PBS Election Special On Race Under Fire By Conservative Interview Subject

A conservative talk show host featured in a PBS election special believes the documentary is biased.


The bad month for Big Bird's employer continues.

Less than two weeks after PBS and its federal funding was the hot topic of the first presidential debate, the nonprofit TV broadcasting network is coming under fire by an interview subject of its election special on race, which is due to air Tuesday just ahead of the third presidential debate.

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The documentary's director says accusations of bias aren't true.

The special, "Race 2012," is being advertised by PBS on its website as a "conversation about race and politics," and features interviews with former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, author and legal scholar Randall Kennedy and conservative talk show host John Ziegler, among others. Topics discussed include the role of race in the election of President Barack Obama, the idea of a "post-racial society" and the notion of "white power" in America.

That last topic is the one that has upset Ziegler, who tells Whispers he was asked leading questions by the film's director, Phillip Rodriguez, to try to elicit a response from Ziegler that he supports "white power."

At one point in the film, Ziegler is asked by an interviewer off-screen: "Should whites pursue their interests in a self-conscious and organized way?"

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Ziegler responds no. "The media narrative is so set that any discussion at all about white people even as a culture...is inherently racist and therefore illegitimate," he says in the film. "So not only is it morally questionable, but also logistically impossible."

The outspoken talk show host has been involved in race debates before. In 2009, Ziegler released a documentary about what he saw as biased media coverage in support of Barack Obama because of the presidential candidate's race. In 1997, he was fired from a radio show in Tennessee for using the "n" word in what he says was "a rather academic discussion about the way whites and blacks view each other."

It is difficult to ascertain why Rodriguez chose Ziegler as an interview subject in the film, as the filmmaker canceled an interview he had originally scheduled with Whispers.

But Rodriguez later defended the special in a statement delivered via a spokeswoman at PBS.

"'Race 2012' presents a wide-ranging conversation about a complex topic. We went to great lengths to ensure voices from across the political spectrum and diverse backgrounds—black, white, Latino and Asian—are represented in the film," Rodriguez said, noting that the opinions he used were intended to represent where America as a country stands on race today. "I hope viewers will tune in to the show and judge its merits for themselves," he said.

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook or reach her at eflock@usnews.com.