CPB Office of the Ombudsman

Alabama Revisited

Joel Kaplan

February 27, 2013

When we last discussed the travails at Alabama Public Television, the executive director and his deputy had been fired, allegedly for refusing to broadcast programs on creationism from a discredited historian.

The executive director, Allan Pizzato, has landed on his feet, having been appointed president and general manager of WYES-TV, the public television station in New Orleans. His lawsuit against APT remains pending.

Mr. Pizzato's replacement, Roy Clem, comes to APT after spending eight years running the University of Alabama's commercial operations WVOA/WUOA. Prior to that he was the general manager of Birmingham's ABC affiliate.

Mr. Clem has high praise for Mr. Pizzato and said the two discussed working together on a news project before he was hired. As to the controversial programming that led to the firing, Mr. Clem said, "That programming is not going to run on this station."

Nevertheless, the recent story about the kidnapping of a 5-year-old boy by Jimmy Lee Dykes and the death of bus driver Charles Poland, who tried to save him, has raised the hackles of at least one APT viewer.

Murray Silverstone, 43, an astronomer and lecturer at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, says that after he complained on APT's Facebook page about its "religious-oriented" content he was banned from the page.

Mr. Silverstone said that his complaint centered on the action of G. Dwayne Johnson, APT's social media manager who runs the station's Facebook page.

Mr. Silverstone was upset that Mr. Johnson linked to a CBS website that was covering the kidnapping as well as this comment that Mr. Johnson posted under Alabama Public Television:

"God Bless Charles Albert Poland Jr., the bus driver who gave his life to protect the twenty-one students on his bus—and God bless his family and all his loved ones."

That post and the link to CBS prompted this posting from Mr. Silverstone:

"Does this post and this commercial media link represent the views of Alabama Public Television? I was not aware that this publicly funded organization was in the business of promoting religious activities, or private media via web links."

That query prompted several exchanges among Mr. Johnson, Mr. Silverstone and others. Mr. Silverstone was eventually kicked off the site and most of the thread was deleted. But here are some of the relevant postings:

APT: APT does not have a news department (yet), and PBS has not yet covered this story as it is breaking news.

APT: It is posted in the interest of letting the people in the state know what is happening.

Silverstone: Informational posts are welcome. Advocacy posts not aligned with the mission or goals of APT are most certainly NOT!"

APT: Murray, what is being advocated except what you are reading into it? The President references God. There is no proselytizing here. Lighten up.

Silverstone: No. You are promoting specific religious views. You are directly linking the acts of people in this tragic situation with your deity thereby advocating this religious views to APT fans. WHO ARE YOU AND BY WHOSE AUTHORITY ARE YOU DOING THIS?

APT: There is no promotion of religious. What religion has been promoted? I see no reference to Jesus or Buddha. You guys are just trolls.

APT: I'm an American Murray—and if I want to say God bless the family of a dead man on the FB page I've hosted for the past three years, I will. I believe I have that freedom. I have advocated no specific religion.

Silverstone: Requesting prayers for people is not religious intrusion? Really? Trolls? You think my questions are unreasonable?

APT: I didn't request anything.

APT: Yes, I think you're embarrassing yourself in front of the whole state, Murray. That's why I'm leaving your posts up.

The thread goes on with others joining in the conversation. Mr. Silverstone is then banned from joining the conversation and the thread is eventually deleted.

Mr. Johnson declined to comment about his interaction with Mr. Silverstone and referred questions to the station's spokesperson. Mr. Clem said he would speak for him.

There are two issues brought up by Mr. Silverstone. The first is whether APT is reverting to the type of controversy of mixing religion and public broadcasting that erupted last summer. The second has to do with APT's social media policy.

In terms of the religious overtones that Mr. Silverstone complained about, Mr. Clem said, "I want to make it perfectly clear that there is no connection between last summer and this. It was an innocent comment. There was no proselytizing.

And while Mr. Clem said that he did not want to comment specifically about Mr. Johnson's comments, the Facebook exchange has raised questions for him about the role of social media in public broadcasting.

"One of the things I want to look at is what are the best practices in terms of social media," he said. While APT does follow some policies, "I'd like to look at best practices across the country.

"The immediate concern is that we don't have anything on our site referring to advertising or marketing and that we don't have any profanity on the site. There also should be no threats against the hosts. We want it to be a place to have meaningful discussions."

For his part, Mr. Silverstone said that as a reform Jew it was disconcerting for him to read APT calling for prayers.

"I come from a minority religious background and I feel that religious freedom is very important in the public sphere to me," he said.

He added that the social media moderator should be promoting free speech and fairness. "I certainly agree that there will be occasions when they need to moderate the discussion, but I think that the moderation should also be transparent," he said. "If people are banned, I think there should be some recourse for discussion about whether or not that's an appropriate action and what actually was done to warrant such action."

Mr. Clem said that he would welcome a conversation with Mr. Silverstone as he seeks to develop a social media policy for the station.

"I want to take a hard look at this and come up with a policy that is clear and fair and that if people are having a conversation about the kidnapping of the young boy and the killing of the bus driver how do you develop a policy that says a particular conversation doesn't get hijacked into another direction," he said.

About CPB

CPB promotes the growth and development of public media in communities throughout America.

Programs & Projects

CPB awards grants to stations and independent producers to create programs and services.