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March 9, 2004

Censorship at the Dept. of Education?

From: Newsweek - USA - Mar 9, 2004

Must-Not-See TV
Is the Department of Education censoring what ten percent of the U.S. population can watch?

By Brian Braiker

March 9 - It's been a rocky few months for the Department of Education. Last year Secretary Roderick Paige drew fire for suggesting that Christians are morally superior to others. At a White House gathering of governors last month, he called the nation's largest teacher's union a "terrorist organization" (a comment for which he has apologized twice). Members of the Senate have accused him of failing to adequately enforce the No Child Left Behind law. The New York Times has called for his resignation. Now his department is under attack on yet another front: advocates for the deaf and hard of hearing are crying censorship because the agency quietly stopped funding the closed captioning of nearly 200 shows last October.

"Basically, the Department wants to limit captioning to Puritan shows," writes Kelby Brick of the National Association of the Deaf in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK. "The department wants to ensure that over 28 million deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals are not exposed to any non-Puritan programming. Never mind that the rest of the country may be allowed to be exposed to such."

Is there something insidious behind the fact that syndicated "Sanford and Son" reruns no longer have their captioning funded? (Neither do "Law and Order" nor "Bewitched," by the way.) Meanwhile, "CBS Market Watch" and a documentary series called "Air Force Story" still receive federal money. ( Click here for the complete list of approved and unapproved programs.)

The Department of Education, which has funded at least some television closed-captioning since the Eisenhower administration, continues to dole out $12 million a year for the service. What has changed, says C. Todd Jones, a department official, is the criteria for programs to qualify for that money. The Department is reacting to a new interpretation of a 1997 Congressional mandate that funding go only to "educational, informational and news programming," he says. "From a policy standpoint that's not necessarily a bad thing. The programs that are no longer being captioned are the types of programs that commercial production organizations—independent producers or television producers—have been willing to caption in the past."

But the NAD and others object to how the Department made the decision of what to continue funding. The department made its list on the recommendations of a contracted panel of five people who operated anonymously and in secret. No public input was accepted.

That's standard operating procedure, say department officials. But in effect, says NAD, five people basically dictated what 10 percent of the U.S. population can watch on TV. Even the mildest of critics are left scratching their heads: "The Simpsons," one of the most popular shows of all time, was cut off. "Inside Edition," with such hard-hitting reports as a recent look at "one of TV's most ambitious plastic surgery projects," continues to be funded.

In 1997 the Federal Communications Commission mandated that starting January 1, 2006, the television industry must provide its own closed captioning for all programming. But the deaf community had assumed that the Department of Education's contribution would remain constant until then. "Apparently, this will not be the case," writes Robert Davila, a member of the National Council on Disability in an e-mail. Davila, who served as the assistant secretary for special education at the department from 1989 to 1993, under the first President Bush, adds that he refuses "to believe that this is ideologically driven. [But] I cannot explain the secrecy and the miscommunication or lack of communication on an issue that is so close to the heart of all deaf persons." The timing of the announcement is what baffles Davila, who is himself deaf. "I don't think there is any justification for doing it now," he writes. "The department has this responsibility and I can't fathom what good it will do to cut [funding] two years ahead of" the 2006 deadline.

The department says it's just taking its orders from Congress to limit the scope of funding to educational programming—a directive issued after the department was the subject of a minor flap in the late-1990s when it was revealed it had been paying to caption non-educational programming like "Baywatch" and "The Jerry Springer Show." But Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who sits on the committee that issued the decree, is concerned that the Department of Education may have gone too far. "Until that [2006] requirement is in order, we feel it's important deaf and hard-of-hearing children have the ability to watch the same shows as their friends, obviously to the discretion of their parents," says a spokeswoman for Harkin. His office echoes the broader deaf community when it argues access to all programming is informative, and even educational, because it permits the deaf to more fully engage in society. Cutting funding to 200 popular shows, says his spokeswoman, "can be discriminatory in that the deaf children will not have access to the same programs that their friends would. It causes them problems in the lunchroom when they can't communicate with their friends about the sports news."

Department officials say they can't understand all the criticism—after all, they continue to fund approved programming at the same levels, and everything else will be captioned in 2006 anyway . "Why is it a problem that this little boutique pool of money is actually going to educational and news and informational ends?" asks Jones. But that's not the fundamental bone of contention here. It's a problem, say critics, because of the department's secrecy and arbitrariness: Why are the "Andy Hardy" movies of the 1940s appropriate while a Nancy Drew series is not? "There hasn't been a good public process for making the determinations," says Larry Goldberg of the National Center for Accessible Media, a nonprofit group that relies on funding to provide captioning. In the end, though, Jones' response to these allegations—"I just don't understand the controversy"—is what matters. Ironically, it seems to take a cue from a show the department no longer funds: Don't have a cow, man.

©2004 Newsweek, Inc."