Modern media need to show a little more courage

Published February 27, 2005

The topic at hand was courage. And what it means when the media actually show some.

It was suggested to me recently that local PBS station WEDU-Ch. 3 was showing courage these days. After all, they aired the uncut version of a Frontline documentary on soldiers in Iraq featuring several profanities and broadcast a controversial Postcards From Buster episode featuring a family headed by a lesbian couple - presenting the kids' show at 9 p.m. Thursday with a panel discussion on the flak.

Both programs had been the subject of much media hand-wringing, as stations fretted that the FCC might fine them for airing Frontline's profanities and newly appointed Education Secretary Margaret Spellings denounced Buster for spending public money exploring a family "many parents would not want their young children exposed to."

It was marvelous to see a station which depends on public donations counter the tsunami of misplaced outrage on both these issues, earning serious credibility and compliment. In airing the Buster episode, which PBS yanked from its national feed, WEDU showed more gumption than the 300 or so public TV stations which haven't yet planned to air it at all.

But, much as I admire and appreciate the good folks at Tampa's top PBS station, I'm hesitant to use the word "courage" regarding such media moves.

For me, real courage would involve broadcasting the episode at 3:30 p.m. when every other episode of Buster - which was developed to promote cultural and social diversity, for pete's sake - actually airs on the station, so kids can see it.

Have your prime-time debate on the issues. But take a stand for equality first - without appeasing those who consider exposing children to the mere sight of a family with two mommies deplorable.

It's a lesson that comes from most American civil rights movements: Appeasing bigots never works. Challenging them brings real change.

Spellings' own challenge to Buster smacked of politics, anyway. Criticized for years as a pragmatic dealmaker not sufficiently committed to ideology, the new education secretary found a perfect way to prove her right-wing bona fides by taking on two favorite conservative punching bags: PBS and gay couples.

Never mind that Spellings moved to Washington four years ago as a single, divorced mom - a nontraditional family broadcasters would have hesitated to show on kids' TV once upon a time. Indeed, according to the Washington Post, she appeared on C-SPAN years ago shrugging off census data showing a decline in traditional families, noting "there are lot of different types of family."

Too bad she didn't remember her own words more recently. And it's too bad more PBS stations didn't find the guts to remind her.

We've grown used to modern media's timidity: A White House press corps that fails to challenge a disingenuous president on everything from weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to a dismantling of Social Security disguised as reform. A cadre of sportswriters who let egotistical baseball slugger Barry Bonds rail for 30 minutes about how journalists have lied about him, without challenging him to outline his specific gripe - namely, allegations he has admitted to steroid use before a grand jury.

I see Terri Schiavo's father Bob Schindler and Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry playing the media like violins, staging camera-ready protests and confrontations to push public opinion to their side, with little pushback from a media horde just trying to get the day's most emotive images.

I think about the journalists who risked firebombings to tell the truth about segregation and racism 40 years ago and I wonder: Is the bar lower these days?

Rock star Melissa Etheridge chuckled years ago when I told her folks who criticize her openly lesbian life now will feel years later like former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who eventually recanted his decision to stand in the doorway at the University of Alabama to keep black students out.

What will historians think when they look back at a media that tolerated the sort of open gay-bashing conservatives regularly indulge in these days?

I'm betting we won't get much higher marks than Gov. Wallace if we don't show a little more backbone. Refusing to appease those who would demonize gay people - now that's a real sign of courage.

Eric Deggans is a Times editorial writer. He can be reached at 727 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com