PBS: EXCLUSION AND POLITICAL DISCRIMINATION
by Agustin Blazquez with the collaboration of Jaums Sutton
I am not surprised by the recent commotion, scandal and fight for fairness by Latino organizations in the U.S. against the Public Broadcasting Service -- especially the notable effort of Dr. Maggie Rivas Rodriguez, associate professor at the School of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin. She has been tireless in fighting the unforgivable exclusion in the fourteen-and-a-half-hour documentary The War, by PBS protégé Ken Burns, of the Latino and Native American contributions and sacrifices during War World II.
I think these Latino organizations are doing a superb job of exposing the elitist and arrogant PBS, and I hope their actions will force the broadcaster to begin playing straight and fair with all minority groups. After all, these minority groups support PBS with their tax money.
This recent blunder by PBS calls attention to the problem that another Spanish-speaking minority has been having with PBS: for decades, PBS has sponsored and broadcast programs about Cuba that depict the opposite of the reality that Cubans experience first hand. This has been a disservice not only to Cuban Americans but also to the American people as a whole. In spite of multiple complaints by Cuban Americans, however, PBS continues to offend them.
I have written more than 300 articles over the last several years about Cuban affairs and am producing an ongoing series of educational documentaries on the subject.
I have been working on this series at great personal sacrifice as an independent; I have received no grants and in fact am not aware of any grants to Cuban Americans for our educational projects. I have produced and directed five documentaries for this series and am now working on the sixth. I have submitted these documentaries to PBS and its series P.O.V. and Frontline. They were rejected. In fact, the works of other Cuban American filmmakers that are contrary to PBS’s point of view are consistently rejected.
PBS appears to be interested only in the point of view reflecting its political agenda, contrary to its statement that it does not interfere with “program content” [see the recently issued “Public Broadcasting Statement on Editorial Independence,” [http://www.apts.org/upload/Public Broadcasting Statement - May 2 07.pdf ].
PBS’s statement that it does not interfere with “program content” is belied by its recent announcement that it has arranged with Ken Burns to add the Latino contribution to World War II to his documentary (per a letter dated April 11, 2007 from Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS, to the Defend the Honor Campaign in response to complaints about the documentary’s lack of attention to the taxpaying Latino community of the U.S.) [http://www.nahj.org/nahjnews/articles/2007/april/lettertodth.pdf]
It is evident that PBS’s prohibition against interfering with “content” is not absolute; it can be lifted at will, in this case because of political pressure from the Latino community (whose position in this case I support 100 percent).
So, Cuban American filmmakers are excluded -- actually, politically discriminated against -- by PBS, not because of the quality of their films but because of content. I think that is called censorship.
Even the Oscar-winning Cuban exile Nestor Almendros had to agree to allow PBS to edit (shorten) his documentary Nobody Listened before PBS would air it -- and it was broadcast in tandem with Saul Landau's pro-Castro documentary. And PBS’s Frontline rejected Nobody Listened by stating, “Frontline doesn’t produce anti-Communist programs.” PBS appears to be concerned about not offending Castro while not caring about his victims.
Nestor Almendros said in 1990 that he believed taxpayer-funded PBS leans unashamedly toward the political left. “The only country that resisted [showing his documentaries], the only place where there was still strong pro-Castro sentiment, was the U.S.”
Recently, a Latino reviewer in the U.S. said about my documentaries that I am "the most important Cuban documentalist in exile with a very solid body of work." And following the screening of my latest documentary in Madrid, Spain, another reviewer wrote in the Spanish cultural magazine Revista Hispano Cubana, "Agustin Blazquez is one of the most representative filmmakers in exile and his documentaries should be valued at the same level as the best Cuban documentaries of this genre."
In the same review he called my earlier documentary about the Elian Gonzalez case "a masterpiece for its sensibility and poetic air." PBS also rejected this documentary.
On March 6, 1996, the issue of the rejection of my first documentary by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was raised at a hearing before a House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee.
I decided to test the waters again and on April 2, 2007 I submitted a formal proposal package to PBS for a documentary about Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
On May 8, John Prizer, vice president of television program development at CPB, who assists in developing CPB funding priorities and strategic direction for investing programming funds, telephoned to inform me that my project had been rejected.
Mr. Prizer said that PBS would never air my proposed documentary; this was the reason, he explained, that I was the only producer of the 30 who submitted proposals that he called.
He also said that PBS is looking for documentaries of more than one part or miniseries. Since that requirement is not specified in the “PBS Mission,” I think it was a convenient excuse. At any rate, I have repeatedly submitted my series, COVERING CUBA, and PBS has repeatedly rejected it.
PBS does whatever it wants and changes its rules at will, as demonstrated by its contradictory statements and actions regarding the content of Mr. Burns’ documentary.
PBS to date has been untouchable, but we’ll see what happens after the war declared by the Latino organizations to protect their honor. Cuban Americans, as part of the Latin American population living in the U.S., also need to save our honor from PBS exclusion and censorship.
PBS has consistently objected to the content of our documentaries. I feel that this is a violation of our freedom of speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, specifically because the money PBS distributes is public money.
Meanwhile, the pro-Castro documentaries of Estela Bravo (a native New Yorker who has lived in Cuba since 1963 as a member of the pro-Castro privileged foreign elite and a known collaborator with that regime) are shown on PBS without the benefit of showing an opposing point of view. In 1992 and 1993, for example, PBS showed Bravo’s documentary Miami-Havana.
In it, deriding the Cuban American community, Wayne Smith said, “But what you have in Miami, I think, is a very extreme ultra-right group who want no kind of improvement on relations between the two countries.”
In such a way PBS offers opportunities for the pro-Castro side to openly express its contempt and hatred for the Cuban American community in the U.S.
PBS has a history of showing documentaries containing propaganda that has offended my community, documentaries that have not contributed to a better understanding of the Cuban tragedy. In many instances we are misrepresented and maligned in comments by the people featured in those productions. For example, Wayne Smith and others have been featured in various documentaries on PBS qualifying Cuban Americans as “the right-wing fringe,” “virulently anti-Castro,” “fiercely anti-Communist,” “hard-line exiles,” “strident anti-Castroites,” “Miami Mafia” and other epithets.
I am not aware of any current documentaries by Cuban American filmmakers being shown on PBS, with the exception of Adriana Bosch’s documentary about Fidel Castro that aired on January 31, 2005. But either she didn’t research her subject thoroughly or she had to omit a lot of key information in order for her documentary to be aired by PBS.
On Saturday, March 26, 2005, while watching “Viewer Favorites” on PBS/WETA, I was shocked and offended by the singer Eric Burton -- formerly of the rock group The Animals -- wearing a Che Guevara shirt while performing a song on a segment of the presentation.
On March 29, 2005, I wrote a letter to Sheryl Lahti, director of audience services, requesting an apology. I said, “It is shocking that your educational public television station is not aware of Che’s criminal record and let pass such an insensitive and offensive display of disrespect to Che’s victims and the Cuban American community in the U.S. If Mr. Burton had worn a Hitler shirt, he wouldn’t have been presented -- rightfully so -- in order not to offend the Jewish victims and Holocaust survivors.”
No PBS station would dare show a performer wearing Ku Klux Klan apparel or logos that are pro-David Duke or anti-Arab, anti-Islam, anti-Chinese or anti any other minority group in the U.S. It would have been simply edited out without any regard to what its creator intended.
With my letter to Lahti I enclosed an open letter to Carlos Santana by musician Paquito D’Rivera dated March 25, 2006. D’Rivera criticized Santana for wearing a Che T-shirt at the Oscar ceremony. Also enclosed was my article “Che’s Motorcyle Follies” [http://www.camcocuba.org/ADDITIONAL PAGES/BLAZQUEZ/Agustin/BLAZQUEZ-7.html]. I sent copies to Michael Pack and John Prizer of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. To date, I have not received a reply.
A Cuban American advocate for democracy and human rights in Cuba from New York City who read my letter at [http://laurencejarvikonline.blogspot.com/] wrote a letter of complaint about the Eric Burton blunder on April 4, 2006. The next day he received an e-mail message from Danielle Dunbar [email@example.com], WETA’s audience service coordinator.
She wrote, “While WETA airs the fundraising special, we did not produce the program. The show was produced by TJL Productions and distributed by PBS. TJL Productions is solely responsible for its content. Nonetheless, as a public broadcaster that produces, broadcasts and values a wide range of programs that cover a divergent range of topics, it would be inappropriate for WETA to engage in such censorship. While you may dislike images of a particular subject, others may respond favorably to the same image. It is not our intent or role to suppress or promote either view, but to present the program as the show's creator intended. How you feel about that is a matter of personal choice. Further, there are no elements to the program that violate any FCC rules or guidelines. ‘My Music’ has been a very popular program with WETA's members and viewers, and I expect that we will air it again in the future.”
I consider her arguments to be invalid. Of course PBS is responsible, because it uses public money and it decides what to air and what not to air. It is very careful not to show any material that might be offensive to certain minorities -- but it obviously is not concerned about offending Cuban Americans.
I was shocked by Globe Trekker episode 47, “Cuba & Haiti,” broadcast on PBS/WETA on May 18, 2003 and repeated on April 15, 2007. In that episode, the host of the show promoted tourism to Cuba and presented a rosy, fun, happy-go-lucky and exciting view of my country -- where I lived for 21 years -- that was completely at odds with the harsh reality that Cubans face every day.
It is obvious that PBS is choosing to misinform and mislead the American public about Cuba instead of educating them, and it is doing so with taxpayer money.
Now, with Latino organizations’ battle against PBS over Ken Burns’ documentary The War, it is time to reconsider and take some concrete action to correct PBS’s arrogance and bias.
I think the government overseers of PBS should demand that PBS answer the following questions:
How many Cuban American documentary films have been funded by CPB since its inception?
How many of these documentaries have been shown on PBS?
What Cuban American films have been shown on PBS (names, dates, etc.)?
How many Cuban American films or film proposals have been submitted to CPB and/or PBS in the last six years?
How many of these films or proposals have been rejected and for what reasons?
On the May 14 edition of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez said, about Mr. Burns’ documentary, “One weakness that I have seen is that I really do not understand how PBS, in six and a half years, didn’t raise the flag on this. It seems very difficult to understand.” That was a very good point. I guess it will take a public scandal and a threat from the U.S. government to retire taxpayer funding to PBS in order for that biased organization to mend its ways.
If not, the taxpayers and their government representatives are paying for television programs that are misleading the people of this nation.
© 2007 ABIP
Agustin Blazquez, founder and president