Careful, It’s the 90s

Call it censorship, knuckling under, hard-nosed editing, or a last-minute attempt to redeem the misbegotten. But material was stripped from last Friday’s The 90’s that the show’s creators wanted in there. The program’s theme was the political conventions in New York and Houston. The excised material was all shot at the Republican convention, and its political content doomed it.

The three segments were bushwhack interviews by Stoney Burke, a San Francisco-based political satirist who does improvs daily on Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza and passes the hat. He headed to Houston at the invitation of Bob Hercules, a Chicago video producer.

Burke wandered around the convention floor waving a microphone at dignitaries. Loads of Burke survived the cut, but not his encounters with housing secretary Jack Kemp, Senator Alfonse D’Amato, and Oliver North. If you saw the show, here’s what you missed. Burke with Kemp:

Burke: I’m PBS.

Kemp: (Kidding.) PBS! I’m shocked!

Burke: What are you going to do about homelessness? How come no one’s talking about this? This is ridiculous!

Kemp: You’re talking to the author of the bill to provide homeless shelters linked to care for people. Treatment of–

Burke: How come 48 percent of public housing is empty in Detroit? What are you going to do about this?

Kemp: The public housing authority has prevented us from putting homeless people into public housing. Now if PBS were doing its job it would go up to Detroit and discover what’s going on in Detroit.

Burke: Oh, come on, Jack! That’s a scam! Come on!

Kemp: A scam?

Burke: Yeah! There’s lots of people–aw, come on! No one’s talking about homelessness.

The camera swings to a woman in a hat covered with buttons.

Woman: The Democrats spent a lot of dollars on their podium and on their carpeting. So if Slick–

Burke: But who’s the secretary of housing!

Woman: Slick Willy spent dollars for his convention, and he’s just being slick again.

Burke: (Into Hercules’s camera.) Aw yeah, we got ’em mad now, don’t we? Huh. We talked about homelessness. Forty percent of the housing in Detroit is empty. Why? Under his administration. But who’s he attack? TV. Television. Yeah, it’s my fault.

Later, with D’Amato …

D’Amato: I am angry when I see a bunch of high-priced lobbyists come in to manipulate and break the law, and break the spirit of free trade.

Burke: But aren’t you a high-priced politician who perpetuates this system?

D’Amato: (Angrily.) I’m not a high-priced politician who perpetuates–I stand up and fight for what I think is right, and if I see something is an abuse I’m going to stand up and do it. And where the hell do you get the nerve calling me a high-priced politician? Aren’t you a high-priced news commentator who turns, changes. things around, and reports them the way you want? Now let me tell you! Do you think I’m going to take that nonsense from you!

[“Stoney Burke lives in his car” crawls across the screen.]

Burke: Aren’t you a little sensitive about–

D’Amato: Damn right! I’m sensitive about a jackass who comes over here and says am I a high-priced politician!

Burke: Come on! Don’t you think politicians should be civil service?

D’Amato: Yeah, I believe in civil service. And civil service is standing up for all of our people and calling them the way they see them–and that’s what I do.

Burke: You’re rude and you make too much money!

D’Amato: You’re a jackass!

Burke: Thanks.

And finally North …

Burke: Ollie, Ollie! [Shaking his hand.] Nice to meet you. I read your book! I loved every word of it. [From North, a thumbs-up gesture.] I got one question for you. Are you a born-again Christian because you feel bad about 10,000 dead Nicaraguans from the CIA war that you led?

North: Actually, I didn’t lead the CIA war.

Burke: You think Ronald Reagan–

North: Read the book. You got it all wrong.

Burke: You think Ronald Reagan will come to justice some day?

North: (Waving him off.) I didnn’t hear the question.

Burke: Hey, you have a good night, Mr. North. Peace. [Into camera.] Let’s get out of here before the CIA climbs on our back. Come on, let’s escape.

Since 1989 executive producer Tom Weinberg has created 51 editions of The 90’s. But PBS didn’t renew the funding, and if The 90’s continues beyond its next episode on October 30 it’ll probably be on new stations with a new name and new financing. The erasure of Stoney Burke’s run-ins was the latest insult. As a “presenting station,” WTTW gets to vet The 90’s before it’s distributed. The brass consulted with the coordinator of PBS’s 1992 election coverage, then called in Weinberg and producer Joel Cohen and demanded changes. The air date was four days away. All Weinberg will say is that he agreed to the changes. But we’d say Weinberg had no real choice. If he’d refused, WTTW would have disowned the show and very few PBS stations would ever have carried it.

“To me, this is a clear case of censorship and, what’s even more troubling, of self-censorship (in the case of WTTW),” said Bob Hercules in a note he sent us along with a tape of the original uncut program. “Perhaps fearing the continued attacks from the religious right and from people like Jesse Helms and Bob Dole, Channel 11 is caving in to content restrictions and thereby restricting my freedom of expression.”

“This is not an issue of censorship” responded WTTW’s Bruce Marcus, senior vice president for corporate marketing and communications. “First, we want correctness and no misrepresentation. And secondly we are looking for balance. In our minds the approach taken at the Democratic convention was not the approach taken at the Republican convention.”

Marcus’s first count is silly. Burke had said he was from PBS, and technically he wasn’t. But so what? It would have been easy to delete that claim from the Kemp segment. A couple of other times when Burke made it that’s what Weinberg did.

Balance is another matter. The 90’s crews in New York for the Democratic convention, were flies on walls observing with sympathetic amusement. The centerpiece of their coverage was the view inside Clinton’s command trailer of the gallant young floor leader, John Hart. The Republican footage was organized around Stoney Burke, provocateur. There was no balance, none whatsoever. You’d guess not a single person who has any use for George Bush laid a creative finger on this edition of The 90’s.

A more coherent 56 minutes would have focused on one party or the other. Proof of that is Convention, an hour-long video from Scott Jacobs, the Chicago videomaker who spent four days shooting John Hart inside the Clinton trailer. Jacobs assembled Convention entirely of footage shot for The 90’s in New York. It’ll go on sale in local stores in a few days. And Bob Hercules intends to make a tape of just the Republican convention.

But coherence and balance have never been watchwords of The 90’s. Weinberg’s show is a gallimaufry of video moments shot by independents from hither and yon. Even if The 90’s gained aesthetically when Stoney Burke’s sails were trimmed, that still meant kissing off three good moments. Weinberg tells us it’s the first time WTTW ever edited him for content.

WTTW deserved more time than it got to figure out what to do with Weinberg’s tape. By the time the station screened it PBS had its own copy of the show and airtime was imminent. Clearly the station felt squeezed. That said, various elements of this saga call WTTW’s conduct into question. One is Marcus’s refusal to say who at his station told Weinberg to make the cuts. (The principal culprits were C. Patterson Denny, executive vice president for production, and Richard Bowman, senior vice president for broadcasting. They let Marcus do the talking.)

Another is WTTW’s hurried announcement that tapes of the show already distributed (prematurely) to other media by Weinberg’s office were only a “rough cut” and should be ignored. They were nothing of the kind. In Weinberg’s mind, this was the show in its final form.

Marcus also told us that the final edit had been agreed on not just by Weinberg and WTTW but also by the show’s other “presenting” station, KBDI in Denver. Actually, KBDI merely went along with changes it wouldn’t have made on its own. “Part of the deal with The 90’s is that it is what it is,” KBDI’s general manager Ted Krichels told us. “It is outrageous and off-the-wall some of the time, and if anybody expects it to be some sort of safe show they’ve got the wrong program. I think what’s happening generally is a lot of people are just politically paranoid, and PBS gets funding from government agencies, and it’s all political.

“But if we want to do what we do and be independent, we can’t be controlled by that mentality. Lord, we don’t edit Louis Rukeyser–Attila the Stockbroker.”

As a presenting station, KBDI had access to both versions of Weinberg’s show. It broadcast the original.

Artistic License

Best recent defense of art against bourgeois sentimentalism–by actor Carl Crew, when horrified survivors of the young men murdered by Jeffrey Dahmer confronted him on the Maury Povich Show over a movie based on Dahmer’s life that Crew just wrote and starred in:

“Do you think that you’re any more special than the other families of other victims that have been killed by other serial killers that have had movies made of them?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Meredith.