A Nonsectarian Decision, Mostly
By Michael Getler
June 23, 2009
While I was away last week, the PBS Board reached an important decision. It was both a compromise, yet also uncompromising in an important way.
On June 16, the Board approved, as a requirement for station membership, a recommendation from the Station Services Committee that would allow five PBS-member stations that have been including some sectarian, or religious, programming as part of their broadcast schedules to continue to do so. That's the compromise.
But it would ban any "new or additional sectarian broadcasting" on channels "branded as PBS or that feature PBS content." That means all the rest of the 356 member stations that make up the PBS system, and also means no new programs on the five that have been grandfathered. Sectarian content means advocacy of a particular religion or religious point of view. So that is the uncompromising part of the decision.
The five stations that have rather steadily engaged in sectarian broadcasting, and will be allowed to continue, are KBYU in Salt Lake City, KDBI in Denver, KMBH in Harlingen, Texas, WHUT in Washington, D.C., and WLAE in New Orleans.
The Three 'Nons'
Since 1985, PBS policy has been that member stations provide a "nonsectarian, nonpolitical, noncommercial educational program service." But the nonsectarian part was never enforced in those five member stations. So the June 16 ruling is a commitment to now enforce the old policy for all three of the "nons" and make sure they don't spread under the branded PBS flag.
On the other hand, with the vast expansion of digital technology many member stations — all of whom are independent — now have the ability to "multicast" on other digital channels and the PBS Board voted to allow sectarian content to be broadcast on any of these other platforms that do not carry the PBS label or branded content. In fact, the Board said "stations are encouraged to offer such content as part of their non-PBS services" on other multicast channels, Web sites or other media platforms.
The Board's action on this issue has been controversial for some time, well before the June 16 decision. News stories this spring about the issue facing the Board triggered a wave of commentary from viewers, pro and con. I called attention to this in an Ombudsman's Mailbag last month and published several letters. Since the Board decision, more than 100 additional e-mails have been sent to me. All but a couple of these were critical of PBS for such things as "silencing religious programming . . . caving in to the atheist evangelicals . . . failure to present what the public wants." Others have claimed that PBS does not adhere to the other "nons" in terms of what they see as programming biased to the left or spreading commercialism.
My own view is that the PBS Board compromise seems to be reasonable. It allows existing programming to continue and allows new programming on non-PBS labeled multicast and Web outlets operated by member stations.
Personally, I am a strong believer in the separation of church and state and the "wall of separation" between them that President Thomas Jefferson used to describe the meaning of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and that former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black said, in 1947, "must be kept high and impregnable."
Indeed, it could be argued — and has been by the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State — that because PBS gets some of its funding (about 16 percent) from taxpayer funding through Congress, that there should be no exceptions, or grandfathering, to the PBS policy about sectarian programming. That's a valid argument, in my opinion, but not a practical one in this case.
In the aftermath of the Board decision, PBS did not actually issue a public statement. Rather, they informed people who wrote to them through the following response, which I'm posting here for those who are interested but didn't either write or receive an explanation.
Here's the PBS Explanation
"Beginning in January 2008, the PBS Board, which comprises PBS station managers and general directors who represent the public, reviewed the policies concerning admission to and retention of membership in PBS. PBS is a mission-driven membership organization that emphasizes local station autonomy and control, unlike a commercial broadcast network that owns affiliates and controls their programming.
"The PBS Board vote on June 16 dealt with criteria for PBS membership. Since 1985, the membership policy has stated that 'PBS Members provide a nonsectarian, nonpolitical, noncommercial educational program service.'
"The board engaged in a methodical review to determine how to best interpret this policy in light of the rapidly expanding media landscape. Many stations now have resource-rich Web sites and the capability to 'multicast' — that is, to broadcast more than one channel of programming — among other forms of distribution.
"The board vote allows stations to air sectarian content on any channel or distribution platform that does not include the PBS brand or PBS content. Sectarian content includes programming that advocates a particular religion or religious point of view.
"The board also determined that stations currently airing sectarian programming on their PBS-branded channels may continue to do so. However, no new or additional sectarian programming may be broadcast on channels branded as PBS or that feature PBS content. Stations are encouraged to offer such content as part of their non-PBS services, such as the multicast channels, Web sites or other media platforms mentioned above.
"News coverage of a religious program, historically significant programming about religion, cultural (i.e., arts and entertainment) performances of a religious nature or other objective commentary presented in a religious venue (church, mosque, synagogue, temple, etc.) are not considered sectarian.
"PBS provides its stations with a wide variety of programs that focus on many aspects of faith that are not considered sectarian. This will not change. Series such as the long-running RELIGION AND ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY will remain part of the PBS service, as will miniseries and specials that present the historical, cultural and social aspects of religion, such as CITIES OF LIGHT: THE RISE AND FALL OF ISLAMIC SPAIN, GREAT PERFORMANCES 'Renée Fleming: Sacred Songs and Carols,' THE JEWISH AMERICANS, THE MORMONS, PETER AND PAUL AND THE CHRISTIAN REVOLUTION and WALKING THE BIBLE, among many others.
"The review included feedback from member stations and the communities they serve. These policies take effect immediately. The members of the PBS Board are pleased to have found a solution that allows the continuation of programming that is valued by individual communities while adhering to our policy of presenting a noncommercial, nonpolitical, nonsectarian service. PBS will continue to welcome stations' efforts to provide programs about all faiths to their communities."
Here Is a Sampling of the Letters
"Mission-driven??" "nonpolitical??" Thank you for the laugh. In the future, I will know better than to take my comments to your automated robot reply system. How could I have thought it possible to pierce the Orwellian sheath which surrounds such a well-endowed bureaucracy. My recourse is to do what I should have done in the first place — deliver my comments directly to my senators/congressman, and to the committees charged with oversight of funding for your bloated "membership organization." And to the devil with the "pleased" PBS board-toadies.
Claud Shirley, Cumming, GA
Well congratulations . . . you finally caved-in to the atheist evangelicals just like everyone else who is denying what the one and only living God, the father of Jesus Christ, has done to make this country the most blessed land on earth. Sleep well and know that all funding from this home is over.
Luke Wood, Orlando, FL
Now that PBS has decided to enforce the restriction against religious programming, when are you going to start enforcing the "non-partisan" restriction? I hate that even one cent of my tax money goes to support that joke of a "Public Broadcasting Service," and I find the sudden (and typical) sanctimonious position of the liberal scum that comprises the board of directors to be laughable in the extreme. You people collectively make me gag. I hope we get a Congress that gets rid of PBS and puts those idiotic jerks you call journalists out in the bread line where they belong.
Jerry Lemieux, Washington, DC
I was dismayed to read about PBS decision to curtail religious programming. While I am aware that PBS has no religious affiliation, I thought the idea was to provide quality programming that the viewers want. The organization's stand that PBS avoids political affiliation is a joke. PBS is and has always been far left leaning. You have now made it official.
Robert Green, San Diego, CA
I am an extremely tolerant person. Fortunately, in my area we have EWTN & Boston Catholic for my faith to have its programs broadcast. The elimination of new religious broadcasts is not what the "public" wants. Especially in rural areas that do not have the large market such as Boston. We have a growing Muslim community here and I think it is a mistake to prevent the airing of new religious programs, especially if there is so much misunderstanding of previously nontraditional religions to the USA. Lack of understanding of other religions can be eliminated by PBS' mission of being a representative of the "public". This secular movement by PBS will affect my financial support of PBS.
Tom Keogh, Bourne, MA
Well the board has gone and done it now! Dump all religious programming. Way to go! What's next FREE SPEECH! Who pressured you into this? Did OBAMA The Messiah threaten to fire someone or ruin their lives? I guess you will never see another dime out of my family ever again.
Hugh Foster, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL
About the PBS Board decision to not allow any new religiously based programming . . . PBS has held onto a long-standing tradition of programming excellence and diversity leading to some of the most outstanding programming on TV. My wife and I frequently watch PBS and support it.
The decision to stop any new religious programming goes counter to what PBS has stood for. PBS will air all manner of diverse life from a diverse world. Yet, PBS will not allow any new religiously based programs. This decision shows an intolerance that is not acceptable. If the PBS Board does not reverse its recent ruling about religion, then my wife and I will have no choice but to stop watching and supporting PBS.
Robert Winston, Jasper, GA
It will be hard to support PBS now that its Board has decided not to renew religious programming. Hasn't our country faltered enough from its values? USA is a God fearing country, not Alla. Immigrants need to learn about our borders, culture and language if they are to remain in the USA. The best start is to learn the Bible!
PBS always meant "good, pure TV" to me. PBS still has great programming compared to other stations, but to publicly declare the end of religious broadcasting is telling me as well as the rest of the public that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit is not worth the contempt against sectarian laws that prevent their publishing. Please be brave and get rid of the rules that PBS are citing that prevent the religious broadcasting. Remind them (ACLU?) that Christianity has a place in America just as much as Muslim, Islam and Judaism have.
Mark Hannah, Brooklyn Center, MN
YOU seem to be confused, PBS, the constitution says "freedom of religion", not freedom from religion. Why don't you rename your network what it really is, the Liberal Propaganda System. I am going to advocate to my crooked, corrupt, leftist government that they stop all funds to you. Fat chance that will happen, right. Hopefully people will do the same and your pathetic, biased broadcasting will fade away and die.
Robert Kroeger, Pinckney, MI
I have recently heard of your phasing out of religious programming on your station. I just pray that God puts a burden on your hearts for those shut-in people who cannot get out to go to church and the only word of God they hear is through your station. It is truly sad when the only thing our nation thinks about is how to make more money instead of being servants to others. I know this is not your sole decision but it takes each of us to stand up for what we believe in. Your station has showed what they believe in with their current decision. I apologize if this has offended anyone but I am just standing for what I believe in and that is keeping God in everything I do and say. Thanks for your time.
Rhonda Maston, Shawnee, OK
I applaud PBS's decision to not broadcast local, modern day religious programs. I am sure you will hear from others against this decision, but I support and applaud your decision.
Therese DuBravac, Portland, OR