As the controversial series "The Africans" nears midpoint, the battle between the National Endowment for the Humanities and public television escalates. On a visit to local affiliates this week, Bruce L. Christensen, president of the Washington-based Public Broadcasting Service, threw down the gauntlet to Lynne Cheney, endowment chairwoman.
In a wide-ranging interview, Christensen said the endowment, which removed its credits from the nine-part series, is "not the Ministry of Truth" and warned that if the endowment insists upon being in the editing room when a film is cut, "then there will be no NEH funding in public television.
"We don't allow anyone in the editing room who is a funder of a public television," he said with quiet anger. "We don't allow Exxon, we don't allow Mobil, we don't allow anybody--IBM or whoever it is."
The PBS president added: "I think NEH and NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) and the whole educational system of our country have an obligation to see that different points of view are made available. . . . They aren't responsible for deciding what is or is not propaganda."
Christensen's remarks were prompted by an interview with Cheney in The Times Tuesday, in which she said that the endowment would not fund "propaganda." The chairwoman also said that to prevent a recurrence of a dispute like the one over "The Africans," "We will be making many more site visits to wherever the film is being produced. . . . In this case ('The Africans'), I think the trip would probably have been to England where it was being edited. In any case (we would) go out, make a little friendly visit . . . (and) see if things are going according to the plan laid out in the (grant) application."
The $3.5-million series, to which the endowment had awarded $600,000, was co-produced by PBS affiliate WETA-TV in Washington and the British Broadcasting Corp. After viewing the nine-hour series, Cheney labeled it "an anti-Western diatribe" and demanded removal of the endowment's logo.
Asked if he believed the endowment was stepping on free-speech rights, either in spirit or by implication, Christensen replied:
"The most troubling thing that I read (in The Times interview) was the idea that they would now begin to make visits to the editing room--'little friendly visits,' with her clever humor. If that doesn't have a chilling effect. . . . Let me say it another way: I believe it will have a chilling effect, and may lead to direct interference in the editorial process."
When it was noted that Cheney also said she didn't wish the endowment to make production suggestions and that the endowment isn't a producer of films, Christensen answered that, "The production business is editing. And do they plan to go sit next to the editors of books as they go through the editing of scripts and manuscripts that come in that are funded by NEH? . . . Are they going to sit next to the editor at his elbow, and say, 'This must go in. This stays out.'?"
On the matter of free speech, Christensen also posed some hypothetical questions:
"If she (Cheney) could have pulled the program, rather than the credits, would she have done that? . . . If the legislation were written, 'If NEH did not agree with what was produced with the money funded'--rather than being able to pull their credits, they were able to pull the program--would she have chosen to pull the program? Or, would the political pressure have been so great to pull the program, she would have had no other choice?"
Christensen, 43, who took charge of the 314-station PBS in April, 1984, also talked about the system's decision last week to do an in-house investigation of program policies and practices. The decision came on the heels of a letter signed by Rep. Don Ritter (R-Pa.) and more than 50 members of Congress including Cheney's husband, Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), to the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, calling for a review of program practices and policies. The government-chartered nonprofit corporation dispenses federal funds to PBS stations and production companies.
Christensen said that he wanted to jump into the fray before the corporation did its own "content analysis," which it was on the brink of doing in July. At the time, the possibility of a corporation inquiry into program content provoked a firestorm within the public broadcasting community. The corporation has seven members, virtually all of whom are Reagan appointees. (Sharon Percy Rockefeller, wife of Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), was appointed by President Carter and reappointed by Reagan.) There are three vacancies including a chairman.