The Religious Right’s Coup Against Alabama Public TV

Alabama Public Television appears to have been taken over by the board assigned to oversee its operation. Religious zealots on the board insist the station air “educational” programs touting themes like creationism and how the Constitution based on the bible. Exactly where is the line between “information” and “indoctrination”?

While the country’s attention was riveted on the always entertaining Supreme Court, you may have missed the Religious Right’s coup-in-progress, being waged in Alabama. On one side is Alan Pizzato, director of Alabama Public Television, (APTV) who has the radical idea that history programming should reflect, well, history. On the other side are the chairman of the commission Ferris Stevens, and his faithful sidekick Commissioner Rod Herring, whose day job is chiropractic manipulation. Chairman Stevens has announced a “new approach” for APTV, which all evidence indicates will include Christian indoctrination programs by WallBuilders. If you have never run into them before, WallBuilders is the publishing outlet of fundamentalist Christian pseudo-history, rewritten from the original by Texas evangelist and self-declared historian, (not to leave out notorious homophobe,) David Barton.

The campaign opened June 12th with a good old-fashioned massacre. During a routine meeting of the commission and APTV executives, Director Alan Pizzato, and Chief Financial Officer Pauline Howland were summarily and quite unexpectedly fired. The two were told to clean out their desks immediately, and were escorted from the building, not allowed to say so much as a “nice working with you” on their way out. Pizzato had run APTV for twelve years, and was well-respected both inside the workplace and in the community. Last year he was honored with the Birmingham Business Journal’s CEO Award for Nonprofit Businesses.

The people who worked for Pizzato were stunned. Shortly after hearing of the terminations, three members of the panel that raises operating funds for the non-profit suddenly quit. Allyson Ed­wards, Robert Nesbitt and the panel’s chairman Joe Mays, a dedicated APTV veteran of 20 years, all submitted their resignations in an apparent protest.

The Swiss cheese minutes of the meeting discovered by WBHM, the National Public Radio affiliate in Birmingham, are strangely non-committal about the reason for the termination–unless you know how to read between the lines:

We know Chairman Stevens is on record admitting Pizzato and Herring tangled over WallBuilders programming at the previous commission meeting. We also know Pauline Howland told reporters Pizzato thought WallBuilders material was inappropriate due to its religious nature.

We might infer that this prior meeting was more contentious than was made public, and that Pizzato may have told Herring he thought showing WallBuilders religious-themed programs violated their charter, or was in some way legally questionable. We could deduce this because between that prior blow up and the meeting where Pizzato was fired, Herring consulted a lawyer. Herring himself announced to the press in another context, that lawyers he had talked to had given a thumbs up to the new faux-history fare.

In the minutes uncovered by WBHM, Pizzato makes an observation that Herring was unhappy with the station presenting programming about evolution. In what appears to be an effort to placate Herring, Pizzato announced he had scheduled a (non-WallBuilders) show about creationism to air in the fall.

The minutes pause at this point for an off the record discussion of which Herring said: “We went into executive session, discussed certain issues of a personal nature, and decided to make changes.”

The next thing we know security is escorting Pizzato and Howland off the APTV premises.

The board has taken the “nothing to see here, move along” approach to the firings, denying any suggestion that including WallBuilders (Who?) in the station’s schedule was a major issue of contention. When asked why Pizzato had put WallBuilders on the meeting’s agenda Herring claimed disingenuously, “We never got to it, so I don’t know what it was about,” (Hint to Dr. Herring: Perhaps it was about whatever thorny matter resulted in you seeking a legal opinion on the suitability of airing Christian propaganda on Public TV.)

For his part, Chairman Stevens, made this mind-boggling statement regarding the firings: “The commission wanted a general change in direction of the station and a fresh approach” (So far so good right? But he didn’t stop there).

Next sentence: “The programming will basically stay the same.” (So they want a “change in direction” and a “fresh approach” that will keep everything basically the same?)

The final sentence of Stevens’ statement reads: “There will be more programming and improved programming but no sweeping changes.” (Some clarity at last. I believe this is code for: We are going to add WallBuilders programs to the APTV regular schedule and anyone who objects can join Alan Pizzato in the unemployment line.)

I think I can even predict how and when these faux-history shows will make their way into the APTV schedule, barring legal intervention. Chairman Stevens stated to the press: “The discussion was really over one or two programs. It wasn’t a whole series or something like that.” And Herring made the statement that there would be “no change in public television programming… for at least two or three months”. I think it is reasonable to conclude Alabama will be subjected to the fractured fairy tales of WallBuilders as the kiddies head back to school this September.

WallBuilders is not a benign entity with an interesting but mistaken scholarly point of view. It is the publishing outlet for Glenn Beck pal and home-schooler guru David Barton, a Texas preacher with no formal history credentials. Barton claims he was put on the evangelist’s path when he was ordered by God to look into a decline in SAT scores after school prayer was banned. He also believes the Founding Fathers intended to establish a Christian nation, and that the “wall” between church and state they envisioned was meant to be a one-sided partition by which the Christian religion was protected from any intrusion by government. David Barton is active in Republican politics, once serving as head of the Texas Republican Party. He holds a yearly meeting of “Pro-family” legislators, offering “a fresh perspective on the historical application of Scripture to public policy-making with a deeper look into what the Bible says about current issues”.

I’m sure you know by now anything “pro-family” is usually anti-gay, and Barton certainly lives up to that expectation. During the discussion about rescinding DADT Barton wrote: “Based on the statutes, legal commentaries, and the writings of prominent military leaders, it is clear that any idea of homosexuals serving in the military was considered with repugnance; this is incontrovertible, with no room for differing interpretations. The thought of lifting this proscription is a modern phenomenon, and would have brought disbelief, disdain, and condemnation from those who established our Armed Forces.” Don’t take it personally, he also writes in his book, The Myth of Separation, that only Christians should be able to hold public office. I guess no Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or godless heathens like me need apply. (Although I admit, I am curious as to where he stands on Mormons)

If the commission hoped to quietly change Alabama Public Television while no one was paying attention, it appears they are going to be disappointed. A faith-based progressive group, Faithful America, has collected more than 10,000 signatures on their petition to keep WallBuilders fare off public TV. The petition asks the leaders of the Alabama Educational Television Commission to “reinstate these staffers and keep Religious Right hate off their stations.” In addition, this week, the firm of White, Arnold and Dowd sent the commission a notice of hold, requesting they preserve all related documents, a signal that a lawsuit is in the offing. The lawyers promised reporters an announcement this week. It seems Alan Pizzato has decided not to go quietly.

In the spirit of compromise, I have a suggestion that will resolve the APTV impasse. Alabama Governor Bentley, hire back your good people. Then APTV, go ahead and air the WallBuilders programs – just show them with a laugh track.

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