By Ledbetter, James
The Nation , Vol. 264, No. 25
Public television added another episode of timidity to its history this spring when the Public Broadcasting Service rejected a documentary because it had received funding from unions. Out at Work, directed by Kelly Anderson and Tami Gold, documents the workplace experiences of two gay men and a lesbian after their employers and co-workers found out they were gay. The woman was fired by the infamous Cracker Barrel; one of the men, a Detroit auto worker, was harassed and threatened by his co-workers; the other, a Bronx librarian, fought for health benefits for his lover with AIDS.
Lisa Heller, executive producer of the public TV series P.O.V., had said she was "seriously considering" putting the film on her schedule, and thus it was submitted to PBS headquarters for routine review. Sandra Heberer, PBS's director of news and information programming, acknowledged to Heller in a letter that the documentary was "compelling television responsibly done on a significant issue of our times."
The network claimed, however, that its "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 first glance, the rejection appeared to be a way to dodge a gay-themed program, as with PBS's queasiness about funding a sequel to Armistead Maupin's popular Tales of the City. But Heller, who said she was "disappointed" with the PBS rejection, insisted that P.O.V. has "a good track record" in getting gay-themed films approved for PBS distribution.
The problem, then, is with the documentary's funders. Nine labor unions and the Astraea National Lesbian Action Foundation, among others, backed the documentary, some with contributions as low as $500. Harry Forbes, a PBS publicist, explained that because the underwriters "were all sort of labor-oriented," it created a possible perception of conflict of interest.
Of course, public television is overflowing with regular programming, specials and documentaries that are funded by corporate-oriented organizations of all sorts. Critics have long railed over PBS-accepted documentaries like The Man Millions Read, a hagiography of New York Times columnist James Reston that was partly funded by the Times and directed by a member of the Sulzberger family, which owns a controlling interest in the paper. …