Feb
10
2014

What DC Won't See Tonight on Public TV

spies-of-mississippiA new documentary called Spies of Mississippi takes a look at the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a state agency that served as a political surveillance tool in the 1950s and '60s, keeping tabs on civil rights activists.

As a review in the New York Times (2/10/14) notes: 

A shadowy government entity exercising questionable powers in the name of a vaguely defined goal? It's not hard to draw a parallel between the commission and today’s government activity in the name of homeland security.

It sounds like a pretty timely film, then, and it's being made available this evening to PBS stations around the country, thanks to the series Independent Lens.

But it won't be airing tonight on WETA, the public television station serving the nation's capital. Instead, viewers will see, according to the WETA website, two episodes of Antiques Roadshow and a show about the British royal family called The Queen's Diamond Decades. Spies of Mississippi will be shown at 11 pm on a Saturday night–not exactly a prime spot. 

Spies of Mississippi filmmaker Dawn Porter called out WETA in an open letter (2/6/14), pointing out that the channel was not airing any of the Black History Month programming available through PBS in prime time: 

I was dismayed to find out that instead of airing in primetime on Monday at 10 pm, it will air in the Washington, DC, area on Saturday, February 15 at 11:00 pm. Upon reviewing the programming schedule for WETA TV 26, it seems that NONE of the PBS programming for Black History Month will air during prime time.

In place of Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, the primetime slots on Friday, 7 February, feature re-runs of Downton Abbey and Sherlock. Instead of airing the documentary American Promise, the Sundance Film Festival award-winning film, which chronicles the stories of two African-American students in NYC and engages in a meaningful discussion of contemporary issues regarding race and class, WETA aired Antiques Roadshow and a program about the British Royal family.  

She added: "Your public service mission is to educate, inspire and evoke constructive civic discourse. Burying films that help advance these goals is an embarrassment to your station and the PBS brand it carries."

WETA responded by saying that yes, they "are offering over 39 hours (20 different series) of programming during Black History Month," along with a link showing the programming it has in mind–most of which will be airing during weekday afternoons or late at night. "We're proud of the job we're doing" on Black History Month, WETA spokesperson Kate Kelly told Current (2/7/14)

Howard University professor Michael Fauntroy (Huffington Post, 2/7/14) didn't think they had much to be proud of. He wrote:

The scheduling of Spies is not an isolated issue. A review of WETA's schedule confirms that no PBS's Black History Month programming will air in prime time. No prime time Black History Month programming from one of the most powerful public television stations in the country that serves a media market with the highest proportion of African American university graduates and one of the nation's highest proportions of African Americans.

He added:

While I understand the economics, public television should not mimic the programming decisions of their commercial counterparts. American culture won't be diminished if, during the shortest month of the year, the country gets to see more stories about the contributions of African Americans.

On the WETA Facebook page,  underneath the station's defense of its programming choices, one user weighed in: "39 hours but not one in primetime and not one program that hasn't already aired on PBS. That conveys a message." Indeed it does.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.