Public TV Puts Rural America in the Spotlight

Public TV Puts Rural America in the Spotlight
The publicly funded Independent Television Service does an above-average job in supporting programs that look at rural people, places, and issues. Politicians who say public broadcasting is out of touch with America ought to look at the facts instead of their talking points.

EDITOR’S NOTE: As Congress moves toward debate over tax reform, revenue for programs like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting may be at stake. This report looks at how one stream of public-media funding stream has addressed rural topics.

Public TV. It’s where we got to see “Medora,” a film about the Hornets, the high school basketball team in a small Indiana town, and its struggle to resist the consequences of school consolidation. And “Deep Down,”  about a community conflict over mountaintop removal in eastern Kentucky. And “A Class Apart,” about the lawsuit that resulted from a murder in small-town Texas and challenged the legal discrimination of Latinos. And “Weaving Worlds,” about the makers of the legendary Navajo rugs. And “Next Year Country,” about Montana farmers who turn to real-life rainmakers in a time of drought.

Public TV reaches more parts of America than commercial broadcast TV, because it hits small town and rural areas that commercial broadcasters don’t find worth their time. Its most popular program service, PBS, is consistently rated the most trusted media brand in America.

But to some Trump-era officials, it’s un-American. The Trump budget released earlier this year called for total defunding of public broadcasting. A deeply conservative Congressman, Andy Harris (R-MD), was more mild-mannered. He only asked for defunding of the radio news service NPR and the public TV documentary production service Independent Television Service (ITVS). Why? Too “liberal.” He singled out three programs on public TV that feature women of color as evidence. He said public broadcasting shouldn’t fund “controversial, out-of-mainstream programming”—that is, anything by or about someone who doesn’t look like the (OK, you and I can say it out loud if he can’t, “white”) majority.

Just how “white” is this agenda? Well, look at Howard Husock, a vice president at the right-wing “free market” Manhattan Institute. One of the presidentially-appointed board members of the organizations that hands out the federal dollars for public TV, he wrote a Washington Post op-ed supporting defunding of public broadcasting – to the immense embarrassment and exasperation of his fellow board members. And then Husock wrote another op-ed in the Wall St. Journal (paywall). There he denounced programming specifically targeted at underserved audiences, such as immigrants, women, or rural people, as tainted, in part because such programs were designed “through a prism of race and gender.”

So it’s one thing to argue about what types of services government should fund. It is entirely another thing to argue that government should not fund things because they involve people whose skin color, or social class, or locality, or really anything else other than their civil rights in this country are different from yours. Isn’t that the point of American democracy? We don’t really have to show we’re special. We’re all from here.  We all have rights. We all have a voice.

At the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University, we couldn’t help noticing that the Trump agenda was about defunding public broadcasting, and we couldn’t help seeing the “out-of-mainstream” arguments as supporting that agenda. What is the America we see on public TV anyway? We thought it might be time for….numbers.

Numbers, that is, that would show us all, objectively, just how reflective of America are the documentaries that have been the subject of Trump-era attack on public TV. How representative really are the documentaries that represent America to itself, documentaries that after all are funded by American taxpayers? And where do rural people see themselves in that representation?

For the data, we went right to the Independent Television Service, which is directly funded by the federally-supported Corporation for Public Broadcasting Service. Its mission is to provide diverse programming to underserved audiences from underrepresented voices. ITVS has won dozens of journalism awards for its programs of public broadcasting’s public affairs producers, and coproduces with independent producers the most point-of-view documentaries seen annually on public TV’s national programming. We asked for their data on all the filmmakers who have been supported by them and all the films they made for the last 10 years. They gave it to us.

The snapshot we got says that if you like television programs about rural America, you should tune in. (Check your local listings, especially for the two documentary series Independent Lens and POV.)

We learned that the films made through ITVS involve filmmakers from 33 states and the District of Columbia. Those states represent 84% of the population of the U.S., much of it in the heartland. Filmmakers from Idaho, Mississippi, Tennessee, Utah, Oklahoma, and many other states with rural populations made films about the experience of people in their region. The films are made about all four quadrants of the mainland U.S.; for instance, a fifth of the documentaries are located in the South, and 12% are set in the Midwest.

Rural areas are disproportionately represented in ITVS’ films. Less than 20% of the U.S. population is rural, while more than a quarter—29%–of the films that ITVS supported were situated in rural areas or featured rural locations importantly in a story that took place in several places.

As well, the films feature lead characters—the people who are the focus of the story—who are often people from those rural areas. And not famous people either. People like Hector Garcia, who found a friend in LBJ when he protested the mistreatment of a Latino veteran back in the ’60s. People like Alex Sutton, a veteran of three combat tours in Iraq who copes creatively with PTSD on his farm in North Carolina.

About half of the filmmakers who made these films were women. They were more likely to be a person of color than the population at large.  (ITVS is mandated to feature diversity in both makers and subjects; the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is mandated to feature diversity in general.)  A fifth of the stories featured women lead characters, and almost a half featured people of color.

What were people doing in these films? They were solving problems in their lives and communities, like  Wilhelmina Dixon, a public health hero in South Carolina today for her work on women and AIDS. They were teachers, military personnel, religious leaders, police, social workers and emergency workers. They were activists working to improve their communities. They were parents fighting for their children. They were immigrants defending their communities’ participation in America. They were people like our neighbors, people who we hold up as an example to our children.

What we learned when we looked at the numbers was that public TV looks like America—and especially small-town, heartland, and rural America. We could use more such stories, and different ones too. And we could stand to hear the stories of filmmakers who live in the 17 states that were not represented in our scan. Viewers make a difference, especially when they call their station and ask for the programming they want to see. But to do that, we need a public television service.

Patricia Aufderheide is University Professor in the School of Communication at American University, where she founded and continues as senior research fellow at the Center for Media & Social Impact. She coauthored the study discussed here with lead researcher Caty Borum Chattoo, and assisted by Michele Alexander and Chandler Green, primarily funded by in-kind resources from American University and with help from the Independent Television Service.

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