PBS has blocked the broadcast of a documentary that profiles three working-class gays and lesbians who face on-the-job discrimination because the film was backed by unions and a lesbian foundation.
For five years, filmmakers Tami Gold and Kelly Anderson followed a Cracker Barrel employee in Georgia who was fired because she was a lesbian, a Detroit auto worker who was harassed and physically threatened when his co-workers found out he was gay, and a circulation clerk at a Bronx public library who successfully advocated for domestic partner health benefits for city workers while his spouse was dying of AIDS.
“On its merits alone, we found Out at Work to be compelling television responsibly done on a significant issue of our times,” PBS News and Information Programming Director Sandra Heberer wrote in a letter to P.O.V. Executive Producer Lisa Heller.
But, she continued, “PBS's guidelines prohibit funding that might lead to an assumption that individual underwriters might have exercised editorial control over program content…even if, as is clear in this case, those underwriters did not.”
At issue were contributions averaging $1,000 each from nine labor unions, including UAW and locals of AFSCME and SEIU, and the Astraea National Lesbian Action Foundation–“problematical funders,” according to the network.
“It's not the first time that PBS has used this spurious excuse to can a documentary they are clearly avoiding because of its content,” says Village Voice media columnist Jim Ledbetter, whose book on PBS history will be out in November. “PBS runs scared on many subjects related to homosexuality. The idea that corporations can fund programs and unions cannot is frightening and so contrary to the historical underpinnings of public television that they should be ashamed.”
For Debra Chasnoff, director of Deadly Deception, an Oscar-winning 1991 documentary about nuclear weapons, the network's decision is familiar. PBS refused to let P.O.V. air her film because it had been commissioned by INFACT, a national corporate accountability group.
“I think they apply this criteria very selectively,” she says. “There are many corporate entities that underwrite programming on PBS that have a pro-business, pro-capitalist point of view, and that's not a problem. But when grassroots organizations against great odds scrape together the funds to produce a documentary that has a different point of view than is normally available, that comes under scrutiny.
“You can only make a film if your uncle and grandmother give you a big check.”
Raymond Markey, president of the New York Public Library Guild Local 1930 of AFSCME which gave $500 to Gold and Anderson, thinks PBS acted out of fear of retribution from Cracker Barrel and Chrysler. “This is….censorship, plain and simple.”
Calls to PBS and POV were not returned.