Friday, January 28, 2005

Buster's friend has two mommies

Buster visits Wind River, Wyoming Posted by Hello

Buster goes rock-climbing in Boulder Posted by Hello

In case you were wondering whether the Bush Administration actually is an evil cabal of would-be dictators who are pretty sure that they know how everyone else should live, the following article should clear that up.

Written by the hilarious Lisa de Moraes, TV columnist for the Washington Post, the article discusses how PBS, in its all-too-familiar role as eternal political punching bag, caved completely to the Education Department (aka Bush Administration’s czar in charge of how schools should be run even most of the government’s money is going to Iraq).

DOE recently became aware that in one episode of PBS’ Postcards from Buster, the animated bunny visited real-life families in Vermont and learned, shock of all shocks, that two of his new friends had two mommies. The episode wasn’t really about that—it was about how to make maple syrup and cheese and how to speak English—but the two mommies were present and visible. In response to pressure from the Administration (a constant refrain of ‘if you don’t behave yourselves and portray the country in the way we want you to we will pull your funding’), PBS disintegrated like a wet cardboard box and decided not to distribute the episode.

This is not new behavior from PBS. And I have to say I don’t blame them, even though I do think they are pretty much a bunch of lily-livered cowards (what exactly is a ‘lily liver’? Does anyone out there know? And does lily have one L or two?).

The service gets only about 10% of its funding from the government – aka taxpayers. That’s not so much, but it gets the remainder of its money from corporate sponsorships and public fundraising. Constantly accused of having a strong liberal bent, PBS proves Republicans correct when it pulls stunts such as admitting that there are gay people in America. It also faces constant criticism from TV writers and other media watchers who gripe any time anything like a commercial shows up on PBS’ air. That means that if a voice-over comes on after a show saying “this presentation of Nova sponsored by Juicy Juice,” someone has a problem with it.

So, with Republicans looking for any opportunity to kowtow to conservative constituents and liberals watching closely for creeping commercialism, that doesn’t leave PBS with many places left to go to get its money. They end up having to kowtow to someone just so they can keep funding themselves.

According to what I infer from DOE’s objections to the Buster episode, this type of information could be damaging to pre-schoolers’ fragile brains. According to what I infer from preschoolers that I know, they could care less. Preschoolers don’t know that two women or two men or a black man and a white woman or an alcoholic and an enabler aren’t supposed to meet and mate. They just see kids and parents, fun or no fun, love or no love. It’s when the adults, with their closed minds and absolute certainty that things are supposed to be a certain way, get involved that things get complicated.

Of course, I am bringing my own closed mind to this debate, as I am demonstrating by writing this. My closed mind believes that it’s no one else’s business if two women or two men want to have babies. If you are opposed to that or if that disgusts you, that’s your business. What I don’t understand is why people feel so obligated to impose themselves and their way of thinking on others.

With regard to TV programs and kids, I always make two points: 1) there’s an off button and 2) there’s a First Amendment. That means that in this free country of ours most material—other than that which can be proven patently offensive, and that’s not much—should be free to be consumed. It also means that if you have chosen to be a parent, that requires parenting. And parenting requires monitoring a child’s TV watching.

For every parent that’s opposed to kids knowing that some people are gay, there are other parents who are all for it. Why should the pro-gay constituency be penalized by the anti-gay one? Why can’t the anti-gay constituency just change the channel? That's what we liberals do when we accidentally come upon Fox News.

Now, granted, it’s a lot to ask for parents to know the content of every PBS program and episode before their child sits down to watch it. And parents need to have channels where they feel safe letting their children hang out.

But it seems to me that this could be quickly handled by distributing episode information for TV guides ahead of time, and also issuing a warning statement prior to and maybe inside of the program. Even that seems a little Draconian to me, but in fairness, I don’t think parents should be ambushed by potentially objectionable content.

While I think that all the hullaballoo about Janet Jackson’s stupid breast is the most overwraught, pointless, useless debate practically in American history, I also think that Janet and Justin and whatever producers knew about the stunt ahead of time (and whatever they say, at least the two performers knew good and well what they planned to do), and that their 'impromptu' performance took away millions and millions of parents’ right to choose what their children see. That’s where the huge mistake was made. I wonder if Janet and Justin would make the decision again if they knew ahead of time that exposing her breast would threaten our freedom. And I don't think I'm being overly dramatic when I say that, given the debate and censorship that has taken place in this post-Janet world.

I believe people should be given information that allows them to make a choice. What I definitely don’t believe, and the constitution backs me up on this, is that material should be censored just because the party in power objects to it.

PBS's 'Buster' Gets An Education
By Lisa de Moraes

Washington Post
Thursday, January 27, 2005; Page C01

PBS was surprised to receive a letter from new Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, warning the public TV network against airing an upcoming episode of the kids show "Postcards From Buster," because PBS had already informed her office it would not send the episode to its stations, programming co-chief John Wilson says.

"We made the decision . . . [Tuesday] afternoon, a couple of hours before we received the letter from the secretary of education," Wilson told The TV Column yesterday.

"It came at the end of many days, maybe even a few weeks, of looking at rough cuts of the program and deliberating."

Spellings, who has been charged with the difficult task of fixing the nation's troubled public education system, took time out on her second day on the job to fire off a letter to PBS CEO Pat Mitchell expressing "strong and very serious concerns" about the "Postcards From Buster" episode. Specifically that, in the episode, called "Sugartime!," the animated asthmatic little bunny visits Vermont and meets actual, real-live, not make-believe children there who have gay parents.

For those of you unfamiliar with the spinoff of the popular children's series "Arthur," which combines animation and live action, each week, 8-year-old animated Buster and his animated dad travel to another locale, where Buster, armed with his video camera, meets actual, non-animated people, who introduce him to the local scene -- clogging in Whitesburg, Ky.; rodeo barrel racing in Houston; monoskiing in Park City, Utah; doing the Arapaho Grass Dance at the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Additionally, Buster meets a family from a different cultural background.

In the episode that knotted Spellings's knickers, Buster goes to Vermont and meets children from two families, who show him how maple syrup and cheese are made.

At one of the homes, Buster is introduced to all of the children and to the two moms. One girl explains that one of the women is her "stepmom," whom she says she loves a lot.

One of the women asks the kids to get some maple syrup and some cheese for dinner, and to stop by the other home to borrow a big lasagna pan. In the other home, Buster is introduced to the whole family, including two more moms. Then the kids head off to get the ingredients, and Buster learns where syrup and cheese come from.

In her letter, Spellings reminded Mitchell that the show is being funded in part by the Education Department and that a principal focus of the law authorizing such "Ready-to-Learn" programming is "facilitating student academic achievement."

In the conference committee report for fiscal year 2005 appropriations, Spellings continues, Congress reiterated that the unique mission of Ready-to-Learn is: "to use the television medium to help prepare preschool age children for school. The television programs that must fulfill this mission are to be specifically designed for this purpose, with the highest attention to production quality and validity of research-based educational objectives, content and materials."

"You should also know," Spellings says, "that two years ago the Senate Appropriations Committee raised questions about the accountability of funds appropriated for Ready-To-Learn programs." A bit ominous, we think.

"We believe the 'Sugartime!' episode does not come within these purposes or within the intent of Congress and would undermine the overall objective of the Ready-To-Learn program -- to produce programming that reaches as many children and families as possible," Spellings wrote.
Why, you might wonder, given that preschoolers who watch the episode learn how maple syrup and cheese are made, not to mention useful English-language phrases (the series is also designed to help children for whom English is a second language).

Because, Spellings explained in her letter, "many parents would not want their young children exposed to the life-styles portrayed in this episode." She did not say how many is "many," or cite a source for that information.

Congress's point in funding this programming "certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children," she added.

Au contraire, says WGBH, which produces "Postcards." The Boston public TV station says it will air the episode and has offered it to any station willing to defy the Education Department, which, in fairness, did shovel out major bucks for this series and, therefore, understandably feels it has the right to get in its two conservative cents' worth.

According to Brigid Sullivan, WGBH's vice president of children's programming, the RFP -- that's government-speak for request for proposals -- on the show said Ready-to-Learn was looking for a program that would "appeal to all of America's children by providing them with content and or characters with which they can identify. Diversity will be incorporated into the fabric of the series to help children understand and respect differences and learn to live in a multicultural society. The series will avoid stereotypical images of all kinds and show modern multi-ethnic/lingual/cultural families and children."

Except, it would seem, children who have two mothers.

"We have produced 40 episodes," Sullivan said. "We have tried to reach across as many cultures, as many religions, as many family structures as we can. We gave it our best-faith effort. We have received hate mail for doing [an episode] about a Muslim girl. We've also received mail from Muslims saying thank you."

Buster, Sullivan said, has visited "Mormons in Utah, the Hmong in Wisconsin, the Gullah culture in South Carolina, Orthodox Jewish families, a Pentecostal Christian family -- we are trying to do a broad reach and we are trying to do it without judgment."

According to Sullivan, the "Buster" brouhaha started in December when, during a routine meeting of representatives from WGBH, PBS and the Education Department to discuss upcoming episodes, a WGBH rep mentioned that there might be some "buzz" on "Sugartime!" PBS insists that although it made its decision not to distribute the episode on the very same day that the newly appointed Spellings decided to fire off her letter, the decision had nothing to do with the kerfuffle brewing at Education over the episode.

Which, we've said before in similar situations, sounds great if you were born yesterday; otherwise, not so much.

"Ultimately we came to the conclusion that what was meant to be the background or backdrop of two families that happened to be headed by two mothers continued to find its way into the foreground," Wilson said.

"It's too sensitive to raise in a children's program," he added. "We know we have a number of kids . . . who don't have a parent or caregiver in with them watching to put it in context. At the end of the day what was meant to be a sort of background context of who this family is and who the parents are, overshadowed what the episode was really about, which was going to this part of America and learning about things that are uniquely Vermont.

"Yesterday afternoon we literally decided that it was an issue best left for parents and children to address together at a time and manner of their own choosing."

We asked all parties involved what they would say to the children who were filmed for this episode, and who expected to be seen on national TV and are now being told by the federal government that their families are not fit for other children to see on national TV -- at least not on any show that has received federal funding.

"That's a difficult question," Sullivan responded. "I guess I'd have to say from the producers' standing . . . it was our intention to include, not to exclude, anyone who is part of our society, and that for children to see a reflection of themselves on TV is an important part of their development."

"I've been thinking about that today," Wilson said. "Honestly, I feel for these families because they're real people, not actors cast and paid to do this, and I do feel bad that through no fault of their own and ultimately no fault of the producers they have been put in a situation they never imagined themselves in. To that end, I'm sorry for that."

An Education Department spokeswoman responded in a statement: "The episode is inappropriate for preschoolers. We are funding an education program for preschoolers, and one would be hard-pressed to explain how this serves as educational material for preschoolers. It's up to parents to decide for their children, not the government in a taxpayer-funded video for preschoolers."

We asked her to clarify what it was the department felt should be left to parents. She explained: "To decide when they want their kids to know about the lifestyles depicted in the film."

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