Media Bias

by kathy M. Newman

Conspiracy theories have a certain appeal: the promise of order. If it was more than a lone gunman who shot JFK, or if the Kennedys killed Marilyn, or if Jeb Bush and Kathleen Harris conspired to throw the 2000 election -- then at least we can feel confident that we were robbed by an organized mob, that there was some master plan for our loss. There is a kind of relief in thinking that if the system broke down, it was because another more powerful, more insidious system was trying to break it.

The dissolution of democracy is probably more complicated than that. Television may be complicit: in late October and early November, only a handful of PBS stations agreed to air a controversial documentary on the Florida voting debacle in 2000.

Counting on Democracy was produced by Emmy Award-winning director Danny Schechter and Faye Anderson (an African-American writer and pundit whose work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal). Described as a tale of "race, political payback, voter fraud and justice deferred," this film details the myriad ways in which 175,000 citizens -- mostly working poor and people of color -- were banned from the voting rolls or had their ballots thrown out. The documentary was narrated by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee -- two black actors famous for their work on-screen, as well as their Civil Rights work off-screen.

Is this a piece of unbridled political propaganda? Is it shrill, humorless, too radical to be persuasive? I wouldn't know: my local station was among those that did not air it -- and it didn't air in Spokane, either. Most PBS stations did air Who Counts on October 18, a light hearted look at the 2000 election, narrated by none other than Darrell Hammond, whose Saturday Night Live career doing impressions of presidents has not been the same since Gore and Clinton exited the White House.

The fact that so few Americans have been able to see Counting on Democracy raises one of the non-voting related issues our democracy faces today. Free speech is permitted, but are controversial opinions, particularly those on the far left, given fair play? Ironically, many PBS stations probably passed on Counting on Democracy not just out of fear of their corporate underwriters but also because of potential viewer response. On a "Talk Back" Web site hosted by ITVS (Independent Television Service), many of the viewers complained that Counting on Democracy was biased toward the left.

"Steve" from New York City was so angry he promised to boycott his local PBS station: "After watching that biased report on the 2000 election, there is NOTHING INDPENDENT [sic] about ITVS. Clearly this was a paid poltical [sic] film released before the mid-term elections to try and influence the public. I will never again support any PBS stations and will tell everyone I know to do the same. I am so angry that I will no longer allow my kids to watch any PBS sponsered [sic] shows."

Of the many commentators on the ITVS talk-back site, about one-third concurred with Steve. Others, however, argued that Counting on Democracy was the "most balanced" treatment of the Florida debacle they had seen. They made the obvious point that the very concept of what is and is not "biased" is, well, biased. David, writing from Mar Vista, argued that it would be hard to boycott everything we found offensive.

"I've read some of the comments below that respond to the show on the 2000 election in Florida. Some say they are mad at PBS and want to pull their funding -- some are even saying they want to take back the money they have already given to PBS. These people are showing their true colors: that they are all about money and power... If I was to stop giving money to organizations every time that organization did something I disapproved of, I would never again buy gasoline, or a hamburger, or a pair of shoes."

PBS has a responsibility to provide an alternative to mainstream television. All PBS stations should have shown Counting on Democracy before the most recent elections. Moreover, the controversy over this documentary should have been widely reported in the daily press. (I failed to find a single story about it in a daily paper.) And, though I am not convinced that there is a "vast right-wing conspiracy" behind it all, I feel sure that racism, incompetence and conservative bias contributed to the disenfranchisement of more than enough American citizens in Florida to change the outcome of history -- as well as decisions across the country at PBS stations.