Lord help us. Alabama Public Television (APT), a voice of reason in a state that often seems to have very little, is apparently succumbing to the crazies.
Last week, the two top executives of the network were summarily fired by the Alabama Educational Television Commission, APT’s governing body, after they resisted an effort by a new commissioner to air DVDs produced by a far-right theocrat who has been roundly condemned by historians. In the days that followed, three members of a foundation set up to raise money for APT also resigned.
The videos were produced by David Barton, an evangelical propagandist who claims falsely that America was founded as a Christian nation and has also become Glenn Beck’s unofficial — and completely untrained — “historian.” The DVDs were suggested by commissioner Rodney Herring, an Opelika-based chiropractor who was appointed to the panel last year and elected its secretary in January.
Immediately after meeting in executive session June 12, commissioners ordered APT Executive Director Allan Pizzato and his deputy, Pauline Howland, to clear out their desks and leave APT’s Birmingham headquarters. Pizzato had been APT executive director for 12 years; Howland was his deputy director and the network’s chief financial officer.
Pizzato would not comment on the reasons for the firing, other than to say commissioners were seeking to go in “a new direction.” But Howland, in an interview with Current.org, a news service of the American University’s School of Communication, said that Pizzato and his staff had “grave concerns” about airing the videos, which strongly advocate a religious interpretation of the past that historians say is simply wrong. She said she was “baffled” by the firings but recalled Pizatto asking his staff for advice on how to respond to Herring’s proposal.
Commission Chairman Ferris Stephens disputed Current’s report in an interview with The Associated Press, but gave no specifics. Herring, for his part, claimed that disagreement over the Barton DVDs played an “at best minimal” role in the firings, which he described as part of an overall restructuring effort. “We believe it to be a positive change,” wrote another commissioner, conservative talk radio host J. Holland, in response to AP’s queries about the firings. “Simple as that.”
As simple as that? Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I don’t believe it.
Stephens told the AP that Barton’s videos had been discussed in the last meeting before the one that produced the firings last week. He said there was another item related to Barton’s organization, WallBuilders, on the agenda for last week’s meeting, but that the commission didn’t get to that item before adjourning. Herring, for his part, denied knowing that Pizzato and Howland had any opinion at all about the DVDs, although Howland told Current that Pizzato had made it clear that he thought the films were “inappropriate” for APT.
Why is it that Pizzato and Howland were fired just as the matter seemed to be coming to a head? Why won’t Stephens and the other commissioners cough up the real reason for the firings, if it wasn’t what seems obvious? When the AP story ran last week, Herring was quoted saying the station may indeed broadcast some of the Barton videos. In fact, he said the commission had consulted attorneys about that possibility. That’s a funny thing to do if you’re just deciding whether to show a film on public television, not making controversial personnel decisions.
The sad truth is, this kind of extremism is getting to be par for the course in Alabama. We passed the immigrant-bashing H.B. 56 and, when legal problems with it came up, our legislators responded by actually making the draconian bill even worse. Last month, the same legislature, after the John Birch Society warned hysterically about a United Nations global sustainability plan, actually passed a law saying that property here cannot be confiscated as part of Agenda 21 — even though that entirely voluntary plan does not and could not require that. One of our current congressmen even claimed a few years back that he knew of 17 “socialists” in the U.S. Congress — although, like Joe McCarthy, he declined to name them.
Why does Rodney Herring want to show Barton’s videos? He isn’t saying. But what Barton has to say should make Alabamians’ hair stand on end.
Barton doesn’t only not believe in global warming — he thinks reducing carbon dioxide emissions would actually devastate the planet. Barton fought to have the names of Martin Luther King Jr. and labor activist Cesar Chavez removed from public school textbooks. He says God set the borders of nations, so immigration reform is unnecessary. He argues that homosexuality should be regulated because gay people “die decades earlier than heterosexuals” and more than half of all gays have had more than 500 sex partners — both falsehoods.
It isn’t only liberals who dislike Barton. Derek Davis, director of the J.M. Dawson Institute on Church-State Studies at Baylor University, says “a lot of what he presents is a distortion of the truth.” J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, says his writings are “laced with exaggerations, half-truths and misstatements of fact.” Mark Lilla, a scholar who has taught at University of Chicago and Columbia University, says Barton’s work is “schlock history written by [a] religious propagandist” and uses “selective quotations out of context.”
But none of this apparently came up when the commissioners, in their great wisdom, decided to fire Allan Pizzato and Pauline Howland. Instead, it looks like Barton’s backers succeeded, by a reported 5-2 vote, in silencing their own eminently sensible executives, and then refusing to come clean with the public about their action.
Once again, Alabama will be the poorer. Lord help us.