The Independent Television Service (ITVS) is a left-wing "independent" film-makers collective funded through our tax dollars (the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to be exact). "Independent" isn’t really the right word. These filmmakers may be outside a corporate or studio system, but any glance of the ITVS grants shows there are no conservative filmmakers in America today making anti-Michael Moore films that celebrate capitalism or anti-abortion films or films against illegal immigration with government subsidies provided by ITVS.
ITVS lives up to its leftist values by adding political activism. It has a community-organizing emphasis. It shows its films not just on PBS stations, but also organizes free community showings in theaters. It also has hired organizers to "leverage" its leftist films to "build stronger connections" and spur on a more aggressive fight for "social justice."
This leads to often open partnerships with left-wing organizations. For example, a documentary about migrant workers called Los Trabajadores had a list of "national partners" in activism, including the AFL-CIO, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund. On the ITVS website, filmmaker Heather Courtney was pleased that her film was a starting point for pro-illegal alien activism: "Many community-based day labor and immigrant rights groups are using Los Trabajadores to organize immigrant workers and as a general educational tool to help fight misconceptions. It’s also being used in high school and university classes."
ITVS grantees can be quite explicit about their partisan activism. Chris Christopher, co-producer of the Independent Lens documentary July ‘64 about race riots in Rochester, New York, proclaimed: "I love all the work that I do and feel fortunate that people offer me interesting work – primarily advising Democratic candidates and creating social messaging campaigns for not-for-profit organizations."
Many of the ITVS films are shown on PBS stations through the series Independent Lens. The ITVS website is currently promoting the Ralph Nader documentary An Unreasonable Man as one of its highlights for December 18. One of the filmmakers, Steve Skrovan – also a longtime scriptwriter for the CBS sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond and a blogger for The Huffington Post – lauded Nader as an amazing American leader: "There’s a penetrating intelligence and analysis that I think history is going to show. His diagnosis is correct. I think it’s a good time to reevaluate his message and really listen to it because it’s been consistent and it’s based on a lot of experience." Skrovan was blunt about his point of view: "We’ve been given a lot of credit for being balanced and fair-minded, and we appreciate that, but that was not actually our intent. We’re telling the story from Nader’s point of view. We’re clearly biased." Here are some other examples of films opposing Team Bush and his policies:
– "Counting on Democracy" (2002) was described as a tale of "race, political payback, voter fraud and justice deferred," charging that in the presidential race in Florida in 2000, 175,000 "people of color" were banned from voting or had their ballots thrown out. ITVS funded the Gore-should-have-won film, but PBS executives blanched from airing it nationwide just before the 2002 elections, as filmmakers hoped. Many PBS stations aired the film after the election. But, matching the usual ITVS pattern, this taxpayer-subsidized lament was shown at free screeenings in the summer and fall of 2002. In Florida, screenings were hosted in July by state Rep. Hank Harper, a Democrat from Palm Beach. In October, in Detroit a town hall meeting co-sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Raymond Murphy and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators included a showing of the film.
– "Rising Water: Global Warming and the Fate of the Pacific Islands" (2002) was hailed by the Philadelphia Inquirer: "It’s ironic that while the leading economic countries contribute the most pollution, the effects may be first felt by countries that pollute very little. This program looks at the effects of rising water levels, due to global warming, on Pacific islands. Some of the islands are losing valuable land, and in the future entire islands may disappear." In April of 2002, the film’s public screening occurred in Cincinnati, co-sponsored by the Cincinnati Film Society – and the Sierra Club. The ITVS website for the film links directly to the Sierra Club under the headline "What You Can Do."
– "En Route to Baghdad" (2005) chronicled the life of United Nations diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, assassinated with a bomb in Baghdad by insurgents in 2003. But criticism of the American liberation of Iraq from the UN’s point of view dominated. "I think the doctrine of preemptive action died in Baghdad," proclaimed UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. French socialist and U.N. diplomat Bernard Kouchner declared: "In the face of extremism and terrorism, which for me has nothing to do with Islam, we can no longer rely solely on the image of the U.N. flag."
As much as the film lionized its protagonist, the bombing is almost hailed. "What I see now is like a post-modern victory for Sergio because now they recognize the whole process lacked legitimacy," claimed Ghassan Salame, a UN senior adviser on Iraq. Salame demanded a "new chapter where those who went into the war recognize their error, their huge mistake, and the huge mistakes they have done since the war has ended in disbanding the Army, and disbanding the police, and de-Baathification, and comparing Saddam to Hitler and Baghdad to Berlin, all this bulls–t that we heard since the war has ended." Notions of any conflict of interest with the U.N. or filmmaker Simone Duarte didn’t get in the way of ITVS support. Duarte, like Vieira de Mello, worked for the U.N. in East Timor. Her film won an award from the U.N. Correspondents Association and was shown at the United Nations Association film festival in Monterey, California.
– "The Cats of Mirikitani" (2006) followed Jimmy Mirikitani, an elderly homeless artist in New York City. Variety’s review explained what begins as a "straightforward" film "winds up as an indictment of U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans" during World War II, and filmmaker Linda Hattendorf makes parallels between Japanese-Americans and post-9/11 America, when "reports on racist attacks against Muslims in the U.S. raise frightening specters of his past."
– "Motherland Afghanistan" (2007) is a very personal film: filmmaker Sedika Mojadidi followed her doctor father around as he tried to deliver babies in harsh conditions in Afghanistan, beginning in a maternity ward named for Laura Bush. Even New York Times TV critic Virginia Heffernan found the show to be an exploitative attack on the Bush administration. One scene where a pregnant woman arrived with bruises on her neck was critiqued: "Having suffered seizures caused by preeclampsia, she was taken by her family to a mullah, who beat her to end them. Now she is unconscious, and her baby has died in utero. Dr. Mojadidi pushes her head around on the examining table to show the camera the blue marks on her throat. This seems exploitative."
Heffernan lamented: "We’re left thinking we had to look at this for our own good, that examining an unconscious woman’s private bruises doubles as -- what? A searching critique of the Bush administration’s effort at post-9/11 nation-building? This is an extremely bad-faith way to structure a polemic, and it leaves the viewer stuck with nothing but unease and, worse, a sense that the unease cannot be a product of the film. It must be her own fault."
This article is excerpted from the MRC Special Report No Fairness Doctrine for PBS.