemned public media in a June 2 video on his YouTube channel.

Morrison continued to produce videos about his disillusionment with public media. In one, he called for an end to government funding unless there are reforms to the system. He also announced the creation of a new public media outlet with a mission to give voice and cameras to people of color.

Morrison’s decision to split from public media and go public with his critique of its white-dominated power structure is personal, he acknowledged. It followed nearly three years of working in various roles and pressing for the chance to speak in his own voice about racial justice. He said when he tried to speak out but didn’t see changes, he realized he had to sever ties with traditional public media and go his own way.

Meeting TPT

Morrison has many professional and personal pursuits. In 2018, he starred in Black, an independent movie. Morrison’s character in the film has a brother who is shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop. Directed and written by Minneapolis-based filmmaker David J. Buchanan, the film was inspired by high-profile shootings and Buchanan’s personal experiences with police.

Morrison is also a musician who has credits for film shorts, voice-overs and commercials. In addition, he works as a moderator for public forums. He takes pride in putting himself out there and telling it like it is.

When he auditioned for an unspecified role at TPT in August 2017, Morrison noticed that most of the actors who attended were people of color, but most of the TPT staffers who ran the audition were white, he said. “This was very indicative of what I was about to experience going down the road,” he said.

After the audition, he had little to no contact with TPT for about six weeks. Eventually, he received an offer to host a pilot for America From Scratch. The PBS Digital Studios would later be greenlit for production.

Rewire, a nonprofit website under Twin Cities PBS that targets young adults, oversaw the production of 16 episodes over two seasons. America From Scratch was part of a grant-backed initiative to boost digital video productions by public TV stations. Twin Cities PBS received $106,500 from CPB for the pilot and the first season.

David Gillette, an anchor and reporter for Almanac, TPT’s signature public affairs series, created America From Scratch and was one of the primary writers. Filmmaker Josef Lorenzo produced and directed the series; he also directs Sound Field, a Rewire production for PBSDS that explores the history behind popular songs and genres.

Each episode of America From Scratch averaged more than 10,000 views on YouTube, and TPT won a 2018 regional Emmy for the program.

Morrison was a host for the PBS Digital Studios series “America From Scratch” for two seasons.

Current contacted several staffers who worked with Morrison to gather their firsthand accounts of the events he described, but they referred interview requests to TPT. Citing its policy to not comment on personnel disputes, the station declined to make its employees available for interviews but responded to Current’s questions in writing.

When TPT hosted auditions in 2017, Rewire’s proposal for a new PBSDS series was a work in progress. Producers planned to hire correspondents or different hosts to appear on each episode. “It would have been a diverse group — but not necessarily all people of color,” TPT’s statement said of the actors who auditioned. “Mr. Morrison had two qualities which made him a stand out: He was able to memorize large amounts of script quickly and his on-screen presence and delivery make him very personable and relatable.”

A former Rewire employee who was involved in hiring Morrison confirmed that TPT’s ideas for casting programs for PBSDS were fluid at the time. The former employee pressed unsuccessfully for Rewire to seek an historian or academic expert to host, write and research for America From Scratch. But Rewire staff believed that choosing a single host would better fit the formula of other successful PBS Digital Studios series. The former employee, who requested anonymity to discuss the hiring decision, said Rewire staff were impressed with Morrison — both his talent on camera and the racial diversity he brought to the show.

‘Token’ hire

In 2018, TPT unveiled America From Scratch as part of its “In It Together” initiative, intended to foster healthy dialogue about civic life by asking big questions about democracy, according to the station’s announcement. For the series’ intended audience of YouTube viewers, that translated into “the coolest civics class you’ve ever taken!”

The pilot tackled the question “Should We Let 12-Year-Olds Vote?”; Morrison conducts street interviews in and around Minneapolis, posing the question to people he meets. “Twelve might be a little young, but they’re probably smarter than I am,” says one woman. “Absolutely not!” says another. The episode featured former Minnesota state representative Phyllis Kahn, who had spent decades trying to lower the voting age.

Elements of the script for the pilot made Morrison wince. In introducing himself as host, he said: “I’m Toussaint Morrison, a writer, actor and musician living in Minnesota. In 1776, when the United States was founded, it would’ve been illegal for me to vote. In fact, the only people who could vote were white males who owned land. And those white males could not be Jewish, Catholic or Quaker, because all those religions were barred as well. Thankfully, this is not the case today.”

About a minute later, Morrison delivered the line, “If we were to build America from scratch today, would we — let 12-year-olds vote? Sounds like a silly question. But remember, back in 1776, it sounded silly to let someone like myself who wasn’t a white male that owned land be able to vote.”

Morrison became increasingly uncomfortable as production of the first season rolled on. His hosting role was limited to delivering scripts that conveyed ideas about democracy and civic life as expressed by white scriptwriters. He objected to material in some of the scripts, he said, but had little recourse because he hadn’t negotiated for writing responsibilities during contract talks with TPT. During filming, he asked for more control in what he did and said as host, but he wasn’t allowed in on writers’ meetings.

Morrison’s dissatisfaction grew during filming of the episode “Should We Raise the Standard for Police Use of Force?” The episode focused on widely varying perceptions about law enforcement, attitudes that are wrapped up in race, demographics, age, gender, economics, politics and other markers. Morrison interviewed several experts, including former Inver Grove Heights police chief Paul Schnell, who is now the commissioner of corrections for the state of Minnesota.

To Morrison, the episode didn’t go far enough in tackling the issue of police brutality. In July 2016, two Black men had died in police shootings within days of each other: Philando Castile, who was killed during a traffic stop in a suburb of St. Paul, and Alton Sterling, who was shot at close range outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, La. With that context in mind, Morrison wanted to explicitly talk about police brutality and why police are typically exonerated after being accused of unlawfully murdering people.

In one episode, Morrison interviewed former Inver Grove Heights police chief Paul Schnell, who is now the commissioner of corrections for the state of Minnesota.

In its statement, TPT said writing for the series’ first season was initially “outside of the scope of work required of the series talent.”

The program about policing “was produced in alignment with our time-proven methods of production, writing, editing and inclusion of meaningful guest voices,” TPT said. “We typically seek multiple viewpoints as editorial decisions are made and TPT / Rewire, in consultation with PBS, makes the final decision. The show was well received by our collective audiences.”

Morrison countered that the police episode was “as light as it could be,” adding, “It was almost painful to do.” Since Morrison could not participate in writers’ meetings, he said Lorenzo, the producer/director who is also his friend, fought for some of Morrison’s ideas to be included. But whatever edge it had during filming was lost in the final product.

Still, by the end of the first season, Morrison had been able to go off-script and express ideas in ways that better fit his persona. After he asked for more say in creative decisions, Rewire invited him to help select topics for the shortened second season.

Yet he had started to see his role as a “token” hire for TPT — a person of color with little to no institutional power.

‘It’s a race issue’

Morrison’s frustrations came to a boiling point after he moderated a TPT-produced town-hall discussion and screening of clips from College Behind Bars, a PBS docuseries directed by Lynn Novick. The four-part film, which premiered on PBS last November, focuses on inmates pursuing college degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative, a liberal arts academic program for incarcerated men and women in New York State.

Minnesota First Lady Gwen Walz, who has advocated criminal justice reform, and her advisors planned to use the event to promote her policy agenda to reduce recidivism, according to a briefing memo and communications plan created by her staff. The document was one of several released into public records through investigative reporting by MPR News.

Walz saw the Bard Prison Initiative as a model for Minnesota’s correctional system. At the TPT-produced town hall, held in May 2019, Morrison would introduce Novick and participate in a panel discussion, according to the briefing memo. Prior to the event, she would appear on Almanac, TPT’s public affairs series, and also attend a VIP-only reception.

TPT made arrangements to record the town hall and asked Morrison to moderate it. He was happy to accept the offer, he said. While preparing for the event, he studied up and recognized what is evident about Novick’s film: The primary voices driving the documentary are Black, Asian and Hispanic/Latino incarcerated men and women.

While posing questions to panelists during the town hall, one key exchange stood out, Morrison told Current. He asked Novick about the impact of the film showing mostly white instructors teaching nonwhite inmates. “I heard some Black people in the audience snapping their fingers and cheering,” Morrison recalled. “Lynn’s mouth drops.”

Novick appeared to have been caught off-guard, Morrison said, but she quickly recovered by saying that the full film addressed race in ways that may not have been evident in the clips. (The full four-part series does include scenes with nonwhite instructors.)

On the other hand, Morrison recalled Walz’s response as, “I just want to start off and say this is an education issue, this is a transportation issue, this is a money issue, this is an economic issue.” Some members of the audience applauded, according to an MPR News account of the event. Then someone from the audience shouted, “It’s a race issue.” Walz responded to the audience member by saying that race “was implied” in her earlier statement, Morrison recalled.

Morrison challenged Walz to address the issue of race in criminal justice reform. “I said, ‘We got a problem here. Are you all not talking about race because you don’t want to, or because you haven’t had to? We can get into the documentary, but if we can’t even scratch the surface on a basic sociology freshman class 101, I don’t know where where we’re going to go with this.’”

MPR’s coverage, which reported on the town hall and the political fallout that followed, cited multiple accounts from panel attendees who said the event “turned tense when the moderator pressed participants about race before a restless audience.”

After the town hall ended, Morrison told Current that two or three older white people from the audience approached him to criticize how he’d moderated the discussion. He recalled one who remarked, “I saw what your agenda was up there.”

Leaders from Rewire and TPT told Morrison that he’d done the right thing by asking tough questions, he said. But they also said he had “laid it on thick.”

MPR News’ account of the event was published months later, in September 2019, and focused on efforts to control political damage to the first lady’s policy agenda. Immediately after the town hall, a top aide for Gov. Walz sought to ensure that TPT’s video of the discussion wasn’t released publicly. Jim Pagliarini, then president of TPT, attempted to “smooth out ruffled feathers” and apologized to the first lady for the questions Morrison asked, according to MPR. MPR cited an email Pagliarini wrote to the first lady’s chief of staff in which he confirmed that the video was deleted.

In an interview with MPR, Pagliarini denied that TPT had bowed to political pressure in erasing the video. “There was validity in their concern that our moderator, our employee, pursued a line of questioning that made people uncomfortable,” he told MPR. “This is kind of a tempest in a teapot.”

Current was unable to contact Pagliarini for this story. He did not respond to messages sent through LinkedIn and Twitter, and TPT declined to provide his contact information.

The aftermath

When MPR published its scoop on what happened after the TPT-produced town hall, Morrison issued a press release on Facebook to say he would not apologize for his questions.

He also directed some of his ire at TPT.

“Additionally, if a media outlet prides itself on designating space for public voice and story yet exhibits resistance to addressing racial disparity in its current form and possibly within its own walls, I then openly challenge that media outlet to question its own wind to champion itself as a public entity. I challenge its motives to hire a black host to moderate a forum on the justice system before an almost entirely white panel, and then shame their efforts to address the entire institution. I challenge that media outlet to do better, only because I know it can.”

In one episode, Morrison interviews experts about the rights people have and don’t have for their data online.

Morrison did hear from TPT staffers and John Daenzer, VP of content and digital distribution, who met him for coffee and was apologetic about the ordeal, Morrison said.

In its statement to Current, TPT said, “Mr. Daenzer shared that he is respectful of both Mr. Morrison and his perspectives. It should also be noted that on a separate occasion, Mr. Daenzer attended an event focused on race and justice that Mr. Morrison organized.”

Morrison produced and hosted that event outside of the station Sept. 30 and posted a recording on YouTube.

TPT also offered Morrison a new assignment: He conducted a series of extended interviews with formerly incarcerated men for Almanac. Videos of the interviews promoted the first in a series of “Community Conversation” events presented by Almanac and moderated by host David Gillette in December 2019.

Around the same time, TPT concluded that it did not have funds to produce additional episodes planned for the second season of America From Scratch, according to the station. Meanwhile, Morrison was so upset by the conflict over the town-hall that he sought counseling.

“TPT is the reason why I’m in therapy,” he said.

‘News From Scratch’

There was a chance for Morrison’s relationships and roles in public TV to improve, he said. Early this year, he learned that Perry Simon, PBS chief programming executive, was working with TPT, Rewire and PBS Digital Studios on a new show based on America From Scratch. One idea under consideration was a show titled News From Scratch, which would teach media literacy.

Morrison appears in front of Minnesota’s capitol building for an episode about women in politics.

Via Zoom, Morrison auditioned for co-hosting roles on the program with several women, one of whom was white, he told Current. In his view, the white woman was the standout performer. But Morrison said he was told by Josef Lorenzo and Maribel Lopez, Rewire’s director, that Simon wanted to pair him with a woman of color, either one who already auditioned or a new candidate.

Morrison concluded that PBS was intentionally seeking diversity in talent appearing in the program, he said. He didn’t see that as a bad thing, as long as those talents can bring their voices and creative input to the writing and editorial process.

Plans for the program are now on hold while PBS and TPT evaluate its “structure and approach,” TPT said in its statement. In auditions for the show, “a diverse group of journalists and talent” were considered for the two co-host roles. But if the series does move forward, someone else will lead its development at PBS, because Simon is leaving at the end of the summer.

And Morrison, as he made clear in his June 2 video, wants no part of it.

A reckoning

After Morrison shot his first video challenging TPT and PBS to “say something and do better” by responding to the killing of George Floyd, he also spoke at a May 31 Black Lives Matter demonstration outside the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul.

In a three-minute speech that was shared on Instagram, Morrison said statues around the state’s capitol building honor white men “that took this land, that murdered our people.” He also told the cheering crowd, “You are in a state that leads the nation in racial disparity for education, for law enforcement and for employment.” He also addressed white people in the crowd, calling on them to talk to their white counterparts and to continue to express support for Black Lives Matter.

Reactions to this speech from within TPT provoked Morrison to break publicly and irrevocably with public television. He later learned from TPT staffers, whom he declined to identify, that the Instagram video was seen as a potential deal-breaker. The staffers told him that officials at PBS may not want to work with him because of his activism, especially in light of his speech at the capitol.

Morrison hadn’t heard from PBS directly about this, but “the fact that it was even a question” was a problem for him, he said.

In a statement, TPT said that its leadership “has no issue with Mr. Morrison’s activism,” but it cited its official Conflict of Interest and Ethics Policy which provides guidelines for the professional conduct and practices of staff. “For select contractors, such as Mr. Morrison as show host, similar guidelines apply though he was not yet under contract for the series,” the statement said. “Before TPT was able to confirm an official PBS stance, Mr. Morrison withdrew from the project.”

PBS officials were already aware of Morrison’s activism, a spokesperson told Current. If TPT had asked for guidance before he decided to quit on YouTube, PBS leadership would have said his speech had not violated PBS guidelines, the spokesperson added.

Morrison said Perry Simon reached out to him June 4, but he did not respond. He told Current that he plans to publish another video in which he will discuss why Simon’s replacement at PBS should not be a white man.

The PBS spokesperson confirmed that Simon reached out to Morrison. “I can reinforce the notion that PBS prides itself on presenting a diversity of perspectives across all of its platforms,” the spokesperson said.

In its statement to Current, TPT said, “We appreciate Mr. Morrison’s contribution to America from Scratch and Minnesota Experience.” Morrison delivered introductions for Minnesota Experience documentaries on African American history, North Star: Minnesota’s Black Pioneers, which debuted in February 2019.

Fresh start

Since he severed ties, Morrison has published more than 100 YouTube videos about local protests and the community’s response to inequities. The videos have titles like “Dear White People, Your Passive & Silent Racism Is Costing Black Lives,” “How Do You Shelter-In-Place Without Shelter?” and “Can We Talk About Black Lives Matter Without Talking About White Supremacy?

Morrison says he hasn’t found a perfect answer to correct what’s wrong with public media, but he thinks he can help provide a “better answer” than what is currently available. So on July 15, Morrison announced his new media venture, On Site Public Media.

Since he stopped working in public media, Morrison has published more than 100 videos related to social justice.

His goal is for the “public” role of the organization to seek diversity among producers and interview subjects. So far, he has launched Instagram and YouTube pages for the initiative, though he cautioned that the upstart might be “sloppy” in the beginning.

Several volunteer videographers are helping Morrison produce content, he said, while he raises money to expand the staff and pay talent. Another one of his goals is to teach videography to young people so they can document stories that are important to their communities.

The videos posted so far on On Site Public Media’s page lack the polish and audience reach of a PBS Digital Studios production. But they’re also different in another key way: Morrison decides what to say, and how to say it, on topics that deeply matter to him.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that a spokesperson for Lynn Novick confirmed Toussaint Morrison’s account of their exchange during the May 2019 town hall. The spokesperson confirmed that the event became tense but did not corroborate the specific details that Morrison recounted.

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