CPB Office of the Ombudsman

Alabama Outrage

Joel Kaplan

July 26, 2012

The firings of two long-time public broadcasting executives at Alabama Public Television has led to outrage, consternation, mass resignations and questions about whether the political appointees of the Alabama Educational Television Commission were seeking to force the station to broadcast programs based on creationism.

The machinations behind the surprise June 12 firing of Allan Pizzato, executive director of APT for 12 years, and his deputy Pauline Howland, were first detailed in Current, the bi-weekly industry newspaper that covers public media and which is based at American University. Current's in-depth exposition of the events leading to the firing can be found on their website.

In an attempt to find out what happened in Alabama and whether the APT Commission's firing of its top two executives had anything to do with those executives' insistence that any local broadcast adhere to objectivity and balance standards, the office of the ombudsman attempted to contact all members of the Commission as well as Ms. Howland and Mr. Pizzato. On the advice of his attorney, Mr. Pizzato has not spoken to any reporters about his dismissal, but he agreed to speak with the CPB ombudsman.

The structure of Alabama Public Television involves seven commissioners who are appointed to 10-year terms by the governor. There is also the Alabama Educational Television Foundation Authority, a board that consists of the seven commissioners plus five people appointed by the commission. The authority is designed to raise funds for the station. Finally, there is an Alabama Public Television Foundation Board, a private body that also raises funds for APT.

The vote to terminate Mr. Pizzato and Ms. Howland was 5-2. Following the dismissals, four of the Foundation Authority board members resigned and three members of the Foundation Board also resigned.

Those who were dismissed and who resigned point to two areas of disagreement that they say caused the rift. The first was the insistence by some board members that the station run tapes produced by conservative activist David Barton. Mr. Barton's website is designed to present "America's forgotten history and heroes with an emphasis on our moral, religious, and constitutional heritage."

The second was the APT mission statement that called for diversity that went beyond race and gender but also included "disability, religious belief, age, culture, sexual orientation, physicality, education and socioeconomic status."

But Ferris W. Stephens, chairman of the commission, said that the firings did not have anything to do with those issues.

"We wanted a general change in direction," he said. "We wanted fresh leadership. We wanted more energy. We just want more state and local programming."

Mr. Stephens said that the Barton tapes were not discussed on the day the two were fired even though they were on the agenda. He said that the commission was in the process of checking with the FCC over whether the tapes violated FCC rules. He added that there was never a confirmed decision to have the Barton tapes aired, "just a suggestion." Finally, he added that the diversity issue in the mission statement never came up.

Joseph B. Mays Jr., the former foundation authority chair and one of the four members who resigned following the firings said he quit because, "I didn't like the fact of the dismissals or the way it was done. I thought it was a bad decision. I thought it was inappropriate. I thought if you sit there and do nothing you acquiesce in what is going on."

Mr. Mays has been on the foundation board for 20 years and "in that time I have seen a lot of changes. But the foundation and the commission have always been nonpolitical people who were interested in public TV and doing the right thing. Over the last two to three years people have died, rolled off of the commission and new people have come in and in my opinion have a political agenda.

"This was an ambush. They went in there with all of these folks in their pockets. Allan and Pauline are top-flight, first-rate professional people. She is a financial manager and a very good one. Every year we get audited by an accounting firm and every year we pass with flying colors. I hope the commission is going to see the error of their ways."

Mr. Mays added that he has grave concerns about the future of the station and "with what's going on I didn't feel good about asking people to give money to Alabama Public Television."

Dr. Rodney D. Herring, the secretary of the commission, said he supported the dismissals. "We went into executive session to address some issues that were private so it wouldn't create a blemish on these peoples' career," he said. "A motion was made to dismiss them by another member and I did support it.

"What was covered in executive session was about a series of events that happened over a period of time."

Robert Nesbitt, another authority member who resigned in protest of the firings, said the commission "took this action against two individual who I believe are exemplary in the way they carried out their responsibilities for Alabama Public Television."

He added that the firings would have a negative effect on the station because of the national reputation that Mr. Pizzato has garnered. "As this becomes widely known I think you will have individuals and corporations who will rethink their participation in Alabama Public Television especially if it is true that things took place relative to religion and sexual orientation," Mr. Nesbitt said.

A third authority member who resigned, retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Venzetta Penn McPherson, was equally adamant that the two executives should not have been dismissed.

"I resigned from the board because of the firing of two exemplary employees; employees who have taken APT to a new level in programming, internal administration and fundraising," she said. "APT is a valuable cultural asset in Alabama. There has never been any scandal associated with the network and Pizzato and Howland are highly regarded."

Several authority members cited the Barton tapes and Mr. Pizzato's obtaining a letter from legal counsel that indicated broadcast of the tapes would violate FCC rules as well as CPB requirements involving objectivity and balance. The commissioners then sought out their own legal counsel.

The following are excerpts from interviews with both Mr. Pizzato and Ms. Howland. Sherri Williams, research assistant for the CPB ombudsman, conducted both interviews:

On why he was dismissed from his position:

Pizzato:

I think quite simply I had an issue with some of the directions they were wanting to go specifically in terms of programming also some of the changes they wanted to make in the diversity statement. I was trying to keep a lid on this for as long as I could to get them to understand why they shouldn't be doing those things but they fired me.

On what happened at the meeting before he was fired and his plans with dealing with the push to have the WallBuilders programs aired on APT:

Pizzato:

I discussed a program called "In the Public Interest" which was a program that was designed to tackle some of those issues that the board wanted in programming, specifically the use of bibles in classrooms, specifically religion in politics. I made the point that if we were doing programs with our journalists and we were controlling the content then we could tackle those issues along with a myriad of a lot of issues that we could talk about. The whole idea was, this is what I was trying to do, to offer it in place of running those WallBuilders programs because I was not going to run those WallBuilders programs. And I already informed them of that. So I gave the airdate which was going to premier Aug. 31 and who the host was and I told them that's what that program was for to consider some of those issues which seemed to be part of what the concern was.

Then we talked a little more about balanced programming. I actually looked through programming records and I had some of my people do that, programs that have aired on public television stations that were done by journalists in journalistic fashion and dealt with the subject of creationism because that was a topic that was constantly being pushed in my face by one of the board members.

On his research on what APT could air to appease the commissioners who wanted a program on creationism:

Pizzato:

I had one of my staff people do research on it. I actually watched the program done by Northern Michigan University — I believe by their public television station. I believe "Voices of Creation/ism" is the name of the program.

That program didn't have an airdate but I was going to schedule that program. So that was something I did. It is something that other PBS stations had done. I watched the program. It had high journalistic standards. They were interviewing scientists from NASA and other people. It was not religious based whatsoever. It was just saying some of these things are foolish and don't make sense, don't fit. These were their arguments. It was a program that I thought counterbalanced well all of the evolution programs that I was told that we air all of the time.

On the resignation of the authority members in protest of his firing:

Pizzato:

I'm flattered that they feel that way. I appreciate their concern. It's a real concern that everybody should have. They took a stand and I admire them for taking that stand. I worry about leadership at APT and I worry about how they're going to continue on with their fundraising.

I mean these were some of our most admired and respected individuals and major corporations in this state and they're saying they don't agree with this…How is this going to affect the station down the road?

Mr. Pizzato also spoke at length about the role the WallBuilders films played in his dismissal. He said that it was during the December board meeting one of the commissioners came to him and told him about these great tapes about the founding of the country and that should air on APT. Mr. Pizzato said he started watching the tapes "and I immediately felt that these were something that should not be, could not be on Alabama Public Television, that shouldn't be on public television." He then contacted the station's attorney, who told him that airing the tapes could be problematic.

Despite increasing pressure from the Commission, he refused to run the tapes.

On why he believes the commissioners were wrong to attempt to broadcast the tapes over his objection:

Pizzato:

The programming decisions of what is put on the air and what is said on the air is the responsibility of the management, executive management and the programmers of that station. It is not the responsibility of the board.

That to me is the biggest issue because this is bigger than Alabama Public Television and much bigger than Allan Pizzato. This is an issue that I know has managers worried all over the system. If there is a governmental agency that is responsible for the license of the station those entities keep an arm's length distance from that board making programming decisions. And my feeling was this was a direct violation of that. It's something that commissioners in the past had agreed to. This commission had not agreed to it. This was my way of trying to get them to see here is the reasoning…we never got to that discussion.

Pauline Howland on why she was fired as well:

Howland:

Officially they have given me no reason other than perhaps I've heard it phrased as guilty by association. In other words they definitely wanted to fire Allan for undisclosed reasons but because I am second in command and demonstrated some loyalty and supported him then I needed to go as well.

On why she agreed to continue on in a consulting role after she was fired and after the Commission realized they needed her help to finish the budget that was due this month:

Howland:

I don't like to leave unfinished business. I always like to leave things tidied up and in good shape. I felt really compelled to help the organization in any way that I could. I felt like it was the best thing to do for the organization.

On why she believes it was the WallBuilders tapes and the diversity statement that was at the heart of the firings:

Howland:

He (Allen) had been given these tapes by a commissioner to air. It was unanimous that we have great concerns for its appropriateness for public television because of the advocacy and call to action. And there are questions about its historical accuracy. It's our job to advise the commissioners about these things.

Most of the time these commissioners are not broadcasters and they don't really understand the rules and how public television works. But there was still anger and resistance to him bringing up the concerns.

They felt like our programming was so unbalanced when it came to the evolutionism and creationism debate. Allan suggested a program that had been aired on public television and he suggested that they produce a program with guests who could talk about the two ideas. That wasn't enough.

Ms. Howland added that a lot of the friction has occurred over the diversity statement and those things were maybe a part of why Allan was dismissed. She said that a commissioner wanted sexual orientation taken out of the mission statement and Mr. Pizzato said he could not do it. He was told that the legislature did not like it.

On July 18, Allan Pizzato sued APT for wrongful termination. APT also changed its mission statement upon the firing of the two executives.

On July 19, Charles Grantham, the chief operating officer for APT, who has worked there since 1978, wrote a letter to Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley imploring him to examine what has happened to the network. "If something is not done immediately to stop this destructive spiral, it may be that history will record that under the watch of Governor Robert Bentley, Alabama Educational Television died an untimely death," he said.

Ombudsman's observations:

The demand by some political appointees of the Alabama Educational Television Commission that APT staff broadcast tapes by David Barton's WallBuilders group was improper, unethical, and outrageous.

Commissioners or boards of directors should not be getting directly involved in programmatic decision-making. Nor should they be threatening editorial employees with their jobs if they do not follow such improper orders. The recent code of editorial integrity that has been developed by local public media throughout the country clearly says such tampering is improper.

The commissioners who voted to fire Mr. Pizzato and Ms. Howland and agreed to speak about it simply said that they wanted the station to go in a new direction. But the fact that they made such a decision in private without any public discussion or notice is exactly the type of lack of transparency that is troubling in a situation like this one. If it wasn't about the WallBuilders tapes or the diversity statement then the Commission needs to spell out exactly what these two executives did wrong.

Without such disclosure, all the available evidence suggests that it was the refusal to broadcast the WallBuilders tapes or to change the mission statement that ended the careers of two highly respected public broadcasting executives.

And if that is the case, then the commissioners of APT who fired those two need to understand that what they did violated several precepts of public broadcasting.

Even a cursory examination of WallBuilders indicates that this organization is more interested in proselytizing than in educating or informing.

On the home page of the WallBuilders Website is a promotion for David Barton's book: The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson. The book purports to show, among other things, that Jefferson was not an advocate of the separation of church and state and that he did not father a child with his slave, Sally Hemings. On July 16, the History News Network, based at George Mason University, released its list of the least credible history books in print. Mr. Barton's book on Jefferson was the top vote getter for the least credible history book.

In another article on his website, Mr. Barton calls President Obama America's most biblically-hostile U.S. president in history.

One needn't be a supporter of President Obama to read the piece and see that Mr. Barton's assertion that the president is anti-Catholic, anti-Christian and anti-Jew does not hold up under even the least bit of scrutiny. It is clear why the news executives at APT refused to run Mr. Barton's tapes and it is shocking that their refusal to run such material would lead to their dismissal.

With Mr. Pizzato's lawsuit now pending, the resignation of so many foundation board members, and other media outlets scrutinizing what is going on in Alabama, it is likely that much more will come out about what is happening at APT.

However, in the meantime it looks like the viewers of APT will be the ones suffering from such inept leadership.

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