Firings raise questions at Alabama Public Television

Many fear 'new direction' means conservative

In May 2011, the Birmingham Business Journal named Allan Pizzato, the executive director of the recession-tested Alabama Public Television, “nonprofit CEO of the year.” Since 2008, APT had seen its state funding cut in half, and the Business Journal commended Pizatto, especially, for his stewardship of the network through these hard times.

Just over a year later, he was fired.

Pizzato, APT’s executive director for 12 years, and his deputy, Pauline Howland, learned they were losing their jobs mid-afternoon on June 12, partway through their quarterly meeting with APT’s governing body, the Alabama Educational Television Commission. They were given minutes to collect their belongings and leave the building.

Ferris Stephens, an assistant attorney general who serves as AETC’s chairman told me that the commission “wanted to go with a new direction in leadership.” APT declined to be more specific about what the new direction will entail, but said APTV “might do more social media”.

Whatever the precise reasons for the firings—accounts on both sides differ, and Pizzato declined to comment for this story—they have been interpreted by the public and the press as a power struggle between APT and the more politically conservative, governor-appointed AETC, which allegedly tried to push conservative programming and scrub APT’s mission statement of its pledge for diversity, particularly in terms of “sexual orientation”. The allegations were first reported on the public media blog and in the Montgomery Advertiser.

That narrative has inspired a spate of resignations from APT’s public and private foundations and a public outcry that has registered on comment boards, editorial pages, and in 283 signatures on a petition calling for the AETC to “respect the long tradition of Alabama Public Television.”

Since 1985, PBS policy has required member stations to provide “nonsectarian, nonpolitical, noncommercial educational program service.”

According to reporting by Current’s Dru Sefton, Pizzato felt those standards were in jeopardy when in April he expressed reservations about one AETC commissioner’s suggestion to air The American Heritage Series. It’s a 10-part DVD series produced by WallBuilders, a Texas-based organization, which states a clear evangelical mission on its website:

WallBuilders’ goal is to exert a direct and positive influence in government, education, and the family by (1) educating the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country; (2) providing information to federal, state, and local officials as they develop public policies which reflect Biblical values; and (3) encouraging Christians to be involved in the civic arena.

Stephens and Rodney Herring, the commissioner who initially suggested APT look into the WallBuilders programming, insisted in interviews with CJR that the firings had nothing to do with disagreements over the WallBuilders series. Herring claims the firings are related to issues that cannot be revealed because they could harm Pizzato’s and Howland’s reputations.

Herring, who has been on the commission since last year and works as a chiropractor in Obelika, is particularly insistent that the executives’ firings are being exploited by adversaries hoping to create political drama. He points to the fact that the programming, which was the last agenda item at the AETC meeting, was never discussed—the executives were fired first—and says the WallBuilders programming was such a non-issue that he didn’t know what reporters were talking about when he started to receive questions in the wake of the Current story.

Herring also maintains that he never saw the programs. In an interview with CJR, he said he did send Pizzato information on a WallBuilers program, David Barton’s Spiritual Heritage Tour of the US Capitol. Herring says this was only a suggestion; at the same time he defends the program’s appropriateness for public television, saying the video tour highlights the historical significance of Judeo-Christian tradition in government, and does not proselytize.

Current, in a recent and comprehensive follow-up story reviewed the program and found otherwise:

While Barton’s narration during the tour takes a professorial tone, his voice becomes passionate when he discusses his opposition to the separation of church and state, and his strong conviction that America, both past and current, is a fundamentally Christian nation.

This religious bent concerned Pizzato and his staff, who were worried the videos violated APT’s licensing requirements. Herring was quoted by the Associated Press saying that attorneys confirmed for the AETC that the WallBuilders videos are acceptable programming.

The other cause freuqently cited for the firings—a fight over APT’s mission statement—was raised in interviews for this story and first reported in a Montgomery Advertiser story on June 19. AETC commissioners allegedly disliked the mention of “sexual orientation” in the broadcaster’s diversity statement. The AETC voted to change the mission statement the day of the firings; among other changes to the statement, its diversity statement was deleted.

Herring challenged reporting that APT’s mission statement was a source of controversy. He points out that the commissioner who led the committee on rewriting the mission statement was in the minority that voted to keep Pizzato and Howland.

The commission undertook rewriting the mission statement in order to incorporate language describing APT’s role in emergency management, he said. The new mission statement is posted on APT’s website, and it does acknowledge the broadcaster’s homeland security responsibilities. Herring says APT modeled its new mission statement after those of 14 other states, and that there was no need to include a diversity statement.

When I asked particularly about the charges that the diversity statement was removed because of the commission’s discomfort with the mention of “sexual orientation,” he reacted in a way that suggested discomfort, or at least a belief in a sort of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ system.

“I’ve been married 29 years. I have no business asking about sexual orientation,” he told me. “I don’t want to know.”

Whether or not the disagreement over the WallBuilders programming and the new mission statement are the true causes for Pizzato’s and Howland’s firings, the facts that the AETC would see no benefit in retaining its diversity statement, and that it would consider the evangelizing bent of WallBuilders programming appropriate for public television is troubling—and it’s why APT is now hemorrhaging private and public foundation members. Since the firings, seven of APT’s 16 foundation board members have resigned.

“As part of the private foundation, I’m quite disappointed in this action,” says D. Scott McLain, a real estate brokerage owner from Huntsville and one of 3 board members to resign from APT’s foundation. “APT was led to by two dynamic and highly capable individuals. Their dismissal without review and discussion and a clear plan to me bodes poorly for the future of APT,” he says. “I’m now concerned about APT’s future. It’s hard to generate funds when the organization you’ve been supporting loses its way or changes direction in such remarkable fashion.”

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.