PBS Planning to Kick Out Stations That Broadcast 'Sectarian' Religious Programs

Here’s one sign that the zeitgeist in Barack Obama’s Washington is going to please the secular left. On Saturday, Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi highlighted a policy shift brewing inside PBS: the PBS Board is going to vote in June on a committee’s recommendation that PBS strip the affiliation of any station that carries "sectarian" content. Broadcast religious programming – like a Catholic Mass – and you’ll lose every PBS program from Sesame Street to the NewsHour.

Apparently, PBS passed a fairness-and-balance policy in 1985 that insisted on "Three Nons" – noncommercial, nonpartisan, and nonsectarian.

Are they serious? PBS routinely fails at nonpartisanship, and its programs have long been a commercial bonanza for savvy "nonprofiteers." The "sectarian" use of PBS, by comparison, is quite rare and localized.

Farhi reports that WHUT, based at Howard University in Washington, has already informed the Archdiocese of Washington it will cancel its "Mass for Shut-Ins" if the PBS Board approves the policy. But here’s where it gets weird: WHUT’s general manager, Jennifer Lawson, a former top PBS manager, chairs the committee that’s recommending the anti-sectarian policy.

But the current proposal would deem "religious services of faith-based groups" as inappropriate, she said. "The intent is for [PBS stations] to show editorial independence," Lawson said.

That’s an odd quote, considering that the current practice of a few stations having a more sectarian character shows "editorial independence." Stripping these stations to conform to a more national model means less editorial independence. Here’s more from the Farhi report:

A strict ban would leave stations such as WLAE in New Orleans with a dilemma: Stop airing its daily telecast of Catholic Mass or end its affiliation with PBS. The station, which is partly owned by a Catholic lay group, has been presenting the morning Mass since it went on the air in 1984.

"We don't want to lose our association with PBS, because they provide a lot of fine programs," said Ron Yager, the station's vice president and general manager. "But at the same time, we need to serve our community. We've built an identity around this. People know us for this."

Yager said his station has never received a complaint about the Mass telecast in the 25 years it has aired. "I'm really not totally sure of their reasoning for doing this," he said.

Lawson said her station has never had a complaint about its Mass broadcasts, either. But the program has sparked interest from other religious groups that would like the station to broadcast their church or mosque services, she said. "We just have to tell them that ['Mass for Shut-Ins'] is a legacy program, and that we don't have the wherewithal or inclination to do any more," she said.

Is this why Lawson’s committee is pushing for an end to "sectarian" content? Muslims are demanding air time from the mosques? Here’s more:

Like WLAE, some public TV stations are licensed to religious organizations that tailor locally produced shows to their beliefs.

KBYU in Provo, Utah, for example, is operated by Brigham Young University, which in turn is affiliated with the Mormon Church. The station airs much of the usual PBS fare -- "Arthur," "Barney," "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" -- but also broadcasts two hours a day of "BYU Devotional," which includes lectures from leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. KMBH, based in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and licensed to an affiliate of the Diocese of Brownsville, carries Sunday Mass broadcasts, Bible study in Spanish, and a family issues program hosted by a priest. In 2007, the station drew national attention when it declined to air "Hand of God," a critically praised "Frontline" documentary about clergy sexual abuse.

Jan McNamara, a PBS spokeswoman, declined specific comment, saying only, "We're still gathering feedback from our members to see where they stand."

Current.org, which reports on the public broadcasting community, had more detail in an earlier report, but it’s quite clear that Jennifer Lawson’s committee is eager to protect the "erosion" of the PBS brand that religious programming represents:

Station Services Committee Chair Jennifer Lawson told Current that the board is striving to achieve "some degree of clarity of what sectarian programming is, and it would be assumed that a religious service like a Mass would be sectarian."

In contrast, she said, shows like the journalistic Religion & Ethics Newsweekly or the geo-history documentary Walking the Bible are acceptably nonsectarian.

The rule could affect Lawson’s own station; she is g.m. of Howard University’s WHUT in Washington, which carries Mass for Shut-ins on Sundays. Denver’s KBDI also airs a local Mass. If the membership pact changes, stations that run worship services would be advised to "migrate that off of public television," she predicted.

Lawson said the board will vote on the Three Nons issue before its next meeting, June 14-16 [2009].

The committee explained its backing for the Three Nons rules in a draft of its report. The committee "believes that if PBS or its Member Stations were perceived by the public to be ‘commercial,’ ‘political’ or ‘sectarian,’ PBS could be hampered in its ability to carry out its mission."

PBS, it continues, "places a high value on presenting diverse perspectives, as opposed to rigidly adhering to any single political or religious point of view."

Allowing such programming "would cause the public’s trust in PBS to erode, along with the value of the brand."

Erosion of a brand? That doesn’t sound non-commercial. It sounds very corporate. Look down at the bottom of the Current.org article, and you’ll see PBS recommending changes to make a better impression with....Nielsen ratings counters. That doesn’t sound non-commercial, either.

The craziest part of all of this is the PBS managers who can suggest PBS places a "high value" on "diverse perspectives" on politics.

Tim Graham's picture