The Indie's Six Million
The one great thing we've done has been to allow the possibility that an artist can fail. . . . It's a luxury you very seldom have in television. And sometimes, if you know you have the right to fail, you succeed in your experiments beyond your wildest imagination.
Hit series are rare in a medium that eschews audience ratings. PBS, however, came dangerously close to having a "hit" on its hands—the term is relative—with Ken Burns's historical documentary series The Civil War . The eleven hours, first broadcast over five successive nights in September 1990, set public television's all-time record for audience size. On each of the nights it aired, the series reached on average of 14 million homes, climbing the numbers charts with an unprecedented 13 percent share of all homes using television. The Civil War was so compelling that viewers reordered their lives to catch successive episodes. In addition to its popular success on television, the series captured every available award and produced a companion book that enjoyed huge sales.
Critics lavished words of praise upon the show of a kind rarely visited upon documentaries: "a masterful, compelling achievement," said one, while to another it was "a kind of video miracle." The New York Times named Ken Burns "the most accomplished documentary maker of his generation." By common consent, The Civil War was one of public television's finest hours. What was little remarked upon at the time, however, was the fact that public television's greatest programming success was not, as one might ex-
pect, produced by the system's complex bureaucracy and its billion dollar kitty. The Civil War was a product of the community of independent producers working outside the system, making the kinds of shows they most want to make, struggling to find the dollars to fund them, and hoping that the finished product will find its audience through acceptance on the public-television system.
Ken Burns is only one of the thousands of creative people who work outside the system. Very few, however, have had his success as an independent entrepreneur. He has not only demonstrated the skills of a highly creative television producer but also shown equal skill at the frustrating craft of raising production funds. He has long since learned what every independent ultimately comes to know: that creativity alone is meaningless without the patience and skills to find the dollars to make it happen. Burns sought out and signed General Motors as principal funder for his Civil War series, although others were also involved. Significantly, the source of the modest initial grant that launched the project and gave Burns the encouragement to endure came from a local PBS station, WETA-TV, in the nation's capital.
Most independent producers encounter great difficulty in funding their projects, however airworthy they may later prove to be. Henry Hampton, whose 1987 story of the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize , won the plaudits of critics and the gratitude of a large PBS audience, had to struggle for six years before he was able to put together no fewer than forty-four underwriters to meet the projects production costs of $2.5 million for the first six shows. Stories of creative years wasted in the frustrating search for production money are legion in the ranks of those who work outside the system.
Independent producers were, until recent years, largely an American phenomenon. They were in a sense a product of the mid-sixties when the development of lightweight, relatively inexpensive video equipment made it possible for anyone with a camera, a cause, and a good eye to become a program producer. Many did. But while independently produced work frequently brought a needed vitality to public television, independents have not always
been welcomed by the establishment, particularly by local stations. Most stations, eager to keep program production in-house in order to skim off the overhead costs for station upkeep, see the independents as outside competitors, not collaborators. But even with their problems of access, America's independent producers have fared much better than independent producers in many other countries where state-run television systems have kept all major production in-house. In Britain, where the BBC has historically produced virtually all of its own programs, the broadcaster has now been required by government edict to turn to independent producers for at least 25 percent of its programming.
Although their access to the PBS system was limited, the independents felt crowded out of public-television funding by the system's organized elements. Most independent producers could not compete on an equal footing with producing stations armed with institutional political clout and a large cadre of fund-raisers. Nor did their problems end there. Even after they had successfully raised the funds and completed the production, independents faced the often frustrating problem of gaining access to airtime. The commercial networks have never, with rare exceptions, been willing to air nonfiction work produced by outsiders; instead they have relied exclusively on their own staff journalists for documentaries on current issues. As a consequence, public television had been for many years the only outlet open to independents. And although the growth of cable in recent years has added opportunities for the airing of independent work, those opportunities are also severely limited by the small amount of original production most cable networks can afford. So independents continue to knock on the doors of public television. But the doors, while cautiously welcoming to independent production, continue to be tended by the independents' natural competitor—the system's many local stations. The resulting competition has created enduring and unresolved tension between the two parties.
Historically, independent production has for many years played an important role in the development of the public medium—notwithstanding the system's inborn resistance to outside work. In the years before 1969, when NET was the sole producer of na-
tional programming, the network regularly commissioned independent work. Its weekly magazine program, The Great American Dream Machine , was a notable example of a public-television series that welcomed outside contributions. Nor should it be forgotten that the Public Broadcast Laboratory, the Ford Foundation's experiment in the late sixties with live television, was the first to air a television documentary by the doyen of independent producers, Fred Wiseman.
But it was not until the early 1970s that independent production came into its own on the public network. Much of its vitality during the seventies can be credited to the almost obsessive interest of a young WNET producer, David Loxton. As the founder of WNET's Television Laboratory, Loxton became independent production's strongest ally inside the walls of the public-television establishment. British by birth and educated at Trinity College in Dublin, Loxton was not himself a documentarian but rather a drama producer whose creative energies impelled him to explore new paths. Those energies brought him to my office soon after the NET-WNET merger to seek approval for a plan to create a workshop where creative artists could freely explore the aesthetic dimensions of the electronic medium. He was aware that a similar workshop had been created at KQED / San Francisco during my tenure there and that WGBH / Boston had also instituted an experimental program. My enthusiasm for Loxton's proposal was tempered only by the perceived difficulties of funding such a project. Loxton, however, permitted no doubts. He proceeded to raise the funds on his own by tapping the Rockefeller Foundation for seed money. The WNET TV Lab opened with a group of artists in residence working in a small, fully equipped studio near the United Nations dedicated solely to their electronic explorations. The TV Lab was to become a free-wheeling and semi-autonomous arm of the Channel 13 establishment that was remote from the parent body's doctrinal ways and that offered a refuge for artists whose talents were beyond the pale of conventional television. Among those who found in the TV Lab an opportunity to experiment with the visual medium were such irrepressible video artists as Nam June Paik, Ed Emshwiller, and Bill Viola.
In 1973, two years after its founding, Loxton was approached by a collective of young video artists equipped with handheld video cameras and calling themselves Top Value Television (TVTV). The collective planned to travel to the Houston Astrodome to document a gathering of the followers of the guru Maharaj-ji, a tubby little boy from Long Island who called himself "Lord of the Universe." Hundreds of the guru's worshippers had promised to raise the Astrodome off the surface of the earth with only the strength of their faith. Loxton, sensing the occasion was a fitting subject for the youthful skepticism of guerrilla TV, gave it the Lab's support. Thanks to the use of a Lab-developed device called a time-base corrector, the resulting video documentary, Lord of the Universe , was the first show to be shot in small-format video that received a national airing. It was also an encouragement to further risk-taking. Six months after Lord of the Universe , the Lab edited eighty hours of video, much of it unusable, that Jon Alpert and Keiko Tsuno brought back from Castro's Cuba. It was their very first attempt at producing a video documentary. The result, Cuba: The People , was the first of several PBS documentaries that were subsequently made by the Alpert-Tsuno team, and was a prelude to Jon Alpert's audacious, behind-the-lines career as a freelance reporter for NBC News. Lord of the Universe and Cuba: The People were the start of the TV Lab's ten-year affair with the independently produced documentary, a supportive relationship that was responsible for what many believe was the period of the independents' strongest sustained presence on the public medium.
Loxton formalized the relationship in 1977 by creating the Independent Documentary Fund. The IDF had all the accoutrements of public television's money-dispensing machinery: funds from the usual sources (Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts), peer-paneling, and the oversight of an executive editor, Loxton himself. But Loxton and his right hand, Katherine Kline, managed to tease, cajole, and encourage into being some of the public medium's best documentary work. Shows from the Independent Documentary Fund ranged from Jack Willis's Emmy-award winning Paula Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang , the first show of the IDF's first season, to Richard Schmiechen and Robert
Epstein's Oscar-award winner The Times of Harvey Milk , the final show of the final season. By 1984, however, the TV Lab, and with it the Independent Documentary Fund, was in trouble. Loxton had lost an important part of the Lab's funding when Lewis Freedman, then heading the Program Fund, decided not to renew the Corporation's support but to embark on an independent documentary project of his own. (The result was the ill-fated Matters of Life and Death .) Lacking the funds to match the offer of continued support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Independent Documentary Fund closed its doors, and with it, WNET's experimental TV Lab. The Independent Documentary Fund had lasted seven years, ultimately falling victim to public television's anarchical competitiveness and the absence of any rational centralized planning. Loxton reluctantly returned to his first love, producing drama.
The Independent Documentary Fund served a handful of producers well, in part because it provided a close and mutually supportive relationship between the independent producer and the institution on whose air it was intended to be seen. Loxton was able, without interfering with content, to assist the producer in shaping a product that would meet the standards of the sponsoring station and could be aired without the customary PBS-producer battles. A far larger number of independent producers, however, did not feel well served by the Independent Documentary Fund, if only because too few were involved. Many also clung to an ideal of independence that precluded the involvement of PBS or station collaboration in their efforts. For this group there was only one answer: a slice of public television's federal funding pie dedicated solely to independent production. The professional association to which they belonged, by mounting a vigorous lobbying effort, persuaded Congress to write a provision into its 1978 bill for public-television funding directing the Corporation to reserve "a substantial amount" of its programming funds for distribution to independent producers. The questions of what the legislators meant by "substantial" and of how the dedicated dollars would be distributed sparked an internal debate that continued
without resolution for years afterward. Congress set 1980 as the deadline for compliance.
Complying with the Congressional mandate fell to Lewis Freedman, who had just arrived at the Corporation in 1980 to direct the newly formed Program Fund. His plan for meeting the Congressional mandate for independent production was, as we have seen, to micromanage the funds himself by creating Matters of Life and Death and Crisis to Crisis , rather than to create an independent agency or to turn the money over to the Independent Documentary Fund. When the two Corporation-produced series failed to meet the standards of PBS, much less the demands of the independents, Freedman turned his energies to the creation of the station consortia described earlier. He fully expected that one of these consortia, specifically the group at WGBH / Boston led by executive producer David Fanning, would be the instrument for fulfilling the Congressional mandate. Fanning had promised to use independent producers for his Frontline documentaries. The association of independent producers, however, was not pleased at the prospect and seized the opportunity to denounce Freedman's plan as a ruse to subvert the intent of Congress. The battle raged over the intent of Congress and the definition of "independent." The association of independents held that those who worked for Frontline were not "independent" but "freelance" producers. The distinction, they argued, was clear and crucial: independents speak with their own voice, free of outside editorial control, unlike freelancers, whose ideas are subject to the editorial standards of the series they are working for. The latter is not independent work but "work for hire."
By the time Frontline debuted in January 1983, Freedman had left the Program Fund. Its new director, Ron Hull, had devised a different approach for meeting the mandate. He called it the Open Solicitation Fund. Its modest sum of $5 million in production money was made available to all comers on a competitive basis. Peer panels, made up of independent producers and station programmers, reviewed the applications and recommended which proposals should be funded. Predictably, the flood of applications far exceeded the available funds. Tough as that was, the
independents had a more serious complaint. Because the fund was open to everyone, including stations large and small, the independents felt at a disadvantage. Moreover, even when they were successful in the competitive funding game, the independents had no assurance—as they had with the Independent Documentary Fund—that their show would be accepted into the PBS schedule.
Over the years of independent production, starting from 1967, one documentary producer who is more formidably independent than most has successfully managed to surmount these barriers and beat the frustrating rules of the funding game. With enviable regularity, Frederick Wiseman has managed each year for more than twenty years to place one of his cinema-verité films into public television's schedule. High School , "a searing portrait of an institution that takes warm breathing teenagers and tries to turn them into forty-year-old mental eunuchs," was the first. It was commissioned by the Ford Foundation's experimental Public Broadcast Laboratory. NET commissioned the second, Law and Order , a powerful and, for the 1960s, a surprisingly sympathetic look at the Kansas City police. Law and Order 's impact prompted the Ford Foundation to offer NET an ostensibly "unrestricted" grant whose unspoken purpose was not difficult to mistake: more Wiseman commissions, one each year for the next five years. When the Ford grant ran out five years later, WNET / New York picked up the tab for an additional five years. Over the years, Wiseman's cinematic probes into the country's social institutions—always provocative and frequently controversial—have ranged over the full spectrum of American life: an inner-city emergency hospital (Hospital ), an army training camp (Basic Training ), a Benedictine monastery (Essene ), a courtroom (Juvenile Court ), a research laboratory (Primate ), a New York welfare office (Welfare ), a meat packing plant (Meat ), an American "colonial" outpost (Canal Zone ), a modelling agency (Model ), a luxury department store (The Store ), and a Long Island race track (Race Track ). As the Wiseman oeuvre grew in stature, each work seemed to grow longer than the last. A four-part series shot in the Alabama School for the Deaf and Blind ran more than nine hours. And 1989's Near Death chronicled six
tension-filled hours in the intensive-care facility of a Massachusetts hospital.
Wiseman's work makes pussycats of the media's toughest critics. Pauline Kael called him "probably the most sophisticated intelligence to enter the documentary field in recent years." Even Tom Shales, whose stiletto tongue has savaged the best, praised Wiseman as a "brilliant documentary film maker" whose style is "so distinctive and refined that no matter how he is imitated by others, he remains its undisputed master."
Wiseman has learned, however, that golden words of praise are about as bankable as three-dollar bills. After WNET's five-year subsidy ran its course, the veteran filmmaker had no choice but to join the other independents in the chancy game of grantsmanship. Luckily, the Fellows Program of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation—the so-called "genius award"—helped to partially subsidize some of his more recent films. That aside, the search for funding has twice taken him, hat-in-hand, to the Corporation's Program Fund. He was turned down both times. Although he ultimately received a small grant from the Corporation—the Program Fund's director overrode the recommendation of the peer panels—Wiseman found the process so frustrating that he sought and was granted a hearing before the Corporation's board. In a blast at the Corporation's system for funding programs, he warned that "massive bureaucracies inside the system were reversing priorities by dominating rather than supporting programming." His particular scorn was saved for the Program Fund's peer panels: playing "king and queen for a day," the panels were making "random, unplanned and indefensible programming decisions." If the Corporation board was unmoved, Wiseman's words nonetheless echoed the sentiments of hundreds of equally frustrated independents who had battered their heads against the bureaucracy. (Wiseman, once asked why he hadn't turned his relentless camera eye on the institution of American public television, replied "Don't think it hasn't occurred to me.")
Wiseman's frustrations symbolized the dilemma of all independents' efforts to deal with the system, yet he played little or no
part in their organized campaign to legislate relief from bureaucratic neglect. In fact, he opposed their legislative remedy—a separately administered fund for independent production—by arguing that "another fund simply fragments the system even more." But for most, a separate fund, "democratically" administered by the producers themselves, has long been a dream and a legislative goal. The independents' 1978 triumph in persuading Congress to mandate a "substantial amount" of the Corporation's program funds to independent production was probably more beneficial to the producing stations—thanks to the Corporation's institution of station consortia—than it was to the independents who engineered it.
Their frustration at the Corporation's failure to meet their demands—and gall at its duplicity in attempting to meet the Congressional mandate by calling freelance work independent production—led the independent producers to mobilize an all-out lobbying effort to get the production funds in their own hands. Their several disparate groups were joined in a loose alliance as the National Coalition of Independent Broadcasting Producers, co-chaired by the heads of the two largest groups, Lawrence Sapadin of the New York-based Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers and Lawrence Daressa of the West Coast-based Association of California Independent Public Television Producers. At every Congressional hearing on public television's triennial forward funding, Sapadin and Daressa urged Congress to issue more explicit directives to the Corporation. A 1984 directive ordering the Corporation to negotiate with the National Coalition produced more meetings but no resolution. By 1987, the coalition had grown impatient with the lack of progress and proposed its own solution: a National Independent Programming Service, described by Daressa as a "laboratory" where independent producers and public broadcasters could work together to "explore ways to bring unfamiliar voices, unconventional styles, and innovation to a medium characterized by homogenized perspectives and numbing habit." The National Coalition asked for half of all the Corporation's programming funds to support the proposed programming service.
To no one's surprise, the public broadcasters, bridling at what they deemed the hubris if not the greed of the independents, turned the proposal down. Congress, however, was determined to give independent producers the money and muscle to make their own mark on public television. The chosen instrument was the 1988 public-television funding bill into which they wrote a provision directing the Corporation to provide $6 million a year for three years to support an Independent Production Service. For the first time, independent producers had what they had struggled for years to get: money to make programs and access to the public stations to get them seen. Or so they thought.
Nothing happened for almost a year while the Corporation and coalition wrangled over details. The Corporation, steadfastly unwilling to relinquish its say in how the funds would be spent, was prodded into coming to terms with the National Coalition only by the intervention of a congressman who threatened the Corporation's future funding. The settlement in 1989 of differences between the Corporation and the National Coalition paved the way for the creation of yet another public-broadcasting agency, the Independent Television Service (ITVS). Two more years would go by before ITVS issued its first call for program proposals. The result was a flood of more than two thousand applications, of which only twenty-six could be funded (an added thirteen programs could be funded from an equal number of applications the second year). But contrary to expectations, those shows that made it to completion—and not all of them did—found the doors at PBS closed to them. The network had little apparent interest in accommodating the random stand-alone pieces that the open call produced. To avoid wasting the $6 million on shows that might never be seen, ITVS changed its approach, commissioning intermediary production groups to pull together independently produced segments into a cohesive series of shows that might be acceptable to PBS. Still, it was not until the 1992–93 season—five years after the Congressional action and two years after the first grants—that the first ITVS-funded show made its way into the PBS schedule.
Not surprisingly, this first ITVS show found a place in the na-
tional schedule as an episode in the PBS series P.O.V. (Point of View). Since 1988, P.O.V. has each season presented ten to twelve independently produced—and frequently provocative—documentaries. The seed for P.O.V. was planted by Marc Weiss, an independent producer. His vision of a public-television outlet for the work of independent documentarians led him first to David Fanning at Frontline , who encouraged him to talk with David Davis, the founder and chairman of American Playhouse . Davis, both a sympathetic ear and an experienced organizer, used his American Playhouse four-station consortium to respond to Weiss's idea. The result was a second corporate entity, The American Documentary, Inc., which was chaired by Davis and which employed Marc Weiss as executive producer. By using the point-of-view label as a caveat—be warned: the following program may be injurious to firmly held beliefs—the consortium persuaded PBS to accept the series. Both parties were fully aware that some shows in P.O.V. would almost certainly present the more skittish stations with "problems."
In the beginning, P.O.V. moved carefully, eager to build a bond of confidence with the stations. The premiere season raised very few hackles and included films on regional dialects, the survivalist movement, living with AIDS, sexism, and Americans who fought in the Spanish Civil War; Errol Morris's early film on pet cemeteries; and two award-winning films, Best Boy and Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo . The second season's themes were bolder, leading off with Who Killed Vincent Chin? The tough investigative documentary, directed by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima, raised serious and disturbing questions about the American justice system and was later nominated for an Academy Award. By 1991 and its third season, P.O.V. began to demonstrate a talent for upsetting the domestic tranquillity of the public medium. Peter Adair's Absolutely Positive captured the irreverent and bluntly candid observations of eleven HIV-positive men and women, condemned by the deadly virus to face their own mortality. Later, Maria's Story painted a vivid video portrait of a Salvadoran peasant woman—a wife and mother of three—turned charismatic guerrilla leader. Both films raised the mercury in the political thermometer. Nei-
ther, however, quite matched the explosive reaction provoked by a third film, Tongues Untied , Marion Riggs' angry, funny, erotic, and poetic examination of what it means to be both black and gay.
Tongues United was partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, cause enough for it to be targeted for attack from the political right for the Endowment's use of tax dollars to support what, in the minds of the moral guardians, was "obscene" art. The Endowment's severest critic, Senator Jesse Helms, wasted no time in tarring Tongues Untied with the same brush, charging that it "blatantly promoted homosexuality as an acceptable life style." Riggs' film quickly became another weapon in the political crusade of Congressional conservatives to purge public television of its purported "liberal bias." They used his film to justify punitive amendments to a 1992 bill authorizing $1.1 billion for public television's forward (1994–96) binding. Because the amendments were unacceptable to the Democratic majority, the political right effectively blocked the bill's passage and in the process put the future of the system at risk. Conservatives, then and now, have a radically different vision of public television's future, a vision that advocates not only substantial changes but nothing less than its privatization.
The charges of "left leaning" and "liberal bias" that were prompted by P.O.V. 's more provocative shows have had a long history. Similar charges have swirled around the public medium since its birth more than forty years ago. Public television has evidenced no more "liberal bias" than other media, but then conservatives are willing to believe that most mass media are biased against them. Because it is supported in part by tax dollars, however, public television is more vulnerable to their attacks and therefore has provided a more fruitful target for their efforts.
Congress, perhaps without intending to, provided the radical right with the weapon to pursue their attacks on public television by imbedding into the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 a provision directing the Corporation to facilitate the development of programs of high quality "with strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature." As reasonable as the requirement at first appears—who
would deny the virtue of "balance" and "objectivity" in the practice of journalism?—it is a subtle trap for public television. Not only does it impose on the public medium a stricter standard than is demanded of the far more influential private medium, it saddles the nongovernmental Corporation for Public Broadcasting with a regulatory function that belongs with government. More damaging than either of these, however, is the ambiguity of the standard itself and the way in which it can be used by those who take issue with broadcasts they find personally offensive.
Scholars and journalists have wrestled with the concept of objectivity since early in this century when changes in the economics of publishing and competition to build readership encouraged a definition of news that emphasized the gathering and reporting of "facts." Opinion was relegated to signed political columns. In her seminal work on news and its relation to reality, sociologist Gaye Tuchman notes that historically "facticity connoted professional neutrality and objectivity." However, she and others have challenged the notion that something called objective truth can be strictly defined. Reporting the news, she says, is "an artful accomplishment attuned to specific understandings of reality." And because those understandings act to "legitimate the status quo, they tend to "limit the access of radical views to news consumers."
Journalists have made similar arguments. Tom Wicker of the New York Times argues that so-called objective reporting "almost always favors Establishment positions and exists not least to avoid offense to them." Russell Baker sees it as a restraint on truth. "No matter how dull, stupid, unfair, vicious, or mendacious they might be," Baker writes, "the utterances of the great were reported deadpan, with nary a hint that the speaker might be a bore, a dunce, a brute, or a habitual liar." The consequence, says Brit Hume, is a "mindless neutrality" of the sort that demagogues before and beyond Senator Joseph McCarthy have exploited to the fullest. Dismissing the cult of objectivity as "something of a hoax," political scientist Eric Alterman warns that it "narrows the spectrum of allowable interpretations and restricts the possibilities
of thoughtful contextual analyses" and thus results in "the intellectual impoverishment of our political dialogue."
Important as the ideological arguments are to those who cherish robust political debate, the greater danger in the mandate requiring "strict adherence" to objectivity is the way it drives public television to blandness. If, as Tuchman and others argue, objective truth defies definition, public television is hostage to an inexact and undefinable standard. In the hands of those who hold the purse strings, objectivity, self-defined, is a ready weapon for intimidating the medium and curbing its occasional temptations to boldness. It is one thing to encourage objectivity as an ideal to be strived for; it is quite another to apply it as an absolute measure of performance.
Similarly, the statutory requirement for "strict adherence to . . . balance" in programs of controversy is in its ambiguity an irrelevancy—and like the requirement of objectivity a potential weapon in the hands of politicians bent on neutering the medium. To begin with, even those who accept the standard cannot agree on its meaning. PBS claims it means balancing the program schedule but not individual programs within the schedule. Conservatives, however, want each program carefully balanced. Their differences are pointless. However balance is applied, it implies a specious form of reasoning known to semanticists as "two-valued orientation": every issue has only two sides, and each side merits equal weight. The real world is not so easily ordered nor are its issues so neatly divided. By common consent, it is patently absurd to demand a balanced treatment of racism, the shape of the Earth, or the Holocaust. Yet as we move across the spectrum of issues on which we differ, there is a point at which concordance ends and the need for balanced treatment begins. Where that point is will depend upon who is making the call. Balance, as every student of elementary physics learns, varies with the positioning of the fulcrum. The political fulcrum in this country has moved far to the right since the Reagan and Bush years—so much so that political equilibrium has been achieved by balancing the conservative right with the forces of the moderate middle—that the liberal left has practically disappeared from the screen: A survey by the City Uni-
versity of New York found less than 0.5 percent of the program hours on PBS were devoted to working people. The percentage would have been even less had the survey not counted the downstairs servants on the PBS series Upstairs/Downstairs . And this was at a time when the conservative right was protesting its lack of access to the public system.
If balance has any relevance to public television's treatment of controversy, it lies in a very much broader context: the medium cannot permit itself to be used as the mouthpiece for any single political faction or ideology. While remaining determinedly nonpartisan, it must not fear to make room for the widest possible range of thought and opinion, for if it fails to do so, no one else will and the nation will be the poorer for it. To serve its audience in the robust spirit of free inquiry, public television must be freed from the specious notion that its programming can or should be weighed only in the balance of partisan politics. In this narrow sense, balance is father to bland and neutral programming of the sort that serves the viewer poorly and undermines the medium's potential for demystifying the public agenda.
Dismissing balance and objectivity as inappropriate for treating controversy does not strip public television of the standards needed to preserve its neutrality and protect its integrity. PBS, with the help of a panel of distinguished professionals, codified its own standards of journalistic practice as early as 1971. The rules, designed to ensure the impartial treatment of controversial issues by its program producers, were reviewed and updated in 1987. But even before PBS promulgated its own standards, public television was already subject to the unambiguous criteria of fairness and accuracy imposed by the Federal Communications Commission on all broadcasters. Fairness and accuracy, both more susceptible to objective measurement than Congress's ambiguous standards, are quite sufficient to shield the system from misuse or abuse of its public franchise. Accuracy is subject to audit: facts can be checked, challenged, and substantiated. In addition, the broadcaster is obligated to play fair—to the facts and to the viewer. Competing points of view or different interpretations of the given facts must be acknowledged; the viewer must not be misled into
thinking the whole truth lies with the single presentation. The regulatory standards of the FCC, together with those imposed by PBC upon itself, are fully adequate to protect the public. Congress has no need to submit to right-wing pressures and hobble public television with additional rules whose very ambiguity is an invitation to control.
Ironically, the primary target of Congressional concern with public television's journalistic practices is most often the work of independent producers—ironic because Congress has consistently championed the cause of the "indies" only to be surprised when their work reveals an independence of thought. Right-wing critics are particularly outraged at documentaries that challenge establishment values; they lump them under the pejorative label of "left-leaning" and demand that public television balance them with more documentaries that lean to the right. Critics overlook the fact that social and political documentaries have a built-in tilt: it is the nature of the form to turn a critical eye on the status quo and expose injustice, hypocrisy, social inequality, malfeasance, and ineptitude in office—the sins and faults of an imperfect society. In addition, the people who make social documentaries, as critic Marvin Kitman reminds us, are rarely part of the Establishment. "The idea of making films is itself a dissenting profession," which, he points out, may help explain why conservatives become lawyers and doctors and not documentarians.
The most convincing argument for the continued support of independent producers may in fact be this penchant to bite the hand that feeds them. The nation needs free spirits willing to speak with committed concern through unfettered discussion. If they are to be heard, the public medium is their best, and perhaps their only, hope.