Media

The Truth About Florida

PBS refused to air a new documentary exposing the betrayal of voters and American democracy in the 2000 elections in Florida. The filmmaker tells you why.
In a typical understatement, The New York Times called the 2000 presidential vote in Florida the most "flawed and fouled up election in American history." Everyone knows who won, but few realize that a whopping 175,000 ballots went uncounted in an election whose outcome turned on 537 votes. Even fewer know about purges from the voter rolls or how the recount in key counties was undermined, if not deliberately delayed, and, in effect, sabotaged.

When it was over, the new administration asked Americans to forget Florida, to "move on" or "get over it." Much of the media did just that -- never fully investigating the charges of voting irregularities and claims of disenfranchisement by minorities. On Sept. ll, the "newspaper of record" quipped that the Florida debate shifted from "who won?" to "who cares?"

In truth, millions do care. During the year following the election, the federal government sued three Florida counties for voting rights violations. Other cases were heard in the Florida courts. At the end of August, a tiny item moved on the Associated Press wire: "The NAACP's lawsuit over Florida's disputed 2000 presidential election appears headed for a close as the state and two counties the only remaining defendants have agreed to a settlement, attorneys said ... The class-action lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights groups argued voters were disenfranchised during the Nov. 7, 2000 election; it included allegations that blacks were kept from voting in some counties." And the consequences of the 2000 elections continued to be apparent even this year, when many were shocked when new ballot machines misfired in Florida once again during the 2002 primary. Others commented that voter turn out had fallen to 30 percent nationwide. One TV journalist suggested that there might be a "voter boycott" underway.

The media had covered and miscovered the 2000 election as a horse race, as if only the main candidates had a stake in its outcome. Later, the networks were forced to apologize to Congress for their "serious mistakes" in their screwed up, deceptive and inept election-eve forecasting. When it was over, they dropped the story like a hot potato with no follow-up. Their long delayed "media review" of the election results was an incomprehensible mishmash that was interpreted in some, but not all newspapers as validating a Bush verdict. Many media critics challenged the media consortium for misrepresenting their findings and "burying the lead" which showed a narrow Gore victory.

But such developments and their significance were reported but not widely followed up. They were hardly bathed in national television attention. The media had moved on. Case closed.

But for some, big questions nagged at the national conscience. Questions that my colleague Faye Anderson, a one time Republican and now an African American political consultant, and I investigated for a new film called "Counting on Democracy" which takes a new look at the untold Florida story in the context of the fight for voting rights.

The film is narrated by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, who worked on earlier films with Martin Luther King on the struggle of the 1960s civil rights movement on the same issue. Our film is not about Gore or Bush, but the still outraged voters of Florida and all Americans who watched what happened there with disgust and embarrassment.

Representing All Sides

In making the film, we tried very hard to avoid strident voices and conspiracy theorists. We instead elaborated on the argument that a "tyranny of small decisions" was responsible for the electoral disaster. We sought out credible figures, including civil rights leaders and top journalists with Newsweek, and the New York Times. We even featured the president of the Associated Press.

We tried to interview leading Florida Republicans as well, but they all refused, perhaps believing (correctly it may turn out) that the film would be perceived as "biased" if they were not part of it. We did manage to get two top members of the GOP, including the man who ran the Bush campaign's strategy to stop the recount, and a GOP former Governor. We also showed an interview with Florida Elections Director Clayton Roberts and testimony by Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris. On the Democratic side, we spoke with members of Congress, the lawyer who argued Gore's case in the Supreme Court and the head of the Gore campaign, who admitted that they had made big mistakes which cost them the election. The main characters were voters, labor organizers and civil liberties union monitors. The film indicts Bush and Gore equally for compromising their commitment to small "d" democracy to get elected.

After a year-long battle of our own, we raised the money to make the film. We did so in the spirit of a call by Alex Jones of Harvard University's Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy who wrote in the New York Times: "The answer is tough investigations of what happened in the voting and the vote counting, uncompromised by the false notion that avoidance of controversy will be healing. The answer is also tough reporting on what happened in Florida that does not confuse fairness with the unsatisfactory practice of quoting one strident (voice) and then its opposite in every story."

PBS Says No

Counting on Democracy was hailed at a film festival. "This tale of race, political payback, voter fraud and justice deferred could have come out of a Hollywood thriller. But no -- this is the story of the 2000 Presidential election in Florida, " wrote the Taos Talking Picture festival that screened it to an enthusiastic SRO crowd. It was praised in the Palm Beach Post and licensed by the Independent Television Service to air on public television.

The ITVS, which was born out of the fight by U.S. producers to get funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- even when PBS was spending a small fortune overseas to buy shows from BBC -- enthusiastically embraced "Counting On Democracy." They paid for its completion and offered it to PBS for airing. Films with an ITVS imprimatur often have an inside track because they have been rigrously screened by public television professionals. We had rushed to get it done in time to be seen before this year's election. The documentary is timely, with updated information about reform efforts in Congress and Florida to fix our broken electoral system.

PBS has now spoken. In early August, they decided they will not screen Counting on Democracy. They gave it a resounding "no:" no to broadcasting it, and, then, no again to distributing it through the PBS "Plus" feed that gives local stations the option to air the show. ITVS said: "They (PBS) felt strongly that the program was not journalistic in that it tried to appear to be unbiased by including a Republican, but he was mocked and made to look silly. They felt it was 'full of cheap shots,' and the narration was overly simplistic. They felt that 'due to the subject matter, care needed to be taken to present a more balanced look at the subject matter -- even if the show ultimately had a point of view -- and that wasn't the case.'"

Creative Differences

It is hard to respond to this type of a vague attack. As someone who has made over 200 magazine shows that aired on PBS stations, produced 50 segments for ABC's prime time 20/20 news magazine and directed ten major documentaries, I think I know something about journalistic standards, and would beg to differ. Suffice it to say, we have "creative differences." As for only featuring three Republicans, we told PBS before they made their decision that other Florida Republicans had refused to be interviewed. It didn't matter. To them, their absence just proved "bias" on our part.

I must admit that I was not surprised by this type of nit-picking, which one political insider I know rightly labels as an "alibi." PBS is not known for courage in broadcasting. Activists have fought for years against the banning of many independent documentaries that take on controversial issues. Rather than offer an outlet for hard hitting independent work, PBS invariably features blander fare built around "story telling" or high-priced films on history rather than topical muckraking, save for Bill Moyer's fine new NOW series that even many PBS stations will not carry.

Our company, Globalvision, has experienced PBS's rejection many times over the years when our award winning human rights series, Rights & Wrongs (that aired on selected local PBS stations, not nationally), was rejected because -- get this -- "human rights is an insufficient organizing principle for a TV series" (unlike cooking!). Some stations considered our work "not corporate-friendly." Others branded us, falsely, as one-sided left-wingers while continuing to broadcast rightwing fare with no such hesitations. Even Bruce Springsteen was denounced by a PBS exec as a self-promoter when they rejected a non profit film I produced on the making of his anti-apartheid song Sun City in l986. It later won the Independent Documentary Association prize, the top honor in the industry. PBS later aired a "making of" documentary on the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark produced by the for-profit company that made the blockbuster movie.

It turns out PBS also has another idea for how to treat the Florida issue. No, not with a competing investigation or an expose that shares our focus. Oh no! PBS has opted instead, literally, to treat the issue as a joke, with a satirical show about Florida. Counting on Democracy' is out; counting on comedy is in. ITVS told us, "CPB did commission a documentary on the Florida recount. It is completed and will be on the PBS national schedule in October. The title is WHO COUNTS? ELECTION REFORM IN AMERICA. The show is very, very different from COUNTING ON DEMOCRACY. Here is a short description: Comedian and "Saturday Night Live" cast member Darrell Hammond and former CNN Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno headline Who Counts? Election Reform in America, to be broadcast on Thursday, October 17, 10 p.m. on PBS. Who Counts? will combine original comedy and reporting on the 2000 presidential election -- with balloting issues in Florida as a key element -- in looking at election reform today. Darrell Hammond will portray Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton and himself in all-new material written and produced especially for the one-hour program. He will be interviewed in character by Mr. Sesno, who will also narrate."

PBS' Real Agenda

Behind their false characterization of our documentary and the surrealistic logic that prefers to make fun of Florida rather than explain what happened, there is the possibility of a more insidious tilt in PBS away from independent investigations and towards conservative ideologues. It involves an aggressive conservative zealot, who a decade ago crusaded against our South Africa Now TV series, with 156 episodes that critiqued apartheid each week. According to the Los Angles Times, David Horowirz was successful in getting the PBS affiliate in Los Angeles, KCET, to drop the show and, later claimed a victory in his own publication for muzzling it. (Protests by the black community there later forced it back on the air.) He labeled Nelson Mandela a "Marxist," and baited us with similar language for our tough reporting on Mandela's fight for freedom.

David Horowitz is a sixties revolutionary leftist turned 1980s revolutionary rightist. He resurfaced as an activist-advisor in the George W Bush Campaign in 2000. Years earlier, he was known for his well-publicized attacks against progressive PBS programming and even the middle-of-the-road documentary series Frontline. For years, Horowitz lobbied right wing congressmen to pressure public television stations. He orchestrated calls for de-funding PBS, which he denounced as part of the irresponsible "liberal media." He savagely attacked Bill Moyers for profiting off of public television.

It now turns out, that while he was mouthing off publicly against PBS, he was privately meeting with former PBS President Ervin Duggan, demanding money to produce a right-wing version of Frontline. Current, the public broadcasting trade publication, reports this week reveals "how Horowitz's campaign against liberal bias on public broadcasting opened the door to talks with CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting) leaders about corrective right leaning programs." Although he had no prior TV experience, he got $250,000 for a "treatment" from CPB. CPB and PBS later committed $1.3 million to the project. Duggan later turned against Horowitz as many who know him tend to do. Horowitz still praises Duggan as "fair minded" because "he brought us into the system."

Was this payment a pay-off to quiet the hornets nest of rightist pressure that Horowitz was stirring? How do we know about this backroom dealmaking? PBAS did not admit it nor was there any media expose. At the time, Duggan was giving speeches denouncing both the right and the left in a pretense of evenhandedness. He turned us down when we asked him to support our human rights series.

We only know about wheeling and dealing now because David Horowitz himself has gone public about it, and not simply for purposes of self-aggrandizement. He is suing his former partner in the venture, claiming that he "enriched himself at my expense." This story is page one in Current, out in the very week that PBS kaboshed the broadcast of Counting on Democracy, no doubt fearing it might rankle the White House, "due to the subject matter," to quote PBS. Of course, their rejection was couched in the language of journalistic standards and concerns about "fairness."

Need For Transparencyi Public Broadcsting

Maybe it is time to call for an investigation of PBS, starting with questions about the details of this Horowitz affair. At a time when Americans want transparency and accountability in their institutions, why not ask CPB how many other right wingers and Bush backers were offered similar deals. That probe might start with queries about programs made by Fred Barnes of Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard, who also became an filmmaker overnight thanks to PBS and CPB largesse.

Our experience shows how political PBS is, and how unwilling to carry programs that they think go too far. We wonder how many other important stories unwanted in the dumbed-down commercial media are also being axed by PBS, the only TV programming service with a mandate to serve the public interest? No one has apologized to the voters of America for what happened in Florida, a story that you still may not be able to find out about thanks to PBS's refusal to broadcast it.

Please help us get the word out on Counting on Democracy. Pass this story along. Your reaction is welcome. Counting on Demcracy will be screened at the Hamptons Film festival on Oct 20th. It is available for screening in schools and communities as well. Some leading PBS stations are carrying the film despite the refusal by the national office to carry it. For more information, visit itvs.org/countingondemocracy. Write [email protected]. you can also read more about this story at MediaChannel.org, the website Schechter edits, and on hisWeb Log.
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