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Monday, January 31, 2005

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PBS Censors Postcards From Buster
Episode featuring lesbian moms deemed not 'appropriate'
January 31, 2005

PBS has pulled an episode of the children's show Postcards From Buster
that includes children with lesbian mothers. The episode was yanked the
same day that PBS received a letter from new Secretary of Education
Margaret Spellings condemning the episode and asking PBS to "strongly
consider" returning the federal money that went toward its production.

In the episode, Buster, an animated rabbit, visits Vermont, where he
learns how maple sugar is made and visits the home of real-life children
who invite him in for dinner and introduce him to their "mom and Gillian."

WGBH, the Boston PBS affiliate station that produced the program, still
plans to air the pulled episode and make it available to other stations,
but without PBS or Department of Education support (Washington Times,12/27/05).

PBS chief operating officer Wayne Godwin and spokesperson Lea Sloan gave a
variety of reasons for PBS's decision to censor the show; Godwin said the
episode brought up an issue that was "best left for parents and children
to address together at a time and manner of their own choosing," while
Sloan said it was "sensitive in today's political climate" (Associated
Press, 1/27/05). Godwin also pointed out that some children wouldn't have
a parent with them to "put it in context" (Washington Post, 1/27/05), but
at the same time indicated that it was precisely the context that parents
and media coverage gave the episode that created the problem:
"The concern really was that there's a point where background becomes
foreground. No matter if the parents were intended to be background, with
this specific item in this particular program they might simply be
foreground because of press attention to it and parental attention to it"
(New York Times, 1/27/05).

Godwin went on to claim the episode conflicted with PBS's purpose: "The
presence of a couple headed by two mothers would not be appropriate
curricular purpose that PBS should provide."

It's a disturbing view for the COO of PBS to hold, particularly since
public television's mandate as set forth in the 1967 Carnegie Commission
Report is to "provide a voice for groups in the community that may
otherwise be unheard," to serve as "a forum for controversy and debate,"
and to broadcast programs that "help us see America whole, in all its

Indeed, it would seem that PBS's decision to drop the episode would more
likely violate the terms of its Education Department grant than would the
episode itself; the grant requires funded programs to:
"appeal to all of America's children by providing them with content and
characters with which they can identify. Diversity will be incorporated
into the fabric of the series to help children understand and respect
differences and learn to live in a multicultural society. The series will
avoid stereotypical images of all kinds and show modern
multi-ethnic/lingual/cultural families and children."

Previous families featured in Postcards episodes have included Mormons,
Hmong and Pentecostal Christians. It's hard to interpret PBS's selective
reading of its own mandate in the censorship of Postcards as anything but
political pandering in the face of government threats; Spellings' letter
included the blunt reminder that "two years ago the Senate Appropriations
Committee raised questions about the accountability of funds appropriated
for Ready-To-Learn programs" (Washington Post, 1/27/05).

What's more,according to a New York Times report (1/27/05), PBS officials-- including
PBS president Pat Mitchell-- screened the Vermont episode and deemed it
appropriate just a few days before pulling it.

Unfortunately, PBS's decision is hardly surprising, given its history of
moving to the right under pressure from conservative critics. The network
recently added two conservative public affairs programs to its lineup,
apparently to "balance" the alleged liberal bias of NOW With Bill Moyers.
At the time, Moyers had already announced his intended retirement, and
since his departure the show has been cut back to half an hour (see FAIR
Action Alert, 9/17/04).

And this wouldn't be the first time PBS has backed down on gay and lesbian
issues; in 1994, PBS refused to provide funding for a second year of its
popular and critically acclaimed miniseries Tales of the City, which
included gay characters. The show had prompted the American Family
Association to call PBS the "Homosexual Pride Tax-Funded TV Network" and
urge their followers to "shut down" PBS. Though PBS called the decision
financial, Tales was actually a remarkably profitable series (Extra!,7-8/94).

Just two years earlier, when New York City PBS affiliate WNYC began
producing In the Life, television's first nationwide gay-oriented show,
conservatives had vigorously attacked public television from the Senate
floor. Former Republican Sen. Bob Dole railed, "It seems that the
broadcasting apologists are hiding behind Big Bird, Mr. Rogers and
Masterpiece Theatre, laying down their quality smokescreen while they
shovel out funding for gay and lesbian shows" (Village Voice, 6/30/92; see
also Extra!, 6/93).

In the face of such threats and criticism, PBS refused
to distribute the show; over 10 years later, the program still receives no
financial or distribution support from PBS.

ACTION: Please contact PBS and ask them to support programming according
to their mandate, not political pressures.

Pat Mitchell, President and CEOPhone: (703) 739-5000
Or use the PBS comment form:
You might also want to contact your local PBS affiliate to encourage them
to air the censored episode of Postcards From Buster:

As always, please remember that your comments have more impact if you
maintain a polite tone. Please cc with your correspondence.