The entire point of the Public Broadcasting Station is to get high quality television programming, primarily public interest and educational material, out to a general audience which, because of poverty, remote or rural living, or for other reasons, may not have the same access to information as other viewers. From Sesame Street to NewsHour, PBS’s goal is to limit the information gaps that occur due to inability to access information in a growing technologically exclusive landscape.
As part of their contract to public interest and information, the POV (Point of View) series was established to offer documentaries on issues that effect our everyday life, and abortion is one of them. By offering “After Tiller,” an award winning documentary that shows the private lives and every day patient encounters of four doctors who perform abortions into the third trimester, the station sought to show a public view of what factors both providers and patients weigh when getting later abortions, a meaningful debate while the country is rapidly passing abortion restrictions in an attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Of course, anti-abortion advocates were incensed. Any portrayal of an abortion that does not follow their script of what should be shown — abortion patients who later change their minds and regret them, the remains of a procedure, abortion providers who joined the pro-life movement, or some combination of the three — cannot be tolerated. Because the only proper way to show an abortion scenario is to show the type they approve of, activists went to work to pressure PBS to drop the show.
“‘After Tiller’ is nothing short of pure propaganda intended to demonize the entire pro-life movement and drum up support for late-term abortion,” Judie Brown, president of American Life League, said in a press release demanding the station not air the documentary. “Why are pro-life tax dollars being used to paint a sympathetic picture of abortionists who stab babies in the base of their skulls just moments before they are born? Where is the sympathy for the babies, whose brains are being sucked out by vacuum machines by these abortionists?”
PBS, as a whole, refused to cave to pressure. Local affiliates? Not as much.
“It was my decision alone not to do it [show the movie],” Ronnie Agnew, executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting told Andy Kopsa at Cosmopolitan, “and it was a hard decision for Ronnie Agnew…You know, it felt like here we are on a celebratory day, and it is too heavy.” Agnew added that the station would not show it later, and if people wanted to watch it they had “ample” opportunity to do so online, or if they couldn’t, they could contact him and he’d make sure they could watch it somehow, although he wasn’t specific in what that actually meant.
Mississippi may have refused to show the documentary all together, but others found their own way to technically show the film while doing their best to make sure it had no viewers.
Reproductive rights activist Pamela Willis Watters contacted Georgia Public Broadcasting only to find out that they shifted their viewing off the main GPB channel and on to GPB Knowledge, as well as moved the date two days later than it was originally announced it would run. Similar stories came in regarding stations in other states, such as in Alabama where the only times it will play on the main station are at 2 and 3 in the morning.
The idea that taxpayers somehow have say over the shows coming through public broadcasting stations, and that if they don’t agree with them, they shouldn’t run, is ludicrous. But then again, so is the idea that because taxpayers don’t like abortion or birth control, they shouldn’t have to pay taxes that could potentially go to either of those things, either, and that’s somehow been enshrined in law. While they may not have been able to pressure the entire national PBS into bending to their will, they were able to do it in a number of states where, ironically, the documentary may have done the most good when it comes to providing more depth and compassion in the abortion debate.
No one was forcing abortion opponents to watch the documentary, just like no one forces a person who disapproves of abortion into having one. Yet the idea that others are accessing something they hate — either the procedure itself, or just an idea that is contrary to what they believe — is a threat that must be attacked, and voraciously.
Their beliefs are the only beliefs that can be allowed, and that goes for not just the reproductive health clinics, but the airwaves as well.
Photo credit: Thinkstock