Christians Who Miss The Point

From the Washington Post

PBS’s ‘Buster’ Gets An Education
By Lisa de MoraesThursday, January 27, 2005; Page C01

PBS was surprised to receive a letter from new Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, warning the public TV network against airing an upcoming episode of the kids show “Postcards From Buster,” because PBS had already informed her office it would not send the episode to its stations, programming co-chief John Wilson says.
“We made the decision . . . [Tuesday] afternoon, a couple of hours before we received the letter from the secretary of education,” Wilson told The TV Column yesterday.
“It came at the end of many days, maybe even a few weeks, of looking at rough cuts of the program and deliberating.”
Spellings, who has been charged with the difficult task of fixing the nation’s troubled public education system, took time out on her second day on the job to fire off a letter to PBS CEO Pat Mitchell expressing “strong and very serious concerns” about the “Postcards From Buster” episode. Specifically that, in the episode, called “Sugartime!,” the animated asthmatic little bunny visits Vermont and meets actual, real-live, not make-believe children there who have gay parents.
For those of you unfamiliar with the spinoff of the popular children’s series “Arthur,” which combines animation and live action, each week, 8-year-old animated Buster and his animated dad travel to another locale, where Buster, armed with his video camera, meets actual, non-animated people, who introduce him to the local scene — clogging in Whitesurg, Ky.; rodeo barrel racing in Houston; monoskiing in Park City, Utah; doing the Arapaho Grass Dance at the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Additionally, Buster meets a family from a different cultural background.
In the episode that knotted Spellings’s knickers, Buster goes to Vermont and meets children from two families, who show him how maple syrup and cheese are made.
At one of the homes, Buster is introduced to all of the children and to the two moms. One girl explains that one of the women is her “stepmom,” whom she says she loves a lot.
One of the women asks the kids to get some maple syrup and some cheese for dinner, and to stop by the other home to borrow a big lasagna pan. In the other home, Buster is introduced to the whole family, including two more moms. Then the kids head off to get the ingredients, and Buster learns where syrup and cheese come from.
In her letter, Spellings reminded Mitchell that the show is being funded in part by the Education Department and that a principal focus of the law authorizing such “Ready-to-Learn” programming is “facilitating student academic achievement.”
In the conference committee report for fiscal year 2005 appropriations, Spellings continues, Congress reiterated that the unique mission of Ready-to-Learn is: “to use the television medium to help prepare preschool age children for school. The television programs that must fulfill this mission are to be specifically designed for this purpose, with the highest attention to production quality and validity of research-based educational objectives, content and materials.”
“You should also know,” Spellings says, “that two years ago the Senate Appropriations Committee raised questions about the accountability of funds appropriated for Ready-To-Learn programs.” A bit ominous, we think.
“We believe the ‘Sugartime!’ episode does not come within these purposes or within the intent of Congress and would undermine the overall objective of the Ready-To-Learn program — to produce programming that reaches as many children and families as possible,” Spellings wrote.
Why, you might wonder, given that preschoolers who watch the episode learn how maple syrup and cheese are made, not to mention useful English-language phrases (the series is also designed to help children for whom English is a second language).
Because, Spellings explained in her letter, “many parents would not want their young children exposed to the life-styles portrayed in this episode.” She did not say how many is “many,” or cite a source for that information.
Congress’s point in funding this programming “certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children,” she added.
Au contraire, says WGBH, which produces “Postcards.” The Boston public TV station says it will air the episode and has offered it to any station willing to defy the Education Department, which, in fairness, did shovel out major bucks for this series and, therefore, understandably feels it has the right to get in its two conservative cents’ worth.
According to Brigid Sullivan, WGBH’s vice president of children’s programming, the RFP — that’s government-speak for request for proposals — on the show said Ready-to-Learn was looking for a program that would “appeal to all of America’s children by providing them with content and or characters with which they can identify. Diversity will be incorporated into the fabric of the series to help children understand and respect differences and learn to live in a multicultural society. The series will avoid stereotypical images of all kinds and show modern multi-ethnic/lingual/cultural families and children.”
Except, it would seem, children who have two mothers.
“We have produced 40 episodes,” Sullivan said. “We have tried to reach across as many cultures, as many religions, as many family structures as we can. We gave it our best-faith effort. We have received hate mail for doing [an episode] about a Muslim girl. We’ve also received mail from Muslims saying thank you.”
Buster, Sullivan said, has visited “Mormons in Utah, the Hmong in Wisconsin the Gullah culture in South Carolina, Orthodox Jewish families, a Pentecostal Christian family — we are trying to do a broad reach and we are trying to do it without judgment.”
According to Sullivan, the “Buster” brouhaha started in December when, during a routine meeting of representatives from WGBH, PBS and the Education Department to discuss upcoming episodes, a WGBH rep mentioned that there might be some “buzz” on “Sugartime!” PBS insists that although it made its decision not to distribute the episode on the very same day that the newly appointed Spellings decided to fire off her letter, the decision had nothing to do with the kerfuffle brewing at Education over the episode.
Which, we’ve said before in similar situations, sounds great if you were born yesterday; otherwise, not so much.
“Ultimately we came to the conclusion that what was meant to be the background or backdrop of two families that happened to be headed by two mothers continued to find its way into the foreground,” Wilson said.
“It’s too sensitive to raise in a children’s program,” he added. “We know we have a number of kids . . . who don’t have a parent or caregiver in with them watching to put it in context. At the end of the day what was meant to be a sort of background context of who this family is and who the parents are, overshadowed what the episode was really about, which was going to this part of America and learning about things that are uniquely Vermont.
“Yesterday afternoon we literally decided that it was an issue best left for parents and children to address together at a time and manner of their own choosing.”
We asked all parties involved what they would say to the children who were filmed for this episode, and who expected to be seen on national TV and are now being told by the federal government that their families are not fit for other children to see on national TV — at least not on any show that has received federal funding.
“That’s a difficult question,” Sullivan responded. “I guess I’d have to say from the producers’ standing . . . it was our intention to include, not to exclude, anyone who is part of our society, and that for children to see a reflection of themselves on TV is an important part of their development.”
“I’ve been thinking about that today,” Wilson said. “Honestly, I feel for these families because they’re real people, not actors cast and paid to do this, and I do feel bad that through no fault of their own and ultimately no fault of the producers they have been put in a situation they never imagined themselves in. To that end, I’m sorry for that.”
An Education Department spokeswoman responded in a statement: “The episode is inappropriate for preschoolers. We are funding an education program for preschoolers, and one would be hard-pressed to explain how this serves as educational material for preschoolers. It’s up to parents to decide for their children, not the government in a taxpayer-funded video for preschoolers.”
We asked her to clarify what it was the department felt should be left to parents. She explained: “To decide when they want their kids to know about the lifestyles depicted in the film.”

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