WBHM has obtained a letter sent to Governor Robert Bentley by noted author and former long-time television producer for the University of Alabama Center for Public Television, Wendy Reed. In it, Reed calls on Bentley to address the fight for control of Alabama Public Television. Click here (item #3) for the latest from this week’s hearing over a lawsuit in the case and links to our extensive coverage.
Dear Governor Bentley:
You probably don’t remember me. We met during the live gubernatorial debate broadcast in front of your hometown audience (Roll Tide). I mic’d you. There were no problems; we positioned it just fine. But after the debate was in full swing, your opponent’s mic started to travel on his collar. The director’s voice was loud in my headset: go fix it. I didn’t anymore want to walk onstage in my black roadie clothes in front of all those people during the showdown between you and your opponent than I want to be writing you this letter. But it needed doing. This needs doing, too. So here goes.
Tuesday, I attended the surprise/special Alabama Educational Television Commission meeting. I should say that I no longer mic people (but that’s another story) and was there as an Alabama citizen and public media fan. Our state was the first, and ultimately largest, educational public television network in the nation thanks to Raymond Hurlbert. This pioneering educator was also the first to preside over the Alabama Educational Television Commission. I’m proud that I can say our state ranks on top of at least one history list. I hope the current commission doesn’t add us to the bottom of another. I understand commissions ought not be homogeneous, but I’m outright flummoxed that so few of the seven commissioners have experience or expertise in what put us at the top of that list—public television. According to my Googling, the commission consists of three lawyers; a chiropractor; a CSI-ish computing center director; a grandmother, who makes a mean Monkey Bread and is the voice of the Bible in a videogame; and a commercial radio talk show host.That being the case, I thought the commissioners would have made up for such lack by thoroughly educating themselves about the entity they oversee. After all, a few have teaching backgrounds. But when I mentioned Hurlbert to the commissioner who has been an overseer for approximately a quarter century (at least I think that’s what she said), she didn’t even know the name.
The one commissioner who has worked in commercial media is new. If you count Tuesday as a meeting, then he’s attended three. I do not know if he advocates the separation of church and state but I do know he worked closely with Roy Moore and after the lightning-quick adjournment of Tuesday’s meeting, he cited a Bible verse to an APT employee. He didn’t quote scripture to me but he did speak. I was surprised–that he was the only one. I’m a member of the very public they supposedly serve. Another commissioner did grudgingly answer my questions about her educational background, using terse monosyllables. When I asked her what areas she represented–I don’t have the whole of Alabama’s political districts memorized–she wouldn’t say. I asked another time or two, with different words, in case my question wasn’t clear. Finally someone behind me stepped up and said, “Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and some of the Blackbelt.” I would think she would be proud and jump at the chance to give such a shout out to the areas she represents. But then I would have thought she might have asked me where I was from, not just what agency I was with. But what do I know.
What can any of us know when the commissioners call a meeting to order and immediately disappear? I know that such executive sessions are allowed by the Code of Alabama. I found the 45-chapter document online. I didn’t get through it all—gotta say it makes Faulkner seem easy—but in addition to being reminded why I’m not an attorney, a few things about our state did catch my attention. Of the 10 state holidays that Alabama enumerates, three relate to the Civil War, zero honor a woman. The Code also states, “All local school boards may classify and group pupils upon consideration of their social attitudes.” This one sounds downright scary, considering we’re known to wear our bad attitudes like badges. And it’s official– we have a state nut. I confess this makes me giggle. Apparently it wasn’t obvious enough that the Wild Turkey and largemouth bass represent me and redneck kin; the state had to legislate it into officialdom. Section 16-7A-5 of the Code concerns educational television and prohibits “directly or indirectly, the carrying on of propaganda, or otherwise attempting to influence legislation or engaging in political campaigns.”
Pretty clear: No propaganda. No political agendas.
Hurlbert is no longer with us to comment but his daughter said the genesis was always non-partisan by design. She possesses enough educational television history to cause The Smithsonian archive-envy, and even has the pen used by President Lyndon B. Johnson when he signed the first national public broadcasting act. Her daddy served under six governors, she said this morning. You can’t take a political side and do that.
According to President Johnson, “The public interest will be clearly served if these stations contribute significantly to the educational process of the Nation.” Notice that he didn’t say if the over a gazillion reds were served. Or the blues. Or independents. Or when the commission went in the proper new direction.
Governor Bentley, you went to medical school. You used the scientific method. You understand the difference between rigorous scholarship, narcissistic study, and opinion. Have you ever thought our state had too much knowledge? Or that some people know too much for their own good? Cults, certain Communist regimes, and slave owners pop into my mind. They thought they knew what was best; such was their moral imperative, especially for those beneath them. If they couldn’t stop education, they could discourage it, make fun of eggheads, compare knowledge to the Tower of Babel, call it the doings of the devil, or, if all else failed, water it down, and add their own coloring according to the electoral majority-du-jour. I’m not against faith, don’t misunderstand me. But if we act on feelings, if we don’t take the time to stop and carefully think, we’re more likely to drink the Kool-aid.
Alabama prefers sweet tea. But we are not homogeneous, thankfully. It’s a large, diverse, complex, messy, dynamic, and beautiful polity. So I wonder about the revised mission statement. Why was diversity edited out? Would it not be kinder to include everyone, even those we don’t agree with or like? Or do they not matter? Private entities may serve their bottom lines. But public media serves everyone—not the commissioners, not just a few, and not the dominant kind—but everyone.
I don’t need an educational TV commission with an agenda. I can get that with commercial media. I want a transparent AETC that focuses on its clearly defined duties: to continue the educational principles on which it was founded and maintain FCC compliance. I’m sickened by the defensive posturing I saw Tuesday, sad for colleagues caught in what I fear is a political web, and afraid Alabama leaders will continue our historical plague of confusing power with salvation.
Governor Bentley, while I adjusted that mic, the camera stayed on you. The media crew that night consisted of people of all ages, persuasions, and political shades but we had a common goal and we worked together to fix the problem. As a result, the TV audience didn’t miss a thing. I don’t have forty acres and a mule; I’m not a Baptist deacon; I avoid goat hill; and my heart bleeds for elephants and donkeys, wild turkeys and bass, even for the goats out back. But that evening I put aside any difference and philosophyand did my part, albeit small, to make sure your voice reached the public. May I trust you to do the same?