“Censorship” is a fighting word. It’s what WTTW was accused of in my December 6 column. Chasnoff’s the executive director of Beyondmedia Education and the director of Turning a Corner, a 53-minute film on prostitution in Chicago that Beyondmedia completed in early 2006. My story was about a 14-minute version of Turning a Corner that this fall won a documentary competition sponsored by the Chicago Reporter yet wasn’t given a screening on WTTW’s Image Union as expected. Chasnoff thought a screening had been promised the winner and that WTTW reneged: “If public media isn’t a place where these women can have a platform for their message, that’s censorship,” she told me. “If they’re not considered part of the constituency for public media, that’s censorship to me.”
But neither the station nor Image Union had ever committed to airing the winning film in the Reporter competition — IU simply agreed to select one of the entries and show it. What’s more, WTTW’s senior vice president of TV content, Dan Soles, told me that if Beyondmedia sent him the full 53-minute film, he’d watch it and consider it. That’s the note on which I ended.
That note didn’t satisfy Beyondmedia. It asserts on its Web site that “WTTW’s refusal to screen Turning a Corner exposes the underlying issues of censorship and access to public media.” It site urges friends of Beyondmedia to post comments on the Reader Web site after my column and to e-mail WTTW in protest. It even provides a letter to Soles that can be sent to WTTW with a couple of computer clicks. “Public media holds the responsibility of ensuring that all community members have a space for media representation,” says this letter. “By censoring the voices of marginalized women, you undermine their ability to participate fully in our democracy. I hope that WTTW will take this event as an opportunity to live up to its mission and screen work that represents all of Chicago’s communities.”
Some of Beyondmedia’s friends have done what they were asked. These comments follow my column. “When you combine shameless lack of courage and programming cowardice you get censorship. Sadly, this is what we’ve come to expect from WTTW.” “This is a very real story that shouldn’t be censored just because it involves sex work.” “WTTW, get over your puritanism and show something that matters to us.” “To hear of this competition-turned-censorship-move isn’t just disheartening, it’s angering.”
And here’s an e-mail to the station that didn’t simply repeat the boilerplate: “I, and many other Chicagoans, rely on public television and radio to be objective voices in a world full of censorship and spin — I hope that WTTW has not fallen prey to these same things.” A reply from WTTW’s “Member and Viewer Services Department” said that “unfortunately, ‘Turning a Corner’ is not currently scheduled to air on WTTW 11 as our programming director has not been given the opportunity to review the program by its producers. We will gladly forward your request to our programming director, but the program will not be aired until it can be reviewed.”
That’s pretty much what Soles had told me. But when I called Chasnoff and asked if she’d sent Soles a copy of the full movie, she said, yes, she had, and then she told me something that neither she nor Soles had mentioned to me before. She’d also sent WTTW a copy in early 2006. She got a reply in May of 2006 from Sarah Warner, WTTW’s “community partnerships and outreach assistant,” who said “our programmer” (that would be Soles, Warner tells me) had some reservations but by and large found the film “very powerful and moving. . . . He would consider airing it, if it were shorter (half an hour).”
Chasnoff wrote back to say she’d be happy to edit a half-hour version of Around a Corner but first she wanted to find out what the programmer liked and didn’t like. Warner replied, “I spoke with Dan and he would be happy to speak with you.” But Chasnoff tells me that weeks later she still hadn’t been able to reach Soles. Eventually she gave up on the idea of getting his feedback for a shorter version. “I felt I was spinning my wheels,” she says.
So what doesn’t quite feel to me like censorship does feel a lot like a runaround. Censorship’s more flattering — more flattering to Beyondmedia, certainly, but also to WTTW, which at least can be said to be acting with intent. “We get so many submissions I can’t honestly recall seeing the film.” Soles told me, estimating there were about 50 DVDs on his desk. I said there might be as many as two copies of Turning a Corner in the pile. “I’m glad she’s resubmitted it,” he said, “and I look forward to viewing it.”